Paul plainly states that sanctification is God’s will. He says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3a, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” The word that Paul uses here for the word “will,” (thelema) refers to “that which is willed.” When it is used with “of God” that tells us exactly whose “will” Paul is referring to. He further states this phrase without the article in the original and “implies that their sanctification is not the whole purpose of God for them; there are other aspects of His plan here not specified” (Hiebert). In other words, the word “For” that begins verse 3 is showing what is involved in living God-pleasing lives in harmony with the commandment they had already received. The next word “this” is a demonstrative pronoun which stands as the subject of the sentence and points to what follows at greater length. So all that is comprehended in the demonstrative pronoun “this” is designated as “the will of God.” This then could actually take us to the end of the letter. Because all that he says at this point is “the will of God” for them. Before we define what Paul’s means by sanctification let me says that sanctification is not the only element of God’s will as we will see, Scripture states other elements as well. Let me mention a few:
Giving thanks is God’s will. Paul also states this aspect of the will of God to the Thessalonians in 5:18. Believing the gospel is God’s will. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says that those who will enter the kingdom of heaven are those who have “done the will of My Father in heaven.” Being controlled by the Spirit is God’s will. In Ephesians 5:17-18 Paul says, “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.” Obeying your employer is God’s will. In Ephesians 6:5-6 he tells, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” Obeying the ordinances of man is God’s will. In 1 Peter 2:13-15 Peter says, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” “All of God’s Word contains God’s will – both affirmations and prohibitions” (MacArthur).
The will of God is an important matter for every child of God and should be sought after daily not just when making what we would consider to be “big decisions.” One commentator asks, “I sometimes wonder why people would seek the will of God at a pivotal moment in life if they have been ignoring God's will in their daily lives. Should God speak, would such a person listen? I rather doubt it. One who is not faithful in the small moments is unlikely to be faithful in the great” (D. Michael Martin, The New American Commentary, Vol.33, 1 & 2 Thessalonians).
Paul said to the Romans after giving them eleven chapters of doctrine – “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom.12:1-2).
Going back to 1 Thessalonians 4:3 what does Paul mean when he says “For this is the will of God, your sanctification?” Sanctification refers to being set apart. The word “sanctification” (hagiasmos) “has the basic idea of being set apart for or dedicated to God upon the basis of the atoning work of Christ. It does not denote the state of holiness but rather the process of being made holy, becoming more and more in character and conduct that which God desires us to be” (D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonians Epistles, p.165). We could say then that “sanctification” “refers to a state of being set apart from sin to holiness” (MacArthur).
The writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews 12:14, “Pursue peace with all people and holiness (hagiasmos), without which no one will see the Lord.” Paul said in Romans 6:22, “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness (hagiasmos), and the end, everlasting life.” Those two verses speak of the progression of sanctification or holiness in our lives. Paul says sanctification began the very moment we were saved. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”
Does this describe your life? In order to have the second you must experience the first. In other words, in order to live a life that is set apart to God you must first be set apart to God through salvation. Check you heart today. Survey your life. Do you see the presence of sanctification?