Sanctification in 1 Peter
Within the New Testament corpus the letters of the apostle Peter are in themselves evidence of God’s sanctifying power in that they were written by a man who was once in a state of spiritual darkness before he came to see that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (cf. Matt. 16:13–20). Not only that, but this same man came to understand the necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection if human beings were to be saved from their sins even though he did not always understand this and once vehemently denied even knowing Jesus (Matt. 16:21–28; 26:69–75). But all of this changed and Peter wrote his letters as a leader of the church and as someone who was being progressively remade into the image of Jesus who is both Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2).
When we talk about sanctification in a biblical and theological sense we are talking about God’s action in setting His people apart for Himself and then working in them to make them into the moral likeness of His Son. Another way of putting it is to say that we are talking about two types of personal holiness. First, we as Christians are holy in that we have come under God’s authority and belong to Him, and second, we are holy because sin is being progressively rooted out of our lives: our minds, hearts, and wills are being bent toward God.
Given Peter’s experience, it is not surprising that he has much to say about sanctification in both of his letters, even though, in this article we are only focusing on 1 Peter. Sanctification, for Peter, is not optional, or peripheral, rather it is essential to what it means to be a Christian and critical when it comes to New Testament Christianity. In order to help us grasp the importance of sanctification in 1 Peter, I have chosen to group his teaching under three main headings: 1) The Theological Context of Sanctification, 2) Sanctification in Real Life, and 3) Sanctification and our Witness as Christians.
The Theological Context of Sanctification in 1 Peter
It is impossible to read 1 Peter and fail to see that sanctification is an integral part of Christian salvation. In the very beginning of his letter Peter talks about “the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” (1:2) and in the end he reminds us that we are “in Christ” (5:14), which is to say that we are in union with the One who is the very embodiment of God’s holiness. The unbreakable link between sanctification and salvation resides in the fact that the former is the stated purpose of God for all of His people and this therefore conditions and explains what God is doing at every step along the way.
Peter, like Paul, John, and other biblical writers, traces the origins of salvation back before time began into eternity past. As mysterious as this is, it is the time when we are told that God set His love on His people and planned their salvation. What is interesting in light of our study is that from the beginning our sanctification was part of the equation. This is not to say that it was the cause or ground of God’s salvific choice—that could never be since salvation rests solely on the love and grace of God—but it means that from the beginning salvation and sanctification were inextricably bound together. In the opening sentences of his first letter Peter makes this clear: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge [fore-love] of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood.”
In fact, the whole first chapter can be divided in half along these lines: the first half summarizes God’s salvation and the last half traces out the corresponding necessity for holiness and purity in light of all that God has done. In addition to this, as we move through the letter, sanctification is also connected to coming to Jesus as the living Stone because when we come to Him we are built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (2:4–5). Later in the same chapter we are described as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that we may declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light (2:9). Thus we can say that all God is doing in salvation is in one way or another related to our sanctification or renovation in holiness.
Beyond the matrix of God’s purposes which highlight the importance of sanctification, Peter teaches us that it does not happen all at once. While we are set apart (sanctified) by the Holy Spirit the moment we put our faith in Jesus—which is why the Spirit’s work is mentioned ahead of being obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with His blood (1:2)—this setting apart is only the beginning of a process that continues bit by bit over the course of a lifetime! This is indicated in a number of diverse ways: we are saved in hope (1:3); our inheritance is kept for us in heaven (1:4); our salvation is ready to be revealed in the last time (1:5); when Jesus Christ is revealed (1:7), grace will be revealed at His coming (1:13); we are urged to abstain from sinful desires (2:11), to live as free people but not use our freedom as a cover-up for evil (2:16); in our hearts we are to revere Christ as Lord (3:15); we must be prepared to suffer that we might share in Christ’s glory (4:12–13); there is a crown of glory that we receive when the Chief Shepherd appears (5:4); and we are promised eternal glory after we have suffered a little while (5:10). We must not be discouraged, therefore, if we are not as holy as we would like to be since this is a lifelong process that will only be complete when Christ appears at the end of the age. Given the ongoing nature of sanctification we must press on in spite of obstacles and setbacks to the end.
Along these lines, Peter also tells us that this process, what theologians called “progressive sanctification,” does not take place without a fight. Our being set apart for God, called “definitive sanctification,” is something that is done to us when we are claimed by God’s grace. But the progressive transformation into the likeness of Christ requires strong exertion on our part even though we only do it with divine help. This is indicated by the connection between holiness and suffering that refines our faith which in the end is more valuable than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire (1:6–7). Also the words used to describe our involvement in the process of sanctification are strong, vigorous words like “rid yourself” (2:1), “crave pure spiritual milk” (2:2), “abstain from sinful desires which wage war against your soul” (2:11), “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (2:13), “but if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (2:20), “so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (2:24), “but rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (4:13), “resist him, standing firm in the faith” (5:9), “stand fast in it [the true grace of God]” (5:12). Holiness is not a matter of “letting go and letting God,” rather it is a struggle that will last a lifetime, rooted in the regenerating grace of God and continuing as God works in us to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose (cf. Phil. 2:12–13).
Thankfully, while there is a fight that is connected to our sanctification, there is also the assurance of victory because this is a battle that we will win by God’s grace. The assurance of victory is tied to the fulfillment of all of God’s purpose in Christ. He will save His people and bring them safely to glory. The God who spoke through the prophets in the past concerning salvation in Christ, will bring His work in us to an end which is nothing less than “the salvation of our souls” (1:9). It is a work that He does through His word which has given us life and this word is “imperishable,” “living,” and “enduring forever” (1:23–25). Consequently, those who put their faith in Christ will never be put to shame (2:6), we have been called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light, and although we were once not a people now we are God’s people who have received His mercy (2:9–10). This is one reason why we can bear up under trouble and persecution. We know that God will prevail and that we have been called to “eternal glory in Christ, after we have suffered a little while and that He will make us strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10). In the end, the final benediction is one of peace: “peace to all who are in Christ” (5:14) because of all God has done for us. Though the journey is difficult, we will be safe at last.
Sanctification in Real Life
Consistent with New Testament instruction as a whole, Peter never leaves us with abstract theories or propositions but he brings the truth home in a way that applies to our daily lives. Beyond his general exhortations he has much to say about the specifics of sanctification as we live out our lives “among the pagans” (2:12). First we need to realize that we are foreigners and exiles in this world. It is neither our home nor our promised land in anything but a temporary way. In this kind of environment we are at war with sin and its desires and are called to live such good lives that those who oppose us will not be able to accuse us of doing wrong. For Peter, this means submitting for the Lord’s sake to every human authority that He has established for the ordering of human life on earth (2:13–17). Even if we are in a position of social weakness and vulnerability such as slavery, we need to set an example (2:18–25). Within the domestic sphere, wives and husbands are called on to interact with one another in a way befitting the pattern established in the Scriptures and exemplified in the lives of godly men and women who have gone before us (3:1–7). In our personal conduct as Christians, there is to be sympathy, love, and compassion shown toward others. We are not to retaliate when wronged, but instead call down blessing from heaven on those who treat us badly (3:8–14).
Beyond all of these things Peter tells us not to live the rest of our earthly lives for evil human desires but rather for the will of God (4:2). This means that we live as those who are redeemed and those who have been raised up from the dead. Things like debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry must go (4:3). They are incompatible with the gospel and the reality of divine judgment that is coming at the end of the age (4:4–6). And as in Paul’s teaching, Peter instructs us to replace bad habits with the good habits! We are to be sober and alert so that we can give ourselves to prayer. Our lives must be suffused with love which covers a multitude of sins. We should delight in the company of other Christians and offer hospitality without grumbling, and we should use our spiritual gifts to bring glory to our triune God (4:7–11).
The leaders in the church are singled out for particular treatment (5:1–5). Leaders are not exempt from correction—if anything, they are held to a higher standard. They are required to serve willingly and must remember that they are examples to the flock and accountable to the Chief Shepherd who saved them and called them to serve in the first place. They are to lead the way so that other believers can follow them in their pursuit of God. Love and humility should mark Christian leaders and congregations as well as spiritual vigilance because we live in a hostile world. Holiness is a vital part of the Christian life, but it is never left hanging in midair: it is always parsed for us in the Scriptures and it always involves progressive conformity to the moral likeness of Christ in every area of our lives.
Sanctification and Witness
One thing that the reader of 1 Peter will notice is that the author makes a link between sanctification and witness. Holiness is not only something that God has ordained and something that benefits us personally, but it is a powerful testimony to a watching world. One of our goals as Christians is to live in such a way that those around us who do not know our Lord may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us (2:11–12). Our God-ordained submission to the governmental authorities is not only an act of obedience toward Him but the fulfillment of His will that by doing good we will silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (2:15). Christian wives are to submit themselves to their own husbands so that if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of their lives (3:1–2). And notice the connection between revering Christ as Lord and being prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give a reason for the hope that we have (3:15). Our practical sanctification as those who have come under Christ’s lordship makes us ready apologists. How we speak the truth, as much as the content of our words, reduces to silence those who slander us (3:16).
We all know from experience how much harm is done by those who say one thing but do another. In our day it is common for people to say that religion should be a private affair that we do not talk about in polite society. But this is not something the Christian can agree with or practice. The gospel is more than just doctrines and teachings—although it is certainly not less. It has a practical side because God’s truth touches every area of life and makes a difference in our lives that can be seen and heard.
The evangelistic power of sanctification is enormous as is the destructive power of a lack of sanctification. We should pray that God will move us forward in our relationship with Him so that we will glorify Him in all we say and do. Sanctification emerges out of God’s love for us and in the end will transform us through and through. As Peter says: “For we know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1:18–21).
Kirk M. Wellum is principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College.