I know, it's been like forever since I've sent off a Shoveletter (actually, about a year and a half), so I figure it's time to stimulate your holy minds. This letter is a response I sent off just this week to a brother who asked me about a passage in 1 Thessalonians 4. He asked:
.....wheres the testimony to the miracle in these verses...looks like God is demanding purity from man, which is impossible ... and what of God being an avenger of such things?
Anyhow, this Shoveletter represents my response. I hope it encourages you!
I understand how God as the Avenger seems to contradict the reality of his grace in Christ, for I used to gladly accept any gracious sounding answer that would help me get around it. But the truth is that God IS the avenger in the affairs of this world. However, and this is a huge however, God is not an avenger toward the new creation ... for there is no offense in the life that has died and risen in Christ. No, God is the avenger in the natural world toward those who are under condemnation. So ... why would we who are not under condemnation be concerned with this aspect of God's vengeance in any way, especially in the sense of a warning? Right?
This is the very same sense that Paul also added in his letter to the Galatians, and it has stirred up much fear with its seeming loophole for legalists to take advantage of.
"Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." Galatians 5:19-24
So, why did Paul write stuff like this, as well as in 1 Thessalonians, since it could so easily be used to preach law? You see, this is where we have to remember which spirit has taught us to assume and view these realities in such a way as to reinforce a life under law rather than the true life under grace. If we will see the reality of God's true grace as being emphasized in either one of these passages (or in one of many others, for that matter) then we can see it in the other.
I clearly remember speaking to one of the teachers at a local "grace" church regarding this passage, for he had been teaching from the letter of Galatians in the Sunday school class. His view was similar to most, I suspect, for he left his pupils hanging with this warning of not inheriting the kingdom of God over their heads. As he didn't want to address the matter with me during his class, I approached him afterward to follow up. It was like talking to a deaf man, for he could see no other concept than the seeming legalistic conclusion that Christians who engaged in any of these things would not inherit the kingdom of God.
Where as this verse used to scare me, all I can see anymore is Paul's determined stance upon our inheritance in Christ and how it has changed everything. As a matter of fact, that word "inherit" should stick out like a red flag being waved to get our attention. The warning Paul put forth was not regarding how the new creation might not inherit the kingdom of God, but that those who are in Christ need to recognize the truth that those of the flesh ("those who do such things") have no inheritance. Why is this important ... and why is it a warning? Because the Galatians had been confronted with an alternate spirituality, that is, a righteousness that was built upon the same law that could not deliver the ones who had come to preach this false message to them. The warning was given NOT as a contradiction to their inheritance in Christ, but as a sobering reality regarding those who were preaching (and living) by this false gospel.
In other words, these were the same ones Paul revealed in the middle of the letter who were under the curse of the Law. His warning was not stating that the believers were practicing the works of the flesh, but that those who were of the Law, and therefore of the fleshly mind, were the ones they needed to wake up regarding so that they would understand what was being offered them by these false messengers. According to the mind built upon appearance, what was being offered may have seemed truly righteous, but it was a lie. For what came out of the so-called righteousness of the law men who preached to them was the works of the flesh as described by Paul. The reality is that those who have no inheritance have nothing to offer those who do; instead, a lack of this realization by those who are born of God will set them up for much confusion. This is the very thing that caused the believers in Galatia to fall into what Paul spoke of as insanity. They were so confused they didn't know which end was up. This is the essence of the warning, and it was vividly pictured by Paul through the account of the two sons of Abraham. One of the sons was born in bondage, the other was born in freedom.
Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written, “REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE NUMEROUS ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND.” And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN.” So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. Galatians 4:21-31
Which is followed up immediately by...
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
As God opened my eyes to the simple reality of freedom in Christ, especially in view of whole passages like the above, I lost my fear of those verses that seemed to contradict grace in Christ. For the same basic reality was repeated in many different letters in many different ways. The truth is that the heirs will always be persecuted by those with no inheritance, and the heirs must be warned that those who live by the fleshly mind with their fleshly ways will continually appeal to them by that which seems righteous. That's what causes us to get sucked in to trying to play their game by their rules ... and we think we're supposed to be able to do that.
Now, let's tie this together with the passage in Thessalonians.
Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
I quoted more of this passage to bring Paul's message and meaning more into focus. Notice how Paul wove the reality of love throughout his letter to these saints:
"Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia ... For you yourselves ARE TAUGHT BY GOD TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER; FOR INDEED YOU DO PRACTICE IT..."
We jump into a passage without taking it all in, and then we extract the parts that seem to contradict the reality of grace and freedom. We need to reflect on reality as Paul saw it before we assume he may have meant something else. For according to him, those believers (the saints, the holy ones, the children of the Spirit) were not of the same mind or spirit as with those who practiced the works of the flesh. And it is upon this reality that Paul confronted them regarding this distinction as it reflected upon the sensuality of the mind without God.
Now when I consider a passage like this, I have to wonder what stirred Paul to address it. After all, I seriously doubt he just threw it out there on a whim or as some kind of morality message of the day. As the case with his other letters, Paul dealt with how grace panned out regarding current issues among the churches he wrote to. It seems Paul did receive letters back from those among the churches he wrote to, and we sometimes see him specifically mentioning some communication that caused him to write his letter. I can easily imagine a scenario where certain believers or perhaps religious posers might try to pass some fleshly but gracious-sounding viewpoint that attempted to blend the sensual mind of those without God into a new grace-based freedom.
I know what it is to not want to sound like a legalist in the midst of a group of so-called grace believers, and I also know how easy it is, because of this intimidation, to go along with those who would question my understanding of grace. I mean, who wants to be thought of as being a little legalistic by questioning anyone's behavior (after all, some who are just learning about grace and are still so intimidated by their former legalistic upbringing will question you simply because you use an ominous word like behavior).
Anyhow, it should be quite obvious that because of Paul's preaching, some who were still of the fleshly mind were concluding that grace makes sin okay, which of course is an absurd twist on the reality of the miracle within us. I'm guessing that Paul had addressed this fleshly grace twist that suggested sexual immorality was okay under grace. This has nothing to do with the truth that through Christ we have been set free and that we have been forgiven of any and all such things, and that we remain clean in spite of any failures in this area. But see, the fleshly mind would rather have us regard such things as being no big deal because of "grace", when instead our whole world has been turned upside down through death and resurrection in Christ so that we have been made totally new. Fleshly grace comes at us as a concept, a perspective, and not as the essence of true life in God through Christ.
So in 1 Thessalonians, Paul was establishing the reality of their sanctification (which is the in-Christ new creation life) as the basis upon which to understand their sexual relationships rather than the perversions of the Gentile mind that did not know God. I am pretty sure that some of those Gentile viewpoints of sex were being considered among them as somehow worthy of their true life. Most of our difficulties dealing with sexual relations in this world come from the fact that we have bought into so many of the lies regarding things like romance and true love. We listen to some moving story like Romeo and Juliet without questioning the total BS behind it. As we regard Paul's warning about how God was the avenger (for we do so in many ways that we might not recognize), we also regard the lack of true life and substance in the world's seeming nobility.
Consider that God is the one who established that all things produce after their own kind so that the flesh produces more of the same ... those of the flesh reap of the flesh. For God has established a continuance of authority throughout the world that despite all contradictions carries out the sword of vengeance toward fellow evildoers. It is common knowledge that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In the case of the Thessalonian situation, those of the world who cheat on each other sexually will suffer accordingly. Those in the world understand that what goes around, comes around. Crimes of passion are no surprise, rather they are expected.
The only surprise in all of this is that it is ultimately the LEGAL mind that sucks believers into the perception of the world in regards to sexual behavior. No doubt it is the legal mind that would have us think that grace has caused us to fall into sexual sin, but that is all part of the lie. For the religious legal mind might speak of or teach abstinence, but at the same time it presents the sexual taboos with an undercurrent of envy because of the good stuff God doesn't want us to do. For this is the perception so many of us have bought into, and so many believers are trying so hard to deny their fleshly urges while assuming that God has kept the good stuff of life from them.
If you listen with the sanity of Christ's mind, you will hear this hanging behind most Christian teaching ... after all, most "Christian" teaching is simply law, and law deals with the same basic principles of the world. Those who preach law are also preaching sin, even though they come across as preaching God's righteousness. However, if they were preaching God's righteousness, they would be preaching Christ because he IS God's righteousness.
"For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you."
Listen to the suggestion in these statements. The fleshly mind would use grace as a covering for evil, which means that we should not be surprised by it. After all, who would be suggesting that God has called us for the purpose of impurity, if not the legal mind of those without God? Paul's whole discourse is not meant to build some kind of Christian principle, for it is the Christian-principle kind of mind that creates principles that can be worked around. In other words, it preaches the message that stirs the sin it will allow or deny. For the mind of the flesh knows how to work around anything. Notice how Paul finalized his comments by removing himself and his opinions from the equation and put it all on the reality of God's Spirit who is in us. For it's not about whether one disagreed with Paul as a man, the mind that has established a life that allows for a certain level of sin (which is exactly what religious principles have set up over the centuries) that mind actually has rejected God. This is the mind the Thessalonians were being warned against as Paul begged them not to give in to their basic beliefs.