Summer in Thessalonica – Holiness, Relevance and Legalism

3:12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

4:1As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

What does it mean to be holy (sanctified)? Are we taught to be holy? Does holiness matter? When I think of holiness, there are two directions we usually go. First, we often try very hard to fit in, to be relevant. If relevant means speaking a language, presenting the gospel, in a way people understand, then I am all for it. If it means using a musical style that is familiar, rather than one that was contemporary 500 years ago, then we should be relevant. But I wonder, do we take “relevant” to mean we live and act just like everyone else, but we happen to believe in Jesus?

The researchers in the book UnChristian made some startling discoveries about the lives of young people (16-29 years old) who identify as Christians:

We found that most of the lifestyle activities of born-again Christians were statistically equivalent to those of non-born-agains. When asked to identify their activities over the last thirty days, born-again believers were just as likely to bet or gamble, to visit a pornographic website, to take something that did not belong to them, to consult a medium or psychic, to physically fight or abuse someone, to have consumed enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk, to have used an illegal, nonprescription drug, to have said something to someone that was not true, to have gotten back at someone for something he or she did, and to have said mean things behind another person’s back (UnChristian, 47)

Sometimes Christians try so hard to fit in with the world in order for the world to hear what we have to say, that we end up with nothing unique to say.

In reaction to this there is another danger, this is the second direction we may end up going when we think about “holiness”. We may end up with a “holiness” that slides into “legalism”.

Maybe we recognize that Christians should live and act differently. We understand God’s call to be holy, which really means to be set apart from sin in order to be made clean, righteous. But we end up standing so far apart that we may think we are on a pedestal from which we can look down on all the world of “sinners.” This is just as dangerous as not being different at all, for rather than having nothing to say, now no one wants to listen because we are jerks.

I find the concept of holiness challenging for just this reason: too far to one side is legalism, too far to the other side is irrelevance.

Paul prayed that God would make the Thessalonian Christians holy (3:13), then he sets out giving them instructions on how to be made holy (4:3-8). Here we see a reliance on God; ultimately it is God who makes us holy. Therefore, we cannot become legalistic or look down on others, for our strength is coming from God. On our own, we cannot be holy. At the same time, we do need to open ourselves and allow God to make this change in us.

The focus of holiness, in this chapter, is on sexual immorality (4:3, 5). Holiness is more than just sexual ethics, but it is not less. Paul writes as if those who are Christians, who allow the Holy Spirit of God to enter their lives, really will experience a change in their life. The truth is that believing that Jesus is risen from the dead, is Lord and Savior, should make us a bit different and weird. Maybe your friends are hooking up, or “test-driving the car”, or just having sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend. To be a Christian, to be holy, is to be quite radical: to have sex only within the commitment of marriage.

But please, I beg of you, don’t forget that this is not a license for legalism! Paul’s words here are directed to Christians. Paul does not call the pagans, non-Christians, to this sexual ethic. The threats of judgment at the end (4:6-8) are for those who call themselves Christians but reject living holy lives. In no way is this a weapon to beat over the heads of your non-Christian friends! In another place, also speaking about sexual ethics, Paul says it is not his place to judge those outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

The target of this message is not your non-Christian friends, it is you, if you consider yourself a Christian. The call to be holy, to avoid the twin errors mentioned above, is for you. So the simple question is, if you claim to be a follower of Jesus, will you allow God’s Holy Spirit to change you, to make you holy?

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