First Peter No. 24 “The Difficulty of Salvation”
1 Peter 4:12-19
May 13, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
One of the features of Holy Scripture that no honest reader can fail to observe is its terrible seriousness. It is a book of almost unrelenting seriousness. It is a book with a happy side, to be sure. But even its joy is a serious joy. Even its message of peace and hope and love is never detached from the gravity that characterizes every page. The Bible is not an amusing or light-hearted book. And, of course, it is serious because the living God who speaks in its pages has such serious things to say to mankind and to his people; because the consequences of unbelief are so appalling!
The Lord Jesus himself, was a man of almost unremitting seriousness. Efforts have been made through the years to find in the Four Gospels some evidence of the Lord’s sense of humor, but there is really none to be found. I do not deny that the Lord had a sense of humor. I imagine that he had a wonderful and wonderfully pure sense of humor and that he was a man who was a pleasure to be around. He knew how to enjoy the good things that God gives, and Proverbs tells us that a ready laugh is one of those good things. Indeed, he was accused by his enemies of being a drunk and a glutton. That at least indicates that the Lord was no ascetic and was not a gloomy person. He knew how to appreciate good food and drink. He sought out occasions of fellowship. But, there can be no doubt that the main characteristic of that face he turned to the world and even to his friends was seriousness or solemnity. We hear of his weeping, we hear of his anger, we hear of his pleading with men in view of the coming judgment of God, but we never hear of him laughing about anything. A serious man is without question the picture the Gospels paint. I have heard some argue that certain of his sayings must have been delivered with a smile, such as the one about the camel going through the eye of a needle. But I’m sure not, because that saying was an illustration of how hard it is to be saved, and about how many are lost forever, something like what Peter is talking about here. I can’t imagine the Son of Man smiling as he talked about the camel going through the eye of a needle, for his remark was prompted by the rich young ruler who had asked him how to be saved, a young man the Gospels say Jesus had compassion for, and who after hearing Jesus turned away because, just as the Lord feared, this young man loved his money more than his soul.
And no wonder it is so hard to find evidence of the Lord’s lightheartedness. The Lord Jesus came into the world to suffer and die. He was, from the beginning of his life, the “Man of Sorrows.” When his public ministry began he was immediately condemned by the powerful among the people and he could see already what their opposition must mean for him at the end. Quite apart from all that, no one knew as well as he knew what the true issue of human life is and must be: salvation or damnation, peace with God or the wrath of God. Too much is at stake, too much was at stake in his life for him to be light-hearted or cheerfully sentimental.
I remember years ago Carl F.H. Henry interviewed Martin Lloyd-Jones for Christianity Today. Lloyd-Jones was the celebrated London preacher, perhaps the greatest Christian preacher of the 20th century, at least in the English language. In that interview Henry asked Lloyd-Jones why, though everyone who knew him said that he had a wonderful sense of humor, it never surfaced in his preaching. Lloyd-Jones’ answer was that he found that his situation as a man standing between human beings and their eternal destiny, as a man responsible to direct other men away from hell to heaven, simply too appalling for humor. It must have been very much more so for the Lord Jesus.
His apostles learned seriousness from him and then communicated it to his church for all time. Amongst all the characteristics that unite the various authors of the books of the New Testament, this holy seriousness stands out among them. You will find no jokes in the letters of the New Testament. And so it has been of all those who have learned their Christianity well from these books and these men. Whenever the church has been healthy and spiritually vigorous, she has been full of men and women who have taken their faith in Christ and their life of following him in deadly earnest.
Take, as just one example, the English Puritans, the Reformation party of the English Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. In many ways, doctrinal, liturgical, and spiritual, these men and women were our Christian ancestors. And characteristic of their lives as Christians was their seriousness about their faith, about the faith. They took the Bible seriously, because they believed it absolutely. And the result was that they were as earnest and as resolute and as indomitable in their faith as any Christians have been. And from that seriousness came their great influence on the church and the world of their day. I’m reading a book on the Apostle Paul by a classical scholar and the Puritans appear in her telling as something of a punching bag. She describes them as if they had lost all sense of the need to have a good time!
Well, it is absolutely true that they believed in the transitoriness of life, its brevity and uncertainty. They believed that, in comparison with other things, nothing mattered much at all besides salvation. They saw this life as “the gymnasium and dressing-room” where men and women are prepared for heaven or, contrarily, where they lose their souls forever. And to be sure, perhaps in some ways, it was easier for them to be as serious about life and about faith in Christ than it is for us.
They were systematically persecuted for their faith – as were these Christians to whom Peter is writing – and as we are not or have not been so far. Life itself was much more painful, uncertain, and full of sorrow for them than it is for the majority of us. What we take for granted as the comforts of life were largely unknown to them. Medicine and surgery were rudimentary at best, often doing more harm than good. They had no aspirin for the headaches they got just as often as we get them, no sleeping pills, and no anti-depressants. Dentistry was primitive to the say the least. They had no social security or life insurance in a day when more than half the adult population died young and when well more than half of children died in infancy. Infectious diseases were common and deadly, they lived with chronic pain to an extent we have no experience of whatsoever. Death was their constant companion. In other words, they consciously lived on the edge of eternity in a way that we do not. They reckoned with the meaning of life, its brevity, its uncertainty, and the absolute necessity of being ready to die and face God in a way that we do not because we do not have to. [Packer, Quest for Godliness, 13-14] We feel we can pretty safely put those questions, those concerns, those preoccupations off to another time.
Now for all of this they have been demonized in subsequent history as fanatics, as dour, humorless, depressingly solemn folk who made life a misery for themselves and everyone around them. H.L. Mencken’s famous definition of a Puritan was a man who fears that someone, somewhere might be happy! That prejudice still exists in some uneducated quarters, akin to the idea that people in Columbus’ day thought the world was flat. But even unsympathetic historians have been forced to admit that the evidence is otherwise. They were, for all this seriousness, a happy people with a zest for life who loved games of various kinds and prized the fellowship of friends. Far from immobilizing them, their seriousness made them wise parents, loving spouses, and industrious and prosperous workers. So I am not talking about a personality trait, as if I were recommending for your imitation people who were dour and gloomy. I mean something very different and very much more important.
As in the New Testament, the seriousness of their Christian faith was not in any way a destructive or harmful thing; it was a life-giving and wholesome thing. Peter, after all, has already in his letter twice spoken of the inexpressible joy that characterizes the true Christian life. So it was for the Puritans and so it has been for all Christians in times of spiritual health and prosperity. For, this seriousness is nothing other than a willingness, a readiness, even a determination to take the teaching of God’s Word at face value and live accordingly! You cannot believe the Bible to be true, you cannot take its teaching about life and death, its promises, and its warnings to be the very Word of God, and not take life seriously and your own life especially. No, I will say this plainly, the first thing the Bible does is to make a person take a serious view of life.
You cannot really believe and then often think about the fact that people around you are estranged from God and liable to suffer his wrath and judgment and take a happy-go-lucky or superficial view of life. Life is too important; too much of immense significance is happening around you every moment of every day. The Lord said that the way to heaven was narrow and only a few were finding it. He painted a picture of multitudes of people gaily rushing for the edge of the cliff; utterly unaware of the disaster that awaits them. You cannot believe what the Bible says about the divine majesty and holiness and then think it is a small thing to know this living and almighty God, to be loved by him, or to know that he cares very much how you live your life. You cannot learn from the Bible the ugliness and offensiveness of sin in God’s sight and then live unconcerned with the amount of sin that still remains in your own heart and life. You cannot consider the fact that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives and still take a cavalier approach to your conduct. And you cannot behold the Lord Jesus himself, suffering so terribly for the salvation of his people, and then take that love and salvation for granted, as if they were little things and required little of you in return. If you are not serious in the face of these tremendous and solemn realities it is only because you have learned to forget all about them for hours, sometimes for days on end.
Take Peter here brothers and sisters. He speaks here of “the difficulty of salvation.” That used to be a doctrine that ministers preached about. But no so much in our effeminate and superficial and pleasure-oriented age. Christians nowadays are very likely to think that salvation was, of course, difficult for Jesus to acquire for us, but insofar as it is his free gift, it is not difficult for us to acquire for ourselves. Ministers are more likely to tell a congregation of modern folk how Christ can make them happy; few will add that following him is invariably going to prove a costly and very difficult thing. And how many Christians nowadays will be warned, and warned again, that judgment begins with the family of God. As Martin Marty, the Lutheran historian of American Christianity and American religious trends, wrote already in 1985, “Hell has disappeared and no one noticed.” [Cited in Peterson, Hell on Trial, 239] The reality of divine judgment must alter one’s perspective root and branch. What will become of the ungodly?
But precisely what is Peter’s point here. What does he mean by saying that the righteous are scarcely saved or, as other English translations have it, and more literally, it is hard for the righteous to be saved? Well, as all the writers of the New Testament affirm, salvation is no picnic. To live a godly life – that holiness without which no one will see the Lord – is no easy matter. The Apostle Paul, of all people, could write to the Corinthians, “I beat my body and make it my slave, lest having preached to others I myself might be disqualified for the prize.” Extraordinary! He was saying at least that following Christ required real sacrifice and real effort on his part. Taking salvation for granted is a sure way to fail to obtain it!
Look, I go to the gym three times a week. Once there I sit on the exercise bike and read the Wall Street Journal and do the crossword. I work up a sweat, to be sure, but I look across the room at those who are running full speed for half an hour on the treadmill or lifting hundreds of pounds in the weight room and it is obvious even to me that I’m not exactly beating my body and making it my slave! But even those people would think what Christians are called to do far too difficult and far too painful for them even to attempt. Really to pray and to do it every day: that’s hard, hard work. Saying “No!” to temptation is not easy work, as anyone who has tried it knows only too well. In fact the proof of how hard the Christian life is to live is how few really do all of that hard work faithfully and well. It is demanding, unrelenting, exhausting to live a holy life in this sinful world with hearts as unwilling as ours. The Christian life is, by the witness of Holy Scripture, in fact, the most difficult thing to do well in the world. Nothing is as difficult for sinners as that holy life without which no one will see the Lord.
But, while all of that is true enough, I don’t think that is Peter’s specific point here. Remember, he’s in the midst of talking to these Christian folk about the trials and tribulations they are facing; difficulties not of their own making. They weren’t the trials and difficulties that came to them because they were beating their bodies and making them their slaves; they were enduring trials imposed on them from outside by the enemies of the gospel. That has been his theme for the last chapter and a half, a theme introduced at the very beginning of the letter. What he is saying here is that these Christians are part of God’s house, a point he made earlier in chapter 2, and that their faith is being refined by fire, that is by the afflictions that they are suffering, the point he made in 1:7. There must be for Christians a preparatory cleansing to test them and to make them ready for the great judgment at the end of the world. Christians suffer now so that they will not suffer then. Because it is by this suffering that their faith is not only tested – as he said in v. 12 – but strengthened and purified. This is why it is hard for Christians to be saved: their faith and so their salvation requires testing by fire.
Paul says a very similar thing in 1 Corinthians 11:31-32:
“When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.”
We know how that works. It is by sufferings of various kinds that sin’s grip and this world’s grip upon our hearts is broken. I know it has been so in my case. It is trouble that, more than anything else, makes me ready to leave this world, makes me think about leaving the world, makes me think about my life and what it will all have meant at the moment I leave the world. It is by circumstances in which we must hold fast to the Lord by faith in his Word, even when the evidence of our eyes might seem to nullify or disprove our faith, that our faith is strengthened and made stronger. It is by standing for the Lord in the face of opposition, even the threat of loss or punishment, that our faith is proved genuine, to ourselves as well as to others; the kind of faith that then will not waver when further difficulties come. And such faith will have its vindication on the Day of Judgment.
It is in this sense that Peter says here that it is hard for the righteous to be saved. He is simply reiterating what we read many times in the Bible. Anyone who would live a godly life in this world will suffer persecution, Paul says. In another place, through many afflictions it is necessary to enter the kingdom of God. In another place, we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. And so on.
There is no starry-eyed optimism here. Nothing of the health and wealth preachers; not even the almost exclusive concentration on the happy side of the faith that we get so regularly in much of American Christianity. No, what we get here in Peter is a perspective shaped by and dominated by the real prospect of divine judgment and the real possibility of being condemned in that judgment, no matter that you thought you would be vindicated. That changes everything! Anyone who really believes in the judgment day will welcome anything that serves to test and strengthen his faith, which is, after all, his living connection to Christ. What Peter is saying is, “No wonder God is so hard on the church, his people, if what he is protecting them from is hell. No wonder he batters them as he does, if it is precisely to protect them from a false faith, a sentimental and unreal faith, a faith too weak to withstand the Day of Judgment.” No wonder that Christians should have to suffer now in order to ensure that they do not suffer far more terribly in the world to come. Christians are better off than they appear when they suffer, for this suffering is testing and purifying them in preparation for the Last Judgment. And if Christians must be treated so sternly, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner on that day? Face it folks, for the apostles were certainly willing to face it: if there is no Day of Judgment then, by all means eat, drink, and be merry. But if there is, we must look at life and the experiences of life in an entirely different way.
This was exactly the perspective that dominated our Savior’s teaching about the judgment day. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! All these sorts of statements were made to Christians, people who professed faith in Christ. Almost everything the Bible says about the judgment day, it says to believers or people who imagine themselves believers. How much better to have your faith tested now, proved true, and refined and purified, than to have it tested and proved false when it is too late to do anything about it!
And it must be suffering. Nothing else will concentrate the eternal issues of life powerfully enough. You know, I know how easy it is for us not to think about these things at all. Affliction is God’s megaphone. After all, it is a most remarkable thing, very much worth our consideration, that so few people take the prospect of divine judgment seriously. Still today, in our secular and superficial age, a majority of people still believe in hell. Movies abound that depict some dystopian future for the human race. But still hardly anyone takes the prospect of the future world seriously enough even to think hard about it. Why, for goodness sake? Why would someone discount the seriousness of hell, why would the majority of people pay so little attention to the wrath of God, when there is so much hell all around us all the time in this world? Can anyone look around this world and say that God has not given us more than enough intimations of his judgment and his wrath — war, famine, natural disaster, cruelty, alienation, disappointment, despair, death, loss, frustration of every kind? When the Bible describes hell it is perfectly easy for us to understand what in the world is being described because we have seen that very sort of thing in the world in our own time. Sin pays a wage everywhere we look: ask Bill Cosby if it does. And on top of all that, whence comes the uneasy conscience that plagues us all, the knowledge we have of our own failure to live a good life, to meet the standards we expect of others? We practice judgment of ourselves? Why for goodness sake, if there is no such thing as real judgment, a real reckoning? And whence comes our sense, inescapable sense, that there should be judgment and punishment for others, even if not for ourselves. We live amidst judgment, we practice it daily, we demand it of others, and then we ignore that judgment of which all this is but an anticipation? When we are summoned to the Throne, if we have ignored this prospect we will be utterly without excuse!
But still human beings, in the blindness of their unbelief, in their refusal to take seriously either the Word of God or the evidence of their own eyes, go through life as if there were no reason whatsoever to worry about the wrath and the judgment of God. They devote all their concern and fear to other much less consequential things. On the 22nd of October, 1939, C.S. Lewis gave a lecture to a large group of Oxford undergraduates. The war had begun the month before. And remember, these were people for whom the horrors of the First World War were still fresh in their mind. Everyone was profoundly depressed and terrified of what lay ahead. Britain was poor, had not yet recovered from the ravages of the Great War and the Great Depression; it was a terrible time for them. Because Lewis was an ex-soldier – he had been wounded on the western front in the first war – a university professor, and a Christian, it was thought that he would have something useful, helpful to say. And so he began.
“A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students you will be expected to make yourselves…into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we – indeed how can we – continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
Well, those were obvious questions. But Lewis went on.
“Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peacetime. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many…Christians…these days do not like to mention …hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then the source is Our Lord Himself….These overwhelming doctrines…. are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. [By the way, Lewis typically overstates that point in his writing. It is true that the Lord spoke plainly and more often of hell than do other NT writers, but it is mentioned in one way or another frequently enough by Peter, Paul, the author of Hebrews, and so on. If it is true that the Lord Jesus was, as it were, the great authority on that doctrine in the NT, it is hardly the case that he is the only authority on that doctrine.] If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.
“The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to Hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics, or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues but not under the shadow of a European war would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.
“For that reason I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” [“Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory, 43.]
You see the point. The prospect of divine judgment must change everything; it must fundamentally alter one’s perspective on life – when you wake up tomorrow morning and face the day that you’re going to have tomorrow, if you are alive to the reality of divine judgment, you’re going to think and act differently than otherwise you will – render certain things important other things trivial, certain things understandable and bearable that otherwise would terribly darken if not ruin one’s life. That is Peter’s point. Suffering is one thing if it is being used by God to purify and temper one’s faith so that the person will escape the wrath to come. Suffering is another thing altogether if it is simply the foretaste of worse to come.
That is Peter’s point here. You may, as a Christian, have to suffer. Indeed, you will have to suffer. Your life will be hard in some ways, happy as it may be in others. But your troubles are for a reason so mighty as to make that suffering not only bearable, but something that no Christian would want to be without, for fear his faith, untested and untried, might prove itself false and worthless on the Day of Judgment.
Samuel Rutherford once wrote to Lady Kenmure, one of his favorite correspondents:
“I thought it had been an easy thing to be a Christian, and that to seek God had been at the next door; but, oh, the windings, the turnings, the ups and downs He hath led me through.”
But, this is the same Rutherford who also said that when he was finally in heaven, safely there, all danger past, he would think then of his life, with all the suffering and all the sorrow that he had had to experience,
“It were a well-spent journey though seven deaths lay between.”
Amy Carmichael brings together the two strands of Peter’s argument we have been considering over these past two sermons: our suffering being a participation in Christ’s suffering for us on the one hand, and, on the other, our suffering serving to test and purify our faith to make it strong enough to carry us all the way to heaven. You are perhaps familiar with this famous Carmichael verse:
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified,
From all that dims thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
Or as Peter put it in v. 13: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”