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Sanctification, Part 2

June 23, 2019 Series: 1 Thessalonians

Topic: Expository Passage: 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28

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1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 | Sanctification, Part 2

Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. Do you remember our series on 1 Thessalonians? It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I trust you enjoyed and learned a lot from Fred’s series on how to study the Bible, and now we need to wrap up 1 Thessalonians before we go on to a short new topical series this summer. At that young adult conference in San Francisco that I preached, the topic was Ambition. So, using that material, we are going to do a short series on Ambition later on this summer. But for now, we need to finish up our series on 1 Thessalonians. Let’s begin by reading 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 (1 Thess 5:23-28).

So, by way of review, last time we got together, we began talking about progressive sanctification. Do you remember what the word “sanctify” means? It means to set apart, or to make holy. So that brings up the basic question, “What are we set apart from and what are we set apart to?” What do you think? We are set apart from sin to God. That is a base-level definition of sanctification. However, that base-level definition can be broken down into several aspects.

Last time, we began talking about six truths about sanctification from this text. Last time, we got through two of those truths. This week, we will hopefully cover the other four. But since it has been so long since we talked about this and since some of you weren’t here when we did, let’s start by reviewing truths one and two.

  1. Its Nature: Progressive

Verse 23 is a prayer. That’s significant. Why did Paul need to pray for the Thessalonians to be sanctified? Because they weren’t–or at least, they weren’t finished yet! Were they saved? Yes! They were justified. But does that mean God was done with them? No! Justification is just the beginning of salvation! The next step is progressive sanctification, which is the gradual process by which believers become more and more like Jesus.

So the nature of sanctification is progressive. But remember that sanctification is a difficult topic to keep balanced. So I included clarifying statements along with each point. My clarifying statement for point number one was that to say that sanctification is progressive is not to deny the existence of either positional sanctification on the one hand or final sanctification (i.e. glorification) on the other.

We won’t go too much into that statement today because we did so last time, but by way of review, I’ll just mention briefly that positional sanctification takes place at the moment of salvation. We are set apart for God and for special service. 1 Corinthians 6:11 says, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” So according to that verse, positional sanctification happens at the same time as justification and regeneration. Also, Jesus said of His disciples in John 15:19 that they were not of the world because He chose them out of the world. And Hebrews 10: 10 says, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Positional sanctification is the setting apart of the believer for special service to God. Do you understand the ramifications of that? Christian, you can’t do what you want with your life! You belong to God now! There were times in the OT in which the children of Israel would take items from the temple and use them to worship idols. That is what a Christian is doing when he uses his body to sin. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” You’ve been set apart for God!

But at the same time, you are a work in progress. And that continuing process is what we refer to as “progressive sanctification.” Are there any questions that you have on that?

To say that sanctification is progressive is not to deny the reality of initial sanctification. But it’s also not to deny the reality of final sanctification. Am I confusing you enough? “So, let me get this straight. I have been sanctified, I am being sanctified, and now you’re telling me that I will be sanctified?” That’s right. Sanctification is past, present, and future.

Final sanctification is essentially glorification. It’s what happens when we see Jesus, never to sin again.

But again, I want to stress that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is not about final sanctification, although it’s easy to make that assumption. We can see words like “complete” and “blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” and assume this verse is saying that after I see Jesus, I will be complete. That’s not what Paul is praying for here! He is praying that the Thessalonians would be complete and blameless when Jesus comes–in other words, before they see Jesus! And we can confirm that by looking at 3:12-13. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 is about progressive sanctification.

So we see that the nature of sanctification is progressive. Second, let’s talk about the agent of sanctification.

  1. Its Agent: God

How do we know that God is the agent of sanctification according to this verse? Because it’s a prayer! In addition, the sovereignty of God in sanctification is emphasized in v. 24 (v. 24). The basis of Paul’s confidence that the Thessalonians would be sanctified is the faithfulness of God! He saved you, so He will finish what He started in your life! Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” The agent of sanctification is God.

However, this is not to deny the fact that you and I are to work at our own sanctification! It is vital that we maintain a balanced emphasis when addressing the divine and human aspects of sanctification.

Philippians 2:12-13 is the classic passage on this topic. Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

There are two wrong ways of reading that passage: “Work out your own salvation [timidly]… because GOD IS AT WORK IN YOU!” and “WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION!... because God is at work in you [timidly].” So how should we read that passage? “WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION, BECAUSE GOD IS AT WORK IN YOU!”

How do we maintain the balance between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility when it comes to sanctification? Remember that some people would see it like this: “God does half and you do half.” Is that a right or a wrong way to look at it? It’s a wrong way to look at it! Why? Because 1) God doesn’t need your help, and 2) there is no point in progressive sanctification where you can sit back and do nothing! So what’s a better way to look at this? God does it all… and you do it all.

So we said the phrase, “Work as if it all depends upon you; pray as if it all depends upon God” is actually quite helpful. Work as if it all depends upon you; but as you work, depend on God’s grace. And whenever you make any progress, give God all the glory, because it wasn’t ultimately you who did it; it was God who is working in you.

The fact that sanctification is ultimately God’s work should be a comfort to you and me. The assurance given in 1 Thessalonians 5:24 is that God will finish what He started in you because He is faithful. That is tremendously encouraging both when we think about ourselves and when we think about the people we are seeking to disciple.

So we’ve seen the nature of sanctification and the agent of sanctification; now let’s look at the extent of sanctification, which is the entire person.

  1. Its Extent: The Entire Person

One of the more interesting debates centered around this text is the dichotomy/trichotomy debate. How many of you have no earthly idea what I’m talking about? That’s okay. This is one of those more obscure points of theology that we shouldn’t waste too much time on, but is interesting to think about nonetheless. Here are a couple of basic definitions. Dichotomy teaches that mankind is made up of two basic parts: body and spirit. There is the physical, material part of mankind, and then there is the spiritual, immaterial part of mankind. Trichotomy teaches that mankind is made up of three basic parts: body, soul, and spirit. 

You say, “What would be the difference between soul and spirit?” That’s a good question! Some trichotomists teach that the spirit basically constitutes the image of God in man. The spirit is what separates us from the animals. Animals have souls but not spirits. So they would say that the soul is responsible for the non-rational functions (like emotions, passions, or drives), whereas the spirit is responsible for the rational functions (like thinking and decision-making). Human beings are capable of relating to God because they have spirits.

Other trichotomists teach that the spirit is essentially the new nature that died as a result of the fall and is gained when a person becomes born again. Unbelievers have a living soul, but their spirits are dead. Thus, for them, the spirit is what separates believers from unbelievers.

You say, “Is there any support for trichotomy in Scripture?” Well, there are passages that distinguish between soul and spirit, this passage being one of them (v. 23)! Can you think of any other verses that trichotomists might use in order to defend their position? Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” And there are other passages, as well.

The problem with trichotomy is that there are a few passages in which animals are said to have spirits, and there are other passages in which the words “soul” and “spirit” seem to be used interchangeably! Also, there are passages in which a person’s soul is said to be interacting with God. So the long and the short of it is that it’s really hard to distinguish neatly between soul and spirit.

In addition, the Bible at times uses other words like “heart” and “mind” to refer to man’s immaterial nature; and yet nobody is arguing that man should man be viewed as a “pente-chotomy”–body, soul, spirit, mind, and heart! So my [tentative] conclusion is that man is a dichotomy, and that the words “spirit,” “soul,” “heart,” and “mind” refer to different aspects of his immaterial nature. I hesitate to ask, “Does that make sense?” because I know this is a very complicated topic, and I don’t want to get sucked in. But if you do have a question, feel free to talk to me afterwards.

My main point here is that dichotomy/trichotomy aside, Paul’s prays that the Thessalonians will be sanctified and through and through–Paul’s prayer is for the whole person to be sanctified (v. 23)!

What do you think is the most surprising item on the list “spirit, soul, and body”? I say it’s the word “body”! There were philosophies in Paul’s day that taught that the body is evil and unredeemable, but the Bible does not teach that! We often talk about how sanctification should affect us on the inside, but we must not forget that sanctification is also to affect our physical bodies!

How is your progressive sanctification affecting what you do or don’t put into your body? How is it affecting your habits as it relates to eating and drinking? How is progressive sanctification affecting what you do with your body? How is it affecting your habits and practices as it relates to exercise and sex? How are you working to bring your bodily appetites under the control of the Spirit? How is progressive sanctification affecting your care for your body?

We tend to stiffen at those questions, don’t we? You see, we want to say (and our culture has conditioned us to say) my body is my own! I can do with it whatever I want! But that isn’t true, especially if you are a Christian! Remember, “You are a bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your…” what? “In your body.” God absolutely does care what you do with your body!

(If you are interested in this topic, I have a good resource to suggest to you. Pastor Kit wrote a dissertation on the sanctification of the bodily appetites. So if you want to learn more about that, go ask for a copy of his dissertation.) J

Sanctification affects the entire person. But here’s the qualification: this is not to deny the existence of an enduring sin principle (call it “the old nature” or “the flesh”) in the life of the believer. This spring, I was teaching the kids in Awana out of Galatians 5, and we talked about the battle between the flesh and the Spirit. Christians still struggle with sin because we have a sin nature, and that nature will not be completely destroyed until death or the Rapture. I said last time that I do not believe in sinless perfectionism. The only example of sinless perfectionism that we find in Scripture is Jesus! Everyone else was flawed.

However, because my old man has been crucified with Christ, no fundamental aspect of my person is now unredeemable! That’s why Paul can pray that the Thessalonians’ whole body, soul, and spirit would be sanctified!

Friends, do you understand the glorious work that God is doing in your life? If you are a Christian, God is changing you inside and out into a totally new person! Romans 12:2 uses the Greek word from which we get our English word “metamorphosis,” and that is so perfect! You are not just a baby caterpillar growing up into a big caterpillar! You are a caterpillar turning into a butterfly!

So divide the human being into as many portions as you like–one, two, three, five, or ten–the point is that none of those fundamental aspects of your being will be left untouched. God is changing all of you! I hope those truths inspire you to work and not to give up!

The extent of sanctification is the entire person. Next, let’s look at the goal of sanctification.

  1. It’s Goal: Completeness (v. 23)

In this verse, Paul uses two strong words that are both synonyms for “complete” as well as the word “blameless.” Do you think Paul was trying to make a point? God’s goal for you, Christian, is for you to be complete! James says the same thing in 1:4. “But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” Again, notice the emphasis! James says that the goal is to be “perfect” and “complete”; and then, just to make sure we don’t miss the point, he throws in the phrase, “lacking nothing”! God is doing a gradual work of grace in you that involves your whole person and is aimed at your perfection!

Some people may be uncomfortable with the language Paul uses in this verse to describe the goal of progressive sanctification. After all, it almost sounds like he believes in the possibility of sinless perfection in this life! And in fact, this is one of the first passages that those who believe that false doctrine will turn to. Well-meaning Christians like John Wesley have used verses like these to argue that Christians can be perfect in this life. I don’t believe that. 1 John 1:10 says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” That’s an awfully strong way for John to say, “Christians still sin!” And passages like Romans 7 prove that Paul didn’t believe in sinless perfectionism, either! So to say that the goal of sanctification is completeness is not to say that Paul believed in sinless perfectionism!

However, here’s what Paul did believe in very strongly: Paul believed in the power of God to completely change a life–and that is something we must never diminish! We may not and must not excuse sin as if it’s not a big deal or as if God doesn’t really care!

Friends, I say this as a pastor speaking to people I know are going to move and be looking for churches someday: beware of churches that do not take sin seriously! Avoid churches that emphasize contextualization more than holiness! Look out for churches that use grace as an excuse for sloppy, sensual living! Pay attention both to what is said (and not said) from the pulpit AND to the church’s overall culture! The world is so tempting, and we are so wicked–you want to place yourself and your family in a community that pushes you toward holiness.

Now, there is a difference between holiness and legalism! So do look for a church that emphasizes grace! Do look for a church that reaches out to the lost! Do look for a church in which there is a loving sense of community! But don’t choose a church that is soft on sin!

And in your own personal life, do not go soft on sin! Do not be content with where you are at spiritually! The goal is perfect Christlikeness, so we’ve all got a long way to go! Do not tolerate big sins OR little sins! Aggressively, strategically, persistently pursue Christlikeness!

The goal of sanctification is complete and perfect Christlikeness. But next, let’s talk about sanctification’s accompanying theme.

  1. Its Accompanying Theme: Preservation (v. 23)

What’s preservation? Preservation is God’s keeping of the believer so that no one who is truly saved ever loses his salvation. Think of sanctification as the offensive side of what God is doing in your life and preservation as the defensive side of what He is doing. Offensively, God is changing you to become more like Christ; defensively, He is guarding you from falling away. As 1 Peter 1:5 puts it, God is keeping us “through faith for salvation ready to be revealed.” In John 17, Jesus prays for His disciples, “Father, keep them,” and then immediately turns around and prays, “Sanctify them by Your truth.” Sanctification and preservation are like two sides of the same coin.

What does the doctrine of preservation mean for us? First, it means that I don’t have to worry about losing my salvation every time I sin. I don’t have to worry about God getting angry and casting me aside. I don’t have to live with the constant pressure of keeping myself saved. Instead, I can rest in the fact that I am God’s child, and my relationship with my heavenly Father is secure.

When Elise and I got married, we decided never to use the word “divorce.” Each of us needs to know that our relationship is always secure.

Maybe some of you have worked a job that started with a trial period. The Christian life is not a trial period for heaven! Once you are saved, you are saved!

However, the doctrine of preservation does not mean that Christians can live however they want or that people who are living in sin or unbelief should be assured of their salvation! I often tell people that lack of assurance is like the “check engine” light on an old vehicle; it indicates that there is a deeper problem. Sometimes, that problem may be backsliding in the life of a genuine believer. But at other times, it may be a lack of genuine salvation! You see, the NT clearly deals with false professors! So the last thing I want to do is to tell someone he’s saved when that may or may not be the case! Instead, I want to say, “This is what it means to be saved; this is what you have to understand in order to be saved; this is what it looks like to be saved,” and let the person decide for himself whether or not he is saved!

It may be that there is somebody in this room who is struggling with assurance of salvation. Friend, that is not how God intends for you to live! So please, reach out to someone who can help. I would like nothing more than to help you get that settled.

Sanctification’s accompanying theme is preservation. Finally, Sanctification’s endpoint is the Rapture.

  1. Its Endpoint: The Rapture (v. 23)

Paul prays that the Thessalonians would be sanctified/preserved until Jesus comes. The Rapture is the finish line. We see this also in 3:13 (3:13).

When a runner is pushing himself during training, it is very important that he know where the finish line is. Otherwise, he will lack motivation to continue because he will have no idea what he is aiming for!

As Christians, we are aiming for the Rapture! We live with a sense of expectation, waiting for Jesus to come! Until then, we pray and press! Because we know that when Jesus comes, our sanctification will be finished.

Why does progressive sanctification end at the Rapture? Because 1 John 3:2 says that when Jesus “is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” In other words, after the Rapture, you and I will not need to pursue Christlikeness in that sense, because we will be perfectly Christlike! We will be glorified! We will experience final sanctification!

The fact that progressive sanctification ends at the Rapture does not mean that believers can sin in the intermediate state. Hebrews 12:23 refers to “the spirits of just men made perfect,” which means that our spirits will be totally sanctified when we die. But remember, sanctification involves more than just our spirits! It also involves what? Our bodies! And our bodies won’t be sanctified until they are raised from the dead at the Rapture. That is why we refer to the condition of believers who have died prior to the Rapture as “the intermediate state.” It is a sort of “in-between” existence. Our spirits are perfected with God in heaven, but our bodies are still in the grave, and that is not the way God intends for us to be for all of eternity! So at the Rapture, Jesus will raise and glorify our bodies, and at that point, sanctification will be complete. We will be like Jesus. What a hope!


I am burdened that many Christians do not either realize the significance of what God is doing in them or desire it like they should. I have been meditating recently on a prayer form the little book of Puritan prayers called, “The Valley of Vision.” It’s called, “The Christian’s Prayer,” and there is a line in it that goes like this:

Draw on my soul the lineaments of Christ,

in every trace and feature of which thou wilt take delight….

The word “lineaments” means “distinctive features.” God is writing on your soul (not just your face or your body, but your inner being) the distinctive features of Christ. And He is delighting in His workmanship. Because it looks like Him! Oh that we would praise God more for what He is doing in us and that we would desire it more fully!