Standing in front of a crowd of young Christians at an urban church, John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, talked about the need for faithful believers to live with sexual integrity according to the Scriptures. A young man interrupted him with, “You must be kidding! You can’t expect us to live like that today! It’s not possible! ”
While taken aback by the interruption, John thanked him for his honesty and proceeded to tell the crowd, “Yes, God expects that from you. He will give you what you need to live like that. Your life will be much richer for it.”
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul stood before a group of believers and delivered much the same message. His letter to the church in Thessalonica hints that Paul received similar pushback.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, ESV)
If the church today is going to help her people live faithfully, we need to follow Paul’s example in two ways. First, we must not retreat from proclaiming the importance of living within God’s design for sexuality. Second, we must go beyond proclamation to actively teach people how to walk in sexual integrity. Both of these must go together, or the church will fail in her duty to be a redemptive community where men and women grow into the character of Christ.
Paul proclaimed that how we live with our bodies matters, and our struggle to live faithfully in these bodies is a battle God wants us to fight.
The importance of living with sexual integrity is stressed seven times by Paul. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live sexually is a barometer of our faith.
Verse 2: For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. Here Paul reminds the church of his past instruction to them, instruction that was not mere personal opinion.
Verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . . Here Paul links personal growth in faith with sexual integrity.
Verse 4: . . . that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness . . . Paul hints here at how hard this can be, and that we need to learn to do so.
Verse 5: . . . not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles . . . Paul exhorts them to not live like those who base their relationships and life on fleeting and changeable desires and emotions.
Verse 6: . . . that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . Sexual sin can deeply harm another person, and the Lord will not ignore selfishness and injustice.
Verse 7: “For God has called us . . . in holiness . . .” Sexual integrity is a specific call for all believers.
Verse 8: . . . whoever disregards this, disregards . . . God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Again, Paul says this is not his personal opinion and that God has given us help, the Holy Spirit, to enable and empower us to live faithfully.
“No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by dealing with it alone.”
Paul’s emphasis counters cultural messages we hear about sex today. We hear that sex equals life, that a life lived without sex is tragic, and that our sexual identities define the core of who we are as human beings. But even for those who resist this cultural siren song, just living in this sexually-saturated world makes sexual integrity incredibly difficult.
Does it encourage you to know that this was difficult for first-century Christians also?
The situation in Thessaloniki existed at other churches as well. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addressed incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, sexual promiscuity, distorted views of sex within marriage, and same-sex attraction. But in the face of stark cultural differences (and, yes, probably protests from newcomers to the faith), Paul upheld the gospel on this matter. He didn’t flinch in saying how important sexual integrity was, even as he saw them struggle to attain it.
But Paul was not merely reinforcing the Old Testament moral law about sexual behavior, nor adding new rules to the early church. Yes, God’s moral law was not overturned in the new covenant, but now there is a far bigger picture to comprehend in Christ: Jesus has brought about a new creation through his life, death, and resurrection. Living in increasing holiness demonstrates that we are a part of this new life; we are part of a new creation bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth. Therefore, God wants us to see something in this struggle for sexual integrity. He wants us to depend upon the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has given to us, to empower us to fight this battle, and he wants us to know that he embraces us even as we struggle.
The New Testament tells us there is no ideal, pure church. A faithful church will be one where strugglers are present, because Jesus came to save sinners. The church is where Jesus invites us to take his yoke and learn from him (Matthew 11:29). Learning takes time, progressing through stages of growth and maturation, with numerous detours of struggle and failure. But change and growth will come as we more fully grasp in our hearts the message of the grace and truth of the gospel.
But we will never get beyond this reality: A healthy church is not one without problems; it’s one where problems are addressed openly, with the gospel.
Today, some use ever-present sexual struggles as evidence that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. God is still calling his people to holiness with their sexuality, according to his design. We are to pursue obedience even when we struggle—especially as we struggle. It has always been a fight worth fighting. To ignore this part of shepherding God’s people is to ignore what the entire New Testament thought was important—that how we live with our bodies matters.
But Paul goes beyond merely telling us that this is important. We need more than just words of expectation and exhortation.
So, beyond just telling believers that they need to live in a certain way, we see Paul willing to step into their struggles. Growing in sexual integrity requires the church’s involvement with strugglers.
Paul hints at this in the first verse when he introduces the subject of fighting for sexual integrity: Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you. . . that as you received from us. . .
Do you notice something in Paul’s appeal? This is not the language of command or a rebuke that says “Just stop it!” He does not simply tell people to do the right thing. Instead, he uses relational language. Paul addresses them as brothers and then appeals to them, We ask you and urge you. Why is Paul speaking this way?
We find the reason for his approach two chapters earlier.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2: 11-12)
You see, Paul knew these people. He loved them like a parent (like a mother and a father!). He knew his children because he spent time with them. He knew the fight was not easy, so he was willing to share his life with them. His presence with them went beyond just talking; his presence patiently walked with them as they learned to control their sexuality in order to honor their Savior.
The way to fight is in relationship. No one escapes sexual struggles and sin by fighting this battle alone. Sexual struggles and sin live in secrecy; they are killed by openness. Sexual sin lives in fear of other people; it dies when we are honest with God by being honest with someone else about our struggles.
“Something more than words of expectation and exhortation are needed.”
The church becomes a presence with strugglers when she acknowledges that no one has it all together. The church becomes a place of safety and hope when it is honest about the struggles Christians face and about the love and tenderness that Jesus has toward broken people. There are four ways a church can cultivate and live out that truth.
One, we need to be real about all of our struggles with sex and sexuality
Let’s get honest. The church, like all of us, works hard to look good on the outside. When church leadership doesn’t specifically name the struggles people wrestle with, then people stay hidden, and no one receives the crucial help they need.
A woman once told a Harvest USA staff person that she was visiting a church where everyone dressed up and looked good. They weren’t a bit like her; she came from a tough background. She had struggled for a long time with addictions, both sexual and substance abuse. But just as she began feeling like she was wasting her time attending this church, she came across a notice in the church bulletin: “Do you struggle with sexual sin of any kind? We want to help and walk with you as you find increasing grace and freedom in Christ. We all need help with these struggles. Call _______ to speak in confidence.”
The simple honesty of those words captivated her. She decided to stay at that church, because their honesty about the Christian life displayed their dependency upon God for the grace to live openly.
Two, we need to become un-shockable about our struggles
The attitude a church takes either invites or hinders openness. Steve Brown of KeyLife Network says this beautifully: “I don’t care where your mind has gone, what you’ve watched on the Internet, with whom you’ve slept, what direction your desires have gone, how hard you’ve struggled and failed, whom you’ve hurt or how ashamed you are. The good news is that, first, you haven’t surprised the God who gave us (this) ‘jet sex engine’ and, second, he’s not angry at you but will show you a way to live in the light. ” 1
Being un-shockable means that we don’t shame people to motivate change. That doesn’t work anyway. Being un-shockable means that we aren’t surprised by the depth of people’s sin either. If Jesus called Paul to himself, a man who decades after his conversion still called himself “the worst of sinners,” then we can also call men and women, no matter the depth of their sin, to find grace in Jesus as they live in our churches.
Three, we need to speak more of the “why” than of the “what” of sexual faithfulness
We need to go beyond merely saying what Scripture says: we also need to clearly articulate why God’s design for sex is good, why it makes sense, why it really is good for individuals, families, and for society. Simply knowing what the sexual boundary lines are is not enough—we need to articulate why we should live within these boundary lines.
This is the way to answer the young man who said sexual integrity was impossible. We’re not saying it’s easy, but we are saying learning to live within God’s gracious boundary lines—even when that might mean a celibate life—produces profoundly good fruit and, yes, even joys in that kind of life.
Four, we need to be lavish givers of mercy
Sexual struggles can go deep and persist for a long time. I love the story in Luke 7, in which Jesus eats at the house of a religious leader who is shocked when “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute) stands behind Jesus, weeping, then covers his feet with her tears and pours a jar of expensive perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him because she was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. He did something that shocked the Pharisees even more—he forgave her and honored her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace came as a result of her experiencing forgiveness, of being shown undeserved mercy.
Only when the church ministers out of brokenness and forgiveness can we love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field. Helping one another toward sexual integrity then becomes a shared experience of grace.
One more thing about this story. Jesus was honest about this woman’s struggles: “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to the church. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with people who have a long history of sexual struggles. But if we increasingly love like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches and we’ll love them well.
When the church is real about sexual struggles, when she calls people to biblical faithfulness, and when she steps into the battle with strugglers, then the gospel will shine even brighter to a world which so needs it.
- Steve Brown, Foreword to Hide or Seek, When Men Get Real with God About Sex, by John Freeman (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2014), xii.
Feel free to comment on this article. You can also contact Nicholas at [email protected].
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part Five
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (ESV)
I mentioned two other ways of living that are crucial for us as believers and as the church to live honestly in dealing with sexual struggles and sin. You can read about these here.
Three, we need to be truth sayers
Our churches must speak the truth. I mean two things here regarding speaking truthfully.
One, of course I mean speak the truth about sex and sexuality as the Scriptures teach it. We do not need to be ashamed of what God’s Word says here. The gospel offers something good to us and to the world. God, as the Creator, knows how the world and all of life should work. Today, we need to have the backbone to speak what it says.
But in speaking truthfully, we need to go beyond merely saying what it says: we also need to articulate clearly why God’s design for sex is good; that it makes sense; that it really is good for individuals and for society. It is not enough to simply know what the sexual boundary lines are—we need to articulate why these boundary lines should be in place and that good things come in our lives from honoring God with our bodies.
In just the past month, I’ve talked to two parents whose college-age children, raised in the church, are sexually active, and they were unable to engage them in a conversation about the goodness of God’s design for sex, why it matters, and why it’s best for relationships. On the one hand, they were grateful for the honesty of their child; but on the other hand, they had no words other than to say to their children, “You shouldn’t do that; it’s not what God wants.”
Two, the second way to speak truthfully is to present information that isn’t distorted or wrong. On the issue of sex and sexuality, it’s easy to for us to do that.
I might step on some toes here, but some of the abstinence education I’ve heard presents inaccurate information. In our zeal to protect our kids from early sexualization, we’ve said that pre-marital sex will bring lifelong guilt and that if you only wait for your wedding night, sex is going to be great!
No, that’s not true in all cases, and it certainly isn’t accurate.
And on the issue of homosexuality, the church has said some misleading and incorrect information about gays and lesbians. Christians have made derogatory statements about their character and labeled all gays and lesbians as being people whose sexuality is out of control.
No, that’s not true in all cases. If you go to Florida during spring break, you’ll see a whole lot of straight people whose sexuality is out of control. Are heterosexuals all the same?
When we speak falsely, we contribute to the confusion our people have today about sexuality. This is especially so with our youth—when they hear the church say one thing but the reality is something different and more nuanced, no wonder they begin to doubt what the Bible says is true or not.
Four, we need to be mercy givers
What do I mean here?
Loving mercifully invites help. The sexual brokenness of our culture is everywhere. It’s not easy to resist the pull and temptations of our culture and our sinful nature. Our sexual natures are powerful, and living in this broken world hurts. That is a powerful combination! All of us are sinners—and all of us frequently slip and fall.
Loving mercifully says, “We are in this together; let me help you get back on your feet. I’ll be patient with you as you learn and grow.”
Eighteen years ago, I went to a counselor because I needed help. It took me more than a year to make that appointment, because I kept trying to figure things out on my own. And when I sat down in my counselor’s office, she leaned over and simply said, “How can I help you?”
I wanted to reply with a well thought-out answer, but instead I started to feel overwhelmed with emotion. I felt so shamed that I had a reached a point in my life that I couldn’t figure out how to help myself.
Her response was full of mercy: “Tell me what you think the problem is, and together we’ll find a way to help you.” Her answer gave me hope. I wasn’t a problem to be fixed and therefore needed someone smarter than me to figure it out. Instead, I now had someone who would walk with me to help me find a way through the problem.
Secondly, loving mercifully means forgiving and restoring. What sexual strugglers need is God’s forgiveness, communicated through your love for them. Forgiveness surprises us. We expect judgment and condemnation for our sins and failures, but sexual strugglers feel that way even more so.
I love the story of Jesus and the “woman sinner” in Luke 7. Jesus ate at the house of a religious leader. The leader was shocked when a woman, described as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (a prostitute), knelt behind Jesus at his feet and wept. She covered his feet with her tears and poured a jar of perfume over his feet.
The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus allowed this sexually sinful woman to draw near to him, to even touch him. She was so defiled.
Jesus wasn’t shocked or offended. But then he shocked the Pharisees even more—by forgiving her and honoring her embrace of him. Jesus understood that her embrace of him came as a result of her experience of being forgiven.
It is only when we minister out of our own brokenness and forgiveness that we will love others mercifully. God’s forgiveness of us levels the playing field.
One more thing about the story in Luke 7: I particularly like that Jesus said of the woman, “her sins are many.” That’s a challenge to us. Many of us don’t like to get our hands dirty with messy people; people who have a long history of sins. But if we increasingly live like Jesus, then we’ll see more strugglers in our churches, and we’ll love them well. And God will set them on the road to healing and freedom from enslavement. Forgiveness both cleanses and empowers.
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).
What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.
But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:
What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.
I’m struck by two things in this passage.
One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.
V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”
V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”
V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”
V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)
V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”
V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”
V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”
Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.
We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.
But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.
What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.
Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?
God knows that this is difficult for his people
Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”
In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.
What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.
Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:
- There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
- Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
- They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
- They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
- They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
- They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.
And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!
It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?
It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!
There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.
A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.
Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.
God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.
Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )
Link to Part 2.
Several weeks ago I attended The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference in Orlando, FL with 3800 women from across the USA and from other countries. In addition, many more women listened in via a live web stream, making as many as 5000 women who attended.
The theme of the conference was “Here is Our God,” and speakers unfolded Scripture with passion and vision, helping us to see the treasure of Jesus and God’s Word to all of us. The entire conference is available online for free at www.thegospelcoalition.org. I encourage anyone to log on for excellent teaching from the Bible.