2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sermon Ideas For 1 Thess 5:16-24 Part 1


Paul's custom was to close his letters with words of exhortation and doxology. In 1 Thessalonians a bridge passage is inserted affirming that the God of peace assures the people of God of their sanctification at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The doctrine of Sanctification is among the most prominent, and disputed, elements of church teaching throughout history. Its significance derives from the conviction that all that is truly of God, including the people of God, partakes of God's own holiness (or sanctity) in some manner and measure. Disputes surround every attempt to specify in what sense the people of God can be rightly said to partake of God's own holiness, and when, and why—because of God's acts or because of theirs?

At its root, sanctification has to do with being set apart for, and hence set within, the sphere of the divine, the sacred. In the context of Hebrew and Israelite religion, this sphere came to be defined in terms not only of divine favor or favoritism but of God's moral righteousness, revealed in the law and the prophets. Thus the calling to be God's chosen people—the saints, the holy ones of the holy God—was at once a matter of amazing grace and awesome responsibility.

This sense of calling was embraced by the early church. Their sins forgiven by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the faithful are ever thereafter to live in loving obedience to the will of God. The relationship between these two aspects of the Christian life—sanctification as gift and as task—was by no means obvious, and so variously explained. The "orthodoxy" which emerged in early Christianity excluded as "heretical" claims that the church's holiness or sanctity rested upon the moral perfection of its every member, or even of its clergy.

Yet commonplace in early Christianity, East and West alike, were views making forgiveness (justification) and the empowering activity of the Spirit moments of an extended process of sanctification. God's grace initiates the life of faith, which is a path toward fulfillment in perfected love. This path is a walking with God in which the Spirit enables redoubled human efforts. Elaborations of this model of thinking in medieval Roman Catholicism so emphasized the obligation to make use of the sacaramental means of grace and to live virtuously that these "good works" along the road to sanctification could be taken for necessary preconditions as well as necessary outcomes of God's saving act in Jesus Christ.

This was certainly why Luther, Calvin, and many other Reformation protestants accused their home-church Roman Catholicism of "works righteousness." Luther's emphasis was that the Gospel was God's justification of sinners. The faithful are declared righteous and God's saints not because of any meritorious efforts or achievements of their own but because, by God's mercy, their sinfulness is covered by the perfect righteousness of Christ. Justification is by grace alone, received through faith—alone. Faith is itself not a human work at all, but an awareness of having been rescued from sin, including the sin of works-righteousness. This awareness, at the promptings of the Spirit, arouses the desire to be instruments of God's love, which expresses itself "freely" and spontaneously in human actions. Even so, the power of sin remains. And remaining, too, is the fact that the "goodness" of the works performed by God's saints is ultimately a value-judgment that God rather than humans makes.

The terminology and certain key features of Luther's views were taken over by others of his protestant contemporaries. Calvin was as emphatic as Luther with regard to justification by grace through faith. He too based the hope and assurance of salvation solely upon God's mercy toward sinners, as revealed in Jesus Christ. Christians are righteous, accounted as saints, not by their own merits but by Christ's ministry. Yet Calvin and his Reformed-church associates distinguished themselves from Lutheran tradition by stressing that justification is the beginning of a regeneration of the heart. The desire to declare the love of God that is born of genuine faith will inevitably express itself in actions conformed to God's will. By what is called "the third use of law," the moral commands of Scripture give direction to the Christian life, as well as identifiable form and content. These works of obedience are undertaken not in order to earn salvation but to proclaim the life-transforming effects of grace, to the greater glory of God.

The practical impact of these emphases is seen in both the "worldly asceticism" and the "social activism" of the Reformed churches. The most masterful of their theologians—one thinks, e.g., of Karl Barth in this century—go to lengths to hold together in proper measure the diverse and tensive themes of justification and sanctification, grace and sin, faith and works, and invisible and visible saintliness. The objective (divine) and subjective (human) sides are to be united in a complex, balanced whole.

Whether some such "balance" is right, and if so, rightly struck, has been a point of contention in Protestantism. Among the "radicals" of the Reformation were those insistent upon a church of demonstrably spotless purity. Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries uplifted the ideal of "visible sainthood." A century later, amidst a great pietistic evangelical revival, Wesley and the Methodists promoted a highly disciplined "striving for perfection." So, too, did its nineteenth-century offshoot, the Holiness movement.

It is understandable that so many Christians have so often advised that Sanctification must be thought of as a paradox, at once a gift and a mandate. Hence Paul's bridge passage is especially relevant. "God's saints" at Thessalonica are exhorted to become who and what they already are. But they are also reminded that it is not their faithfulness but that of the one who has called them that assures their sanctification.

James O. Duke