“Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
“Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles,” that is the positive and central thought of this text!
In fact, this will be the central theme which the apostle will develop throughout the rest of this epistle. He will show how this honest walk of God’s elect shall be clearly demonstrated in every department of life. As the elect strangers and pilgrims stand in respect to their government, in respect to the servant-master relation, in respect to the marital relation, and in respect to the church; in each of these phases of life they are to walk honestly before the eyes of all.
Important it is, therefore, to understand clearly what the apostle has in mind when he speaks of the saints’ walk, and what is implied in walking honestly among the Gentiles.
One’s conversation or walk has to do with one’s whole manner of life. And in the text the emphasis falls on the outward manifestation of this walk. This is also the implication of the term: “conversation.” It implies a dialogue, an exchange of words, audibly spoken, between two or more persons. However, it can be easily understood that one’s conversation, or one’s walk, has more to it than mere outward form. Life and its manifestation is not only what can be seen of it. One’s life and walk is always motivated by inward principles. From one’s life and walk cannot be excluded the motivating, dominating, moral disposition of the man. It is the motions of the heart within that are reflected in the outward walk. As a man thinketh in his heart, says the Scripture, so is he. Especially does this become very clear when you consider that walk from the point of view of sin and grace.
In our text it is most important to note that, the apostle is speaking of the walk of the elect strangers and pilgrims, the believers in Christ. It stands to reason that their walk will be quite different from that of the unbeliever. O, indeed, the unbeliever, or, as he is called in the text, the Gentile, has a walk too. And his walk, his outward conduct, is also motivated by inward principles, by a wicked, unregenerate heart. He is inwardly corrupt. He is ungodly at heart. All his thoughts are to do evil. His will is perverse. His root is unholy. Hence, all his outward conduct and manifestation of life is revealed in every kind of abominable work. When he speaks, he curses. When he works, he murders, steals, commits adultery. When he sings, he rejoices in darkness. Because he does not have faith, all his works are sin; for “what is not done out of faith, is sin” so Paul writes to the Romans. The converse of this is true of the believer in Christ, in the regenerated child of God. His walk is motivated out of a new heart, out of the principle of grace, out of the love of God.
O, it is true, that the children of God have only a small beginning of new obedience. And it is true also that they have this grace in an old nature. That is why they are exhorted in the text to walk honestly, and negatively, to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.
Those carnal desires that have their seat in our old nature!
Flesh is not only the visible material of which our bodies are composed, that part of us which we can place before a looking glass and pamper. That is part of it. That belongs to our nature as we are born in trespasses and sins. But flesh is much more than that. Flesh includes also all of our nature, our senses, our emotional life, etc. The lusts of the flesh are always those passions which come up out of that corrupt nature wherewith we are born naturally; those lusts which seek to satisfy the flesh, which always seek the carnal flesh; Make no mistake about it, these lusts of the flesh are not only in the Gentile world, but they reside also in the flesh of the Christian, as he is by nature. In one word, as long as the Christian dwells in the flesh, in the present evil world, he will have to contend with his evil, fleshly lusts.
To abstain from fleshly lusts means that we hold ourselves away from them, keep our distance from them. In no sense ought we to make provision for them or to indulge in them. It is as the apostle Paul puts it: “that we are to crucify, put off the old man with his deeds.” The reason is very evident.
These fleshly lusts war against the soul!
The soul here is looked at from the point of view of its spiritual substance which must be sanctified. Man’s complete nature is composed of body and soul. In the child of God dwells a new heart, but an old nature, in the center of which is the soul that controls the body in all its actions. And his regenerated heart has to bring the soul so under control that the body abstains, yea, that the whole man abstains from fleshly lusts. And it is therefore the experience of each child of God that there is a constant battle going on within him against these fleshly lusts. In other words, fleshly lusts are like so many evil soldiers seeking to bayonet the very seat of his life. And in this struggle the soul is not, nor may it remain passive. It must, under the control of the regenerated heart, become spiritually aggressive. The very fact that the apostle mentions warfare against the soul shows that it takes two to make a fight. And if you ask: Why is this reason to abstain from fleshly lusts? the answer is two-fold: in the first place, the Christian has a new principle of life; and secondly, he is a pilgrim and a stranger in the world. Fleshly lusts do not belong to the world from which he is reborn. And living out of the new principle of life which is from above, he becomes a stranger and a pilgrim who principally does not belong here. Consequently he will have to fight against all that has a tendency to hold him here. Hence, he will have to fight against fleshly lusts. In the measure he fights, in that measure also he overcomes and is sanctified. In the measure that he does not fight, in that measure is he overcome.
Positively, the walk of the pilgrim will be good. There are two words in Scripture for “good.” One is what is good essentially; the other is what is good in appearance. The apostle uses the latter word in the text. It refers then to that which is beautiful, pleasing, acceptable. In the ethical-moral sense it is that which is excellent, noble, worthy of recognition, praiseworthy. When the translation uses the term “honest” in connection with our walk, it means that our behavior is good. We are honest in our walk when in every respect we manifest what we essentially are, namely, a Christian. If we walk hypocritically, and can easily play ball with sinners, we are dishonest, and our walk is not good. That Christian who is consistent and reveals in his walk his Christian principles is honest, and his behavior good. The possibility of the latter, of course, lies only in the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit within him. So, and so only, is it conceivable that the Christian will constantly and consciously fight against sin and carnal passion, and desire to walk in a new and godly life.
And where shall the dearly beloved conduct this conversation and walk?
The apostle says: “among the Gentiles.”
Those to whom Peter addresses himself were scattered among the Gentiles, that is, the heathen, those outside of the Church of Jesus Christ. In a wider sense, the term Gentile refers to the present evil world. That world which apparently is in control of the government, the master-slave relation, and all other political, social, and economic relationships, all of which are brought under the control of sin and darkness.
Notice that the apostle says emphatically among them. There is not, nor should there ever be, anything anabaptistic about the Christian. Never is he exhorted to seclude himself from the world. O, indeed, he is constantly warned not to live as the world. This also our text clearly teaches. In the spiritual sense of the word, we are called to live in opposition to the world. But never does the Word of God exhort us to hide ourselves away from the world. Always there have been those who advocate this isolation. It is well known in such movements as asceticism, monkery, anabaptistic, world-flight movements. And because we oppose the world and its philosophies and practices, and do not allow ourselves and our children to participate in these worldly practices, we too have often been accused of being anabaptistic, guilty of asceticism. Nothing could be farther from the truth, The Christian who understands his calling is found going about his business in the very midst of the world. Not you understand, in the world’s places of wicked amusement, and cesspools of vice and sin; but wherever his vocation in life takes him, in the shop, in the office, in the school, in the street, in the home. In the midst of the world he is called to walk honestly, be a stranger and a pilgrim in it, letting his light shine, revealing the life of regeneration antithetically. Not with a view to converting and saving the world, as some would have us believe today; but rather, showing the grace of God which is in us unto the praise of His glory. It is not without good reason that the apostle addresses himself to the dearly beloved, strangers and pilgrims in the text. It is that in the midst of the world they shall live and walk like that.
Difficult calling, indeed!
Difficult it is, in the first place, because they have always to contend with the lusts of their own flesh. Always they remember that once they also were like the Gentiles, steeped in corruption and wickedness. They remember that once they were children of darkness even as the rest. But now they have obtained mercy. Their lives have been principally changed. Their citizenship is now in heaven. They are strangers in the world, and the world has become stranger to them. And yet they have this new life in an old nature that always still wants to do as the Gentiles; and they have constantly to struggle with their carnal lusts. Their greatest difficulty they discover is within them. The evil which they would not, they do; and the good which they would perform, they find not.
Difficult it is, so the apostle informs them, that those Gentiles falsely accuse them as evildoers. Literally this was true concerning the early Christians, and it has been true throughout all the ages. The record will show that when there happened to be an earthquake or a pestilence in the earth, the Christians were blamed for it. When they refused for God’s sake to obey an evil edict of the king, they were counted as criminals. And so it is, that when the church of Christ or the child of God reveals the grace of Christ from within, they are ridiculed to scorn, or persecuted unto the death. Indeed, the way of the child of God is not easy, but most difficult. Yet, in spite of it all, he is called to walk honestly in the midst of the world.
And why must this be done?
That the Gentiles may see your good works, and glorify God in the day of visitation!
This is in complete harmony with the instruction of Jesus. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
The day of visitation can refer to one of two things, or to both. Either it is the day when God will also visit the Gentiles with His grace as He had done to the beloved pilgrims; or, it is the day when He will visit them in His just and holy wrath, the day of judgment, the day of Christ. We see no reason to, exclude either of these possibilities. On the one hand, God has also among the Gentiles His people, who, when He visits them in His grace will turn from their evil way, and through the good works and honest conversation of His beloved shall be converted unto God, and render praise unto His Name. On the other hand, there are also among the Gentiles those who, falsely accusing, God’s people while they behold their good works, shall go on in their sin until the day that God shall come to them in judgment. In that day even the wicked shall justify God when He righteously shall condemn them according to their works, and in this theodicy shall glorify God. For that reason, that God may be glorified in and through the Gentiles, let the pilgrims and strangers walk honestly among them.
In the light of this, what a beautiful and urgent calling is here given to the Church of Christ in the world, and unto each one of the children of God!
May He continue to give unto us His grace that we may faithfully fulfill that calling, even unto the end!