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God Finishes What He Starts – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28

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Sermon 13 of 14 from the I Thessalonians series

December 1996 – “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

A few days ago a friend asked me if I would share some stories of miraculous answers to prayer. So I sent e-mail to my friends around the country asking for their stories. Here are three of the most compelling answers:

A Marriage at the End of the Rope

My wife and I are a miracle, and I have you and God to be thankful for that. If you hadn’t told me, “No decision has to be made today,” I might have made the mistake of my life.

We are better than we have ever been, and to think that 17 months ago, I wouldn’t have given 25 cents for our marriage, God has truly been good to us. He has answered our prayers.

People who have been “tested,” as we call it, and then persevere, endure, or transcend through prayer, turning it over to God, to me are the true miracles.

The sooner we realize that God’s plan for us is the only thing that matters, and that we should do everything that we can to get closer to him, the better off we’ll be.

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A Man Whose Life Was Utterly Transformed

On June 2, 1980, I entered a treatment center for alcoholism.

From that day to this, I have prayed morning and night, thanking God for keeping alcohol out of my life that day and asking that, if it be His will, the He keep alcohol out of my life in the day to come.

God has never failed me. In 16-plus years, He has been faithful and kept me free of a disease that has three possible outcomes – death, insanity or sobriety. I thank God the third option has been mine. And this through no merit of my own – purely by the grace of God and one day at a time, as the program says.

I count that a miracle and an answer to prayer.

A Man Whose Life Is Still Being Changed

Tonight I read, with interest, your comments about miracles. I agree with you that there are some real heroes and heroines out there who suffer with dignity, with no self pity, looking not so much for the miraculous cure as much as the miracle of seeing Jesus face to face. I had a friend like that who went to be with the Lord less than a year ago. She was, in life, a role model of faith for me and her homegoing was an exclamation point at the end of her witness. The point I wanted to come to, however, is that I believe God is still in the miracle business. And the answers are still spectacular. But most of the answers don’t seem to me to be instantaneous.

We really are the immediate gratification generation. I think we read the New Testament and wonder why we don’t see God performing instantaneous, spectacular answers to prayer framed within peals of thunder and bolts of lightning. I think He does give

spectacular answers, only in His time. I base this on my own experience. If I had asked a close friend sixteen years ago to write down a description of me and then done the same today, here is the conclusion you would come to once you read them: These are two distinctly different people with very little in common.

What happened? Nothing short of a miracle!! I won’t go into all the circumstances, but sixteen years ago I was at the end of my emotional and spiritual rope. One day I got down on my knees and told God to either change me or take me home because I didn’t want to live another minute if my life was going to be the same as it had been. That’s when I started to hear the faint sounds of hammering and sawing inside.

To jump to the end of the story, over the last sixteen years God has created a whole new person inside this one. That’s not visible to most folks. And it wasn’t in the twinkling of an eye. But it is a miracle! It is spectacular! And it isn’t over yet! What God has done in my life is more miraculous than if He had grown a new arm or leg to replace an amputated one–because He has grown a whole new person. He still does miracles! They are spectacular! They are in His time!

To God Be The Glory!!

Miracles All Around

As I read those testimonies, the thought occurred to me that there are miracles all around us if only we had eyes to see them! Our problem is that we look for outward, spectacular results when God’s work—like the tiny mustard seed—begins in a hidden place, inside the human heart. As wonderful as reports of physical healing are—and I like God that he still heals in answer to prayer today, the greater miracle is the transformation of a sinner into a saint by the grace of God.

I love one particular sentence in the last testimony: That’s when I started to hear the faint sounds of hammering and sawing inside. If you have a believer for any length of time, you already about that hammering and sawing inside your own life. Theologians have a big word for that. They call it “sanctification.” It’s the work God does inside the heart of a believer in order to make him into a brand-new person.

Five Fast Facts

Here are five fast facts you need to know about sanctification:

1. It is the work of God

2. It is a lifetime process

3. It is never complete in this life

4. God won’t stop until the job is done!

5. God uses everything that happens to us—the good and the bad—to make us like Jesus.

That brings us to our text for today. As you can see, we have come to the end of 1 Thessalonians. This is my 13th and final message from this wonderful little book. When we started this series in August, I did not anticipate the great blessing it would prove to be—both to me personally and to the congregation.

Today we close the series with a look at Paul’s closing prayer. These two verses form a benediction in which Paul prays for God’s blessing upon his readers. Most of Paul’s letters end with a benediction or short prayer. There is a reason for this. The teaching is over, the exhortation done, the message given. The closing benediction is like the closing prayer in a worship service. In essence Paul is saying, “I have told you how to live, but only God can make your efforts successful.”

A Prayer God Will Answer

This prayer for their sanctification is a prayer that God will always answer. It rests upon one fundamental truth: All human effort, not matter how valiant, is ultimately unsuccessful without God’s help. One of our old hymns expresses this truth beautifully when it says, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down, Brethren, pray and holy manna will be showered all around.”

No one here believes in Bible teaching more than I do. No one argues more forcefully for correct Bible doctrine. But all our teaching and all our doctrine is in vain unless God supernaturally plants the truth in our hearts.

Thus the importance of this closing prayer. You might paraphrase it this way: “Lord, I have done all I can and taught these people all I know. Lord, you’ve got to take over now. Unless you help them, they won’t turn out right.”

That leads me to offer a layman’s definition of sanctification: It is everything God does in your life and mine to make sure we turn out right.

Sanctification is not some mystical, strange, emotional experience. Let me illustrate it this way. Whenever you invest in someone’s life, you care about how they turn out. That’s why parents care so much and worry so much about their children. They have given their lifeblood and so it matters almost more than life itself how their children turn out. Now apply that same truth in spiritual realm. God has invested in us the death of his only begotten Son. Sanctification is the divine guarantee that that investment will not be wasted. It is the assurance that God finishes what he starts.

Paul said it this way in Philippians 1:6, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” He began a good work the moment you came to Christ, he continues it day by day, and he will it to completion until the day we see Jesus Christ face to face.

Sanctification, then, is God’s commitment to us. We’re going to make it. He will personally see to it.

P.B.P.G.I.N.F.W.M.Y.

But we’re not finished yet. Over 20 years ago I attended the Bill Gothard seminar in Atlanta, Georgia. I remember seeing people walking around with buttons bearing a strange and indecipherable message: P.B.P.G.I.N.F.W.M.Y. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Then someone told me the secret. Those letters stood for the following message: Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet. That statement strikes me as be entirely biblical.

We’re not finished yet—that’s why we pray and seek the Lord

Someday we’ll be finished—that’s what sanctification means.

Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians is really a short course in sanctification. In these two verses we have 7 Ps: The Person, the Purpose, the Prospect, the Position, the Point, the Promise, and the Performance.

I. The Person — God Himself, the God of Peace

In this opening phrase we have the guarantee of our sanctification. In legal terms God is the “guarantor,” the one who stands behind the promise. Just as any contract is only worth the integrity of the name of the paper, even so our hope of sanctification is only as good as the person who stands behind it. In this case, our sanctification is certain because Paul uses an emphatic Greek construction to drive his point home:

God

God himself

God himself, the God of peace

Here is the truth: Only God can make you better. Think about that for a moment. Exercise improves your body, therapy make help your soul, friends may lift your spirit, good fortune may improve your circumstances, but only God can make you better.

God is the author and source of all spiritual progress. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this fundamental truth. Over one hundred years ago Professor James Denney put the matter this way: “How many have tried to work off a vicious temper, to break for good with an evil habit, or in some other direction to sanctify themselves and to keep out of God’s sight until the work is done.”

So in our battle against sin we crawl into a corner and try to get better on our own. After a while we stand up and say, “See how nice I look, Lord? And I did all by myself.” And from the heavens comes this reply, “Without me you can do nothing.”

In contrast to all our feeble efforts at moral betterment and self-improvement, Paul simply says, “God himself, the God of peace.” It starts with God, and if it doesn’t start there, you haven’t really started at all.

II. The Purpose—Sanctify You Through and Through

Every word here is important. I’ve already said that sanctification is everything God does to make sure that you and I will turn out all right in the end. Biblically, the term means “to make holy,” which really means to be set apart for God’s service. It contains the idea of be made pure and useful for God’s service.

The little phrase “through and through” actually translates an unusual two-part Greek word. One part means “whole” and the other means “complete” or “at the end.” It has the idea of being wholly sanctified so that in the end you will be made complete. God has ordained that his children—all of them without exception—will be made complete in the end. We’re not that way now. Most of us feel fragmented and torn in a thousand directions. We’re incomplete and under construction in this life. But God intends that when we finally get to heaven the hammers and saws will be put away and we will stand before the Lord with every part perfectly in place and every aspect of our life made perfect.

Sanctification is thus a process leading to a product. Years ago we used to sing a little chorus that went this way: “Little by little, day by day, little by little, in every way, Jesus is changing me.” That’s the way it is for all of us. We grow little by little and we make progress day by day. It’s not very fast, but the Lord is never in a hurry. He takes his time because he is the Master Craftsman.

Good Enough For Government Work

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “good enough for government work.” That’s a derisive way of saying, “Don’t worry about the details. The joints don’t have to fit, the margins can be crooked, we don’t need to worry about the budget. We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t even have to be close.”

Mark it down plainly: God does not do government work. Everything he does is perfect. But many of us feel like our live are “government work.” We look inside and see lots of good and bad mixed together and whole bunch of loose connections and a lot of parts that don’t seem to work right.

That’s the way it is in a fallen world. We’re stuck with what seems to be “government work” in this life. But it won’t be that way forever. God has promised that in the end, we will be sanctified through and through,

We’re not finished yet—but we will be.

We’re not completely clean today—but we will be.

We’re not wholly wise today—but we will be.

We’re not totally redeemed right now—but we will be.

We’re not always useful to God—but we will be.

John Calvin’s Comment

In commenting on this text 350 years ago, John Calvin used a picturesque expression. He said that God intends “the entire renovation of the man.” I confess that I never understood renovation until I moved to Oak Park eight years ago. Now I know what it means because everything in this village is under constant renovation. Around here a “new” house is only 70 years old and an average house is 80 years old. An “old” house is at least 100 years old.

That’s why anyone who can renovate old buildings does a land office business in Oak Park. If you live in one of those houses, you know what I mean. You never really get the job finished. First you work on the roof, then you start on the living room, then the kitchen, then the bedrooms one by one. Probably you’ll have trouble with the plumbing and the electrical (more than once!). Eventually you’ve got to replace the porch, repaint the trim, and install a new heater and maybe even an air conditioner. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take my word for it: the job is never done. You can work on a house for 15-20 and still not be completely finished. There’s always something else to do.

If you think houses are hard, try renovating a human life. That’s a job so tough only God would attempt it. Some of us take 25 years, some 30, some 40, and many of us take 50+ years and the job still isn’t done. I think God just eventually says to some people, “I’ve done all I can do down there. Come on up here and I’ll finish the job where the working conditions are much better.” (In truth, that’s what he eventually says to all of us.)

Today we are holy in spots. When God is finished with us, we will be holy through and through..

III. The Prospect—Your Whole Spirit, Soul and Body

This particular phrase has generated a great deal of controversy in theological circles over the concepts of dichotomy versus trichotomy. That’s basically a debate over whether man is basic two-part or three-part in his essential nature. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is a key verse for those who favor the trichotomy point of view.

To be truthful, I find the details of the debate not very interesting. And I doubt that Paul intended to give us some kind of definitive treatment of human psychology. I think the reference to spirit, soul and body simply means “the whole person in all his parts.” Paul is simply telling us the extent of sanctification. God intends to renovate the whole man in all his parts. If he has two parts, both will be sanctified. If three, then three. If four, then four, and so on. Nothing will left out or overlooked. Every part will be made perfect in the end.

Let’s take a brief look at the three parts he mentions in this phrase:

A. The Body

We don’t debate this one because we all have a body. Begin with the simple fact that you body by itself is neither good nor evil. It is morally neutral. It’s what you do with your body that matters most to God. In everything you do, you are either consecrating or prostituting your body. Those are the only two options—consecration or prostitution.

You know instinctively whether or not your body is being sanctified. Let’s make a comparison in two simple lists.

Prostitution

Sensuality

Gluttony

Sloth

Cruelty

Boasting

Filth

Pampering

Hostility

Self-serving 

Consecration

Worship

Charity

Hard Work

Kindness

Prayer

Purity

Service

Forgiveness

Noble Deeds

Holy are the feet that carry God’s message … Holy are the hands that give a cup of water to a thirsty man … Holy are the ears that hear the cries of the needy … Holy are the eye that see the world as Jesus saw it… . Holy are the lips that speak the good news … Holy is the mouth that speaks no deceit.

What about your body? Is it consecrated to God? Romans 6 speaks to this issue when it calls for believers to present the various parts of the body to God as weapons of righteousness. This is what Romans 12:1 means when it calls you to present your body as a “living sacrifice.” Remember, if God has your body, he’s got you because you can’t go anywhere without your body tagging along.

B. The Soul

This phrase refers to the seat of the personality, what the Bible elsewhere calls the heart. It refers to the emotions, the desires, the self-conscious part of your personality.

What about your soul? Is it consecrated to God? Have you yielded your thought life to God? What about your imaginations? Your dreams? Your secret desires? Your idle speculations? Your ambitions? Your emotions? Your goals and priorities?

C. The Spirit

The spirit refers to that part of our personality that ties us to God. It is that through which we communicate with God in prayer and worship. Our spirit enables us to pray, sing, meditate, feed on God’s Words, fight spiritual battles, overcome the evil one, and draw near to God day and night.

Is your spirit yielded completely to God?

God’s desire is that every part of our being be yielded and obedient to him. Many years ago I used to hear the phrase “meet for the Master’s use.” The word “meet” in Old English means “fitting” or “proper.” Take a good look at your life. Is it “meet” for the Master’s use?

IV. The Position—Blameless

This little word comes from the legal arena. It means to be acquitted in a court of law. You are “blameless” if no one can bring any charge against you. That’s not true of most of us now. Those who know of us best know our weaknesses and could testify against us but for their kindness toward us. God’s goal is that when we stand before him, he will say, “Does anyone in the whole universe know any reason why this person should not enter heaven?” At that point there will be a loud silence as no one—not the angels or the demons, not the saints or the sinners—no one in all the universe will be able to bring any charge against God’s elect.

The Good New Bible says that God will sanctify us so that we are “free from every fault.” Phillips uses the phrase “spotless integrity.” This is God’s desire for all his children. None of us achieve it perfectly in this life, but better things are coming for people of God.

V. The Point—At the Coming of Our Lord Jesus

Here is Paul’s hope. When Jesus returns, two great things will happen for the believer:

1. Our character will be revealed

2. Our perfection will be complete

We are so far from this now. We seem to make such slow progress. Do you ever get discouraged about your own life? I do. Do you ever stand in front of a mirror and say “What’s wrong with you? Why are you getting better?” Sometimes it seems as if the Christian life is three steps forward and two steps back.

In the recent presidential election the candidates kept asking, “Are you better of today than you were four years ago?” That’s a good question, here’s a better one: “Are you more Christlike today than you were four years ago?” That’s better because it goes to the heart of the Christian life. How would you answer that question? Are you more like Jesus today than you were four years ago?

I’m aware than spiritual growth can be very discouraging at times. It’s like climbing Mount Everest, the closer you get to the top, the farther away it seems. But God has a reason for all this. He wants us to depend on him for everything in life. He designed life so that it works only when he is in total charge of everything. When we try to run the show—which we often do—things just begin to fall apart.

If the Christian life is left to us, we will always fail. Only God can give us what we need to be victorious.

VI. The Promise—The One Who Calls You Is Faithful

This little phrase is all-important. It is the foundation for the doctrine of eternal security. We like to say that those who are saved are saved forever. How do we know this is true? We know it because God is faithful to keep his promises. Our entire hope—both in this life and in the life to come—rests on the faithfulness of God. His faithfulness bears the entire weight of our puny efforts.

“The one who calls you is faithful.” Do you what we are today? We are “the called” of God. We are “called” the children of God. That’s all we all right now. We’re not finished, not glorified, not perfected, not completed. You are a work-in-process and so am I. We’re all “under construction.” And as someone said, construction is long, loud, noisy, and very messy. That’s why most of us can hear the sound of hammering and sawing on the inside. God never stops his work because there is so much work that needs to be done.

  • If you concentrate on your weakness, you will lose your confidence.
  • If you concentrate on God’s faithfulness, you will grow in confidence.
What makes us think that God will ever finish the job? In my mind’s eye, I picture God as a sculptor working with a rough piece of marble. He’s working on a big chunk named “Ray Pritchard.” It’s a hard job because the chunk is badly marred, misshapen, discolored, and cracked in odd places. It’s about the worst piece of marble a sculptor could ever find. But God is undeterred and he working patiently at his job, chipping away the bad parts, chiseling an image into the hard stone, stopping occasionally to polish here and there. One day he finally finishes one section of the statue. The next morning when he returns to the studio that sections is messed up. “I thought I finished that yesterday,” he says, “Who’s been messing with my statue?”

It turns out that I’m the culprit. I’m my own worst enemy. What I thought would improve things has only messed them up.

But God is faithful. He patiently picks up his chisel and goes back to work. He won’t quit half-way through a project.

Psalm 138:8 has a wonderful word we need to hear, “The Lord will perfect that which concerns me” (New King James Bible). In the NIV it reads “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” Either way it is a wonderful promise.

VII. The Performance—He will Do it

Think of those four words: He will do it. They are simple and direct. No qualification, no hesitation, no doubt of any kind. Just four simple words: He will do it. Not “He may do it” or “He might do it” or “He could do it” or “He’ll do it if he feels like it.” Not even “He do it if we do our part.” Just a simple declarative statement that God will do it. Unqualified by even the slightest reference to anything on our part.

When it’s all said and done, what matters is not my strong hold on God, his strong hold on me.

The Calvinists often talk about the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. By that they mean that all true believers will not fall away but will persevere till the end and thus be saved. I believe that, but I don’t like the title because it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The emphasis ought to be placed on what God will do, not on what we will do. I believe in the perseverance of God and the preservation of the saints. We are preserved because God perseveres!

This, then, is the prayer that Paul has prayed. Paul has asked for a great thing—that the Thessalonians be entirely sanctified in every part of their being when Jesus returns. Only God can do something like that—and God will do it for he is faithful.

Six Points to Ponder

Let me suggest six ways this truth should affect us:

  1. It should give us enormous confidence in God. If you have doubted God, doubt no longer. He is faithful to keep his promises. He has ordained that some day you will be like the Lord Jesus inside and out. And he is working even now to make you a better person. Don’t doubt his purposes even though you can’t always see his hand at work.
  2. It ought to give you assurance of salvation. Sometimes believers struggle with assurance because we don’t “feel” saved. But feelings have nothing to do with it. If you feel saved, that’s good, and you should be grateful. But if you don’t “feel” saved, trust God to keep his word anyway. Salvation rests not on your fickle feelings but on the unchanging promises of a God who cannot lie.
  3. It ought to give you motivation to grow. After all, if God has said he is going to sanctify you, you can rest assured that you will be sanctified—whether you want to be or not! Your only choice is whether or not you will cooperate with God. Some of us get better slower than necessary because we fight against God’s purposes. We harbor wrong attitudes—lust, bitterness, pride, sloth, envy, and all the rest—and then we wonder why it’s taking us so long to get better. A little cooperation goes a long way in the area of sanctification.
  4. It ought to give us perseverance in prayer. Sometimes I think we stop praying two days before the answer is about to come from heaven. I know many Christians who have struggled for years with certain behavior patterns and then given up simply because they were so discouraged. But our text tells us that God is always at work moving us toward a time when we will be perfect in every respect. Even in this life, we can make huge progress as Christians. It’s just that the progress often comes slowly and in small increments. So we ought to keep on praying precisely because we believe God is at work in us even when we don’t see it.

    This same truth applies to our prayers for others. Not long ago I received a note from a friend who said he and his wife were taking the hard step of asking their one of their children to move out of their house because of persistently bad lifestyle choices. It broke his heart and the tears would not stop flowing. But he did what he had to do. Then he said this:

    So we wait and we pray - I feel like I’m in constant prayer bathed in floods of tears that never seem to dry up. In the meantime, we ask for prayer for _____ and for us to remain strong and Christlike through this situation. This is a our toughest test yet.

    Every parent can feel the pain and the love in this words. But can you also the sound of a godly man who will not give up? God is not finished in his life—or in the life of his children either.

    So keep on praying and never give up.

  5. This ought to develop patience toward others. After all, if God if not finished with you yet, he’s not finished with them either. And if you want them to be patient with your weaknesses, they should expect the same in return from you.
  6. This ought to teach us gratitude for every tiny step in the right direction. Some people want to fly before the run, run before they walk, and walk before the crawl. But that’s rarely what happens. More often our spiritual progress comes in one tiny baby step after another. It’s “little by little, day by day” that we grow into the image of Jesus. Therefore, let us take heart in every tiny step we take and in every tiny bit of progress our friends and loved ones make. For each baby step forward comes directly from the hands of a loving Father who is at work in ways we cannot see and probably couldn’t even imagine.

We’re Going to be “All Right” Some Day

God has called us to a life of holiness. He has opened the door by sending his Son as a propitiation for our sins. He started a good work in us by inclining us to believe the gospel. He continues his sanctifying purpose every day. He has decreed that we will some day turn out all right. We will be complete in the end.

Right now we’re not “all right.” Some of us feel “all right” and most of us feel “partly right and partly wrong.” But none of us are completely “all right” in every area of life. For the moment, we’re not “all right” but by God’s grace we’re moving in that direction and in the end, we’re all going to make it by the grace of God.

He will not stop until the job is finished for he is faithful and he will do it. And in the end we will each one stand before Jesus Christ whole and complete. Perfect, pure, perfected. No more hammering, no more sawing, no more finish work.

Why? Because God finishes what he starts.

Place Yourself in God’s Hands

We may chafe, doubt and despair of any progress at all. We may be angry and give up. But God does not change. He is faithful and he will do it.

What is left for us? Simply to place ourselves in God’s hands. To cooperate with the Master Designer as he shapes us into the image of Jesus. To say, “Lord, here am I. Make me what you want me to be.”

You standing in life doesn’t matter. Businessman or woman, student, mother at home raising children, teacher, nurse, doctor, lawyer, builder, engineer, professor, secretary, salesperson, letter carrier, speaker, writer, or adventurer.

God is at work in your life. He will not stop until the job is done. Will you join me in saying, “Lord, here am I. Make me what you want me to be?” That’s a prayer God will always be pleased to answer.

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