When I asked you on Monday what your first thoughts were when you considered the word holiness, some of you thought of compliance with some legalistic code of behavior. Pentecostal Holiness? Mennonite Holiness? Puritan Holiness? Whoever Holiness. Some sects and denominations have trafficked heavily in this kind of spirituality in an effort to…
possess their own vessels in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, for God has called us for the purpose of purity. (And let it be known) he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (from 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, parentheses mine)
Our efforts to possess our own vessels in sanctification is more complicated than just identifying everything we think of as unholy about ourselves and then abstaining. What does one do with that unholy thought in the presence of this command? Just edit it out? Many a soul has tried. They have seen that thing within and agreed with the preacher that there is no good in them. In shame and fear of consequence they cap that thought and try to move on to things a bit more lovely and worthy of praise, but the unholy thought persists, driving the haver-of-that-thought to despair and a deeper conviction of their depravity. With this pattern of thinking, one is more apt to create and addict than a saint.
The book of Romans (written 7 years later) may have been very useful to the Thessalonian Holiness Movement in counseling those struggling with their personal sanctification. If all they heard Paul say was, be pure or else, it is doubtful if they made any progress in maintaining their own vessels with honor. Their inconsistency was bound to have puzzled them as they gave themselves wholeheartedly to managing their own sin. Perhaps Paul’s own theology was evolving as he too was personally working out his salvation in fear and trembling.
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man (Dr. Jeckel), but I see a different law in the members of my body (Mr Hyde), waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:21-24)
This passage looks like the sweaty kind of revelation a wrestler gets about his opponent when he has once again been pinned to the mat. It seems that in regard to sanctification, Paul had met his match. Interestingly, not once did Paul mention the flesh to the Thessalonians. This makes me think that he gleaned this knowledge as he tried to reform the Mr. Hyde within. I believe Paul’s victory over his flesh was secured as he pieced together a picture of his own dueling natures in light of the prevailing authorities: The Law? Or the Spirit? Paul understood as well as anyone that the Law’s singular contribution to the new life was as a tutor. It could teach, like no other, how futile sanctification is (void of Spirit) in the flesh.
For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. (Romans 7:5)
If we make a vow, take a pledge, make a promise or commit to personal holiness, the Law will step up to the lectern and make her point; “Moral rallies only excite the flesh. They are doomed from the outset. You must walk in the Spirit. Are we now clear?”
But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:6)
Paul had to reckon that his Mr. Hyde (the flesh) had been crucified and that his spirit was resurrected in Christ – raised up with a new nature. A NEW NATURE! From his revelations by the Spirit, through his own experience, and from those he met with, Paul arrived at a victorious theology regarding his inner duel. He reasoned…
So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (an adaption of Romans 7:24-25)
Paul may have not have fully understood the flesh and the Spirit when he first wrote to the Thessalonians but he did lay a foundation stone that would contribute to a future understanding of being made holy and sanctification…
For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Once again, Life (which, by nature, includes holiness) is in the Seed. James concurs…
In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. (from James 1:21)
I have approached holiness from a vain, naive place that was heavily dependent on my convictions and my will power. This was the best formula I can imagine in creating a yo-yo Christian. I was up on the days when I believed myself to be in compliance. I was down on those days when my performance was lagging. This was futility and striving after the wind. The tutor did her work however. I have come to understand that our Christian lives are nothing less than the Life of Christ. I have been FAR more successful in maintaining my vessel in honor by honoring the spiritual reality of my new nature and reckoning that my flesh has been crucified. After all, the Holy Spirit now indwells us.
Father, by your grace and mercy we have become a holy people and a royal priesthood. May this secret and its implication somehow leak out. May it dawn upon us who we actually are as Jesus’ younger brothers and sisters and as a new race of people. Amen.