Holiness Is Wholeness
1 Peter 1:13-21
It was during the summer of 2014, when I was trout fishing on the White River in Arkansas, that I looked up and saw in the distance, perched on a tree branch across the water, a bald eagle. It is the only time that I can remember seeing one in the wild. I have seen many bald eagles in captivity before. In fact, you can go down to Cypress Grove Park at the southwest end of town and see one. But to see a bald eagle in captivity and to see one in the wild, in its natural habitat, is really to see two different things. One is a majestic creature that has been tragically injured and, for its own protection, has been confined to a small space where it must be cared for by humans. Injury has left it unable to be what it was designed to be. The other is a majestic creature for whom the sky is, literally, the limit. The eagle that is free is the one that answers the call of nature to be fully itself: to soar above the earth at up to 10,000 feet, to spot a rabbit on the ground at almost two miles away, to dive at its prey with a speed of up to 100 mph, to build a nest of five feet in diameter high up in a tree, to lay eggs there and nurture little bald-eagles-in-training.
Let’s take that picture of an eagle living in the wild, flourishing according to what it was designed to be, and call that “eagleness.” Eagleness is what makes a bald eagle fully itself. Now, here’s an analogy for you: eagleness is to the bald eagle what holiness is to the human being. Holiness is the destiny of our created nature. It is the goal of our God-given design. It is the full expression of our potential. It is the only path by which we can hope to flourish in the joy of becoming what we were made to be.
As such, it is imperative that we not only understand what holiness is, but also devote ourselves to pursuing it. So what is holiness? Put very simply, holiness is consecration. When God appeared to Moses in Exodus 3 in the burning bush, he said to him, “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.” The ground was devoted to God, a sacred space consecrated as a meeting place between him and Moses. For us, then, holiness is simply devotion to God. To be holy is to be fully possessed by him.
As modern Americans, we tend to think that our greatest freedom is to be found in the absence of having any demands placed on us. We are the most free when we are the least responsible to anyone else but ourselves. Freedom equals detachment, and so we carefully guard ourselves from commitments that might tie down our sense of freedom. If we are used to thinking that way, holiness will strike us as stifling, oppressive, scary. Holiness demands something of us. In fact, it demands everything of us, full consecration to God, and thus the obliteration of our own selfish pursuits. And if the unbelieving world has captured our imaginations with its idea of freedom, we will have little incentive to pursue holiness. We will instead simply drift along, letting the cultural winds blow us wherever they want us to go.
Yes, holiness makes demands of us. But those demands are not oppressive. They are liberating! Like “eagleness” to the eagle, holiness is freedom to us. The man who lives a life fully devoted to God is the man who experiences the fullness of what it means to be human. But in our fallen state, exiled from Eden, we cannot be holy except through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. And Peter, in the opening section of his letter (vv. 3-12), has just celebrated with praise the new identity that we have in Christ. He has just written of our living hope, a hope that carries us through the sufferings of this age, a hope that was foretold long ago in the Old Testament Scriptures. And he begins verse 13 with the word “Therefore,” as if to say, “Because of everything I have just said about your new identity and hope in Christ, I now exhort you to live in light of who you are.” Our new identity, as those born again by God’s grace, sets the course for a new way of life. And that new way of life is a life of holiness. Peter doesn’t just summon us to holiness in this text, but he also shows how to pursue holy conduct through a reorientation of our thoughts and affections.
So I’m going to work through the text today by starting in the middle, where I think Peter makes his main point, and then going to the beginning and end, where he supports it. So, first, Peter’s main command in this passage is this:
I. Be Holy as God is Holy (vv. 14-16).
God is a God of abundant grace. He has crossed the infinite chasm of our rebellion and guilt to redeem us, making us his own forever. But in doing so, he never embraces, minimizes, or in any way approves of our sin. In condescending to us, God remains ever true to himself, because he is holy. Every sin we commit tells a lie about who he is. It defies his authority, it scoffs at his majesty, it scorns his infinite worthiness. And he will not stand for that! No sin, no lie that dishonors him, will be allowed to go unanswered by his righteous judgment. And that is why we cannot belong to him and remain under sin’s dominion at the same time. To do so would make God false to his own character, and thus, unholy. And that would be intolerable to fathom.
So what, then, should our lives look like if we have been consecrated to God through Jesus Christ? Verse 14 reads, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” Peter speaks of the pre-Christian lives of his readers as lives that were dominated by “passions” or “desires,” and those desires were nurtured in ignorance of the true God and his holiness. As in every age of human history, people in the Roman Empire were driven by desires for three things: money, sex, and power. These things are not bad in themselves, but they so easily become idols to which we turn for fulfillment in place of God, and when they do, we twist and pervert them in ways contrary to God’s design. And this was the kind of life that characterized Peter’s audience before they came to Christ. They wanted wealth, they wanted sexual gratification, they wanted power over others, and they pursued these things out of ignorance of the true God and the infinite joys that he offers.
Every generation has been driven by sinful desires. But culture plays an important role in either restraining those desires or in feeding them. In many ways, the Greco-Roman culture of Peter’s day fed those desires through pagan worship practices, such as temple prostitution. When Christianity became the dominant force in Western society, it destroyed pagan practices that fed sinful desire, and we should be thankful for that. But it seems that we are quickly moving into what many are calling a “post-Christian” era in the West, in which we are seeing a return to cultural practices that feed, rather than restrain, sinful desire. It used to be the case that when a young man and a young woman married, they were expected to enter into that marriage as virgins. Today that idea is openly mocked. It is almost incomprehensible to the unbelieving world. It used to be the case that, in order to access pornography, you had to go to a place where most people were ashamed to be seen, and you had to purchase a product that most people were ashamed to purchase from someone else. But today, pornography is widely accessible through almost any device, and for free. It seems that with every passing day, our culture becomes more and more like the pagan culture of the ancient Roman Empire, and thus Peter’s call to us not to be conformed to the passions of our former ignorance hits us with great force. Holiness demands that we turn away from the sinful desires that are fed by our mainstream culture. It demands that we properly order our desires for money, sex, and power, seeking those things only in submission to and love for God.
And in place of sin, let us walk in obedience in every part of life. Peter addresses his readers as “obedient children” in verse 14, and then he tells them in verse 15, “but as the one who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” What does holiness look like? It is not just about the things you stay away from. Positively speaking, holiness looks like obedience to God in every part of life. It looks like full devotion, going all in with everything you have. Peter is not merely saying, “Change your religious practices,” as though he wants them simply to shift from pagan sacrifices to Christian rituals of worship. No, Peter wants them to know that Christ possesses everything, for they are his holy people. C.S. Lewis describes it this way, comparing God to the sea: “This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea and neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal…Of course that lifeline really is a death line…It is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: ‘He must increase and I must decrease.’ He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise.” Holiness really is about wholeness: the giving of our whole selves to God, keeping nothing back for ourselves.
And what is our primary motivation for holiness? In verse 16 Peter writes, “since it is written [in Leviticus 11:44], ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” God is holy, and so we must be holy too. Why does that follow? It follows because, as is mentioned in verses 14 and 17, we are his children, and he is our Father. When the father-child relationship works correctly, children are shaped by their fathers and reflect the character of their fathers. They love what their fathers love, hate what their fathers hate, and, in the ancient world, were usually destined to do what their fathers did. If you were the son of a metalworker, you became a metalworker. If you were the son of a carpenter, you became a carpenter. Like father, like son. Our Father is holy, which means he is true to himself above all, and so we too must be holy by our complete devotion to him.
So often our dreams for the future have to do with the future circumstances we envision for ourselves. We dream of a happy, fulfilling marriage, of raising children who love God, of fulfilling a specific calling that we believe God has for us, of influencing others for the sake of the kingdom of God. We should dream about those things, and we should pursue them and pray for them. They are good. But did you know that you can still live the good life even if none of those dreams work out the way you had hoped? One thing about circumstances is that we can’t control them. Your marriage may not turn out the way you dream. Your children may not love the Lord as you had hoped. The doors you hope will open for you to pursue a specific vocation for which you have been gifted to serve the Lord may never open. And yet, even in all of these disappointments, you can still be holy. You can still pursue God with every fiber of your being, and walking in obedience to him, you can still soar like an eagle in the wild, knowing the freedom of being what you were created to be. Be holy as God is holy.
Perhaps you might say in response, “Peter, that sounds great, but it sounds so hard. I can’t just will myself to be holy. I can’t just snap my fingers and suddenly change all the sinful impulses in my heart. How can I actually do this?” Peter surrounds his command for a holy life with two other commands that pertain primarily to our thoughts and affections. So that brings me to this question:
II. How Can We Pursue Holiness?
I think Peter answers that question by giving two other commands, one before verses 14-16 and one after them. The first command is this:
A. By Setting Our Hope Fully on the Grace to Come (v. 13).
What does hope have to do with holiness? Think of it this way: when sin lures you, it does so by promising some kind of payoff. That payoff may be some level of satisfaction you receive from it, or it may be more like medication that dulls the pain of life. Some people medicate with alcohol, some with pornography, some with drugs, some with forcing themselves to throw up after they eat, and some with a mind-numbing, excessive use of social media, cable news, or angry talk radio, to the neglect of more important things. Whatever the specific form of medication, the sin invites you to put some measure of hope in it, at least for temporary relief from pains and pressures of the real world.
But what if that sin comes calling you, but your hope in something else is already strong? What happens when sin promises you something that doesn’t begin to compare with the hope you already have of something that far exceeds its pathetic promises? Sin’s power is broken, and you are enabled to walk in holiness because your desire for the good, wholesome, life-giving hope that you have is strong enough to carry you.
And so what is that hope? In verse 13 Peter says, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is the hope of grace to come when Christ, whose reign over the cosmos is now hidden, is fully revealed to all. It is the grace of the inheritance that Peter says is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (v. 4). It is the hope of Matthew 5:8, which says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” That future hope is absolutely certain because of a past event that has already occurred: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (see v. 3). When our minds and hearts are riveted by this hope, the hope given to us in the gospel, sin becomes small and pathetic by comparison. Fight for holiness by the power of a fixed hope, an assurance of God’s grace to come when Christ is revealed.
But this is a fight. You must intentionally set your hope on the age to come. You cannot assume that you will naturally drift toward this kind of hope. If you let yourself drift in your thoughts and in your affections, you will naturally drift toward fixing your hope on the things in front of you, including sin. That’s why Peter has these two participles attached to his command to set our hope. He says, “preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 13). The phrase “preparing your minds for action” in the Greek literally says, “girding up the loins of your mind.” In that culture, people typically wore robes. And so if a man wearing a robe needed to move quickly or freely, either for work or because he needed to run somewhere, he would pull up the lower part of his robe between his legs and tuck it into his belt. In today’s terms, Peter might have said, “rolling up the sleeves of your mind.” The other participle speaks of being sober-minded, or in full control of our thinking, in contrast to a drunken state in which we would have lost control of our faculties. Both images—girded loins and sobriety—communicate the same idea, which is this: be intentionally focused in your thinking. If you are going to set your hope on the grace to come, you have to think about it often, ponder it, fix your attention on what God has spoken, ponder its implications, and engage in practices that cultivate your heart toward it. This is why regularly gathering with the church, and building into your life regular practices of devotion, are so important. Without practices that shape your mind and orient your heart, you lose sight of the hope that is to come. And when you lose sight of that, sin’s promises ring in your ears more with more volume, and you begin to lose any motivation to pursue holiness. So setting your hope rightly is essential in the pursuit of holiness. As Tim Keller has said, “Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. How you live today is completely shaped by what you believe about your future.”
But Peter gives one more answer to the question of how we can pursue holiness that is related to our thoughts and affections:
B. By Living in Reverent Fear of God (vv. 17-21).
The last command Peter gives in this passage is “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (v. 17). Why should we conduct ourselves with fear? Peter gives two reasons. The first is that God is an impartial judge. Notice how verse 17 begins: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear…” Peter holds out the fact that God’s judgment is fair as a motivation for us to fear him, as opposed to presuming on his grace by concluding that, since we have the promise of forgiveness in the gospel, we might as well sin all we want. Commenting on this verse, Karen Jobes writes, “The pagan life that God abhors will be no less abhorred if it is lived by one who professes to be a Christian.” Peter tells his readers to remember that: being a Christian means you must not live like a pagan, and if you do, know that the judgment of God will come crashing down on you in the end.
Peter is laying out here a common New Testament teaching that, yes, there will be a final judgment—including that of believers—that is according to works. The way that is phrased is very important. We will be judged not on the basis of our works, as though we could earn right standing with God. No, our only legal hope at the final judgment is the righteousness of Jesus Christ counted to us by faith. And, if we are in Christ, we can rest in the assurance that we have already passed through the final judgment with him, and so the judgment that awaits us is not to determine our destiny but to openly reveal what is already true of us in Christ. And yet, when that day comes, our lives will be a factor. The deeds we have done will either bear witness that our faith in Christ is real, or they will reveal that our professed faith was nothing more than empty lip-service. And in that way, judgment will be according to works, and God will be impartial on that day. So that is one reason to conduct ourselves in fear of him.
Now, I believe there is a right way we should fear him and a wrong way, but I’ll say more about that momentarily. Before addressing that I want to look at one other reason Peter gives for conducting ourselves with fear, and it is this: God has paid an incredibly high price for our redemption, and we should feel the weight of that. Look at verses 18-19: “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” God did not buy us back for himself with money or precious metals. Even durable, valuable metals such as silver and gold will ultimately perish because they belong to this age. But God purchased our redemption with the blood of his innocent Son, a cost far more weighty than all the silver and gold in the world.
Now look at verses 20-21: “He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” I think Peter says this about Christ to show us further the weightiness of what God has done. Christ was “foreknown,” which in this context seems to mean “foreordained,” by God before the world was ever created. He was foreordained to be our Redeemer. This was not a spur-of-the-moment contingency plan on God’s part, but it was in his heart before the ages began. And in fulfillment of his eternal plan, God sent his Son, manifesting him “in the last times,” or at the climactic point in history. In other words, the whole story of creation led up to and points to the coming of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Peter wants us to feel the weight of what God has done.
And why did God do it? Notice again verse 18: “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers…” By paying the highest price imaginable in fulfillment of his ageless plan, God sought to accomplish our redemption to himself. And for us to be redeemed for God means we must necessarily be redeemed from something else. Here Peter tells his audience that they were bought out of the futile ways inherited from their forefathers, or the sinful, corrupt practices of the pagan world. Keep in mind, not only were these pagan practices socially acceptable, they were even regarded as giving order and stability to Greco-Roman society. The worship of pagan gods, and the cultural institutions that flowed out of that, had been handed down through generations, and the readers of this letter had been raised in a context that honored and depended on these practices and institutions. And Peter tells them specifically that God had paid the highest price imaginable to take them out of all of that! God had purchased them for himself, and so they could not belong to any other gods or participate any longer in the sinful practices associated with honoring those false gods.
Do you see how some kind of fear is an appropriate response to this? If we were to return to the futile practices of sin—even the socially acceptable ones!—we would be scoffing at the very blood of Jesus Christ and saying to God, “I don’t care what you gave your Son to accomplish in me.” We would be spitting on the eternal plan of God to exalt his Son as our Redeemer. So what that means is that every time you willingly give yourself over to sin, you are implicitly telling God that you don’t feel the weight of the life of his Son. Now, I say that, not to send you into despair, but to move you to repentance. God is always eager to embrace the one who turns from sin and seeks his mercy again.
So, I have argued—as I think Peter argues—that the way we pursue holiness is by cultivating the affections of hope and fear. That seems strange, even contradictory. How can you live in both hope and fear at the same time? Don’t they cancel each other out? I don’t think they do. In fact, if we let one cancel the other out, we have perverted the teaching of Scripture. So if you let hope cancel out fear, so that you have full assurance of salvation but no sense of the weightiness of sin, you will fall into what is called “easy believism,” where you have no motivation to live in holiness. On the other hand, if you let fear cancel out hope, you will be unable to come to God with the assurance that you are his redeemed child whom he loves and accepts, and you will likewise lose the motivation to pursue holiness because you will condemn yourself to the point that God becomes too distant from you to move your heart any longer. Do not, do not, do not let one of these cancel out the other.
So how do you live in both at the same time? Here’s a thought: in my hometown, there was a certain route I could take to drive to my high school that involved a very sharp curve in the highway. It had to be very close to a 90 degree turn, so it was marked with a sign that recommended 15mph around the turn. You are probably used to seeing those road signs warning of a curve and recommending a certain speed for them. And I think most drivers ignore those speed recommendations, because in many cases, the speed recommendations are a bit low, and it is very easy for an experienced driver to handle those curves at a higher speed. But at that one exceptionally sharp curve, I always got down to 15mph, because I knew that if I didn’t, I could very easily run off the road. So you might say it this way: I respected that curve in the road. I drove with an appropriate kind of fear that restrained me from ever wanting to test the 15mph limit. Now that doesn’t mean that I drove down the road toward school each day with terror, wondering if I would survive and agonizing over the possibility that I would run off the road. No, I drove with the assurance that I was going to make it to school everyday. I had no reason to doubt that I would. But one of the reasons I knew I would make it was because I respected that curve, refusing to take it lightly. And that’s what the Christian life is like: yes, you should have the assurance that you are going to make it to the end because God loves you, has welcomed you into his family, and has promised that he will not let his children go (look at verses 4-5, for example). You can have the certain hope of your future inheritance and fix your hope completely on that while at the same time respecting the weightiness of God’s impartial judgment and the high price he paid for your redemption. And you can let that respectful fear be a restraint that holds you back from ever wanting to “test the curve” or run headlong into sin. And so both the sure hope of the grace to come and the fear of making light of what God has done should work together to kill sin in us and keep us walking on the path of holiness.
Peter summons us to be holy, and he tells us how to orient our minds with hope and fear to do so. I hold this out to you as a demand from God a demand that you give absolutely every part of yourself to him. But this is not as an oppressive demand. It is a liberating demand, for it is in holiness that we find the wholeness of life for which we were created. Amen.