Fearful but Confident
Passage: 1 Peter 1:17–1:21
Fearful but Confident
We know that the Bible, as God’s Word, challenges us. God’s Word teaches us new truths, it exposes our sin, it exhorts us to change, it commands us to action. The Bible challenges us in many different ways. But there are times when God’s Word is particularly challenging. There are times when it seems like what the Scripture teaches cuts across everything we might normally or naturally think. This morning’s passage is one of those instances.
Our sermon this morning is about fear, specifically about fearing God. In our verses, we see Peter instruct his readers to live with a sense of fear before God, who is the Judge of all the earth. That’s a challenging idea, to say the least! We don’t normally think about fear and God together, though the fear of the Lord is one of the more important truths in Scripture. But our passage this morning says quite clearly, “Conduct yourselves in fear.” In that sense, this is a challenging text.
But that is not all our passage says. Our text this morning also reminds us why we should be confident in Christ as the final judgment approaches. Fearful, yes, but also confident. And while this is comforting for us, it also makes the passages more challenging. Fear and confidence, together in the same series of verses! How are we supposed to understand that! All in all, it’s a challenging passage that calls for careful thinking.
But as challenging as our passage is this morning, I want to encourage us at the outset to do the hard work of thinking clearly about what God’s Word means, and what difference it might make in our lives. Often times, it is the challenging texts that bear the most fruit in our lives, if we will be diligent to pray and study and think and pray some more. Let’s resolve together, here at the outset, to do the hard work of thinking through this challenging text, and let’s pray together that the Lord would use it to produce much fruit in our lives.
Conduct Yourselves with Fear
The main point of our passage is found in v17: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” This is the third command that Peter has given to his readers. The first was “Set your hope fully,” and the second was, “Be holy in all your conduct.” And now the third command is “Conduct yourselves with fear.” There is a connection between the second and third command that helps us understand Peter’s point. Note that the command to be holy mentions the believer’s conduct, their way of life. And then note that the third command says “Conduct yourselves with fear.” There is a repeating focus on conduct. That leads us to conclude that when Peter says “Conduct yourselves with fear,” he is reiterating the call to holiness. Believers are to conduct their lives in a holy manner, following the holy character of the God who called them.
And this is part of the reason why Peter includes the comment about exile. Remember, in Peter’s mind, believers are not literal exiles. They are exiles in that their lives do not match the world or the culture. Having been born again as God’s children, they now reflect God’s holy character, which makes them like exiles to the surrounding world. By mentioning their exile again here, Peter reminds his readers that holiness is supposed to make them different from the world around them. They should live in such a way that makes them seem like exiles. Conduct your lives with holiness, Peter says, precisely because you are exiles here on this earth.
But that is not the most pressing question when it comes to understanding this command. The most pressing question is, “What’s the point of the fear?” That word – fear – jumps out at you as you read the passage. Conduct yourselves with fear, Peter says. What does he mean here? For starters, Peter cannot mean fear in the sense of terror, in the way that a person might be terrified by a life-threatening disease or an awful act of violence. Fear can’t mean terror, in part because Peter has repeatedly stressed that believers know God as Father. He even reminds them of that at the beginning of v17, “If you call on him as Father.” If God is Father to us, then this fear cannot be terror or dread.
What does it mean? Fear in this context means a holy reverence that appropriately trembles before God. It is a holy reverence that acknowledges who God is – both gracious Father and righteous Judge. It is a holy reverence that acknowledges what God has accomplished – redeemed us from sin so that we might be holy. And it is holy reverence that acknowledges what God will do – bring all things to light on the day of judgment. It’s not terror, but a reverence and awe before the infinitely holy God.
Now, this kind of reverence can still tremble before God, and at times, should tremble before God! Think of the prophet Isaiah when he encountered the Holy God in Isaiah 6. He trembled and fell to floor as though he were dead! When we say holy reverence, that doesn’t exclude an appropriate sense of trembling. But it’s not trembling in terror, but in holy reverence before the holy God.
Even with that understanding in mind, we still need to understand why Peter commands fear in the pursuit of holiness. We know that this command draws on the command to pursue holiness, but why is that pursuit combined with fear? Why not, “Conduct yourselves with thankfulness or hopefulness.” Why is it, “Conduct yourselves with fear”? In other to answer those questions, we need to see how Peter supports the command. What other truths does he place around the command that both support and clarify what he means? If you’ll look in the passage, you’ll notice a statement both before and after the command to conduct yourself in fear. Those statements are like bookends that give support to and clarify the command. Let’s look at those bookends in order to understand why Peter commands fearful conduct.
A Day of Judgment is Coming
First bookend – conduct yourself with fear because there is a day of judgment coming. We see this at the beginning of v17, where Peter writes, “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds.” The context of this statement is the final judgment, and at this judgment, God will judge everyone person according to their deeds. This is a consistent theme throughout the NT. Let me cite just one other example. In Romans 2, Paul says, “God will render to each one according to his works.” That’s the same idea here. The context is the final day of judgment where God will impartially judge each person according to their deeds.
Now, just so we are clear, the deeds are not the basis of a believer’s salvation. Believers are not be accepted by God because of their works. Believers are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But the deeds that God judges on the last day will reveal or prove such saving faith. This is what James has in mind in James 2.18 when he says, “I will show you my faith by my works.” The deeds don’t save, but they do demonstrate our faith, or lack thereof. Keep this clarification in mind as we go through the reminder of the sermon. If you miss this clarification, it is likely that you will misunderstand the remainder of the message. Our deeds are not the basis of our salvation, but our deeds do reveal or prove the presence of saving faith.
When Peter says that God will judge everyone according to their deeds, he has in mind the final day when the deeds of our lives reveal what is true about our hearts. And it is that final judgment that produces a sense of fear in our pursuit of holiness. Now we can answer the question, “Why is it fearful conduct?” Because it is possible to conduct yourself in such a way that reveals you will not stand on the day of judgment. You can live in such a way that your deeds reveal that your heart is not right with God through faith in Christ. Your life can reveal that you have not been born again to a living hope. In light of that, conduct yourselves with fear during the time of your exile. That’s the way the first bookend leads to fearful conduct.
Ransomed from Sin, for Holiness
Now the second bookend – conduct yourself with fear because you were ransomed from sin, for holiness. We see this beginning in v18, where Peter writes “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” There is a before and after contrast that is important to understand at this point. Before their ransom through the blood of Christ, these believers were following the futile ways of their forefathers. The phrase futile ways most likely refers to idolatrous, pagan lifestyles. Instead of serving and worshipping the One True and Living God, they served and worshipped false gods. And since these false gods were no gods at all, such a lifestyle was pointless. It was empty, fruitless, lacking any real power or truth.
But that was before. Peter says that Christ ransomed them from that lifestyle. The idea of ransom or redemption goes all the way back to the OT, where God ransomed his people Israel from their life of slavery in Egypt. He redeemed them from their former way of life as slaves. And he delivered them to a life of holiness as his people. That’s the idea in Peter’s mind at this point. Christ ransomed believers from their former, futile way of life. And Christ accomplished this ransom not with silver and gold, things that have some value but will one day be destroyed. The ransom was accomplished with Christ’s own blood. We’ll say more about this later, but for now, we need to see that it is the blood of Christ that accomplishes our redemption. Unlike silver and gold, Christ’s blood will never lose its value; it is precious precisely because it is eternally effective for redemption.
What is the purpose of this ransom? This is important to note. Christ didn’t just pay for the guilt associated with their former lifestyle; he did do that, praise God that is true. But he also ransomed them from those futile ways. Christ died to bring them out of those empty lives and bring them into a life of holiness before God. We could say it like this. Christ ransomed his people not just to save them, but to transform them as well. He shed his blood so that his people might be brought out of their fruitless way of life and brought into a fruitful life of holiness. His death both justifies and sanctifies his people. That transformation is part of the purpose of the ransom. With his own life, Christ bought his people for holiness.
With that in mind, we can once again answer that question, “Why is it fearful conduct?” Because it is possible to conduct yourself in such a way that reveals you have not been ransomed from your futile ways. If believers are ransomed for holiness, then our lives must demonstrate that holiness. Not perfectly – hear me clearly on this – not perfectly, as if we never sinned again, but progressively holy over time. Over the long haul of life, through all the peaks and valleys of struggling with sin, we grow progressively more like Christ. That is what should happen in the life of a person who has been born again to a living hope. If on the last day, my deeds do not reveal this sort of progressive, growing holiness, then it will indicate that I have not been ransomed. Believers should conduct themselves with fear because it is possible to conduct yourself in such a way that reveals you have not been ransomed from your futile ways.
Not Presuming on God’s Grace
Now, let’s take the command and the two bookends and put it all together in one summarizing point. Here’s how I would do that. What does this command in v17 mean? Be careful not to presume on God’s grace. Peter has made it clear throughout this opening chapter that our status as God’s children owes entirely to grace. God caused us to born again, he keeps us for the inheritance, and he calls us first and foremost to keep hoping in his grace. If Peter has taught us anything from these opening verses, it is that the Christian life is all of grace. With that emphasis, however, there might be the tendency among some to think like this: “If it’s all grace, then why worry about holiness? It’s all God’s grace. I’ll just coast from here.” A person who thinks like that presumes on God’s grace. That person presumes that since it’s all God’s grace, the absence of holiness is nothing to be concerned about. That person has forgotten that a holy life must flow from our living hope, not as the means of earning that hope, but as the demonstration of a hope already given.
What Peter says here is that kind of presumptuous thinking is driven out by a holy fear of the last day and a holy fear of the fact that we were ransomed for holiness. If we catch ourselves presuming on God’s grace – not taking sin seriously, not laboring after holiness – if we catch ourselves presuming on God’s grace, that should be a fearful moment that in turns drives out our presumption! Let me try to illustrate what I mean. Let’s say that a person presumes on God’s grace for his entire life. Every time the Holy Spirit brings conviction, he ignores it and covers it up with some distorted notion of grace. Every time his conscience speaks against his sin, he ignores it and tells himself that it’s all grace; don’t worry about that holiness stuff. Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking about a guy who struggles with sin; a struggle would imply that he cares and takes notice and wants to change. I’m talking about a guy who consistently thinks sin is no big deal and then excuses that thinking with the label grace. Now let’s say that kind of thinking is his lifelong pattern. What will happen to him on the last day? His life will demonstrate that he does not know God! His deeds will reveal that his heart does not hope in Christ! How could someone who was ransomed by the blood of Christ not pursue the purpose of that ransom! As John Piper has said, that person’s deeds will reveal that the blood of Christ was not precious and effective and powerful to him. His life has been one of presumption, and the God who judges impartially will see through that presumption on the last day. And that thought is a fearful reality that should drive out our presumption and lead us once again to hope in Christ in order to grow in holiness.
In light of Peter’s teaching, we must ask ourselves the hard questions. Do I consistently ignore conviction from the Holy Spirit, or am I quick to confess my sin both to God and to others? Do I consistently pursue Scripture and prayer as the means of killing sin and pursuing holiness? Or, do I excuse sin under the guise of cheap grace? Am I growing in my holy reverence before God as the One who is both Father and Judge? Or, is my approach to God marked by a casual even flippant attitude toward his holiness? I know these questions are difficult, but think of them like a surgeon’s scalpel. A surgeon uses his scalpel to cut open and cut away so that he might eventually bring healing. It hurts at first; it stings; it bleeds. But the pain is necessary in order to get to the healing. In the same way, these kinds of questions might hurt at first. They might cut and slice away at some things that have been present in your life for a long time. But that kind pain is necessary to reach healing and wholeness. The Lord intends these verses for our good. He intends these kinds of passages to cut away more and more of those futile ways in which we once lived. He intends to cut those away so that we might grow and flourish more and more in holiness. Let me encourage you to ask the hard questions. Wrestle with the hard texts. Let the scalpel of Scripture do its work in your heart. Don’t be afraid of some pain along the way, because the Lord’s purpose is healing and wholeness in the end.
That is Peter’s sober command to conduct yourself with fear during the time of your exile. After giving this command, Peter closes the section by calling us back to the confident hope that believers have through Christ. This is where we are reminded again of the goodness and kindness of God. After this difficult teaching on fearful conduct, Peter then gives us a wonderful section of gospel encouragement. It’s almost like Peter realizes his words are difficult at this point, and so he closes not with the fear but with the confidence believers have in Christ. In that way, the call to fearful conduct is balanced by the reminder of our confidence in Christ our Redeemer.
Peter accomplishes this with what I’m calling gospel logic. Beginning in v18 and going until v21, Peter works through different elements of Christ’s work in the gospel. The point is to highlight our confidence in Christ. Let me explain how I see his thought playing out. Peter has already established that part of the purpose of Christ’s ransom was our holiness. He redeemed us for holiness. Now, in the second half of v18, Peter works to show us that Christ’s ransom is absolutely certain. There is nothing that can thwart or question our redemption through Christ. If the ransom was certainly accomplished, then the purpose of that ransom – our holiness – will also be certainly accomplished. It’s gospel logic. The ransom was certain; therefore, the purpose of the ransom is certain as well.
A Sure and Final Payment
In order to press this gospel logic into our own minds, let’s note three points about the certainty of Christ’s ransom. First, Christ’s blood is a sure and final payment. Look at the end of v18 into v19: We were ransomed “not with perishable things, such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” The reference to the lamb without blemish recalls the OT sacrificial system where the blood of the sacrifice pointed to redemption. The reference here is a reminder that Christ fulfilled all the elements of the OT sacrificial system. And as the fulfillment, that means his payment is final and complete. Silver and gold will perish, but the precious blood of Christ will never perish. As the eternal, perfect Son of God, what he paid for with his blood will be surely and certainly redeemed. And that includes his people for the purpose of holiness.
Eternally Planned and Accomplished in History
Second, Christ’s ransom was eternally planned and then accomplished in history. Peter says that Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world. This means that before time began, God the Father foreknew the Son as the Redeemer of God’s people. Christ’s ransom has always been the plan of God; it wasn’t an afterthought. And in that, we see the certainty of Christ’s redemption. But Peter goes on to say that Christ was made manifest in the last days. In other words, what God foreknew in his Son has been accomplished in the life of Jesus Christ. What God ordained to accomplish has been accomplished. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection signal the end of the age because his work fulfills the eternal purpose and plan of God. And in this accomplishment, we see the certainty of Christ’s redemption. What God purposed in eternity, he accomplished in Christ.
Ratified by the Resurrection
Third, Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that his payment was good. Look at v21: “who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory.” If Jesus were not risen from the dead, then his ransom payment would be meaningless. It would be like a bad check. It might claim great things, but it cannot deliver on what it claims. But Christ did not stay dead, praise God! He is risen, and his resurrection proves that his ransom payment was good. And if the payment was good, then the purpose of that ransom will be certainly accomplished.
Now, let’s put the pieces together again. If Christ’s ransom is sure and certain, that means the purpose of his ransom is sure and certain as well! Those who have been ransomed from their futile ways will see growth in holiness in their lives. Why? Because they are really good at being holy, or are really good at conducting themselves in fear? No, by all means no! They will see growth because Christ purchased them for holiness with a sure and certain ransom. His precious blood will effectively produce the purpose for which it was shed – our transformation from a futile way of life to a life of holiness. In fact, look how Peter ends this paragraph. What’s the result of this certain, sure ransom? The last phrase of v21 – “so that your faith and hope are in God”! Note this, very importantly. At the end of the passage, where is our faith and hope? In God! In the One who called us out of darkness so that we might call on him as Father! Our faith and hope are not in our fearful conduct, or our ability to be holy. Our faith and hope are in God alone. While we pursue fearful conduct now, we do not hope in that conduct. While we labor after holiness now, we do not hope in that holiness. We hope only in God through Christ, and that hope is what spurs us on to real, lasting holiness.
And since our faith and hope are in God, we have confidence before the Lord. We have confidence that we will grow in holiness, that sin will no longer master us. Even when I am in the midst of the struggle with sin, I have confidence that Christ’s blood redeemed me from such a futile lifestyle, and therefore, by God’s grace, I will grow. Sin is no longer master of my life. Christ’s blood has paid my debt and broken sin’s power. And by God’s grace in Christ, I will conduct myself with fear during the time of my exile. If you are in Christ this morning, this confident hope is available to you. Christ’s blood will prevail in your struggle against sin. You will grow in holiness not because you are able to grow in and of yourself, but because the One who bought will ensure, by his Spirit and his Word, that you will grow. Take hope in the precious, powerful blood of Christ.
At the end of this passage, what do we have? Christians are both fearful before the Lord and confident in the Lord. At the same time! Our holy reverence before God does not undermine our confidence, and our confidence doesn’t lead to presumption. They both inform and support the other. Fearful before God, and confident in Christ. May God grant us the grace to continue following Christ by faith, being fearful in all our conduct and confident in our certain redemption through his precious blood.