The holiness of God is one way of talking about God’s otherness. His difference from us. His being in class by himself. Hannah put it like this in 1 Samuel 2:2, “There is no one holy like the Lᴏʀᴅ, indeed, there is no one besides thee, nor is there any rock like our God.” His holiness is transcendent, pure, absolute uniqueness.
There is an infinite difference between him and us. Which means that when we see his holiness most clearly, we not only feel unworthy the way Isaiah did in Isaiah 6:5, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the Lᴏ LᴏƦᴅ of hosts!” — we not only respond like that, but we also meet strange things. Things that at first don’t make sense to us. God’s holiness is not only other, it is strange to fallen human beings.
When we see it most clearly in the Bible we see strange things. It has unexpected implications for our lives. We think we have the gospel figured out and are on our way to living in accord with the gospel and suddenly we meet the implications of God’s holiness that baffle us. They are strange. And many people at that point won’t listen to what the Bible has to say. They have begun to make some sense of God, and suddenly the Bible draws out some implication of his holiness that doesn’t fit our way of thinking about him.
I think this is the case in 1 Peter 1:13–21. And I give you a heads up in the hope that you will not run away from what this text says, but will ask God for new light and larger understanding and greater affections in worship and more robust obedience — that your holiness would be more strange like God’s holiness.
So I invite you to turn to 1 Peter 1:13–21 and follow as I read:
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
Three Main Commands
There are three imperative verbs in these verses. All the other 16 verbs are participles, indicative, with one infinitive. That means there are three main commands for us and everything else is explanation and argument for those three commands.
The first is in verse 13b: “. . . set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Literally “hope fully.” It’s a command that we feel full, strong hope that when Jesus comes again we will experience grace and this grace will be all-satisfying. In other words, Peter wants us to feel profoundly confident in the final outcome of our lives at the revelation of Christ. It will mean more grace. And the fulfillment of deepest longings. That’s why we are to hope fully, not mildly, but fully. This will be great grace. Eternally satisfying grace.
The second imperative is at the end of verse 15. But let’s read 14 and 15 to see the flow: “As obedient children, do not be conformed (that’s a participle: “not being conformed”) to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” The verb is the imperative of “be” or “become.” And specifically the focus is on the outcome of this being in doing: Be holy in all your conduct — your way of life. Live a holy life.
So in verse 13 we have “hope fully” and in verse 15 we have “be holy.”
The third imperative is found in verse 17: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” In verse 15 the command was, “in all your conduct be holy.” And in verse 17 the command is “in all your conduct fear.” And the fear is connected most closely with God’s judgment. Since your Father “judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves in fear.”
So now we have three commands: Live in hope. Live in holiness. Live in fear. And with each one of these the strangeness increases. This is what I meant when I said earlier that when we see God’s holiness most clearly we see strange things. It has unexpected implications for our lives. We think we have the gospel figured out, and suddenly we meet some implications of God’s holiness that baffle us. They are strange. Like: Live in holiness, and the way to do this is, live in hope and live in fear.
Like God’s Holiness
Let’s be sure we see that the holiness we are being called to is indeed like God’s holiness. And this is why it is causing these strange juxtapositions of hope and fear. Verses 15–16, “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.’” The holiness of God is both the pattern and the ground for our holiness. Notice the word “for” in this quote from Leviticus 11:44, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” So God’s holiness is the ground or basis of our holiness. And notice the word “as” at the beginning of verse 15, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy.” So God’s holiness is the pattern. Ground and pattern.
This is why we are meeting such strange things in these verses. We are being called to be like God in his holiness. And we have said that God’s holiness is his uniqueness, his otherness. His being one of a kind. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising then, that the implications of this are so surprising: Live in hope and live in fear so that you become like God and live in holiness.
For Our Children
And this is what we want to impart to our children! We want them to taste what it is to hope fully in the grace that is coming to God’s children when Christ returns. We want them to obey verse 13b, “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” We want them to grow up unshakeable in their ultimate optimism — optimism for them, and for the church, and indeed for what God will make of this world.
They are coming into a world that is flaunting its evil more openly than Americans have been accustomed to. What we see around us is not new in the world. And there have been cultures much more blatantly immoral than ours. But our children will have to deal with manifestations of sinfulness that were more restrained in past decades in this country. And therefore we want to raise them not as flimsy optimists whose hopes sink with every new outrage, but as ultimate, unshakable optimists, whose hope is full and strong, because of the grace that is coming to them at he revelation of Jesus Christ — not to mention all the grace that arrives in their lives for strength every day.
And we want our children to taste the holy fear of God their father and their judge. We want them to obey verse 17: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” We don’t want to raise emotionally fragile children who can only be told to hope because if they are told to fear they collapse with no emotional capacities for such a thing. We don’t want to raise children who have no built categories for holy fear alongside hoping fully. We don’t to raise children whose hope is the kind that vanishes when they fear God. We want to raise young people who are as strange as this text is strange. Who are as paradoxical in their emotional capacities as the holiness of God demands.
And we want our young people to taste the holiness of God implanted in their own souls as children born again by the Holy Spirit, who now bear the family traits from the Father of holiness. We want them to obey verses 15-16, “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.’” We want strange and wonderful and hopeful and fearful and courageous and strong and joyful and wise young people, who are shaped by the glorious otherness of God, so that their lives are a winsome paradox in this world.
And this is why we who are the teachers of children immerse ourselves in the Bible, the holy word of the holy God. This is why we linger long over strange and wonderful things — in the prayer and expectation that God will free us from our former ignorance and give us mental categories we never knew before, and awaken emotional capacities that we never thought we could have.
A Closer Look at the Commands
So let’s do some of that now with three commands: Live in hope. Live in holiness. Live in holy fear. Let’s focus on the hope and the fear, which feed into a life of holiness.
This first chapter of 1 Peter is overwhelmingly a chapter of hope. Verse 3b: “God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
• Verse 4: Our “inheritance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” It is being “kept in heaven” for us.
• And verse 5, we are being kept for it: “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” All that is to make us unshakably secure and hopeful — to help us hope fully (verse 13)
• Verse 8b-9 “Rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
• Verse 13, the command to hope fully in the coming grace.
• Verses 18–19, “You were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” In other words, the price of your redemption cannot spoil or fade. The point again is solid hope.
• Verse 21: “God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”
• Verse 23, “You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God.” The cause and sustaining basis of your new birth is living and lasting, so that you will hope fully!
It’s clear that Peter wants his readers to live in unshakable hope. When he says in verse 13 that you should “hope fully by preparing your minds for action (gird up the loins of your mind) and by being sober, he is telling us how to maintain hope. Be awake and nimble on your mental feet to trace out every reason for hope that God gives. And spot every hope-destroying untruth. The mind is a means of hope.
The Fuel of Holiness
Then in verses 14–15 Peter shows how God works to make hope the fuel of holiness. I see five steps in verses 14 and 15.
First, God calls us. Verse 15: “As the Holy One who called you.” This is virtually the same as God’s giving new birth back in verse 3: “He caused you to be born again to a living hope.” God’s sovereign call raises us from the spiritual deadness and blindness. The aim of this call — this new birth — is so that we can be alive to hope-giving truth.
Second, the effect of this call — this new birth — is that we become the children of God. Verse 14: “As obedient children.” In the new birth we receive a new nature in the likeness of our Father in heaven. This is why verse 3 says we are born again to a living hope. Nothing is more hopeful than to be in God’s family.
The third step is that this new birth overcomes the spiritual blindness and ignorance we once had to what is truly desirable. We see things radically differently now. Verse 14: “Do not be conformed to your former lusts [desires] which were yours in ignorance.” We are not blind and ignorant and foolish anymore. We’re not ignorant of God’s infinite worth any more. Now we see the holiness of God as the supreme value in the universe.
The fourth step is that instead of old desires in ignorance we have new desires in knowledge of the truth. This is what we are doing when we gird up the loins of our minds in verse 13, we are using our minds to know truth. And that knowledge is mainly all the reasons for hope that have been laid out in chapter 1 of First Peter.
And the fifth step is that we obey verse 15, to “be holy in all your conduct.”
So holiness is born of
- God’s call — the new birth —,
- the entrance into God’s family,
- the replacing of ignorance with knowledge — the knowledge of all the grounds for hope Peter is laying out —,
- new hope-filled desires, and
- a growing experience of holiness in all of life.
So the girding up of the loins of the mind — the preparing the mind for action in verse 13 is meant to help us hope fully: “preparing your minds for action . . . set your hope fully on the grace . . .” And the way the mind does this is by overcoming the ignorance of verse 14, because that ignorance produced the desires of ignorance which produced unholy conduct. But now the sober, active, born-again mind sees the truth of Christ and the beauty of holiness, and that truth and beauty produce new desires, and those desires produce new holy conduct.
Unshakable hope — confident desire — in the truth and beauty of Christ is the fuel of being holy as God is holy.
Which makes the final question now all the more urgent: What is the role of fear? We’ve looked at the commands, “Live in hope.” And: “Live in holiness.” And we’ve seen that living in hope is essential to living in holiness. Now what about living in holy fear?
Our Father and Judge
Verse 17: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your “exile.”
Peter will not let us slip away from the paradox. He insists on calling the Judge our Father, and calling our Father the Judge. And just when you find yourself slipping toward presumption that your Father is behind the bench, he reminds you that the Judge “judges impartially according to each one’s work.” There are not different standards, one low standard for the Judge’s children, and one high standard for the others.
And just when you are starting to feel hopeless he reminds you that this earthly life is for you only an “exile.” Verse 17b: “Conduct yourselves in fear throughout the time of your exile.” God really is your Father, and heaven really is your home. Grace really is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 13). So Peter doggedly holds onto both poles of this paradox: Father and judge. Impartial judgment and heaven-bound exiles.
In fact he makes this fear all the more strange by the following verses, 18–21. These verses are clearly an argument for the command to conduct ourselves in fear in verse 17. Notice the connection between the command in verse 17 and the statement in verses 18–19: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing [that is, because you know] that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”
In other words, fear God because you were redeemed with something that is infinitely valuable and that will not perish. In other words, something you can base your whole future on. In other words, conduct yourselves in fear because Christ paid infinitely to free you from perishing. Strange.
And the argument goes on in the same way in verses 20–21, “Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” So the fear of verse 17 is grounded first in the fact that God judges impartially according to our work, and then it’s grounded in the fact that the Judge is our Father. And then it’s grounded in the fact that Christ ransomed us with precious and lasting blood, and then it’s grounded in the fact that God raised him from the dead so that our hope would be in God.
All of which means that there is a real kind of holy fear that does not destroy strong, confident hope, but exists beside it and deepens it and strengthens it, and leads to a strange and wonderful and holy life.
Based on what we saw about the origin and nature of hope in verses 14 and 15, I would describe holy fear like this in distinction from unholy fear. Unholy fear runs away from the judgment on sin, and looks for safety in all kinds of excuses and moral and religious camouflage. Holy fear runs away from the sin itself, and looks for safety in pardoning and empowering grace of God.
Or here is a more provocative way to put it: Unholy fear runs away from the one who judges those who don’t hope fully in God. But holy fear runs away from not hoping in God into the arms of the Judge, his Father. Unholy fear ignores the preciousness of the ransom and trembles at the judgment of God. Holy fear cherishes the ransom and trembles at the prospect of insulting the goodness of the one who paid it.
Or to use an illustration that an eight-year-old can understand (I know because my son Karsten was eight when this happened). The Tiegens had a huge dog when we went to visit them, and our son Karsten was almost eye to eye with the dog. When I asked Karsten to run back to the car and get something, the dog loped after him with a low growl. Mr. Tiegen called out to Karsten: “You better just walk, he doesn’t like it when people run away from him. He’d rather go with you.”
That was a picture of God for me. He is very scary — when you are running from him or against him — putting all your hope, your desires, somewhere else. But if you will hope fully in the grace that he gives and the treasure that he is, he will walk with you and be your friend and your protector and your Father, all the way home.
So live in hope. And live in holiness. And live in holy fear. For “you shall be holy, for I am holy.”