[This sermon was prepared for delivery during worship this morning with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. While I ended up preaching on the same text and making many of the same points made here, I delivered a different sermon in the pulpit. There's no written version of it, though.]
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
If you made a list of Bible words that Lutherans like, “justified” would be one of them. It’s a great word!
Paul uses it in Romans when he writes that “we hold that a person is justified by faith [he means faith in Christ] apart from works prescribed by the law.”
Someone has said that when I come to Christ in repentance and faith, God now looks at me “just if I’d” never sinned.
The person who is justified is declared by God to be just or right with God. This is the most precious gift God can give because it cost Him the life of Jesus on a cross.
No wonder that Martin Luther called justification the central teaching “by which the church stands or falls.”
All other religious systems teach that people can, in some way, save themselves or propel themselves to higher places in the cosmos by adhering to certain rules, regulations, or practices.
But the God of the Bible, while using rules to show us our need of Him and the hopelessness of proving ourselves worthy through our own works and to give us a guideline for responding to His love, this God, justifies us as a gift of grace to all with faith in Christ!
But there’s a problem with our justification obsession, too.
Have you ever noticed that most love stories end at the beginning? I mean, they tell the stories of how two people meet, fall in love, get married, and start their families. But, really, after the storytellers narrate all those things, they’ve only told us the beginnings of their stories. We’re left wondering: How did they live happily ever after? What did they do in life? An elderly man once told a friend of mine, “These newlyweds talk about how much they love each other. But don’t even talk to me about loving your husband or wife until you’ve been married a few decades. You don’t know what love is before then.”
Justification is like falling in love. God is a desperate suitor Who, in Christ, incites us to fall in love with Him. By His self-sacrificing love, He makes us worthy to be live eternally—and happily—ever after with God.
Some people cynically say that, after the wedding day, marriage is a hard slog to retirement and death, filled with tragedies, mortgage payments, pinching pennies, squabbles, hard times. But thirty-seven years into my marriage to Ann, I can tell you that while we have had our tough times, I love her more today than I did when we were first married, more than I did yesterday. I find that I am just beginning to learn how to respond to the gift of her love and her presence in my life. And all this learning and growing is the product of one simple fact: The certainty that when I wake up tomorrow, no matter what stupid or selfish things I may have said or done the day before, Ann will still love me.
And it’s this process of being loved and growing in love that makes our marriage stronger and better today than I could ever have imagined when, with my heart pounding out of my chest, my face beaming, I walked down the aisle with Ann as my new bride.
There is a similar deepening in love, relationship, reliability, and mutual affection that develops in the Christian life after we’ve been justified. It’s called sanctification or being sanctified.
And it really is the theme of the whole section of the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians from which today’s second Bible lesson comes.
Scholars teach us that in the Bible, a theme or idea is highlighted when it appears at the start of a section of Scripture and then again at the end of the section. These bookends form what they call “inclusions.”
Pull out a pew Bible, please, and turn to page 684 and then look at 1 Thessalonians 4:3. We’re not going to look at the whole verse right now, just the pertinent start of it. It says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” Now, go over to the next column, almost to the end of the book and of our second lesson for this morning, to chapter 5, verses 23. It says, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely…”
The root of the word sanctification is sanctus, which means holy or set apart.
After Ann and I were married, I was set apart for her alone and she was set apart for me alone. Similarly, after we have been justified, God is set apart to be our only God, the highest allegiance in our lives.
The Church is set apart to be God’s people, justified and empowered to bring His love to others.
But sanctification, this business of having one’s whole life set aside for God alone, is a process and it’s sometimes difficult. And just as the only way to learn to be married is to be married, the only way to learn what it means to be God’s holy people is to live as God’s holy people every day.
So, what does that mean?
Well, pull out the Celebrate inserts and go to the second lesson. Scan it. Paul tells us to always rejoice, pray without ceasing, give thanks to God in all circumstances, don’t try to hide yourself from what God’s Word and the Holy Spirit may be prompting you to do, but don’t be a chump who falls for every supposed holy man or woman who comes down the pike, hold tightly to what is good, refuse to do what is bad.
Most of us would agree that Paul’s list well describes the to do list of holy people. But who has time for such a list? How could we possibly be good enough to make that a to do list for my life? If God expects all these things of us, we may think, we’re going to have to wait to get serious about this Christian business until after we’re retired and just take our chances with God until then.
If that list raises your anxiety level, I have a word from God for you this morning: Chill!
Do you think that the God Who did everything necessary for you to be justified, including sending God the Son to die and rise for you, would leave you standing at the altar trying to figure out how to live as a Christian after that?
To be sure, God will discipline His children when we go in the wrong direction in our lives. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
But the Bible also tells us that when we do go wrong, our Father is quick to help us. As the apostle John puts it, “My little children, I am writing these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins…”
Maybe you can think of sanctification like this. When I was a boy, I became fascinated by the fact that people wrote things. I wanted to be able to write. But I wasn’t left to figure out how to write on my own. I remember my parents sitting with me at the dining room table. First, they would take one of those fat black pencils and write a letter, maybe an A. Then, they would put the pencil in my hand, put a hand on top of mine, and move my hand in the right ways until, gradually, they could let go and watch me as I imperfectly formed the letter A on my own. We moved onto B and C and the rest of the alphabet in the same way.
This is what sanctification is like. Not another grim to-do list, but God working in us, through us, and on us to help us become all that we were meant to be.
Place yourself each day in the hands of God. If you let Him, His hand will move over your hand to write the story of your life—in good and bad times, in happiness and sorrow, even in the wake of sin for which you have repented and sin He forces you to see because He loves you and doesn’t want to lose you.
If you will be open to God, God’s hand will keep moving in your life until that day when you see Him face to face and all the mysteries will be solved, all the tears will be dried, and all believers in Christ become truly, eternally holy.
Even after he gives what seems like a to-do list to the Christians at first century Thessalonica, Paul also says to be at peace in the arms of the Savior Jesus. Pull out the Celebrate insert and look again at the final two verses of our lesson. Read verses 23 and 24 silently with me now. Paul says: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely [you see, it’s God and not you by your works who will make you holy or set apart as God’s beloved]; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
Each day, the faithful God made known in Jesus is willing to take those who entrust themselves to Him and by the power of His presence working in our lives, transform us from harried, frightened people who look at lists like the one we see in our lesson today, into people so infused by Christ’s love, forgiveness, power, and indestructible hope that, from grateful hearts, barely aware of it, that we “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks at all times, pay heed to God’s Word, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil.”
We will never be entirely holy this side of our own resurrections. Nor will we ever begin to understand mysteries like why bad things happen to faithful people while the faithless seem to skate through life without a care.
But from Jesus, we have an eternal “I do,” a promise to never leave us nor forsake us, a promise to make us new for all eternity.
Count on that promise.
Give yourself to Jesus today and every day.
Then, relax, breathe, live, certain that His grace that justified you will, as you submit to Him, sanctify you—make you holy, fit you for heaven—too.
God has an eternity of patience and love for each of us. Give Him your days and He will make you, over time and eternity, into everything He meant for you to be when He formed you in your mother’s womb. Amen.