“Now may God Himself sanctify you completely” – 1 Thessalonians 5:23a
Do you feel empty? Feel as though something is missing? Maybe you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. Maybe you’ve pretty much reached your life goals and still, unexpectedly, there’s an emptiness. Why is that? Are you a Christian? You’ve turned your life over to Jesus as Savior and Lord but still, persistently, there seems to be an ongoing battle within. Do you feel weak spiritually? Are you wondering what next? What does the Lord want to do in my life? The answer to these questions can be summed up with the words Complete Sanctification! God wants to do a deep and complete work in you. He takes the willing surrendered heart and works a miracle in it.
The last chapter of 1 Thessalonians is filled with a series of exhortations on how to be ready for the Lord’s return. This series of exhortations are a rallying cry for all believers. They crescendo in verses 23 and 24. In these two verses Paul punctuates his list of exhortations with some affirming encouraging words: “23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.” This is Paul’s benediction and prayer. It is his expression of what he hopes to happen in the lives of the Thessalonians. He expresses this hope with the words, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely . . . .” The term “sanctify” (Greek hagiadzo) means to consecrate, set apart for God’s use, purify, or sanctify. The term “sanctify” interestingly, is grammatically in what is called the optative mood. The optative mood is used to express a very strong desire for something to come to pass. This is a rare grammatical form used to incorporate a possibility for something to come to pass but with doubt that it will.
In Romans 6 Paul uses the optative mood when considering the possibility that the Christians at the church in Rome would indulge in sin and abuse the grace of God. His response “Certainly not!” is in the optative mood and addresses his hope and desire that no one would entertain and indulge in such an abuse of God’s grace. Grace is not license to sin. We are not free to sin, but are made free from having to sin.
Furthermore, Paul uses the optative in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 to express a situation in which a decision needs to be made, one in which it was possible to not be sanctified entirely by God or to surrender to God to be sanctified through and through. The word “complete” (Greek holoteles) means complete to the end, entirely, perfectly, absolutely perfect, or wholly. Paul’s desire is for a complete and total sanctification. This is God’s will for us as well.
Paul elaborates on the idea of complete or entire sanctification by adding the particulars of, “and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Human beings are a trichotomy; a threefold or three part being. In order to be whole, each segment of this threefold human makeup must be brought under the lordship of the Lord. Otherwise, no matter what human effort is made to complete and fulfill one or all of these three segments will only end in frustration and emptiness. To illustrate this it’s helpful to picture our human makeup as consisting of three compartments.
Compartment #1 – the spirit. The word “spirit” (Greek pnuema) refers to that part of us that is eternal and suited for spiritual life; eternal life. We are born dead in spirit (c.f. Eph. 2:1ff). We are born with our spirit empty. Sin has locked the door of this compartment of the human spirit. With this compartment closed off by sin, the human being will yearningly search for fulfillment of this are of their life. It is the nature of the spirit to worship. Therefore many search out worship oriented experiences to fill this void. Without the Spirit, humanity gropes around in darkness for fulfillment of the spirit part of their being. People almost subconsciously attend arenas where there is unity of worship-like responses. Sporting events, concerts, movies, where crowds join in cheers. I believe are oftentimes the product of the unsaved seeking subconsciously to fulfill their empty spirits.
God is merciful and is always seeking to get through to the unsaved spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts the empty spirit of humanity of their sin, unrighteousness, and pending judgment (John 16-11). By God’s gracious conviction of sin and drawing us to Himself we can receive forgiveness for our sin which lead to physical and eternal death (Rom. 6:23). All we need do is receive Jesus as Savior by faith; request and receive forgiveness of our sins from God through faith in Jesus (Acts 13:38-39; 26:18). When we trust in Jesus as Savior believing in God’s just and holy plan of redemption for sin through the atoning death of Christ on the cross, and then ask God’s forgiveness based on Christ’s redemptive cross work, God not only forgives our sin, but regenerates us giving us spiritual life through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus referred to as being “born again” (John 3). Without this spiritual second birth we remain empty and incapable of having an eternal saving personal spiritual relationship with God (Romans 8:9-10). But with this regeneration and indwelling by the Spirit, the Lord gives us an incredible eye-opening worldview of His eternal purposes (1 Cor. 2:9-14).
Once you’ve been born again and have the Holy Spirit indwelling you, there is a holy work He desires to do in and through you. For some it takes time to recognize the distinction between following and serving the Lord in mere human effort as opposed to following and serving the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples had walked with Jesus for three full years; seen Him feed thousands on mere morsels; seen Him walk on water, still storms, heal the lame, even raise the dead; and still Jesus instructed them that they weren’t ready to go out to spread the gospel. Jesus had breathed on them telling them to “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). The disciples had been born again and indwelled by the Spirit. But Jesus said they still required one thing before they were suited to go out in His name. They needed the Promise of the Father; the baptism with the Holy Spirit. It was only then that they would be ready to minister effectively (Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2). The same is true for us. Sanctification will lead us to the baptism with the Holy Spirit; empowerment for service. This is essential for ministry.
Complete sanctification involves making us aware of and cleansing us from the crutches of self that we try to rely on in ministry. Sanctification is God’s cleansing us from self-reliance and illuminating us concerning our need to rely on His power to serve. Sanctification in our spirit will lead to fulfilling us in His love (Rom. 5:5). It will lead to an overflowing love that will compel our every move (2 Cor. 5:14). And this will lead to victorious love since “love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).
Compartment #2 – the soul. The “soul” (Greek pseuche) is synonymous with the mind. This is where we think and reason. The soul is closely tied to the “heart.” Our heart and conscience are spoken of nearly synonymously – “who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:15). The “heart” (Greek kardia) is the place of decision. Decision is the product of going through our mind, reasoning to some degree, and then choosing to accept or reject the overtures of the Lord, His word, His gospel. The heart is prone to wickedness from birth (Gen. 8:21). While it is difficult to discern the contents of a person’s heart, and we can only hope to know a very small tip of the unsaved iceberg of a heart, Jesus said that the heart’s condition is exposed by our words (Mat. 12:34; 15:18). That is why what we say is so important and that we will give account for what we say one day (cf. also James 3:2-12).
Our mind is bent on selfishness and sin. When we receive Jesus as Savior and are born again the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit begins the sanctifying work of transforming and renewing our mind (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23). There is a right way and a wrong way to think. We are to think like Jesus with a holy influence (cf. Phil. 2:1f.; 4:8-9). This leads to inner peace. This is part of the sanctifying work of God in us. We will only come to the palace of clarity of purpose and meaning when we come to God for compete sanctification.
We are born with a sinful deceitfully inclined heart or mind (Jer. 17:9-10). God alone knows our heart and mind. We can be deceived by our own heart or mind (1 John 1:8, 10). The devil deceives and blinds us by shooting fiery arrows of wrong thoughts and deceit (2 Cor. 4:4). God’s word is the Spirit’s means to help us get our minds aligned right (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God is a mirror that helps us know the truth about ourselves, others and the world around us (cf. James 1:22-25). The salvation decision introduces us to a sanctifying process which involves a life in which the Holy Spirit uses God’s word to transform our thinking from a worldly sinful rebellion against God kind of world view to a loving fully surrendered and sanctified by God and scripture oriented world view.
Compartment #3 – the body. Lastly Paul mentions the sanctification of our “body” (Greek soma). When we run the flag of surrender up and receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, we give up our rights. We are no longer our own, we have been bought with the precious blood of Jesus. This involves understanding our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit who indwells us (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19-20). As stewards of these physical bodies, with God as the Owner, we should be seeking His will in what we do with them. There are some questions that we should ask that maybe we have taken for granted or overlooked in regard to our body: “Lord, what would you have me put into my body?” Steroids? Hallucinogens? Anti-depressants? Junk food? “Lord, is it Your will for me to pierce my body?” “Lord, what do You think about me indelibly marking my body? It is Your body. You indwell me with Your holy presence. I want to honor You with this temple.” Do you ask such questions? If I were to come to your house tonight and paint in bright yellow the words, “Pastor Claude loves you!” Those would be very loving words and meant to communicate a sincere message, but would they be welcomed by you? I doubt it. Similarly, there are many things we do with our body that perhaps wouldn’t please God. Perhaps we’ve acted presumptuously.
Some people make their body a god. They worship their body. They are meticulous about what they put into it and how it looks. But they never ask God what His will with their body. Some disregard any care at all for their body as though this was a sign of their spiritual maturity. They say, “God doesn’t care about my body.” Not so! He wants to sanctify your body! Ask Him how He wants to fulfill His sanctifying process with your body. As we learned earlier in 1 Thessalonians 4, we need to not use our physical bodies to gratify fleshly immoral and sinful pleasures, but use our bodies for the glory of God. This is the objective of God with our body.
And all this we should do to “be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word “preserved” (Greek tayreo) means to guard from loss or injury by vigilance, to watch so as to keep something from escaping, to maintain, to fulfill a command, to hold fast, keep, watch or preserve. Again Paul expresses his wishful desire through the use of the optative mood in the grammar. The term “blameless” (Greek amemptoce) means faultlessly, without blame, unblameable, blameless.
Paul’s desire is that the Thessalonians guard all the blessed spiritual treasure with which God has blessed them so that when Jesus returns, they will not be ashamed because of the guilt of sin such as the issue of not loving enemies or immorality mentioned earlier in his letter. Paul hopes for a deep, complete, and thorough sanctifying work of God in the lives of the Thessalonians. This should not be taken to imply a sinless perfection. John speaks of a sin not leading to death (1 John 5:16-17). There are situation where deep rooted or particularly difficult sins to overcome are only sanctified through a progressive struggle and battle in the power of the Spirit.
There is an initial sanctification that occurs when we first accept Jesus as Savior and are born again. Then there is an ongoing sanctifying process that continues through our lives as God works in our heart and mind to renew us. Finally, upon passing from this life to the next there is a glorification perfection of sanctification when we will be given new eternal bodies that are perfectly suited for an eternal environment in heaven.
Lastly, the term “preserved” is in what is called the passive mood. In the grammar of the Greek this means that such a preservation is a work done on a person from outside forces. In other words, it is God who does this work (e.g. Phil. 2:12-13). That is why Paul follows this benediction with the encouraging reminder, “He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.” Sanctification is not something we do; it is something we trust God to do in us. Let’s not forget that the beginning of this benediction is, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely.” Sanctification is a work of God in us. Our part is simply to surrender to Him, obey and trust Him to work.
Notice too that it is the “God of peace.” The word “peace” (Greek eiraynay) means to set at one again, rest, prosperity, or peace. God, the One who completes us, gives us rest, prosperity and peace, is the One who is our Sanctifier. And truly, God’s peace is indispensably linked to God’s sanctifying work in us. It is only when we are wholly set apart for Him that we are fully at peace. Our peace, rest and prosperity are in direct proportion to the depth and breadth of our sanctification. It is God Himself who does this in us.
It is the God of peace who Himself does a thorough and complete work of sanctification in us that brings us comfort, a unity of mind, love and peace (2 Cor. 13:11). It is the God of peace who crushes Satan under our feet blowing away all of his tactics to disrupt and disorder our lives (Rom. 16:20). Peace comes from applying God’s word and the example of His ministers in our lives (Phil. 4:9). It is this God of peace who is with us as we walk the sanctified life (Rom. 15:33).
Sanctification is something done by God’s grace through “faith” (e.g. Acts 15:8-9; 26:18; Rom. 1:17). God calls us to a new life of holiness (Romans 6). But if we try to live that holy life out in our own strength we will be enslaved to the law and a frustrating bondage (Romans 7). We need to surrender to the Holy Spirit by faith to work in and through us this sanctifying work (Romans 8). That is what Paul is speaking of in these verses. Sanctification depends on GOD’S FAITHFULNESS more than it does ours. We trust and surrender to Him. He does the heavy lifting. We trust in Him to make us all we need to be to do all He calls us to do, for His glory, until He returns.
Are you seeking and receiving by faith this entire and complete sanctification of God in your life?