We took these two verses last time and considered from them the fundamental importance of our living lives that are easily distinguished from those of unbelievers around us. In many ways our lives look like anybody else’s lives, but they should in other ways look very different. But there is more here in these two verses, which are, as we said last time, a general introduction to a long series of ethical exhortations. They provide the context or foundation for Peter’s detailed description of the Christian life. In fact, there is still one more fundamental principle of Christian living in these two verses that we will consider next time. I don’t apologize for taking time to consider these fundamental principles in Peter’s introduction to his exposition of Christian duty, since it is those principles that are the foundation on which a holy life must be built and because it is by the embrace of these principles that a Christian actually succeeds in living that life. In any case, this is characteristic of the Bible: to begin sections of ethical training with some general principles or exhortations before providing specific exposition and applications of those principles. That elaboration of general exhortations with specific applications is what the Puritans used to call “breaking grace up small.” The New Testament writers give us a general description or definition of the Christian life, and then give us any number of specific applications of that definition to the 1,001 situations we face in life day by day.
The next of these general principles is found in Peter’s exhortation: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” The Lord, you remember, said something similar in his Sermon on the Mount. “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
What Peter gives us, as the Lord did before him, is an exhortation with an object or a motive or an intention. The exhortation is plain enough: live a life of love and good deeds. And the rationale is clear as well, though, as we shall see, there are complications of a certain kind: live your lives for the sake of the effect they will have on the unbelieving conscience. The Christian life is a life to be lived with a view to its effect on others. True enough, they may still regard you as evildoers, they may still refuse to admit the superiority of your principles and your behavior, but already their consciences will approve you, as it were against their will, and on the Great Day, or perhaps before, they will be forced to reckon with the fact that you lived as human beings should live. Peter is going to speak at length in the material that follows of the response of Christians to unjust treatment at the hands of the unbelieving world. Yet still he expects, as Jesus did before him, that faithful Christian living will leave an indelible testimony to its virtue and righteousness.
But the fact that Peter mentions a particular rationale for the Christian way of life raises a very important subject, crucial to a true understanding of Christian living and crucial to any conspicuous success in living a holy life of love. It is a subject raised often and in many different ways in the Bible. It is the issue of the motives of a Christian, the reasons why he or she does what Christians are called to do.
The Lord himself, you remember, was always concerned with motives. According to him, motives lie at the bottom of life and determine whether an act is righteous or sinful, good or bad. He often pointed out that the Pharisees, for example, did what they should have done – they paid their tithe, they fasted, they studied the Bible, and they prayed – but because they did these things for the wrong reasons, with the wrong motives their works were bad, not good. This is one aspect of hypocrisy: doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Human beings are the only ones of God’s creatures who have motives – moral reasons for doing what they do. To act from motives is a large part of what it means to be a human being and so it is no surprise that the Bible places such an emphasis on motives and on right motives as key to a righteous life. The Christian life requires the doing of the right things for the right reasons!
What then are the right reasons for doing what God commands? What are our motives to be? Here the question becomes more controversial. In our own day, in the evangelical church and in our own Reformed circles as well, there has been in some quarters a strong reaction to teaching that was once commonplace in our circles and in all Christian circles. For example, some of our own men nowadays strongly object to the idea that Christians should ever obey God’s commandments or serve the Lord out of any sense of obligation or duty. Many of these men will likewise object to the idea that Christians should do what they are told to do in the Bible for fear of the consequences if they do not. For these men the only true motivation for Christian living is love or gratitude. We ought to live the Christian life as a way of loving God in return for the love he has for us. In their opinion to speak of duty or of fear is to betray the gospel and is unworthy of God. Others argue that even those are not to be the true motive for Christian living.
Many of you have read John Piper’s book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years since it was first appeared. It was a sensation when it was first published, a bestseller. I am an admirer of John Piper’s work and, in fact, of this book. Some of you may remember our studying the book in a Sunday School class years ago. In this book Piper argues that the compelling motive of the Christian life ought to be happiness, even one’s own happiness. That is why he speaks of “Christian hedonism.” Hedonism is a theory of life, a theory of ethics in which you are to seek your own pleasure. Christians ought to be seeking their own happiness, their own pleasure in the living of the Christian life because that is what God has called them to and the reward he promises them when they are faithful. They will be happy! The reason why we ought to do all that we are called to do as Christians – worship God, love our neighbor, flee lusts, tithe our income, whatever – is because that is the road to the joy that God has made us for.
Now in his provocative and helpful book, John Piper is crusading. He wishes to restore joy and happiness to their rightful place in the center of Christian life and experience. It was time for a book like that, because life was getting increasingly difficult for Christian people and happiness and joy were not in as much supply as they should have been. And so it does not bother me that he makes the case for joy as the compelling motive of the Christian life as strongly as he can and why he doesn’t say much at all about other motives that might also be important to Christians, even necessary. He’s arguing a position and has a right to make his argument as strong as he can. The Bible does that kind of thing itself. You can say something without saying everything.
However, at one point in his argument, at least in my judgment, he overstates his case. It is the one real objection I had to this otherwise valuable book. He was so concerned to restore happiness and joy to Christian motivation that he seems to fear that other motives might interfere with this project and so he not only ignores them as unhelpful to his present cause – which would be fair – but rejects them as unworthy of Christian conduct. At one point in his argument he treats the call to Christian missions as something that is likewise to be motivated by a purified kind of self-interest: the seeking of one’s own joy and happiness. To that end he quoted David Livingstone, the great pioneer missionary to Africa, in a famous passage from a speech the great missionary made to the students of Cambridge University in 1857.
“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.” [Desiring God, 201]
Wonderful! But, before expressing his enthusiasm for this view of life, this sense that Livingstone had that in seeking to live for the glory of God he was loving himself and laying claim to the Lord’s promised 100-fold return, he has a quibble with something Livingstone said. “One sentence,” he writes, “I think, unhelpful and inconsistent: [Livingstone had written] ‘Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?’ [Piper comments:] I don’t think it is helpful to describe our obedience as an attempt (albeit impossible) to pay God back for his grace. It is a contradiction of free grace to think of it that way.” There are many people who are saying similar things today, though with a purpose I doubt Mr. Piper would always approve.
The problem with Piper’s quibble with the quotation from Livingstone, the problem with his problem with Livingstone’s thinking in terms of repaying a debt, of serving God out of a sense of obligation to repay, is that the Bible itself teaches us to speak this way. This is the reason Livingstone spoke that way and so many great Christians like him. It wasn’t Livingstone’s idea to speak in terms of the believer living his life to repay a debt, of honor being served by an effort to repay. He was speaking in the way he had been taught to speak in Holy Scripture. In Deut. 32:6 we read Moses chastising the people on this very basis: “Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
The author of Psalm 116 put the same point positively. “What shall I render to the Lord – that is, how can I repay him – for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” [vv. 12-14] The Psalms are chock full of language like that.
In fact, the Lord has built this sense of obligation to repay into all the sacred relationships of life, even those that are most profoundly relationships of love. For example, in 1 Tim. 5:4 we read: “…if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” To make “some return” is simply another way to say “repay.” Now the parents and grandparents did not raise their children to get something from them in their old age. Their love of their children was not some investment in their own personal financial security in their later years. But, it is entirely proper to speak of an obligation on the part of children to “repay a debt.” For whether or not loving parents think in terms of their children repaying them – they don’t – it is right for children to think so. Their parents have done so much for them, they have a debt to repay. Who can possibly deny the worthiness of such thinking?
Our Father and our Savior did not save us in order to increase their return on the investment they made in the eternal life of human beings. But that hardly means that it is inappropriate for believers to think of trying to repay their debt to God. It is the way justice, honor, and duty have always spoken and so they speak in the Bible itself. “For what thanksgiving,” Paul asks, “can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake…?” That is again the language of paying a debt.
In a magnificent passage in his celebrated work on Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton goes to the heart of this idea of “repayment.”
“…debt and dependence do become pleasures in the presence of unspoiled love… It is the key of all the problems of Franciscan morality which puzzle the merely modern mind… It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be forever paying it. He will be forever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks…. A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden. But whether he sees it or not, the truth is in that riddle; that the whole world has, or is, only one good thing, and it is a bad debt.” [St. Francis, 79-80]
Let there be no thought of calculation, of something remotely commercial in our relationship with our God and Father who saved us by his grace, but at the same time, it would be unfaithful to the Bible to remove the language and the motive of repayment and of honoring a great debt from the motivation of the Christian life. Christians are to live the Christian life out of a sense of obligation to repay a great debt they have to God. That is a true Christian motivation. And that is but one example.
The fact is, the Bible presents us with many motives for a life of love and good deeds. Many motives and motives that are very different from one another. There is first and foremost the motive of love. Believers are, of course, right to stress the importance of this, the place of love in all Christian behavior. If we love him we will keep his commandments and we do love him because he first loved us. Our Savior taught us that himself! And then there is gratitude which is not precisely the same thing as love. A truly grateful heart longs to demonstrate its thankfulness by pleasing the one who has been so kind and generous. The Christian lives a godly life because by so doing he can show his gratitude to God his Savior. The Heidelberg Catechism, with real insight, treats the entire Christian life under the heading “Of Gratitude” or, in the modern translation, “Our thankfulness to God.” That’s where you’re going to find the Ten Commandments; that’s where you’re going to find everything the catechism has to tell you about what the Christian life is and how it is to be lived. That’s a good way to think about your life. My life is thankfulness to God. In every way it is to be the expression of my thankfulness to God. These are – love and gratitude – without question, fundamental reasons that must lie deep in the heart and in the foundation of every Christian life. They are the reasons that take center stage in the teaching of the Apostle Paul and in Peter too, as we noticed already in his “therefores” of 1:13 and 2:1. Since God has done so much for us, has been so gracious to us, has loved us with so a great love, it is ours to show our gratitude by living a life pleasing to him.
But, it would be untrue to the Bible to stop there. There are other motives, other rationales offered for our living a faithful Christian life that are urged upon us again and again in the Bible. For example, there is the fear of God’s judgment. We are reminded many times that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil and to receive what is due us for them. Paul said that to Christians in 2 Corinthians 5:10. After saying that Paul went on to say, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, then, we persuade men.” That is, he was motivated by the fear of judgment. In another case, after referring to the prospect of his own life and service to God being brought into judgment, he went on to say, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” For Paul, the champion of salvation by grace and justification by faith to say such a thing is proof enough that the fear of God’s judgment is perfectly compatible with both love and gratitude. In his Sermon on the Mount and in his parables in Matthew 25 the Lord Jesus delivered some of the most terrifying teaching in the Bible to his own disciples, to Christians in other words. Don’t be among those who call me Lord, he said, but don’t do the will of my Father in heaven. For I will say to such people, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you.’” There too, Jesus was motivating us to faithfulness in the Christian life. Don’t take this salvation for granted, he was saying; don’t be laissez-faire about a life of obedience and service. I know how compatible love and gratitude and fear can be. I loved and admired my father deeply, but I feared him as well, in what I think was precisely the right way. He was, after all, the rod of God in my early life. I wanted to please him because I loved him; I didn’t want to displease him because I feared his judgment.
We can also be motivated by the fear of present and immediate consequences that may befall us because of our sins. I mean, it is not only the Last Judgment that we rightly fear. The fear of pregnancy and of the catastrophe it would bring has kept many lovers chaste when love and gratitude would not have done so! There are many texts teaching such a lesson in the Bible. Paul in 1 Cor. 11 speaks of those who have fallen asleep in the Corinthian church – that is, those who had died – because of their misbehavior toward one another and so their profanation of the worship of the church, pretending devotion to the Lord in the service while defying his will at the same time. But the text that always sticks in my mind, perhaps because it is so surprising and unexpected in the context, is the Lord’s remark to the man he had healed at the pool of Bethesda. You may remember the episode in John 5. The Lord had raised up the paralyzed man and sent him walking and dancing home from the pool. Later that same day Jesus found him in the temple – no doubt where he had gone to praise and thank God for his miraculous healing, to repay the Lord for the debt he owed to him – and said to him, in a tone that sounds curt to us: “See, you are well. Sin no more that nothing worse may happen to you.” Yikes! God does punish disobedience in this world, even the disobedience of his children!
Or, contrarily, there is the prospect of reward for faithfulness whether in this life or that which is to come. This seems strange and unexpected too, but it is unmistakably the teaching of God’s word and of the Lord’s own teaching. The one who gives up houses, fields, brothers and sisters for the Lord will get back a hundred times as much in this life and in the world to come eternal life. Why did the Lord promise us that except to motivate us to self-sacrificing service in his kingdom? And that is not all. He says elsewhere that those who suffer persecution for Christ in this world will have a very great reward in heaven; those who made the most of that which the Lord gave them will have the largest number of cities to rule, and so on.
And frequently in the Bible the motive for practicing obedience to God or refusing to disobey is simply that of duty and honor. “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” “If you love those who love you what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” And on and on. Come on, we are Christians, we expect to be held to a higher standard and we expect to meet that standard.
And there is much more, motives here and there scattered all across the Scripture. Jesus once taught his disciples, in what I think is one of the strangest remarks our Lord ever made, to use their worldly wealth to gain friends for themselves so that when their wealth is gone they would be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Lk. 16:9). Give your gifts, make presents, do nice things for other people so you’ll have somebody glad to see you when you finally get to heaven. That isn’t what we think of first when we think of using our money for the kingdom of God or giving to the poor or supporting a missionary, but Jesus gave that as one more reason for doing such things.
In other words there are a great many reasons for living a faithful Christian life, a great many motives for godliness. There is a disinterested love for God and gratitude to him; there is as well, a love of self and a desire for reward. There is a fear of God and his judgments and, at the same time, there is a sense of duty and honor. All of these things and others are to drive us on to love and good deeds.
And, one thing more: the Christian is also to act out of the desire to see his life produce a spiritual effect in the hearts of others. That is the motive Peter mentions here. Here is another reason to live a faithful life of love for God and man: the effect such a life will have on unbelievers and the prospect of people who do not believe giving glory to God. Now there is a question about Peter’s meaning here. When will the pagans see our good deeds and glorify God? And how will they glorify God? Will it be, as some have thought, that at the Day of Judgment they will be forced to confess that the Christian life was, after all, the true human life, the life they should have lived? That is, they will be forced to admit that what they called evil was really good and what they thought good was really evil; even more they will be forced to admit that the Christians were right after all. Or, ought we to take “the day of visitation” not as a reference to the Second Coming, but rather to a day of the Lord’s drawing near in salvation. Then the reference would be to the salvation of some of those who at one time despised the Christians. Persuaded, at least in part, by the attractiveness of the Christians’ lives, they will be compelled to form a more favorable opinion of the Christian faith and, finally, by the grace and power of God, to become believers themselves.
There are reasons to choose both interpretations. The statement is general enough to permit either or both interpretations. It appears likely that Peter is recollecting the Lord’s own words in Matt. 5:16, and the Lord’s statement is more easily taken to refer to effects that a godly life has on unbelievers here and now. We know that it does have such an effect.
In a celebrated passage in Tertullian’s Apology [XXXIX] we read:
“…it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another,’ for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; ‘how they are ready even to die for one another,’ for they themselves will sooner put to death.”
Tertullian wasn’t saying that the loving deeds of Christians won the pagans to the Christian faith – though that happened often enough – but that by their acknowledgement of the Christians’ love, even derisive or sarcastic acknowledgement, they vindicate God and so give him glory by bearing witness to the fact that the true life of human beings is the life that Christians live. On the other hand, we read elsewhere in the NT that the unbelieving world will confess Jesus Christ as Lord on the day he returns. That doesn’t mean that they will all become Christians; it means that they will be forced to acknowledge, however bitterly, that Christ is in fact the Lord and that the people who lived for him were right after all. Either view of Peter’s words is found elsewhere in the Bible and perhaps we ought to think that Peter had both ideas in mind.
In any case, here is one more reason for us to bend our minds and wills to a holy life of love and good deeds. It has an effect on unbelievers, perhaps several different effects, and these in turn serve to increase the honor and glory of our God and Savior.
Now what is a Christian to do with all of these motives for living the Christian life, a life of sacrificial love, of ready submission, and comprehensive obedience? He or she is to put them to work, to bring them to bear on choices and on behavior. And if one motive isn’t working very well for you, choose another. We are to think about the effect of our lives on unbelievers around us. We are to seek those holy effects. We are to live so as to make them sit up and take notice of the kind of life that we live – whether in marriage and family, or neighborhood, or at work or school, or at play. Do you think of this? Do you treat your spouse with patience, love, grace, forgiveness; do you treat your children with affection, with consideration; do you treat your parents, and do you treat your friends in that way that will make unbelievers notice, because it is so different from what they ordinarily see, observe? Even in a way that will make them envy you? It ought to be obvious to non-Christians that you live in a happy way that they do not. Peter will later tell you to stand ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you, which suggests that people will recognize that your life has hope and will wonder where that hope comes from. And where does the love come from and where the kindness and the generosity and the honesty and integrity?
Chrysostom says somewhere that there is “nothing chillier” than a Christian who is not trying to save others. And C.S. Lewis adds, “What we practice, not (save at rare intervals) what we preach, is usually our great contribution to the conversion of others.” Or as Paul put it to Titus, there is a way of living that cannot help but “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” [2:10]
In other words, here is another reason to help you, to nerve you, to steel you to the life you want to live as a Christian. That is, after all, why we are given so many different motives for Christian living. We need them all! Sometimes one will work better with us than another. For some of us, by dint of make-up, personality, and background, some motives will always be more compelling than others, though love and gratitude to God must always take first place in every Christian heart. Sometimes only fear will move us; hopefully more often love. But it helps to think of the effect we can have on others to God’s glory. Think about it! How best can you make that effect on your neighbor, your office partner or office worker, or, even a member of your family? How might he or she notice the love, the kindness, and the integrity of your life? Thinking in those terms will get us moving in our ministry to others when often nothing else will, and will help us think clearly about how to love and how to be generous and how to prove ourselves honest and honorable to a particular person or class of people – our customers, our neighborhood, our workmates and colleagues, etc.
Brothers and sisters, there are many good reasons to live a committed, faithful, obedient, consecrated, sacrificial Christian life. This is but one of them – but important nonetheless. That we can live so as to bring even pagans to give glory to God. Not every pagan, not all the time, but when God visits to make our witness clear and powerful, which he promises to do and when Christ comes again. “My how those Christians love one another! How kind they are! How generous! How patient! How caring! How sympathetic! How faithful! How upright! How happy in their homes and their marriages! How cheerful and confident in their trust in their God!” God help us all to influence those around us for him. And God help us all to do that on purpose!