WILL . . . FOR YOU”
Sanctification in the Thessalonian Epistles
Source: Wesleyan Theological Journal
of the great biblical texts on holiness are to be found in the Thessalonian
Epistles. The doctrine would be much impoverished without them. And yet these
texts have been accorded little serious attention and study. A review of
scholarly publications over the past two decades
has turned up but one article concerned with their interpretation, and that
study was focused on a relatively minor point.
(Of course, all full-scale commentaries include some treatment of these
the Wesleyan movement does not exhibit the same general avoidance of these
passages, this author has been unable to find any specialized treatment of them.
The reference by its scholars to the great holiness texts of the Thessalonian
Epistles is generally incidental and/or supportive.
One senses that they are regarded as important texts, comprising part of the
biblical basis for the doctrine of sanctification. However, they are seldom
accorded an extended expositional treatment (except in the commentaries).
we proceed from the conviction that these great texts of Scripture deserve a
more serious hearing. We also have an interest in the thematic development of
this doctrine, as one of the major motifs of the Thessalonian correspondence. In
this connection, it may be noted that one of the advantages in the study of this
subject is the possession of good reports on the historical situation of these
two particular letters (in
1 Thessalonians 1
–3). Thus we believe an exegesis which embraces contextual as well as
grammatical considerations can greatly enrich our doctrinal appropriation of
these great holiness texts.
key passages have been selected for special study:
1 Thessalonians 3:12
–13; 4:3–8; 5:23–24. The major subject of these three texts—there can be
no questioning of this fact—is sanctification. A fourth text,
2 Thessalonians 2:13
–14, also speaks of sanctification in a significant affirmation concerning
salvation. Moreover, no less than a half dozen other passages
reflect such close parallels in wording and intention top the major
sanctification texts that they, too, must be accorded some place in the
development of the subject.
1 Thessalonians 3:12
Prayer and Sanctification. We observe, in the Thessalonian Epistles, a
close relationship between prayer and sanctification. Two of the three primary
texts are, informal, benedictory prayers.
They represent an expression of the apostle’s wish before God on behalf
of his young converts (from whom he had been so untimely bereaved).
While he expresses thanks to God for a good report concerning them, their faith
and love, he earnestly desires their further progress in the gospel unto
Christian maturity. Thus he prays that he might be granted an opportunity for
further ministry to them. But that he must leave in the Lord’s hands. And so
he comes to the essential concern of his heart. Whether he be personally present
or absent, he prays that the Lord will make their love to “increase and
As Klopfenstein suggests in the Wesleyan Bible Commentary, “the
two verbs suggest vast area of the spirit which the Thessalonians have yet to
explore and make their own.”
In so expressing his desire for them, Paul directs their attention to the
limitless potentiality for growth and love to one another and to all men.
Moreover, he points to the practical realization of such agape-love
in his own life and ministry as an example to them (“as we do to you”).
Love and Holiness. We know with Earnest Best that “. . . love and
holiness are not in our context to virtues among other virtues but are umbrella
words for the whole of Christian activity.”
Their order in Paul’s prayer also suggests that the way of holiness is
marked by an increasing love. Indeed, growth in the agape-love of God
leads unto holiness. And Paul looks to holiness as the grand objective of the
Christian life and experience. Thus, the apostle prays for the maturation of his
converts, to the end that God may establish their hearts unblamable in holiness
before His presence.
the basis of grammatical analysis alone, it is not possible to say whether or
not in this instance the apostle refers to a present realization of holiness in
this life. However, two contextual considerations confirm this inference as
correct. In the first place, one must reckon with a parallel, in the prayer of
1 Thessalonians 5:23
There Paul prays not only for sanctification but preservation as “blameless at
the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Moreover, in view of the personal appeal
to his own life and conduct in this prayer, we are drawn to give attention to
the testimonial of
1 Thessalonians 2:10
–12: “you are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless
was our behavior to you believers.” No doubt this was the kind of life Paul
exhorted and encouraged and charged each of them to lead (see verses 11–12)
“as a life worthy of God.” He also prayed for them to this end.
choice of wording in this prayer connotes, further more, a certain steadiness
and uncompromising inner resolve with respect to holiness.
The quality of blamelessness, it may be noted, is particularly attributed to the
heart. Thus Paul refers to more than a certain blamelessness of outward
behavior. Holiness is an inward purity before God. It is not man’s judgment
but God’s presence which is an inward purity before God. It is not man’s
judgment but God’s presence which is the standard. Leon Morris’s comment is
apropos: “We should be in no doubt as to the high standard that is set before
the final phrase of the prayer, Paul seems to infer that only those who are so
sanctified will have a share with God’s saints at the coming of our Lord. We
do not wish to debate here the identification of “the saints,” whether they
be angels or men.
The important point is that they are described as “his holy ones.” It is
such as these that accompany His presence. Thus we conclude that when Paul
speaks of holiness in relation to the parousia, he has in view that
holiness or sanctification “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews
1 Thessalonians 4:3
Holiness vs. Immorality. Our interpretation of the preceding prayer is
confirmed by the verses which follow, in
1 Thessalonians 4:1
–2 (which prepare for verses 3–8). Here Paul calls to mind and exhorts the
Thessalonians to live in accordance with the instructions he had given them.
He beseeches them as they are doing, so to do more and more. Thus he urges them
to grow, particularly in the area of love (see 3:12 and 4:10). “The emphasis
is on achieving, going forward, making faster progress.”
focus and interest is, in this section, on practical instructions for the
Christian life. They are under obligation, Paul affirms,
to live as “to please God.”
And what manner of life is pleasing to God? Certainly not a life characterized
by immorality or uncleanness!
Rather—Paul here makes the point so very clearly—“this is the will of God,
your sanctification . . .”
all the commentators recognize that in these words the apostle has set forward a
general principle for living of the Christian life.
He points to the will of God as “the ultimate guide to, and motivation
Moreover, the form of the Greek word used here for sanctification implicates a
process of growth.
And the threefold emphasis in context on the theme of abounding more and more
(3:12; 4:1, 10) emphasizes this aspect of sanctification.
is also to be noted that Paul is speaking of holiness in a very practical sense.
He moves from statement of a general principle, to specific application(s) of it
in the affairs of life. It is not our purpose here to debate a particular view
of interpretation relative to the several difficulties posed in this paragraph.
Rather we call attention to the dominant thrust of the passage. Clearly
Paul teaches that sanctification embraces the sexual realm of man’s
experience. His conduct in these regards is to be characterized by holiness.
Morris says, “This is true of all of life, but we must not overlook its
relevance in the sphere of sexual morality.”
The pagan world displayed its decadence in various forms of sexual
–32). But the apostle asserted, the Christian is to have no truck with such
evil practices. They are incompatible with God’s will. They are incompatible
with Christian sanctification. And sanctification is what God requires of us in
every part of life.
On the interpretation of some, in verse 6, Paul himself extends the application
to include other relationships in life as well.
Be that as it may, the words “the Lord is an avenger in all these
things,” certainly do suggest a broader application of the principal
passage reminds us that there is a negative side to holiness. We are exhorted,
by use of a strong verb, to “abstain from” immorality, passion, lust,
transgression of a brother, and uncleanness. Thus, we are called to separate
ourselves from all evil (see
1 Thessalonians 5:22
). We are expected to exercise self-control over our bodies and minds, as well
as the other faculties of our personality.31 And we are to conduct
ourselves in all things with a view to holiness and honor, as is pleasing to
A Fourfold Appeal. The apostle supports his exhortation to holiness with
a fourfold appeal.
Following their order of presentation in the paragraph, we note that he urges
their serious attention to sanctification in consideration of (a) the will of
God, (b) the judgment of God, (c) the call of God, and (d) the Spirit of God.
apostle describes sanctification as “God’s will . . . for you.” Since he
does not use the article, we are not to infer that sanctification represents, as
it were, the whole will of God for man. But, it is included in that which
God wishes or desires in his people. “This is what God wants them to do, and
there can be no higher sanction.”
The exhortation to abstain from porneia (i.e., fornication), in this
context, implicates the idea of devotement to God, and God alone. The term
“fornication,” of course, includes all sorts of uncleanness, in particular
sexual impurities and license. Paul knew that in the Thessalonian context (as in
ours), one of the most difficult hurdles that any pagan convert had to clear was
the area of sex. The culture of the day was saturated with polygamy, adultery,
homosexuality, and promiscuity. Many of the religious cults even practiced
sacramental fornication as part of their worship. But Paul exhorts the Christian
community in clear words (as reflected by Phillips’ paraphrase): “God’s
plan is to make you holy, and that entails first of all a clean cut with sexual
Paul introduces a negative incentive to holiness of life. He forewarns his
readers of God’s judgment or vengeance upon all these things. In this
connection he appeals to his previous words of testimony to them (evidently,
this appeal had common place in his ministry). He urges them to consider the
righteousness and holiness of God himself. The Lord cannot tolerate the practice
of immorality or the transgression of men against one another. These are wrongs
which He will rectify by the execution of righteous judgment. Thus, no man can
reckon on escaping the consequences of his evil deeds.
the apostle continues, “God has not called us for uncleanness, but in
holiness.” Here the ethical quality of holiness is set forward very clearly,
in the contrast with uncleanness or impurity. Let no man say that God’s
calling has led him into a life of immorality and licentiousness. Rather, let
him heed the exhortation in Scripture: “As he who called you is holy, be holy
yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). God’s purpose in and for our
lives is realized only when we walk in holiness
(i.e. “the most thorough purity”).
The argument here is that for a Christian not to pursue a life of holiness is
for him to deny the divine purpose in saving him in the first place.
Commentators frequently call attention in this statement to the
interchange of prepositions: from “for uncleanness,” to “in
holiness.” Paul’s choice of “in” before holiness does seem intentional.
Thereby he describes holiness as the sphere or atmosphere in which the believer
is to live and act. So Vincent concludes: “Sanctification is the
characteristic life-element of the Christian, in which he is to live.”
Thus sanctification is not merely a goal set before us by reason of God’s
call, but a process to be implemented and realized now in our present lives in
fulfillment of that call. Holiness is to be, as it were, the very atmosphere in
which we live and breathe.
final appeal is important for its direct correlation between the work of
sanctification in the life of the believer, and the Person and presence of the
By his ordering of words (in the Greek), the apostle has placed marked emphasis
on the adjective “holy” as descriptive of the Spirit. Phillips has caught
this intonation and translated it in a splendid fashion: “It is not for
nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit.” Whoever thus
despises, that is, sets aside and thus disregards the divine call and injunction
to holiness disregards God in his ministry to and within us
through the presence of His Spirit. Impurity is “more than simply a failure to
keep some man-made rule. It is a sin against the living presence of God.”
Seen in its proper light, sin is rejection of God the Holy Spirit.
the other hand, “if the Spirit’s ministry is not rebuffed (cf. 5:19), but
rather lovingly received, he will lead unerringly to the entire sanctification
of the whole person (cf. 5:23–24).”
Through the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit, God is at work to accomplish
the process of sanctification in the believer’s life—as he cooperates with
and responds in obedience to God’s working in his heart. Thus God not only
calls but enables us to live the life of holiness.
With this appeal Paul brings to a climax the argument of the paragraph. His main
point has been to demonstrate the utter incompatibility of a life of impurity
and sin with a life which conforms to God’s will for His people. “Paul’s
words are strong: the rejection of God’s will is the rejection of God.”
And—let it be stated again: God’s will . . . for you, is sanctification.
1 Thessalonians 5:23
Sanctified Wholly. Again, we enter the context of prayer.
In this case there are two distinct petitions followed by a note of confident
assurance. The first petition is for sanctification; the second, for
preservation. The accompanying assurance acclaims the faithfulness of God for
the realization of both in the life of believers.
discern significance in the prayer’s description of the Lord as “the God of
2 Thessalonians 3:16
). As a translation of the Hebrew shalom, “peace” connotes complete
personal and spiritual prosperity of well-being. As such, the word is nearly
synonymous with salvation and encompasses all the blessings associated with it.
Thus the petition may be read as follows: “May the God of salvation and
wholeness sanctify you wholly . . .”
The word here translated “wholly” is a double compound and signifies, as
John Wesley has observed, both “wholly and perfectly; every part and all that
concerns you; all that is of or about you.”
It specifically refers to that which is total or complete in a qualitative
Morris agrees with this interpretation, affirming the word brings out the
thought of reaching one’s proper end, the end for which one was made.
Thus the petition is for the consummation of God’s saving work in the life of
the believer. In this connection, it is to be noted that God’s call and
purpose embrace the complete sanctification of every Christian (see 2
Preserved Blameless. In this instance, the apostle goes on to speak of
sanctification in a further dimension.
He now speaks of the blameless preservation of the entire person—spirit, soul,
and body—at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not our purpose here to
debate the question of man’s trichotomous constitution.
The stress of the passage clearly is directed to encompass every part of man’s
It represents Paul’s way of insisting that the whole man, and not some part
only, is to be entirely set apart to God. Morris calls attention to the
interesting sacrificial associations of the added qualifier “the whole” (or
“entire” in this second position as well. In the Greek Old Testament (and
elsewhere), it was used as descriptive of both the stones of the alter and the
victims which were offered. Thus, its usage here may suggest the entire
surrender or consecration of a man to God involved in sanctification.
the other hand, the emphasis in this text is on God’s faithfulness to
accomplish this sanctifying work in the believer. The whole being of man, now
referred to in a quantitative sense,
is to be made holy. “The cleansing is to reach into every part of a man’s
nature: his affections, his will, his imagination, the spring of his motive
life. His body is included as the body of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)
and as the vehicle and instrument of personal life (cf.
Thus Paul emphasizes the comprehensive reach of sanctification. As Robertson has
stated: the adjective translated “whole” means “complete in all its parts.
. . . There is to be no deficiency in any part.”
sanctification, however, is not to be deferred until the Lord’s coming, as
this passage makes clear.
For Paul proceeds to speak of preservation—as
blameless in that day. This further petition also implicates the possibility of
falling away from sanctification. It implicates the need for perseverance and
diligence. It implicates, finally, a growth in holiness until the consummation
of God’s sanctifying work throughout our whole being, including our body as
well as spirit and soul.
brief affirmation to this great prayer for sanctification has about it the ring
of a magnificent confidence. By its inclusion Paul affirms that sanctification
is God’s work in the believer. God is “the Doer” we well as “the
Caller” in sanctification.
We are reminded of the text of
1 Thessalonians 4:7
–8 which speaks of God as the One who has called us in holiness, and then
proceeds to speak of the indwelling ministry of his Holy Spirit. The thought of
2 Thessalonians 2:13
–14 may also be in mind here. There Paul speaks of sanctification in
relationship to God’s purpose for our salvation. It is the fulfillment or
consummation of His design and calling upon our lives. Our assurance of
sanctification, therefore, is based upon the character of God.
He is faithful; He will do what He says; and His purpose is calling men in that
they may be holy. Sanctification does not rest upon the achievements of men.
It is, from start to finish a work of grace.
sanctification of his converts represents one of the chief concerns of the
Apostle in 1 Thessalonians. He directs their attention to sanctification, and
prays to God for the realization of holiness in their lives. Moreover, we
2 Thessalonians 1:3
–4 an indication that his prayers on their behalf had been granted.
conclusion, we outline summarily the major teachings of these holiness texts, as
an aid to their doctrinal appropriation.
In the first instance, Paul has described sanctification as (a)
experiential, (b) ethical, and (c) entire. He also has characterized the life of
holiness as (a) pleasing, (b) practical, and (c) progressive. It is to be noted
how comprehensive the treatment really is (we have merely outlined it in this
the subject of sanctification in the Thessalonian Epistles is deserving of
serious attention and further study. We also believe it is important to
appropriate and proclaim these great truths today. How timely this message . . .
“in times like these”!
P. A. van Stempvort, “Eine stilistische Losung
einer alten Schwierigkeit in 1 Thessalonians V. 23, New Testament Studies
7(3, ‘61), 262–265.