1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (1Thessalonians 4:1-8 NASB; 1995 update)
I suppose it is not good blogging form to begin a post with an extended block quote, but I have done it, and, since I expect many of my posts to be observations on Scripture I will do it again.
This very short passage is rich with observations and implications. First, Paul’s evangelistic ministry included moral instruction, demands and prohibitions, “how you ought to walk,” even “commandments” (v. 2). Even though Paul says in First Corinthians that he resolved only to preach the word of the cross and that the essence of the gospel consists of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we know from this passage as well as his other epistles that his preaching included instruction about doing good and evil.
This is very different from the kind of preaching the Puritans practiced and many more recent preachers who consciously follow(ed) their example. These men preached the Law, the Old Testament moral law, as part of their evangelistic ministry to get humans lost in order to get them saved. Most human beings simply do not know they are lost. Pressing the demands of the moral law, especially as summarized in the Ten Commandments. on the consciences of listeners is the best way to give them an acute awareness of their lost condition before a holy God.
But, this is not the moral instruction Paul preached, not demands that have a temporary use in driving his listeners to Christ, but descriptions of the moral behavior and desires that his listeners are to display as Christians. The prohibition of coveting in the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount teach us that God has the right to demand proper inward mental states, desires as well as behaviors.
Second, God’s will is our holiness and He provides us the Holy Spirit to achieve that holiness. Otherwise, if it is not the Holy Spirit’s charge to make us holy, then the last two verses of this passage do not make sense.
7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity but in sanctification [holiness]. 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
Paul often uses that little phrase “the God who” to draw our attention to that attribute or activity of God that is most immediately relevant to his readers at the moment, in the case that He gives us His Holy Spirit to make us holy. It’s also no accident that Paul calls Him the “Holy Spirit” rather than just the “Spirit” as he so often does in other places. The Spirit has a holiness that can be communicated to us. If it is God’s intent that we come to share His holiness (Heb 12:10), He has not left us on our own to achieve it. Besides the intercession of Christ, the promises and warnings of Scripture, the fellowship of believers, He has given us the indwelling presence of the Spirit who is Himself holy.
Third, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit is entirely compatible with lists of dos and donts, This simply follows from the first two points. Following the leading of the Holy Spirit is not a matter of inward intuition but obedience to moral instruction and commandment. Some of the preachers, such as the Puritans I mentioned in the previous paragraph, believe that the content of this moral instruction is the same set of Ten Commandments used in evangelistic preaching now put to a different use. But the instruction Paul alludes to in his other epistles often do include the Ten Commandments but is often much broader and more detailed; for example, the length of men’s hair.
Fourth, much of our holiness has to do with sex: our sexual attitudes and practices. In fact, our sexual practices is a primary distinction between us and those “who do not know God.” It is a major difference between believers and unbelievers. I don’t believe this has always been emphasized as much as it should be nor as radically as it should.
I became a Christian in 1973, well after the peak of the sexual revolution. There wasn’t even much evidence of it on my secular campus, except for the short, skinny guy with hair down to the middle of his back who never went anywhere on campus without both of his incredibly attractive girlfriends. They let everyone know they were a threesome and were open to a larger polyamory situation. The Christians’ belated response to the upheaval of the ’60s was something to the effect “we like sex too–within marriage!” Our rallying cry was “sex was God’s idea!” As late as the late ’70s, early ’80s, Christians were still following the lead of the culture at large by publishing a Christian version of The Joy of Sex, an American Kama Sutra. The book had some good introductory exercises to break down some of the inhibitions of a shy, reserved couple, but it had the same underlying presupposition of the secular books of the time: sexual pleasure was a matter of technique rather than the result of the life-long commitment to a single partner in a marital relationship. Christians have spent far too much time trying to prove to the world that we are not repressed sexually to notice that many of the passages about sanctification, holiness, in the New Testament really do have to do with sex.
Fifth, the honorable and the holy in sex are closely related. Paul and other biblical authors sometimes use the cluster of words such as “honor,” “dishonor,” “shame,” “shameless” with regard to sexual behavior. For example, “Therefore, God gave them over in the lust of their hearts to impurity, so that there bodies would be dishonored among them,” “. . . men with men committing the shameless deed,” “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” But Paul’s statement in vv. 4 and 5 is almost shocking.
4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.
I believe that the variety of English translations of the phrase translated here “possess his own vessel” and “acquire his own wife” in the margin is simply an indication of Paul’s use of euphemistic language. He is referring to handling the male sexual organ. This verse then takes on an extraordinary meaning; namely, that it is possible for a man to handle his male organ with honor or dishonorably, and that to be driven by lustful passion is to handle it dishonorably, that is, without exercising self-control. So. the implications for the Christian husband is that there are certain sexual practices that are honorable and others that are not. It is not the case that the Christian couple is free to do anything that any other couple does except within the confines of marriage. A Christian’s sexual practices are to be honorable. I’m not about to spell out what I think that means, but I do believe it means refraining from any practices that may be demeaning to your partner or might make her feel uncomfortable no matter how much pleasure it may give you. Your identity as one who knows God is at stake.