Exhortations and a Prayer for Peace Through Sanctification

You did not choose God out of your own free will. God did not give you a new heart because you decided to have faith and repent of your sin. Your righteousness was given to you by Christ because you were chosen by God from eternity—he is the only perfectly righteous person—and not because you decided to invite Jesus into your heart.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24; OT reading: Deuteronomy 6:4-7
March 6, 2011

“O God, command what you would, and grant what you command.”

This was the prayer that launched a huge debate in the early fifth century A.D. between Augustine, the great theologian and Bishop of Hippo (in modern-day western Algeria), and Pelagius, a British monk. Pelagius said the first part of the prayer, “O God, command what you would,” agreeable to God’s all-powerful sovereignty. But the second part of the prayer, “grant what you command,” that set Pelagius off into madness.

Was Augustine really saying that God commands human beings anything that he desires, but then human beings are incapable of obeying such commands? Why would a righteous, holy God require a person to do something that he has no ability of doing? That would be gross injustice on God’s part? How then did Augustine answer Pelagius’ charge?

This is also what we face in our text today. Previously in Chapter 4, Paul explains to the Thessalonians the manner of Christ’s Second Coming and what happens to believers who have died and those who are still alive on that day. After both explanations, Paul writes words of encouragement to them, “Therefore encourage one another with these words,” (1 Thess 4:18) and “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess 5:11).

How are they to build one another up? Our text today is an elaboration of how the people in the church were to edify one another. They were to live holy lives—sanctified lives—lives conforming to God’s will and distinct from the conduct and behavior that unbelievers live. These are not just words to encourage individual holiness, but holiness in relation to the church community. And when they live holy lives in relation to one another, the church will have peace. So he begins by saying, “Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess 5:13), and then ends with a prayer for peace among them, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” (1 Thess 5:23). So the theme of peace are bookends to our text.

In verses 12-22, Paul begins with a series of commands regarding how believers are to live as a sanctified community of God’s people. But like Augustine, he knows that it is God himself who is the agent in doing this work of sanctification, because they are not in themselves alone capable of doing what God commands. So in verses 23-24, he prays that God would sanctify them completely. In effect, the first part of the exhortation is a command, “Be holy!” But the second part is a prayer on behalf of the church, “May God make you holy.”

Be Holy!

Verses 12-22 is a series of what at first blush seems to be disconnected commands concerning relationships within the church. Paul begins in verses 12-13a with an exhortation to respect and honor those who labor among them. He is no doubt referring to the elders of the church, because they are the ones who have spiritual oversight over them and admonish them. The writer of Hebrews echoes Paul’s command to honor and submit to the elders of the church, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:17). How does this submission promote peace in the church? Members who are under the oversight of the elders are accountable to these same elders in their doctrine and spiritual life. When a sheep strays from the right path, he creates problems within the flock if he is not guided back to the flock. Preaching, teaching and church discipline are ways of promoting peace and harmony in the church.

In verses 13b-15, Paul turns to the congregation and their conduct among each other. For the sake of peace in the community, believers are to live in love for one another. First, he says, “admonish the idle,” those who are “undisciplined” and “insubordinate.” These may include not only those who create problems in the church because of their lack of submission and orderly behavior, but also those who do not want to work and make a living for themselves.

We see indications of this problem in Paul’s second letter, when he wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness. Paul reminds them that when he and his co-workers were in Thessalonica, they always paid for what they ate by working day and night so they would not be a burden to the church. He then adds a seemingly harsh command, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (verse 10). Some of them actually pretend to be busy, but are actually “busybodies,” not working and doing anything, but are just meddling into and gossiping about other people’s affairs because of idleness. Paul commands them therefore “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (verse 12).

Why would these people stop working? It is possible that they were taught by false teachers that the Second Coming has already occurred or it is about to happen at any moment, so they see no point in working. In recent history—as recently as the Y2K scare—every time a doomsday prophecy becomes popular, there have been some Christians who abandoned their jobs and homes to await the Second Coming. Today, there is a small group of people who have abandoned their families, homes and jobs and drive around the United States preaching the end of the world on May 21. What a tragedy! Lives have been disrupted and even destroyed because of false teachers.

Next, Paul encourages the church with three related commands, “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” Two kinds of people are mentioned. First, the fainthearted, which literally means the “small of soul,” hence, “fainthearted,” “timid,” “discouraged.” Obviously, the church was discouraged because of sufferings mainly because of persecution (1 Thess 1:6; 2:14-15; 3:2-4). They had lack of endurance and confidence to persevere through their trials. The second group are the “weak,” possibly those who are physically weak, since Paul has already dealt with the spiritually weak in the “fainthearted.” This word is sometimes used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to those who are physically sick or handicapped (Matt 25:44; Luke 10:9; Acts 5:15-16). So this word may even refer to those who are poor because of their physical condition.

The church must meet the needs of these people to help them. Failing to do so will provoke jealousy and accusations of partiality to those who are well-off. It must deal with them with patience, since it is in human nature to neglect or be impatient with the poor. Patience and peace are very much interconnected by Paul (Gal 5:22; Eph 4:1-3). Since the Lord is patient with us in our sin, should we not also be patient with our brothers and sisters in the Lord too? Jesus tells us that our care and compassion for the least of his brethren—the needy in the church—is ground for how we are rewarded or judged on Judgment Day. How we treat them reflects greatly on how we love and serve Christ: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

Not only must we have patience with those who are in need, but also to our enemies, to our brethren in our own church and to brethren in other places: “to one another and to everyone.” Jesus himself taught us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). This is what distinguishes us from unbelievers who only love those who love them and do good to them. Both Paul and Peter echo Jesus’ teaching not to exact vengeance on enemies, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Rom 12:17; 1 Pet 3:9).

This is how we are to behave in relation to one another in the church. In this way, we will not only be sanctified in our lives, but we will also be promoting the peace and well-being of the church.

The next set of commands deal with personal sanctification—our attitudes towards the Triune God, his Word, and towards the circumstances in our lives.

First, we are to rejoice and give thanks always and in everything through prayer. Paul uses superlatives, “always,” “without ceasing,” “all,” to make the point that these are very important in our lives. Whatever happens, good or bad, is part of God’s will for our lives. We are not to complain, groan, and be bitter when trials, problems and sufferings come to us, because Scripture assures us that God works all things for the good of all those who love him and obey his commands. When these bad things come to us, we are to thank God not because we take pleasure in pain, sorrow and hardship, but because we know that these are trees that are part of the forest—the sufferings are trees, and the joy of the hope of the Second Coming of Christ is the forest. After joy comes thankfulness, and thankfulness leads to prayerfulness, a life of constant prayers.

Paul then ends this threefold exhortation with a reference to the Triune God. It is God’s will that we are joyful, prayerful and thankful in everything, because it is his ultimate plan—the Father elected us, Christ died for his elect, and the Spirit works in our regeneration and sanctification till He returns. This is why Paul adds that we are not to “quench” the Spirit by despising prophecies and doing evil. We also learn that when believers do all kinds of unholy things, the Spirit is “grieved” because he seals us to a holy life for the day of redemption, Judgment Day (Eph 4:30).

Here, Paul mentions two ways by which the Thessalonians quench the Spirit. The first is when they “despise prophecies.” In the days of the apostles, prophecies, together with miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, and other signs and wonders, authenticated the work of the apostles in the churches. Thus, the apostles and prophets were used by God in the early days to “[bear] witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Heb 2:4). Prophecies therefore were a means to encourage one another and build up the church.

But there was a problem: there were also false teachers and false prophets. For this reason, Paul commands them not to accept everything that is taught by those who call themselves prophets in the churches, but to “test everything.” They should not reject prophecies outright, but they needed to distinguish between true and false prophecies according to what the apostles and the Old Testament prophets have revealed to them.

One of the gifts of the Spirit is the ability to distinguish between true and false spirits (1 Cor 12:10). Prophecies must be weighed by and be subject to two or more other prophets. They should accept and retain all prophecies that are good, and reject the bad after testing. Paul says that when these guidelines are enforced in the church, there will not be confusion but peace in the church (1 Cor 14:33). An example of this is when the Thessalonian believers were not able to distinguish between the inerrant teachings of Paul about the Second Coming, and the false teachings of false prophets in their church. This created confusion and disorder in the church, not peace.

Finally, Paul commands us, “Abstain from every form of evil” (verse 22). Some translations say, “every kind of evil” (NIV, ISV), or “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV). Some pastors use this last translation to prohibit their flock from things such as going to movies, drinking beer and wine, playing card games, all forms of dancing and music, and even wearing moustaches and beards. They focus on things they must not do that has resemblance of evil, so the gospel becomes a set of man-made rules and not the gospel of Christ. On the contrary, what Paul commands is that believers must not do any evil of any kind or form. What matters is that we reject things not because they appear to be evil, but because they are evil!

All these are important for our sanctification and holiness. We do not become holy by being in solitude and doing contemplative spirituality, a form of meditation to free the Christian’s mind for the purpose of having a mystical experience with God. Our goal of becoming holy is not accomplished by sitting passively in a corner in mystical contemplation, but by actually obeying God’s revealed will. However, this imperative to be holy comes to us in the wrong way when we try to be holy and righteous without God, because any good work without God is not pleasing to God; in fact, they are filthy rags before his eyes. Remember that Christ has done all that is required for our salvation, and we cannot add our own righteous deeds to this salvation.

We now go back to the first part of Augustine’s prayer, “O God, command what you would.” God commands us, “You shall be holy, as I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16). But how can be become holy like God, when we’re still in our incomplete state of sanctification, not to be completed until Christ returns to transform our body and soul into perfect holiness? How then can we obey these commands?

May God Make You Holy

The answer lies in the second part of his prayer, “Grant what you command.”

In the covenant of grace, salvation is all of God’s grace and mercy towards his people. But why would Jesus preach, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15)? And Paul preached the same gospel of faith and repentance, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

This is the reason why Pelagius was so incensed at Augustine’s prayer. His prayer does not make any sense—God commands whatever he wills, but Augustine also prays that God would grant him whatever he commands. This is so circular. Remember the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37? Isn’t it pointless for Ezekiel to command the dry bones to have sinews, flesh and skins? But Ezekiel knew God would actually do what he commanded, and the bones became corpses. Then Ezekiel commands these corpses to have breath and life and stand on their feet. Isn’t this another pointless command? No, because God again gives them breath and they all lived.

With his finite, human mind, Pelagius did not see any rationality in this. Yet, this is what Scripture teaches: man is totally depraved, no one seeks after God (Rom 3:10), and no one can come to God on his own free will (John 6:44). For those who do not have the Spirit of God, the gospel is all foolishness, and they are unable and unwilling to understand it (1 Cor 2:14). Pelagius was dumbfounded: Why would God command us to do something which we are not able and do not want to do? Is this not unfair and unjust on God’s part? If God commands us to repent and believe, then surely, man will be able to do so.

But unlike Pelagius, who was condemned as a heretic by three successive 5th century councils, Augustine believed in man’s totally depraved condition. He knew it personally when in his youth, he lived a grossly immoral life, and salvation was the last thing in his mind. For this reason, he taught that in the covenant of grace, God provides even the thing that he requires of man for his salvation. How? The Spirit first regenerates man’s soul, and as a result, the heart is inclined towards God. Before receiving this new heart, he was always hostile to God; after being born again by the Spirit, he becomes inclined towards God. He becomes willing to come to Christ. He now repents of his sin and believes in Christ. And it is not only faith and repentance that God gives to his people; even our righteousness is a gift of God—Christ’s own perfect righteousness.

Our salvation is wholly God’s gracious gift. But even our sanctification is wrought out by God through his Holy Spirit. When God gives us repentance and faith, the Spirit of God starts dwelling in us. We are united to Christ, not only in his death, but also in his resurrection in order that we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Without the Spirit then, a holy life is not possible. This is why Paul says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). It is God’s will for you to live a holy and blameless life. Paul adds later that all things that we are able to do that pleases God are through Christ, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). In the end, when Christ returns, he will complete our salvation, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

You were chosen, regenerated, and justified for this purpose: so that Christ may present you to his Father holy and blameless at his Second Coming. Your so-called free will has nothing to do with your salvation. You did not choose God out of your own free will. God did not give you a new heart because you decided to have faith and repent of your sin. Your righteousness was given to you by Christ because you were chosen by God from eternity—he is the only perfectly righteous person—and not because you decided to invite Jesus into your heart.

Even your baptism is not because you made a decision to make a public profession of your faith. No, your baptism is a sign and seal of God’s work in you. You were baptized because you were commanded by God to be baptized in the name of the Triune God, and not because you decided by your own free will to be baptized. You were baptized because God chose you, God granted you faith and repentance, and God justified you by faith alone in Christ alone. Your baptism is God’s mark upon you as he welcomed you into his covenant community.

This work of God in sanctification will be completed, as Paul says. This is God’s will for you. Jesus prayed the same prayer for you, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth”(John 17:17-19).

How are you sanctified by Christ? By his word, because only his word is truth. Your holy life must be based on God’s Word, not on anything else: not on the world’s attitudes; not on peer pressure; not even on the words of your pastors; but only on the eternal words of Christ.

His word will sanctify our whole person, our whole being. This is what is meant by “your whole spirit and soul and body,” and not because human beings are made of these three parts. When God says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30), it doesn’t mean you have four parts. It means that you are to love God with your whole being, with all that God has given you.


Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, God commands you to be holy by living holy and blameless lives. Are you able to do this on you own free will? Not a chance! It is only through the Spirit of Christ who works in you.

Since you are new creatures, you are to actively work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This is God’s work of grace and mercy in you. He assures you that he is faithful and he will surely do it.

As you come to the Lord’s Table today, remember how Christ has given you this righteousness that God requires before you are able to partake of the bread and wine. It is his own righteousness given to you. You do not come to the Table because you decided on your own to come, but your participation is only through invitation by our Lord—it is his Table. Only those of you who have repented of your sin and believed in Christ are invited to come. Amen.

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