The Consequences of Conversion
1 Peter 1:22-2:3
As a church it has been our privilege to baptize a number of our newest members in recent months. Baptism is the act from which we get our denominational name: Baptists. And yet, Baptists seem to have something of a tricky relationship with baptism. All too often, in order to distinguish ourselves from Roman Catholics, we have labored to emphasize what baptism is not or what it doesn’t do. We know very well that baptism alone does not save us, and yet, if that is the dominant message that comes across every time we teach on it or practice it, we leave many of our people wondering what its value really is.
Contrast that mindset with this passage from a paper written by one of our interns (who happens to be from another church): “Inasmuch as the local church is an outpost of the one holy, [universal] church, it needs boundaries. Now, for the universal church, baptism is the boundary, the line in the sand, the list of names. Waters divide the lands of the world, and waters divide between the world and the church. Baptism is that division: an initiation rite, a change of citizenship, Noah’s Ark, Israel’s exodus, Levi’s high-priestly washing. . . It is the dividing line of water that has divided the old and new creation.”i This brother writes with powerful, biblical images to describe the new identity that comes to us publicly in baptism as we are transferred from the realm of the world to the realm of the church.
And, of course, baptism’s powerful symbolic identification of us as new creatures in Christ comes from the spiritual reality that it pictures: conversion. “Conversion” is a word that refers to a complete turning around. It is an event that occurs in our lives when we stop running in one direction (toward sin and self) and instead go in another direction (toward Christ). In other words, it involves repentance from sin and faith in Christ. And those who are converted mark out their conversion through baptism, the waters that divide the old creation from the new.
So if you have been converted to Christ, there are certain consequences that should follow, and Peter lays those out here in this passage as he continues to unpack for his readers what their new identity in Christ means. For those of us who have been converted, his teaching is something that we need, because as long as we are in this present evil age, we will continue to do battle with the flesh. “Flesh” in the New Testament doesn’t refer merely to our physical bodies, but as a professor once told me in seminary, you can define “flesh” by taking off the “h” and writing the word backwards: S-E-L-F. Fundamentally, flesh is self-oriented. It seeks selfish pursuits, it is greedy for its own enrichment, and it views the world as a vast competition in which one must be ruthless in tearing down others in order to win over them. But the primary consequence of conversion is a heart whose reference point is no longer oneself, but God and others who are made in his image. We will see Peter unpack this reality as he gives two main commands in this passage, each one building on the truth of our conversion to Christ.
First, Peter tells us,
I. Because you have been converted to Christ, love one another earnestly (1:22-25).
In his book On Christian Teaching, Augustine wrote, “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” In other words, if your reading of the Bible, or any part of the Bible, does not help develop the virtue of love in you, you have not properly understood it. All of Scripture is oriented toward producing in us love for God and love for others, because love is the purpose for which we were created. A human being who does not love God and others is a human being whose design has misfired. And since redemption accomplishes the purpose of restoring us to what we were designed to be from the beginning, Peter shows us here that love is the purpose for which we were redeemed in Christ, and it must be exemplified among fellow believers as a testimony to the power of the gospel.
In these four verses Peter answers the questions “what,” “how,” and “why,” telling us what to do, how to do it, and why we should do it. The “what” comes at the end of verse 22, which is the one command given in these verses: “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” What does it mean to love one another? It means, minimally, to seek the good of others. But I don’t think it stops there. Love is driven, not just by a sense of duty to do good for others, but ultimately by delight we take in others. We seek their good because we regard them as valuable, and their value lies in the fact that they are made in God’s image, and that is worth delighting in. And, with respect to fellow believers, we should delight in them because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Their identity is tied up with ours in the same Lord forever.
That’s the “what”—love one another—but Peter also tells us in those same words the “how”: “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Love that proceeds from a pure heart is love that is sincere, not hypocritical. It is love that genuinely delights in the good of others and is not merely seeking to flatter and use others for the sake of one’s own advantage. And so our love must be sincere, not duplicitous, and we must love one another earnestly, or with great energy, zeal, fervency. Earnest love is love that is willing to go to great lengths, to make personal sacrifices, for the good of others. Earnest love is exemplified by someone who draws energy from the good of others. How do you know if you are loving well? When you see your brother or sister succeeding, overcoming challenges, growing in the knowledge of God, having his or her needs met, does it give you joy and energy? Is it your delight to use your gifts to build up your brother or sister, never to tear him or her down? Are you willing to make personal sacrifices to do so? That is what earnest love looks like.
Peter also tells us the “why,” as in why we should love, in two places in this passage. Verse 22 begins, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love…” Peter speaks here of the purification of our souls (our inward, spiritual nature) as an accomplished event. It is something that has happened to us who are in Christ, and it happened “by your obedience to the truth.” Peter is speaking here of conversion, the moment when his readers heard the news about Jesus and turned to him in faith. The gospel demands faith of us, and thus turning to Christ in faith is an act of obedience to the truth about Jesus. But then notice the purpose of our conversion: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love.” When God brought us to himself through the gospel, he had a purpose in mind for us, and that purpose was to produce within us a sincere brotherly love. From one perspective, you could say that love is the very purpose of our salvation. The reason for that is because love is what we were designed for in the beginning. To be human, according to God’s design, is to be one who loves God preeminently and to be one who loves others because they bear his image. And so this is why we must love one another earnestly from a pure heart: we have been converted to Christ for this very purpose.
Purification of our souls is an image for conversion that is drawn from the rituals of priesthood and sacrifice. But Peter gives a different image for conversion in verses 23-25: “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for [in the words of Isaiah 40:6 and 8] ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” Conversion is pictured here as being born again, receiving a new start on life. The use of the word “seed” here refers to the male contribution in the process of conception and birth. All of us were originally conceived by perishable seed, but those of us who have been born again were conceived to new life by the imperishable seed of the living and abiding word of God. Contrary to flesh that perishes the same way that grass withers in the heat of the sun, the word of God—the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed to us—endures forever. And as such, it produces life that endures forever. Born again by the word of God, we have been welcomed into everlasting life.
Now keep in mind: Peter is answering the “why” question here: why should we love one another? Because we have been born again by the imperishable seed of the word of God. What is the connection between those two things? Why is it that new birth by imperishable seed should produce earnest love within us? I think the connection is this: as perishable creatures subject to weakness and death, we are insecure. And in our insecurity, we desperately seek to preserve and advance ourselves above others. In this fallen world, we are like drowning men, desperately grasping for anything we can to try to pull ourselves up out of the water. And if that happens to be another person that we can pull down in the process, so be it. All that matters is that we crave air, and if we have to deny it to others in our struggle to get it for ourselves, we will. But what if death holds no more power over us? What if we belong to the world to come because we have been born again of imperishable seed? Then we have security. Secure in the love of our Father and in the hope of eternal life that he has given us in Christ, we have no more need to view our lives as a competition against others to get all that we can before they do. Instead, we are free: free to let our own selfish desires and pursuits go, knowing that they don’t hold any hope for us anyway. With our hope secure in the age to come, we can live now for the good of others. We can make our greatest joy and pursuit the building up of one another. We can say, without any sense of loss, “My life does not belong to me. It belongs to God and to my brothers and sisters.”
Imagine a church that is animated by the security that we have in the gospel, where the members love one another earnestly because they are freed from the desperation of the flesh. Imagine the testimony that kind of community would be to the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to imagine it because it’s right here. Haven’t we heard numerous testimonies over the years of outsiders who have seen the power of the gospel in us by the way we love one another? Those who are outside the church rarely have the opportunity to see a community of people whose lives are energized by seeking the good of others. And when an outsider catches a glimpse of that kind of community where authentic love is practiced, it can be so intriguing. What is it about this community of people that makes them so different, so joyful in one another, so willing to give their lives for each other? Drawn into such a community, they soon find out: these are a people who seek to love each other the way Jesus loves them. And as a loving, hospitable community of believers welcomes these outsiders, they find themselves coming to embrace the same Jesus. A church made up of people who love one another earnestly from a pure heart is the most powerful defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ in this world.
Brothers and sisters, conversion has consequences. Let us love one another from a pure heart. That is the purpose for which our souls have been purified. It is the result of our being born again by the imperishable seed of the word of God. And then, second,
II. Because you have been converted to Christ, long for spiritual growth (2:1-3).
This is the summer of weddings for Cornerstone. I have lost count of how many we have already had, including one this past weekend, plus every weekend in July and at least one more in August. A wedding is a joyful occasion to mark and seal the beginning of a new family. It establishes a marriage, a secure relationship of permanent commitment, and yet every married couple knows that the work of building a marriage goes on well after the wedding, for the rest of their lives. We could speak of salvation in a similar way. When we are converted to Christ, a new legal and covenantal reality begins: we are declared righteous before God, adopted into his family, given a secure and permanent place in his favor and blessing. And yet, we are also commanded to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Just as a marriage definitively begins with a wedding and yet also grows over a lifetime, so does our experience of salvation definitively begin at conversion and yet also grow over a lifetime. Salvation is pictured in the New Testament as new life, and one universal characteristic of life in this world is that it grows from infancy to maturity. Life always progresses toward the goal of its nature: the young sapling becomes the mighty oak; the young caterpillar becomes the beautiful butterfly; the newborn baby becomes the grown man. If we have new life in Christ, it is life that will grow toward a goal of making us in full what God designed us to be from the beginning.
Again in this section, Peter outlines the “what,” the “how,” and the “why.” The “what” is the command in 2:2: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” We are to long for, crave, desire “pure spiritual milk.” That’s a metaphor for something, and most commentators believe it refers to the Word of God. I think it refers to a concept that is broader than that, but certainly includes that. In my understanding, pure spiritual milk is a way of picturing all of the spiritual nourishment and life that comes to us through Jesus Christ. And yes, that comes through the Word of God, but it also comes through Lord’s Table, through the community life of the church, through our practices of prayer, through the strengthening of the Holy Spirit in our sufferings and temptations.
We are to long for spiritual life and nourishment through Christ, just as a baby longs for milk. When Peter says, “Like newborn infants,” he is not saying that all of his readers are immature Christians. Probably some of them were, but that’s not the point. The point of the metaphor is that all believers, no matter how mature, can be compared to newborn infants in a particular way, and that is in the sense that all believers are completely dependent on God’s grace given to us in Christ for our ongoing spiritual life. We never arrive at a point where we are less than completely dependent on God and his grace. So don’t even try. Acknowledge your helplessness, your need, your absolute dependence on all the blessings God has to give you in his Son, and long for all that he will give you to nourish your spiritual life.
But that raises a question: can we really be commanded to long for something? We all agree that actions can be commanded, but can desires be commanded as well? Aren’t our desires simply the uncontrollable impulses that arise in our hearts? It may seem that way, but let’s not overlook the fact that our desires can be channeled and cultivated toward what is good. When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who introduced our class to C.S. Lewis’s story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by showing us an old BBC movie production of it. It was the first I had ever heard of C.S. Lewis or this magical world called Narnia. And I hated it. My friend and I mocked it to no end, and we both agreed that our teacher had no clue how ridiculous it actually was. Fast forward to today: I have read the works of C.S. Lewis for about half of my life now, and one of my personal goals is always to be reading something by C.S. Lewis, even if I have read it multiple times before. With time and maturity, my desires have changed. It didn’t happen all at once. When I first started reading Lewis, it wasn’t always riveting. There were times I had to persevere in order to refine my thinking as I labored to grasp what he was saying. There were times I had to persevere to acquire a better “taste” for his ideas and style. And now I am at the point that I love reading virtually anything by C.S. Lewis. Desires can be trained. And if Peter tells us to long for pure spiritual milk, that means it is our responsibility to build into our lives the kinds of practices that train our desires in the right direction. We have Sunday School every fall and spring. Maybe the last time you attended you thought, “I didn’t get much out of that,” so you stopped coming. Let me urge you to put forth the effort to train your desires in that direction. Stick with it this time. Come hungry, prayerful, and ready to feast on the teaching God has for you through our Sunday School ministry. Maybe you have thought the same of your small group. Maybe you have thought the same of the daily practice of reading Scripture and praying before you started your day. Let me urge you to train your desires for pure spiritual milk by building into your life the habits that will shape your desires over time.
So Peter has told us what to do, and he also tells us how to do it. In English, verse 1 is a command: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” In the Greek, however, that command is actually a participle, which tells us that it is not being presented to us as the main command, but as an action that accompanies the main command and is part of carrying it out. The main command is to long for pure spiritual milk, and verse 1 tells us that part of what that means is that we have to put away these other things that are contrary to it. Notice that all of the vices Paul lists revolve around selfishness. Malice is evil intention toward others in order to elevate ourselves over them. Deceit is the use of falsehood to advance ourselves. Hypocrisy is the attempt to advance ourselves by displays that are merely external, but that hide who we truly are inside. Envy is the opposite of gratitude for the good of others. It is the nefarious resentment of their good, and thus the opposite of love. And slander is the spreading of falsehood about others in order to advance ourselves. We cannot crave pure spiritual milk if we are caught in these self-seeking, self-oriented ways. These are the attitudes and actions that stunt spiritual growth because they stunt our ability to love. As you see sprouts of them in your heart, grab them with all the force you have and pull them up by the root. Trace every sinful impulse in you back to the lie on which it is built, and kill that lie by the truth of the Word of God. For example, if you find yourself resenting a brother because he has more wealth and opportunity than you, and you don’t think he deserves it any more than you do, identify the lie, which is this: blessings must always be given in proportion to what we deserve. What is the truth? The truth is, neither you nor he deserves any blessing from God. All that you have, you have by grace, and if God chooses to give your brother a certain blessing that he denies to you, you can trust that God knows what he is doing, that he is doing it for your good and your brother’s good, and find freedom to rest and even rejoice in that. Killing the sin of envy simultaneously nurtures the virtue of love.
In addition to the “what” and the “how,” Peter gives us the “why,” and in this case there are two different ways to answer “why”: one looks to the future and one to the past. So why should we long for pure spiritual milk? Verse 2 ends with the words “so that by it you may grow up into salvation.” This is the future “why.” Salvation is presented here as a future reality into which we must grow. That is to say, salvation is not merely the legal declaration that we stand righteous before God. That is true, and it is glorious, and it is foundational to everything that comes after it. But if salvation does not also include the re-formation of our hearts, of our character, of our desires, in short, of our ability to love God and others, then we will never experience the joy of what it means to be fully human. If salvation does not culminate in our becoming like Christ, perfect in love, then it has fallen far short of God’s design for our good and his glory. Why should you long for spiritual milk? Because it will be the means God uses to bring you to the completion of your salvation.
But there is also a past “why” that gives us motivation to long for pure spiritual milk, and that is in verse 3: “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” And here we have another image of conversion: the tasting of the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter is saying to his readers, “When the good news of Jesus came to you, and you turned to him in faith, you tasted in that moment of his abundant goodness. Having tasted his goodness when you believed, how can you not long for more and more and more of him?” If you have been baptized, you have made a declaration to the world, and that declaration is this: I have died to myself, but that’s no reason to grieve, because I now belong to Jesus, and he is worth far more than everything I have died to. In your baptism, you made that confession. But doesn’t that confession ring hollow if you have no desire to continue to go deeper into all that God is for you in Christ? That would be like taking one bite of the juiciest, most flavorful steak you have ever tasted, saying, “Wow! That is delicious!” and then pushing the plate away. Why would you ever do such a thing? Long for pure spiritual milk, the ongoing spiritual life that you have in Christ, because it is only fitting that you should want to experience more of the Savior whose goodness you have already tasted in conversion.
If verses 22-25 show us that the Christian life is church-shaped, pointing us toward our fellow believers in love, verses 1-3 show us that it is also fundamentally Christ-shaped, pointing us, like a newborn infant desperate for his mother’s milk, to the spiritual nourishment that God gives us through his Son. In Mark 2, four men carry their paralytic friend on his bed to the house where Jesus is staying in Capernaum (probably Peter’s house). When they get there, the place is so packed full of people that they can’t even get in the door. Instead of giving up and going back home, they take their friend up on the roof (roofs were flat back then) and begin to tear out a hole in it so that they can let their friend down to where Jesus is. Think about how awkward that would have been: not only did they tear a hole in another man’s roof, they did so while Jesus was teaching a packed crowd inside the house, in full view of everyone. Not only did that interrupt Jesus while he was teaching, they may even have caused some debris to fall down on his head, or on the heads of some sitting there listening to him. But the awkwardness didn’t matter to them. All they must have been thinking was this: we need Jesus, so we must get to him at all costs. May we live each day with that same mindset.
Conversion through the gospel reorients our lives toward our fellow believers in the church, so that we love them earnestly from a pure heart, and it reorients our lives toward Christ himself, so that we long for the pure spiritual milk of the life that comes to us from him. If you are baptized, you have been marked by the waters that divide the old creation, where the flesh reigns supreme from the new creation, where love reigns supreme. Conversion has consequences, so live in the light of them. Amen.
iThis quote is from a paper written by Michael Avery.