February 3, 2019

Holiness Through Love

Jared Wass (North Campus) | (Downtown Campus) | (South Campus) | | 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother 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.

Now 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, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to 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.—1 Thessalonians 4:1–12


About once a month we’ve had campus specific sermons and we’ve been preaching through 1 Thessalonians, looking at what it means to be a healthy church. All Sundays in February will be campus-specific as we keep walking through this book. 

In 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12, Paul is giving us a practical word on some of what it means to live as Christians. Christianity is a truth to be believed and also a life to live. But what he is putting forward here is not just how individuals should live, but how we ought to live together. These exhortations are couched in the larger framework of the church as family. 

Here’s where we are going this morning:

  1. We Are Family
  2. Walking as Family
  3. Fighting as Family

We Are Family 

Getting this point across is no minor concern for Paul. It’s all over this letter.

In Chapter 2, he describes his ministry in parental terms. In verse 7 he says he was “gentle among them like a nursing mother caring for her own children” and in verse 11, like a father with his children he exhorted, encouraged, and charged them how to walk. 

We see family talk at the beginning of our passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:1, “Finally then, brothers…” and then a few verses later in 4:9–10, “Now concerning brotherly love [or fraternal love, family love] you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more ….”

The word “brother” here in the original Greek (adelphoi), was used in the Greco-Roman world for siblings, for actual brothers and sisters. Paul addresses the Thessalonians as brothers / brothers and sisters 19 times in this letter. Every time he addresses them this way he is reminding them—we are family. 

When Paul is calling the church to sexual purity and to do honest work he does so in reference to its effects on the family.

  1. A reason he gave for abstaining from sexual immorality was “so no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter” (v. 4:6). 
  2. Then when he urged them to do honest work (v. 4:11) it comes after his exhortation to love as family (vv. 4:9–10); in a sense, saying that working is what it looks like to love.

Commentator Gordon Fee picks up on this and says, “[the] ultimate issue is not work here but the meaning of love as the newly created family of God.”

I think that is what Paul is doing in all of 1 Thessalonians 4:1–12. When he is calling us to holiness, he is describing what it means to love as the newly formed family of God. 

Love and holiness are related, and Paul makes that clear in chapter 3, right before our passage. Let’s read it and see if you can pick out the relationship … 

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.—1 Thessalonians 3:12–13 

Did you catch it? Paul wanted God to increase their love for one another so that he would establish their hearts in holiness. The establishment of holiness wouldn’t happen until they were first abounding in love.

Love is the driving virtue … sexual purity is not the driving virtue, industriousness is not the driving virtue … love is. From the headwaters of love flow the other Christian virtues.

A few texts that show us this …

  1. Matthew 22:37–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and Prophets.” On this virtue of love hang all the other virtues—all the commands and exhortations flow out of this one.
  2. 1 Corinthians 13:1–3: “If you speak in the tongues of men and of angels, if you have prophetic powers, if you understand all mysteries and all knowledge, if you have all faith and can move mountains, if you give away all you have, even deliver up your body to be burned ... but have not love it is nothing, it is worthless, hallow, and even aggravating. They become a noising gong and a clanging cymbal.” Love is what makes virtues virtuous.
  3. 1 Corinthians 13:3: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Love is a key evidence of conversion … that people have crossed over from the unholy kingdom of darkness into the holy kingdom of the Beloved Son Jesus. 

  1. John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
  2. I John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 

Relationships are very revealing things. If you are aloof from the Christian family, if you are hyper-critical and condemning of your brothers and sisters (individually or corporately) your holiness is immature if you are holy at all.

If your holiness is a crusty or grumpy piety rather than a charitable and generous purity your holiness is immature if it is holiness at all. Holiness is the result of God working love into your heart, so love should characterize your holiness.

Paul wanted God to fill the Thessalonians with love because he wanted them to walk in holiness. So lets turn to “Walking as Family.” 

Walking as Family

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification…—1 Thessalonians 4:1–3a

Before we consider sanctification (growing in grace), we must first consider two ways God is pleased. First, God has pleasure in who you are in Christ. Second, he has another kind of pleasure in you living out who you are in Christ.

First, listen to Psalm 147:1011: “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.”

God takes pleasure in your receiving before he takes pleasure in your giving, he takes pleasure in you receiving his steadfast love before any of your expressions of love. So if by grace through faith in Christ you have received his gospel love for you, if that has happened, you already have his pleasure. Gospel belief secures his pleasure. It is fixed. You are not left questioning whether God wants you or not, whether God is pleased with you are not. Belief secures your identity, your status. Behavior is meant to expresses it. In this text Paul is talking about a communication about your identity not the creation of it. He is calling us to behavior that is consistent with who you are. 

Why does God take pleasure in this? Why does he take pleasure in your conduct being aligned with your Christian belief? 

It advances his glory and it deepens your joy.

When the point of life is to bear God’s likeness in a world that doesn’t know him, it makes sense that it gives God pleasure when his likeness is accurately portrayed. It would give him displeasure when his likeness is marred and portrayed falsely. God is saying there is a way to live that hides me and there is a way to live that reveals me. I want you to live so the glory of my character is revealed not hidden.

Musician Example

Let’s say you’re a musician and you have written your own music. These songs you’ve written are expressions of who you are and you are eager to play them for friends. So you pick up a guitar and begin to play but some strings are too tight and others are too loose, it’s grossly out of tune. The sound coming out of that guitar doesn’t represent you or your work at all—it’s just noise that hurts your ears and there’s no pleasure in it. But once the guitar is tuned, it makes the sounds it was made for—now you are making music, not just noise. That makes the musician happy and it makes the guitar happy (if guitars have feelings) … guitars want good sounds to come out of them, not bad.

So when Paul is saying that God’s will for you is your sanctification, that you would keep growing in grace as a Christian, what he is saying is that God wants your life to be more and more “in tune.” And the more in tune your life is, the more the glory of God’s character is expressed. And the more the glory of God is expressed, the more joy you will have because you were made to enjoy God and you were also made to live in holiness. 

Frogs were made for jumping, so frogs enjoy jumping. You were made for holiness, so you will enjoy holiness.

Paul focuses his attention on two areas for that holiness: sex and work.


Abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God that no one transgress and wrong his brother 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.—1 Thessalonians 4:3b–7

We will come back to God as avenger, what we will focus on here is sexual immorality. See four main categories:

  1. Lust
  2. Pornography
  3. Fornication (sex outside of marriage between a man and woman)
  4. Adultery 

What makes these immoral or unholy? In a 1988 sermon John Piper provides clarity when he defines lust as “sexual desire that dishonors its object and disregards God.”

There are vertical and horizontal cost to all immorality.

  1. Dishonors its object: You turn a person into a commodity.
  2. Disregards God: You ignore the benevolent king and live by your own rules.
  3. Degraded to the instigator: You engage in self-destructive behavior. “He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32).

Let’s look briefly at the world’s view of sex against the Christian view (from Tim Keller).

Three common but false views of sex:

  1. Unavoidable drive. Sex is a good and natural appetite like eating. It’s harmful if we suppress it too much like it’s harmful if we don’t eat for two months. This reduces sex to an animal urge or instinct.
  2. Necessary evil. It’s a dirty part of our lower physical nature rather than our higher rational and spiritual nature but it’s necessary for procreation, having children. This reduces sex to a cold utilitarian duty.
  3. From of self-expression. Sex is a way to find yourself, it’s primarily for fulfillment and self-realization. It’s a way to establish your identity. This reduces sex to narcissism … inflated interest in and admiration of the self, with a sense of entitlement. 

In the Christian view….

God made sex, so it’s good and it can only be ultimately satisfying if it is enjoyed within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman in a profound act of giving not taking.

Tim Keller explains this well in a talk “Love and Lust” … 

Without a covenant, sex is a consumer relationship. You are always marketing. You have to perform or are out. You only keep someone to meet your need. But sex is designed to be a covenant good not a consumer good, to engage the whole person in an act of self giving and self commitment. Without marriage you are asking someone to commit their body to you without committing their whole life, this is physical union without whole life integrity.

 Sex as its intended becomes like a covenant renewal ceremony in marriage, expressing that I belong completely and exclusively to you and I’m acting on it. Sex outside a covenant is taking not giving, it’s receiving without giving the whole life. Sex inside marriage could still be a consumer good if it’s more a matter of taking than giving. Maybe the spouse only acts nice when they want something. Or maybe a spouse pouts to manipulate the other into consenting.

The point is that sex is enjoyable when it’s giving not taking. Giving is vulnerable and requires safety. That safety is available through a covenant.

And as commentator Gene Green says, “What many would view in our day as strictly a ‘personal’ issue is understood by the apostle as a community issue that has eternal consequences.” See that “no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter …”

How is sex a community issue?

Two quick examples from Pornography alone.

  1. Studies have shown that porn creates crushingly unrealistic expectations for physical appearance and sexual performance. What you actually come to expect from others is an illusion—you attempt to live out a false image.
  2. Porn also diminishes tolerance for the tensions of real relationships and diminishes desire for marriage. Your virtual life keeps you from any real life. 

Easy access to sexually explicit material in our day is making slaves out of men and women and damaging relationships.

The second area Paul mentions is work.

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.—1 Thessalonians 4:11–12

“Quiet” here is not in the sense of volume or speaking, but in relationships with others so as not to be overly intrusive, dependent, and burdensome. It seems some in the church may have been exploiting the generosity of the Christian family to live in idleness.

If your capacities are such that you are able to work, you should work. Its dehumanizing not to work. Work was in the garden before the Fall. God is working now. Working is one of the ways we image God. Idleness hurts that person, the community, and the reputation of the gospel.

Sex and work matter.

When it comes to sexual immorality and idleness, Paul says God is an avenger in these things. These are unjust practices God and will exact just punishment on those who persist in them … you are solemnly being warned and you are being urged to not disregard this warning. Our temptation is to disregard it—we are told not to so—we will embrace this today as an opportunity. 

Here is the question for you.

Where are you in these texts? These are “examine yourself” texts. Take a moment right now before the Lord to take an inventory of your life. Are you walking in idleness? Are you walking in sexual immorality? Some other sin?

We are all broken. We all face temptations and sin in various ways and in various degrees. How do you know if you will face God as an avenger on your sin or as a redeemer from your sin?

Here’s a critical clue. Faith in the gospel and the fight for holiness are not separate but related—meaning, if you are not fighting sin you, may not have faith; you may be facing God as the avenger not the redeemer.

So the question becomes, what is your posture toward sin? When sin is exposed in your life, do you revel in it or repent of it? Do you run to God to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need (Hebrews 4:16) or do you run away from him to protect your sin, to keep indulging in it, expecting delight but again and again facing diminishing returns?

Does sin speak deep into your heart as something you love? When you taste sin, do you savor it—rolling it around in your mouth to get the full flavor—or do you spit it out?

When I was in high school, my family had brown plastic pitchers that we kept juice in. When I was thirsty, I had a naughty practice of going to the fridge, grabbing a pitcher and drinking directly out of it. You know how much work it is to get a cup and then have to wash it? One of these times, I grabbed what I thought was a pitcher of grape juice and I tipped it back to take a big swig, but I was surprised to find it was cranberry juice. My mouth was expecting the sweetness of grapes, but it got the sour of cranberries and it was a rude awakening. I literally blew that right out of my mouth, spitting it all over somewhere. I was not going to swallow that stuff.

If you take a swig of sin, do you spit it out, or do you swallow it?

Have you, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “lost the power to vomit” over sin, especially your own sin? 

Are there people in your life who are gently trying to warn you about sin, but are you dismissing them?

Christians don’t take some kind of morbid pleasure in hunting for sin. On the other hand, Christians aren’t afraid to have sin exposed. The more they see their sin, the more amazing grace becomes to them. And we know that sin we are blind to can be a subtle silent assassin, endangering our relationship with the Lord and each other.

Here’s what the fight of faith looks like.

Gospel faith says with the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23–24). 

Gospel faith engages the process of repentance (Four R’s)

  1. Relapse (fallen)
  2. Remorse (grieved)
  3. Repentance (turn from sin to Jesus)
  4. Restoration to joy

This is not a one-time thing. Martin Luther said the whole Christian life is a life of repentance and faith.

This is fighting sin. And this is something we can’t do alone.

Fighting as Family

When you sin or are tempted to sin, take it to the family. The fight for faith is a family fight.

Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his book Life Together

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.

To conceal your sin is a place of great danger.

To confess your sin is a place of great safety.

James 5:16: “Confess your sin one to another.” Not just to God—to each other! Why?

Pastor Matthew Westerholm has put it well when he said if you keep your sin in the dark, it stays damp and grows mold and rot. If it’s in the light, it’s power can weaken as it dries out and shrivels from the heat of the sun. 

Being honest about your sin shows that sin’s grip is loosening and the gospel’s grip is tightening on your heart (I’m loved – what do I have to hide, prove, or fear?). 

In your discipleship, where do you have space for confession?

Over the last few years, one of the practices we have been cultivating in our small groups is what we call “DNA time.” It’s a regular time for men and women to meet separately in smaller groups of 3–4 to get at deeper matters of the heart. DNA is an acronym that stands for:

  1. Discover (confess sins and celebrate graces)
  2. Nurture (apply gospel truth for spiritual growth)
  3. Act (consider what to remove or add to kill sin and nurture belief)

In your life, who are you going to with these things? Who in your small group knows? Who at Bethlehem knows?

Here is the question we will end with: 

When you do share (Discover), what do you point people to in order to grow (Nurture)? There are many ingredients to this—what I will share here is at least part of the core.


I began this message by saying love is some kind of animating factor for holiness. Conversely, the breakdown of love has a way of leading to unholiness. When you go looking for love in the wrong places, you can start crossing lines bit by bit and end up in places of unholiness you never imagined you would go. 

In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller tells the story of a friend who as at the top of his profession, but an addiction to prescription drugs forced him to resign and enter rehab for substance abuse. He became addicted in part because of the expectation (I so resonated with this) that he should always be productive, dynamic, upbeat, and brilliant. But he refused to blame other people’s demands for his collapse. “My life was built on two premises … The first was that I could control your opinion and approval of me through my performance. The second was—that was all that mattered in life” (Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, page 77).

What led to his substance abuse? His unholiness, as it were? He was looking for love in the wrong places.

To borrow a phrase from Richard Lovelace, this man “wasn’t able to warm himself by the fire of God’s love, but was instead stealing love and self-acceptance from other sources.”

If love in some way animates holiness, what animates love? 1 John 4:19 tells us “We love because he first loved us.” To give love, we must first receive love—again and again and again and again. The only thing that is powerful enough to animate your holiness is the love of Jesus for you.

Do you know the depth, the richness, the consistency, and the intensity of God’s love for you in Christ?

This morning we have a teaching aid on the Communion Table before us to help us understand this.

The intensity of love is revealed in the price one’s willing to pay to posses the object of one’s affections. What will you suffer to have what you love?

We know what Jesus suffered to have who he loves. This Table takes us back to a moment in history, to a body that was broken and bleeding on a cross. In this Jesus doesn’t just tell us how deep and committed his love is—he shows us.

In the first Communion, Jesus broke bread and said this is my body, broken for you … I’m laying down my life for you … I love you with an intensity of a love that is unparalleled. No other love comes even close to this.

One reason God has given us Communion is to have a regular practice in our discipleship that concretely drives home for us how high and wide and deep is the love of Christ for us … forever.

This is the kind of love to warm yourself by that animates holiness.

Downtown Campus

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South Campus

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Sundays: 10:30am