We come now to the passage in Thessalonians that addresses the vast difference between the Christian sexual ethic and a pagan sexual ethic. We want to be careful here because there is a ditch on both sides of the road. Some Christians have confused being fastidious with being holy, and those two things are not the same thing at all. Other Christians have veered off the road on the opposite side, and are currently drinking all the ditch water that the porn industry can supply. So let us try to stay on the road, shall we?
“Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 4:1–8)
Summary of the Text
We have seen how dear the Thessalonians were to Paul, as he expressed in the previous chapter, and these exhortations are built on that foundation (v. 1). Paul says now that just as they had received Paul’s teaching on how to please God, he therefore begs them, exhorting them, to do this more and more (v. 1). For “you know,” he says, reminding them, what commandments we gave you (v. 2) “by the Lord Jesus.” Sanctification is God’s will for them, especially sexual sanctification (v. 3). Every one should know how to “possess his vessel” in sanctification and honor (v. 4). This is contrasted with the “lust of concupiscence,” which is characteristic of Gentiles who do not know God (v. 5). Sexual immorality is not “victimless,” as Paul says here that it is a matter of defrauding your brother—and God is the avenger for the defrauded one (v. 6). In addition, Paul says that sin in this area is “going beyond,” as in trespassing. God’s calling for us is not to uncleanness, but rather to holiness (v. 7). If a man despises this commandment, he is not primarily despising man, but rather God (v. 8)—the same God who has given us His Holy Spirit. Sexual sin is therefore sin against God. When David confessed his sin of adultery and murder, he turns to God saying, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Our sins entail other people, and harm them, but the law that is broken is God’s.
The Possibility of Pleasing God
First, we must set the stage. Far too many Christians, particularly in our own Reformed camp, think of their Christian lives as having the ultimate goal of somehow “not displeasing” God. Like the servant in the parable, they think their master is a hard master, and so their objective is simply to stay out of trouble. And that’s actually how they get into trouble.
Notice that Paul had taught them how to walk in a way that pleased God, and now he wanted them to do this more and more. Holiness is not the absence of sin, although cleansing from sin is a precondition for it. Kingdom holiness is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). It is the presence of something, and it is crowned with the pleasure of God. Not only so, but there is always room for advancement in that pleasure and in that joy.
Can God’s Will Be Thwarted?
This is a good place for us to note that the phrase “the will of God” has to be understood in two senses. The decretive will of God cannot be thwarted by anyone at any time. Even Nebuchadnezzar knew this (Dan. 4:35). If God has determined that something will happen, then that something is going to happen.
God’s preceptive will has to do with what He has commanded us to do. This will can be thwarted, which is why we are instructed in v. 3 here not to disobey that will. We are told not to disobey that will because we could disobey it.
And remember there are times when the two kinds of wills intersect. When Jesus died on the cross, it was the will of God (Luke 22:42; Acts 4:26-28) even though it was accomplished by wicked hands (Acts 2:23). The violation of God’s preceptive will by Judas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin, etc. was the instrument God used to accomplish His decretive will. Always remember that God is God, and you are not.
Possessing Your Vessel
There is an ambiguity here. When Paul says that each one should know how to “possess his vessel,” is he talking about the person’s own body, or is he talking about that man’s wife? It is true either way, and it amounts to the same kind of behavior either way, but I am taking it in the latter sense.
When it comes to sexual behavior, it is not a contrast between the Gentiles possessing and the Christians not possessing. Both possess “their vessels.” But one does so with these descriptors—dishonor, uncleanness, passionate lust, fraudulence, and contempt. Don’t possess anything that way, Paul says.
By way of contrast, he requires sexual behavior from Christians (not sexless behavior) that is sanctified, honorable, honest, clean, and holy. When Paul says in 1 Corinthians that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, he is talking about avoiding sexual impurity (1 Cor. 6:18). All other sins a man commits are outside the body, but he who sins sexually is defiling the temple. So he was not talking about how you all need to go to the gym more, although you might, or how you must avoid refined sugar or transfats. (Something is transfat, for example, when a baby carrot identifies as salty grease on the inside.)
Some of you may be thinking, “Great. Now I have to talk with my kids about all this on the way home.” To which an appropriate response might be “and about time.” The Thessalonians had learned from Paul how they were supposed to behave in this area (vv. 1-2). He taught on it. To leave the subject untouched (for the sake of remaining prissy and fastidious, as mentioned earlier) will not leave your children in some neutral zone. It will not protect them. The world does not hesitate to catechize everyone in their sexual mores—through sex ed, through pop entertainment, and through porn. But in our revolt against this, we want to be joyful in holiness, not grim in our moralism.
Justification and the Pleasure of God
We are called to live in such a way as to please God. But this is not possible without the baseline of justification—the legal and forensic declaration of not guilty in the court chambers of Heaven. Our free and complete justification sets us free to pursue our sanctification without timidity.
Because of that great declaration of not guilty, we have no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). On the foundation of that great declaration, we are set free to be spiritually minded, which is life and peace (Rom. 8:6). To fall short of this, to be carnally minded, results in what? It means that those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8).
And this is why we declare Christ as your righteousness, as your complete justification. Because of that, and only because of that, His Spirit is at work in your life for your sanctification, which includes your sexual life—whether in thought, words, or deeds.