RPM, Volume 14, Number 27, July 1 to July 7, 2012

Gleanings from Paul on Prayer


By   A. W. Pink    

26. Prayer for Sanctification of the Young Saints

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24


  Five things claim our consideration when pondering this prayer. First, its connection: the opening "and" of verse 23 links it to that which precedes, and that in turn supplies help to an understanding of the petition here. Second, its addressee: "the God of peace," the precise force of which address needs to be ascertained and then appropriated by faith. Third, its request: that these saints might be "sanctified wholly," concerning the meaning of which there has been much needless difference of opinion. Fourth, its design: that the saints should be so sanctified that they might "be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," an expression which calls for particularly careful and prayerful examination. Fifth, its assurance: "faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it" (1 Thess. 5:24), which imports that the apostle had no doubt but that God would grant his request and accomplish his design—a proof that he had not asked for something which is unrealizable in this life by any of God’s children. May the spirit of prayer be granted to our readers as they seek to mentally weigh what we have written.

Let us consider the connection of this prayer with what has preceded. The order followed by the apostle is significant: exhortation to saints, then supplication to God. Paul called on the saints to perform their several duties, then he entreated God to further quicken them thereunto. Prayer was never designed to be a substitute for diligence in keeping God’s precepts, but is a means whereby we obtain grace for obedient conduct. Diligent endeavor and fervent prayer are never to be separated.

As the apostle approached the end of this epistle he issued a series of short but weighty exhortations, the last of which was "Abstain from all appearance of evil" (1 Thess. 5:22). In the light of the verse immediately preceding, that signifies first to shun whatever savors of error. False doctrine is most dishonoring to God and highly injurious to the souls of His people, and therefore to be feared and avoided as a plague. God has warned concerning those men who teach anything contrary to His eternal truth, "Their word will eat as doth a canker" (2 Tim. 2:17). Second, evil practice as well as evil doctrine is to be refrained from in the least degree, yea, in its very semblance. He who would avoid great sins must exercise conscience regarding little ones; and he who would avoid both great and little sins must consequently shun also the very appearance of sin. Such things as extreme styles of apparel and overuse of jewelry, immoderate use of cosmetics, immodest attire, betray an absence of that spirit which hates even "the garment spotted by the flesh" (Jude 23).

The Moral Connection Between Verses 21 and 22

There is a real and close moral connection between "Abstain from all appearance of evil" and the exhortation immediately preceding: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). The word for "prove" signifies "examine, weigh, try." Whatever you hear and read, whatever counsel you receive even from Christians, whatever doubtful course of conduct others follow, bring all to the test of God’s Word; and whatever survives that test "hold fast" and let not the sneers and frowns of men cause you to relinquish it. The more you make a practice of measuring all things by that standard, the keener will be your discernment to detect whatever falls short of it: "through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:104). The latter cannot be said without the former. "I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:128). Only as we form the habit of "proving all things" and then "holding fast that which is good" are we morally enabled to "abstain from all appearance of evil."

On the other hand, our obedience to "prove all things, hold fast that which is good" does not render superfluous or needless our obedience to also "abstain from every appearance of evil," for no matter how well informed we may be from the Word, nor how strong may be our hatred of evil, there is still an enemy within ready to betray us. Therefore we need to spurn even the borders of evil and turn away our eyes from the very sight of it. If we do not, our souls will soon become receptive to the devil’s lies. Matthew Henry declared, "Corrupt affections indulged in the heart and evil practices allowed in the life will greatly tend to promote fatal errors in the mind; whereas purity of heart and integrity of life will dispose men to receive the truth in the love of it. We should therefore abstain from all appearance of evil, from that which looks like sin or leads to it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, who avoids not the approaches of sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin." So much then for the connection or immediate context of this prayer.

"The God of Peace"

This particular title, "the God of peace," has at least a fivefold reference. First, it tells us what God is essentially, the Fountain of peace. Second, it announces what He is economically or dispensationally, the Ordainer or Covenanter of peace. Third, it reveals what He is judicially, a reconciled God, the Provider of peace. Fourth, it declares what He is paternally, the Giver of peace to His children. Fifth, it proclaims what He is governmentally, the Orderer of peace in the churches and in the world. Our present passage has most to do with the last three. First, it respects God in His judicial relationship with His people. When they sinned in Adam, a breach was made, so that God was legally alienated from them and they were morally alienated from Him. Though there was no change in His everlasting love for them, because of their apostasy from Him in the Adamic fall, and because of their own multiplied transgressions against Him, God as the moral Governor of the universe could not ignore that awful breach. As the Judge of all the earth His condemnation and curse rested upon them. The elect equally with the non-elect are "by nature the children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), and as long as they remain in unbelief they are under the wrath of God (John 3:36), the objects of His penal hatred (Ps. 5:5), repulsive to the Holy One. But His wisdom devised a way whereby He could be reconciled to His alienated people.

God’s Way of Deliverance

That way consists of what Christ did for them, what His Spirit works in them, and what they themselves are made willing to do. Christ obeyed the precept of the law on their behalf and suffered its penalty in their stead. Thereby the great Surety of the Church made complete satisfaction of God’s justice, placated His wrath, and established an equitable and stable peace. When Christ endured the curse of the broken law, He "made peace [between God and His people] through the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:20), healing the fearful breach, reconciling the divine Judge to them, establishing a perfect and abiding amity and concord. In that way the divine interests were secured. But more: He secured for His people the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:13-14) and thereby adequate provision was made to meet their dire needs. Desperate indeed is their case by nature and by practice: dead spiritually, rebels against God, their minds at enmity against Him, wedded to their idols, in love with sin. But by the quickening and illuminating power of the Holy Spirit they are convicted of their wickedness, made willing to throw down the weapons of their revolt, flee to Christ for refuge, and take His yoke upon them. Thereby they respond to the divine call "Be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20) and thus they have "peace with God" (Rom. 5:1).

Thus we see the appropriateness of this divine title when the apostle was making request for the further sanctifying of the saints. The "God of peace" was the One who was pacified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to sinners when they turned from being lawless rebels and became loyal subjects of His government. The sanctifying Spirit was the surest evidence of their reconciliation to God. Proof of being brought into God’s favor objectively is our enjoyment of His peace subjectively. The intolerable burden of guilt is removed from the conscience, and we "find rest unto . . . [our] souls." But if that rest is to be preserved in our souls we have to take the most diligent heed to our ways. If we are to enjoy communion with "the God of peace," then all details of our lives must be regulated by His Word. That calls for diligent watchfulness over our hearts, since sin, the archenemy of God, surrounds us. The apostle’s injunction to the Roman saints is as relevant to us today: "Reckon . . . yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God . . . Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body" (Rom. 6:11-12).

Our Enjoyment of God’s Paternal Peace

Our enjoyment of the paternal peace of God is conditioned upon our obedience to Him: "O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river" (Isa. 48:18), full and unbroken. Our enjoyment of God’s paternal peace is conditioned upon our making it a practice to cast all our care on Him: "Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7). The enjoyment of God’s governmental peace in the local church is a fruit of the unquenched Spirit operating in their midst by the exercise of love among the members and by the maintenance of scriptural discipline over them corporately. It is sin which produces strife and dissension among saints. "From whence come wars and fighting among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?" (Jam. 4:1). Then communion with the God of peace is at an end.

Third, let us consider the request of this prayer of the apostle. "And [Himself] the very God of peace sanctify you wholly." Why did the apostle make this request? Were not the Thessalonian saints already sanctified? Certainly they were, both as to their standing before God in Christ and as to their state in themselves as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Then precisely what was it that Paul sought on their behalf? Sanctification is many-sided, and unless we distinguish between its many aspects, we shall not only have but a vague and blurred concept of the whole but we shall entertain erroneous ideas of the same and bring our hearts into bondage. As this is a most blessed, deeply important, yet little understood subject, we will now indicate its chief branches.

First, believers were sanctified by God the Father from all eternity. "To them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called" (Jude 1). Note well the order: they were sanctified before their preservation (i.e., from death in their unregeneracy) and effectual call. The reference there is to the believers’ eternal election, when in His decree the Father set apart His elect from the non-elect for His delight and glory, choosing them in Christ and blessing them with all spiritual blessings in Him before the foundation of the world. On that initial aspect of sanctification we will not dwell.

Second, all believers have been sanctified by God the Son. As that is little apprehended we will enter into more detail. Our sanctification by the Son, like that by the Father, is not subjective but objective, not something we experience within but something entirely outside ourselves. By the redemptive sacrifice of Christ the entire Church has been set apart, consecrated to and accepted by God in all the excellency of the infinitely meritorious work of His incarnate Son. "We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all . . . For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:10, 14). Those blessed statements have no reference whatever to anything which the Spirit does in the Christian, but relate exclusively to what Christ has secured for him. They speak of that which results from our federal oneness with Christ. They tell us that by virtue of the sacrifice of Calvary every believer is not only accounted righteous in the courts of God’s justice but is perfectly hallowed for the courts of His holiness. The blood of the Lamb not only delivers from hell but fits us for heaven. It is the believer’s relation to Christ, and that alone, which entitles him to enter the Father’s house. And it is his relation to Christ, and that alone, which now gives him the right to draw nigh to God within the veil (Heb. 10:19).

Every Believer Sanctified upon Believing

The grand fact is that the feeblest and least-instructed believer was as completely sanctified before God the first moment he trusted in Christ as he will be in heaven in his glorified state. Said the Savior on the eve of His death, "For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they might be truly sanctified" (John 17:19, margin), that is, that they might be really and actually sanctified, in contrast with the merely typical and ceremonial sanctification which obtained under the Mosaic dispensation. Christ was on the point of dedicating Himself to the final execution of the work of making Himself the sacrifice for sin; as the surety of His people He was about to present Himself to the Father and place Himself on the altar as a vicarious propitiation for His church. As the consequence of Christ devoting Himself as a whole burnt offering to God, His people are perfectly sanctified. Their sins are forever put away. Their persons are cleansed from all defilement. The excellency of His work is imputed to them so that they are rendered perfectly acceptable to God, suited to His presence, fitted for His worship. Priestly nearness to God is their blessed portion as the consequence of Christ’s priestly offering of Himself for them. They have the right of access to God as purged worshipers.

"But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and [even] righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). Observe well that this verse is not stating what we were made by Christ, but what God has made Christ to be to His believing people. The distinction is real and fundamental, and to ignore it is to deprive ourselves of the most precious half of the gospel. Christ is here said to be made four things to us or, as the Greek more nicely discriminates, one thing (wisdom), which is defined under three points, the whole speaking of the Church’s completeness in her Head (Col. 2:10). God has made Christ to be all and in all to us objectively and imputatively. Christ is not only our righteousness but our sanctification, by the purity of His person and the excellency of His sacrifice being reckoned to our account. If Israel became a holy people (ceremonially) when sprinkled with the blood of bulls and goats, so that they were admitted and readmitted to Jehovah’s worship, how much more shall the meritorious blood of Christ sanctify us actually, so that we may draw nigh to God with confidence as acceptable worshipers? My ignorance does not alter the fact, neither does the weakness of my faith to truly grasp the same impair it. My feelings and experience have nothing to do with it. God has done it, and nothing can alter it.

Aaron the High Priest

"And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD . . . And it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD" (Ex. 28:36-39). That presents to us one of the most precious typical pictures to be found in all the Old Testament. Aaron, the high priest, was dedicated and devoted exclusively to the Lord. He served in that office on behalf of others as their mediator. He stood before God as the representative of the nation, bearing the names of the twelve tribes on his shoulders and on his heart (Ex. 28:12, 29). Israel, the people of God, were both represented by and accepted in Aaron. That was not a type of "the way of salvation," but it spoke of the approach to God of a failing and sinning people whose very prayers and praises were defiled but whose service and worship were rendered acceptable to the Holy One through their high priest. That inscription "Holiness To The Lord" on Aaron’s forehead was a solemn appointment by which the people of Israel were impressively taught that holiness became the house of God, and that none who were unholy could possibly draw nigh to Him.

Now Aaron foreshadowed Christ, the great High Priest who is "over the house of God" (Heb. 10:21). Believers are both represented by and accepted in Him. The "Holiness To The Lord" which was "always" upon Aaron’s forehead pointed to the mediatorial holiness of the One who "ever liveth to make intercession" for us (Heb. 7:25). Because of our federal and vital union with Christ, His holiness is ours. The perfection of the great High Priest is the measure of our acceptance with God. Christ has also borne the iniquity of our holy things (Ex. 28:38); that is, He not only atoned for our sins but made satisfaction for the defects of our worship. Not only can nothing be laid to our charge but the sweet incense of His merits (Rev. 8:3) renders our worship "an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God" (Phil. 4:18). Thus Christians are enabled to "offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5). Christ is the One who meets our every need both as sinners and as saints. In, through, and by Christ every believer has a flawless sanctification. The Holy One could not look upon us with the least favor, nor could we draw nigh to Him at all, unless He viewed us as perfectly holy; and this He does in the person of our Mediator.

A perfect holiness is as indispensable as a perfect righteousness in order for us to have access to and communion with the thrice holy God. In Christ we have the one as truly as we have the other. The glorious gospel reveals to us a perfect Savior, One who has completely met every need of His people; yet it is absolutely necessary that we mix faith with that good news if we are to live in the power and comfort of the same. "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate" (Heb. 13:12). The precious blood has not only made expiation for the sins of His people but has hallowed and consecrated them to God, so that He views them not only as guiltless and unreprovable but also as spotless and holy. The blood of Christ not only covers every stain of sin’s defilement but in the very place of what it covers and cleanses, it leaves its own excellency and virtue. God sees us in the face of His Anointed as perfect as Christ Himself, and therefore as both justified and sanctified. His oblation has restored us to full favor and fellowship of God.

The word "sanctify" has a twofold meaning: primarily it signifies the bare setting apart of a thing. In Scripture it usually, though not always, has reference to setting apart to a sacred use, as the seventh day to be the Sabbath. Exceptions are found in such passages as Isaiah 66:17 where we read of men setting themselves apart to do evil, and Isaiah 13:3 where the Lord terms the Medes "my sanctified ones" when about to employ them in the destruction of Babylon. In the majority of cases in the Old Testament, "to sanctify" means "to separate some object from a common use to a sacred one," consecrating the same to God, yet without any change being effected in the object itself, as with all the materials and vessels used in the tabernacle. But in its secondary meaning (not secondary in importance, but as a derivative) "sanctify" is used in a moral sense, signifying "to make holy," rendering what was set apart fit for the end designed, first by a cleansing (Ex. 19:10), second by an anointing or equipping (Ex. 29:36). In the case of God’s elect, sanctification signifies changing or purifying their dispositions. This brings us to the third main branch of our subject.

The Father’s sanctification of His people in His eternal decree and the Church’s sanctification in and by the Son federally and meritoriously are made good to and in them personally by God the Spirit: "being sanctified by the Holy Ghost" (Rom. 15:16). It is not until the Comforter takes up His abode in the heart that the Father’s "will" (Heb. 10:10) begins to be actualized and the Son’s "blood" (Heb. 13:12) evidences its efficacy toward us. It is not to be supposed for a moment that the perfect standing before God which the work of Christ secured for His people leaves their state unaffected; that their position should be so gloriously changed and their condition remain unaltered; that holiness should be imputed to them but not also imparted. The redemptive work of Christ was a means to an end, namely, to procure for His people the Holy Spirit who should make good in them what He had done for them. It is by the Spirit’s quickening operation that we obtain vital union with Christ—by means of which the benefits of our federal and legal union with Him actually become ours. The "sanctification of the Spirit" (2 Thess. 2:13) is an integral part of that salvation to which the Father chose us and which the incarnate Son purchased for us. Thus the Christian is sanctified by the triune Jehovah.

Union with Christ

Our union with Christ is the grand hinge on which everything turns. Without Him we have nothing. During our unregeneracy we were "without Christ" and therefore "strangers from the covenants of promise" (Eph. 2:12). But the moment the Spirit made us one living with Christ, all that He has became ours; we were made henceforth "joint heirs with him"—as a woman obtains the right to share all that a man has once she is wedded to him. By virtue of our union with the first Adam we not only had imputed to us the guilt of his disobedience but we also received from him a sinful nature which vitiated all the faculties of our souls; and by virtue of our federal union with the last Adam we not only have imputed to us the merits of His obedience but we receive from Him a holy nature which renews all the faculties of our souls. Once we become united to the Vine, the life and virtue which are in Him flow into us and bring forth spiritual fruit. Thus, as soon as the Spirit unites us to Him we are "sanctified in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:2). "By one Spirit are we all baptized [spiritually] into one body [of which Christ is the vital and influential Head], . . . and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13).

"But of him [by no act of ours] are ye in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:30). It is by the quickening operation of the Spirit that the elect are supernaturally and vitally incorporated with Christ, and it is then God makes Him to be to us "wisdom, even righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:10). That new creation is effected by the Spirit and issues in our union with Christ’s person. Just as both our standing and state were radically affected by our union with the first Adam, so they are completely changed by virtue of our union with the last Adam. As the believer has a perfect standing in holiness before God because of his federal union with Christ, so his state is perfect before God because he is now vitally one with Christ: he is in Christ and Christ is in him. "He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit" (1 Cor. 6:17). The moment they were born of the Spirit all Christians were sanctified in Christ with a sanctification to which no growth in grace, no attainments in holiness, can add one iota. The believer is "sanctified [made a saint] in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:2), one of the "holy brethren" (Heb. 3:1), and just because he is such he is called upon to live a holy life.

Our relationship to God is changed when the Spirit sanctifies us by His quickening power, for we are then consecrated to God by the Spirit’s indwelling us and making our body His temple. As He came upon the Head ("not . . . by measure," John 3:34), so in due time He is given to each of the members of the Head: "Ye have an unction [the Spirit] from the Holy One." "The anointing [the Spirit] which ye have received from him [Christ] abideth in you" (1 John 2:20, 27). We derive our name from that very blessing, for "Christian" means "an anointed one," the term being taken from the type in Psalm 133:2. It is the indwelling of the Spirit which constitutes a believer a holy person. Our relationship to Christ is changed when the Spirit quickens us, for instead of being "without" Him in the world, we are now "joined" to Him. Our actual state is radically changed, for a principle of holiness is planted in the soul which powerfully affects all its faculties. God now occupies the throne of the heart, the affections are purged from their love of sin, the Word is delighted in so that the will chooses its precepts as its regulator. Nevertheless, the "flesh," or evil principle, remains unchanged.

Different Phases of the Believer’s Sanctification

In one sense the believer’s sanctification by the Spirit is complete at the new birth, so that he will never be made any holier than he is at that moment; in another sense his sanctification is incomplete and admits of progress. It is complete in that by virtue of the great change effected in him by the miracle of regeneration he is then "made meet to be [one of the] partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light" (Col. 1:12), virtually and personally united to Christ and, by the Spirit’s taking up His abode in his heart, consecrated to God. It is incomplete in that the "flesh" principle is not then removed, in that the babe in Christ needs to grow in grace, and in that he is henceforth required to "put off the old man" and "put on the new man" in a practical way, cleansing himself "from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). To enable him in this, the Spirit renews him daily ( 2 Corinthians 4:16), stirs him up to the use of the means of the Word and prayer, quickens his graces, draws forth his spiritual life to spiritual acts in Christ’s name; and thereby He continues and completes that "good work" (Phil. 1:6) which He wrought in the soul at regeneration.

Let us sum up. Sanctification is the first blessing to which the Father predestinated His people (Eph. 1:3-5). Second, it is a gift, an inalienable and eternal gift, which they have in and through Christ. Third, it is a moral quality, a holy principle or "nature" communicated by the Spirit. Fourth, it is a duty which God requires from us (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Or again we may say sanctification is a relationship into which we are brought with the thrice holy God. Second, it is a status we have by virtue of our union with Christ. Third, it is an enduement which we experience by the Spirit’s operation within us. Fourth, it is a lifelong work to which we are called, but for which we are in constant need of more grace. "Perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1) by no means intimates that the holiness which the Christian now possesses is defective and needs supplementing by his own efforts, but signifies that he is to carry out to its proper use and end that perfect holiness which is his in Christ. Compare 1 John 2:5, which means that by keeping God’s commands the design of His love in us is reached. "By works was [Abraham’s] faith made perfect" (i.e., achieved in design or intended result, James 2:22). The Christian is to be "in behavior as becometh holiness" (Titus 2:3).

"Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly." Both the immediate context and the particular character in which God is here addressed serve to show which aspect of our sanctification is in view, namely, our practical holiness or purity of heart and conduct. Paul’s prayer is for divine enablement to keep the foregoing commands—full sanctification for full obedience. To the preceding exhortations the apostle added earnest supplication, knowing well that only the efficacious grace of God could supply either the will or the power to comply. The standard in verse 22 is an exceedingly high and exacting one: to abhor everything which carries even the appearance of uncleanness, to abstain from everything tending thereto. The more we eye that standard, the more conscious we are of its purity, the more we shall realize the need of much grace to measure up to it, and the more we shall perceive the suitability of this prayer to our case. We are still the targets of Satan, the archenemy of God. Yielding to Satan’s temptations separates us from God’s favor, produces disorder and confusion among all the faculties of our being, and causes dissension among the saints. To prevent such disaster, the apostle invokes the "God of peace."

The Christian’s Work of Grace Not Perfected

The indulgence of our lusts and the allowance of sin derange all the faculties of our being so that the soul usurps the throne of the spirit (emotions and impulses directing us instead of our understanding or judgment), and the body seeks to dominate both spirit and soul—carnal affections opposing reason. But experimental and practical sanctification puts all into a right order again and causes peace and harmony. But only "the very God of peace" can so sanctify us. This is emphasized in our text: "the . . . God of peace [Himself]," which points up a contrast between the feeble efforts after holiness which we are capable of in our own spiritual strength and the almighty power which He can exert because of the peace and order which His sanctification brings to our whole being. The Christian is indeed sanctified, yet the work of grace begun in him at regeneration is not then completed. "First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:28). The heart needs to be increasingly cleansed from the pollution of sin, the soul more fully conformed to the divine image, the daily walk more "worthy of the Lord" (Col. 1:10). Yet all the advances we make in the Christian life are but the effects, fruits, and evidences of the Spirit’s sanctifying us at the new birth. Growth in grace is a manifestation of our holiness.

"And the . . . God of peace [Himself] sanctify you wholly" is to be taken in its widest latitude. First, as a request that all the members of the Thessalonian church, the entire assembly, might be thus sanctified. Second, that each individual member might be unreservedly devoted to God in the whole of his complex being. Third, that each and all of them might be energized and purified more perfectly, strengthened, and stirred up to press forward to complete holiness. Thus 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is almost parallel with Hebrews 13:20-21. The apostle prayed that all parts and faculties of the Christian might be kept under the influence of efficacious grace, in true and real conformity to God: that they might be so influenced by the truth as to be fitted and furnished for the performance of every good work. Though this be our bounden duty, yet it is the work of our reconciled God, by His Spirit in and through us; and this is to be the burden of our daily prayers. The exhortation of verse 22 makes known our duty: the prayer of verse 23 how to be enabled thereto. By nature our hearts were antagonistic to God’s holy requirements, and only His power can produce an abiding change.

The Practical Aspect of Sanctification

This prayer is concerned with the practical aspect of sanctification: that the saint should be divinely enabled to manifest in his daily life that sanctification which he has in Christ and bring forth the fruits of the spirit’s indwelling him, by the principle of holiness imparted at regeneration. He should be constantly "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts" and live "soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope" (Titus 2:12-13). As to our standing and state before God, sanctification extends to the whole man—every part of our human nature being the subject of it. And so must be our devotedness to God. Our body as well as our spirit and soul is to be dedicated to Him (Rom. 12:1), and its members employed in the works of righteousness (Rom. 6:13). John Owen said, "In your whole nature or persons, in all that ye are and do, that ye may—not in this or that part, but—be every whit clean and holy throughout."

Fourth, we shall consider the design of the apostle’s prayer. "Your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless." It is difficult (and perhaps not necessary) for us to determine the precise relation of this clause to the previous one—whether it is an additional request, an explanatory amplification of the word wholly, or an expression of the apostle’s aim in making that request. Personally, we consider it includes the last two. The American Standard Version gives it thus: "And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Whatever rendition is preferred, it is clear the verse as a whole teaches that sanctification extends to our entire persons. Equally clear is it that man is a tripartite being, consisting of an intelligent spirit, a sensual or sensitive soul, and a material body. Man, with his customary perversity, reverses this order and speaks of "body, soul, and spirit," putting the body first because it occupies most of his care.

Man a Tri-part Being

Since the tri-part nature of man has been so widely denied we will make some brief observations. That man is a threefold (and not merely twofold) entity is definitely established by the fact that he was created in the image of the triune God (Gen. 1:26). It is intimated in the account of the Fall. "The woman saw that the tree was good for food"—it appealed to her bodily appetites. Second, she saw that it was "pleasant [margin, a desire] to the eyes"—it appealed to her sensitive soul. She thought it was "a tree to be desired to make one wise"—it appealed to her intelligent spirit (Gen. 3:6). It is a serious error to say that when man fell, his spirit ceased to be, and that only at regeneration is his spirit "communicated" to him.

Fallen man is possessed equally of "spirit and soul" (Heb. 4:12). God "formeth the spirit of man within him" (Zech. 12:1), and at death the "spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). We agree with the Reformer Zanchius that "the spirit includes the superior faculties of the mind, such as reason and understanding; the soul, the inferior faculties such as will, affections, and desires." By means of the "soul" we feel; by the "spirit" we know (Dan. 2:3 ff.). "Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with [1] all thine heart [spirit], and [2] with all thy soul, and [3] with all thy might" [physical energy] (Deut. 6:5). This corresponds with Paul’s threefold distinction in our text. The constitution of man as man was once for all demonstrated when the Son of God became incarnate and assumed both human "spirit" (Luke 23:46) and "soul" (Matthew 26:38). Yet in saying that unregenerate man possesses a spirit, we do not affirm that he has a spiritual nature, for his spirit has been defiled by the Fall, though it was not annihilated and therefore is capable of being washed and renewed (Titus 3:5). The whole nature of man is the subject of the Spirit’s work in regeneration and sanctification. This fact is to be manifested by the Christian in a practical way, by every disposition and resource of his spirit, each faculty and affection of his soul, all the members of his body. His body has been made a member of Christ (1 Cor. 6:15) and is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Since the Christian’s body is an integral part of his person, and since its inclinations and appetites seek to usurp the functions of his spirit and soul and dominate his actions, he is required to bring his body under the control of the higher parts of his being, so that it is regulated by a scripturally enlightened reason and not by its carnal passions. "Every one . . . should know how to possess his vessel [his body] in sanctification and honor" (1 Thess. 4:4). As in unregeneracy we yielded our members to sin, now we are to yield them as servants to righteousness unto holiness (Rom. 6:19). Someone has said, "Perfect holiness is to be the aim of saints on earth, as it will be the reward of the saints in heaven."

Saints Preserved Blameless

Christians are "sanctified wholly" in their desires and intentions, and that brings us to the meaning of "preserved blameless." It is not that blamelessness which the covenant of works required, but that of the covenant of grace wherein God accepts the will for the deed (Nehemiah 1:11; 2 Corinthians 8:12). God accepts the deed by the will. He interprets as perfect the man who desires to be perfect, and He calls that man perfect who desires to have all his imperfections removed. It is sad that so few have been taught to distinguish between legal and evangelical blamelessness. When God’s Word says that the parents of John the Baptist walked "in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6) it does not mean that they lived sinlessly, as verse 20 shows, but that such was their sincere desire and earnest endeavor that they habitually walked in conscientious obedience to God and behaved in such a manner in the general tenor of their conduct that none could charge them with any open sin.

The word blameless in such passages as 1 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 2:15 and 1 Thessalonians 3:13 should be compared with "Blessed are the undefiled in the way" (Ps. 119:1). The word blameless here is to be understood according to the tenor of the new covenant, which does not exclude (as the covenant of works did) God’s exercise of mercy and the pardon of sin (see Psalm 130:3-4). The prayer which Christ has given us to use bids us ask not only for deliverance from temptation but for daily pardon. If God dealt with us according to the strict rigor of His law and required absolute "undefiledness," none would escape His condemnation. Evangelical undefiledness must be understood as the sincerity of our obedience and refrainment from that which would give others occasion to justly charge us with wrongdoing. While the Christian honestly and earnestly endeavors to show himself approved to God, while he is truly humble regarding his failures and penitently confesses them, while he diligently seeks to walk in the law of the Lord, he is accounted "blameless," or "undefiled," in the gospel sense of those words.

Fifth, let us briefly consider the assurance of the apostle’s prayer. "Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it" (1 Thess. 5:24). Regeneration guarantees sanctification. Our effectual call by God is the earnest of our preservation. Divine grace will complete our experimental and practical holiness. "The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever" (Ps. 138:8). Whether we translate the end of verse 23 "be preserved blameless unto the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ" or "be preserved blameless ‘at’. . ." as the "till" in Philippians 1:10, and the "in" of 1 Corinthians 1:8 show, both are equally the case. Thus the confidence of verse 24 is parallel with "he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6).    

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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