What Sort of People?

December 14, 2011

The day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God…? [2 Peter 3.10-12]

You and I are on a journey, and only two destinations are possible; we will either arrive at eternal life or eternal destruction. Whatever problems we think we have, whatever decisions we think we face, all merge into one problem, one decision: will we take the path to life or death?

We forget this easily, however, because the big issue is disguised as all the little issues we face every day. We can lose sight of the momentous nature of the choices we make throughout our lives. Sometimes our theology helps to blur our vision. “We are saved by faith,” we say, as if faith could be separated from the way we live our lives. But of course they cannot be separated. Peter clearly believed in no such separation; he showed this in the quote above. To him, the doctrine of the day of the Lord, the Christian belief that God will judge the world and make new heavens and a new earth, leads inexorably to an obvious question: “What sort of people ought you to be, in holy conduct and godliness?”

Of course, it is crucial that I don’t give the wrong picture. You and I are not saved because we are morally successful. Eternal life is not something we can earn or accomplish for ourselves. The gospel is, first of all, about God’s great mercy, how He has forgiven us for our many sins. I am not here to say, “Join me in sinless perfection.” I could never get away with it; I am a sinful, foolish man in many ways. (I know of many ways, and you all could probably show me more ways that I don’t know yet.) I am not saying that we must prove how good we are in order to get eternal life. I know I am not good enough, and I thank God that He is willing to save me anyway.

Yet, as Peter implies, there is a connection between what we believe and how we live. Saving faith and holy living are joined with an unbreakable bond; what we want and believe will inevitably show itself in how we act. We are still sinners, and our lives will show this clearly. But if we are regenerate children of God, our lives will show this as well. Some of us at McKenzie Study Center have been emphasizing this for some time: in Jack Crabtree’s groundbreaking paper “The Anatomy of Sainthood”; in Jack’s teaching on 1 John and Hebrews; in my teaching in James and Matthew; and in the book I expect to finish soon. I sometimes feel as if I teach on nothing else. Even so, it is still easy, perilously easy, to forget what is at stake, to lose sight of the life and death journey before us. And so I want to remind us all again: our faith is something that must be lived out. Today each one of us must take another momentous step in our journey toward life or away from it. My purpose is not to draw a roadmap for the holy way; I just want us to remember Peter’s question: What sort of people ought we to be?

I Peter 1:13-16

This theme–the connection between our beliefs and our actions–is a familiar one for Peter; in I Peter, he makes the same connection between tomorrow’s hope and today’s holy living:

Therefore, having girded your minds, being sober, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former desires which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” [1 Peter 1.13-16]

Peter makes an implicit but strong connection between the Christian hope and Christian living.

Having girded your minds

In Peter’s day, when a man wearing a long garment needed to be active (to hike, to work, to fight), he would tuck the garment up under his belt to keep from tripping. The human mind needs to be “girded” as well. We are in a life-and-death battle for our souls, but our minds are tangled up in foolish desires, vain hopes, worldly logic, and stupid ideas. Our enemy blows smoke in our eyes and aims his arrows at our hearts, and we stand unable to move, tangled in our own misconceptions. We need to tuck all our worldly thinking out of the way, so that we are free to duck, bob, weave, and fight back.

Being sober

When we get drunk, our minds are fogged. In our day, the designated driver is the one who stays sober, alert, and thus is the only one in touch with reality enough to get behind the wheel. By analogy, most of humanity is spiritually drunk all the time. We get intoxicated by our possessions, our relationships, our pleasures and pains. They dominate our minds; they lull us into a spiritual stupor. We need to wake up, keep alert, pay attention to what is real and important.

Fix your hope completely

How do we keep our minds girded, our souls sober? By fixing our hope completely on the second coming of Jesus Christ. The return of Christ is the great hope and central focus of the Christian life. When our hopes and expectations are fixed on this world, our minds are ungirded and dull. The one who is free and ready to act, the one who is sober and alert, is the one who longs for Jesus to return and rule over creation in righteousness. I have a deep, soul-destroying illness and Jesus is the only doctor. If I lose sight of this, I am blind drunk.

Peter puts this very strongly: “fix your hope completely.” This is not exaggeration. Although the modern church seems to downplay this to an amazing degree, the fact is that the Christian life is a life focused on the future. Many Christians today seem uncomfortable with this. We give each other the subtle message that it is naive to think too much about the second coming of Christ. We complain of someone, “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” We ridicule “pie in the sky” religion. Such ridicule is itself naive and foolish. True Christianity is focused firmly on our future hope. The only way to be any earthly good is to be more heavenly minded, not less. True Christianity is a “pie in the sky” religion; that is exactly what it is. If you are looking for a religion that is going to pay off big in the here and now, keep on looking; Christianity is not the one.

The former desires which were yours in your ignorance

Before we had our hope fixed in the right place, we were ignorant; we followed our every lust and desire because we were deceived; we didn’t know anything better. But now we know that a holy and loving God has something better for us. As Peter says in II Peter 3:13, “We are looking for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” By the grace of God, our desires are coming in line with what is truly valuable. Righteousness is becoming the hope and focus of our lives.

You shall be holy, for I am holy

The God who has called us is holy; that is, He is distinctive, different than the sinful world around us, awe-inspiring in every way, especially in His goodness. If our hope is set on the promise of His righteous kingdom, then our thinking is already different than the world around us. Over time, this difference will be seen; we will be holy, distinctive, marked as belonging to God.

Peter is not describing some super-spirituality, some impossible righteous ideal. He is only saying that if our eyes have truly been opened in belief, then we will live like believers. The gospel we say we believe tells us: Jesus died and rose again to deliver us from our sins, so that we might dwell in His kingdom of righteousness forever. If this is true, then everything is different. To live as a Christian is to see life today in the light of our great hope. It is to emerge slowly from the fog that has clouded our minds for so long.

Grappling with the Gospel

I want to speak directly to the community that has formed in loose relationship to McKenzie Study Center. My purpose is not to criticize, but to sound a warning that we need to hear often. The Study Center is in many ways a battleground. The world today has bought into certain fundamental lies, and we are trying to help people see through those lies to the truth. Unfortunately, some of those lies have made their way into today’s church. People gravitate to MSC who have wrestled with these issues themselves. Many of the people in our community are battle-scarred veterans themselves of various church-wars. They have felt dissatisfied with their experience; they came among us because they found some answers and some like-minded people.

In many ways, I like this about McKenzie Study Center. I believe that we at MSC may have gotten some things right, things that some others have gotten wrong. But it is important that we be very clear: battling falsehood is not the same thing as personally embracing the truth. I have often commented that many who have terrible theologies may still be genuine believers; their theology may be terrible, but their lives show their humility, trust, and longing for God’s righteous kingdom. The opposite side of this picture is equally true: we can fight for all the right theology and still be hard-hearted unbelievers.

The truths that MSC stands for are like a double-edged sword: very valuable and yet very dangerous at the same time. We stand for absolute truth in a relativistic age; we pursue serious and principled exegesis of the Bible; we warn the church of the ever-present dangers of Phariseeism; we proclaim the sovereign grace of God. However, without personal humility and repentance, without a living trust in a loving God, without a personal longing for God’s righteous kingdom, standing for these important truths means nothing. We can become proud and self-satisfied. We can live out the parable of the tax-gatherer and the Pharisee in reverse: in our version, the tax-gatherer cries out, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee. I don’t tithe; I don’t have a quiet time; I don’t go to prayer meetings.” Pious pride and pride for being impious are equally ugly.

Recently I have been reading a wonderful book by J. I. Packer about the Puritans: A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. The Puritans get a bad rap in our culture, but to me the Puritan writings contain things unmatched for their wisdom and understanding. Packer quotes John Owen:

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth;… when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for–then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men. And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value. What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense of sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul? What will it avail me to evince, by testimonies and arguments, that he hath made satisfaction for sin, if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abideth on me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him?… Will it be any advantage to me, in the issue, to profess and dispute that God worketh the conversion of a sinner by the irresistible grace of His Spirit, if I was never acquainted experimentally with the deadness and utter impotency to good, that opposition to the law of God, which is in my own soul by nature, [and] with the efficacy of the exceeding greatness of the power of God in quickening, enlightening, and bringing forth the fruits of obedience in me?… Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel… unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him.

John Owen is profoundly right. Each of us must come to terms with the gospel in our own hearts. The truths of the gospel are meant to be believed. They are meant to disturb me and make me rethink my life. They are meant to comfort me and remind me of the great love of God. They are meant to inform me and give me a new vision for what my true needs are. They are meant to be like those tiny time pills we hear about: after we swallow them, they slowly and inexorably release new ideas into our minds, killing our old way of thinking in the process.

It is good to fight for the gospel, but it is essential that each of us personally fight with the gospel. I must wrestle, I must grapple, I must grab these truths by the throat and hang on for dear life. What everybody else does is irrelevant. This is between God and me, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. A blessing is there to be found in the gospel, and by God I’m going to find it.

Each of us must do this for ourselves. The MSC community has its virtues and its faults, but in the end we can only encourage each other to make the journey. Everyone has to choose his or her own path, and we can only pray that we are helping and not hindering each other on the way.

In order to be believers, we must come to terms with certain key truths about the world:

  • I am a sinner.
  • God is good, loving, and trustworthy.
  • God has promised to deliver us from our sin forever.
  • Nothing is more valuable than the eternal life of righteousness that God has promised.

We do not understand these things all at once. Very few young believers understand the life-shaking implications of the gospel they believe. We confront these truths in our day-to-day lives. That is what life in this age is about. We are tempted to think that our lives are about our possessions, our friends, our families, our pleasures and pains, but we are wrong. Our lives are about waking up from the enchanted sleep that has fallen on the rest of the world, becoming wise and godly, and living according to this wisdom.

Take a good look at what is true about your own life. Splash your face with water. Get sober. Wake up. Get it into your head: you are living in a sand-castle, and the tide is coming in. Start heading for that palace built on the rock, before it is too late.

***

This article by Ron Julian was originally published for McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

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