Justification and Equal Footing

It has been said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Calvary is the great equalizer. It is the demonstration of our sin. It is the demonstration of our righteousness. There we see our condemnation and our comfort, our judgment and our justification.

The landscape of the cross never changes. Obedience and sanctification do not lift us above others. Missionaries, pastors and full-time ministers do not stand on higher ground. The Christian of 50 years is not positioned to look down on the new believer.

Peter helps us understand the common ground of the cross. In his second letter he addresses his readers: “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). If anyone were to have higher footing it would be the apostles. Peter dismisses the notion.

It is the righteousness of God applied to us through Christ that creates equal standing. It does not matter who we are, what we have done, what we do or who we become…all have merited condemnation and all who believe receive a righteousness outside of themselves.

Craig Blomberg understands this radical conception of grace to unravel any notion of varying rewards in the kingdom of God. He wrote an article in JETS titled, Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?

In the article he states, “the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to liberate believers from all such performance-centered conceptions of the Christian life. An important step in that direction would be to jettison this misguided and discouraging doctrine of eternal rewards that distinguish one believer from another.”

Blomberg points to Martin Luther as a champion of such an understanding of justification. “Martin Luther often shied away from speaking of Christians even standing before God’s judgment seat, preferring instead to call it his mercy seat. It was a bar of judgment only for unbelievers.”

Blomberg points to Luther’s sermon, ‘The Sum of the Christian Life’ preached in Worlitz on November 24, 1532. As always, Luther is rich with gospel understanding and application.

“If we are ever to stand before God with a right and uncolored faith, we must come to the point where we learn clearly to distinguish between ourselves, our life, and Christ the mercy seat…. The man who can do this will be the justified man. All the others operate with a feigned faith. They talk a lot about faith but they mix things together, as a barkeeper mixes water and wine, by saying if you live in such and such a way God will be gracious to you, and they turn the mercy seat into a judgment seat and the judgment seat into a mercy seat…. Therefore, keep these two widely separated from each other, as widely as ever you can, so that neither can approach the other. See, if that is the way faith were preached, men would be justified and all the rest; a pure heart and good conscience through genuine, perfect love, would follow. For the man who through faith is sure in his heart that he has a gracious God, who is not angry with him, though he deserves wrath, that man goes out and does everything joyfully. Moreover, he can live this way before men also, loving and doing good to all, even though they are not worthy of love…. This is the highest security, the head and foundation of our salvation.”

Respect & Gentleness: Two Critical Evangelistic Postures

Gospel witness is privilege and imperative. Called to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us from darkness to light we are ambassadors for Christ. Peter reminds us that the medium of the message is very important. He puts in front of us two critical evangelistic postures that need emphasis.

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15).

Gentleness should mark the sharing of our faith with others. To grasp this important posture and character trait we need to look at the original language and the New Testament examples of it.

The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament says this about the Greek word translated as gentleness (πραΰτης).

“Praǘtēs, according to Aristotle, is the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason, and not getting angry at all. Therefore, praǘtēs is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason. Praǘtēs is not readily expressed in English (since the term “meekness” suggests weakness), but it is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.”

The Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament defines gentleness as “a quality of gentle friendliness, as strength that accommodates to another’s weakness, consideration.”

Gentleness is not a lack of power, it is not weakness. It is strength under control. It is power employed for the sake of others. It is discernible in balance. It is a close cousin to humility. It is welcoming and hospitable. It is intimate with kindness and well acquainted with self-control.

The New Testament utilizes the language of gentleness around 30 times. Gentleness is a quality of God (2 Sam 22:36, Ps 18:35, Is 40:11) manifest most clearly in the person of Christ (Matt 11:29, 2 Cor 10:1). It is also characteristic of the Holy Spirit who works that same quality out in us (Gal 5:23).

It is a posture necessary to walk worthy of our calling (Eph 4:2, Tit 3:2, 1 Pet 3:4). It needs to be present when correcting a brother/sister who is straying into sin (Gal 6:1). It is the indicator of true wisdom (James 3:17). It is the mark of good ministry (1 Thess 2:7) and good pastors (1 Tim 3:3).

Respect is clear and more directly carries over into English. The word for respect (φόβος) is often translated as fear, reverence or honor. It speaks to holding another in high regard, to treating with dignity, and valuing highly. In the context it may refer to our reverence for God in our sharing or to the dignity we grant everyone with whom we share. Both are true and may be contained within the text.

Respect and gentleness are a compelling duo in evangelism. When emphasizing how we share and defend our faith Peter pulls these two characteristics center stage. Together they create parameters that ensure that the gospel alone is the only stumbling block for those hearing the message (1 Cor 1:23).

The Sweeping Call to Honor

Honor all. Two words, a command and the object of the command (1 Pet 2:17). God’s word through Peter is an imperative (τιμήσατε) to all Christians: HONOR. The object of the command (πάντας) is sweeping: ALL.

In the context, ruling authorities and human institutions are in mind. However, the “all” broadens it out to include human beings without exception. All human beings of different ages, genders, ethnicities and talents are image bearers infused with great dignity.

Honor is naturally due an image bearer of the Creator, here that honor is reinforced with a command. People should walk away feeling many things after having engaged a follower of Christ, not least among these is honor. Christian, honor all.

The Intention of the Cross in 1 Peter

There is nothing more intentional than the cross. It was the Triune design mapped before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28, 2 Tim 1:9, Eph 3:11). It was an eternal plan with infinite ramifications and boundless reach.

The New Testament exhausts language, metaphor and story as it strives to capture the profound glory and impact of God taking a cross for his lost world. Eternity will run out of time before we unpack the depths of God’s grace and kindness expressed toward us in the cross (Eph 2:6-7).

1 Peter speaks to a number of explicit intentions of the cross. He does not keep his talk on Calvary in the theoretical. He speaks of the cross as a ransom, a merciful tool to create a people, a penal substitution, a glorious exchange and a healing. His view of the cross is rich and varied. He moves from these atonement models to the direct implications.

Notice his language of divine intention and purpose in this four texts. Sit in these for a while and you will be encouraged.

  • “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. He 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” (1 Pet 1 :19-21).
  • But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:9-10).
  • He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:24-25).
  • For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Pet 3:17-18).

Remember

166 times the Bible calls us to Remember. A number that tells a story about forgetfulness, mine and yours. Remembrance is central to why we gather as believers, read and hear the Bible, baptize and participate in the Lord’s Supper.

Our memories need to be jogged, our hearts riveted again and again and our faith fed and strengthened—this happens as we preach the gospel to ourselves and one another and we recall the things of first importance.

The summons to remember is always connected to the memory of the saving work of God. The Israelites were to never forget the Exodus. We are never to forget the true Passover Lamb. The fight of faith is the battle to remember.

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David” (2 Tim 2:8).

Freedom for Slavery

Paradox lies at the heart Christian faith. Strength is found in weakness, the first will be last and losing life is how we find it. Most striking, we find the mighty God in a crib and on a cross. The majesty of the Creator is his humility.

Peter touches another paradox in his first letter. He states, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for what is evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). You are free, the gospel has done that for you. But people freed by the gospel are strange. They use their freedom to ensure their slavery.

The word servants (δοῦλοι) literally means “slaves.” The gospel liberates us for joyful service to others. Martin Luther’s book, The Freedom of the Christian builds on this paradox. His preface says it well.

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in I Cor. 9:19, “For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Rom. 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law” [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant” [Phil. 2:6–7].

Another great treatment on this theme is a book by Murray J. Harris called Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. We are freed for slavery.

Wisdom from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares a nugget of wisdom in his Papers and Letters from Prison. The proper way to view other human beings is through a particular lens colored by humility, self-awareness and compassion. See what he has to see about the matter.

The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.