It is a big, five-syllable word that may not be used much, but remains vitally important. Most mornings while our three children are munching down their cereal, we listen to the New City Catechism in song form. This morning, the song was focused on answering the question, “What do justification and sanctification mean?” My six year old daughter said, “Sanctification? What’s that?” Sadly, many adults who have been raised in the church don’t know the answer either. Yet the doctrine of sanctification is so important and so monumentally vital to the Christian life that Scripture says we cannot see the Lord without it (Heb. 12:14).
So what is it? Sanctification refers to that gradual process of upward spiritual growth in the Christian’s life whereby we are conformed more and more to the image of our Savior. The process of sanctification begins at conversion and ends in final glorification when we die or Christ returns. While our justification is all a work of God in grace toward us, our sanctification involves our spiritual effort and the Spirit’s enabling and empowerment. But one question that seems to be on the minds of churchgoers in our generation is this: “Does it really matter if I am growing spiritually? After all, aren’t we saved by faith alone in Christ alone?”
In 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, the Apostle Paul addresses the importance of spiritual growth to a church in a similar scenario as ours. The believers in Thessalonica had been converted from idolatry and were living in a culture of rampant sexual promiscuity, to say the least. Cult prostitutes were even used in their temple worship. Various forms of sexual perversion were state-sanctioned activities to raise funds for government buildings and such. We may not be facing as much blatant sexual immorality in our society as the Thessalonian believers were in theirs, but I think it’s safe to say it is a big problem. There are now a variety of new snares Satan has devised to trip us up. By means of great technological advancements, nearly 80% of all Americans own a smartphone. These devices have instant access to visual, moving internet pornography and most people have no filter set up in place to guard them from it. Along with smartphones, we have laptops, smart TV’s, tablets, and such. Just recently my family was at my parents’ home while my dad was trying out his new Echo Dot. Within a few minutes, my children learned to call out the title of a song and expect it to play it for them on demand, only that it misunderstood them and played sexually explicit music for the next couple minutes. This is just one example of how pervasive the problem of sexual immorality is in our culture.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, the Apostle Paul answers some crucial questions for us about spiritual growth…
Does it really matter if I am growing spiritually? Yes, it’s God’s will.
Paul says in verse 1 that we, “ought to…please God…more and more.” Spiritual stagnation is not only a waste of our potential, it is flat out dangerous. Obviously this does not mean we should expect to see some dramatic gains in our devotional lives each progressive week. If we could draw a line graph of our own lifelong spiritual progress, it would have a lot of ups and downs, yet there should be an upward slant to the whole thing. There should be a marked spiritual growth from who we were five years ago and who we are today. Not only that, but Paul also says, “This is the will of God: your sanctification.” Every high school students wants to know what God’s will is for their life and they listen for that still, small voice, but it is right here in black and white before us. God’s will for our lives is that we grow in holiness. Spoken negatively, it is not God’s will that our holiness be at a plateau.
What does this spiritual growth look like? At least sexual purity.
Paul uses an appositive statement to connect their sanctification with sexual purity. He says, “your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” In our pornographic society, this sexual purity is at least what it means to grow in Christlikeness and in holiness. One cannot say they are growing in holiness while they are indulging in any form of sexual immorality. Paul uses the word porneas, a broad word referring to any sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage. To be growing at all means we cannot sit complacent in any sin that perverts God’s good design in marriage. Holiness and honor should be words that characterize our sexual purity.
Why is our sexual purity that big of a deal? Because God called us out for this.
There are several answers to this question which Paul gives. One answer Paul gives is that the Gentiles who practice these things don’t know God and we do. Our knowledge of God sets us apart not only spiritually, but also sexually from the worldview of this age. Also, we are told to remember that God punishes all who love sin more than Him. Finally, our sexual purity is a big deal because of the way God first called us. God did not come to call us to live as we were. You call a person because you want them to turn their attention away from what it is on so that it is then on you. When God calls sinners, He calls us to a whole new way of life. Jesus was known for saying to sinners, “Go and sin no more.” Paul says to disregard the clear teaching of Scripture here is to disregard the very God who gives the Holy Spirit. None of us can ever hope to be holy without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
May our lives be marked by this growth in holiness as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit each day. It is only when our world sees Christ’s church as set apart and holy that they will know what a different Christ has made in us.