The Method of Christian Living, 1 Peter 1:13-21


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1 Peter 1:13-21

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v.19     As I have often reminded you, whenever you read in the Bible of the blood of Christ remember that what is meant is the sacrificial death of Christ. The shedding of blood was how the sacrificial animal was killed for sacrifice and so blood became a metonymy, or figure of speech, for sacrificial death. As it happened, Jesus didn’t die from blood loss and the Gospels make nothing of his loss of blood. But his death was a sacrificial death and so such references to the “blood of Christ.” It is a biblical way of referring to the nature of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin.

We said several sermons back that Peter, like Paul, bases his ethics on his theology. The Christian life is a response to what God has done in salvation, it is the believer’s “answer” to the grace of God. That is why the word “therefore” figures so prominently at the beginning of those sections of the various letters of the NT devoted to Christian living. “God has done this for you, therefore you must live in this way.” This was exactly Peter’s approach. He has in the first half of chapter 1 discussed God’s great salvation: the electing love that God pitched upon his people before the world was made, the great achievement of our Lord Jesus Christ who died for our sins to bring us to God, and the work of the Holy Spirit within us, renewing us, making us believers in Christ and lovers of God, when we were not and never would have been had we been left to ourselves.

And now, in v. 13, comes Peter’s THEREFORE. Live in consistency with this great salvation; live so as to please this great Savior, live here in this world in keeping with the wonderful promise of endless joy in the world to come; demonstrate your gratitude for God’s grace and mercy to you by living your life as an adornment of that mercy and as a witness to God’s goodness and love. People should be able to read back from your living to God’s salvation, from your life to God’s character. There should be a consistency, apparent to all, between God’s saving grace and your life. That is the idea. “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” Peter speaks here, in the first place, quite generally. He speaks of our being holy, of our living our lives in reverent fear, of being self-controlled, of living in hope of the world to come, of not conforming to evil desires. He will be more specific later in his letter as to what all of this means. Now he is making the general point.

But what I want tonight is for all of us to pause to consider and to get clear in our minds the general drift of Peter’s entirely typical presentation of the Christian life. The fact is, the question of precisely how the Christian life is to be lived is today, as it has always been, a subject of controversy and a matter of confusion to God’s people. So let us put the question this way: according to Peter, precisely how is the Christian life to be lived? How are we to go about it day by day? How do we get better at living as the followers of Jesus Christ? What is the principle or what are the principles of growth in grace and the knowledge of the Lord?

Different answers to those questions have been given through the ages even by devout Christians. In general, the various theories fall somewhere on a continuum between quietism at one end and activism at the other, between affiance or dependence upon God at one end and effort and active obedience at the other. Quietism, of course, has come in a variety of forms, some of the most influential of which, at least in evangelical circles, were Hannah Whithall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life published in 1870 – my reprint of that book has a recommendation by Dale Evans and Roy Rogers! – and various teachers who belonged to the Higher Life or Keswick movement, and, more recently still, some contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian teachers associated with the “Sonship” teaching. In this teaching, to one degree or another, the method to be used in living the Christian life is faith in God and Christ, a dependence upon him, a waiting upon him to do in us and for us what must be done, to make us the Christians we ought to be. In most of these views, again to greater or lesser degrees, the Christian’s own effort is downplayed if not actively discouraged. We are to trust in Christ to sanctify us, not work at sanctification ourselves. In some forms of this teaching the Christian’s effort was thought to be a positive hindrance to the Spirit’s working within us, a distraction from the dependence we were to place on the Lord alone. The working Christian, like it or not, so it was said, was inevitably depending upon himself or herself and was getting in the way of the Lord and preventing him from doing the work that he alone can do. In some modern forms of quietist teaching such a disjunction between trust in the Lord and a Christian’s effort was more an effect of their positive emphasis on sanctification by trust in the Lord than a positive teaching against Christian effort and obedience, but the practical effect was often the same.

If you remember, this was the teaching that J.I. Packer encountered as a young university student in Oxford in his early years as a Christian and in some of his autobiographical reminiscences he bears powerful witness to the damage such teaching can do. As a young man desperately wanting to be pure and holy before the Lord, he did his best to trust the Lord, to yield himself to the Lord, and to receive from the Lord true purity and godliness of heart, but he continued to struggle with his sins. It was not until he discovered the Puritans that he found a better way forward. Earlier still, Abraham Kuyper, who encountered the Smiths, Hannah and her husband Robert Pearsall Smith, at a convention in England, was initially captivated by them and their teaching, until he learned that their approach was neither working for them – Robert Smith had been discovered cavorting with some of his young female disciples – nor for Kuyper himself.

The other end of this continuum was the effort/obedience end, the stronger forms of which held that, as R.J. Rushdoony once taught, while justification is by faith sanctification is by works. In this form of teaching the accent falls on what Christians should do, what steps they should take to cultivate resistance to temptation, obedience to God’s commandments, and purity of heart. A great deal of Christian preaching of the Christian life through the centuries has been this sort of teaching, in its cruder forms rightly characterized as moralism, which is a term that refers to obedience without or obedience apart from a living, active faith in God and Christ. The fundamental problems with both these answers to the question how to live the Christian life – the faith alone answer and the works alone answer – are 1) that they mistake the biblical teaching and 2) that they don’t work!

Quietist forms typically result, at least take their origin from, a mistaken understanding of Pentecost. If one understands Pentecost, as far too many Christians have through the ages, as an event with profound implications for the nature and possibilities of the Christian life – rather than as the missionary event that it is actually taught to be in the Bible – it is entirely reasonable to think that the coming of the Holy Spirit would profoundly change the way Christians would live their lives. With the Holy Spirit present and at work in a way he never was in the ancient epoch, it was natural enough to think that we would look to the present and active Holy Spirit to achieve real godliness in a way that believers before Pentecost could never have done. The ancient believers had to rely on their own effort to keep the Ten Commandments because their own effort was all they had. But now we Christians have a resource, divine and omnipotent, that the ancient saints did not have. Indeed, for a great many of these quietist teachers, there could have been no genuinely Christian life until Pentecost made it possible.

You have probably heard versions of this teaching yourself. Perhaps you’ve heard a preacher say that the Holy Spirit was “with” believers in the ancient epoch but now he is “in” Christian believers. The assumption is, of course, that there is a great deal of difference between being “with” someone and being “in” someone. Or, they will speak of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” as if such a thing could only have occurred after Pentecost. Or they will speak of OT believers living under the law, while we NT Christians live under grace. However it is put, the point is that we have access to a greater power, a power within us, and that our way of living is, for that reason, fundamentally different than it was for Abraham, or Moses, or David, or Jeremiah.

It is this assumption that leads them then to think that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes possible a way of living that depends uniquely on what the Holy Spirit does and not what we do. When it comes to explaining precisely what the difference is and precisely how one goes about living by the Spirit complications arise and there are many differences of viewpoint. Our Pentecostal brethren think about the Christian life in one way, Wesleyans in another, Reformed in another, but they all believe that somehow, in some way, Pentecost has changed the way that Christians live their lives and that this new way is based upon the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart not on the effort of the human will.

Now you’ve heard me often enough to know that I don’t believe that this is so. Pentecost was a world-changing event, it was the opening salvo in the gospel’s assault on the unbelieving world. It was the equipment of the church for the great task that had just been given to it to evangelize the world, to make believers of every tongue, tribe, and nation on earth. But it had nothing to do with how believers live the Christian life. The Bible never says that it did and never explains what that difference would be if there were such a difference. If that were true, it would be an important thing for the New Testament to teach us, don’t you think? But it never does. In fact, again and again the writers of the New Testament compare our lives to those of the ancient saints; they never contrast them! We are to believe as they did, persevere as they did, obey as they did. We are not to imitate those who turned away from the Lord, as did Israel in the wilderness, or we will be punished as they were punished. At every point the NT assumes or positively teaches that we live in the same spiritual world and depend upon the same spiritual resources as did Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Isaiah. So we are to live our lives in the same way lived theirs.

And this is true of the details as well as the broad strokes. As a matter of simple fact – though you would not know this from some of the preaching we hear – we read in the OT that the Spirit was in believers. We read in the NT that he is with believers. The fact is, nothing at all rides on which preposition is used or how it is translated into English. The Lord Jesus spoke of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, renewing the heart, granting the new birth. Nicodemus, however was confused. And what was the Lord’s response? “You are a teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” The ministry of the Holy Spirit belonged to the “abcs” of Israelite religion. How could he not understand this? Moreover, all the problems of believing life, all the failures of Christian people that we find in the ancient saints, we find in the New Testament as well. What then is the difference the Holy Spirit was supposed to make? But, according to the teaching of the New Testament, the coming of the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with that.

But there is another point to make that arises directly from Peter’s exposition of the Christian life here in chapter 1. As I said, Peter’s presentation is entirely typical. It is like what you find in Jesus, in Paul, in Hebrews, and in John. And what is that presentation? It is not quietism and it is not moralism, it is theologically motivated faithful obedience.

Before we go any further it is important for us all to realize that this is what the Christian life has always been, has been from the very beginning. Peter reminds us of this himself in v. 16 when he quotes Leviticus:

“…you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy for I am holy.’”

The fact of the matter is that theologically motivated faithful obedience was the OT method of the Christian life as it is here in Peter. Not only is there such a statement as Peter quotes here from Leviticus, the entire structure of OT ethics has the same shape and movement that we find in Paul and Peter’s therefore.

Before we read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 or in Deuteronomy 5, for example, we hear, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, the law that guides us in life is a personal word from the God who, by his grace, has brought us into covenantal fellowship with him.” That is precisely how the Christian life of obedience is related to election and redemption and personal transformation in the New Testament, here in 1 Peter 1. I could prove this point ad nauseum from a long list of both Old and New Testament texts.

And there in the OT we also find precisely the same interplay that we find here between the divine initiative and action on the one hand and the believer’s effort and obedience on the other. We might just as well find in Exodus or Isaiah the statement Paul makes in Philippians 2:

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Take note, then, of Peter’s emphasis on all that God does and must do for our salvation, a salvation that includes the Christian’s life in the world.  He began in v. 1 and 2 by identifying those to whom he was writing as those who had been chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, have been and are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, for a life of obedience to Christ. He goes on to speak of God’s guarding and preserving them in this salvation through their faith, no matter the trials that they must face and endure. It was God who gave us our new life and God who keeps us in that life until we are safely in heaven. All of this before Peter’s therefore in v. 13. We are utterly dependent upon what God has already done for us in Christ and by the Holy Spirit and upon what he will continue to do for us and in us. All of that Peter not only says, but says in the typical ways in which this is always said about our salvation and our Christian life in the New Testament, indeed throughout the Bible.

But now notice all the imperatives. “Preparing your minds for action” in v. 13 is literally “gird up the loins of your minds.” A soldier preparing for battle or a runner preparing for a race would pull up his longer outer garment and tuck it in his belt to give him greater ease of movement. The figure of speech amounts to “It is time to get serious and to mean business!” And that is just the first of a string of commands: “be self-controlled… set your hope… do not be conformed… be holy… conduct yourselves with fear.” All of these commandments suggest decisive action on our part! These are commands, laws if you will. They are to be obeyed by Christians. As they obey in these ways and others Peter will identify as the letter continues, they will live authentically Christian lives.

There is absolutely nothing unusual here, of course. The Bible is full of commands that God’s people are to obey. The Christian life is everywhere a life of obedience to the law of God. And, as is the case here, with those commands are given reasons for our obedience. We are encouraged to this obedience, we are summoned to this obedience and motivations are provided. That is what Peter does here, again, in an entirely typical way. Why should we obey, why should we resist conformity to the world, why should we be holy, why should we conduct ourselves with fear while in this world? Well, among other reasons, there are these:

  1. We have a glorious future before us. Our willingness to obey, as Peter indicates in v. 7, is the proof that we are in fact among those whose home is heaven and whose future is glory.
  2. We must give an account of our lives to God on the great day, as Peter mentions here in v. 7, and only by faithful living will we be ready to give that account.
  3. God himself is holy and so his children’s lives ought to reflect their Father’s character.
  4. A disobedient life is futile; it goes nowhere; it gains nothing. We’re throwing our lives away if we don’t live in obedience to God’s commandments.
  5. Christ made terrible sacrifices for us; the least we can do is to honor that love and sacrifice by living Christ-honoring lives.

These and other arguments can be found throughout the Bible’s exposition of the Christian life as reasons for the obedient service of both God and man. Sometimes we are enticed by the blessings of obedience, sometimes we are threatened with the consequences of disobedience, often we are reminded of what we owe the Lord and how ungrateful we would be if we did not serve him heartily and faithfully. But such “reasons” for a holy life are found everywhere in Holy Scripture. From this fact two things become clear. The first is that obedience in a Christian’s life has both a theological context and a theological motivation. It is precisely because of what we believe that we live as we do and strive to do more in our service of the Lord. Faith is the foundation of all Christian obedience.

We can go even further to say that faith is the substance of Christian obedience, which is nothing but acting on or living in consistency with what we believe, what we are trusting the Lord to have done in the past and do in the future, and with what we believe to be our relationship with the Lord at this moment. Think of it this way. What if it were not by faith that we must live the Christian life, but by sight. Suppose you could see before you the Lord Christ with the scars in his hands and feet and the look of love on his face? Would you not be overtaken by the realization that your life had to be lived for the love of Jesus? And if you could, any time you wanted, peek into the future and see the Judgment Day and men and women being judged by the Lord, would you not be telling yourself hour by hour to live the way you will want to have lived when your turn at the judgment comes? And if you could see into heaven and see the life of glory there and the happiness on everyone’s face, would you not in gratitude and anticipation want to live worthy of God’s great salvation? This is how faith is the victory that overcomes the world: it empowers, motivates, and shapes obedience to God come wind, come weather!

There is no conflict between faith and effort in the Christian life. Both are essential, both are fundamental to the Bible’s vision of true godliness, and both interact with one another in producing the Christian life. A weak faith produces little obedience; a strong faith produces a lot. That is the first thing.

Second, the method of the Christian life is precisely that of argument. That is precisely what Peter has given us here: an argument. How does one live the Christian life and how does one grow in the Christian life? By means of this argument, by making that argument to oneself, remaking it, demanding that its logic be accepted by the mind and forcing its implications upon the heart. The Christian life as it is taught in the Bible always rests on an argument! The godly are arguers with themselves. They have been given reasons, more than enough reasons to live a holy life, to resist temptation, and to serve the Lord, even at great sacrifice to ourselves. What is needed is then to force those reasons upon the mind and heart. That is what Peter did here; that is what we must do every day. When I am tempted, I am to make an argument: Christ was tempted and resisted for me, I can do no less than that for him. I’m going to have to give an account of my life at the Day of Judgment; I will not want to have succumbed then! Christ’s love and Christ’s sacrifice for me make simply disreputable any failure on my part to serve him. Argue, argue, argue and don’t stop. Every day, all your life long. This is effort; this is an act of the will. You have a mind; God is appealing to your mind. You have a heart; God is appealing to your heart. You have a will; God is appealing to your will. True enough, this is work, but it is everywhere in the Bible what the Christian life requires.

So, in other words, it is not either faith or works, it is not one or the other; it is faith and works, it is faith working and it is working by faith. Justification is by faith alone, but our sanctification, our Christian living is by faith and works together. It is, as I said, theologically motivated faithful obedience. It is faith and hope and love put to work by the decision of the Christian’s will. We are to abide in Christ and we are to live by faith and we are to bend our mind and heart and will to the task of obeying and serving our God and savior. No truer words were ever spoken than the Lord’s “without me you can do nothing.” But equally true are his words “neither circumcision matters nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” and “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

And, because the Holy Spirit is with us and in us as he has always been for God’s people, it is possible for us to obey every commandment, to resist every temptation, to offer every service to God. No matter that we have failed as often as we have or that we are as weak as we are. As was first said by Moses and then repeated by Paul: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us that we may hear it and do it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it.” [Deut. 30:11-14]

In just the same way that the Bible never sets our faith and repentance over against God’s sovereign grace, as if they were contrary or irreconcilable principles, so the Bible never sets the responsibility of believers to practice the Christian life over against the fact or the need of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Just as grace makes faith and repentance possible but does not in any way set aside their necessity, so the Spirit makes the Christian life possible but in no way sets aside the necessity of Christians living that life, of thinking about what God’s salvation requires of them and of choosing to obey the commandments of God. That is why Peter can speak of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as essential to salvation in v. 2 and then turn to us and speak of the preparing of our minds, the practice of our faith, and the offering of our obedience to God in vv. 13ff. The Spirit works in us that we should think and believe and obey. But it is ours to do the thinking, the believing, and the obeying. How the two work together is a mystery; that the two work together is a fact that lies face-up on every page of the Word of God.

It is true that we cannot live such a life without him and his aid. It is true we must always be in prayer for the assistance of the Spirit, for his work in us to enable us to live faithfully for Christ. But none of that means that we are not entirely responsible to hear and answer this direct address that Peter makes to us here and which is repeated countless times in the NT. By all means let us give all glory to God for our salvation and let us depend upon him for our daily faithfulness in heart, speech, and behavior. But when God addresses us, as here, let us consider the arguments with great care, let us set to work practicing our faith, and let us bend our wills to obedience and refuse to take no for an answer. That is our calling and our duty. If we fail to do this it will be our fault, not God’s. And, by God’s grace and the working of the Spirit, we can do all of this that Peter here commands. Indeed, this is how one walks with the Holy Spirit and is filled with the Holy Spirit, by striving to obey the law of God.

That will take a great deal of us, it will weary us, which is why we often fail to do it; but we can fall exhausted, if we must, into the Savior’s arms when our work is done. And to encourage you, one more argument for you to use: the Lord’s words through Samuel, “they who honor me, I will honor.” I’m reading a new biography of Eric Liddell – the first serious biography of this great man,  the Scot missionary and athlete whose exploits at the Olympics in Paris in 1924 were the subject of the famous movie Chariots of Fire. He had, you remember, withdrawn from the 100 meters because the heats for that race were to be run on Sunday, and he received a tremendous amount of criticism for that. It surprised him, actually. He thought many more people would be sympathetic to his stand, and he was abused in most of the British newspapers. He had entered instead the 400 meter race in which he was not expected by anyone to do well.

The morning of the 400 meter final Liddell was handed a square of paper, a gift from one of the team’s masseurs. Liddell was setting off from the [hotel] and slipped the piece of paper into his pocket, promising to read it later. [When he opened the note he found]:

In the old book it says, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’Wishing you the best of success always.

He recognized the slight misquotation from the Bible – 1 Samuel chapter 2, verse 30 – and this small, private expression of faith and hope moved him profoundly. [D. Hamilton, For the Glory, 99]

He set the world record for the 400 meters a few moments later, winning the race by six yards. That is how the Christian life is lived: a divine promise taken to heart and the law of God obeyed as a result. Here is what it means to be a Christian, here is how the Christian life is to be lived – now, go live it!