1 Peter 1:17-19 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
Writing to a group of exiled Christians, Peter means this letter to teach them how to honor God in their exile.
How does Peter tell them to honor God in their exile? To this point he’s prescribed two means of doing so: (1) believing in, loving, and relying wholly on the gospel, and (2) living wholly according to the gospel even when everything around them is crashing down because of their believing in and loving and relying wholly on it.
What is the gospel according to Peter? The gospel is the good news that according to the sovereign plan of God, through the bloody obedience of Jesus and the regenerating work of the Spirit, a way was made for sinful mankind to be born again and reconciled to holy God (1:1-3). What is that way? Grace-produced faith in the cross of Jesus. According to God’s mercy we are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, and thereby saved from our sins and given an everlasting, heavenly inheritance by trusting in Jesus (1:3-9).
The prophets were amazed by this gospel. The apostles were amazed by this gospel. And the angels even still are amazed by this gospel. It is the greatest news that any of us could ever hope to hear (1:10-12).
What does it mean to live according to this good news, particularly in times of persecution? We have already seen that true belief in the gospel means hoping fully in grace and living holy lives (1:13-16). The main point of our text for this morning (and I’m really only going to preach on v.17), is to add a third practical application: conducting ourselves with fear of God.
Of this third application of the gospel, this sermon is meant to answer five questions: 1) What does it mean to fear God, 2) Who is commanded to fear God, 3) When are those people commanded to fear God, 4) Why are they commanded to fear God, and 5) What does it mean to conduct oneself according to the fear of God.
Let’s pray that God would cause all of these things (and more) to work themselves out in us.
CONDUCT YOURSELVES WITH FEAR
Having finished reminding the exiles of the gospel they believed in and commanding them to hope fully in grace and be holy, Peter writes (at the beginning of v.17), “and…”. In light of your belief in the gospel, hope in grace, be holy, and conduct yourselves with fear. Again, this raises five significant questions. The first of which is, what does it mean to fear God. That’s where we’ll turn our attention now.
What does it mean to fear God?
Because I’ve spent some time on this question in recent weeks—most recently in a sermon during missions week—I won’t spend a lot of time on it this morning. However, because it is always important to define terms, I want to offer again the definition I gave in my missions week sermon: for Christians “to fear God is to be given an appropriate understanding of the majesty and glory and power and might of God, coupled with an appropriate understanding of the fallenness and rebelliousness and inferiority and unworthiness of all mankind.”
In other words, fearing God in the sense Peter uses it in v.17 is about viewing God with appropriate awe and wonder and honor and respect, and ourselves in light of all of that. It is no coincidence that Peter, having just finished acknowledging the holiness of God, follows up with a command to fear God. Appropriate awe, wonder, honor, and respect for God (that is, appropriate fear of God) comes primarily from an appropriate perspective on God’s holiness.
Grace, I submit to you this morning, the measure of your God-honoring fear of God is directly proportional to your experience of the holiness of God. Throughout scripture, without exception, as God reveals more of his holiness to his people, they respond in increasing fear. In simplest terms yet, then, to fear God is the automatic response that comes from seeing ourselves in light of the holiness of God.
Who is commanded to fear God?
So as not to be mistaken, though, Peter is clear on who this command is for: those who “call on [God] as Father”. More specifically, the verb tense (present middle) indicates a continual calling on God as Father. In other words, Peter is addressing those who see their primary relationship to God as Father/child. This, of course, is a title and relationship reserved only for Christians, for those who have received God’s great mercy and been made alive to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, by the blood of Jesus (1:3). Non-believers—non-Christians—may not call on God as Father in this way.
And yet many non-Christians do think of God as Father. But thinking of God in this way does not make him so. Consider Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees who continually called on God as Father.
John 8:37-44 … you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you…you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. … 41 You are doing what your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father- even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me…. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires
The Pharisees called on God as Father, but Jesus made it clear that their lives made it clear that this was not actually the case.
There are lots of people who claim certain aspects of Christianity for the particular rewards that go along with them. Some love to call on God as their god because they want the benefit of feeling watched over. Some are eager to call on God as savior because they like the idea of not going to hell. Some run to God as forgiver because they really need a conscience reset. Some are happy to call on God as friend because they love the idea of always having a companion. Some are quick to think of God as loving because who doesn’t want to have someone love them unconditionally. And, some enthusiastically call on God as Father (like the Pharisees) because it’s exceedingly comforting to imagine having an always-present, benevolent defender and provider and comforter, a heavenly Father to make them feel safe and special.
However, as I mentioned in a different context last week, if God is any of those things to any man, woman, or child, he is also a number of things that may not be as appealing to some. If God is their Father he is also their creator who designed them and has assigned to them the purpose and priorities of their lives. He is also their sovereign lord who has every right to rule over their every thought, feeling, and action. And he is their righteous judge who (as we’ll see shortly) examines their every deed.
The point here is that God is either all of these things (God, savior, forgiver, friend, lover, father, and creator, lord, and righteous judge) or he is none of them. If we are going to receive the intimate closeness of God as Father, then, we must also receive the reverence/respect/fear of God as holy judge.
Again, then, it is those who truly have God as Father and rightly call on him as such that Peter is addressing.
Before we get to the next question, I want to briefly mention two implication of the fact that Peter is calling on the true children of God to conduct themselves with fear.
First, joyfully receiving God in all his relationships to us (God, savior, forgiver, creator, lord, judge, etc.) is one of the clearest ways to know if you are rightly calling on God as Father. On the other hand, if you balk at or outright reject any of them, that’s an equally good indicator that he’s not any of them. In other words, for those who have truly been born again to the living hope of God, it is as wonderful to call on God as Lord as it is Father. Where that is the case, it is strong evidence for genuine salvation and where that isn’t the case, it is strong evidence for Pharisee-like counterfeit faith.
Second, Peter distinguishes between the expectation for Christians and non-Christians. Expecting a non-Christian to properly conduct themselves in fear (or perform any act of genuine righteousness) is folly. Our first hope for non-Christians must not be for outward conformity to the commands of God, but inner transformation by the Spirit of God. Sinners sin because they are sinners. We must not be surprised by this and we must not fall into the trap of believing that the first step is a behavioral step.
You don’t have to call on God as Father, but if you do, Peter writes, you must conduct yourself with fear. This leads to the next question: when are God’s children to conduct themselves in the fear of God?
When are those people to fear God?
Peter answers this question as directly as he’s answered the first two. God’s children are to conduct themselves with fear throughout the time of their exile.
There is both a literal sense in which his readers were exiled (they’d actually been driven away from their homes and families due to their faith in Jesus), and a more general sense (all Christians on earth are away from our true, heavenly home land until Christ returns). In our passage for this morning Peter likely has both senses in mind. In other words, he’s writing specifically to a group of dispersed Christians during the time of their dispersion, but also to all Christians everywhere—including you and I.
What’s more, then, he tells them (and us!) to conduct themselves in fear throughout the entire time of exile. In other words, Peter is writing under the inspiration of God to help us honor God in the difficult time between the comings of his Son, Jesus. We are always to conduct ourselves in the fear of God because we are always in the time of our exile.
The significant take away from this point is that we are not home yet. We cannot become too comfortable here. We cannot act as if everything should work as it was intended. Stuff and people are busted, and even though we are being made new in Christ, we are not finished products yet. Relationships are harder than they will be when we are out of our exile (in heaven). Working is more difficult than it should be because of the curse that remains during our time of exile. Parenting is challenging—trying to keep the hearts of our kids—because of our exile. And on and on…
As Christians, until Christ returns, we are exiles who must fear God throughout our time of exile, especially in and because of the difficulties resulting from our exile.
Why should those people fear God?
The fourth question, and an exceedingly important one, is this: why should Christians fear God during the time of their exile? There are two answers to this question. First, because of God’s holy nature. As I mentioned in the first question, fearing God is the natural response to any genuine encounter with the holiness of God. We should fear God continually, including throughout the time of our exile, because God is continually holy, including throughout the time of our exile.
The second reason is more specific and more explicitly given by Peter in our passage. Christians ought to conduct themselves with fear because God judges all their conduct, without bias or favoritism or partiality.
Who is he judging? Everyone in one sense, but specifically his children in the immediate context.
What is he judging? The moral-purity holiness commanded in 1:13-16.
This means that every minute of every day God is examining and passing judgment on every thought, feeling, and action of his children—testing them against his holy nature. He is continually examining the darkest recesses of our hearts and passing judgment on everything he finds. There has never been a fraction of a second of your existence or an inch of space that you’ve occupied that God was unaware of and unconcerned with. He has always and will always know and judge them all and for that reason we should fear God and conduct ourselves according to that fear.
That’s kind of heavy.
The tendency of most, in light of the knowledge that God always impartially judges all of our conduct, is to respond in one of two ways. Either (1) we are terrorized by this news to the point that it crushes us or (2) we explain it away by rejecting the fact that God judges impartially. In the first case we run our previous 24 hours through our mind, remembering all of the ways we fell short of the glory of God, and are haunted by the realization that any impartial judge would certainly, rightly crush us. This certainly produces fear of God, but not the right kind. In the second case, we imagine God will grade on a curve and that he doesn’t really mean what he says. Therefore, we imagine we’ll be fine because we aren’t that bad and God is nice. He’ll judge, but with partiality and understanding. This understanding fails on a number of levels, including in producing appropriate fear of God.
God judges us with the aim of making us holy. Neither of these common responses rightly understands the gospel and, therefore, neither results in right fear of God or the increased holiness God means his judgment and the knowledge of it to produce.
If not these two responses, how, then, are we to conduct ourselves in light of the knowledge of God’s judgment? Or, how do we appropriately conduct ourselves in fear during the time of our exile? And that is our last question.
What does it mean to conduct oneself according to the fear of God?
There is more to be said here than we could possibly imagine. But, in light of the context of the letter (particularly in light of what’s in vs.18-19) I want to close by mentioning just three things in answer to this question.
First, the knowledge of God’s continual judgment upon us, his children, is mean to produce in us holy conduct. Knowing that God is always watching and judging isn’t meant to crush us and it certainly isn’t meant to be ignored. It’s meant to remind us that we are made to be holy and that God is never indifferent to our holiness. Rightly understood, this is a very gracious thing. God loves us and, therefore, is not willing to allow us to remain marred by the Fall.
Second, in light of the fear produced by knowledge of God’s judgment, we must conduct ourselves with fear by remember the gospel. As Christians we are not unacceptable to God because of our remaining sin that God finds in his judgment. But neither are we acceptable because of any additional righteousness God finds.
As Christians, we are already acceptable to God because of the perfect righteousness and sacrificial death of Jesus. We are not to be crushed or terrorized or haunted by the knowledge of God’s continual, impartial judgment upon us. Rather, we are to grow in our amazement at God’s grace which forgives and strengthens us for repentance. Similarly, we are not to be dismissive or indifferent or otherwise explain away the call on our lives to be holy. Rather, we are to use the knowledge of God’s constant judgment to remind us of the righteousness of Christ that made our victory in our fight for holiness certain.
And third, we must embrace the discipline of God as it comes.
Hebrews 12:5-11 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
As a result of his judgment upon us God will find out our every sin. But as a result of his gospel-fueled love for us—his children—where he finds sin he disciplines us that we might turn from it. We must learn to love God’s loving discipline. And we must be quick to repent when it comes.
In the biggest sense, then, conducting ourselves according to the fear of God (particularly the fear produced by the knowledge of God’s constant, impartial judgment) means fighting for holiness, in light of the gospel. It means acting at all times in the knowledge that God sees how you think, feel, and act and is never indifferent to any of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It means living every moment of every day in the knowledge that God cares about his glory being reflected in you every moment of every day. And again, it means allowing all of this to drive us to fight for holiness and hope in the gospel.
We are exiles. In our exile we are to fear God because he judges constantly. In light of our fear, we are to conduct ourselves by fighting for holiness, remembering the gospel, and humbly receiving discipline. Grace, let us press into this in the knowledge that our ultimate success is certain because of Jesus faithfulness on the cross. In his name, amen.