Practical Holiness

If we are honest about what is involved in truly following Jesus Christ we have to recognize that following Jesus is more than just knowing the right stuff. Following Christ is a lifestyle.  And when we follow this lifestyle it will put us at odds with the culture around us.

In 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 Paul gives some very practical instructions for Christian living.  He doesn’t mince words.

Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

Paul lays out the overriding principle: we should live to please God.  In order to understand the general principle it might help if we state it negatively.   “We should not live to please ourselves”.  “We should not live to please those around us”. “We should not live to indulge our cravings”.  Instead, we should live to please the Lord.

It seems fair to ask “Why?” Two reasons: First, we should live to please Him because it is the right thing to do. He is God.  As God He deserves our obedience.  He has authority over us. He has a right to our obedience. Just as we try to achieve the goals set by our employer because they are our employer; just as we try to please our parents because they are our parents; so we should seek to please God because He is God.

Second, we should please Him because it is the smart thing to do.  He is a loving God.  He is not a vindictive tyrant.  He loves us. He wants our best.  He is a powerful and wise God.  He knows what is best for us and what’s best for the world around us.  He knows what choices will lead to the best life and what values will ultimately lead us to joy and peace.  It is the smart choice to live to please him. We must decide between whether we will cater to the inconsistent desires that live within us or stand on the character of God.

Paul said we should “be sanctified”.  The word sanctify means to be holy or to be “set apart” for God.  Sanctification is a process of becoming more like Christ.  We don’t receive sanctification; we grow into it.  We are constantly striving for holiness.  We must constantly be working to live by the instructions God has given us.

Don’t be deceived! We can do good things, obey rules, and look good but still not be living to please God.  Living to please God is as much about our attitude as it is behavior.  It’s a lot like worship.  You can sing songs, give money to the offering, follow along in the Scripture readings and take notes during the sermon and still not worship.  Worship is about our heart.  So is holiness.

As we move on in the text Paul gives us the first example of practical holiness.

Avoid Sexual Immorality

The word for immorality is the word porneia from which we get our word pornography.  Immorality is any sexual involvement (mentally or physically) that is outside the guidelines God has given.  Paul addresses the issue of sexual sins not necessarily because they are the worst sins but because they are the most prominent.

The world in which the Thessalonians were living was very immoral, Pastor John MacArthur writes,

Thessalonica was rife with such sinful practices as fornication, adultery, homosexuality (including pedophilia), transvestitism (men dressing like women), and a wide variety of pornographic and erotic perversions, all done with a seared conscience and society’s acceptance, hence with little or no accompanying shame or guilt. Unlike people in Western nations today, the Thessalonians grew up with no Christian tradition to support laws and standards that forbid the grosser manifestations of immorality.

Paul called the Thessalonians to go against the culture of their day.  Even though “everybody was doing it” Paul urged them to embrace God’s standards rather than the standards of the world.

Some people point to the Old Testament and observe that some prominent people in the Bible had multiple wives.  Some Biblical characters were guilty of incest (like Lot).  The sexual mores of the Old Testament were much more loose than what the New Testament seems to proclaim.  However, just because these people lived this way doesn’t mean this was a lifestyle approved by God.  No where does God command anyone to take a second wife.  The Laws of Exodus and Leviticus give a great deal of attention to rooting out sinful perversions.  The Bible accurately records what was taking place.  That doesn’t mean it approves those actions.

People argue that our sex drives are biological and as such they are normal.  They say, “If we weren’t supposed to act on these drives, why would we have them” (almost like saying, “it’s all God’s fault because He made us this way”)? The Biblical answer is that there is nothing wrong with these desires as long as they are to be channeled in the proper context of marriage.

Fire is something basically good but it can also be destructive.  When a fire is used for heat it is invaluable.  When fire is used to refine and purify it does a tremendous job.  However, when fire goes wild it destroys and kills.

Nuclear power is wonderful when it is used for a source of energy.  When it is used for bombs it is destructive.  Water is necessary for life.  Rain is needed for crops to grow.  There are all kinds of delights that come from the water.  However, when water becomes a hurricane or flood it quickly destroys everything in its path. In the same way, desires for sexual fulfillment are wonderful in their proper context. However, when our desires leave the proper parameters, what was once PRO-ductive now become DE-structive.

We live in a sex-saturated world.  The Internet has only made the problem worse (another example of something good being used in a bad way.) Here are some staggering statistics.  There is somewhere in the neighborhood of $57 billion (with a “b”) spent on pornographic web sites worldwide.  25% of all search engine requests are pornographically related.  12% of all websites are pornographic in nature.  100,000 of those sites involve child pornography.

In recent statistics 25% of men and 14% of women admit to committing adultery at least once.  These are the people who admit it!  Most of these relationships last in the neighborhood of 2 years. 17% of all divorces are causes by infidelity.  The statistics unfortunately are not much better within the church!

In addition to these problems there is a whole new form of unfaithfulness growing in our society.  It is a cyber-affair.  People meet in chat rooms on the Internet and develop psychological attachments with hidden people that rob their marriage of intimacy.  Most people who engage in this kind of emotional and mental adultery don’t think they are doing anything wrong.  It is a much bigger problem than you realize.

This is the kind of sexual immorality we are to stay away from.  These are behaviors that erect a barrier in our relationship with God and with each other.

Control Your Desires

To state the matter positively, Paul wrote, “each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God;” (v. 4-5)

The actual translation of the verse is “each of you should learn to control his own vessel” in a way that is holy and honorable.  The debate among translators is whether vessel refers to our body or whether it refers to our mate (see text note in NIV).  However, it seems more likely that Paul is saying, “Control yourself” (which is the way the NIV, ESV and NLT translate it).  I think Paul is stating the negative prohibition in a positive form. We are not just to abstain (negative) we are to control our bodies, desires and passions (positive).  We are not to be like the rest of the world that is driven by their hormones and desires.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 we read,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

Paul argued that our body is the place where God’s Spirit resides.  In other words we not only represent God in what we do, we take God into what we do.  What would happen if you realized that God was looking over your shoulder as you browsed the Internet?  How would your behavior be different if you remembered that God knew exactly what you were thinking?

An out of control person is a dangerous person.  Sexually transmitted diseases are running rampant in society because of out of control people.  AIDS has spread largely by the promiscuous nature of our day.  Broken homes, abortion, child abuse, homosexuality, and other sick perversions are a result of out-of-control passions.  We must work to control our appetites.

Don’t wrong your brother.

This leads to the last injunction. “In this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.” (v.6) Paul is here referring to what I’ll call “the ripple effect” in any immoral situation.  People argue all the time that they “aren’t hurting anyone” by their immoral actions. It’s just not true.

  • It hurts your spouse because it inevitably draws you away from them. No spouse can live up to an imagined relationship
  • It hurts your children.  It creates tension in the home.  It leads to emotional separation and then often to divorce.
  • It hurts your relationship with God and hinders your spiritual walk
  • It hurts the spouse and/or family or the future spouse/family of the person you are involved with.  It leaves scars that never fully heal.
  • It hurts those who turn to your for spiritual guidance
  • It hurts your friendships because you force people to choose
  • It hurts unbelievers who know you profess to follow Christ
  • It hurts the children who are victims of perversion or held hostage to ravaged homes
  • It hurts the babies who are aborted to keep from having to face the consequences of immoral choices

Paul wrote,

The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

In the final analysis, in addition to hurting others we are actually hurting ourselves.  In our desire to live for passions we are choosing to turn away from the path of God.  We are choosing to deaden our consciences and we become hardened to the things of God and to the people around us. We choose to be God’s enemy.  We choose to not care about anyone but ourselves.


It is difficult to be morally pure today.  We are bombarded with images of immoral behavior on every turn.  We see it on television, the Internet and even in the dress of people on the street.  E-mail has opened the door to all kinds of unsuspecting smut coming into our homes uninvited.  The privacy of the Internet and pay-per-view television has encouraged many to live secret lives. People now do in secrecy what they would have never done publicly. The rise of birth control has made people feel they can sin without consequence. Pastors, church leaders, and other respected citizens hide their addictions to pornography and perversity.   I suspect many here today feel they are losing the battle for holiness and purity.

So, what do we do?  I can’t give you any easy answer but I do want to suggest some general principles, Admit it can happen to you.  We cannot be naïve in this area.  If you think you are immune, you are already in trouble! We need to stand guard over our hearts and minds. If you are already caught in the grip of immoral behavior confess it to God.  Make this a matter of fervent prayer. Then find a trusted friend and admit your sin and ask them to help you become accountable for your actions.

Feed Your Mind with Good Food.  Paul told the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8,9) The best way to fight off the immoral messages of the world is to develop a deep hunger for the things of God.  Read the Bible. Get involved in classes and studies that will help you learn about God and allow you to experience the truth.  Censor your television habits.  Read better books.  The first step to killing the monster of lust is to starve it!

Hang out with those who are committed to faithfulness.  Hang out with people who are committed to their marriages.  Develop a peer support group that will encourage godliness. Significant relationships with immoral people will erode your foundation.

Marry a believer.  The Bible is clear on this issue, “do not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever.”  When we marry someone who is not a Christian, we are inviting the values of the world into our relationship. It is hard enough to maintain God’s standards in a Christian home.  It is very difficult in a home where Christ is not honored.

Put your energy into your marriage.  If we put as much energy into pleasing our mates as we do flirting with others, our relationships would be much stronger and much more satisfying.  Men, we need to work at turning away from that “lingering look”.  We must give time to talking with our mate and look for ways to creatively show affection to them.  We need to continue to date the woman we married.  We must learn to cherish the “whole person”.  We must give priority to our families.

Women, you need to understand the physical needs of your husband.  He is a visual person so use that to your advantage. Be his lover and also be his companion in some of his recreational activities. Let him know that you admire him and still find him attractive.  Help us understand what you need (believe me, we really don’t know.)

If we put our focus on meeting the needs of our spouses rather than seeking additional shallow relationships we will discover WHY God prohibited immoral behavior.  He didn’t prohibit these things because He doesn’t want us to have any fun.  He didn’t forbid these things because he wanted to rob us of pleasure.  Instead He gave us these guidelines because He wanted us to trust Him to show us the way to something better than the world has to offer.  He wanted us to discover the joy and intimacy of committed love in marriage. He wanted us to discover the wonder of making love to the same person for the rest of our lives with a freedom that can’t be found in a casual relationship. He wanted us to find that deep security that comes from love that is deeper than the thrills and attractions of superficial encounters.  He wanted to spare us the regret, the ruined lives, the scars, the heartbreak and the emptiness of living only for the next thrill.

In short, He wants us to discover His love.  He wants us to see the beauty of His creation and His design.  He wants us to discover the life He planned out for us.  And He did it all in the hope that in the process we would discover Him.  He hoped that our discovery of deep love with each other, might lead us to discover His deeper love for us.  He wanted us to know the security of His love; the new beginning of His forgiveness; the incredible hope found in His promise; and the majestic awe and splendor of His holiness. God is not some celestial killjoy. He loves you.  He loves me.  And He wants us to enjoy the life that He has created for us.  He will lead us to this life He has for us if we will follow Him.

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