I have a word from God for you. I’m about to tell you God’s will for your life. It’s very specific and I’m confident – without a shadow of a doubt – that this really is from God. Whether you’re a teenager, a young adult, middle-aged or drawing a pension, this is undeniably and unquestionably God’s will for your life:
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)
Now this is not the entirety of God’s will for your life, of course. But there are two good reasons that I can boldly proclaim this to be at least part of God’s will for your life (and, of course, for my life). Firstly, Paul holds up these Thessalonian Christians as “a model to all the believers” (Chapter 1:7). They’re an example for other Christians to imitate and follow, a flagship church.
Secondly, these are Paul’s words, an Apostle of Christ (Chapter 2:6). Apostle means sent one, or envoy. Paul has full authority to speak God’s word into our lives as a direct messenger of Jesus, the Son of God.
You should be sanctified
Sanctified is one of those religious-sounding words that most Christians are familiar with, even if we’re not entirely sure what it means. The word gets a bad press, of course, due in part to the related word sanctimonious. I’m sure we can all think of sanctimonious people. Those who believe that they’re morally superior to others. People who are self-righteous, holier-than-though, judgemental. People who give Christians a bad name.
But being sanctified has nothing to do with being sanctimonious. No, to be sanctified is a beautiful thing. When we first trusted in Christ, we were sanctified (1 Corinthians 6:11). We were set apart from our past life of sinful rebellion against a Holy God and we became his special, treasured possession.
Sanctification is the process by which a Christian is made holy. It’s how we become in practice what we already are as a spiritual reality in Christ. To be sanctified is to become more and more like Jesus Christ. Like him in our character, in our attitudes, in our speech, in our behaviour. And if there’s one thing Jesus certainly is not, it’s sanctimonious. Far from it. The gospel writers recount many incidences of Jesus challenging the sanctimonious Pharisees, those who looked down on others with a sense of moral, religious superiority.
Being sanctified is something that every Christian should aspire to and long for. If I’m trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for forgiveness of my personal sins and for eternal life, well it is now God’s will that I should be sanctified.
This process happens as the Spirit of God and the Word of God work in tandem to transform me from the inside out. Elsewhere Paul commands Christians to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Sanctification begins in the mind. Right thinking leads to right living.
Christian brother, Christian sister, it is God’s will that you and I should be sanctified; that we become increasingly like his perfect son Jesus Christ.
You should avoid sexual immorality
An important out-working of our sanctification is that we increasingly avoid sexual immorality. The Greek word here is Porneias, meaning any and all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. It’s an all-inclusive term. Jesus uses the same root word over in Mark 7:21 where he lists various things that come out of the human heart, which make us unclean (unholy).
This sounds straightforward enough. It is God’s will that Christians should avoid sexual immorality. In other words, we’re to steer clear of it, to deliberately walk in the opposite direction, to take evasive action, to give it a wide berth.
But if your heart is anything like mine, you won’t want to avoid it. Instead you’ll want to flirt with it. To see how close you can get to the edge of the fire of sexual immorality without getting your fingers burnt. And, by the way, the Bible tells me that your heart is just like mine: “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).
How, then, are we to avoid sexual immorality? Well, the practicalities will differ according to our individual areas of weakness and temptation. You may need to avoid particular places, or situations, or people. You may need to avoid channel hopping with the TV remote late at night, or avoid browsing online at certain times or in certain places, or avoid certain books or films.
For some of us, more drastic action might be needed in order to avoid sexual immorality. Jesus, having just taught that to lust over a person that I’m not married to is to commit adultery in my heart, drives his point home with a graphic metaphor. Gouge out and throw away your eye, he urges (Matthew 5:29).
What drastic action might you need to take? Ditch a smartphone, perhaps, as a friend of mine did recently. Get rid of the TV completely for a season, as I did in my early years as a Christian. Not have internet access at all at home, or use good filtering software and ensure that you have no way to bypass or uninstall it. Be radical! Don’t forget, this is God’s will for your life.
You should learn to control your own body
This sounds like an incredibly tough, if not an impossible, calling. Particularly in a culture that urges us to go with whatever makes us feel good and where self-restraint is no longer a virtue. But it is God’s will that we should learn to control our own bodies “in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans who do not know God.”
Notice why learning to control our bodies is so important. Because not to exercise self-control and instead to give into passionate lust is to act like people “who do not know God.” We might expect unbelievers to be marked out by a lack of self-restraint. But not Christians. No, we’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit whose fruit is self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
That we need to “learn” to do this encourages me. If controlling our bodies is something we must learn, this surely allows for the likelihood of mistakes along the way. We don’t learn to do things that we’re already proficient in.
Think about it. In life generally, we often learn by making mistakes, don’t we? Whether it’s learning to drive, learning a language, learning to cook, or learning to swim. So as a learner driver, if I bump the car in front of me I learn to use the brakes. By making a faux pas in French, I learn from that misunderstanding to speak better French. By burning a cake, I learn to keep an eye on the oven. By taking in mouthfuls of chlorinated water, I hopefully learn how to flap around, stay afloat and eventually to swim.
And it’s no different learning to control our own bodies. Sometimes we’ll learn to do this more effectively through moments of weakness when we fail to control them. The lessons are there to be learnt if we’re willing to be serious students and listen to the grace of God, our gentle and understanding teacher. The grace of God, according to Titus 2:12, “teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”
God is faithful
I’m sure many of us are all too aware, as I am, of personal failings in this area. We know that it’s God’s will for us to be sanctified, to avoid sexual immorality and to control our bodies. But all too easily we get entangled in and enslaved to ungodly habits and patterns of behaviour.
But there’s great hope. Remember, this is all God’s will for your life. And who can resist God’s will? Much better for us, of course, if we humbly work with our Saviour in this process of sanctification. If you’re trusting in Jesus Christ, though, you can rest assured that – one way or another – God will ensure that you are sanctified:
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)