The Witness of Holiness

October 20, 2013 Speaker: Jeff Breeding Series: 1 Peter: Sojourners and Strangers

The Witness of Holiness

This week, we come to the second section of Peter’s letter. In this section, Peter addresses a pressing question facing the churches of Asia Minor – how should Christians relate to the world, to the surrounding culture, especially when that surrounding culture was at times quite hostile? That is the pressing question of this section of 1 Peter. 

In many ways, this is also becoming the increasingly pressing question for us as Christian in 2013 America. How should we relate to the surrounding culture? Our own culture is becoming more and more hostile to orthodox, Christian belief. I think we see this in a number of ways. Most clearly, I think we see it in the culture’s changing views on gender and sexuality. Whether the question is homosexuality or promiscuity, it is clear that if you hold to the orthodox, Christian view of sexuality, you will face hostility. We also see it the culture’s changing views on truth and authority. It’s almost now standard practice in American culture to affirm that there is no overarching truth, there is no one view of reality that can claim to be exclusive. If you affirm the historic Christian teaching regarding the authority of Scripture, you are severely out of step with the culture. Those are just two examples, but that is enough to make my point – our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian faith.

Yet, God calls us to live in this world, in this culture. We know that our ultimate home is the new heaven and new earth, but we live now in this world. And God calls us to live in this world! He doesn’t take us out of the world; he doesn’t call us to cloister ourselves away from the culture. Just as the Father sent Jesus into the world, so also Jesus sends his church into the world. And so, the question, how should we live as Christians in the world?

Beginning in 2.11, Peter offers his answer on this question. His readers also lived in a hostile culture. In the first and second century Roman Empire, Christians were considered troublemakers, mischievous, and at times dangerous. Many Roman officials thought that Christians were actually rebels and traitors! Since Christians wouldn’t worship Caesar as god, that made Christians a threat to the empire! Peter writes in that context to answer our pressing question.

In these two verses, Peter gives us his overall vision for Christian living in a hostile culture. These verses give us the theme that Peter will further develop through chapters 2, 3, and into chapter 4. Think of these two verses as the heading, the introduction to the entire section. In vv11-12, Peter focuses on Christian character, and on how that character functions as a witness within the surrounding culture. That will be our focus as well – Christian character that leads to Christian witness.


Distinct Identity Leads to Distinct Character

Last week, we saw that Christians have a distinct identity as God’s people. In vv9-10, Peter used the language of OT Israel in order to remind us that the church has a distinct identity as God’s people. In vv11-12, we learn that our distinct identity leads to distinct character. If we are God’s new people, then we should display to the world character that is noticeably distinct.

We see this right at the outset of the passage when Peter again calls believers sojourners and exiles. Remember, this is how Peter opened the letter, by calling Christians sojourners and exiles. Now, as he opens the second section of the letter, Peter again uses those same terms. Peter’s thinking works like this. If you’re an exile, then you’re not going to adopt the character of the culture you’re in. You’re going to display the character, the values of your true home. If Christians are exiles here on earth, then that means our lives must display distinctly Christian character. And that distinct character flows from our identity as God’s people. 

But what does it mean for a Christian to display distinct character? Peter tells us, in v11 – “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh.” What does distinct Christian character look like? It abstains from the passions of the flesh. The passions of the flesh are the desires of the sinful nature. In the NT, the word flesh is often used to represent our sinful nature, what we receive as human beings descended from Adam, our father. The Bible often lists some of these passions whenever it talks about Christian character. You’ve probably read those passages like Galatians 5 or Colossians 3. The passions of the flesh are things like sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, divisions, envy, drunkenness, and covetousness. Those are undoubtedly some of the things Peter has in mind when he writes v11.

The reality is that the world does follow the passions of the flesh. Those who belong to the world are controlled by the sinful nature. This world is their home, and the world’s character is to follow those passions. Now, that is not to say that the only thing an unbeliever does is sin constantly all the time. It is to say that the prevailing attitude of the world is one that follows the sinful nature. If the world were our home, then we would follow those sinful desires.

But Peter’s point is that our identity is no longer of this world. That’s why he calls believers sojourners and exiles! Our identity is no longer in Adam. It is so important that we understand Peter’s logic at this point. In Christ, believers are a new creation. We are God’s new people. Therefore, we must live like what we are. Peter calls believers to abstain from the passions of the flesh because those passions are out of step with their new identity as God’s people.

The word abstain literally means to keep your distance from something. Peter’s instruction is that believers are to stay away from such things. Stay away from sexual immorality, stay away from envy, stay away from division. Don’t let those things near your life. The word doesn’t mean limit your exposure. It doesn’t mean be careful not to get too much of sin, as if you can dabble in something as deadly as sexual immorality or anger or pride. No, get away from such things! Abstain, resist, flee, get rid of! Don’t indulge in your old sinful behavior because you have been made new in Christ. Live like what you are, Peter says, so that the world will see your distinct character as God’s people. That’s Peter’s ultimate answer to the question of how do Christians relate to the world? Answer – we exhibit distinct Christian character that flows from our distinct identity as God’s people.


Cultivating Christian Character is Like War

That brings us to our second point – cultivating Christian character is like war. As God’s people, we are called to abstain from sinful desires in order to display distinct character in the world. But that is hard, really hard actually. It is hard to abstain from the passions of the flesh, in part because sin still feels so natural to us. Peter acknowledges that difficulty here. He’s under no illusions that this is easy. Look at the end of v11, where he says that these passions of the flesh wage war against our souls. This is only a short phrase, and it’s not even central to Peter’s argument at this point. But Peter’s words do teach us some very important points about sanctification, or the process of cultivating Christian character. It would be foolish not to pay attention to this short phrase, so let’s spend just a few minutes looking more closely at what Peter has to say.

To begin with, we should note that sanctification is a battle. It’s like war. The passions of the flesh fight back. Our sinful desires wage war against us! It’s not as simple as abstaining; there is a war going on, and it is happening inside of us. Our new identity in Christ does not mean the removal of all sinful desire. When you become a Christian, it doesn’t mean that your sinful nature goes away. The passions of the flesh stay with us, and they fight against our identity in Christ. Or, as Paul says in Galatians 5, the sinful nature is at war with the Spirit. That is why sanctification is so hard! Cultivating Christian character is not easy because there is a war going on within us, a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. It’s a battle between who were once were in Adam and who we are now in Christ.

We should also note that the stakes of this war couldn’t be any higher. Our sinful desires wage war against our souls. In this war, what does the sinful nature set its sights on? Our souls. We must understand this – sin’s goal is to destroy you. If my sinful nature had its way, I would spend the rest of my life pursuing sin, and then spend the rest of eternity separated from God in hell. That’s the stark reality. In the battle between the flesh and the Spirit, our souls hang in the balance. That means sanctification is deadly serious. This isn’t some optional add-on that really serious Christians can focus on; sanctification is deadly serious.

What do we say in response to these points? If sanctification is a deadly serious battle, then how should we fight? Let me briefly mention three keys to fighting this war. One – don’t get discouraged when it’s hard to grow. By definition, growth in Christ is hard, because it’s like war. Growth doesn’t come easy because it is a battle. Don’t get discouraged. The Evil One wants you to discouraged so that you’ll quit trying. The Evil One wants you to think, “I’m never going to grow! I’m never going to get past this sin!” He wants you to think that, because then you are more likely to just give in and stop pursuing holiness in Christ. The Enemy wants you discouraged.

The way you fight discouragement is by remembering that Christ has already won this war. He did battle with your sin on the cross, and he won. That means in the fight against sin, you will also win; you will grow, because Christ went to the cross and battled your sin to the death. And he rose again in victory. Drive out discouragement with the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Two, don’t get complacent. Don’t be lulled into thinking that your sin is not that big of a problem. It’s deadly serious business. The great theologian John Owen once said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” He’s right. There is no room for complacency in the fight against sin. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. You are either killing sin, or it is killing you. There is no middle ground. 

We must learn to fight sin with the same intensity that it uses against us. If sin’s desire is to destroy you, then your desire must be to destroy it. Too often, we pursue a strategy of appeasement and toleration when it comes to sin. We think, “Well, if I can just manage this sin, only let it go so far, then it won’t ruin the other areas of my life.” Don’t be fooled. Sin cannot be tolerated, appeased, or managed. You must fight sin with the same intensity it uses against you.

How do we do that? How do we kill sin? That’s a long conversation, but let me just say one thing at this point. If you look at the NT passages that talk about fighting sin, there is only one offensive weapon given to the Christian – the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. Everything else is defensive. The only offensive weapon we have is the Word of God. The way you kill sin is with targeted Scriptural attacks. If you struggle with dishonesty, memorize the Bible’s teaching on honesty and truthfulness. When you are tempted to be dishonest, use Scripture against the temptation. The Word of God is our only offensive weapon in the fight against sin, so use it!

Three, don’t ever move on from your identity in Christ. Stay rooted in Christ and what he has done for you. Remember, you’re accepted before God not because you are able to kill sin, but because Christ was killed for your sin. Remember that. Never move on from the gospel. The gospel is the message that brought salvation into your life, and the gospel is the message that will continue to work out salvation in your life now. Don’t move on from Christ. Mediate on his life, death, and resurrection in order to wage war against sin.

Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be complacent. Don’t ever move on from Christ. I think those three points can help us in the midst of the war to cultivate Christian character.


Christian Character is a Witness to the Glory of God

That brings us to our third point – Christian character is a witness to the glory of God. In v12, Peter describes more specifically how believers should abstain from the passions of the flesh. They do so by keeping their conduct honorable among unbelievers. To abstain from the passions of the flesh certainly means to be vigilant against sin in our personal lives. But it also means to be vigilant against sin in our relationships with others, particularly with unbelievers. And that’s precisely Peter’s point here. To abstain from the passions of the flesh means that we must be careful to keep our conduct honorable among others. And this is especially true among unbelievers.

Now, when Peter says honorable conduct, what does he mean? It seems that Peter has in mind a lifestyle that gives no opportunity for the Christian to be charged with wrongdoing. It means to pursue virtue and goodness in every aspect of your life. Your business dealings, your interaction with neighbors, your brief conversations with strangers at the grocery store, whatever – in every area of life, pursue virtue, goodness, and honorable conduct. There is a way of living that even unbelievers must acknowledge as good and honorable. There are certain things that even a non-Christian would agree are virtuous and right. Honesty, kindness, selflessness – those sort of behaviors are undeniably good and honorable. Peter is saying here that Christians should exhibit that kind of conduct, conduct that is honorable in sight of all people.

According to Peter, Christians should pursue this honorable conduct even in the face of hostility. Look there in v12 where Peter writes, “when they speak against you as evildoers.” In the early church, we know from historical record that it was common practice for people to slander Christians. Unbelievers would concoct all sorts of false stories that were meant to undermine the gospel. Sometimes, these stories were simply outrageous. For example, it was often asserted that Christians were cannibals, because they would all get together to eat the body and drink the blood of their god! We don’t know for sure if that specific accusation was present in Peter’s context, but we do know that there was a low opinion of the church because Christians were unwilling to engage in the customs and practices of the surrounding culture. The world does not like this, so people would slander the church with all sorts of false accusations.

And it’s in that context that Christians are to keep their conduct honorable. Even when they slander you, live honorable, good lives. Why? So that your honorable lives might counteract those false accusations. Instead of defending yourself verbally against slander, let your good, honorable lives prove the slander wrong. Let the transformation that has taken place through the gospel demonstrate to the world that those accusations cannot be true.

But there is another purpose, a more important purpose, at work in Peter’s instructions. It’s true that our honorable conduct will prove the slander to be false. That’s true, but for Peter, the more important purpose is that unbelievers might see our good lives and give glory to God. Look again at v12. Peter writes, “Keep your conduct 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 higher purpose of Christian character is that it witnesses to the glory of God and the truth of the gospel!

Now, at this point, we need to answer an important question. What does it mean that unbelievers will glorify God on the day of visitation? There are two options. It could mean they glorify God on the day of judgment, when they face God’s wrath for having rejected the gospel and oppressed his people. In this interpretation, our good lives serve as evidence against the unbeliever, so much so that the unbeliever is compelled to acknowledge on the final day the goodness and virtue of Christians, and therefore the truth of the gospel.

That’s one option. The other interpretation holds that unbelievers glorify God by coming to faith in Christ. They see the good deeds of Christians, and God uses that testimony to help some see the truthfulness of the gospel. And as a result, they repent of their sins and come to faith in Christ. I favor that second option because in the NT glorifying God is usually connected with faith in Christ, and because that word visitation can mean the time when God reveals himself for salvation. Based on those reasons, I favor the second interpretation – that Peter has in mind the salvation of some unbelievers when he says glorify God on the day of visitation.

Now back to the line of thought in v12. As unbelievers observe the lives of Christians, they see our good deeds, Peter says. The word for good in v12 could also be translated beautiful or attractive. Peter’s is saying that as unbelievers observe the lives of Christians, some will find our Christian character to be beautiful, compelling, and attractive. They will be drawn to the truth of the gospel because they see the fruit of the gospel in our lives. 

When that happens, we see the purpose of distinct Christian character. It’s not meant to condemn the world, but it’s meant as a witness to God and his gospel. Christians do not pursue holiness so that we can present ourselves as somehow better than other people. We once lived in darkness as the world does! God calls us to honorable conduct so that our lives might be used by God to convince some that Christ is beautiful, that the gospel is true, and that God is glorious. This is part of the way that we proclaim God’s excellencies. Remember last week, we saw in v10 that our purpose as God’s people was to proclaim God’s excellencies, to make much of Christ. How do we do that? In part, by abstaining from the passions of the flesh, by keeping our conduct honorable. How does the world know that Christ is glorious? Because they see believers turn away from lesser things in order to be faithful to Christ. When an unbeliever sees you chose self control over anger, in that moment, you give testimony to the truth and glory of Christ. Your actions in the moment are saying, “Christ is true and glorious. Knowing him is more satisfying than sin. Therefore, I chose to abstain from anger.” In that moment, your life is a testimony to the greatness of Christ, and by God’s grace, some will see that testimony and trust in the gospel.

Back to our pressing question – how do Christians relate to the world? By abstaining from sin and keeping our conduct honorable so that the world might see our good deeds and give glory to God by coming to faith in Christ. Notice that that strategy requires us to be present in the world. As God’s people, we are not called to isolate ourselves from the world. We are sent into the world to live good, honorable, compelling lives. We are sent into the world to testify to the greatness of Christ with our words and our actions. We are called out of darkness and into God’s light so that we ourselves can shine the light of Christ in the darkness. Our mission is not to avoid the world, but to be distinct in the world, distinct in a way that glorifies God. That is how God calls us to live in this world as sojourners and exiles.

I want to close this morning with the story of a woman whose life exemplifies what Peter is talking about in these verses. Rosaria Butterfield is the wife a Presbyterian pastor and the mother of four children. At least that’s what she is now. Before her conversion to Christianity, Dr. Butterfield was a professor of English literature at Syracuse University and a committed lesbian. Over time and completely by God’s grace, Dr. Butterfield was brought out of darkness and into the marvelous light of Christ. It’s an unlikely story, so much so that Dr. Butterfield has recently written a book that recounts how she went from being a lesbian university professor to a Christian and pastor’s wife.

As you might guess, the book has created quite the publicity for Dr. Butterfield. She’s now being invited to speak all over the country, with opportunity at each stop to testify to the grace of God that can be found in Christ. Recently, she was invited to speak at the University of South Florida. Before her arrival, the campus newspaper wrote an editorial denouncing Dr. Butterfield. The paper labeled her as “backwards,” and likened her biblical view of sexuality to racism. In other words, they spoke against her as an evildoer.

On the night of the event, as Dr. Butterfield began speaking, nine students in the front row stood up, turned to face the audience, and removed their jackets to reveal various messages written on their t-shirts. Some of the messages went so far as to accuse Dr. Butterfield of hate speech. What did Dr. Butterfield do? She continued to speak with grace and conviction, and for two hours, she shared her testimony of faith in Christ. And she did it all with a spirit of grace. She never singled out any one sin as worse than others. She didn’t disparage or demean people who struggle with same-sex attraction. She held out the hope of Christ to every person, regardless of their struggle, regardless of their past. In other words, when faced with opposition, when spoken against as an evildoer, she conducted herself honorably.

The next day, Dr. Butterfield and a campus pastor spent four hours talking with a group of students at the local Starbucks. Listen to how the campus pastor described the afternoon:

"Our time was never heated or argumentative. The two words that kept coming to mind were hunger and hope. These students were hungry for the Gospel, hungry for meaning, and hungry for truth. Yet through the whole time there was a palpable sense of hope. Hope not just for God to be at work in our lives today, but deep hope in the new heavens and new earth when sin is finally vanquished. I don’t think anyone left without feeling a deep sense of hope in the work of Jesus on our behalf."

That is conducting yourself honorable. That is what it looks like to witness to Christ through holy, Christian character. When reviled, Dr. Butterfield didn’t revile in return. She was gracious, truthful, kind, and compassionate. Her identity in Christ led her to display distinct Christian character that, I pray, many of those students will find compelling and beautiful.

If you are in Christ this morning, God has called you to himself and given you a new identity in Christ. He now calls you, through that same gospel, to abstain from sin and live an honorable life for all to see. He calls you to distinct Christian character that witnesses to his grace and glory, revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ. May God lead us to live honorable lives so that he might be glorified among all people.

More in 1 Peter: Sojourners and Strangers

March 2, 2014

Stand Firm in God's Grace

February 23, 2014

Humble and Vigilant

February 16, 2014

Shepherding the Flock of God

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