Perfectly Sanctified

August 20, 2023 Preacher: Luis A. Cardenas Series: First Thessalonians

Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

In long distance running, there is a phenomenon known as “hitting the wall.” One running magazine describes it as “an awful experience... You feel like you’ve run face-first into a brick wall. Your legs simultaneously feel like they are made of jelly, yet also weigh eight tons each. Every step is an absolute triumph of will, and you start to seriously doubt that the race even has a finish line. It usually happens to runners around the 18-mile mark and is the result of insufficient fueling.”

If you’ve ever seen a video of someone “hitting the wall,” you’ve seen the devastating effects on a runner’s body. From a scientific standpoint, “hitting the wall” means your body has depleted its easily accessible stored energy. In exercise, the human body uses glycogen which comes from carbohydrates and is stored in the liver and in the muscles. A runner’s body can be trained to use fat as a source of energy, but it still needs glycogen to access and process what is stored. So, if a runner runs for too long without refilling his glycogen, he may “hit the wall.”

Now, you can probably tell just by looking at me that I am not a marathon runner. In my high school and college years, however, as many of you did, I saw my fair share of strenuous exercise. And in my college studies, I learned about the various systems that need to be working in order for the body to reach its maximum potential.

For example, think about a professional football player. We tend to focus on the strength of his muscles, but there’s more involved than that.

There’s also the skeletal system. The man’s bones and tendons and ligaments need to be able to handle the stress. There’s also the respiratory system. His body needs to be able to deliver oxygen to the muscles involved. Then, you have the cardiovascular system which is how his heart delivers oxygen and nutrients to the rest of the body. The nervous system matters too. That’s what’s going to regulate blood pressure and breathing rate. The digestive system is involved as well. How much he ate or didn’t eat will play a part in how well he does.

And beyond all the physical systems of the body, there is always the psychological component. If he doesn’t want to compete anymore, if he would rather give up, then it won’t matter how healthy the rest of him is.

When we think about all the systems that need to be working in order for an athlete to accomplish his task, we can marvel at the wisdom and the intricacy of God’s creation, but we should also be humbled because if any one of those systems fails, the athlete won’t be able to finish. It’s a pretty precarious situation

Now, what about the spiritual race Christians are in? How fragile is that? How easy is it for someone not to finish? How many systems are there that could fail you? How many different things could drag you down and keep you from completing the race? How many possibilities are there for “hitting the wall” in the Christian life?

If all we had was our own human ability, the answers would seem endless. We are barraged by Satan, by this world, and by our own sin with a seemingly endless list of things that will make us stray from God’s path. That’s why the songwriter said “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love.” That’s the human condition. We could not keep ourselves saved even if our eternity depended on it.

But the songwriter also understood that our preservation isn’t ultimately up to us. And so, the full verse says, “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.”

The Bible makes it clear that God will protect and preserve all who belong to Him. Theologically, this is known as the perseverance of the saints. Those who belong to God will persevere because God will preserve them.

And while there are some who dispute or doubt this teaching, we find it all throughout the New Testament.

God has promised us that those who belong to Him in Christ—those who have turned from a life of sin and trusted only and completely in the death and Resurrection of Jesus for their salvation—those people will not only be justified; they will be sanctified, and they will be glorified. They will be forgiven of the penalty of sin, and they will one day be fully freed from the power and the presence of sin. All of God’s people will make it to the end. They will cross the finish line. And Christ, as the Son of God, will make sure of it.

In John 6, Jesus says, “[37] All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. [38] For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. [39] And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. [40] For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

In John 10, Jesus says He is the Good Shepherd who protects His flock. And there Jesus says, “[28] I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. [29] My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. [30] I and the Father are one.”

No true Christian can lose his salvation because it wasn’t his in the first place. Eternal life is a gift of God, and He guarantees.

Romans 8:29 and 30 say it like this—For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Paul wrote that in the past tense, which I think is an expression of the reality that this story has already been written, and it cannot be changed.

Later in that same chapter, he says, “[35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... [37] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [38] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then in Romans 11:29 Paul says, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains that those who belong to Christ have been [1:13] sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, [14] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

To the Philippians, Paul says, I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ [1:6].

So, Jesus and the Apostle Paul affirm that salvation cannot be lost. Peter says the same thing in 1 Peter 1, when he says, “[3] Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, [4] to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, [5] who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

I’ll stop there, but that’s quite a number of references from Jesus and Paul and Peter, and they all point to the same message, which I hope is clear. Salvation cannot be lost.

So, that being the case, let’s look again at Paul’s closing benediction and prayer for the Thessalonians, and consider what it is he wants. He says —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.

Paul’s request or desire is expressed in two different ways.

The first part of the request is that the Christians be completely sanctified. The word sanctify means to make holy, which means to set apart. At salvation, we are set apart spiritually, in status. That’s also called justification.

From that day forward, we are being set apart practically. We are being made to look more and more like Jesus Christ in holiness. The power of sin is being broken.

That process of sanctification, however, will end on the day we see Jesus and we are freed from this sinful world and our sinful flesh. That would be our complete and final sanctification, also known as our glorification. That’s the first part of Paul’s request.

And Paul reminds us that it is the work of the God of peace Himself. God Himself does this for His people. It’s part of His very nature to love and to save and to sanctify.

And what an amazing reminder it would be to the Thessalonians who came out of Greek paganism, which was filled with all kinds of gods who were volatile and finnicky and unpredictable. That is not our God.

All of humanity lies under God’s wrath because of our sin. God is a God of wrath in one sense. But God’s work in this world is to make peace with sinners. In eternity past, God ordained that there would be an undeserving, rebellious, vile, wicked mass of humanity. They would be God’s enemies, but He would make peace with them through His Son Jesus Christ. And then, as they walk with Him and live for His glory, He would also gift them His peace in their hearts.

So, no matter what happens in this life, no matter how assaulted we are by our own sin or by the hatred of this world, we know God has given us victory. And in that, we have true peace. He will sanctify us

The second part of Paul’s requests expands on the idea of completeness. Paul says—and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I think we all understand what our body is; that’s the physical part of who we are. But what about all the words that point to the non-physical aspect of who we are? What are those?

Let me tell you, do not get caught up in making too clear a distinction between these words. What you should mainly be thinking about is, “What is the biblical author trying to say?”

Is Paul trying to teach that human existence can only be broken down into these distinct categories? I don’t think so. What about in the Old Testament, when it says we should love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might? Is that another set of three? What about when Jesus added a fourth category in Luke 10? He said heart, soul, strength, and mind. Does that mean there are four categories?

If you do a Bible study on the various words for the non-physical aspects of man, you find that there is plenty of overlap between words like, soul, spirit, mind, strength, will, conscience, and heart. And sometimes they are being used in very precise way, like the spirit of living men vs the souls of those who have died, and other times they are simply being used in a generic way to talk about the entirety of a person.

So, when Acts 2 says that 3,000 souls were added to the church, we don’t have to think, “Oh no! What about the people’s bodies? Weren’t they saved too?”

Paul’s main point here is not to draw a clear distinction between three areas, it is to highlight the completeness of God’s work in your life. God is preserving and working on all of you.

It’s not just that your spirit is getting holier, but your body continues in sin. It’s all of you. His sanctifying work is affecting all of who you are—body, soul, mind, spirit, conscience, heart, whatever. It’s all affected by sin right now, but it is going to be presented blameless one day before the Lord.

So, our sanctification is guaranteed and it is complete; it is comprehensive. Every part of who you are, and it’s all affected by sin right now, is going to be redeemed, and that includes our relationships with one another.

Now, this brings up an interesting question. If this is something God has guaranteed, why is Paul expressing a prayer for it? Does that question make sense? If God has already promised us something, why is Paul praying for it?

Suppose my kids wake up in the morning and ask me to have pizza and ice cream for dinner that night. And suppose my response to them is, “Sure, that’s what we’ll do. I promise we will have pizza and ice cream for dinner.”

What happens if, throughout the day, my kids begin to ask me, “Dad, can we have pizza and ice cream for dinner tonight?” My natural response is not going to be fond of the question. Why not? Because the question seems to imply that my kids either have no ability to retain information, which I know is not the case, or they don’t trust the promise that I made to them, which might be understandable, but I don’t like it, or they are intentionally trying to annoy me, which then jeopardizes what I had promised them.

In that scenario, their repeated questions about dinner would give me the same feelings as the typical question on any unfamiliar drive longer than 10 minutes. “Are we there yet?” I think most of you parents can sympathize.

Well, what does it mean, then, that Paul is asking for something which God has already promised? What should we make of that?

If repeated requests from our children, about something we have already promised them, are met with our disapproval, wouldn’t this prayer be met with disapproval of our heavenly Father? What’s going on?

Well, God is not dishonored by this prayer. In fact, it pleases Him. We need to recognize that the Bible includes instructions and examples of prayer to God about things He has already promised.

For example, in Matthew 6 Jesus says to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and if you do that, God will provide your necessities, like food and water and clothing.

But in the very same chapter, Matthew 6, Jesus instructs His disciples how to pray, and in that sample prayer, He says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” So, God promises to provide, and yet Jesus instructs us to pray for provision.

I think that’s a good parallel here for Paul’s prayer, and it helps give us three important reminders about the Christian life. I’ll summarize them each into a single word.

The first word is perseverance. Perseverance. Yes, we know that God will preserve us, but we can never allow that truth to minimize our own work toward the goal. Yes, God will make sure we finish the race, but that doesn’t mean we can stop running.

Paul says we need to run the race in order to win. That’s from 1 Corinthians 9:24. At the end of his life, Paul also says: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. That’s 2 Timothy 4:7

Hebrews 12 says we need to run with endurance. We need to persevere. We need to exert ourselves.

The same man who wrote these glorious truths to the Thessalonians, also wrote the rest of the letter which is filled with instructions for how to please God and walk in His ways.

When Paul mentions the sanctification of our souls and our bodies, I think that would have spurred the Thessalonians in their own pursuit of holiness, and it should do the same for you and me.

The heart and the tone of Paul’s prayer reminds us that the sanctification of the church is not something he simply expects to happen all at once when Christ comes. There should be progress right now. God should be moving you in this direction.

If you have no desire to fight sin, if you don’t care to honor Christ and to love His people, it doesn’t matter what prayer you prayed or what aisle you walked down, you do not belong to God. If the direction of your life is not heavenly, you’re not going to heaven. But that can change if you will humble yourself and call out to God in mercy.

Now, in our zeal to walk in righteousness and to grow in holiness and purity, we need to remember a second word, and that is dependency. There needs to be perseverance, but there must also be dependency. Perseverance without dependency is a recipe for arrogance and self-righteousness.

Even though God promises final salvation, it is never something we should receive lightly. Salvation is not an airplane ticket you need to hold onto. It is a promise from the pilot and from the airline saying, “I will let you on this plane.”

In other words, the guarantee of your salvation doesn’t depend on you; it depends on the character and nature of God. And that is part of Paul’s reminder here.

In asking God that our sanctification would be complete one day, he is expressing dependency on God who will make it happen.

God saved us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God saved us, and He is the one who sustains us. And that is why, when Paul thinks back on his life, all his ministry, all his pains in ministry, all his progress in holiness, he doesn’t take the credit for himself, he gives all glory to God.

Listen to what he says at the end of Colossians 1—[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Yes, Paul persevered. There was sweat and blood and tears, but behind all that was the sustaining power of God. And so, when Paul calls on the Philippians to do the same, he says—Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

It is because God works in us that we are empowered to work for our progress in the faith. Let us persevere at all times, but always with dependency.

The final word I want to give you, and I’ll end with this, is encouragement. Encouragement. Paul’s prayer here at the end of the letter serves as an encouraging reminder to the church, and it’s a wonderful reminder we should be giving ourselves and to one another.

We see ourselves fail over and over again. We see brothers and sisters fail over and over. We see looming attacks from the world, and there may be a certain kind of anxiety or concern.

You might think things like: What if I don’t hold up? What if I fail? I just can’t get past this or that in my life! Or: I just don’t see how that brother is ever going to change! I just don’t see how my church is ever going to change! I just don’t see how my wife or my husband is ever going to change!

Away with that kind of thinking! The God of peace Himself will sanctify and preserve His people. And we need to remind one another about this regularly. God will sustain us.

That’s the point behind all those verses I shared with you at the beginning of the message. And I’ve got one more. In the closing verses of Jude’s letter, he writes this—Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Isn’t that a beautiful promise. We need to rest in that promise. We need to let it empower us in the race. God will present us blameless one day in Jesus Christ.

It’s like a father telling his little girl to hold his hand as they cross the street together. In obedience, she needs to hold his hand. But no matter what happens, that father knows he has an even greater responsibility to hold on to that little girl. Even when her grip softens, he clings to her.

How beautiful to know that our heavenly Father holds on to us. What an encouragement.

There is a hymn titled “He Will Hold Me Fast.” It was originally written over 100 years ago by a woman names Ada Habershon and was more recently updated musically by Matt Merker. I don’t usually read an entire song to you, but this time I will. It says this:

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast. When the tempter would prevail. He will hold me fast. I could never keep my hold through life's fearful path For my love is often cold. He must hold me fast.

Those He saves are His delight, Christ will hold me fast. Precious in His holy sight, He will hold me fast. He'll not let my soul be lost; His Promises shall last. Bought by Him at such a cost, He will hold me fast

And the final verse says this:

For my life He bled and died, Christ will hold me fast. Justice has been satisfied, He will hold me fast. Raised with Him to endless life, He will hold me fast. Till our faith is turned to sight, When He comes at last.

It’s a beautiful song, and it all points back to the absolute confidence of what Paul says in verse 24. It doesn't need much explanation, especially after all that we've seen—He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

That's not talking about the general evangelistic call; that's talking about God's saving call. He called you to Himself, and He will perfectly sanctify you. He has promised i; and He will be faithful to keep His promise. He will surely do it! What greater encouragement could there be to persevere and to depend on Him and trust in our Lord.

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