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Jan 26, 2014

Sanctifying Sex, Part 1

Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: I Thessalonians--Empowered Expeditions

Keywords: sanctification, sex, marriage, sexuality


In I Thess. 4,, when Paul tells us it is God's will for us to be sanctified, the first thing he addresses about sanctification is sex. This message looks at what sanctification is and how sex within marriage is a sanctifying experience for the Christ-follower.


Sanctifying Sex, Part 1

I Thessalonians 4:1-8

January 19, 2014


Today we are back in the New Testament book of First Thessalonians, chapter 4. We’ve got just a few weeks more before we finish this book written from the hand of Paul and the heart of God to His children.

            If you were with us last fall, you remember that we entitled this series “Empowered Expeditions.” Life is an expedition though it doesn’t always seem like it is “empowered.” But when it comes to the experience the Leader of this expedition of life wants us to have, God definitely wants us to experience His power along every step. And in I Thess. 4 God wants us to experience the sanctifying power of sex and sexuality. Yes, you heard me right. Our sexuality and sex itself has the power to either make us more holy or more heathen, more sanctified or more screwed up. And if God thought it was important enough to write down in one of His love letters to His Bride, the church, then we better not skip over it or be embarrassed about it.  

So, I’d like us to begin today by praying and then reading 8 verses of chapter 4.


Read I Thess. 4:1-8

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Paul starts this section by instructing God’s people how to live “in order to please God,” as he says in vs. 1. So WHY is it so important that we, followers of Jesus Christ, learn to live life in a way that pleases God? Those of us who have “people-pleasing tendencies” and are trying NOT to live life by the expectations and reactions of others may be reacting to Paul’s words here about pleasing God.

So what makes God-pleasing right when people-pleasing is wrong?

  • First, we often have to choose between what would make God pleased and what would “please” the people around us. Those two demands frequently collide. I don’t know about you but I wrestle with that constantly. Let me give you an example.

ILL: Sometimes I get a call from someone who is asking for advice or help with some personal crisis. Like you, I don’t have limitless time. Some weeks are flexible and others really cram a lot in. If I’m working on a message that all of you and others are going to take some of your precious time to come listen to, I feel this tremendous tension between wanting to pick up the phone and call you right back and take 15 minutes…or an hour…or half a day to help you and the need to stay focused in the word to really hear from God. God has given me a sacred trust in your time. And if I consistently neglect preparing a message most Sundays, and end up abusing the precious time you have entrusted to us here to help you worship, learn and listen to God, I know He isn’t pleased. I know He’s going to ask me, “Why were you an undisciplined workman of the Word? You didn’t really handle my Word well this week. You wasted people’s time.” I have to constantly choose between pleasing people I love and God.

  • Secondly, Paul isn’t talking about God as if it is our job to make or keep Him happy. God is the most supremely happy and joy-filled being in existence. But God also relates with each of us individually. And Paul is encouraging us to develop a relationship on the individual plain that causes God to rejoice over us, to be happily supportive of what we are doing.

ILL: It’s the difference between what happens when I spend a day hiking with my family, enjoying the scenery, talking along the trail, sitting down to rest next to a clear, cool stream, throwing snowballs at them when we get to a snow field…and what happens if they are constantly going off the trail, mowing down the wild flowers with a stick, throwing rocks at the wildlife, littering, bickering and fighting with each other all day long. How is my relationship with them different, regardless of what it does to my emotional state? [I’ll be always correcting, disciplining, enforcing boundaries, punishing, etc.]

Which kind of dad would you want to spend a day with? Which kind of behavior would benefit YOU the most?

Living in a way that causes God to laugh with us, play with us, share wisdom with us and just enjoy being with us is bound to make for a better life. His personal joy towards us is one of life’s most important factors in making life enjoyable for us. There would be something terribly wrong with a god who didn’t grieve over our disobedience and sin nor rejoice over our holiness and growth. It is in our best interests to have a God who takes pleasure in seeing His children become more like Him in everything we do and are.

ILL: We had a phone conversation with Joanna this week after she had spoken to about 80 UCLA women at a sorority about something she feels called by God to champion to her generation—sexual integrity as God designed it to be. She was driving back from speaking and called us since we’d been praying for her. She felt good about how things had gone. These mostly non-Christian co-eds were engaged, laughing at her jokes and loving her candor.

As she was talking about how much she loved doing that sort of speaking, she referenced that line in the movie “Chariots of Fire” when British Olympian Eric Liddell says to his sister who is trying to get him to stop running and go to the mission field in China, “Jenny…when I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”

            When you are a child of God by faith in Jesus, you know that there is no greater joy in the world than to feel the pleasure of God. That comes from a life “pleasing to God” as Paul is calling us to here.

            The Thessalonians weren’t failing in this area. In fact, Paul applauds them for their success. But then he tells them something we all need to hear, even when we’re doing the right thing: Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. Living a life pleasing to God more and more is where more and more we’ll feel the pleasure of God.

So we come to the part where Paul gives us some specifics about what pleases God and what’s His will for our lives. Ever asked, “I wonder what God’s will for my life is?” Well, wonder no more!

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified:…

STOP! Just what does it mean for us to “be sanctified” (Gk: hagiasmos)? [Ask for responses.]

Without doing a word study here today, allow me to give you the “Mosaic Shorter-Catechism” definition. J Sanctification is a process that consumes our whole life. It is a life-long process of growing to become more like Christ in every part of our person. It involves being separated from sin and joined to Jesus’ holiness. I hope that makes it a bit less nebulous. In short, it’s God’s will that, through a growing love relationship with Jesus Christ, we become like Him all along this journey of life.

            It’s possible that you just heard me say that but the significance of it didn’t really sink in. Since being in an ever more deeply fulfilling love relationship with God through Christ is God’s will for us, it is, by definition, also THE only place we will find our deepest fulfillment as humans. In other words, without this process the Bible calls “sanctification”, none of us will find our deepest joy, peace, meaning, fulfillment and more in life. So, “sanctification” for every Christ-follower is a BIG DEAL. It’s where the best of life happens.

            Now, there are thousands of parts of our lives where sanctification can and should happen if we want the kind of life God has designed for us. What is interesting in this passage is that the first place Paul goes to illustrate the power of and need for sanctification is our sexuality. He sees SEX as particularly powerful in our experience of becoming like Jesus.  That is radically different from the prevailing social or even religious attitude of Paul’s day and, I dare say, our day.             Why is it that the world, the flesh and the devil have taken something God isn’t afraid to talk about in passage after passage of the Bible--the good, the beautiful…the bad and the ugly--and turned it to be something we either feel embarrassed about OR something that is dealt with in unholy and degrading ways?   It’s not like sexuality is something only a few people have. J We ALL have it, live with it, struggle with it and hopefully enjoy it.

            I could take a whole series of Sundays on what God says about sex…and maybe I will. But I’m a firm believer that if we are reading and studying the Bible, this area of our personhood will come up fairly often and in a variety of different settings. When Sandy and I would read the Bible as a family when the kids were growing up, we didn’t need to hide words and messed up human sexuality from them. It came up naturally in different passages, everything—rape, prostitution, infatuation, birth control, self-sex, using sex as a weapon, proper boundaries, alcohol and sex, sex in or outside of marriage, it’s all there.

            Well, today’s passage is not a complete treatment of biblical sexuality, but it has plenty for several Sundays.

            First…and quite simply, God’s call on our lives for becoming increasingly like Jesus in holiness involves “avoiding sexual immorality.” So let’s try to figure some things out about that. If we can answer questions about WHY and HOW God wants us to do this, I think we’ll win the battle and all be much happier people.

So, what constitutes “sexual immorality” according to God? The phrase “sexual immorality” comes from the Greek word porneia from which we get the English term “pornography.” But porneia includes far more than pornography. It is a broad word that includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, incest, pornography and about every sexual experience you can think of outside of marriage between a husband and wife. It’s a pretty big camp of sexual activities.

            Notice that avoiding sexual immorality is God’s will FOR US! I think it is ideally God’s will for everyone. But God knows that most people trying to fulfill their sexual drives without direction and help from God will mess it up. Sadly, too many of us with God’s direction are also falling into that trap.

The word “avoid/abstain from” means just that: “to keep as far away from as possible, to have nothing to do with.” Notice, God didn’t say “have nothing to do with sex or your sexuality.” He simply put the fire inside the fireplace and said, “Keep it there or it will burn down your house.”

            As God’s children, his heart for us is great sex and appreciation of our God-given sexuality. God is pro-sex. What he’s against is the misuse and abuse of sex. And the boundaries are really pretty clear: sex inside marriage is to be a blessing; sex outside of marriage will damage you and the work of God in you.

So, what about sex itself is so important to becoming like Christ? What must we understand about sex and singleness as well as sex and marriage that will help us avoid sexual immorality?

First off, there are not a few mistaken views floating around today with regard to sex. I’m talking about cultural attitudes toward sex. Some would say, “Sex is just a natural appetite” like our body craving eating or sleeping. Therefore, goes the reasoning, we should feel free to fulfill the appetite when we feel the need. And, since it’s just an appetite, there is no reason why we shouldn’t sample a variety of tastes and flavors.

            Another view of sex (a more negative one), sees sex as part of our lower, physical nature, distinct from our higher rational and more “spiritual” nature. This is sort of the ancient Gnostic view of life that saw sex as degrading, dirty but a necessary evil for the propagation of the human race.

            Yet another view in vogue today sees sex as a critical form of self-expression, a way to “be yourself” and “find yourself.” Sex is seen as something primarily for an individual’s fulfillment and self-realization, whether that happens in a bunch of hook-ups, a live-in relationship (hetero or homosexual) or in committed marriage.  

What is the biblical, godly viewpoint?

Well, sex is not just a natural appetite. It is natural in the sense it is a part of each of our natures. But it isn’t in the same category as hunger, thirst or need for sleep. We’ll die in short order without any of those. Contrary to Hollywood, human experience proves you won’t die without sex. But more importantly, sex is in a special class when it comes to human behavior. God says it isn’t one of those actions that just affect our bodies; it changes our heart, our souls, our emotions, our thoughts…far more than you might imagine.

            To those who would say, “Sex is dirty, base or demeaning,” God tells us that he made our bodies, including our sexual organs, for a purpose. And after he made us so, he pronounced it not just “good” but “very good” (Gen. 1:31) True Christianity may well be the most body-positive religion in the world. In Christ, God himself took on a human body and forever altered his appearance even in his resurrected immortal form. Furthermore, the Bible contains some of history’s greatest love poetry that celebrates sexual passion and pleasure (Song of Solomon).

            God not only allows sex within the protective boundary of marriage; he commands it (I Cor. 7:3-5), not as pagan religions do with prostitutes and sexual orgies. Nor is godly sex something to be consumed on the altar of one’s selfish purposes. Rather it is commanded as a way to give to, to love and to bond with one’s spouse.

And lest you think that Paul’s views of sex are culture-bound, misogynistic, women-hating and oppressive to women, remember that what he writes in I Cor. 7 was totally counter-culture to his day. In a time in which women were legally considered the possession of their husbands, Paul puts women on equal footing as men when it comes to sexual responsibilities and rights within marriage. This was a major blow to the traditional double standard—namely, that men were expected and allowed to have multiple sexual partners but if a woman did she was despised. Roman culture in which these Corinthian Christians lives was one where men were to “take wives in order to have legal heirs” while sexual pleasure was to be sought outside marriage.

Listen to I Cor. 7:3-4. It starts out commanding husbands about their “marital/sexual duty” to their wives. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.”  There is nothing dirty or demeaning or male-dominate about sex in this description of marriage. God through Paul is redefining marriage as a context for the mutual satisfying of sexual desires in contrast to the pagan Corinthian philosophical idea that marital sex was simply for the procreation of legitimate heirs. And the passage further indicates that sex should be frequent and reciprocal. One spouse was not allowed to deny sex to the other. And people think Christianity is prudish!

Now, to our own culture’s mistaken view that sex is strictly a private matter, something that is all about your own pleasure and fulfillment, God says, “No, sex is primarily a way to know God and build intimacy within the bond of family.”

Now I can hear some of you thinking, “Sex is a way to know God??? Have you completely lost it, John? And where does that leave single people today? Has God forgotten that over 50% of American adults are single?” For my statement to be true, it must apply to single people as well as married people. Both conditions must have the opportunity of growing in sanctification, in Christ-likeness, through sexual passions and desires.

So let me tackle what looks like the easier side of the equation first—how sex within marriage can be sanctifying. Then next week we’ll look at how it is meant to be for single people as well.

So how does sex within marriage sanctify Christ-followers?

1.) It teaches us what it is like to bond at the deepest levels to one other person exclusively…just as we are called to bond to only one God exclusively.

            This is really one of the most amazing mysteries about sex that science has recently confirmed at even the chemical level.

            Scripturally, sex has always been seen as a uniting act of two people, not just two bodies. Early in Genesis 2:24 and later in Ephesians 5 we are told that marriage is to “unite” male and female into “one flesh.” Many people reading this simply think, “Oh, becoming one flesh must be the physical, sexual union of intercourse.” While that phrase “one flesh” certainly doesn’t mean less than that, it also means far more than that.

            The term “flesh” used here isn’t just talking about physical bodies. It’s used a few chapters later in Gen. 6:12 to talk about how “all flesh” had corrupted their way on the earth. It wasn’t only bodies that were sinning; it was whole people—souls, minds and bodies that were corrupted.

And when the prophet Joel uses it in Joel 2:28 to speak of how God would pour out his Spirit on “all flesh,” he isn’t just saying that the bodies of people would get the Spirit. The whole person would have the Spirit poured out on them. The term “flesh” is used to represent the entire person.

            So when God says a man and a woman “become one flesh”, he is telling us that marriage is a union between two people, not just two bodies. Furthermore, that union is to be so profound that they virtually become a new, single person. A man and a woman are to unite at all levels of their lives. Sex becomes the physical sign and demonstration that two very different people have united emotionally, socially, financially, legally and personally.

            Science tells us that sex uniquely produces this “uniting” on a chemical and neurological level. Let me quote from one of my favorite authors…my daughter, Joanna.J It’s in her book called “The Sex Talk—A Survival Guide for Parents.”

            “There are two chemicals that your brain releases to create bonding between you and other people, including between your sexual partner(s) and you. Ladies, you only release Oxcytocin and gentlemen, you release both Oxcytocin and Vasopressin. Gents, you get this second bonding chemical because unlike sea horses, you don’t get nine months of pregnancy. So you miss out on the oh so special experience with your child. Referred to as the “Monogamy Molecule,” this chemical also serves to strengthen the bond between you and your spouse. Bonus!”

            She goes on to talk about how there are 4 triggers for these chemicals in our bodies, two of which only women have (the onset of labor at the end of a pregnancy and breastfeeding). The other two happen to both men and women through a.) meaningful or intimate touch and b.) sexual intercourse. Obviously a.)meaningful or intimate touch can be a lot of things along the physical contact spectrum from hugging or kissing your kids goodbye in the morning to more intimate sexual touch between people. That’s why two people who may just be holding hands or giving a short kiss to someone will still begin to feel bonded to each other.

            But sex gets its own number on the list. It takes these hormone releases to a whole new level. In fact, having sex will release five times the normal amount of Oxcytocin! The brain is literally flooded with these chemicals that burn little neurological pathways into their brain to connect two people together.

            Joanna brings it home like this. “Now, all of this bonding is great when you’re married, but not so great when you’re 16 years old. A person’s brain does not know how to distinguish between prom night (a one night stand) and someone’s wedding night. It doesn’t know when this isn’t a person to bond with or when this is part of a life-long committed relationship/marriage. It just knows the triggers, and boom! The floodgates open.”

            “New science on the brain is showing the painful results that casual sexual encounters are having on today’s teens.” [And I would add “all adults” for that matter…but she targets teens in her speaking and writing.] “[Teen’s] brains are still forming (which explains why they sometimes act like they’re missing half of it) and will continue to do so until they’re in their twenties. If they build a habit of short, physically intense relationships, they can actually mold and train their brain to only engage in short, physically intense relationships. When it comes time for them to form a long-term commitment, such as marriage, their brain literally does not know how to switch gears. It has been damaged by the cycle of connection and break-up.”

            And, contrary to popular belief, it happens to both girls and guys.

  • Over 60% of sexually active teens wish they had waited longer (65% of girls, 58% of boys).
  • Depression: Teens who have had sex are 3 times more likely to be depressed than friends who are virgins.
  • Suicidal Thoughts: Sexually active girls are 3 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their virgin friends, while sexually active guys are 7 times more likely!

[See The Sex Talk—A Survival Guide for Parents, by Joanna Hyatt, pp. 85-59.]

ILL: Let me illustrate it this way. If I take a piece of tape and stick it to my sweater…and then pull it off, what happens? (Some of the sweater fibers stick to the tape.) Now, if I do that to you…and you…and you…what happens to the tape over time? It loses its ability to “bond” or “stick”. Get the point?

Tim Keller calls sex “a commitment apparatus.”

“If sex is a method that God invented to do ‘whole life entrustment’ and self-giving, it should not surprise us that sex makes us feel deeply connected to the other person, even when used wrongly. Unless you deliberately disable it, or through practice you numb the original impulse, sex makes you feel personally interwoven and joined to another human being, as you are literally physically joined….

      “Even if you are not legally married, you may find yourself very quickly feeling marriage-like ties, feeling that the other person has obligations to you. But that other person has no legal, social, or moral responsibility even to call you back in the morning. This incongruity leads to jealousy and hurt feelings and obsessiveness if two people are having sex but are not married. It makes breaking up vastly harder than it should be. It leads many people to stay trapped in relationships that are not good because of a feeling of having (somehow) connected themselves.

      “Therefore, if you have sex outside marriage, you will have to steel yourself against sex’s power to soften your heart toward another person and make you more trusting. The problem is that, eventually, sex will lose its covenant-making power for you, even if you one day do get married. Ironically, then, sex outside of marriage eventually works backwards, making you less able to commit and trust another person.”

[Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 259-260.]

The parallels with our walk with God are clear. Throughout the Old Testament, God used the metaphor of sexual adultery to tell his people what their spiritual adultery was like to him. Just look at Hosea whose own personal story of marrying a prostitute and trying to get her to live a monogamous life with him was a living and tragic picture of what Israel was doing to God. They had the contract, the outward trappings, the house together, the common bed, the kitchen table…but not the exclusive heart connection. Her life of prostitution had spoiled her for a life of happy marriage just as Israel’s life of spiritual infidelity was spoiling their relationship with God.

            Nothing is as damaging to a marriage as infidelity. It is in a class of its own. Just as God wants to use marriage and sex to teach us exclusive commitment to one other person, so God wants us to share with him a one-of-a-kind, exclusive, intimate relationship as our Lord and God. You will never find someone who is truly enjoying a deep, personal, bonded relationship with Jesus as their only true God who is being, at the same time, unfaithful in their marriage…NEVER! Learning to be sexually bonded to a spouse through the daily ups and downs of marriage has a whole lot to teach us about being bonded to God with every part of our being.    

            So, sex as God made it to be teaches us about exclusive bonding which benefits both marriage and our relationship with God.

2.) Sex as God intended it to be experienced in marriage grows us up to be self-sacrificing and full of the fruit of the Spirit as Christ-followers.

Before I was married and before I started counseling people about their marriages, I had no idea what a challenge sex can be in marriage. I naively thought that there couldn’t possibly be anything about sex that ever caused problems for married people. After all, if it’s free and it’s fun, what could possibly go wrong?

            But through the years I’ve come to realize that sex in marriage, particularly Christian marriages, is really more of a thermometer measuring the health of a couple than a thermostat dictating the warmth of the relationship. Sex doesn’t really lead a relationship; it follows. If there are problems in other arenas of a couple’s relationship, sex will be one of the first places it shows up. And if the other relational and emotional issues in a marriage are good, sex will usually be good.

            Remember, sex as God created it is about each partner in the marriage being concerned not with getting sexual pleasure but with giving it. The greatest sexual pleasure should be the pleasure of seeing your spouse getting pleasure.

            This concept also has implications for a typical problem many couples experience in their marital relationship—namely, that one person wants sex more often than the other. If your main purpose in sex is giving pleasure, not getting pleasure, then a person who doesn’t have as much of a sex drive physically can give to the other person as a gift. Isn’t that a deeper form of love—giving to someone something of value even when you don’t feel like it?

            Sex in marriage is one of those places that will call for more of the fruit of the Spirit than will ever be demanded in short-term sexual relationships. Love, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control—they’re all required and in increasing measure, especially the older you get, if sex in marriage is to do what God intended it to.

            This is really what we’re talking about when we talk about creating a satisfying context for sex. When males think “context”, our minds go to the place or time. And frankly, for most men, context means very little. To be blunt, pretty much anytime, anywhere works for us. J

            But “context” for women is far more holistic and relational. It’s not about the physical context or environment so much as it is about the relational or emotional context. Meaningful heart-to-heart conversation, emotional safety where she doesn’t feel wounded but rather cherished, relational warmth rather than distance—you know, all the stuff men find hard to do—that’s what creates context for a woman.

            I’m not saying men need to be more like women or women need to be more like men. God made us different for a reason and he made sex as powerful a drive as it is so that we will ALL—men or women—have to grow up in Christ in different ways in order to experience sanctifying sex.

This is why the Bible has such a high view of sex. It is a sign and seal of our oneness with each other and with God. How we handle our sexuality says a lot about how we’re walking or not walking with Christ.  

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Next week we will talk about how our sexuality as single people can be sanctifying. All of us have been, are or will be single again in life. It’s not a second-rate sexuality, as we will see next week.

But to close this off today, let me ask you to consider a few take-aways here today.

1.)    Do you need to ask God to remold your understanding of or feeling about sex? God cares about what you think and how you feel about sex and your sexuality. Has He made you aware today that something needs to change about that? Why don’t you ask him for help and tell Him you are open and desirous of change that brings you more in line with His plan and purposes for your sexuality.

2.)    If you’re married, how about having a conversation with your spouse about how bonded they feel or don’t feel through sex? If you’re humble enough, ask them what you could do or how you could change and grow in ways that would help them feel more bonded to you through sex.

3.)    I think most adults—young, old and in between—struggle with feelings of guilt or shame when it comes to sex. Whether it was wrong relationships you had with your spouse or someone else before you were married OR whether it’s pornography you’ve viewed OR people you’ve lusted after…OR whether it’s mental fantasies you escape to or whatever…we all need to do some honest repenting, honest confession to God and humble embracing of his forgiveness and cleansing power. Use these closing moments of prayer/ communion to be honest with God and be receptive of His cleansing forgiveness.


"Lord God, we live in an age when the false god of sex has so often beat out You and your truth about our sexuality. What was once considered perverted is now common place and accepted. Please help me increase my sensitivity to the Truth of Your commandments and show me where I need to amend my attitudes and my actions. Forgive me my failures in this area of sexuality and strengthen me to live a holy life.

Free me from the bondage of my personal passions and fill me with the fruit of your Spirit. Heal me of past hurts, failures and sins and guide my relationships in purity, fidelity and true Christ-like love. Teach me how to live a life set apart and made holy in Jesus Christ. Amen."