In a 2000 sermon, John Piper draws out six truths from 1 Peter 2:9-17 about how Christians should be involved in society and culture.
1. We were once all in darkness, along with the whole world.
Notice the phrase near the end of verse 9: "Him who has called you out of darkness." We were once in darkness. The darkness of sin and unbelief and ignorance about God and his ways. It was the darkness of deadness in sin, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:5. This is the condition of our culture and our society. And we were once a part of it by nature. Why are we no longer?
2. God called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
This truth comes from the same phrase in verse 9: "Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." We are not by nature smarter or wiser or more courageous than those who remain in darkness. The difference is that God exerted toward us an absolutely undeserved and compelling kindness: he called us. Paul put it like this in1 Corinthians 1:23-24, "We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." It was the omnipotent call of God that wakened us from the spiritual sleep of death and opened our eyes to the power and wisdom of God in Christ. Let us never forget: Free and powerful grace alone is the decisive reason that we are able to see the darkness of our culture and be free in some measure from it.
3. God's aim in calling us out of darkness is to send us back to (but not in) that darkness to "proclaim his excellencies."
Now all of verse 9: "But you are a chosen race, A royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." That is why you have been called out. That is why you are God's people, a chosen race. We exist to display with word and deed the excellencies of God. This is the way God's call came to us. Freely we received, now let us freely give. Our witness is not the same as the call of God. But God's call happens through our display of God's excellencies. When we speak and show God's excellencies to others, we provide the truth that God may grant the blind to see. If we say nothing, they will see nothing. Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17). And new birth is "through the living and abiding word," the gospel (1 Peter 1:23-25).
4. God's aim is that the way we make his excellencies known to the darkened culture around us take place both by avoidance and by engagement.
This is very crucial to see. Some err here by stressing one to the exclusion of the other. One group is swept away with social action. Another is absorbed in personal holiness. The Biblical way is both/and, not either/or.
Notice verse 11: "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul." This is the avoidance ethic. And it is absolutely right and necessary. There are things in our culture that we should simply avoid and abstain from.
But notice verse 12: "Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation." Here we are "among the Gentiles." Here we are going on display to the Gentiles. Here we are not just avoiding their effect on us, we are aiming at having an effect on them with positive action. "They observe your good deeds and glorify God."
Over and over in the New Testament the writers stress that we were created and converted to be engaged relentlessly in a life of public good deeds. Indeed, Titus 1:14says that Christ died to "purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." The term "good deeds" does not mean sitting at home watching wholesome videos instead of going out and watching dirty movies. Good deeds means designing ministries for caring for AIDS orphans in Africa, and feeding the malnourished, and housing the homeless, and teaching the illiterate and ignorant, and freeing the addicted and fighting crime and visiting the prisoner and befriending the lonely, laboring in the cause of protecting the unborn and relieving the crisis of unexpected pregnancies, and a thousand other visible ways of doing good to others in the name of Jesus (see Titus 2:7-8;3:8; Hebrews 10:22; Matthew 5:16).
My point here is that, in relation to our sin-riddled culture, we should pursue both avoidance and engagement; both purity of heart and merciful involvement, both personal holiness and public justice. In short, we should with the mind of Christ be both culture-denying and cultural transforming. The transformed mind steeped in scripture will discern when and how.
5. Submission to cultural institutions (like the state, and places of employment and family) is not canceled out by our freedom in Christ (and our citizenship being in heaven, and our being "strangers and exiles on earth), but our submission is put on a whole new footing of submission to God.
You see the call to submission in verse 13: "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution." Christians are not self-assertive rebels who kick against the pricks of regulations in government and business and schools and home. We are eager to be supportive and compliant wherever it does not compromise our commitment to Christ our king.
But notice the words in verse 13, "for the Lord's sake." Or: "On account of the Lord." Once we may have been submissive out of fear, or out of conniving for advancement, or out of greed, or out of laziness, or because we believed that these earthly institutions really were our master. But that is not how Christians submit now. It is for the Lord's sake.
Verse 16 is Peter's interpretation of those crucial words: "Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God." We are free. We are not slaves to any human institution. So why submit? Why not drive at any speed we want? Why not pay whatever tax we feel like? Why not come to class late? Why not wear perfume to the first service and park in the most convenient place for ourselves? Why not come in at whatever hour you please as a teenager? Why submit to a hundred rules and laws and guidelines in our culture and work places and schools and homes?
The answer is, God freed us from these institutions as masters, and then sent us back into them to declare his excellencies as his servants, not the servants of man. We submit in freedom, for the Lord's sake. Everything is on a different footing. All is from the Lord and for the Lord. Christ died to purify us for good deeds and we enter the world and the culture with a view to displaying the glory and the excellency of this great Christ.
6. Finally, Christians honor all persons, and seek to do it in different ways that are not the same for each, but appropriate to their roles in life.
Verse 17: "Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king." There is a special kind of honor for the king. There is a special fear for God. There is a special love for fellow Christians. But there is an honor for all persons, including the wicked.
Matthew Henry wrote:
The wicked must be honored, not for their wickedness, but for any other qualities, such as wit, prudence, courage, eminency of employment, or the hoary head. Abraham, Jacob, Samuel, the prophets, and the apostles never scrupled to give due honor to bad men (Commentary on the Whole Bible [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., n.d.], 1019).
So in conclusion, let us not simply be a passive and apathetic people priding ourselves in our avoidance ethic. Let us live in the power of the grace that called us out of darkness into light and let us turn back to that very dark and dying culture and declare the excellencies of the One who called us, and let us be rich in good deeds, so that people might see the kind of Master we serve and give him glory on the day of visitation.