Before I went into full-time ministry I worked as a Fitter-Turner. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a person who makes parts out of steel so that they fit exactly into other steel parts so that machines and devices and other equipment work properly. One thing that I miss about that job was seeing the results of a finished product. I’d take a piece of steel and I’d cut and form and shape it until it was perfectly sized for the job it needed to do. Then my foreman would say, “nice job Peter” and take it and give it to a customer who would look at it and say, “how do you guys make stuff like that?” There’s a great feeling of satisfaction that goes with that.
I don’t have that same sense of satisfaction in my present job. I have a pile of projects – all really good kingdom projects that are sitting on my desk. None of them are complete. I have plans I’m working on with the elders for a new leadership structure for our church. That’s not complete. Then there are all the people under my spiritual care. They are also a work in progress. None of them are complete either.
The truth is, there is something comforting and reassuring to know that we are a work in progress isn’t there? We are far from perfect. We make mistakes. We make promises and then fail to keep them. We place high expectations on ourselves (and others) and fail to meet them. Our love for God fluctuates and our obedience to God vacillates. It’s a wonder that God puts up with any of us.
And yet he does. God loves the people he created – in spite of their flaws and sin. But God has a special love for those who are his own. He adopts them into his family. He calls them his sons and daughters. He has set his seal upon them; he says, “I have redeemed you; you are now mine.” But it doesn’t stop there. God says, “Now I am going to change you, I’m going to transform you and make you whole.”
This truth is powerfully portrayed by way of a prayer by the Apostle Paul at the end of a letter he wrote to the believers in Thessalonica. He writes,
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.” (1 Thess 5:23–24)
Paul begins with the ultimate source, strength and security of our sanctification. It’s not us. He doesn’t say, “Lord, would you help them as they try as best they can to make themselves holy.” No, he says, “May the God of peace sanctify you completely.” Sanctification is the work of God.
Paul desires that God would sanctify the Thessalonians completely (or “entirely” or “wholly” as other translations have it). It’s a very rare word in the New Testament. It comes from two Greek words – holos, from which we get holistic (like holistic medicine), and telos, which means the end, or completion. When you put the two together – holoteles, you get something which means “whole, to the end, all the way through.” The NIV perhaps has the best translation of this – “may the God of peace sanctify you through and through.”
That’s not all. It gets better. Paul arranges all these Greek words in a chiastic structure. Hang in there now, I’ll explain. A chiasm (derived from the Greek letter X) is a literary device where a sequence of ideas are presented and then repeated in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as ideas are reflected back for emphasis.
Let me give you a couple of examples: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” That’s a chiasm. The words “going” and “tough” are repeated in reverse order in the second half of the sentence. The word “tough” is at the centre for emphasis. Jesus’ words in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” is a chiasm. The words “Sabbath” and “man” are repeated in reverse order, with “man” at the centre. Man is what matters to God, not Sabbath rules. It’s a simple, yet very clever and effective device to drive a point home.
Now watch how Paul uses it in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Here is how the verse is arranged in Greek:
Starting at the top and bottom we have God, the source and power of our sanctification, beginning where we are in the present and culminating with the return of Jesus. Coming in one line you have “sanctify” and “blameless” which are synonymous so they are mirrored. Then we have “you” mirrored with “spirit, soul and body.” At the very centre is Paul’s focus which is believers being sanctified completely, entirely – “through and through.”
You’re probably thinking, “That’s marvellous Peter. 10 points – you passed your Greek exam. But what does it mean?” It means that the God is so utterly committed to this process of sanctification that no part of you will go untouched, no area will be unaffected, no fragment of your life – no matter how damaged or broken or marred will be ignored. When God gave up his Son on the cross to save you, he was committed to rescuing and redeeming every single part of you.
You know, as well as I do, there are parts of our lives we’ve given up on. We just can’t fix them, no matter how hard we try. God’s got them. He’s going to fix them. There are certain bodily afflictions or disabilities we might have, or there are mental deficiencies we might struggle with such as depression or some other disorder. God is going to heal those disorders fully. There are certain besetting sins or weaknesses you’ve been trying to overcome and some of you have given up. God’s not giving up. He’s committed. And I tell you, if you’re a true Christian – if you belong to Jesus, the Spirit of God is going to prod you and poke you and trouble you over that weakness because God wants you to know HE will never give up.
When God sets about the work of saving and sanctifying a person my friends, he saves and sanctifies them to the uttermost. That’s Paul’s point of the “spirit, soul and body” part. There are all these theological arguments as to whether Paul is a trichotomist (we are made up of three parts: body and spirit and soul) or a dichotomist (we are made up of only two parts: body and spirit/soul). But honestly, who really cares? Paul’s point is when it comes to God’s saving work in us, no part is left untouched. No area goes unscathed. You might give up on God, but he will never give up on you.
Does that encourage you? Does that give you hope? I tell you; it gives me great hope.
Since the day I became a Christian, I entered into battle; I entered into war with the world, my flesh and the devil. There are certain sins – flaws, weaknesses, and habits that continue to plague me today. There are certain bodily appetites that, if not controlled, work to overtake and control me. It’s tempting sometimes, to want to give up. But God’s Word keep driving me forward.
Paul says in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect…” “I haven’t attained it,” he says. “I’m not there yet.” “But I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.” Do you see? Jesus has a hold of me, so I’m taking hold of his claim on me. I don’t give up or give in. I press on. Forgetting what is behind I reach forward to what is ahead. I press on.
Finally, Paul ends with the words,
“He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.” (verse 24)
Those are encouraging words for weary saints, aren’t they? I love how the NASB puts this: “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.”
Do you know what Paul is saying? He’s saying, “I’m praying something I know will be answered. Because God is the one sanctifying you, I know this is a done deal.” How do you know that Paul? “Because God is faithful.”
“Those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)
God is faithful. He is dependable. And he is powerful. What he starts he always finishes. “I am sure of this,” says Paul, “that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) What God promises he always fulfils. He’ll be faithful to hold you up. He’ll be faithful not to allow you to be tempted beyond what you can handle. He’ll be faithful to keep you.
When it comes to sanctification, don’t depend on your own cleverness and strength. Depend instead on the power and promises of God.