THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST. PETER
THE WORK OF THE TRINITY IN MAN’S ELECTION AND SALVATION
1 Peter 1:1-2
"WHEN thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren," [Luke 22:32] was the Lord’s injunction to St. Peter, of which this Epistle may be considered as a part fulfillment. So richly stored is it with counsel, warning, and consolation that Luther, the conflicts of whose life will bear some comparison with the trials of these Asian converts, calls it one of the most precious portions of the New Testament Scriptures. Its value is further enhanced because in so many places the Apostle reverts in thought or word to his own life-history, and draws his teaching from the rich stream of personal experience. Even the name which he sets at the head of the letter had its lesson in connection with Jesus. Most Jews took a second name for profaner use in their commerce with the heathen; but to Simon, the son of Jonas, Peter must have been a specially sacred name, must have served as a watchword both to himself and to all others who had learnt the story of its bestowal and the meaning which was bound up with it.
That a letter by St. Peter should be, as this is, of a very practical character is no more than we might expect from what we know of the Apostle from the Gospels. Prompt in word and action, ever the spokesman of the twelve, he seems made for a guide and leader of men. What perhaps we should not have expected is the very definite doctrinal language with which the Epistle opens. Nowhere in the writings either of St. Paul or St. John do we find more full or more instructive teaching concerning the Holy Trinity. And herein St. Peter has been guided to choose the only order which tends to edification. Sound lessons for Christian life must be grounded upon a right faith, and a brother can afford no strength to his brethren unless first of all he point them clearly to the source whence both his strength and theirs must come.
Of the previous intercourse between St. Peter and those to whom he writes we can only judge from the Epistle itself. The Apostle’s name disappears from New Testament history after the Council of Jerusalem, [Acts 15:1-41] but we feel sure his labors did not cease then; and though the first message of Christianity may have been brought to these Asiatic provinces by St. Paul, the allusions which St. Peter makes to the trials of the converts are such as seem impossible had he not himself labored among them. The frequent reminders, the special warnings, could come only from one who knew their circumstances very intimately. Allusions to the former lusts indulged in, in their days of ignorance, to the reproaches which they now have to suffer from their heathen neighbors, to their going astray like lost sheep, are a few of the unmistakable evidences of personal knowledge.
He writes to them as "sojourners of the dispersion." In the minds of the Jews this name would wake up sad memories of their past history. It told of that great break in the national unity which was made by the tarrying in Babylon of so many of the people at the time of the return, then of those painful periods in later days when their nation, as the vassal now of Persia, now of Greece, of Egypt, of Syria, and of Rome, was made the sport of the world-powers as they rose and fell, times in which Israel could see few tokens of the Divine favor, could hear no voice of the prophet to encourage or to guide. But now to those who had accepted the Gospel of Christ those dark years would be seen to have been in no wise barren of blessing and of profit. The scattered Jews had carried much of their faith abroad among the nations; schools of religious teaching had arisen; the chosen people in their dispersion had adopted the language best known among the other nations; and thus the outcome of those sorrowful times had been a preparation for the Gospel. Proselytes had been made in the countries of their exile, and a wider field opened for the Christian harvest. The dispersion of Israel had been made, as it were, a bridge over which the grace of God passed for publishing the glad tidings of the Gospel, and to gather Jew and Gentile alike into the fold of Christ.
But it would be a mistake to restrict the word "dispersion" here to the Jewish converts. The Apostle speaks more than once in his letter to those who had never been Jews, to men who [1 Peter 1:14] had been fashioned according to their former lusts in ignorance; who had in times [1 Peter 2:10] no share with God’s people; who [1 Peter 4:13] had wrought the will of the Gentiles, walking in lasciviousness, lusts, and abominable idolatries. To these too since their conversion the name "dispersion" might be fitly applied. They were but a few here and there among the multitudes of heathendom. And their acceptance of the faith of Jesus must have given to their lives a different aspect. It must often be so with the faithful. Their life is from the world apart. It must have been specially thus with these Christians in Asia. They could be verily only strangers and sojourners; their true home could never be made among their heathen surroundings. As the Jew in old days sighed for Jerusalem, so their hope was centered on a Jerusalem above.
Yet God had a mission for them in the world. This is a special portion of St. Peter’s message. As the scattered Jews of old had opened a door for the spreading of the Gospel, so the Christians of the dispersion were to be its witnesses. Their election had made them a peculiar people; but it was that they might show forth the praises of Him who had called them out of darkness into His marvelous light, and that by their good works the heathen might be won to glorify God when in His own time He should visit them too with the day-star from on high.
But beside the words which speak of severance and pilgrimage, the Apostle uses one of a different character. With that large charity and hope which is stamped upon the whole of the New Testament, he calls these scattered Christian converts the elect of God. Just as St. Paul so often includes whole Churches, even though he find in them many things to blame and to reprove, under the title of "saints" or "called to be saints," so it is here. And the sense of their election is intended to be a mighty power. It is to bind them wherever they may be scattered into one communion in Christ Jesus. Through the world they are dispersed, but in Christ they constitute a great unity. And the sense of this is to lift their hearts above any sorrowing for their isolation in the world. For through Christ they have [1 Peter 1:4] an inheritance, a home, a claim of sonship; and their salvation is ready to be revealed in the last time.
Later generations have witnessed much unprofitable controversy round this word "election." Some men have seen nothing else in the Bible, while others have hardly acknowledged it to be there at all. Then some have labored to reconcile to their understandings the two truths of God’s sovereignty and the freedom of the human will, not content to believe that in God’s economy there may be things beyond their measure. St. Peter, like the other New Testament writers, enters on no such discussions. Whether amid the full assurance of newly quickened faith the first Christians found no room for intellectual difficulties, or whether the spirit within them led them to feel that such questions must ever be insoluble, we cannot know; but it is instructive to note that the Scripture does not raise them. They are the growth of later days, of times when Christianity was widespread, when men had lost the feeling that they were strangers and pilgrims of the dispersion, and were no longer prepared to welcome, with St. Peter and St. Paul, every Christian brother into the number of God’s chosen ones, counting them as those who had been called to be saints.
Of the election of believers the Apostle here speaks in its origin, its progress, and its consummation. He views it as a process which must extend through the whole life, and connects its various stages with the Three Persons of the Trinity. But, with the same practical instinct which has already been noticed, he enters on no statements about the nature of the Godhead in itself; he neither discusses what may be known of God, nor how the knowledge is to be obtained. He says no word to intimate that the mention of three Persons may be difficult to understand in co-relation to the unity of the Godhead. Such inquiries exercise the mind, but can hardly further, what was St. Peter’s special aim, the edification and comfort of the soul. That result comes from the inward experience of what each Person of the Godhead is to us, and on this the Apostle has a lesson. He makes plain for us the share which Father, Son, and Spirit bear in the work of human salvation. Christians, he teaches us, are elect, chosen to be saints, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father; the election is maintained when their lives are constantly hallowed by the influence of the Holy Ghost; while in Christ they have not only an example of perfect obedience after which they must strive, but a Redeemer whose blood can cleanse them from all the sins from which the most earnest strivings will not set them free. Of these things the Christian soul can have experience. It is thus that the life of the elect believer begins, grows, and is perfected. It begins "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father." Here St. Peter may be his own interpreter. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost he employs the same word, "foreknowledge," and he is the only one who uses it in the New Testament. There [Acts 2:23] he says that Christ was delivered up to be crucified by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. And on the same subject in this very chapter [1 Peter 1:20] he speaks of Jesus as foreknown, as a Lamb without spot and blemish before the foundation of the world. In these passages we are carried back beyond the ages into the Divine council-chamber, and we find the whole course of human history naked and open before the eyes of the All-seeing. God knew even then what the history of the human race would be, saw that sin would find an entrance into the world, and that a sacrifice would be needed, if sinners were to be redeemed. Yet He called the world and its tenants into being, and provided the ransom in the person of His only Son. Why this was well-pleasing unto Him it is not ours to discuss; whether for the uplifting of humanity by providing an opportunity for moral obedience or for the greater manifestation of His infinite love. But whatever else is mysterious, one thing is plain: the counsel of the Holy One is seen to be a counsel of mercy and of love; and though its operation may not seldom be perplexing to our finite powers, the Apostle teaches us that this determination from all eternity was made with infinite tenderness. He tells us it was the ordinance of our Father. The beginning and the end thereof are hidden from us. We learn only a fragment of His dealings during the brief period of a human life. But men may rest content with the proof of their election in the sound of the Gospel message which they hear. They who are thus called may count themselves for chosen. This call is the Divine testimony that God is choosing them. Concerning His intention towards others who may seem to have passed away without hearing of His love, or who are living as though no loving message of glad tidings had ever been proclaimed, we must rest in ignorance, only assured that the Eternal God is as truly their Father as we know Him to be ours.
To limited human knowledge the course of the world has ever been, must ever be, full of darkness and perplexities. Men gaze upon it as they do upon the wrong side of a piece of tapestry as it is woven. To such observers the pattern is always obscure, many a time quite unintelligible. For full knowledge we have to wait to the end. Then the web will be reversed. God’s designs and their working comprehended; we shall know even as we are known, and, with hearts and voices tuned to praise, shall cry, "He hath done all things well." Of such a revelation the poet (Shelley, Adonais, Stanza 3) sings, a revelation of the all-seeing, unchanging Jehovah and of the glorious enlightenment that shall be in His presence:-
"The one remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light for ever shines, earth’s shadows fly:
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments."
In this wise would St. Peter have us think of the grace of election. It has its beginning from our Father; its fulfillment will also be with Him. The measure and the manner of its bestowal are according to His foreknowledge, according to the same foreknowledge which provided in Christ an atonement for sin, which appointed Him to die, and that not for some sinners only, but for the sins of the whole world.
But in the call according to God’s foreknowledge the believer is not perfected. He must live worthily of his calling. And as his election at the first is of God, so the power to hold it fast is a Divine gift. He who would rejoice over God’s election must feel and constantly foster within himself the "sanctification of the Spirit." To be made holy is his great need. This demands a life of progress, of renewal, a daily endeavor to restore the image which was lost at the Fall. "Be ye holy, for I am holy," is a fundamental precept of both Old and New Testaments; and it is a continual admonition, speaking unto Christians that they go forward. Under the Law the lesson was enforced by external symbols. Holy ground, holy days, holy offices, kept men alive to the need of preparation, of purification, before they could be fit to draw near unto God or for God to draw near unto them.
For thus there is opened a more excellent way: the inward, spiritual cleansing of the heart. Christ has gone away where He was before, and sends down to His servants the Holy Ghost, who bestows power that the election of the Father may be made sure. Hence we can understand those frequent exhortations in the epistles, "Walk in the Spirit"; "Live in the Spirit"; "Quench not the Spirit." The Christian life is a struggle. The flesh is ever striving for the mastery. This enemy the believer must do to death. And as aforetime, so now, sanctification begins with purification. Christ sanctifies His Church, those whom He has called to Him out of the world; and the manner is by cleansing them through the washing of water with the word. Here we gladly think of that sacrament which He ordained for admission into the Church as the beginning of his Divine operation, as the wonted entrance of the Holy Ghost for His work of purifying. But that work must be continued. He is called "holy" because He makes men holy by His abode with them. And Christ has described for us how this is brought to pass. "He shall take of Mine," says our Lord, "and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are Mine". [John 16:14-15] Every good gift, which the Father who calls men hath, the Spirit is sent to impart. The words speak of the gradual manner of its bestowal; all things may be given, but they are given little by little, as men can or are fit to receive them. He shall take a portion of what is Mine, is the literal meaning of the Evangelist’s phrase. [John 16:15] The plural phrase, παντα οσα εχει ο πατηρ, marks the boundless supply, the singular, εκ του εμου ληψεται, the Spirit’s choice of such a portion there from as best suits the receiver’s needs and powers. In this wise men may become gradually conformed to the image of Christ, grow more and more like Him day by day. More and more will they drink in of the whole truth, and more and more will they be sanctified.
In this daily enlightenment must God’s faithful ones live, a life whose atmosphere is the hallowing influence of the Holy Ghost. But it is to be no mere life of receptivity, with no effort of their own. The Apostle makes this clear elsewhere, when he says, "Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts" [1 Peter 3:15] -make them fit abodes for His Spirit to dwell in; lead your lives in holy conversation, that the house may be swept and garnished, and you be vessels sanctified and meet for the Master’s use.
Thus chosen by the Father and led onward by the Spirit, the Christian is brought ever nearer to the full purpose of his calling: "unto obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." The Christ-pattern which the Spirit sets before men is in no feature more striking than in its perfect obedience. The prophetic announcement of this submission sounds down to us from the Psalms: "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God"; and the incarnate Son declares of Himself, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent He, and to finish His work": and even in the hour of His supreme agony His word is still, "Father, not My will, but Thine, be done." Specially solemn, almost startling, is the language of the Apostle to the Hebrews when he says of Jesus that "He learned obedience by the things which He suffered," and that "it became the Father, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make Christ, the Captain of their salvation, perfect through suffering." With the Lord as an example, obedience is made the noblest, the New Testament form of sacrifice.
But when such obedience was connected with the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, the Jews among St. Peter’s converts must have been carried in thought to that scene described in Exodus 24:1-18. There, through Moses as a mediator, we read of God’s law being made known to Israel, and the people with one voice promised obedience: "All the words which the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient." Then followed a sacrifice; and Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words"; and the Lord drew nigh unto His people, and the sight of the glory of the Lord on Mount Sinai was like devouring fire in the eyes of the children of Israel.
For Christians there is a Mediator of a better covenant. We are not come unto the mount that burned with fire, but unto Mount Zion. [Hebrews 12:18-22] In that other sacrament of His own institution, our Lord makes us partakers of the benefits of His Passion. With His own blood He constantly maketh His people pure, fitting them to appear in the presence of the Father. There at length the purpose of their election shall be complete in fullness of joy in the sight of Him who chose them before the foundation of the world.
Thus does the Apostle set forth his practical, profitable lessons on the work of the Trinity in man’s election and salvation; and he concludes them with a benediction part of which is very frequent in the letters of St. Paul: "Grace to you and peace." The early preachers felt that these two blessings traveled hand in hand, and comprised everything which a believer could need: God’s favor and the happiness which is its fruit. Grace is the nurture of the Christian life; peace is its character. These strangers of the dispersion had been made partakers of the Divine grace. This very letter was one gift more, the consolation of which we can well conceive. But St. Peter models his benediction to be a fitting sequel to his previous teaching. "Grace," he says, "to you and peace be multiplied." The verb "be multiplied" is only used by him here and in the Second Epistle, and by St. Jude, whose letter has so much in common with St. Peter’s.
In this prayer the same thought is with him as when he spake of the stages of the Christian election. There must ever be growth as the Sign of life. Let them hold fast the grace already received, and more would be bestowed. Grace for grace is God’s rule of giving, new store for what has been rightly used. This one word of his prayer would say to them, Seek constantly greater sanctification, more holiness, from the Spirit; yield your will to God in imitation of Jesus, who sanctified Himself that His servants might be sanctified. Then, though you be strangers of the dispersion, though the world will have none of you, you shall be kept in perfect peace, and feel sure that you can trust His words who says to His warfaring servants, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."