Paul flatly states, “It is God's will that you should be sanctified” (4:3). Careful attention to its literary and theological context is essential for understanding this verse.
First, the term sanctified always has ethical content in Christianity (see McCown, 29). Sexual purity is a specific manifestation of the general holiness of life demanded of God's people.
Second, just as God's purposes of salvation for his creation are dynamic and ongoing, so sanctification here refers to the active and dynamic process of making holy (see McCown, 28). Paul's ethical commands point to this continuing expression of holiness in life.
Third, sanctification is both the path and the goal of the Christian walk. The essential contribution of Wesleyan theology to the wider church is to remind it of the present, realized dimension of God's eschatological work of sanctification. To see holiness only as a goal is to deprive the present Christian life of true significance. On the other hand, overconcentration on the realized aspect, the present state of holiness, is to empty salvation of its future hope and purpose.
Fourth, the whole will of God can be summed up in this one statement: “Be holy, as I am holy.” Holiness is the normal condition of the Christian, not an option available only to superlative Christians. Sanctification thus becomes one of many terms used in the NT to express God's saving purpose for his creation.
Problems of sexual immorality in the young church reflect the complex situation in Thessalonica. As new converts from paganism, some may not have broken completely with their former pattern of life. Given the prominence of phallic symbolism in the Cabiri cults and Paul's exhortation to sexual selfcontrol, the NIV translation “his own body” (lit. “vessel”) is appropriate in v. 4 (See 1Sa 21:5 where in NRSV “vessel” is a euphemism for the male genitalia.) Holiness is incompatible with sexual promiscuity.
But holiness is not asceticism. Human sexuality can be expressed legitimately and honourably within the bounds of marriage. Sexual immorality, by contrast, is essentially selfish and dishonourable. Such actions will not go unpunished, because God did not call his people for uncleanness but in holiness (see RSV, which captures Paul's meaning in v. 7 better than NIV). “The change in preposition from epi [for] to en [in] implies that sanctification is part of the Christian calling” (Bruce, 86).
Few things have contributed more to the downfall of believers than sexuality. However mature one might be, the constant bombardment from a society that does not know God (v. 5), coupled with the nature of sexual desires, provide ready ammunition for the Tempter (see 3:5). Paul's implied remedy is the continuing presence of the Spirit in the believer's life.
Implicit here and throughout the epistle (see esp. 2:12; 3:13; 4:3; 5:23) is the conviction that the holy life is not just a future possibility but must be a present reality. As Marshall observes, “What God calls his people to be, he will do for them, and sanctification in particular is his work in the believer (1Co 1:30; 6:11)” (p. 113).
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