Monday, October 24, 2011

Blameless in Holiness

Although Paul praises the Thessalonians for their exemplary faith, it is also very clear from the rest of the letter that their faith is not yet complete, they have not "arrived" in spite of their "faith that has gone forth everywhere."  Paul urges them on to something more.

In 2:12, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his own presence along with Silvanus and Timothy among them.  "we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory".  "Walk" is used almost as a synonym of "live" in scripture. When Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to "walk in a manner worthy of God" he is saying that the Thessalonians whole lives should reflect the holiness of the God who has called them.

Throughout chapter 3, Paul is expressing his desires to be with the Thessalonians so as to continue to encourage them in their faith.  In 3:10, he says specifically that his desire to be with the Thessalonians is so that "we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith", again implying that there is something the Thessalonians are missing.  This chapter concludes with a prayer that God may make the Thessalonians "increase and abound in love for one another and for all... so that we may establish your hearts blameless in holiness".

In 4:3, Paul again urges this need for holiness upon the Thessalonians saying "For this is the will of God, your santification..." ("santification" coming from the same Greek root as holy, holiness).  Again in 4:7, "For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness."  Finally, in 5:23 Paul prays, "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Clearly, Paul is concerned for the holiness/sanctification of the Thessalonians throughout his letter to them.  But what does Paul mean by these words?  To answer that question thoroughly would certainly take more than a single blog post.  But there are a few things that stand out about Paul's use of those terms in Thessalonians.

1)It is God who sanctifies and make holy....  Paul's prayer in 3:13 and 5:23 is not that the Thessalonians would make themselves holy but that God would establish their hearts blameless in holiness and sanctify them completely.  Holiness is not a human accomplishment but an act of God.

2).... but we also have a responsibility to our holy calling.  Even though it is God who makes us holy, Paul makes it clear in his admonitions to the Thessalonians that we have a responsibility to live in step with what God has already done.

3)Our sanctification is our salvation...  We often talk about being "saved" (by which we usually mean having our sins forgiven) and then later being "sanctified" (by which we usually mean being freed from the power of sin).  But Paul talks about sanctification as something God does as the beginning of our salvation.  To be saved is to be set apart for God's purposes (which is the most common meaning of sanctification in the Old Testament).  In 1:9, Paul describes the Thessalonians salvation as having "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God", echoing the language of Ezekiel 36 in which Israel is cleansed from its idol worship in order to return to Yahweh.  Holiness is not something added onto salvation.  It is the very means and purpose of salvation.

4)...but it is also more than just having our sins forgiven.  Although our sanctification begins with the forgiveness of our sins, Paul clearly expects more than simply this for the Thessalonians.  Paul prays that the Thessalonians will be sanctified entirely, indicating that Paul expects that God can do something more in the lives of the Thessalonians than has already been done.

5)This sanctification is bodily....  Sanctification is often talked about as something God does in the heart.  That is certainly true.  But in saying it that way, we shouldn't miss the fact that this "heart-cleansing" has very physical implications.  When Paul describes sanctification as the will of God in 4:3, he immediately goes on to talk about sexual relations - the most bodily, physical of acts.  The point here is that if we think holiness is only about "good intentions" or "the spiritual" or what's "on the inside" to the neglect of what we do with and to our own bodies, the bodies of the others, or our material resources then we haven't yet understood Paul's (and God's) call to holiness.  Sanctification is a work of God in the heart but it is a work that leads to very physical consequences.

6) ...and communal.  Holiness is not merely (or even primarily) individual in nature. It is worth noting that as Paul is discussing sexual relations in 4:3-8, in 4:6 the reason he gives for abstaining from sexual immorality is so "that no one transgresses and wrongs his brother in this matter".   Paul's concern here is not merely inappropriate sexual relations in themselves but that such relationships will tear at the fabric of the community of faith.   Likewise, when Paul prays for the Thessalonians holiness in 3:13, it is intertwined with the prayer that their love would abound for "one another and for all".  While the call to holiness certainly has consequences for an individual's lifestyle, Paul's emphasizes that holiness concerns our life together.  The holiness and love of God is reflected in our relationships of holy love with one another.

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