Years ago, I was in a seminary class studying a unit on secularization in modern Britain. “Secularization” is defined as what happens when the outward marks of religion fade from a society. As we were pondering the question of why Great Britain has become highly secularized in recent times, we looked at different arguments regarding the causes of secularization. We read one book arguing that secularization is simply a natural product of a modernizing society, and thus you could trace its origins back to the beginning of the modern period around the 1500’s. We read another book arguing that secularization in Britain was brought about by cultural currents that arose in the 1960’s. And then the professor gave us an interesting article to read, which made this very simple argument: many churches in Britain are empty today because, some time ago, preachers in Britain decided to stop preaching about Hell..
Notice the image on the screen, which is the cover of one of the books we read in that class.i Doesn’t it make your heart ache to see a beautiful church building being repurposed as a carpet store? Is there a line that we can draw from the vanishing of preaching about the final judgment in Great Britain to scenes like this one, where empty church buildings must be repurposed? I think there is. Today, we tend to mock “fire and brimstone” preaching as unsophisticated, backwoods preaching for narrow-minded people. Many churches and denominations assumed that, in order to reach the modern world, we had to dial back or even eliminate talk about the final judgment, because modern people prefer to think of God as completely affirming and non-judgmental. Many churches have gone down that path, but it actually had the opposite of its intended effect. After decades and decades of a judgment free message, many churchgoers have come to believe that the stakes of following Jesus aren’t very high. After all, if there is no coming judgment that will finally and eternally separate those who are in Christ from those who are not, why does it make any difference how I live my life now? Why pay a price to follow Jesus now if there is nothing to gain from it in the end? To put it simply: why impose a commitment on myself to be somewhere on Sunday mornings when I can take the day off and be just as well off in the end? Churchgoers in Great Britain, by and large, seem to have pursued that way of thinking.
Churches who minimize the coming judgment will drift away from the gospel, because you simply cannot separate the gospel of Jesus Christ from the doctrine of the final judgment. Read through the book of Acts and notice the sermons preached by the apostles: they all lead up to the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, his enthronement at the right hand of God, and threat of his coming judgment against the unrepentant. And that’s why the sermons all end with a call to repent and believe the gospel. The very purpose of the gospel is to deliver us from the judgment that is to come, and so if we pull on the thread of the doctrine of the final judgment in order to make modern people feel more comfortable with us, we will soon unravel the whole of the Christian faith. There is no gospel without the preaching of the judgment to come.
In our text for today, Peter draws our attention to the final judgment, but in a very interesting way. Consistent with the wider teaching of the New Testament, Peter calls us to see that, in one sense, the final judgment has already come for those who are in Christ. And in another sense, we are still waiting for it to come. And living in this overlap of the ages, when the judgment has come and is still to come, there are certain implications for our lives: holiness and endurance. That is, we must pursue the will of God wholeheartedly instead of sin, and that we must be willing to suffer. Our understanding of how the judgment has come and is still to come gives us the theological resources we need to do these two things.
I. Because the final judgment has already come in Christ, live no more for human desires but for the will of God (vv. 1-3).
In what sense has the final judgment already happened? Peter opens in verse 1 by saying, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh.” That is a shorthand reference to all that Peter just wrote about in 3:18-22, where he spoke of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God in victory over all the cosmic powers of the universe. And Peter compared that event to the days of Noah, when the whole world that then was fell under its own “final judgment” as God wiped out humanity with a flood, but Noah and his family were brought safely into a new world by means of the ark. Peter has already said that we too are brought safely into a new creation by means of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the event that represents the beginning of the world to come. So by referring to Christ’s suffering again in verse 1, Peter draws our attention to the whole story of his death, resurrection, and ascension, which represents the final judgment brought forward into history for Jesus Christ and all who are in him.
With that reality in view, what is the conclusion? Peter’s command in verse 1 is “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” The word that the ESV translates “for” here could also be translated “that,” in which case it would describe the mindset that we are supposed to have. Listen to it translated in that way: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking: that whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” I think Peter’s argument moves in the same orbit here of Paul’s argument in Romans 6:10. Speaking of Christ, Paul writes, “For the death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” Paul says Christ “died to sin,” not meaning that Christ had committed sinned before and then stopped, but rather that Christ died as a man in this present, sinful age. You could say he died under the power of sin, and then by his resurrection came out from the power of this age, and thus it has no more to do with him.
And the same is true with us. When Peter says, “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,” it sounds an awful lot like what Paul says in Romans 6:7: “For one who has died [that is, with Christ] has been set free from sin.” So, let me put it plainly. In my view, when Peter says, “the one who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,” he means, “the one who has been joined to Christ’s death and resurrection by faith has been set free from the power of sin.” So if you are converted, you have experienced a definitive break with sin’s power because you have been joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. Peter summarizes the thought in 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
The biblical storyline goes like this: the final judgment separates the righteous and the wicked forever, removing the wicked from the realm of creation so that it is purged of all evil, and then the righteous inherit a purified new world that is free from all stain of sin and will be kept that way forever. There is a sense in which that storyline has already happened in Christ, and yet, as Peter notes, we still have “the rest of the time in the flesh [in this present age]” to live. We belong to the new age with Christ, and yet we continue to live in the present age where sin reigns. It is a strange time in which we live in the overlap of the ages, and that is why we need the Bible to instruct us on how to conduct our lives. One pervasive theme throughout this letter has been that our new identity in Christ is what directs our behavior. If we now stand as those who have already passed through the final judgment with Christ and have entered into the beginning of the new creation with him, that means, as Peter says in verse 2, that the rest of our time “in the flesh” must be given over, not to the pursuit of human desires, but to the pursuit of the will of God. Because we belong to the age to come, we should live as those who belong to it.
Why are human desires [ESV translates “passions] contrasted with the will of God in verse 2? Does that mean that all human desires are evil and always contrary to what pleases God? No. Peter is speaking of “human desires” as good, God-given desires that have been misdirected. Notice the list of vices in verse 3: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” The base desires described in this list revolve around food and drink, sex, social connection, and worship. It is not wrong to desire food and drink, sex, social connection, and worship. These are God-given desires, and when ordered properly to the will of God, they lead to rich blessings. But when these desires are misdirected away from God and lead outside of the bounds God has established for us, they result in a loss of self-control and a giving over of oneself to practices that imprison us to sin. If you drink yourself to the point of intoxication, or if you pursue pornography, or if you go out looking for a hookup, or if you make it a habit to frequent parties where “debauchery” is the best word to describe what is going on, you are pursuing the same thing in every case: you are trying to fill a void in your heart with something that can’t fill it. But that something that will never fill your void is itself an addictive behavior, and the more you give in to it, the more it will trap you in its grip, until it becomes a habit that brings no joy to you, but like an itch that always demands scratching, you give in to it because you can’t face the prospect of being without it.
Peter says in verse 3 that the time that is past suffices for those things, when you belonged to the present age. Now, in Christ, you belong to the age to come, and sin’s power over you has been broken. If you are continuing to pursue those things now, you must see the incongruity between who you are and what you are doing. Your desires must change to match your new standing in Christ. And desires do change. They don’t necessarily change overnight. It’s usually a long process of forming new habits and making war against sin. But if you are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, you can be sure that you will win that battle. So get out there and fight to pursue the will of God above all, just as Jesus did.
Speaking of habits, I have been listening to a book recently entitled Atomic Habits by James Clear. It is not a Christian book, but it is full of helpful wisdom about how to make small changes in your life to develop new habits that will, in turn, make a big difference. One of the points the author makes in this book is that habits are most likely to stick when they are rooted in an identity that we are pursuing. For example, if you have a goal of losing 30 pounds, and you want to incorporate regular exercise into your life to help you reach that goal, James Clear argues that focusing all the time on losing 30 pounds isn’t likely to help you succeed. Instead, he says, you should focus on becoming a certain kind of person. Instead of saying, “I want to lose 30 pounds,” say to yourself, “I want to be the kind of person who exercises regularly.” And then, every day that you choose to exercise, you are casting a vote for that new identity. You don’t have to be perfect in your vote-casting. You just need more votes over a sustained period of time for being that kind of person than for not being that kind of person. The pursuit of a new identity can be a powerful force in developing good habits.
As I listened to that insight, I was struck by how close that sounds to the teaching of the New Testament. The New Testament consistently links our sense of identity with our behavior. However, in the case of the New Testament, there is one major difference. Instead of telling us to pursue a new identity, the authors of the New Testament say, “You already have a new identity! So be who you already are in Christ!” As you seek to develop or sustain the kinds of habits that will orient your desires toward the will of God and away from the misdirected lusts of man, begin by reminding yourself regularly: I have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. I have been delivered from the power of sin. I have passed through the final judgment and now belong to the new creation. Arm yourselves with same laser-focused pursuit of the will of God that Christ had in his life.
That is one sense in which the shadow of the final judgment should be cast over our lives. But there is another sense in the remaining verses:
II. Because the final judgment is still to come, endure the world’s rejection now (vv. 4-6).
When you live in Satan’s domain, the pursuit of holiness is a disruptive act. Peter says in verse 4, “With respect to this they [the Gentiles] are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” Why is that the case? Why would first century pagans in the Roman Empire care whether or not Christians joined them in their sinful practices? Couldn’t they understand the concept of “live and let live”? Listen to these words from J.M.G. Barclay to help you understand why Christian withdrawal from pagan practices was so disruptive in Roman society: “Family members who broke ancestral traditions on the basis of their new-found faith showed an appalling lack of concern for their familial responsibilities. Christians deserted ancestral practices, passed on since time immemorial, for a novel religion (if such it could be called) of recent manufacture. The exclusivity of the Christians’ religion—their arrogant refusal to take part in, or to consider valid, the worship of any God but their own—deeply wounded public sensibilities. Such an unnatural and ungrateful attitude to the gods even branded them as ‘atheists.’ Moreover, it was highly dangerous for even one segment of the community to slight the gods, whose wrath was ever to be feared. Civic peace, the success of agriculture, and freedom from earthquake or flood were regularly attributed to the benevolence of the gods.”
So, put yourself in the shoes of a first-century pagan. You know of a handful of Christians living in your community, and this is what you know about them: they are following a strange new religion, and as a result, they are having nothing to do with the worship of the gods that we seek to honor here. So they are probably making the gods angry, and that would be bad for us. Moreover, these Christians are having nothing to do with the parties and feasts that play such an important role in building social ties in our community. And by taking no part in these things, these Christians are implicitly telling all of us that we are in the wrong for doing so. Christians are simply a menace to society.
So what do pagans do in response? They malign Christians. They marginalize them. They persecute them. If you are an honorable pagan, and you want to diminish the power of Christianity in your community, you might decide never to visit a business owned by a Christian, never to buy from or sell to Christians, never to allow Christians into certain social circles, never to give Christians certain employment opportunities, never to allow Christians to serve in certain positions in your community. If things got really bad, you might organize a mob of people from to threaten them, to destroy their property, or even to commit violent acts against them personally.
And what that means for Christians is that the pursuit of holiness leads to suffering in this world. And this is where our doctrine of the final judgment comes in again. In one sense, it has already come, but in another sense, we are still waiting for it. But because we know it will come, we have the strength to endure whatever suffering we must endure now. Notice what Peter says about the persecutors of Christians in verse 5: “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” The Gentiles will answer to God in the end for their defiance of his holy law in the pursuit of misdirected human lusts, as well as for their maligning of Christians who pursue the will of God. God is described in this verse as “ready to judge,” indicating that his judgment could come at any moment. In the image that Jonathan Edwards paints in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the sinner who stands outside of Christ is standing over the pit of Hell on a rotten bridge. The wood of each plank is visibly frail and brittle, and there is no telling which step it may be that sends him falling into the flaming abyss below. And, without any obligation to uphold him for a single second longer, it is the mere pleasure of God that keeps that bridge suspended moment-by-moment. But the judgment could come at any time, and indeed, God stands ready to deliver it even now.
Peter mentions specifically that God stands ready to judge “the living and the dead.” In the pagan way mindset, there was not much of a concept of accountability after death. The dead would go to the underworld, but without the notion of a transcendent, sovereign, personal God, whose holiness has been offended by man’s sinful actions, there was no place for a balancing of the scales of justice after death. Contrary to that pagan notion, Peter affirms that the final judgment is coming, and that it will encompass the living and the dead. Death is no escape from accountability.
Now verse 6 is puzzling: “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” Some have argued that this verse teaches that after death, we will have a second chance to hear and believe the gospel. This is called “postmortem evangelism.” And if that indeed is what Peter means, that would have radical implications. It would mean that you can disregard the gospel now, both for yourself and for others. Don’t bother sharing it, because everyone will have a chance to believe after they have died anyway. Is that what Peter is saying?
There is no way that is what Peter means here. Wayne Grudem outlines three solid arguments for why postmortem evangelism is not being taught in this verse.ii First, it would contradict the whole point of verse 5, which emphasizes that unbelievers are accountable to God for their actions in this life. But if unbelievers can live their whole lives according to the ways of the Gentiles, maligning Christians for their holiness, only to die and then be given a chance to renounce what they did during their earthly lives, doesn’t that undermine the very accountability that Peter has just mentioned? Second, if Peter teaches postmortem evangelism here, it would cut the legs out from under the entire purpose of verses 4-6, which is to encourage believers to endure suffering for the sake of righteousness. But if you get another chance to repent and believe after death, why would you pay the price of suffering for righteousness now? Why not take the easy path to Heaven? Third, postmortem evangelism contradicts the rest of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the church’s missionary mandate, as well as specific verses such as Hebrews 9:27, which says that it is appointed for a man to die once, and then face judgment. This verse cannot mean that the gospel is preached with a chance for repentance and salvation after death.
So what does it mean? Peter is referring here to believers who have now died. The gospel was preached to them while they were alive on earth, and they believed it, and now they are dead. It would be a bit like saying, “The playwright William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564.” Of course, he wasn’t a playwright when we he was born, but we can still speak that way and know what we mean. The gospel wasn’t preached to them after death, but now they are dead, after having heard and believed the gospel.
So why does Peter bring up this group of people here? He does it to put the experience of death into proper perspective. In the pagan way of thinking, the fact that Christians died suggested that the gospel didn’t make any difference in the end. Whether you believe the gospel or not, the same thing still happens to you, and all the suffering that goes along with being a Christian in this life would suggest that Christians were actually fools for believing it. And so Christians who had died were “judged in the flesh according to man” (literal translation). Man’s opinion was that death made the gospel basically meaningless. But in reality, Christians who have died will “live in the Spirit according to God” (again, literal translation). If you compare the phrase “live in the Spirit” to similar wording in 3:18, where it says Jesus was “made alive in the Spirit,” it seems that Peter refers to the same reality in both cases, namely, the resurrection of the body by the power of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think Peter’s comforting words here apply only to the day when our bodies will be raised from the dead, because through the resurrection of Jesus, we have already received the new life that comes by the Holy Spirit. And so those believers who have died and still awaiting the resurrection of the body now experience life in the Spirit as they are gathered with Christ.
In the end, it all comes down to this: every single one of us will be condemned in one court and justified in another. You will either be condemned by the world, and justified by God, or you will be justified by the world, and condemned by God. Which court do you want to condemn you? Which court do you want to justify you? You can’t have both. There is no dream scenario where followers of Jesus will receive widespread applause from the unbelieving world. There is no pathway to the glory of the coming age that does not pass through the suffering of the world’s rejection now. Because we know the final judgment has already come in Christ, we can pursue holiness because we have died to sin with him. Because we know that the final judgment is still to come, when the unbelieving world will answer to God, and we will be publicly revealed as his people, we can endure anything they have to throw at us now. Pursue holiness, and endure suffering, all under the shadow of a final judgment that has come, and that is yet to come. Amen.
i The cover image of God Is Dead: Secularization in the West by Steve Bruce; accessed August 8, 2019 at this address: https://www.amazon.com/God-Dead-Secularization-Steve-Bruce/dp/0631232753
ii Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 179-80.