Pastor Kyle McIver
Holiness in our lives is becoming who we already are in Christ. Holiness flows out of an identity given to us God.
A few months ago my wife Allie and I watched the Lion King together with our kids for the first time. Now I hadn’t seen this movie for probably 15 years or more, but it’s a movie that remains very popular 25 years after it was released, and for good reason. It’s a fun story with great music and enjoyable characters.
And as I watched it again, I found myself drawn to Simba’s storyline, his progression from a young lion cub to finally asserting himself as King and restoring the pride lands their former glory by defeating Scar and his minions. Now I certainly wouldn’t recommend Lion King as a theologically sound movie full of biblical principles. But there are a couple lines in the movie that get so very close to a profound truth. In Simba’s progression from lion cub to King, he, like many young people, struggles to grasp the nature of his position and the responsibility before him. Nala at one point asks, “Why won’t he be the king I know he is? The king I see inside?”
In one of the climactic moments of his journey toward kingship, Simba encounters his father, speaking to him from the clouds, who says to him “You have forgotten who you are… you are more than who you have become… remember who you are - you are my son and the one true king… remember who you are… remember.” The truth that Mufasa hits on in this moment with Simba is identity. Simba needs to take responsibility, return to his kingdom, and take up the mantle of king. And his father points to his identity as his son in order to make this point. In essence, the message is: become who you already are. And that is such an apt summary of how Christian holiness works. The main point of our passage tonight is holiness. And as we’ll see in our text, holiness in our lives is becoming who we already are in Christ. Holiness flows out of an identity given to us God.
So here’s where we’re going tonight. We’re going to walk through these eight verses under two main headings: holiness in broad terms, and holiness applied specifically to sexuality. In looking broadly at holiness, we’ll see that this text answers three questions for us:
What is holiness?
Why does it matter?
How is it accomplished?
Once we’ve laid that foundation, we’ll walk through how holiness is applied in this text to sexuality.
Go ahead and look with me at verse 1: Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. First thing to notice here is the tone with which this passage opens. Even though we see “finally” in verse one, there’s still quite a bit of letter left. Yes, Paul is transitioning toward the end of the letter, but there’s also an element of importance here. In essence, this is a “lean in and listen up - you don’t want to miss this.” And this emphasis is further reinforced by the phrase “we ask and urge you.” It’s somewhat redundant to ask and then urge someone to do something, but it does help emphasize a point. To use a much less serious example, I find myself asking and urging my kids to get their shoes on every morning before school. I ask them to do it, then I look at the clock, and then I urge them to do it right away so we won’t be late!
So the goal in this repetition is to set the tone in this text as urgent and pressing. And now that Paul has our attention, he jumps right into holiness. We see this a few different ways in verses 1-2. Listen to this again: “...we ask and urge you that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” Now - I omitted something when I read verse one that time. I left out four words: “in the Lord Jesus”. It still made sense though, didn’t it? Grammatically speaking, it’s a coherent sentence. But if you gloss over those four words, in the Lord Jesus, holiness isn’t going to make sense. Whatever it is that you think holiness in your life looks like, you’ll miss it if it is not deeply rooted in your union with Jesus Christ.
Now to see why this is true, we need to step back a little to make sure we have the right starting point in talking about holiness. Long before holy describes you or me, it describes God. Or maybe a better way to say it would that it defines who God is. If you gave me one word to answer the question: “what is God like?” I would say that he is holy. God’s holiness is foundational to who he is and it shapes all of his other attributes. Holiness belongs to God. So if we are to rightly understand what it means for us to be holy, as this text is going to charge us to do, we have to understand that holiness belongs to God, and that it is given to us by God. And that’s why that short phrase “in the Lord Jesus” is so, so important.
“In the Lord Jesus” is how God shares his holiness with us. And this ought to astound us. God’s holiness is objective - he is holy. Period. Full stop. Now, what happens when holiness meets sin, rebellion, and treason? Conflict. Sin is opposition to God’s holiness. We’re really talking about the story of all human history here. God created everything, and as the pinnacle of that creation, he made human beings, male and female, in his own image. God intended to share himself in all of his holiness with us. And it was wonderful! For two out of the 1,189 chapters in the Bible. What happens in the third chapter? Sin enters the world. The conflict begins. Humanity disobeys God and in so doing declares war on his holiness and his right to rule.
So at this point, holiness doesn’t seem to be on our side… God in his holiness hates sin, and sin is opposition to God’s holiness and authority - that is the conflict. And yet God surprises us by promising to defeat sin in a way that saves sinners. That is the driving storyline of all human history! God creates, we sin, God promises salvation, God delivers on that salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And the result of that salvation is that we share in God’s holiness. We get to be near him. We get to experience his presence. We get to have fellowship with him and enjoy him. And this is true now, and it will become even more true in the age to come when we realize the fullness of God’s promise to share his holiness and presence with us for all of eternity.
Now back to 1 Thessalonians 4. We’re going to see a very clear connection between God’s holiness and ours - and the starting point for us as Christians is the phrase we already mentioned, “in the Lord Jesus”, which is shorthand for our union with Jesus. When we put our trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the fulfillment of all God’s promises, we are united with him, we become part of his body. And this union is how God shares his holiness with us. But there’s more as we look further in our passage. Listen to verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification. And also verse 7: For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Those are very clear, very direct statements. God’s will is your sanctification, your holiness. God called you in holiness, not for impurity.
Now there is a kind of triple meaning when we talk about the Christian being holy, and this is so important. My guess is that when many of us hear a call to be holy, we hear a call to obey God’s commands. And that is true - that is one part of this triple meaning when it comes to the Christian’s holiness. But there’s more, and there is a certain order to our holiness though - one aspect always comes first: the holiness which you already possess because you are united to Jesus by faith. In Christ you are set apart, you are holy. You have come to share in his holiness. This is objectively true about everyone who puts their faith in him. And the reason I say that this comes first is that we are given this holiness the moment we repent and believe in the gospel. Objectively speaking, we are holy because we are united to Jesus Christ - he is our holiness. That’s where we all start.
The other two aspects of our holiness function differently in the sense that they are progressive. Union with Christ is an objective, unchanging fact. These other two elements are different in that we are growing in them. The second aspect then, is that as we walk with Jesus, as we hear his voice in his Word and have his ear in prayer, as we enjoy fellowship with him, he is sharing his holiness with us. He is changing our hearts, reorienting our affections, and renovating us from the inside out. We are changed by being in close proximity to Jesus. His character begins to rub off on us. We start to think and act and feel more like Jesus does, because he is sharing his holiness with us. That’s the second aspect - that in fellowship and communion with Jesus, he shares more and more of his holiness and character with us so that we are being transformed into his likeness.
And the last part of this triple meaning is the sense in which we become holy in visible, demonstrated maturity. We walk in the way Jesus walked. We imitate those who imitate Jesus. We bear the fruit of the Spirit in demonstrated holiness that is visible for all the world to see. This is Christian maturity.
But we can’t get there outside of being set apart, made holy, by way of being united with Jesus. We also can’t get there without Jesus sharing more and more of his own holiness with us as we are being transformed by beholding his glory and walking in relationship with him. And then the natural fruit of these first two elements is that we begin walking more and more in demonstrated, visible holiness.
So three parts:
We are holy by nature of being united to Jesus.
We come to share more of his holiness as we enjoy communion and relationship with him.
And we grow in demonstrated holiness by bearing the fruit of good works, by obeying God’s commands.
These elements come straight out of our text. We are “in the Lord Jesus”, meaning we are holy because we are in him. Jesus continues to bestow his own holiness upon his people, that is our sanctification, as you see in verse three. And we grow in demonstrated holiness by walking the way we ought to walk, by pleasing God, by doing this more and more.
In all of this, we’ve answered our three questions looking at holiness as a broad category.
What is holiness? Holiness belongs to God and best defines who he is.
Why does holiness matter? Because God has made us in his image and called us in holiness - we were saved so that we would be holy.
How is holiness accomplished? In three parts - we are made holy by being united to Jesus. Jesus shares more and more of his holiness with us as we enjoy communion and fellowship with him, and then we grow in demonstrated holiness by walking and pleasing God in the ways he commands.
Now we’re going to follow the text and focus holiness on sex: sexual immorality, sexual holiness, and honoring God with our bodies.
Look at 4:3 with me: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality… After laying the foundations of holiness, the first specific instruction we hear is that we need to abstain from sexual immorality. Now that’s a bit of a loaded phrase, isn’t it? Abstain from sexual immorality? Even here, we see how the Bible assumes that there is right and wrong when it comes to sex and the way we use our bodies. Do you see that? The term “sexual immorality” can’t be used apart from a clear right and wrong when it comes to sex.
Now that might seem obvious to many of you, but that is not an assumption that everyone we interact with today shares. And not only that, but it is certainly not a message many want to hear. Throughout all history, sex has been one of the chief idols of the human heart. Many have elevated sex and sexual pleasure as their highest good and greatest pursuit, and in so doing trampled God’s law to their own harm.
So there is in fact a standard of holiness when it comes to sex. And we can further clarify that standard and the definition of sexual immorality by looking at 4:5, which is speaking about the way we use our bodies, and tells us to use them: not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God… So we know there is right and wrong when it comes to sex, and verse 5 gives us the proper frame of reference - those who are sexually immoral in the way they use their bodies are like the Gentiles who do not know God… Knowing God is the starting point for abstaining from sexual immorality and honoring God with our bodies - this makes so much sense when we put it in the context of holiness, doesn’t it? Holiness belongs to God, is shared with us as we walk with him, and the fruit of God sharing his own holiness with us is obedience and a life pleasing to God. It’s not surprising then that people who dishonor God with their bodies are described as those who do not know him.
God has spoken very clearly about sex in his word. The simple summary of Biblical teaching is that sex is good, and ought to be enjoyed and celebrated within the confines of marriage - marriage of course being defined as one man and one woman. Within marriage there is great freedom for a couple to enjoy sex. Once you step outside of this context however, all other forms of sexual activity fall under the category of sexual immorality.
That’s the prohibition here - avoid all sexual activity outside the confines of marriage. But we don’t only get a prohibition, a “you shall not” in our passage, we also get a positive command, a “you shall”, which is verse 4: that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor. God calls us to possess our bodies in a way that honors him. He calls us to live in holiness. And here in verse 4, that means self-control, knowing how to control our own bodies.
Now there are a couple things we must understand in order to be self-controlled in a way that pleases God. First, we have to know God’s law, because self-control isn’t arbitrary. We don’t get to choose our own standard, adhere to it, and imagine that we are pleasing God by our supposed self-control. God has given us the standard in his Word and calls us to humbly submit ourselves to his authority. That is where true self-control starts. And that is why the comparison in this passage makes so much sense. The contrast between controlling our bodies in holiness and honor on the one hand, and those who live in the passion of lust on the other hand. Humbling ourselves under God’s authority means the right recognition that God makes the rules, not us. That God is the good and wise creator, and that we are his creatures who were given a specific calling and purpose within his created order. Without this starting point, we won’t get self-control right because we may well be giving ourselves to the wrong standard.
For example, an unmarried person might say they’ve never had sex and therefore are obeying God’s law when it comes to their bodies. But if they are routinely giving themselves to pornography and pursuing sexual pleasure in isolation, then they are not controlling their bodies in holiness and honor. Or another example we hear all over the place today is the standard of consent. They say: “two consenting adults can do whatever they want! It’s not hurting anyone else!” But does consent equal morality? Not even close. Two people consenting to sin together doesn’t make it any less of a sin for either one of them, because consent isn’t the standard. So in all of this we see that self-control and sexual holiness is not arbitrary - it is bound to God’s revealed will. And verse 8 drives this home for us: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Any attempt to argue with God or justify actions contrary to his purpose for sex is nothing less than disregard for God, who gives the Holy Spirit to us.
Now once a person has the right standard, once they’ve come to understand God’s revealed will, self-control paves the way for obedience. Self-control is the key which unlocks the door to a life of glad obedience. Built on the firm foundation of God’s revealed will, self-control gives us the capacity to walk in God’s ways. Think about it - how many men and women know God’s will for sex, but walk contrary to it? The missing link between knowledge and obedience is self-control.
We are creatures of desire. We do what we do because we want to do it. Our desires determine the direction of our lives, the decisions we make. And our text is very clear about this. Look again at the description of those who walk in sexual immorality: they are driven by the passion of lust. That phrase, “the passion of lust” describes an intense desire which drives your behavior. Lust is in the driver’s seat, desire gets out of control, and that person goes head first into the sin of sexual immorality. Self-control on the other hand is a developed character quality in which by God’s grace, we regain control of ourselves in areas where sin once reigned and we obeyed its passions. Where sin once reigned and made you it's slave, God now progressively restores control of you to you.
So now we’ve touched on almost every part of this passage, and at this point I want to shift toward application. I want to do this a little differently though - I’m going to make a series of appeals to you toward the end that you would hear, take to heart, and walk in obedience when it comes to controlling your body in holiness and honor.
So first appeal: recognize the relevance of this passage to your life. Sexual sin is one of the most rampant and destructive issues facing the church today. It is pervasive in our culture and particularly dangerous because of its addictive nature. So whether or not you feel this is urgent to you right now, I echo Paul’s statement opening this passage in “asking and urging” you to take this seriously. In 4:6 we read “the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.” We must be sober minded about this issue.
Second appeal: holiness in this area of your life is about much more than you. Look at the first part of verse 6, in speaking about how we use our bodies, which says: that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter… Now some commentators think this means sinning against someone by committing sexual sin with them. And that’s certainly true. But I think this applies even more broadly than that, because these kinds of sins are not merely about you. It starts with you - but we also need to be very much aware that what we do - whether in private or public - is going to impact other people. This manifests in several ways:
First, sexual sin inevitably dehumanizes other people. When you begin to look at other people made in God’s image as mere objects for self-gratification, you’re treating them really as sub-human. You’re robbing them of the dignity and worth God gave them, which is a great sin against them and a great sin against God.
You diminish your own capacity to love and serve other people. If you are violating your conscience in this area and sinning both against God and other people, your love toward others will begin to grow cold. Sexual sin brings with it the heavy chains of guilt and shame, both of which devastate your joy and diminish your fruitfulness as a Christian. In this way sexual sin is profoundly selfish.
Sexual sin is also about much more than you in that as a Christian, your actions bear the name of Jesus and of his church - even in particular this church if you are a member here. Individual lives and actions reflect corporately on the people of God. We are all in this together in the work to bear witness to the world of the resurrection of Jesus. And that witness is damaged when sin of this nature gets out of control.
So sexual sin is about much more than just you.
Third appeal: Obedience with your body is not only possible, it has been purchased. God demands obedience from his people - he demands it. And one of the beauty’s of grace is that God supplies what he demands. This is central to the gospel itself! God demands justice, sin requires punishment. And God himself in the person and work of Jesus supplied what God demanded. He is the sacrifice for sin satisfying the justice of God on our behalf!
And this is the same way the gospel works in your life once you repent and believe. God demands obedience from his people, he supplies all we need to make that obedience a reality. Think about the three aspects of holiness we looked at:
We are holy by nature of our union with Christ. Jesus shares his own holiness with us as we enjoy fellowship and communion with him. And we grow in demonstrated holiness as we benefit from his holiness and walk by faith in his promises.
So if you find yourself tonight caught in the snare of sexual sin, know that everything you need to repent and walk in obedience has been purchased by the blood of Christ. You lack none of the necessary resources in this fight! God supplies what he demands.
Fourth appeal: and this is really a continuation of the previous appeal for obedience. I mentioned a few minutes ago that sins of this nature bring with it the devastating chains of guilt and shame. If you have ever been stuck in sexual sin, or if you are right now, you know the suffocating presence of guilt and shame in your life. And you need to know how to deal with them. Nothing saps your desire for obedience like the oppressive weights of guilt and shame.
Guilt recognizes that you’ve broken God’s law, that you’ve fallen short, that sin deserves punishment. Shame recognizes that because of the sins you’ve committed, you’ve made yourself unclean. You carry the taint of sin, the filthiness of its effects on your soul.
And the crushing weight of guilt and shame causes you to retreat into yourself. You are in fact more likely to continue in sin as long as guilt and shame reign in your heart, because they bring no power to change, no lasting motivation for holiness. They push you further and further down into sin.
So what do you do with guilt and shame? How do you break free from these chains and the cycle of sin, guilt, shame, sin, guilt, shame, and more sin, guilt, and shame? God provides what he demands for obedience, and has made provision for overcoming these two great enemies of our obedience.
First, guilt. Guilt will crush you apart from forgiveness. Yet guilt is in fact an appropriate response to sin - when we transgress God’s law, we should feel guilty. It is the first response of a functioning conscience. But what you do next makes all the difference for your obedience and joy. If guilt forces you to retreat, to wallow in your guilt, to medicate your guilt with more sin in search of temporary relief, then guilt will dominate your life and suffocate any hope of happiness. This response to guilt happens when we don’t take up the gospel and walk in the biblical path to forgiveness. Jesus has purchased your forgiveness. Jesus in fact loves people who commit sexual sins! Jesus’s grace abounds to sexual sinners! But guilt, unchecked, propels you away from God. Think of Adam and Eve - the first thing they did when they realized their guilt was to run away. But I want to exhort you tonight to make guilt your servant by running to God for full forgiveness, rather than letting it drive you away from him. Guilt moves you in one direction or the other - grab hold of God’s grace and let guilt drive you toward forgiveness.
Shame is similar to guilt, and manifests mainly in isolation and hiding. Shame causes you to retreat inward, shut down, and hide from God and from other people. Think again back to Adam and Eve. What did they do after they ran? They hid. Guilt causes us to run, shame causes us to hide. And this is where sanctification, holiness, is profoundly good news. We are first and foremost holy because of our union with Jesus. Sin does not undo the holiness you possess in Him. Your union with Jesus is the truest and most stable identity that you have. Greater than the presence of sin in your life is the reality of Jesus’s holiness, which is yours in him. We are holy in him even though we continue to commit sins! So with this as your starting point, your foundation, shame cannot dominate your life. Rather than letting shame suffocate you, turn the tables, and drown your shame in the bottomless depths of God’s mercy flowing to you from the holiness which is yours by nature of your unbreakable union with Jesus Christ by faith! Holiness, both given by Jesus and progressively demonstrated in our lives, disarms and defeats shame.
Fifth and final appeal: don’t attempt to deal with this sin, with this guilt and shame, on your own. In isolation, you are vulnerable. Lies gain traction in your heart much more easily when guilt and shame have pushed you into isolation. But the liberating truths of forgiveness and holiness resound with much greater power in our lives when we hear them from others. It is so easy in our hidden thoughts to diminish grace and magnify our sin. Your brothers and sisters in Christ however can preach the truth to your soul and cut through your cluttered thoughts with the clarity given in the gospel. You need this. You need it.
This church is a safe place to confess your sins. The lies of guilt and shame will scream that you’ll be ostracized, embarrassed, and cast out if you confess any kind of sexual sin. That is a lie. God has called you for holiness. And the wrong response to that is to think: I’m not holy… I’ve failed… Am I even a Christian? And then descend into guilt, shame, isolation, and apathy.
Don’t allow guilt and shame to bully you that way.
I can speak confidently on behalf of the pastors of this church that we would rejoice to have someone confess this sin - not rejoicing in the sin itself, but rejoicing in the step toward repentance. Heaven rejoices when sinners repent, and so do God’s people. If that’s you tonight, confess your sins. Together, we can walk in the freedom of forgiveness and the joy of holiness, because God delights to provide everything that we need.
And this brings us to the table. This table, this meal, is God’s provision for your needs. When we eat and drink together, we remember that Jesus supplied the sacrifice that your sin requires. We celebrate that Jesus has promised to be with us, to return for us, and to one day fully liberate us from the power of sin. And in eating and drinking together, we remember that until he comes, his grace is sufficient, and his promises power enough for us to walk in holiness, obedience, and joy.