Living in Light of Jesus' Return: Living in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Benediction for Sanctification

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 19, 2012

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

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The Lord’s Day Morning


August 19, 2012



“Living Life in Light of Jesus’
Return: A Benediction for
Sanctification”


1 Thessalonians 5:23-24


The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians
chapter 5. We’re going to be looking
at verses 23 and 24 together. You
may want to look back at verse 22 because it will help you understand what Paul
is doing in this passage. If we were
to devote ourselves to verse 23 alone, you would find hidden in that little
verse two very significant theological controversies that have occupied the
attention of Christian theologians over the course of many centuries in the
history of Christianity. In verse 23
you will see the phrase, “may God sanctify you completely,” or “entirely” and
from that has arisen a doctrine called “entire sanctification” which was a part
of the holiness movement, for instance, in the
19th century, a teaching that has often been called “Christian
Perfectionism” or “The Higher Life Movement” or “The Victorious Christian Life
Movement” — movement that teaches that Christians can attain a time in this life
in which they no longer sin, in which they cease to consciously sin.
It’s been very controversial in the church and this is one of the
passages that proponents of that particular view go to and so there’s a
theological controversy hidden in that phrase.

There’s another theological controversy hidden in verse 23.
If you look at the phrase, “may your soul and spirit and body,” which is
in the next clause of 1 Thessalonians 5:23, that has raised the question of
trichotomy. Are we, as human beings,
made up of body, soul, and spirit — three parts; are we tri-part type beings?
Or are we, as the Scripture usually uses the language “body and soul,”
bi-part type beings, dichotomous beings?
So there’s been a significant debate between dichotomy and trichotomy in
the history of Christianity and trichotomy has often been associated with
certain pernicious kinds of teaching, in fact, sometimes combined with the
teaching of “Christian Perfectionism.”
But that’s not where we’re going in this passage today.

I think what Paul is doing here is actually very clear from the context.
What’s the last thing that he said to us in verse 22?
“Abstain from every form of evil.”
Now that’s a fairly clear, comprehensive, demanding imperative.
It’s almost like he pulls up close to us and says, “Don’t ever sin!”
And the response to that, from a tenderhearted, sensitive conscious
Christian, must be to be discouraged, because we know that even when we love the
Lord Jesus Christ and we believe the Word of God and we’re growing in grace we
don’t abstain from every form of evil; we do continue to sin.
And so we could be discouraged by those imperatives that Paul has just
rolled out and summed up with that grand, inclusive, comprehensive demand that
we abstain from every form of evil.
So now, Paul is going to give us some sweet encouragement in a prayer, in a
blessing, in a benediction that he is going to pronounce.
That’s what we’re going to read today in verses 23 and 24.
Before we do, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we ask that You would use Your Word because it is Your Word and
by Your Spirit open our eyes to understand the words which He inspired so that
we might love what You love, aspire to Your purposes in us, and find
encouragement for the living of the Christian life, all the while firmly
understanding that our salvation rests on You and Your grace alone, for You are
faithful. We ask this in Jesus’
name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it in
1 Thessalonians chapter 5, beginning in verse 23:

“Now may the God of
peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and
body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.
May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Paul’s purpose in this prayer, in this blessing, in this benediction that he’s
pronouncing over the Thessalonians and over you and me, is to encourage us in
the Christian life. To hear an
exhortation like, “Abstain from all evil,” might drive you to despair.
In fact, the more serious you are about sin, the more aware you are of
your own sin, the more concerned you are to grow in grace, to be like Christ, to
see God’s purposes worked out in you, the more susceptible you might be to being
discouraged by that kind of an exhortation, “Abstain from all evil.”
And so Paul, knowing that, wants to encourage the Thessalonians.
He’s just told them that he wants them to engage actively in living the
Christian life. He wants them to
respond affirmatively to these commands, these imperatives that he has given,
but he doesn’t want them to be discouraged.
You know, there are many who say we shouldn’t preach holiness to
Christians because it might discourage them.
And it’s interesting that Paul never ever, never ever is afraid to call
us to holiness, but what he always does is he comes alongside with the
encouragement of God and His grace and His purpose for us.
That’s what he does in this passage.
He calls us to holiness and then he gives us all the encouragements that
we need that come from God and from His grace.
I want to look at five of those encouragements that he gives to you out
of this short passage.


SANCTIFICATION IS THE WORK OF GOD
IN YOU

And here’s the first one. The first
thing that Paul teaches us is that your sanctification is the work of God in
you. Look at what he says in verse
23. “May the God of peace Himself
sanctify you.” Did you catch that?
“May the God of peace Himself sanctify you.”
He’s praying that God would work to make you holy.
He’s blessing you with this blessing — the God, who is the God of peace,
is going to sanctify you. He doesn’t
say, “May God aid you as you sanctify yourself.”
He doesn’t say, “Lord, would You help them as they try as best as they
can to make themselves holy.” He
says to you, “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.”
Sanctification is God’s work in you.
Now Paul’s of course said that there are things that we must do in the
Christian life but it’s so important for us to understand that God is far more
engaged in our sanctification than we are.
We say from time to time that our God is so kind and loving and good that
He is more ready to forgive you than you are to ask for forgiveness.
So you know, sometimes you dread that He’s going to be severe with you.
He’s more ready to forgive you than you are to ask forgiveness.

And you know what else? He’s also
more interested in your sanctification than you are.
Even if you’re an earnest Christian, a serious Christian, a
Bible-believing, Bible-studying Christian who wants to grow in grace, God is
more interested in your sanctification than you are.
In fact, the entire being of God, the triune fellowship of the Trinity,
is purposed, is focused on your holiness.
We’re told in Ephesians 2:10 that we were “created in Christ Jesus for
good works.” We’re told in 1
Thessalonians and elsewhere that God’s purpose for us is sanctification; that
His will is our sanctification. In
Ephesians 1:4 we’re told that He chose us with a view to making us holy.
He is deeply concerned for and at work in our sanctification.
And so what do we draw from that?
Some people would say, “Well since God is at work with us in our
sanctification then we don’t need to worry about it; there’s nothing we need to
do.” That’s not the logic that Paul
uses, ever. The point is, if God is
so committed to this in our lives, we ought to be as well.
But don’t miss his encouragement.
His point is this — however committed we are to growing in grace, God is
even more committed to our growing in grace and He will not let up, He will not
tire, He will not falter, He will not fail in pursing your growing in grace and
in Christ-likeness. He is that
committed to it. And Paul wants to
remind the Thessalonians, even after he’s given them these commands, these
charges, these imperatives, these directions, these challenges to live the
Christian life, to abstain from very kind of evil, he wants to say, “It’s God
who is at work in you to make you godly.”


THE GOD OF TOTAL WELLBEING AND
BLESSING IS AT WORK IN YOU

There’s a second encouragement though and you see it as well in verse 23 and
it’s in what Paul calls God — “the God of peace Himself.”
The God of peace Himself.
Paul is reminding us that the God who is at work in you is the God of total
wellbeing and blessing. Peace, you
know, is a very rich Old Testament word that means more than just a cessation of
hostility. Peace doesn’t just mean
you’re not at war with somebody. It
stands for – we especially hear it when someone uses that Old Testament word,
shalom. It stands for total
wellbeing, complete satisfaction, unmitigated happiness and blessing.
And the apostle Paul is pausing to remind you that the God who is at work
in you for your sanctification is the God of total blessing, total wellbeing,
complete satisfaction.

Why? Why is that so important?
Because Satan continually plays this trick upon us.
He says, “If you want to be happy, you’re going to have to throw
happiness overboard. If you really
want happiness in this world, you’ve got to chuck holiness over the side because
that holiness is a drag on your happiness,” whereas, in fact, happiness and
holiness are inextricably connected.
You cannot have one without the other.
And because God is concerned for your total wellbeing, He is concerned
for your holiness. And so the
apostle Paul in this passage is saying that your total wellbeing, your
happiness, your satisfaction is inextricably connected with your sanctification
and that’s why the God of total wellbeing is irreversibly committed to your
sanctification because He wants your total wellbeing and happiness and
satisfaction and you cannot have that apart from sanctification.
And so the apostle Paul is encouraging us that the God who is at work in
us is the God of total wellbeing.
It’s from Him that that wellbeing comes. And it is in Him that we find our
ultimate satisfaction. We’re not
made to be satisfied in anything less than Him.
Isn’t that one of the things that is so much a part of all of our growth
in the Christian life when we realize that nothing can satisfy instead of Him or
apart from Him or more than Him? And
so the apostle Paul just reminds us it’s the God of total wellbeing who is at
work in us for our growth in holiness and sanctification.


GOD’S WORK IN YOU BEGINS NOW


AND IN THE END RESULTS IN
COMPLETE PERFECTION

There’s a third encouragement though and again you see it in verse 23.
Two phrases — “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely” and
“May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless.”
Notice how he emphasizes the completeness of the task that God is at work
in us to perform. “May He sanctify
you completely…May your whole spirit and soul and body be blameless.”
That’s why that language is used.
He wants to show how complete this work of God is going to be at the
coming of Christ. Now there are two
things we need to see here. Paul is
telling us that it is God’s purpose to make you completely perfect in the end
and to begin that now. It is God’s
purpose to make you completely perfect in the end and to begin that now.
We’ll never be completely perfect in the now, we will in the end, but He
will begin that process now and complete it in the end.
One of the reasons it’s so clear that Paul is not just thinking about
what God is going to do in the end is he’s praying this prayer now.
And if you look back at 1 Thessalonians 3 verses 11 and following, which
we’ve already studied, he clearly wants the Thessalonians to make progress in
holiness now. So he wouldn’t be
praying this prayer if he didn’t want us to make progress now.
But the perfection, the completion, will not come to the end.

But that, in and of itself, is a huge encouragement.
Maybe you have experienced encouragement from other Christians who say
things to you like, “I do admire the way you selflessly care for other people.
It’s a clear sign of the Gospel at work in you.”
Or, “I so admire how you love the Word of God and you seek to study it
and memorize it and teach it and live according to it.
That’s clearly an evidence of grace at work in you.”
I’ve even talked in this series that we’re doing in1 Thessalonians about
how we ought to encourage one another when we see evidences of graces in one
another. But you know what often
happens? Even the very mature
Christian, when a brother or sister in Christ comes and gives you that kind of
encouragement, sometimes you’re thinking, even while they’re encouraging you,
“Yeah, you don’t know that I did not even want to get out of bed this morning
because I’m so downcast.” “You don’t
know about this besetting sin in my life that I have been fighting against for
thirteen years and I cannot beat it.”
And so though you truly appreciate the very, very real and sincere
encouragement that you’re receiving from that brother or sister in Christ, at
the same time, you may well in your heart of hearts be thinking, “Boy, I’m
really glad that you don’t know what I’m really like.”

And here’s the apostle Paul saying that there is coming a day when you will
never feel like that again because God will have taken all of that away and
there will be a morning when the sun rises that will be the last time that
you’ll ever experience that again because His purpose is to completely eradicate
that from your experience and to entirely sanctify you at the coming of Jesus
Christ. My friends, if that won’t
get you going, I don’t know what will, and without it, I wouldn’t want to go on.
If I didn’t know that those things in me were not going to be eradicated,
I could not go on. I’m so thankful
for the forgiveness of my sins, but if I thought that I was going to be forgiven
and have to eternally deal with those profound disappointments in myself, I
couldn’t stand it. And He is going
to eradicate it.


IT IS GOD’S PURPOSE TO KEEP YOU
UNTIL THE END

And then fourth, Paul gives us this encouragement.
Look again at verse 23. You
thought I skipped over a word; I did it deliberately.
“May your whole spirit and soul and body be
kept.”
You thought I’d skipped over that.
I was saving it until this point.
“May your whole spirit and soul and body be
kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul is saying that it’s not only God’s purpose to make you completely
perfect in the end, but that it is God’s purpose to keep you until the end, to
hold you and not to allow you to be snatched from the palm of His hand to the
end. The older I grow in Christ, the
more meaningful that is to me because I’ve seen people that I know very well and
love who have made a profession in Christ and who have fallen away from that
profession and they have stumbled and they give no evidence of loving the Lord
anymore or wanting to walk with Him.
And it reminds us how precious it is that the Lord is upholding us.

At Together for the Gospel back in April of this year, John Piper got ready to
stand up and preach from that glorious benediction in Jude and he stood up and
he said these words. “I am amazed
when I wake up in the morning that I am still a Christian.
And I realize the fact that I awake in the morning and am still a
Christian is entirely due to the preserving grace of God.
God has preserved me.” And
how much power does it take for Him to preserve us?
Well just take a look at that word at the end of Jude.
That’s how much power it takes.
We should never ever fail to be thankful that the Lord upholds us and
preserves us. He has indeed been our
dwelling place in all generations.
He is our refuge. He is the one who
prevents our foot from slipping. He upholds us.
And Paul is saying, “Christian, don’t ever presume upon your
perseverance. You did not create
your perseverance; God has, in His kindness, caused you to persevere.
It is He and He alone who can keep you til the end.”

I do want to say this, though — if you’re here today and you’ve stumbled and
you’ve fallen and you feel far from God, today is the day of salvation, today is
the day where you can reach out your empty hand in faith and beg to God, “Lord,
help my unbelief. I believe.”
And do not despair that He will not hear and answer.
There will be no one on the last day who will stand before our Lord and
say, “Lord, I wanted to be forgiven, but You wouldn’t do it.”
There will be no one who says, “Lord, I wanted to be forgiven, but you
didn’t forgive me.” There will only
be those who never asked for forgiveness, who never asked for forgiveness, who
never cried out for mercy, and then it will be too late.
Today is the day of salvation.
If you feel that you’ve stumbled and fallen and you feel that there’s no
hope for you, cry out in the day of your need, the day of your distress, and He
will answer.


GOD HAS PROMISED AND GOD IS
FAITHFUL

One last thing, Paul gives as an encouragement to us, and you see this finally
in verse 24. “He who calls you is
faithful and He will surely do it.”
It’s almost like Paul is saying, “Now, as my culminating thought, I want you to
understand why you should be encouraged by what I’ve just said, by what I’ve
just prayed. I want you to be
encouraged not because I prayed it” — now there’d be some encouragement in that,
wouldn’t there? The apostle Paul
personally prayed for me that I would be encouraged by these things — there’s
some encouragement in that, but Paul doesn’t say, “Be encouraged, Thessalonians,
be encouraged, Jacksonians, because I’ve prayed this prayer and pronounced this
benediction over you.” He says, “Be
encouraged because of this — because God is faithful.”
Now that’s why we sang 602.
Look at the very first line of hymn 602.
“O God, my faithful God.” He
says, “This is why you should be encouraged — because God has promised and God
is faithful. We may be confidence of
these things not because of Paul’s prayer but because of God’s promise and
faithfulness. His promises are yea
and amen in Christ and He will do them.

Because of that, we will be able to sing, when we turn to number 677 in just a
few moments, in that final stanza, “Then we shall be what we should be” — why?
Because He who has called us, He who has promised, is faithful.
What Paul is saying is that the whole of the Christian life hangs upon
God’s grace, upon God’s promise, upon God’s power, upon God’s faithfulness,
therefore, be encouraged, therefore, live with boldness, therefore live with
assurance. And if you are in the
dread fight today and you feel like you are losing, hear your pastor say to you,
the fact that you’re in that fight and you feel like you’re losing is certain
testimony to me that God is doing these five things in your life right now.
You know what worries your pastor?
What worries your pastor is if you’re not in that fight.
If you’re not in the fight against sin, if you’re not in the fight for
sanctification, that worries me; please come talk to me.
But if you’re in that fight and you feel like you’re losing, I know that
He’s at work in you. I know that
He’s at work. He is faithful.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, grant that we would not only rest on Your faithfulness but that
we would strive against our sin and for new life with all our might not because
You have accepted us because we’re really trying hard, but because You’ve
accepted us in the life, death, and resurrection of Your beloved Son and
therefore we want to serve You with everything that is in us because we know
that one day everything that is in us will be for You and we want to have a
taste of that right now, as much of it as we can get by Your grace, by Your
Spirit. So grant, O God, that we
would use Your means of grace but that we would look to You and look to Jesus
who is the author and perfector of our faith.
We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now would you take your hymnals and turn with me to number 677 and let’s sing
praise to God for His work of sanctification.

How will we ever be in that place where we want to be?
How will we ever be what we should be?
By what God provides. Grace,
mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen.

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