Preaching Practical Holiness

Bethel Seminary Chapel | Minneapolis

Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Since most of you hope to be ministers of the word, what I would like to do with this text is to draw out of it some guidelines for how to preach practical holiness. In other words the question that I am posing to the text is this: If a pastor wants to see his people become more holy, more pure, more pleasing to God in their kitchens and bedrooms and offices and backyards, what should he say to them? How should he preach?

We'll proceed in two steps. First we will walk through the text making some observations as we go. Then we will step back and draw out four applications for the way we should preach practical holiness.

Verses 1-2: "Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus."

In verse 1 he exhorts them "in the Lord Jesus" and in verse 2 he reminds them of commands he gave them "through the Lord Jesus". He wants very much for the Thessalonians to hear his instructions as more than the words of a mere man. He wants them to keep on hearing the way they did when he first came: "When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

They received the commandments of the Lord Jesus once as the very word of God. Now he reminds them to press on in those commandments. When Paul did his missionary work he not only won converts and baptized. He also followed the mandate of the great commission to teach them to observe whatsoever the Lord Jesus had commanded. He had delivered to them a tradition of ethical teaching that perhaps went under the title given in verse 1: "How it is necessary for you to walk and to please God."

Verse 3: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality."

When Paul delivers instructions to the believers "through the Lord Jesus," what they hear is the very will of God. God's word and God's will are in these instructions. And his will for believers is that their sanctification.

Sanctification is the process of becoming holy. And what Paul has in mind by holiness was already signaled back in 3:12-13, just 4 verses earlier. "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you, so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God." If abounding in love is the means by which our hearts are established in holiness, then love must be the thing Paul has in mind when he exhorts us to make progress in holiness or sanctification.

The specific application of love in view here in our text is abstaining from sexual immorality. Abounding in love for all men is incompatible with sexual promiscuity.

Verses 4-5 apply the principle even more specifically: Paul addresses the men and admonishes "that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God."

The parallel between verse 4 and 1 Corinthians 7:2 is so close that I am persuaded the RSV is more correct here than the NIV, which says, "Each of you should learn to control his own body," instead of "Each one of you should know how to take a wife for himself." 1 Corinthians 7:2 says "Because of temptation to immorality (the same word as verse 3 in our text), each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." I think the words "each man should have his own wife" in 1 Corinthians 7:2 mean basically the same as the words "each of you should know how to take his own vessel" in verse 4 of our text.

(Other reasons are that the normal meaning of ktaomai is acquire not possess or control; the context is similar to 1 Peter 3:7 where vessel means the wife not the man's body; the emphatic "his own" seems to contrast with someone else's, but if it refers to ruling his own body that would be an odd contrast.)

So it seems to me that the meaning of verse 4 is that men should stop trying to satisfy their lusts by sexual immorality, using prostitutes or seducing other men's fiancés or wives. Instead they should take their own wives.

But he seems to be aware of the possible criticism that this advice could be construed by unspiritual, sex-hungry men as a command to go out and find the most luscious lady available and marry her for her body. For as soon as he says, "Don't be immoral, get married," he adds, "in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust."

This is remarkable, some might say contradictory: "Don't release your passions in fornication or adultery. Get married. But don't get married driven just to release your passion." But every one of us knows he is right to say it this way. Most of us have a strong sexual drive that we would like to satisfy in marriage. But we also know that marriage is vastly more than an outlet for sexual satisfaction. In fact we know that if our passions are not submitted to something much higher even sexuality itself is ruined.

So Paul goes on to tell us what that higher reality is. He says, "Don't take a wife out of lust like the gentiles do who do not know God." In other words knowing God should transform the way we fall in love and get engaged and get married and the way we relate sexually in marriage. Sexual passion is real. Marriage is God's appointed place of its consummation. But the reality of God in our life should utterly transforms the way we satisfy our passions. God is a God of the bedroom or no God at all.

Verse 6 makes this issue of holiness clearly an issue of love: "That no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter." In other words not only is immorality an offense against the knowledge of God; it's also an offense against the love for our brothers. Paul evidently has in view a situation where men were taking advantage of their brothers by being sexually active with their fiancés or wives. His response: if you knew God you wouldn't do that, and if you loved your brother you wouldn't do that. (Recall this combination from Galatians 4:8 and Ephesians 4:17 and 1 John 4:7-8, "He who does not love does not know God.")

Then in the latter half of verse 6 Paul shoots his rifle over their heads. As if to say, brothers I'm not kidding, this is serious. "The Lord is an avenger in all these things as I solemnly forewarned you." Paul is not speaking here of a fatherly swat on the behind. He is saying that if these professing Christians continue to act as those who do not know God or love the brothers, the Lord will condemn them along with the unbelievers.

The parallel with 2 Thessalonians 1:8 is clear. There Paul says that the Lord is going to come with his angels in flaming fire "inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." Paul repeatedly warns professing Christians that if they live according to the flesh they will be condemned. The reason I say "repeatedly" is not only because you can read it again and again in his letters, because he says right here in verse 6 that he has warned them like this before. He repeatedly warns the same church of God's vengeance.

Finally in verses 7-8 Paul explains why God's vengeance would not be an over reaction to their immorality. "For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you." God's word and Spirit call us to holiness. If we reject this word and the promptings of the Spirit we reject God. And when God is rejected he becomes an avenger. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows he will also reap. If he sows to the flesh in immorality he will reap corruption. But if he sows to the Spirit in holiness he will reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).

Now let's see what we can learn from this text about the way a pastor should preach in order to help his people make progress in practical holiness. I'll only mention four things briefly. These are not the only way to preach practical holiness. Nor must every sermon include them all. But in your overall ministry of the word I believe these should have a large place.

1. Teach Your People to Know God

Brothers and sisters, our people do not know God very well. If you asked them to talk for five minutes about the character of God most couldn't do it. Preachers shy away from the doctrine of God because it seems abstracted from what immediately moves people. But Paul implies in verse 5 that the key to conquering sexual temptation is to know God. "Don't give reign to your passions like Gentiles who don't know God."

If our people could only get a taste of the majesty of God it would have more practical consequences in their lives than many messages about human relationships—and I believe in such messages. I am only pleading for a new emphasis and focus on God.

Charles Colson hit a dry spell in his Christian life a few years ago and one of his friends suggested he listen to some lectures by R. C. Sproul on the holiness of God. He said, "All I knew about Sproul was that he was a theologian, so I wasn't enthusiastic. After all, I reasoned, theology was for people who had time to study, locked in ivory towers far from the battlefields of human need. However, at my friend's urging I finally agreed … By the end of the sixth lecture I was on my knees, deep in prayer, in awe of God's absolute holiness. It was a life-changing experience as I gained a completely new understanding of the holy God I believe in and worship."

Teach your people to know God and you will touch every area of their lives with the practical holiness of God.

2. Exhort Your People to Practical Holiness

We need to be specific and earnest in urging our people to change their behavior. Practical holiness is a gift of God not a merely human achievement. That is clear from 3:12 ("may the Lord make you increase and abound in love") and from 5:23 ("May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly"). But how does God produce practical holiness in the lives of his people? He does not do it apart from the apostolic word of exhortation. Right after praying that God would make the Thessalonians abound in love (3:12), Paul himself commands them not to transgress and wrong a brother (4:6). Our word of exhortation is essential. It is the means of grace which the Lord uses to do his sanctifying work. "Father, sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth!" (John 17:17)

3. Put One and Two Together and Help Your People See All Their Life in Relation to God

Drive home verse 8. If you reject the exhortation to sexual purity you reject God. It is amazing how many professing Christians think that their day to day choices have no bearing on their relation to God. We must tirelessly remind them that a sharp word at the breakfast table is rebellion against the Holy Spirit. Breaking the speed limit is probably a failure to trust God to take care of your schedule. Lust is an insult to the all-satisfying fellowship of God. Holding a grudge cuts one off from the forgiveness of God. And all the joys of life can either be exalted by a spirit of gratitude and worship toward God, or debased to idolatry by ignoring their relation to God.

Our great aim must be to give our people a God-saturated experience of life.

4. Warn the People of God's Vengeance

Thousands of pastors do not believe this because they cannot make it square with their view of eternal security. How can you warn the saints on Sunday morning of God's vengeance if their faith in Christ delivers them from the wrath to come?

Zane Hodges of Dallas Seminary says in a recent book, "It may be safely said that no man in Christian history—with the exception of our Lord Himself—ever motivated believers more or threatened them less than did [Paul]". Hodges must say this because he concludes 3 pages earlier that "works have nothing to do with determining a Christian's basic relationship to God." If the way you behave—say in your sex life—has nothing to do with your basic relationship to God, then warnings of God's vengeance make no sense.

It makes no sense when Paul says to Christians in Rome (8:13), "If you live according to the flesh you will die." It makes no sense when he says to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:9), "We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of the Israelites did and were destroyed by the serpents." It doesn't make sense when he says to the Galatian churches (5:21), "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not enter the kingdom of God." And it doesn't make sense here in 1 Thessalonians 4:6 when Paul says, "Let no man transgress and wrong his brother … because God is an avenger in these things as we solemnly forewarned you."

That is, it doesn't make sense unless your premise is wrong that the behavior of man has nothing to do with his salvation. And it is surely wrong. For the tree is known by its fruit.

Therefore, I urge you all to immerse yourselves more and more in the Scriptures and learn for yourselves how to preach practical holiness. And from this one very typical passage in 1 Thessalonians I believe you will find at least that you should

  1. Teach your people to know God.
  2. Exhort your people to practical holiness.
  3. Help your people see all their life in relation to God.
  4. And warn the people of God's vengeance.