Author James Herriot writes, “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” In his book Animal Farm, George Orwell makes the comparison, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” And finally, the inestimable Groucho Marx quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Whatever our predilections, we have developed a relationship with animals through the centuries that has allowed us to domesticate them and in doing so, personify them and give them—or recognize in them—some of our humanity.
But have you ever had to catch an animal that didn’t want to be caught? Ever had to control an animal that was taping into its undomesticated side? Some of the most infuriating moments of my life have been chasing cats, dogs, birds, and rabbits that were intent on not put out or up or in cages or having to deal with an animal that has suddenly remembered it is, by nature, a feral beast and not a pet.
This is reminiscent of a certain feralization that we ourselves experience and contend with regard to sanctification. We fight against the change that God is working in us, reverting toward our pre-Christian nature and away from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. For those unfamiliar with the term, sanctification means the process by which we are becoming more Christ-like. It is how we are shaped from a new creation to a mature, functional part of the Body of Christ, living into the calling we all have with the new birth.
This is not, however, an effortless process. As I said, there is a sense of feralization that we find ourselves fighting against in the process. N.T. Wright added this story of Saint Francis in his commentary on Thessalonians,
Saint Francis, famously, referred to his own body as ‘brother donkey’. It was a beloved part of himself, and yet it often seemed to have a mind of its own. It needed taming, bringing into obedience, as one would teach a large and headstrong animal to do as it was told. The perfect partnership of rider and mount, in which the animal knows what the rider wants and takes delight and pride in doing it, is not a bad image of the perfect partnership between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life and the body’s recognition of, and obedience to, the spirit’s desires and promptings.
And so, we also find ourselves in a battle of nit-wits with our own Brother Donkey over who gets to be the pack animal and who gets to be the rider. Yet, there is a way to properly bridle and manage the inner animal in a healthy way. Paul refers to it here in 1 Thessalonians 4 as holiness.
Paul begins the section with thanks and praise for what the Thessalonians had been through and how they responded to it through chapter three. As the pastor he is, Paul doesn’t let them rest on their laurels but admonishes them to continue in their faith development, recognizing that they have not arrived but are still “working out their salvation.” The greater issue and a summation for his thoughts in this section is in 1 Thessalonians 4.7 where Paul says, “…God did not call us to impurity, but to holiness.” This idea of holiness is a central part of Wesleyan theology and a primary concern of the Methodist faith. “Wesley’s theology focused primarily on the way of salvation leading to holiness.” John Wesley in his sermons repeatedly brings up the issue of holiness:
Dost thou know what religion is? that it is a participation of the divine nature; the life of God in the soul of man; Christ formed in the heart; “Christ in thee, the hope of glory;” happiness and holiness; heaven begun upon earth; “a kingdom of God within thee; not meat and drink,” no outward thing; “but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;” an everlasting kingdom brought into thy soul; a “peace of God that passeth all understanding;” a “joy unspeakable, and full of glory”?
Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord. (Heb 12:14)
…where there is no love of God, there is no holiness,
As we look deeper into these first twelve verses of the chapter, we see Paul advocating what I see as two types of holiness: personal holiness and public holiness leading to a life of abundance. I believe this is intentional and based on the world in which the Thessalonians—and for that matter, the growing community of Jesus followers across the Roman world—faced in their time and place. In a world where sexual sins, temple prostitutes and brothels, and other sexual societal practices were part of common pagan temple worship, the Christians had to learn not only a new way of thinking but a new way of being as well. This paganism was what they had come from and had been practicing in opposition to the monogamy in marriage and celibacy in singleness model that Paul was teaching them. These teachings of Paul regarding sexual ethics had their roots in the idea of holiness, where holiness is seeking to “live and please God.” We see this living and pleasing God in both personal and public holiness.
Personal holiness is the development of Christ-likeness that is completely within the person, the part of holiness shared and known between the individual and God. This kind of holiness was a part of God’s original intention for humanity when he created man in the Garden. Through sanctification, God’s image is restored, and humanity regains its happiness: “But true religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness. For it is not only righteousness but also ‘peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.’” One theologian regards this way, “As he has called us to holiness, he is undoubtedly willing, as well as able, to work this holiness in us.”
This holiness is an interior practice and requires the same kind of work that we talked about in our Brother Donkey example. We must ‘tame’ the inner man so that we can develop a godly character within. It is this depth of internal holiness that will give authenticity to the outward expression of holiness. Without the inner expression, the outer expression will come off as disingenuous, an obvious fraud. With it, the person of Jesus is evident in a way that others recognize the Holy Spirit of God at work and are pointed in the direction of true faith.
When I think of the idea of public holiness it reminds of the saying, “You’re actions are speaking so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.” The practices of the Thessalonian community—particulalrly those of the pagan worshiping community—were saying that worship of the gods was found in imitating what the pagan temple priests saw as rites and acts that mimicked the actions of the gods or what they wanted the gods to do. This in contrast to the spiritual expressions of love and oneness that Paul writes about to the Thessalonians and the instruction to control the physical body as a spiritual discipline. Paul advocates that the Thessalonians recognize the abusive practices of pagan worship in ancient Rome and lead former practitioners to a life that honors both God and themselves.
We do this by showing the true love of God through the person, work, and sacrifice of Jesus the Christ, a “holiness of the church through participation in the life of God.” This, I believe, shows itself through a distinctive of the Wesleyan heritage where “The path to perfection in Methodist spirituality is also connected to the fulfillment of the two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. Wholeness of heart is identified with oneness of soul…” As Wesley writes in the sermon On Perfection,
This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” These contain the whole of Christian perfection.
When it comes down to it, what we are talking about with holiness is really an abundant life. If you remember John 10:10, it says that Jesus came that we might have abundant life or life to the fullest. This idea of holiness that Paul writes about in 1 Thessalonians, this search for sanctification, is the search for life to its fullest, life lived in abundance. Not necessarily a life of excessive wealth or great personal accomplishment – though you may be given both – a life of inward peace and connection to the God of the universe through Jesus the Christ in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.
Chryssavgis, John. “Isaiah of Scetis and John Wesley: the practical way of holiness.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 35, no. 2 (2000): 91-113.
Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007.
Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
Mounce, William D. Interlinear for the Rest of Us: The Reverse Interlinear for New Testament Word Studies. Rapid City, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
Pasquerello III, Michael. Sacred Rhetoric: Preaching as a Theological and Pastoral Practice of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
Scetis, Isaiah of. Ascetic Discourses. Translated by John Chyssavgis. Toronto: Toronto Publishing, 2017.
Tillich, Paul. The New Being. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1953.
Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons. Edited by Michael R. Martin. Sarnac Lake, NY: Cedar Eden Books, 2014.
Witherington III, Ben. 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Soci-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.
Wood, Laurence W. “The origin, development, and consistency of John Wesley’s theology of holiness.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 43, no. 2 (2008): 33-55.
 (Wright 2004)
 (Wood 2008, p. 33)
 (Wesley 2014, Kindle Loc. 943-947)
 (Wesley 2014, Kindle Loc. 1189-1190)
 (Wesley 2014, Kindle Loc. 1490)
 (Witherington III 2006, p. 113)
 (Witherington III 2006, p. 116)
 1 Thessalonians 4:1
 (Jones 2002, Kindle Loc. 3881-3884)
 (Wesley 2014, Kindle Loc. 18378)
 (Pasquerello III 2005, Kindle Loc. 71)
 (Chryssavgis 2000, p. 109)
 (Chryssavgis 2000, p. 111, quoted from On Perfection by John Wesley)