September 20, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7-8 (NRSV)
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication… For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Sometimes theological language can be confusing. What does holiness really mean? And sanctification? As we reflect on the meaning of these words, we find that the notion of dedication helps. By God’s grace in Christ, we are dedicated to God and God’s service. We are to live, therefore, as people who dedicate everything to the Lord.
This devotion is part of the series: Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.
When I was in fourth grade, my classmates and I memorized the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. In so doing, I became very familiar with the verb “dedicate.” It appears six times in Lincoln’s short, 271-word speech. The frequency of the word “dedicate” is explained, in part, by the occasion for the address: the dedication of what we now call Gettysburg National Cemetery. Yet Lincoln used that occasion to underscore the fact that the United States is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Moreover, he pointed out that the dedication of the cemetery had in a sense already been done by those who died in the battle there. Those who are still living, Lincoln said, must be “dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. Their sacrifice should increase our dedication to “a new birth of freedom.” (For the whole Gettysburg Address, check this Library of Congress webpage.)
The verb “dedicate” and the noun “dedication” do not appear in our NRSV translation of 1 Thessalonians 4. They do, however, show up in the Common English Bible, a highly-respected recent translation of the Bible. Where the NRSV has “For this is the will of God, your sanctification,” the CEB has “God’s will is that your lives are dedicated to him” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Then, in verse 7, the NRSV reads “For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness” and the CEB has “God didn’t call us to be immoral but to be dedicated to him.” As I reflect on the CEB’s choice of dedication rather than sanctification or holiness, I’m impressed by what this translation is seeking to do. It’s trying to take fundamental biblical concepts (sanctification, holiness) and put them in words that we use in everyday speech, not just in church. To a significant extent, I think the CEB effort works. Allow me to explain why.
The Greek word found in verses 3 and 7 is hagiasmos. It is based on the word hagios, which means “holy, dedicated, consecrated, sacred.” As a noun, hagios means “holy one, saint.” It is closely related to the Greek word hagiōsunē, which is unusually translated as “holiness.” Hagiasmos, however, is often rendered as “sanctification,” as in the NRSV translation of verse 3 (but not verse 7, oddly enough). To be holy, in the Bible, is to be set apart for God and God’s purposes. Each and every person who responds positively to the gospel is set apart by God for relationship with God and for God’s mission and is therefore a hagios, which is typically translated as “saint.”
For those of us who have studied biblical languages and theology, words like “holy,” “saint,” “holiness,” and “sanctification” are familiar friends. But most people, including many Christians, find these words to be unfamiliar at best. At worst, they can have a negative sense. “Holy,” for example, is commonly heard in the expression, “holier than thou,” which is not a positive description. If somebody says to you, “You’re just being holier-than-thou” or “Oh, you think you’re so holy,” that’s probably not a compliment.
The language of dedication, however, doesn’t carry all sorts of theological and relational baggage. When we speak of someone as being dedicated to something, we generally mean this as a genuine tribute. We admire the dedication of parents to their children, teachers to their students, and servicepeople to their country. We also understand that certain things can be dedicated for certain purposes, like cemeteries for commemoration. Even though Gettysburg National Cemetery has acres of lush grass, you’re not going to play soccer on it because the ground has been dedicated to a special purpose. The word “dedication” can include the nuance of being “set apart.”
So, though I’m not arguing that theologians adopt “dedication” over words like “holiness” and “sanctification,” I am suggesting that the language of dedication helps us to understand what’s happening in 1 Thessalonians 4. It is God’s will that “your lives are dedicated to him” (4:3, CEB). And God did not “call us to be immoral but to be dedicated to him” (4:7, CEB).
Given the length of this devotion, I’m going to save some of the implications of the dedication language for tomorrow. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.
When you hear the word “dedication,” what comes to mind?
To what or whom would you say that you are dedicated?
How does your dedication make a difference in how you think? In how you feel? In how you live?
Of the people you know well, whom would you say is truly dedicated to God?
Take time to reflect on the second question above: To what or whom would you say that you are dedicated? Why are you dedicated in this way? What about your personal history accounts for this?
Gracious God, today I am reminded that your will is for my life to be dedicated to you. I know this, to be sure. It’s not new. But today I’m encouraged to reflect on this more. Thank you for this opportunity.
Yes, my life should be dedicated to you. But that’s not the starting point. Rather, the starting point is your dedication to humanity in general and to me in particular. You ask for my attention, my allegiance, my commitment; you ask in response to your attention to me, your allegiance to me, your commitment to me. Lord, you have given so much to me. How can I not respond by giving to you all that I am?
I’m reminded of the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius, which puts into words my desire to be dedicated to you today:
Take, Lord, and receive,
All my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me, to you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Work as Calling: An Invitation to Vocation
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.