GRACE AND PEACE TO ALIENS AND STRANGERS: 1 PETER 1:1-2
This sermon was originally published in Modern Reformation in the Ex Auditu section in the January/February 2000 issue and is republished here by permission.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance (1 Pet. 1:1-2).
If there is one religion which has defined our time—that is, postmodern, pluralist, post-Christian America—it is the religion of prosperity and success, progress and self-fulfillment. This religion has become particularly fervent at the turn of the twenty-first century. It is not new, however. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many were convinced that life was getting better in every way, every day. Efficiency experts were gaining control of the workplace. Political scientists advocated centralized government as part of the new era of universal prosperity. The go-go American religion did suffer a temporary setback, as European and American youth choked on poison gas on the battlefields of World War I. But the religion of prosperity and progress returned, with even more vigor after World War II, and it has probably not yet reached its apex.
Evangelical Christians have not only been deeply affected by the prosperity religion; indeed they have been among its most ardent proponents. Of those several pieties and theologies which have synthesized Christianity with the religion of progress, the “health and wealth” Pentecostalism and triumphalist, postmillennial, theonomic-reconstructionism are perhaps most notable.1
The Apostle Peter would have nothing of this sort of “power religion.”2 Rather, throughout his two epistles and the entire New Testament a different set of assumptions are at work. For example, in the teaching of our Lord, there is no higher privilege than to be so identified with the Son that the unbelieving world has virtually no recourse but to hate and persecute the Christian (Matt. 5:11-12, 10:22-23; John 15:18-25). And in the book of Acts, even though the Spirit of power had been given to the Church, she still suffered greatly for the sake of “the name” (Acts 5:40-41; chap. 7). The Apostle Paul considered suffering for his risen Lord a high honor (Rom. 5:3-5). So united are we to Christ that Paul said that his sufferings overflow into our lives (2 Cor. 1:5-7). As a result, suffering persecution for Christ’s sake becomes a down payment on the Christian’s future glory (Rom. 8:17-21). In short, suffering for the cause of Christ is part of what it is to be a Christian. “For it has been granted to you, on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29).
Against that background, it is no surprise that the Apostle Peter greets the Christians of Asia Minor with those two most important words, “grace and peace.” The Christians of the five cities in central Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) needed very much to hear these words, as do we.
To Strangers and Aliens in “This Age”
Written from Rome in the early 60s, sometime after Paul had left the city, the Apostle Peter was addressing five Christian congregations which had recently become strangers and aliens, even though they had not changed location.3 These congregations were largely composed of Gentile Christians. (Some scholars, lacking imagination, wrongly assume that when Peter says “strangers and aliens,” these must therefore be Palestinian Jews who had been displaced in the dispersion. Such a hypothesis is overly literal and makes this text unduly difficult. In fact, Peter is quite clear that these were Gentile Christians to whom he was writing).4
These young Christians were undergoing a culture shock in their own towns and provinces. They were struggling to understand the fact that being united to Christ makes one a stranger from, as Paul puts it, “this age.” Because they belong to Christ they were unjustly accused (1 Pet. 2:12). They suffered unjustly (2:19). They endured daily insults and petty humiliations for the sake of the Gospel (3:14, 4:3-4). At some points, their conflict with the prevailing culture became so intense that the apostle described these informal persecutions as “fiery trials” (4:12-14).
Surely committed Christian people still suffer in ways very much like this. Local zoning committees occasionally forbid the building of churches or the holding of Christian meetings. Sometimes believers are fired from their jobs for refusing to compromise Christian principles. And in our daily lives, it is common for us to be mocked for attempting any Sabbath/Lord’s Day observance or even the smallest acts of piety and obedience.
The same tension is at work on a grander scale as well. Militant Protestant confessional belief and practice are not often rewarded with access to the corridors of power. For example, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), when he was driven from the mainline Presbyterian Church in the inter-War period, found himself exiled with a small remnant which became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.5 Marginalized for the sake of the Gospel, Machen was mocked as a “fundamentalist” as if he were no more intelligent than they thought William Jennings Bryan to be. More recently, the late Robert Preus (1924-95) suffered great personal loss for daring to stand for historic Lutheran theology over against both liberals and evangelical pragmatists in his Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Many other Christians have suffered a similar fate.6 Examples of overt and covert hostility to historic Christianity are so many as to defy cataloging.
As strangers and aliens, we are part of God’s remnant people (see Gen. 45:7, 1 Kings 19). We live on God’s good earth, but as good as it is, it is not our homeland. Our ultimate allegiance is to that heavenly city to which Abraham (with all believers in all ages) looked (Phil. 3:20, Heb. 11). On the one hand we are “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” (Eph. 1:20, 2:6), and at the same time we are not there yet. We live in a twofold state: We are justified, but we are not yet glorified.
Christ himself is the chief stranger and alien. Though he made the world (John 1:1-3), the world did not accept him (John 1:11). Thus he said that “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man [God the Son incarnate!] has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
Even though he was (and remains) the second person of the Holy Trinity, he was crucified “outside the city gate” where the bodies of the sacrificial animals were burned. In an even greater way, the cross was a shame and we have the high privilege of being associated by grace, through faith, with our disgraced Savior (Heb. 13:11-14). To these heirs of Christ’s humiliation (and us), Peter pronounced “grace” and “peace.” The former refers to God’s eternal, unchanging, undeserved favor which is grounded in his own unconditioned freedom and will. The latter refers to the cessation of hostilities between God and man. In short, this benediction means, “never mind the way folks are treating you; remember God’s attitude toward you.”
From Our Triune God
This Apostolic benediction is not just sentimental blather but an official declaration of the actual state of things by Christ’s ordained, authoritative representative. Peter could so speak because it is our Triune God who has made things so. Each person of the Trinity has been active in our salvation. God the Father willed from all eternity that we should belong to the Son. The Son willed from all eternity that he should redeem us, and God the Spirit willed from all eternity to gather (through the preaching of the Word) and sanctify us for whom the Son would and did come. God is one, his will is one, and because it is God’s will, it is irresistible. These are among the great facts of the Christian faith.
According to Peter we are more than just “strangers and aliens”; we are “elect strangers and aliens.” We are at odds with “this world” or “this evil age” precisely and only because we are “elect.” We are more than elect, however. We are foreknown. As we read Scripture, we learn that “knowledge” and, more intensively, “foreknowledge” describes a type of intimate awareness the best analogy for which is the marital union.7 Thus God did not have mere advance warning that we were going to believe, but rather we believe because our Triune God has always known us intimately—can God know us in any other way?—as his chosen ones.
God has not simply foreknown and loved us his people from all eternity in the abstract, but he elected us to live out his will in a very specific context—that is, “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” We are elect to be morally renewed by God the Spirit himself.
In God’s sovereign administration of our salvation and Christian life, we are to think of the Father as having willed our lot, but we’re to think of the risen Christ (communicated to us by the Spirit) as the means, the sustenance, and the power of our life. The life of an elect alien may be lonely, but it is not barren. When we are not friends with the culture, “the World” (Jam. 4:4), then we are friends with God. The very essence of that friendship with God is the union we have with Christ through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is he who draws us to Christ, who writes the Word on our hearts, who teaches us the Word, who transforms our minds, who sanctifies our hearts, who communicates to us God’s abounding graces.
So our alien status in the world is the result of the Father’s providence. Here Peter deftly unites perhaps the two greatest and most difficult facts of the Christian faith. It is impossible for sinners to earn God’s favor, and it is impossible for sinners to live outside of God’s providence. Whatever are circumstances in which we find ourselves, they are the result of God’s good and perfect will. Wherever we are, there God the Spirit is at work in us.
For Two Purposes
It is the Spirit who enables us to realize—that is, to manifest our alien status—in Christ. Thus, Peter says that the purpose of the Father’s election and the Spirit’s ministry is our “obedience” and “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah” (1 Pet. 1:2). As one of the great sixteenth century Reformed theologians, Caspar Olevianus, said: Christ died not only to justify us, but also to sanctify us.8 In this life, the purpose of God’s election is that we might not just enjoy our status as those identified with Christ, but that we might actually begin to live as those with whom Christ identified himself and who are in turn identified with him.9
In the early Church, as for the apostles, the privilege of martyrdom was considered the greatest and highest which could be granted a Christian. This teaching may be difficult for us to receive with joy, but such suffering could not have been far from Peter’s mind as he wrote these words. Remember, the Lord Jesus had promised him, “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Jesus predicted Peter’s martyrdom and Peter was predicting suffering, if not martyrdom, for his readers.
In this way, Scripture says, Jesus is not finished bleeding. Paul says, “I fill up in my flesh” Christ’s sufferings (Col. 1:24). What the world is not able to execute directly on the ascended Christ, it aims at us. At the same time, our sanctity is bound up with Christian suffering which becomes, as it were, a sort of seal of that identity with Christ.
When we live in Christ, in this hostile world, we will inevitably face the hatred of the enemy, sometimes even to death. This is almost certainly the force of this powerful shorthand: “obedience of the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” Such language evokes the myriad Old Testament sacrifices, finished by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus himself.
With this language “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” he was invoking a very specific episode in the history of salvation.10 In Exodus 24, we read that after Moses read God’s Law to the people, they cried out, “We will do everything Yahweh has said” (v. 3). The terms of the covenant having been spelled out, the people swore an oath before their Redeemer God. The next day Moses, acting as the federal head of the people, went before the Lord and bu
ilt an altar where appointed Israelites offered sacrifices. Afterward, Moses took half the blood of the offerings and put it in bowls. The rest he sprinkled on the altar and then read “the Book of the Covenant” to the people. Again, they responded, “We will do all that Yahweh has said; we will obey” (v. 7). In response, Moses took the blood of the covenant and sprinkled the people of God with it (v. 8).
According to Peter (like the writer to the Hebrews), we are to understand that it was with God the Son with whom the Israelites made covenant that day, a covenant they could not and did not keep. It was left to the true Israel of God—Jesus—to keep it, even to the cross (see also Heb. 12:18, 24). Therefore, in our services, we have a very similar sprinkling ritual. Ours is the holy sacrament of baptism in which all of God’s people are sprinkled not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with Christ’s blood. In response, we too swear covenant oaths, “We will do all that the Lord has said.”
When Peter says, “unto obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” he is invoking both Moses’ sprinkling of the Israelites and our baptism into Christ. Just as their baptism entailed death, so ours also requires our deaths, first ritually in the act of baptism, second spiritually in mortification, and third, if Christ wills, even a martyr’s death.
“May Grace and Peace Abound”
The obedience for which Christ calls now is the same obedience to which he called the Israelites. Yet we have two great advantages. First, we live in the “last days,” the days of the fulfillment of God’s great promise. God the Son has taken upon himself our nature. He has borne God’s wrath and redeemed us from it. Second, we have the privilege of living after Pentecost. The Spirit has been poured out upon us in the measure promised by the ancient prophets.
By our baptism, we are now identified with that suffering Savior. We have been marked, sprinkled by his blood. It is to us bloody Christians that our Triune God pronounces the blessing, “May grace and peace abound to you.” They can abound to us because Christ has earned them for us.
Now as heirs of such mercy, we must rejoice if it pleases God to bring our baptism to fruition, not only by saving faith in Christ, but in the privilege of suffering for his sake. May God the Spirit, through the Word, grant us that same abundant grace and peace now and when the time comes. Amen.
1By triumphalism I mean the attitude which tends to think of the church as “irresistibly conquering throughout the centuries…seemingly more interested in upholding its own rights and privileges than in promoting the salvation of all” P. F. Chirco, s.v. “Triumphalism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1967). Classic postmillenialism (e.g., the Princeton theologians C. Hodge and B. B. Warfield) affirmed that the church will endure a great apostasy before the second advent of Christ. Some recent advocates of versions of postmillenial theonomic reconstructionism seem to deny the necessity of suffering for the Christian. Instead they argue that the suffering described for the church was actually completed prior to A. D. 70. This new postmillenial school is now advocating a version of triumphalism
2For a critique of some of these movements see Michael S. Horton, ed. Power Religion (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992). See also idem, ed., The Agony of Deceit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990); idem, Made in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
31 Peter 5:13 says, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings” (NIV). Babylon is best read as a cryptic reference to Rome.
4The sorts of behaviors listed in 4:1-4 indicate clearly that the congregations to whom Peter wrote were composed primarily of Gentile converts.
5 See D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
6Much of the German Reformed Church (RCUS) was absorbed into what became the United Churches of Christ. Those who continued to believe and confess the historic Reformed faith found themselves cut off from their institutions and even their church properties. More recently the newly formed United Reformed Churches are confessionally committed exiles from the Christian Reformed Churches.
7This sense of the Hebrew verb “to know” is captured well in the Authorized Version (1611) of Genesis 4:1.
8Caspar Olevianus, In epistolam ad Romanos notae (Geneva, 1579) 207.
9See Heidelberg Catechism Q.114.
10See also Hebrews 12:18,24.
This sermon was preached in March 1999