Sexual Immorality and Sanctification

Dr. Brian Allison

The presidential impeachment trial began this past Thursday (January 14, 1999), with prosecutors presenting their opening arguments. This Tuesday, the President's lawyers will begin their defence; and apparently they are intending to mount a very 'vigorous defence'. As we think of the Clinton scandal (I like to call it the "Clinton Phenomenon"), it seems that we have been forced to reconsider the whole matter of sexual morality. It is patently evident that many people have a low view of sexual morality. Sexual immorality is a rampant problem. Sexual immorality is a serious problem even among Christians. Recently, I found out that a Christian brother and personal friend fell into adultery. What a tragedy.

Addressing the subject of sexual immorality is a delicate matter; and I trust that we will approach this subject with maturity, openness, and a teachable spirit. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 reads, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger of all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you." With this fourth chapter of Thessalonians, the apostle Paul gives instructions to us concerning how we are to live. He sets forth practical Christian ethics – that is, moral principles that should govern how believers should behave, how they should conduct their lives.

The moral will of God

Paul casts these ethical instructions in the form of commandments. He says, "You have received from us how you ought to live so as to please the Lord" (cf. 4:1). That which Paul delivered to the Thessalonian believers was simply the commandments of the Lord, that is, Paul declared God's will to these believers. He affirms, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification" (4:3a). Paul is referring to the moral will of God, that is, God's will in terms of right behaviour and appropriate conduct. In proceeding to comment on God's moral will, Paul does not provide a comprehensive statement of its content, but rather focuses on a particular aspect of that will – a critical and important aspect. He says, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification [or your holiness]" (4:1a). The thrust of the original is that we are to be in the process of sanctification.

Sanctification involves two elements: consecrationand purification. Consecration entails being set aside from common use for holy use. For instance, in the Old Testament cultus, the utensils, instruments, etc. which were used in the temple were considered to be holy; they were used exclusively for temple worship. Purification entails being free from sin, evil, and wickedness. In the account in Exodus 19, the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai. God had instructed Moses to command the people to wash their garments in preparation for his descension. That washing of the garments signified the cleansing away of ceremonial filth in order that they might be qualified to enter God's presence. Accordingly, our sanctification (which is God's moral will) means that we are to be consecrated unto the Lord. We have been saved and separated out of the world, set aside for fellowship with God, and thus we are to be dedicated and devoted to Him. But also, our sanctification means that we are to live our lives free from sin, free from moral stain, free from wickedness; we are to live pure lives.

Abstaining from sexual immorality

Now, having stated the necessity for sanctification, Paul focuses on a particular aspect of this sanctification – "That is, that you abstain from sexual immorality" (4:1a). Why does Paul focus on this particular aspect of being holy? Well, it is perhaps the area in which we find the greatest temptation, where we find the greatest expression of imperious desires, for it is that area of human experience that offers the greatest pleasure. The Greek word for 'sexual immorality' is pornia, from which we derive the word pornography (material designed to elicit sexual desires). The word pornia simply means any kind of illicit sex. So, Paul says that it is essential to our sanctification that we avoid any kind of illicit sex, such as, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, paedophilia, bestiality, etc.

Now, it is interesting that Paul is addressing Christians here. What does that tell you? Christians can fall into sexual immorality. Have you fallen into sexual immorality? Now, Paul proceeds to give us that which should be the proper attitude and approach to our bodies, which should serve as the backdrop for guiding us in moral behaviour. He states, "That each of you know how to possess his own vessel [or instrument] in sanctification and honor" (4:4). The term 'vessel' is variously interpreted by the commentators. Some understand the term as referring to the 'wife', and others as referring to the 'body' itself. I believe that the term refers to the body (i.e., one's own person). Practically speaking, to describe the wife as the husband's vessel strikes one as somewhat degrading. That kind of language counters and undermines the wife's position of dignity which she shares with the husband in a marriage relationship. But further, when we examine how this term is variously used in the New Testament, the concept of the body is clearly in view. For instance, we read in 2 Corinthians 4:7, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves;" again, Romans 9:22 reads, "What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?"

We are to be in control of our bodies, and we are to control our bodies in a certain manner – "that each of you know how to possess [control, harness] his own vessel [body] in sanctification and honor" (4:4). Paul, is repetitive in his use of the term sanctification (it is the same term, in the original, as we find in vs. 3; and again in vs. 7). Again, simply put, we are to keep our bodies from sin; we are not to use our bodies as instruments of any kind of illicit sex. We are not to engage in prostitution, or in lesbianism, or in rape, etc. No, we are to keep our bodies pure and morally clean because our bodies belong to God. 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,18-20 reads (and this is why sexual immorality is such a horrid offence against God), "Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for [sexual] immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ [that when Christ died, He died to redeem your body as well as your soul]? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be!...Flee [sexual] immorality [do everything you can to get as far away from it as you can]. [Because] Every other sin [stealing, murder, etc.] that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body [that is, the body is the object of the sin, directly involved in the sin]. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit [that your body is the place in which God is pleased to dwell] who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body." Because our bodies belong to God through the purchase of the atoning blood of Christ, our bodies have become the sanctuary of the living God. That is why our bodies are to be consecrated and pure. My Christian brothers and sisters, your body does not belong to you. You cannot do with your body what you want. You should not denigrate or despise the body. It is a holy sanctuary for the indwelling God.

So, we should control our bodies in sanctification. But further, we should control our bodies in 'honor'. That is, we should treat our bodies with dignity or respect. We should not sexually misuse or abuse our bodies. People can be quite perverted in practice in order to experience a sexual high. For instance, we should not use questionable objects on or in our bodies. We should not subject our bodies to harmful manipulation or physical excess. We are to treat our bodies with honour because they belong to the Lord. Romans 12:1,2 reads, "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." It really does matter what you do with, how you treat, your body; and you ought not to do anything with your body, or to your body, that would make you ashamed before the eyes of God. He sees everything, and we will give an account to Him because our bodies do not belong to us, but they belong to God. My friend, if you have misused or abused your body, if you have committed sexual immorality, regardless of its nature, sincerely confess your sin to God and repent. Ask God for forgiveness and cleansing. 1 John 1:9 reads, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

The dynamic behind sexual immorality

Lust is the dynamic that drives sexual immorality – "Not in lustful passion [lit. passion of lust], like the Gentiles who do not know God" (4:5). Why is it that people commit sexual immorality? Why is it that people engage in radical, and even 'kinky', sexual behaviour? What is it that controls people? – carnal lusts. Many people allow themselves to be controlled by lusts, rather than harnessing them. Lust can get a hold on someone to the point of controlling him so that he no longer thinks straight. He or she becomes irrational, acting as an animal, desperately needing some kind of physical (and emotional) release. We are not to allow carnal lusts to control us, to govern us, so that we become the slaves of it.

When we yield to carnal lusts and promiscuously gratify our sexual urges, we reflect the behaviour of an unbeliever, not a believer – "not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God" (4:5). Those who are ignorant of God, His character and standards, allow themselves to be controlled by carnal lusts. The logic is simple: if you are ignorant of God, then you will have no fear of God; if you have no fear of God, then you will not possess sufficient restraints for your moral behaviour – thus 'anything goes' for there is no ultimate accountability. Now, as Christians, we know God – we know that He is holy and righteous in all His ways; we know that He has high standards; and we know that we ought to fear Him, for He is a God of judgement. "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hb. 10:31). In committing sexual immorality, we demonstrate that we do not know God. If lust controls us, then God does not; if God controls us, then lust cannot. Who is your master? Who or what controls you? Who or what did you serve this past week?

The carnage of sexual immorality

Committing sexual immorality has damaging and serious consequences – "And that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter" (4:6a). It is a truism to say that sexual immorality is sin, that it is a transgression of God's Law, but it still must be stated. My friend, when you engage in sexual immorality, illicit sexual activity, you not only sin, but you may cause someone else to sin as well. Not only have you transgressed the Law of God, but you may have caused another to transgress that Law. And God will hold you accountable. Further, not only are you the cause of sin, but you may also become the means by which much pain and suffering come into the lives of others. You must not defraud or cheat a fellow-believer. When you have sex with another man's wife, or when you have sex with another woman's husband, the spouse of the adulterer or adulteress is betrayed and sinned against. In your sexual immorality, you become the means and the tool of the evil one to destroy a sacred covenant between a husband and wife. You wreak inestimable damage, and you bring overwhelming hurt and pain, into the life of the victim-spouse. Nothing good or redeeming comes out of sexual immorality.

God will severely judge the sexually immoral person, "because the Lord is the avenger of all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you" (4:6b). God will avenge the spouse who has been sinned against because when two people exchange vows (in the enactment of the marriage covenant), they do so in the presence of God Who bears witness. With the establishment of the marriage covenant, God stands as the Judge to bring vengeance on the one who violates that covenantal relationship through unfaithfulness. Marriage is sacred in the eyes of God; and anyone who desecrates it will bear His wrath. Hebrews 13:4 reads, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled [one man with one woman]; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge." So, God will take up the cause of the victim, and He will come with wrath on the offenders. We must take this solemn warning to heart.

The rationale behind sexual morality

Christians are to be sexually pure and morally right before God because true salvation entails sanctification. God's call into salvation is a call into holiness. We read, "For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity [uncleanness], but in sanctification" (4:7). Self-evidently, when God called us into salvation, He did not call us into a life of sin. In receiving Christ, we took on the obligation to be like Him. That is why God continues to thunder in our hearts, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Pe. 1:16; see Lev. 11:44f; 19:2; 20:7). God's standard has not changed. Now, the structure of the language of verse 7, in the original, is rather interesting. A contrast between uncleanness and sanctification is presented. Again, he says, "For God has not called us for the purpose [or goal] of impurity, but in [the sphere of] sanctification." The moral context of our daily living is to be that of holiness; and as a result, we then enjoy fellowship with God. Our daily environment, as it were, should be marked by holiness.

Now, you may retort, "Who can conform to this high and holy standard? How is it possible to be fully consecrated to God? How is it possible to be pure?" It is possible because God has given us His Holy Spirit – "Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you" (4:8). My Christian brothers and sisters, we have no excuse for sin and sexual immorality. We have no excuse for engaging in any kind of illicit sexual misdemeanour. We, as believers, have received His Holy Spirit who enables us, who should control us, who empowers us, who leads us, who convicts us, who infills us. We have received the Spirit of God who is essentially holy.

If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit indwells you; and how dare we engage in that which is unholy or unclean, and thereby sin against God. There are no excuses. Paul, in effect, says, "Listen, what I am saying to you is not coming from someone who is a prune, or a prig, or a moralistic 'fuddy-dud'. You are not simply receiving the words of a man, but you are receiving the Word of God; and if you reject what I am saying, you are not rejecting my word, but rather you are rejecting God's Word, and you will pay the price" – "For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus...the will of God" (4:2,3a). Sanctification is serious business. And so we read in Hebrews 12:14, "Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord." If you do not pursue sanctification, which entails keeping your body wholly consecrated and pure unto the Lord, you will not enjoy the eternal beatific vision of God.

Now, I particularly want to address young people. Young people, do not take these words lightly. It is important what you do with your body. You have come to a stage in your life where your hormones have awakened. You are becoming, or are, intensely interested in the opposite sex. You are experiencing sexual urges and impulses. Be careful! Five minutes of blindness can result in a lifetime of misery and shame. I challenge you to make a commitment to the Lord that you will keep your body consecrated and pure for that future husband or wife (if God is pleased to give you a lifelong partner), and only for that husband or wife. I am sure that you could speak to different adults and they could tell you their tragic story of moral shame and emotional pain because they did not follow the instruction to be holy. If you are a Christian, your body does not belong to you, it belongs to God. Therefore glorify God in, and through, your body.