Two Marks of Living Faith
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:1–4:12
Two Marks of Living Faith
What makes a tree an apple tree? I’m sure there are many ways to distinguish an apple tree from any other kind of tree. But at the core, what makes a tree an apple tree is its seed. It is the life of the seed that gives its properties of appleness to the tree. The problem is that the seed is invisible to us.
How do we know an apple tree? The answer is really simple, isn’t? Apples. The fruit of the tree. We can see it, we can touch it, we can pluck it out and taste the fruit and say, “this is an apple and therefore this is an apple tree.” It is the outward visible fruit of the inward and invisible seed that confirms and establishes for us the true nature of the tree.
The same is true of us. What makes us Christians different from anybody else? At its foundational level, there is one distinguishing mark of true Christianity, namely, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. What makes us who we are is the invisible operation of the Spirit of God through faith in Christ.
This is in fact Pauls’ confidence in the believers at Thessalonica. Back in chapter 1 starting in v.4 Paul writes, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, [why is Paul so confident about them?] because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Paul’s confidence in them is the fact that they received the gospel by faith. The seed of faith is in them as far as Paul can tell.
But on another level, this faith bears visible marks of its hidden nature. Saving faith in Christ is a living faith, it produces fruit that confirms its reality. That is why although Paul writes with confidence in chapter 1, nevertheless at the end of chapter 4 he writes to “establish [their] hearts blameless in holiness before…God.” Having begun with the gospel for salvation we continue in the gospel for vital faith, life, and godliness. The secret operation of living faith reveals itself in outward marks that confirm its life and establish our hearts before God.
So what are the outward marks of living faith? Paul gives us two this morning: the purity of holiness and the sincerity of love.
The Purity of Holiness
First, in verses 1-8, Paul gives us the first mark of living faith: the purity of holiness. Paul defines holiness as walking to please God in the purity of our lives, specifically, sexual purity. In vv.3-5 Paul defines holiness as abstaining from sexual immorality, exercising self-control, and living in an honorable way. He contrasts holiness with the unrestrained pursuit of lustful passions. Look there with me in vv. 3-5, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust.” Holiness is in fact the opposite of impurity in v.7, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” That is, holiness is a life of purity. God calls his people out of the world to himself that we may reflect his holy character. God is holy. And therefore we should be holy. God’s character is pure and unblemished, and when we walk in purity we reflect who he is.
Holiness is important. That is why Paul begins his instruction in this last portion of the letter with a call to holiness. The passage begins in v.1 with a sense of finality and urgency. “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus.” Is like Paul is saying, “This is what I want to leave with you. This is what I have to say to you so that your hearts may be established before God.” As we seek to live to glorify God in a twisted and confused world, Paul writes to us with a sense of urgency, and what instruction doe he gives us? He does not give us a plan on how to make our voice heard in the public square, as important as that is, he does not give us a strategy to reform education, as important as that is, and he doesn’t even give us a plan on how to grow our churches, as important as that might be. Paul urges us and instructs us to be known by our holiness. What makes us different from the world is that we live to please God in holiness, and that we continue to grow in it more and more.
Holiness is important. And yet, it is a much neglected biblical theme. For obvious reasons there is not much talk about holiness in our culture. But what is alarming is how little talk about holiness there is among Christians. Even among those who pride themselves for getting theology right. I don’t know how or when, but somehow and somewhere we have forgotten that God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners includes his sovereignty over the way we live our lives. God’s salvation includes the fact that he is making for himself a holy people. If we don’t get holiness right we don’t get the gospel. Holiness is important. So let’s listen to what Paul says about it.
First, Paul says that holiness is the work of God. More specifically, God works holiness in his people through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of his Spirit. In vv. 1-2 again Paul urges us “in the Lord Jesus” and says that his apostolic instruction is “through the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is Paul’s apostolic instruction through Christ, that is, his proclamation of the gospel that God used from the beginning to work powerfully among the believers in Thessalonica. And it is this same gospel that God uses to work powerfully in our lives. Paul is not adding to the gospel. Paul is not adding to the powerful work of God already begun among us. Rather, Paul is urging us to continue building our lives in him. Holiness is the “will of God” Paul says in verse 3. It is part of his purpose of redemption. When God called us powerfully to himself through the proclamation of the gospel, he called us as Paul says in v.7 not “for impurity, but in holiness.” Holiness is part of the redemptive plan of God, it is not at an add-on to redemption but the regular work of God among his people.
Notice how Paul uses the language of covenant throughout vv. 5-8. First, he says that those who do not control their bodies in holiness and honor but give themselves to the passion of lust are like Gentiles, who do not know God. The Gentiles are those who are not in covenant with God. They are outside the covenant and therefore do not know God. Paul is thinking about God’s promise of a New Covenant here in Jeremiah 31 where he promises that “all of God’s people will know him, from the least to the greatest.” It is God’s promise in the New Covenant that we will have an intimate knowledge of him. Paul is saying, that those who persists in sexual immorality, reveal themselves to be like the Gentiles who do not know God, that is, they reveal themselves to be outside the New Covenant.
Furthermore, the New Covenant is summed up in God’s promise to give his Spirit to his people. God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel that he would give his people a new heart and that he would give his Spirit to them. That is why Paul reminds us in verse 8 that God gives us his Spirit. It is the work of God according to his New Covenant promises to give us his Spirit. And his Spirit is the Spirit of holiness because God is holy. As we receive God’s Spirit as a zeal of our redemption we are nourished by his holiness. The Spirit of God acts as a principle of life and holiness in us, so that his secret operation produces holy fruit in our lives.
Holiness then is the work of God as the gospel of Christ comes to us by the power of the Spirit. As we believe the gospel we are rooted in the person and work of Christ and we are given the Spirit of holiness.
But holiness is also the pursuit of those who know God. Yes, holiness is the work of God but it is also our pursuit. It is both God’s work and ours. Both realities are true simultaneously. This is why in most of our English translations, we have the word sanctification in v.3 and the word holiness in vv. 4 and 8. But these two words are translating the very same term. It is the same word. The translators are trying to help us work out how holiness can be both the work of God and something we pursuit. But translating the same term with two different words confuses the mystery of holiness by making us think that sanctification and holiness are two different things. They are not.
Sanctification is the pursuit of progressive holiness. Look at the emphasis in v.1 again, Paul writes “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God…that you do so more and more.” Who is doing the walking? We are. Walking in a manner that pleases God, abstaining from sexual immorality, walking in honor and self-control, all these things are an active pursuit. Paul is instructing us here, and what are instructions for? They are meant to be followed. The pursuit of holiness is an act of obedience to God’s instruction. God’s will in verse 3 is not only what he accomplishes for us but what he desires from us. God’s call in verse 7 is not only the work by which he has called us powerfully to himself but it is also what he calls us to be and do now. The call to holiness in v.8 can be disregarded, it can be disobeyed. Holiness then is both the work of God and it is also our pursuit as we walk in obedience to God and seek to live for his glory.
How does this work? How is holiness both the work of God and our pursuit? How do we pursue holiness in a way that it does not become a work that commends us before God but rather displays the grace of God at work in our lives and ultimately brings him glory? Well, we pursue holiness through the means that God has provided, for it is through these means that God works in us what we cannot produce in ourselves. And the means God uses to work holiness in us is his Word, both his promises and warnings.
All the promises of God find their ultimate fulfillment in the person and work of Christ. And it is through the gospel of Christ that God works. Indeed the gospel is the power of God, for salvation, yes, but also for all of life. We are a gospel-people through and through. So the means to pursue holiness is by treasuring the glory of Christ in the gospel. It is through the gospel that we come to partake of the life of God in the Son. And it is in the gospel that we are promised the Holy Spirit as the seal of our redemption. It is in the gospel that we, an unholy people, are saved by a holy and righteous yet loving and gracious God and called into a life of holiness that displays the marvelous riches of his mercy towards us in Christ Jesus.
But we not only treasure God’s promises, we also heed his warnings. This is indeed what Paul writes, he is warning us in vv.5-8, saying that we should not “transgress and wrong others in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”
Paul’s warning is serious and weighty. He is addressing us as a people among whom God dwells. He is warning us in the presence of God. It is a solemn warning. And yet, the warning functions as the means of grace that God uses to keep us from impurity and to work in us his holiness. This is how warnings work for us who are in Christ. They are like big neon signs that tell us that we are about to go off the rails and fall into a precipice. And because we have received grace to see and to hear the warning with ears of faith, we pay attention to it. It is the warning itself that works as the means of grace, keeping us from destruction.
Paul’s warning to us is that living in sexual immorality leads to transgression. It leads to sin against others. Sexual immorality is never about yourself. It always affects those around you. It corrupts what God has made holy. It tears apart what God has brought together. It tarnishes what God has made beautiful. It not only corrupts you but it brings destruction to those around you. And here is the warning for us this morning, the Lord is an avenger of those who transgress against others in sexual immorality. Paul’s warning is a solemn warning, he is bringing up his charge against sexual transgressors before the court of the living God. Paul is saying is that those who do not heed God’s warning but instead continue to give themselves to the unrestrained and unrepentant passions of their lust show themselves to be outside of the New Covenant because they disregard God and his promise of the Spirit. So we should fear and tremble, and respond to God’s solemn warning with repentance, confession, and renewed faith in him.
Now, perhaps, you are here this morning and you are not convinced that this talk about holiness and sexual purity is helpful. Perhaps you view the biblical teaching on sexuality as oppressive to true human flourishing. But let’s consider God’s revelation in light of its alternatives. First, God’s revelation about sexuality is better than the modern ideals on sexuality which say that we should not suppress our sexual instincts but rather give full expression to them. The danger with this view is that it leads to all kinds of perversion. If I am nothing more than an animal with sexual instincts, who are you to tell me that any of my instincts are immoral or wrong? This does not lead to human flourishing but to sexual abuse. On the contrary, God’s revelation about sexuality leads to the honoring and upholding of the dignity of others. God is not against the expression of sexuality, rather he is for sexuality that leads to the good of others.
And second, God’s revelation about sexuality is also better than the postmodern ideas of sexuality which say that we should not be defined by narrow categories and should therefore get rid of any idea of proper sexual expression according to our God-given identity. But God’s revelation of sexuality is not narrow, on the contrary it enables us to express the fullness of who we truly are as men and women created in the image of God. God’s revelation about sexuality then leads both to our flourishing and to the good of others. It leads us not to selfishness but to love others in our sexual expression.
The Simplicity of Love
This leads us to Paul’s second mark of living faith: the sincerity of love. Living faith produces holiness and holiness leads us not to transgress against others but rather to love them. That is the connection between vv. 1-8 and vv. 9-12. The same operation of God’s Spirit that bears the fruit of holiness in our lives also bears the fruit of love. So let’s see what Paul says about love.
First, Paul says that love is also the work of God. Notice that Paul writes in v. 9 that “concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” Here again Paul is evoking the New Covenant language of Jeremiah 31 where God promises to put his law in his people and to write it on their hearts so that we are taught by God himself to obey his Law. The New Testament writers oftentimes sum up the Law of God with the principle of love. So another way of saying that God has written his law on our hearts is to say that God himself has taught us how to love one another. Those who belong to Christ have the promise of God’s written Word inscribed in their hearts and of his work in us by his Spirit as we love one another. Christian love is the work of God in the New Covenant.
And yet, just as we saw with holiness so also love is both the work of God and our pursuit. Love, Paul says is an aspiration. In v.11, Paul says that we should aspire to these things. The love that Paul commends is a purposeful pursuit. Although the Law of God has been written in our hearts and we have been taught by God to love one another, Paul urges us to continue in this work of love more and more. To love others is a holy ambition. God calls us to spend the rest of our lives aspiring to this work of love. It is a central Christian truth that having been purchased by God through the blood of his Son, and having been sealed with his Spirit, we are no longer our own but belong to God and therefore to one another. This is how the world knows who we are, it is the mark of the church that purposeful and sincere love reigns among its members.
So how do we sincerely and purposefully aim to love one another? What does Paul says that we should aspire to? Paul’s aspirations for brotherly love among Christians are shockingly ordinary. There is nothing phenomenal about the way Paul instructs us to love one another. His instructions actually run against the grain of our culture, even our Christian culture in the church.
First, Paul’s instructions run against our cultural obsession to live public lives of self-publishing. Even among Christians, the logic runs like this. The bigger my platform the more good I can do to others. But rather than commending us to steward a public platform, Paul instructs us to cultivate a quiet and unnoticed life. Look at what he writes in vv. 11-12 “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” I understand the motive and the logic of stewarding our public lives for the glory of God and the good of others. But it doesn’t work that way. At least not in Paul’s mind. We need to acknowledge that the temptation to make much of ourselves is shrewd. It is easy to excuse our obsession with what others think about our lives by saying, “well, I am stewarding my public life for the glory of God.” Let me encourage you with this, instead of working hard to build a public platform for the glory of God, work as hard to cultivate a private and unnoticeable life that works for the good of others behind the scenes.
Secondly, Paul’s instructions about love also go against the idea of living loudly to make our voice heard on every issue and to police what everyone else is doing or saying. Paul says that we should “mind our own business.” Again, I know the motivation is right at times, and the logic makes sense, the more the world hears from the biblical perspective of Christians the better. Yes, we should not be silent but clearly and boldly proclaim the supremacy of Christ over all things. We should not be ashamed of the gospel bur rather bear its reproach. But we need to be careful about how we define boldness for Jesus. It is a lot easier to post something on Twitter about any issue than to invite your neighbor over to the dinner table to know more about their lives and to talk about the gospel. Our Twitting and Facebook messages are but a drop in an ocean of confusion. No one is listening to anyone else on social media. The world doesn’t care about our opinions on the platform, they will not pay attention to what we have to say when we are on the public spotlight. No, they will pay attention to what we have to say and to the way we live our lives once you we have stepped down from our platforms. When they can see the power of the gospel in flesh and bones in your home, in the office, or at the park. Again, instead of trying as hard as we can to build our public lives, let us work as hard to build our private, unnoticeable but faithful lives of Christian service and bold witness to Christ where it matters most.
Finally, Paul’s instructions about love also go against our cultural ideals of the good life. The idea of less work plus more money equals a better life is catchy a slogan, and we buy into it more often than we dare to admit. Think for example of our impulse when we compare the life of two Christian men, the one has his dream job and is able to save up for exciting yearly family vacations, the other has been working a third shift factory job for 20 years and his best family memory is a trip to Branson 7 years ago. Regardless of what our theology says, most of us will impulsively look at the first man and say, “He is blessed! Look at the lavishing love he has for his family.” And we will look at the second man and think, surely if he was being faithful he would not be working the third shift anymore. Or, at best, we may say that the brother is enduring a not-so-good life for the sake of Christ. But Paul’s instructions run against this way of thinking. Paul says that the simple life of hard work for the good of others is the good life. And he says that we should aspire to it. Why? V.12, so that we may walk properly before those outside the church. It is not the extravagant lifestyle of Christians that confirms the reality of God’s presence and blessing among us, but the faithful and ordinary life of Christians who in love spend themselves for the advance of God’s kingdom and the good of others.
The outward marks of living faith are walking in holiness before God and walking properly in simple but sincere love for one another before a watching world. What does walking properly mean? The apple tree illustrates this for us again. It is proper of an apple tree to produce apples and not oranges. Why? Because the life of the seed is appleness. In the same way, it is proper that we bear the fruit of holiness and love in our lives because the invisible seed of faith in Christ and the secret operation of God’s Spirit are at work in us. God is holy and God is love. As we are united to his life in the death and resurrection of Christ we begin to produce the holy and loving fruit that is proper to the nature and character of God. And as people taste from the fruit of our lives they will be able to say, these indeed are the people of God. By God’s grace may we walk in a way that pleases God and may he establish our hearts before him as we bear the outward marks of living faith.