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Holy Warfare — Practicing Christian Ethics

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In the first lecture last night, we looked at what Paul wrote in the fourth chapter of I Thessalonians. What it means to do the will of God is often misunderstood, but Paul could not have been clearer. He said that doing the will of God means that we avoid fornication and stop cheating one another. In other words, we must submit ourselves to God’s law.

But then the question is, How do we do that? The desire to sin, even for believers, is often overwhelming. So, how do we face temptation and emerge the victor?

Before all else, we have to come to grips with exactly what we’re facing. Our tendency is to minimize the significance of temptation and sin. After all, a little “white lie” or a quick glance at a pretty woman won’t hurt anyone. It’s not like we’re planning a bank heist or the assassination of a President. So, what’s the big deal?

But remember the ugliness of our sin is not always, or even primarily, determined by how it affects other people. It hurts us by compromising our holiness before God. And, even more importantly, it brings into question the holiness of the Holy Spirit, whose work is to sanctify us and make us more like the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, cites this as the reason for the severity of God’s punishment for sin. It says that “His justice therefore requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul” (Q/A 11). God’s most high majesty would certainly include his absolute holiness.

Instead of thinking of temptation and sin as minor annoyances, let’s use more Biblical terminology. The Bible describes this as a war. Sin and temptation are on that side. We, by the grace of God, are on this side. The world, the flesh and the devil are our mortal enemies.

It’s been this way since Adam first sinned in the Garden of Eden. God said to the serpent, And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15). In the New Testament, we have a list of the weapons that we are supposed to use in this war, viz., the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of the preparation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:10–18). Most of these things, if not all of them, emphasize the objective truth of Jesus Christ. That’s what we fight with. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing in this world that never changes.

Beloved Strangers and Pilgrims

Peter exhortation begins with an appeal to his readers in verse 11 as dearly beloved (ἀγαπητοί). He expressed his love for the church of Jesus Christ to encourage you toward greater progress.

But his address is really more than just an expression of love. It occurs twice in I Peter (here and 4:12) and four times in II Peter 3 (vv. 1, 8, 14 and 17), and in each instance it precedes an exhortation for you, as the people of God, to be extremely careful in your theology and circumspect in your walk. In fact, his second epistle ends like this: Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever (II Pet. 3:17–18). It seems that Peter addressed his readers as beloved when he got down to the nuts and bolts of applying the Christian faith to the lives of believers. It’s as though this word introduces a very personal message. At the very least, it shows the apostle’s concern for the church’s growth.

We see this in our text, too. Not only did Peter identify his readers as beloved, but he went on to beseech them as strangers and pilgrims. Here Peter’s concern comes across both in the verb beseech and in the description of his readers as strangers and pilgrims.

The word beseech is a very powerful word. Even in English it has the idea of begging and imploring. The Greek word (παρακαλῶ) literally means to call to one’s side. One person calls another person to his side to comfort him, to exhort him or to instruct him. In fact, this verb has such a wide range of meanings that the KJV uses no less than ten distinct English verbs to translate it. The translation in any given instance depends, of course, on the context. However it’s translated, it highlights the earnestness of the effort. You call someone to your side, beseech him, comfort him or exhort him because you desire his improvement in one way or another.

And so it was with Peter. He sought the good of those to whom he wrote.

Further, Peter described his readers as strangers and pilgrims. With this he reminded his readers of their relationship to the world. What exactly is that relationship? Peter says that we’re not at home. Although we live in the world, we’re really here as non-citizens or resident aliens. We’re foreigners, whose true and proper home is heaven. Just as the patriarchs who looked for a heavenly city, whose builder and maker is God (Heb.11:8ff.), Philippians 3:20 says that our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. In this verse, the word conversation refers to a commonwealth, the administration of a commonwealth, or, more specifically, citizenship in a commonwealth. Our word politics comes from the word translated conversation (τὸ πολίτευμα) in this verse. We are citizens of heaven.

Peter explained this in even greater detail in the verses immediately preceding our text. In verse 4, he said that believers come to the living stone, who was rejected by men, but precious to God. This, of course, is an allusion to Psalm 118, which predicted the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we come to this living stone, according to verse 5, we are made living stones ourselves. In Christ we are privileged to be part of an holy priesthood and to offer up spiritual sacrifices. And in verses 9 and 10 Peter added even more. We are nothing less than God’s people — chosen by God, set apart by God, appointed by God to serve him. We are, as Peter wrote, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

You see, this is what you are, if you have embraced Christ’s sacrifice and death by faith. This incredibly privileged status is yours. As one commentator wrote, you must, therefore, count yourselves as being gloriously different than those among whom you live. You must look beyond the scatter­edness and suffering of your lives and see yourselves as God’s chosen vessels. And then you have to ask yourselves, What should be my attitude and response to this mighty outpouring of God’s favor?

Fighting the War against the Soul

According to Peter, your first response to God’s grace should be to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul. In other words, withdrawing from the world is not an option. You are called upon to engage in holy warfare — a warfare that begins with conquering your sinful desires. In other words, you must demonstrate your redeemed status by the distinctiveness of your life. Your life should not look like the life of a worldling.

The fleshly lusts that Peter had in mind are not simply what we might call sensual sins, like fornication or pornography. Rather, they include all the sins of the flesh that Paul lists, for example, in Galatians 5, viz., adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like (vv. 19–21 NKJV). In short, we can say that fleshly lusts include anything that pleases you and displeases God.

Moreover, you have to understand that such things are not just dangerous — they’re deadly! Peter says that they war against your soul. Rush Limbaugh is fond of saying that the whole idea behind war is to kill people and break things. No one can succeed in war without doing both. Satan, your adversary and accuser, can be satisfied with nothing less. Later in this same book, Peter says that your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (ch. 5:8). Beloved, if your faith is not in the finished work of Christ, you will be consumed. You will end up as a casualty in this war, unless you turn to the Lord Jesus in repentance and humility. There can be no other outcome. After listing the works of the flesh, Paul reminded us of this very sobering fact: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21).

But even true believers can be seriously wounded in the battle. When we give in to fleshly lusts, even for a short time, we allow these lusts to disrupt our fellowship with God, which often makes us doubt the sincerity of our faith as well.

Your responsibility, then, as a chosen generation and royal priesthood, i.e., those whom the gospel addresses as dearly beloved, is to abstain from these lusts. Stay away from them as far as you can! Don’t go anywhere near them!

Unfortunately, Peter had to say this because it’s the opposite of how we sometimes deal with temptation. Rather than running from it, we snuggle up to it. We get as close to it as we can, while convincing ourselves that we would never actually do it. Yes, we like to save just a small part of our affections for the things that tickle our desires, even though we know God hates them.

Now, let’s look at a few things. As I go through this list, I challenge everyone here, especially the young people, to examine your hearts. Ask yourself if you are guilty of cherishing any flesh lust in these areas: (1) Dress. Is your clothing modest or intentionally provocative? Are you trying to draw attention to your physical characteristics, or would you rather people see the hidden beauty of the heart? (2) Books, television and the movies. Do you read books and watch shows that are wholesome and not profane, or do you prefer to have your desires aroused by steamy scenes and exposed skin? Is God’s name honored or abused? (3) Music. Again, how is God’s name used in the music you listen to? Do the songs you listen to use the “f word”? Does your music celebrate violence and rebellion, or does it help you to rejoice in God’s gifts? (4) Speech (including blogs, email, texting and all forms of electronic communication). What’s your language like? Do you avoid filthy communication? (5) Finances. Do you use your money to advance the kingdom of Christ or fritter it away on things that may be neat but are not really necessary or helpful? (6) Relationships. Do you honor your parents, or do you sneak around behind their backs and do what you want regardless of their instructions? If you’re married, do you show all proper love, honor and respect to your spouse, or do you do everything you can do get closer to a neighbor, friend or co-worker? Is your marriage characterized by more by kindness or cruelty? Do you seek friendship (and perhaps even romance) with the ungodly, the sinners and the scornful mentioned in Psalm 1, or is it your delight to commune with the saints of God?

Obviously, this list of questions could go on indefinitely. It’s impossible in one sermon to list every conceivable manifestation of fleshly lust, but this should be enough to get you started. And, most importantly, keep in mind that you should be examining yourselves all the time. Make sure you do so before coming to the Lord’s table, but don’t neglect it at other times. And if you find yourself cherishing any fleshly lust, remember what Peter says. Nowhere does he recommend simply cutting back on it or managing it. He says, Stay away from it! Get rid of it! Throw it away! Or, as Paul wrote to Timothy, Flee youthful lusts! (II Tim. 2:22).

An Honest Lifestyle

Earlier I asked what your attitude and response should be to the mighty outpouring of God’s favor. Peter’s first answer, according to verse 11, is that we must abstain from lust. His second answer can be found in verse 12, where he added that we must maintain an honest manner of life among the Gentiles, so that, as they observe our good works, they will have occasion to glorify God in the day of visitation.

This verse does not say anything directly about evangelism. The requirement that every believer must engage in evangelism is in verse 9. Christians are to shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. The word translated shew forth (ἐξαγγείλητε) in this verse literally means to speak out, to declare, to divulge, to make known by proclaiming. But in our text Peter informs us that our evangelism must be followed by a manner of life that corresponds to our verbal proclamation. Further, this manner of life must be sustained throughout our lives, since it is something that the Gentiles are constantly watching (ἐποπτεύσαντες). The world has its eyes fixed on you. Unbelievers want to know whether you practice what you preach or are just a big hypocrite.

Be advised, though, that no matter how righteously you live, as a Christian you will always have a target on your back. Unbelievers will speak against you as an evildoer. They will find occasions to slander you as if you were a criminal.

One of the early church fathers from northern Africa, a man named Tertullian, wrote about this. He once listed the many philanthropic deeds that the church was doing in his day that the rest of Roman society was ignoring — things like caring for orphans and widows, feeding the families of men who had been thrown out of work, burying the poor who had died, and so forth. He says that the more the church did, the more the world hated it. Unbelievers simply could not tolerate the fact that the church was manifesting the love of Christ in ways that they couldn’t even understand. The church became an object of hatred in the eyes of the world.

Beloved, don’t expect anything different today. Note that the verb speak is present tense. In this present age, this is what you can expect from unbelievers. But you can also take comfort in the fact that they’ll be singing a different tune in the day of visitation. This could be either the day of judgment, when every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11). Or it could be that God the Holy Spirit will use your verbal testimony, coupled with consistency of your godly walk, to visit your neighbors with the grace of salvation. In either case, the mouths of unbelievers will have to acknowledge the righteous deeds of God’s people.

It goes without saying that the only way unbelievers can declare your good works before the judgment seat of Christ is if you actually have good works that they have seen. One of your good works has to do with how you respond to their slander. Do you bear it patiently, or do you strike out against those who malign you?

Peter raised this issue in a specific context a few verses after our text. Speaking to Christian slaves who suffer under unjust masters he wrote, For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God (vv. 19–20). Christ is our example, Peter wrote, as we patiently endure trials of this kind.

Beloved, you can’t change the fact that unbelievers will speak against you. That’s a given. In fact, it’s a necessity. But you have a responsibility before God to respond Biblically, i.e., in obedience, so that their slander be turned to the praise of God.

Some Practical Applications

We do not have to look very far to find some practical applications of these words. The next few verses take up a discussion of the believer’s relationship to the state.

This is often a battleground area because the state does not like to yield to the ultimate authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 2 says, The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us (vv. 2–3). Our part, though, is relatively simple: for the sake of the gospel and our testimony, Peter says that we are to submit ourselves to every ordinance of man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the king (or the president, in our case) or the local city council.

Now, there are three things I want to say about this.

First, although Peter says that we are to submit to every ordinance of man, the rest of the Bible makes it clear that there is one exception. You must not obey the king when he commands you to sin. When the Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male children, but they refused to do so. When the Persian king prohibited prayer to any god except himself, Daniel not only continued to pray, but he did so in front of a window where his disobedience to the king could be seen. He was probably between eighty and eight-five years old when he was thrown into the den of lions. And when the Sanhedrin instructed Peter and the apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus Christ, they refused, saying, We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

Please be careful about what I’ve just said. There is no provision in Scripture for disobeying the king because the king is evil. There are more evil rulers in the world than good ones. If we disobey a king just because he is evil, few kings would be obeyed. The only acceptable justification for disobeying the king is when he commands you to sin.

A good example of this has been in the news occasionally over the last few years. Since abortifacient drugs, i.e., medications that cause spontaneous abortions, are classified have been classified as “health care,” some courts have ruled that pharmacists must dispense them even though they may be personally opposed to abortion. A few pharmacists have had the courage to refuse to do so. Unfortunately, big companies like Wal-Mart have dismissed such pharmacists. They have the money to fight them in court. But the pharmacists who refuse to dispense abortifacients should be commended because they have put their responsibility to God and to their fellow man above the security of their employment.

Second, the purpose of the civil government is to restrain sin. Peter says that they are responsible to punish evildoers and reward those who do well (v. 14). And since it costs money to maintain a police force to protect citizens from criminals inside the country and a military to protect against outside threats, we must pay our taxes. Although taxes can sometimes be oppressive (e.g., inheritance taxes), the idea of a just system of taxation is thoroughly Biblical and necessary. Taxes maintain a working government (though rarely an efficient one), and even a poorly managed government is better than no government at all. It’s better to restrain the sins of some than none.

And third, the principle of obedience applies specifically to war. As I indicated a minute ago, the civil government actually engages in two wars: one against threats within the land, and the other against outside threats. Believers must be willing to accept a call to serve in either capacity, but he must not do so uncritically. Killing an invading enemy is okay, but murdering defenseless Jews is not.

Having the Mind of Christ

The example of submission that Peter gives is Christ. We see this in verses 21 through 24: For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. He was never in the service a policeman or soldier, but he submitted to the legitimate government of men, even when it treated him unjustly, because this is what the Father required of him for our salvation.

In Philippians Paul instructed us to put on the mind of Christ. But what was Christ’s “mind”? The word that best describes it is humility. He humbled himself, the apostle says, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Defining humility can be a little tricky. One definition of it is to have an awareness of one’s defects. Obviously this does not apply to the Lord Jesus, who had no defects at all. Another definition is a low condition or rank. Certainly Jesus was low in condition as a result of his incarnation. In fact, theologians often speak of his humiliation as one of his states. Yet, even this does not exhaust all that Paul meant. Moreover there is also a sense in which he was not low in rank. Paul goes on to say that he thought it not robbery to be equal with God. Even in his incarnation, the person of the Son was and continued to be true and eternal God.

Well, what then is this humility that characterizes the mind of Christ? It is Jesus’ willingness to submit himself entirely to the will of his Father, regardless of any personal cost. In other words, humility, as used in the Bible, has nothing to do with what you think about yourself or with what others think of you. Its only concern is what God thinks of you, and his concern is whether you submit yourself heart and soul to do his will.

Consider Jesus’ submission to his Father.  Although he held the stars of heaven in place and guided the movements of the solar systems, he voluntarily veiled his eternal glory in the garments of human flesh to accomplish the Father’s will concerning our salvation. Although he was equal to the Father in everything that constitutes deity, and had the right to be loved and adored by his creatures, he chose instead to make himself of no reputation and in obedience to the Father entered the world as if he were just another little baby. He had no halo identifying him as someone special; in fact, one passage in the Old Testament seems to indicate that he was not particularly attractive (Isa. 53:2). Imagine what people must have thought when they heard that he was conceived before his mother’s marriage was finalized. Throughout his entire life, he was scorned, mocked, mistreated, abused, misunderstood, tempted and ridiculed. The world treated him as a total outcast. But all of this, you see, was according to the Father’s will. Isaiah wrote, He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isa. 53:3).

The most amazing thing about all of this is that he suffered all of these injustices in obedience to the Father for us.

Now, if Paul had only wanted to give an example of humility, he could have cited many other persons. Perhaps he could have named even himself, which he did at other times.

But there are two reasons why he did not do so here. The first is that there is simply no better of example of humility than Jesus Christ. There is no one else whose humiliation was as comprehensive — who existed in the form of God (and was himself fully God) and took upon himself the form of a slave in order to redeem miserable sinners. Had Paul, David or Abraham been cited, it simply would not have had the same effect.

Secondly, Paul also wanted to give the theological foundation for true humility. If humility is a complete and total submission to the will of God, and if sinners are by nature totally opposed to the will of God, then we have to ask ourselves whether there can even be such a thing as humility. And the answer, of course, is Yes. Humility can be a characteristic of God’s people because God the Son humbled himself to bear our sin and to teach us how to walk in the ways that please God. That’s how he won the war that he calls us to fight. That’s how he established his kingdom.

As redeemed sinners, therefore, we have no right to assert ourselves over our brothers and sisters in the Lord. There is no place in the Christian community for self-promotion or strife. If we are not embracing the mind of Christ and practicing true humility, if we are not preferring others over ourselves, then we ought to question our standing in Christ.

The warfare that Peter mentioned is raging all around. It’s not a battle fought with guns and swords. Rather, it’s a battle over ideas, truth and righteousness — a battle that must be fought with spiritual weapons.

In II Corinthians 10:3–5, Paul described this warfare as follows: For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. The specific weapons that we are to us — the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit — are listed in the sixth chapter of Ephesians (vv. 13–18).

You know, there is an interesting thing about this warfare. We are to tear down, destroy and utterly demolish every imagination and argument that opposes the righteous reign of the Lord Jesus Christ, but our hope in doing so is that God the Holy Spirit will use our effort to bring to salvation those who hold such arguments. We must confront sin in our own lives and in the world around us, so that the glory of Jesus Christ can be seen by all. Maybe — just maybe — the Lord will crown our labors with a visitation of his grace.

Your involvement in this warfare begins with Peter’s instruction to you in our text. He tells you, the dearly beloved, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul, thereby demonstrating that your manner of life honestly conforms to the gospel, so that unbelievers, having seen your good works, might glorify God in the day of visitation.

May the Spirit of God equip each of us for this holy war against sin and falsehood! Amen.

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