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Lesson 19: Intent On Holiness (1 Peter 4:1-6)

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In 1988 Leadership, a leading journal for pastors, commissioned a poll to determine, “How common is pastoral indiscretion?” One question was, “Since you’ve been in local church ministry, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?” The responses: 23% yes; 77% no.

A second question was more explicit: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse since you’ve been in local church ministry?” Yes: 12%; No: 88%.

To put these figures in perspective, they also surveyed subscribers to Christianity Today magazine who are not pastors. The incidences of immorality were nearly double: 45% had done something they considered sexually inappropriate; 23% admitted to adultery (Leadership, Winter, 1988, p. 12.)

Those figures disturb me! If one out of four pastors admits to doing something sexually inappropriate and one out of eight has crossed the line into adultery, and twice that many lay people have done so, is it any wonder that the American church is lacking God’s power and blessing?

If you’re thinking, “I’ve never done any of those things,” I ask, “Do you fill your mind with inappropriate movies and TV shows? Do you feast on sexually provocative pictures in magazines or read trashy novels?” If so, you’re just a bit more careful in your sin than those who have crossed the line. It’s just a matter of time and opportunity before you fall.

If I add other sins such as drunkenness, greed (which amounts to idolatry—Col. 3:5), and living for selfish pleasure rather than for the kingdom of God, I’m sure the percentages would shoot up. There are other deeds of the flesh which I could call to your attention (Gal. 5:19-21). I mention these in particular because they are the sins Peter lists as characterizing the pagans (4:3). Although many of Peter’s readers had come out of such loose backgrounds, he is now exhorting them to be intent on holiness--to live the rest of their lives no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God (4:2). I can think of no more relevant message for the American church today—we must be intent on holiness!

These verses give hope to those from difficult backgrounds. Many today mistakenly think that Christianity “works” if you were lucky enough to have a relatively clean past. But if you come from a rough background, then somehow the Bible and Christian discipleship are inadequate to deal with your problems and meet your needs.

But the same gospel that is the power of God for salvation for the religious person (the Jew) is the power of God for salvation for the pagan (the Greek--Rom. 1:16)! These people to whom Peter wrote came from some pretty tough backgrounds! They had been victimized by sin. But no matter how sinful your past, you can be transformed by believing in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ and by learning to walk with Him and obey His Word.

That is not to say that living a holy life will be easy. Clearly, it’s not. As our text shows, it’s a constant struggle. Peter’s readers were being persecuted for their faith. Some were being ridiculed by their former friends because they no longer joined them in their drinking and sexual orgies. The persecution was making them wonder, “Why am I enduring this? Why not go with the flow and enjoy the pleasures I used to enjoy?” When they saw the first century version of the Schlitz commercial, which encouraged them to grab all the gusto they could, since they only go around once, they were tempted.

But Peter counters that mentality by saying, “Yes, you only go around once, and then you stand before Christ who suffered for our sins and who will judge the living and the dead! In light of that, you must be intent on holiness. Any suffering you encounter for Christ’s sake should steel you to live for the will of God, not for the lusts of men.”

Christians must arm themselves with the decisive intent to be holy.

“Arm yourselves” is a military term for a warrior putting on his armor in preparation for battle. The word “purpose” means “intention.” It shows us that holiness must begin in our thinking and in our will. The intent is spelled out in the purpose clause of 4:2: “to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” Since such holiness is a constant struggle, we need some motivation if we are to be intent on holiness. Peter gives two main sources of motivation:

1. The motivation for holiness comes from the sufferings of Christ and His imminent return to judge all people.

A. The motivation for holiness comes from the sufferings of Christ.

“Therefore” goes back to 3:18: “Christ died (many good manuscripts read “suffered”) for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous ....” “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh [His body], arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because [or, “namely, that”] he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

This last phrase presents us with some interpretive difficulties. There are four main ways to take it. One view is that Peter is teaching that suffering purges a believer from sin. The main problem with this view is that the verb “ceased” is in the perfect tense, meaning that it was completed in the past with ongoing results. How could any suffering (except for physical death) result in a complete, ongoing cessation from sin?

A second view is that it refers to the believer’s physical death. This view takes the phrase “suffered in the flesh” as parallel to the same phrase as applied to Christ. The idea is, then, that since at death believers will be completely through with sin, as Christ was at His death (3:18), they should now live the rest of their lives no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. The main problem with this view is that it seems like an awkward way to say that.

A third way to understand the phrase is in the sense of Paul’s teaching in Romans 6, namely, that by virtue of our union with Christ in His death, as pictured in baptism, we, too, are dead to sin. The problems with this view are that you have to read Paul’s theology into Peter and the phrase “has suffered in the flesh” doesn’t seem to fit our spiritual identification with Christ’s death through baptism.

Each of the above views also is hampered by the fact that “he who has suffered” is an unusual Greek form (singular articular participle) for a reference to believers in general. It would have been more natural for Peter to use the plural.

The fourth view takes the phrase to refer to Christ with application to believers. This view takes the first participle (“Christ has suffered in the flesh”) as the antecedent to the second anonymous participle (“he who has suffered in the flesh”), which is parallel to it. It is the only view that adequately explains the singular form of the second participle. The second phrase is parenthetical and explanatory: Christ’s suffering in the flesh ended His relationship with sin once for all. Believers, by way of application, are to arm themselves with the same holy intent. They will not be sinless until they die; but, as verse 2 explains, they can live the rest of their lives for the will of God rather than for the lusts of men.

The main problem with this view is that it seems to imply that since Christ ceased from sin, before that He was a sinner. But it need not mean that. Already Peter has twice affirmed Christ’s sinlessness (2:22; 3:18). But His purpose in coming to this earth was to be identified with sinners by taking on the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3) and bearing our sins in His body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). Paul even states it so strongly as to say that He who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). So Peter here means that once Christ bore our sins, He was through with sin. Since Christ died for our sins once for all (1 Pet. 3:18), the direction of our lives should be to arm ourselves with the decisive intent to be through with sin, to live for God’s will, not for the lusts of men.

I realize that all this is rather complicated. Let me try to cinch it down on a practical level with a familiar illustration. Suppose a woman’s husband was killed trying to save her from the attack of a rapist who was infected with AIDS. It would be absurd for the woman, after her husband’s funeral, to call up the rapist and say, “Let’s meet at a motel.” Having been rescued from that which would destroy her, why would she want to go back to it? Peter’s argument is, since Christ gave Himself to deliver us from the sin which would destroy us, why go back to live in it? Christ’s suffering for our sin should motivate us to holy living.

B. The motivation for holiness comes from Christ’s imminent return to judge all people.

This motive toward holiness is implicit in the phrase in 4:2, “the rest of the time in the flesh,” and explicit in 4:5: “They shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” “The living and the dead” shows that judgment is inclusive: None will escape. “Is ready” shows that the final judgment is imminent: The only thing standing between lost people and the wrath of God is His sovereign, inscrutable will. At any moment Christ could return and there will be no opportunity for repentance. While we who are in Christ need not fear condemnation, we also must stand before Him to give account of what we have done with our lives (2 Cor. 5:10). The imminence and inclusiveness of the coming judgment should motivate us to holiness.

Then Peter adds another difficult verse: “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to God.” There are three main views: First, some have connected this with 3:19, taking it to mean that Christ preached to dead souls in Hades, giving them a second opportunity to repent; or that He preached to the righteous dead. But as we saw last week, “spirits” refers to fallen angels, not to dead people. There is no biblical warrant for dead people having a second chance to repent (Heb. 9:27). The very point of 1 Peter 4:5 is that people will be judged for what they did while they were living, whether they are living or dead at the time Christ returns to judge the earth.

A second view takes “dead” as “spiritually dead.” But 4:5 seems to refer to the physically dead and there is no indication that the same word in 4:6 should be taken in a different sense.

The third view is that Peter is referring to those who heard the gospel and received it while they were living, but now have died. The idea is that “the coming judgment not only will bring sinners to account (v. 5) but will also reverse the judgments of men (v. 6)” (Edwin A. Blum, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 12:245). Christians will be vindicated in the final judgment even though now they may be maligned.

Within this view, the phrase “judged in the flesh as men” can be taken in several ways. It can refer to physical death, in the sense that it is the only vestige of judgment for sin that believers must endure. But even though believers must die physically, they can be assured of eternal life (so Alan Stibbs, The First General Epistle of Peter Tyndale N.T. Commentaries [Eerdmans], p. 151).

Or, it can refer not just to the physical death of believers, but to the condemnation which the world heaps on them because of it. The world may say, “The gospel had no effect: Christians die just like other people” (Peter Davids, The First Epistle of Peter NICNT [Eerdmans], p. 154). But Peter is arguing, “True in one sense; but totally false in another sense, in that they will be vindicated in the future judgment.” “In the end the reception of the gospel will make a difference, no matter what people say now” (Davids, 155).

Another view points out that “judged in the flesh according to men” is exactly parallel (in the Greek text) to “live in the spirit according to God.” The meaning is that though men may judge you in this life, it is God’s judgment that counts. If you have trusted in Christ, God will grant you eternal life in the spirit (Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary [Word], 49:238).

Again, don’t let all the technical ambiguities rob you of the clear practical application: Christ is coming back soon to judge every human being who has ever lived. It is His judgment, not the opinions of men, which counts. The fact of His soon coming in judgment should motivate us to holiness.

Let’s say we’re motivated to holiness. How do we grow in it? What means are there for holy living? Peter doesn’t cover everything--there’s no mention of the power of the Holy Spirit, for example. But he does mention three things that will help:

2. The means toward holiness are suffering, struggling, and separating.

A. The means toward holiness includes suffering in this wicked world.

At the least, Peter’s readers were being maligned by their former pagan friends (4:4; 3:16). Quite probably, there was even more intense persecution. A major point of Peter’s letter is that if believers will submit to God in suffering, they will be blessed. Please note: Suffering does not automatically produce holiness in a believer. It can lead to a person’s growing bitter and distant from God. But, if we submit to suffering by trusting in the Father’s loving purpose, it will help us to grow in holiness.

The way it often works is that the suffering confronts us with areas where we need to grow. To use my recent trials as an example, I was defrauded by the man who sold me my house in California and it cost me a lot of money, not to mention a lot of hassles. I could grow angry and say, “This isn’t fair! I’ve walked with God and served Him. This other person lied and cheated me. I don’t deserve this!” If I said that, it would reveal a root of pride in my heart, because the only thing I deserve if God deals with me in fairness is hell.

I didn’t respond that way, but my actual response surfaced some other areas where I need to grow. It took me a while to come to the point of thanking God for the trial, revealing a lack of trust in God. Anxiety kept creeping in, revealing the same lack of faith. As I recognize those sins and confess them to God, He can use this trial to deepen my trust in Him. Suffering is one means God has designed to move us toward holiness in this wicked world.

B. The means toward holiness includes struggling against human lusts.

Peter indicates (4:2) that there are only two ways to live: For the lusts of men or for the will of God. The fact that we must arm ourselves to be holy (4:1) shows that there is a fierce struggle involved. As Peter put it in 2:11, these fleshly lusts “wage war against the soul.” While Paul teaches that our “old man” died with Christ (Rom. 6:2-8), we would be mistaken to conclude that he means that it ceases to exist. Whether you call it the old man or the flesh, there is a strong inner desire toward sin that is with us until we meet Christ. Death, in the New Testament, always means separation, not cessation. I am separated from the power of the old man through the cross, so that I need not yield to its lusts. But I must engage in a daily, lifelong war against these sinful desires that dwell in me if I want to grow in holiness.

I could say much more, but I must be brief. My main point is that if you want to grow in holiness, you must engage in a daily battle against sin. This warfare begins in your mind, where you must judge every sinful thought and take each thought captive to the obedience of Christ. And the struggle doesn’t grow less intense the longer you’re a Christian. The battlefront changes as God progressively reveals to you new areas where you are not holy. But there is no such thing as a living Christian who has achieved a final victory over sin and temptation. You must struggle against the lusts of the flesh if you want to be holy.

C. The means toward holiness includes separating from the world’s way of life.

This is the point of 4:3-4. Peter is using irony when he says that the time already past is sufficient to have carried out these pagan lusts. Any amount of time living for sin is wasted time. When I was younger, I used to envy people with a dramatic testimony of being saved out of a terrible life of sin. I don’t feel that way any more, because even though God forgives all sin, it still leaves some scars. God may graciously lessen the consequences of our sin if we repent, but the law of sowing and reaping still operates under grace.

Peter says that their former drinking buddies are surprised that they don’t still run with them. Isn’t it odd how people can ruin their lives and others’ lives through alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or venereal disease and not think it strange? But when a person repents of sin, gets right with God and begins to clean up his life, they think he’s gone off the deep end!

If you want to grow in holiness, you’ve got to separate yourself not only from the sins listed here, but also from the sinners who live this way. “But,” you say, “Jesus was the friend of sinners. How can I reach them for Christ if I cut myself off from them?” But, “Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). There’s a big difference between careful contact for the purpose of winning a person to Christ and running with sinners as they gratify their lusts. To be intent on holiness, you must separate yourself from the wrong crowd (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).


The ermine, a small animal known for its snow-white fur, lives in the forests of northern Europe. God has put into this animal an instinctive drive to protect his glossy coat from becoming soiled. Hunters capitalize on this trait. Instead of setting a mechanical trap, they find the ermine’s home in a cleft of a rock or a hollow tree and daub the entrance and the interior with tar. Then their dogs start the chase, and the frightened ermine flees toward his home. But finding it covered with tar, he won’t enter, even to save his life. He will face the yelping dogs who hold him at bay until the hunters capture him rather than soiling his white fur. For the ermine, purity is more dear than life.

Is it for you? You won’t become holy by osmosis if you hang around church buildings or Christians long enough. It won’t happen spontaneously as you float downstream through life. You must arm yourself with the decisive intent to be holy. The motivation comes from thinking on Christ’s suffering and His imminent return as Judge. The means toward holiness are suffering, struggling against sin, and separating from those who would drag you back into it. May God make us all intent on holiness!

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a professing Christian who lacks motivation to be holy?
  2. Share some ways God has used suffering to help you grow in holiness.
  3. Some describe the victorious Christian life as effortless rest. What verses counter this view?
  4. Where’s the balance between separating from the world and yet befriending lost people to win them to Christ?

Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Discipleship, Sanctification, Spiritual Life

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