I’ll begin by stating the aim of this message six different ways:
My aim is that those of you who preach or teach the word of God would make clear the effective connection between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. And I mean the killing of our own sin, not the sins of others.
. . . that you would make clear the effective connection between canceled sin and conquered sin.
. . . that you would make clear the effective connection between the horrors of Christ’s suffering and the holiness of Christ’s people.
. . . that you would make clear that in releasing his people from guilt, Christ effectively secured their lives of righteousness in this world.
. . . that you would make clear the effective connection between justification by Christ’s blood and progressive sanctification by that same blood.
. . . that you would make clear the effective connection between the tearing of Christ’s flesh in crucifixion and the tearing out of your eye in the battle against lust.
I chose to pursue this aim with you because it seems to me that in the last forty years or so of the gospel-centered emphasis in America, there has not been a biblically proportionate emphasis on preaching holiness of life and godliness and righteousness and radical, countercultural Christlikeness. Instead, it seems to me that to be gospel-centered has often filtered down to the pew as something like this: “Preach the gospel to yourself every day,” which is heard to mean, Rehearse the good news that you are loved, accepted, and forgiven. No condemnation. No judgment. No hell. Acquitted. Vindicated. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
Saved for More and Greater
Here’s the problem with that emphasis. Suppose you are condemned to be hanged by the neck until dead tomorrow morning. But when they come to open your cell at dawn, instead of taking you to the gallows, they set you free because someone has volunteered to take your place. This would be the happiest experience of your life, at least up till that moment. Your heart would overflow with joy being free from condemnation and execution. And you would be full of tearful thankfulness for the substitute. This would be an absolutely overwhelming, all-embracing experience of joy.
Perhaps a year later the experience is still vivid and intense with happiness and thankfulness. And perhaps for the next five years you wake up every morning, and go to bed every night, preaching to yourself: “I’m not condemned! I’m not going to be hanged! I have a reprieve! No condemnation! No execution. No gallows! No punishment! Accepted! Forgiven!” Ten years later you are still preaching this same message to yourself. Thirty years later. Fifty years later. “I’m not going to be hanged! I’m not going to be hanged!”
You see the problem. There are vast reaches of the human heart — depths, heights, breadths — that can never be filled, never be satisfied, with that truncated gospel. We must have more than the message of justification. We must have more than: No condemnation. No hell. No guilt. Justification by faith is a means to something more and greater. The propitiation of God’s wrath is a means to something more and greater. Forgiveness of sins is a means to something more and greater. Escape from hell is a means to something more and greater. Redemption from slavery is a means to something more and greater.
Ultimately, finally, that “more and greater” is God himself. First Peter 3:18 puts it like this: “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” To see God. To know God. To have God as a companion. To enjoy God. To be irradiated with the glory of God. To finally, in some suitable measure, reflect God. To become, at last, a fitting echo of the excellence of God. Brothers and sisters, that is a million times greater than justification and forgiveness. Just as walking into heaven is a million times greater than walking out of hell. Because God is there. There is no comparing the pleasure of walking out of prison and walking into the arms of your wife.
But between the glories of justification and forgiveness that launch us by the blood of Christ into life, and final glorification with its perfected vision of God, and sinless savoring of his fellowship — between the first beginning and the final goal of our redeemed existence — there is the Christian life, a life of faith and hope and love and truth and righteousness and purity and holiness and courage, and countercultural conformity to Jesus over against selfishness and pride and greed and lust and rebellion and a hundred forms of worldliness.
Another Way of Preaching Grace
There is a kind of unhealthy preaching that focuses on holiness of life but in a way that fails to make plain the effective connection between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. It fails to make plain the relationship between Christ’s canceling sin and our conquering sin. And therefore holiness, in this kind of preaching, becomes a burden too great to bear. And people become despairing, or they become self-righteous, moral achievers.
“There is a way to preach that only preaches grace that pardons, but doesn’t preach the grace that empowers.”
And there is a way to preach that is so allergic to biblical imperatives and commands and warnings that it never preaches with any sense of urgency about the biblical demand for holiness. It never says, “Tear out your eye because it’s better to lose one of your members than for your whole body be thrown the hell” (Matthew 5:29). It never says, “Pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). It never says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). It only preaches grace that pardons, but doesn’t preach the grace that empowers. Grace to forgive sin, but not grace to kill sin.
My aim in this message is to plead for another way of preaching and teaching that commits neither of those two errors. My aim is that we would preach so as to show the people the effective connection — yes, even by grace to establish the effective connection — between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. Between canceled sin and conquered sin. Between the horrors of Christ’s suffering for us and the holiness of our life in him.
Canceled Sin and Conquered Sin
Of all the texts we could look at to make these connections (for example, Romans 8:4; Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 10:10), I want to look at two passages in 1 Peter. Let’s look first at 1 Peter 1:14–16.
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Four observations from those three verses: First, holiness is commanded. “Be holy” in verse 15 is an imperative (geneitheite). Not a suggestion. But a command.
Second, God’s holiness is the ground of the command. Verse 16: “Be holy, for I am holy.”
Third, God’s holiness means that he is so separate from all that is ordinary, indeed all that is created, that he is in a class by himself, one of a kind — like the rarest diamond. We call this kind of separateness transcendence. And the Bible adds a moral dimension to this transcendence so that we call it transcendent purity or goodness.
God’s holiness means that he is perfectly separate from all that is finite and all that is defiled. Transcendent purity. And since God’s purity is not measured by anything outside himself, he is the measure of all purity and all goodness and all worth. For God to be actively holy, therefore, is for all his words, and all his attitudes, and all his actions to be in perfect harmony with the infinite value of his transcendent purity. That is what it means for God to be holy.
Fourth, therefore, our holiness derives from his. It means that all our attitudes and words and actions should be in harmony with his infinite worth. First Peter 1:14 fills out what it means for us to be holy as God is holy: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions [the word is simply “desires”] of your former ignorance.” Unholy desires flow from ignorance — of what? God. The worth of God. The greatness of God. The all-satisfying beauty of God. The holiness of God.
So, human holiness is the transformation of our knowledge, replacing “ignorance” (agnoia, verse 14) and the transformation of our “desires” so that they conform to the true worth of God and not to our former ignorance. Human holiness is to know the true greatness and beauty and worth of God, and to have desires that conform to that knowledge. They’re the attitudes and words and actions that follow.
Blood-Bought Ransom and Holy Conduct
Now comes the connection between the holiness of the Christian and the horrors of Christ’s suffering. Verse 17:
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear [another imperative, like “be holy”] throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:17–19)
Now, notice carefully that there are two ways that Peter makes the connection between the blood-ransom of Christ and the holy conduct of the Christian.
‘Ransomed from Futile Ways’
The first is in verse 18 where he says, “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” He does not say we were ransomed from guilt, or from condemnation, or from Satan, or from hell. He says we were ransomed from “futile ways.” The word for “ways” (in verse 18) is the same word used for “conduct” in verse 15: “Be holy in all your conduct (anastrophei).” So, to show the parallel we can say (verse 18): You were ransomed from your futile “conduct” (anastropheis) by the precious blood of Christ.
Which means that when Christ died and shed his infinitely valuable blood, he purchased, by means of a ransom-payment, our transfer from futile conduct to holy conduct. He bought our holiness — our holy conduct. Not with perishable things like silver and gold (verse 18), but with the most precious thing in the world, the blood of the Son of God. That is what he paid for our holiness. That is what he paid to bring all our attitudes and words and actions into harmony with the infinite worth of God.
And the purchase was effective. Remember I used the word “effective” in each of my six statements of my aim for this message. I said my aim was a kind of preaching that makes clear the effective connection between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. Christ’s ransom-payment was not a failure. He didn’t shed his blood in vain. He obtained what he paid for. The holy conduct of God’s people is sure. Which is why the Bible repeatedly makes plain that if you don’t have this holiness of life, you have no warrant to think you are part of the ransomed. This is serious. Perhaps you can feel something of why this message feels so important to me.
‘Because You Were Ransomed’
I said there were two ways that Peter makes the connection in this passage between the blood-ransom of Christ and the holiness of the Christian. And the first way is that by his blood he effectively ransomed his people from futile conduct into holy conduct. He effectively obtained the holiness of his people.
Now, the second way is seen in the logical connection between verses 17 and 18. In the second half of verse 17 he gives the command: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” [that is, be holy, for God is holy] and then comes a participle that functions as a ground (verse 18a): “ . . . knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways.” So, the logic connecting the two verses is: “Conduct yourselves in holiness, because you know you were ransomed from futile ways into holy ways.”
This is the preaching I am pleading for. Peter cries out to his congregations (the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia) — he cries out with a clear imperative, command, “Conduct yourselves in godly fear! Be holy, because your God is holy. Bend your whole life into harmony with the infinite worth of God in Christ. Make holiness complete in the fear of the Lord” (as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 7:1). And he gives the great ground: Because your freedom from the old, futile ways, and your new holy way of life in Christ Jesus, has been bought by the most precious reality in the world, the blood of Jesus.
It’s not as though God saw his kidnapped wife in the hands of the enemy and paid the ransom to have her back, and then watched as she walked free and, instead of coming home, went and shacked up with another man. It didn’t happen like that. That’s not the way to think about the blood of Jesus. It is not impotent. It is effective. It was not shed in vain. The ransom bought a new way of life for his people. They will walk in the way he bought. And if they don’t, they have no warrant to think they are his people.
You recall how Paul put it in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The new way of holy living for the redeemed has been prepared by God. And part of that preparation was the ransom of 1 Peter 1:18. God did not spill the blood of his Son in vain. The good works of his people were purchased — prepared. The command is to walk in the steps he obtained with his blood.
That We Might Live to Holiness
Now, look with me at 1 Peter 2:20–24. Let’s start in the middle of verse 20. Peter is talking to slaves, but what he says applies to all Christians:
. . . If when you do good and suffer for it you endure [that is, endure in faith and love — holiness of life], this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called [so, this is God’s will for you, his call on your life. This is the imperative of a new way of life: not returning evil for evil, but good for evil. Then comes the ground], because Christ also suffered for you.
So, God’s call on your life to live a holy, humble, patient, radically countercultural life of returning good for evil is based on the suffering of Christ for you. That’s what we saw in chapter 1. Now we see it again here.
But someone might say: wait a minute. You are interpreting the phrase “for you” in verse 21 (“Christ also suffered for you”) in a substitutionary way, but the very next phrase describes the death of Christ as an example, not a substitution. So, verse 21 goes on: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return.” So, why do you take the words, “suffered for you,” to mean, “suffer in your place,” when the defining participle describes it as suffering to give you an example of how to live?
My answer is: I take the words this way because that’s where Peter goes in his explanation in verse 24. The death of Jesus “for you” (verse 21) is not simply to give you an example for how to live, but even more fundamentally to bear your sins (verse 24): “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” So, that’s the ground of the call on your life to return good for evil and walk in all holiness. And to make that crystal clear Peter adds at the end of verse 24 the purpose clause for the sin-bearing work of Christ, namely, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” — live to holiness. That we might be holy.
So, the life-altering logic is the same as 1 Peter 1:17–18. “Be holy, because God is holy, and conduct yourselves in godly fear, because he ransomed you from a futile way of life for a life of holiness by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”
“The sin-bearing work of Christ is the ground of the sin-killing work of the Christian.”
And the logic here in 1 Peter 2:24 is that the sin-bearing work of Christ is the ground of the sin-killing work of the Christian. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, in order that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Or as verse 21 says: we are called to return good for evil because Christ suffered “for us” — not only to give us an example, but also to bear our sins in his suffering for us.
So, my message is: Preach this! Preach the pursuit of holiness this way. Preach the effective connection between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. Preach the effective connection between Christ’s canceling sin and our conquering sin. Preach the effective connection between the horrors of Christ’s suffering and the holiness of Christ’s people. Preach the effective connection between the tearing off of the flesh of Jesus and the tearing out of our lustful eyes.
Five Reasons Preachers Avoid Holiness
I’d like to close by addressing five possible reasons some pastors don’t preach the pursuit of holiness with the kind of blood-bought urgency we find in the New Testament.
First, perhaps some have simply not seen the connection between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. It’s just a blind spot in their biblical thinking. I hope this message helps remove that blind spot.
Second, perhaps some are reluctant to press the conscience of their people with the biblical demand for holiness because they fear the rebuke of Jesus that he gave to the lawyers when he said,
Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. (Luke 11:46)
To such pastors I would plead that you not try to address a real, biblical danger in an unbiblical way. The point of this message is that the Christian fight for holiness is connected to the forgiveness of sins in a gloriously unique gospel way not found in any other religion. Namely, that the only sin that can be successfully fought is a forgiven sin. And not only that, but also since the forgiveness has been secured infallibly by the blood of Jesus, the fight will be successful. Get to know this pervasive New Testament dynamic of holiness, and you will not have to fear the rebuke of Jesus that you have made his yoke hard and his burden heavy. Just the opposite.
Third, some pastors avoid preaching on the urgency and necessity of holiness because their own secret lives are morally compromised. They are wasting their time on trifles. They are watching movies that fill their minds with worldliness, not godliness. They are dabbling in pornography, or worse. They are dishonest in their financial dealings. They continually overeat in bondage to food. They neglect the teaching of their children and don’t pray with their wives. They are starting to medicate with wine, which they once called freedom. Their casual mouth has become crude. They’ve grown weary of fruitful Bible study and are becoming second-handers, depending on other people’s sermons.
Is it any wonder that these pastors preach week in and week out on the grace of God to forgive sins, but rarely celebrate the glory of God’s grace to defeat sinning? They lift high the cross as a covering for all their sins, and never make the biblical connection that Christ was crucified to conquer pornography, crucified to conquer laziness, crucified to conquer gluttony, crucified to conquer dishonesty, crucified to bring back the joy of creating their own sermons.
“There are pastors who are deeply infected with the coddling culture of contemporary America.”
Fourth, some pastors avoid anything approaching a kind of preaching that would confront people with their sin and would risk making them unhappy. There are pastors who are deeply infected with the coddling culture of contemporary America, and who are not only hyper-sensitive to being offended, but in the pulpit are fearful of stirring up anyone’s displeasure. There are reasons for this kind of reluctance to preach the urgency of holiness, and one of them is a deep-seated insecurity that shows itself in a desperate need to be liked — to be approved by other people.
Such pastors need to dig down deep into their hearts, and perhaps into their past, to find why these insecurities have such a hold on them, and then, perhaps with the help of counselors, apply the sovereign grace of God more deeply to their own hearts than they ever have.
Finally, some pastors are so fearful of being labeled as conservative, or fundamentalist, or progressive, or woke, or whatever the circles they care about would look down on, that they avoid any radical, biblical command that would seem to put them in some camp that they don’t want to be part of.
So perhaps, for example, they will not deal with racial discrimination, because that will make them sound woke. Or they won’t deal with, say, modesty, or nudity in movies, because that will make them sound fundamentalist. Or they won’t deal with the fact that we are citizens of heaven first and not American first, because that will make them sound unpatriotic.
The remedy for this bondage to the opinions of others is first to become more like Jesus, who had this reputation (Mark 12:14): “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”
And the second part of that remedy is to be so radically committed to all that the Bible teaches that just when people think they have you pegged in some camp, you bring out of your biblical treasure chest something that throws them completely off-balance — until it becomes well-known: you are nobody’s lackey. You do not live to please men, right or left, rich or poor, white or black, male or female. You march to the biblical drum, no matter what.
Power in the Blood
My prayer for you is that when all of these obstacles are out of the way, you would preach and teach and live in such a way as to help your people experience the effective connection between the sin-bearing work of Christ and the sin-killing work of the Christian. Between the glorious justifying and glorious sanctifying effect of the precious blood of Christ. That you would sing with your people, and mean it:
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood.
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.