Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:21–25
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé
Imaginary Fisticuffs & The Warm Embrace of Friends
Last week, we covered 1 Peter 2:18–25, where the Apostle gives specific instructions to household slaves who had become part of the body of Christ. His instruction to those household slaves in verses 18–20, to submit to their masters, was anchored in a principle Peter unfolded in verses 21–25, namely, the glorious gospel of Jesus’ suffering and subsequent glory.
So even though we did look at verses 21–25 from 30,000 feet last week, there is just too much glory there not to get down into these sentences and walk around a bit. So that’s what we’re doing this morning.
In these verses, our brother Peter heralds the most gloriously freeing, radically beautiful, awesomely glorious truth in the Universe—as he puts it in verse 24, that Jesus “…bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Or as he puts it in verse 27, “Christ… suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
We’ll see two parts of this truth: The for us part and the leaving an example part—that is, the substitution of the gospel and its subsequent call to imitation in the gospel. These are two truths that lots of people want you to believe are engaged in a fistfight, that lots of people will talk about as if they are at war with one another, in tension with one another, or some other kind of theological fisticuffs.
And yet what Peter is going to show us is that—far from being in tension, these two facets of our salvation embrace in warm, brotherly affection.
That these two facets of our salvation are like gravity and falling down, are like drinking and having your thirst quenched, are like planting a peach tree and harvesting peaches—they are by necessity related to each other like a cause and an effect. 1 Peter 2:21–25,
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
-1 Peter 2:21–25
Two Parts: Substitution & Transformation
Though there is vastly more to see here—a whole sermon on safety in suffering through divine sovereignty in verse 23! A whole sermon on Isaiah’s shaping of Peter’s gospel-communication in verse 25!—we will focus on those two central elements of the good news Peter heralds to us this morning:
1. Jesus’ suffering saves us—the just for the unjust. The gospel is a gospel of substitution.
2. Jesus’ suffering transforms us—the unjust actually become just. Jesus saves us by substitution for imitation. Jesus frees us and teaches us to live as free men by his freeing power.
Jesus’ Suffering Saves Us
So part one, let’s begin by seeing what Christ has done for us in his sinless living and suffering salvation. In this section, Peter tells us three basic things about Jesus’ substitutionary salvation.
1. He tells us why we need saving.
Verse 21 tells us he suffered for us. Why? Why did he need to suffer for us? Well, because, even though, verse 22, he was sinless and perfect, and even, verse 23, that he even returned evil for good, reviling for blessing—even so, he was hung on the cross.
Why? To bear our sin. Verse 24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… By his wounds you have been healed.”
We needed saving because we are sinners who have violated God’s law, and in the process of doing so, we have wounded both ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s world.
Or, to put it another way, because, verse 25, we “…were straying like sheep.” Though we were made in the image and likeness of God, rather than display that image in obedience to God, we imaged sin instead—sin pouring out of our very sinful hearts.
Don’t just think about this generally, ok? Don’t just think in some doctrinal sense that Jesus died for sin in general. No, he died for your sin. He died for your gossiping. He died for all of the times you’ve dressed inappropriately to feel good when people lust after you and he died for the lust you’ve lusted after others.
He died for your bitterness at the friends who let you down and your short-temperedness with your kids. He died for the way you hypocritically hold everyone around you to a standard you yourself rarely if ever meet. He died for your sin… And he died for my sin.
He died for my lusts and my pride. He died for my egomaniacal self-righteousness. He died for every hypocritical word I’ve said in anger, as if the people I’m angry at are really in the scheme of things worse than me. He died on the cross because I instinctively want to protect myself, project an image of godlike perfection and omnicompetence, and downplay my own weaknesses, failures, faults, and transgressions.
Sin is a theological word for a very practical thing. Sin doesn’t live in some world of Platonic forms or theological library—no, sin is what we do, because sinners are what we are.
We needed saving because we are straying sheep and sinning self-worshipers. We needed saving because we wound our friends and our enemies and we wound ourselves. And just as importantly, #2…
2. He tells us why Jesus did not need saving.
Verse 22, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.” Are you a liar? Do you lie? Do you flex the truth, flex reality into a form that makes you look or feel better, even just to yourself? Jesus never did that.
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to he who judges justly.” He returned bitter for sweet, cursing for blessing, persecution for meekness.
The heart of sin is a failure to trust and treasure that which is Good, True, and Beautiful—that is, to live and speak and long as if there are things that are better, greater, more satisfying, and more beautiful than God himself. And in everything Jesus ever did, said, wanted to do; every action that came out of his fingertips and step his feet took proved conclusively that he loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, his neighbor as himself.
Jesus is the perfect God-Man, who came down from heaven, the divine Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, to do what no man has done—live a life that did not require salvation; live a life that did not pile up the just wrath of a holy God.
So we have a sinful humanity in this text, and we have sinless, perfect humanity embodied in a single life—in the God-man Jesus Christ. But how does that do anything for us? #3…
3. He tells us how Jesus saved us: Substitution.
The gospel is a gospel of substitution—the just for the unjust. Verse 21, “…Christ also suffered for you.”
That for word is just unimaginably important. That three-letter-word is packed with power the way a baseball-sized handful of Uranium-235, that can level a city in a nuclear bomb, is. Jesus suffered for you.
There was a divine intentionality in the suffering—it was suffering that God intended to do something. He suffered for you, that is, in your stead. Paul puts it like this in one of the most important sentences in the New Testament: “For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Or as Peter will put it later in his letter, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…”
The point is this: On the cross, Jesus bore the wrath of God that was due to his people for their sin. There was what Martin Luther called a “Great Exchange” going on—our sin exchanged for his righteousness. Our guilt exchanged for his perfection. We deserved what he got so that through him, we could get what he deserved.
The implications of this are massively explosive. This means that in Christ, you are not a sinner before God, but as righteous as the very Son of God. This means you are justified, meaning you can stand before the divine judge and receive the declaration, “Innocent of all charges!” Or as we sing,
“Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea;
A great High Priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.”
That right now, I can look at you and if you confess in faith the death of Christ for you and trust in him alone; I can look at you and say, “You are clean. You are holy. God has done what the law, weakened as it was by your flesh could not do—he has declared you righteous.”
A Truth Under Constant Attack
This substitutionary work of Jesus is one of those fronts in the great cosmic war of history that the enemy despises and therefore assaults with regularity. The devil wants you to have Jesus as anything but a substitutional, sacrificial lamb.
He’ll let you look at Jesus on the cross and think he’s showing us a nice guy dying at the hands of mean guys and let you conclude that the message of the cross is to be like the nice guy and not the mean guy.
He’ll let you look at Christ on his cross and think that Jesus is starting something that you need to finish—that Jesus is on the cross making salvation somehow possible, but not actually saving anyone.
He’ll let you look at Christ on the cross and think that Jesus is making a nice sort of gesture: “Look! What a nice religious act!
He’ll let you look at the cross and think of it as an affirmation of your own worth and loveliness: “See how important I am? God would die for me. See how lovable I am? Jesus loved me enough to die for me.”
He’ll let you look at the cross and think all sorts of nice, vaguely spiritual things—so long as you don’t look at the cross and see what you deserve, torture and death. So long as you don’t look at the cross and weep for the magnitude of your sin—that the bitter cup of the wrath of God poured into the mouth of the perfect Son of God.
Yes, so long as you don’t look at the cross and see there the utter repudiation of any claim you may have to worthiness before God on your own merit, Satan will be pleased to have you look at the cross.
And so long as you don’t look at the cross and see Jesus, the Bridegroom unilaterally, perfectly, completely saving his bride—not merely making it a possibility, but actually securing it, Satan will be fine with your look. So long as you look at the cross and see Jesus, defeated, and not the enemies of God being placed as a footstool under Jesus’ nail-pierced feet, he will be find with you looking at the cross.
But if you look at the cross and despair of your own works, weep at your sin and the blazing divine wrath you deserve—yet rejoice in this salvation, in Jesus’ utter victory over the enemy, his utter triumph over your sin, the death of your guilt with the death of Christ; if you look at the cross and see your sin, paid in full, your filth, cleansed, the carcass of your old self nailed there with him and put to death forever—that, he will not abide. That makes the enemy tremble and rage and despair.
Jesus died to make you despair of the slavery of self-justification, that you could delight in the freedom of divine justification. The gospel is a gospel of substitution or it is no gospel at all. And this gloriously freeing substitution, Peter says, is to something. Verse 24…
Jesus’ Suffering Transforms Us
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
The gospel is substitutional in order that it might be the kind of gospel that is also transformational—from the plain old, ongoing sanctification of your life over the next days, weeks, years, and decades, to the final, total, complete, radical transformation of your total self into the very image of the glorified Son of God.
Jesus freed you to live free. Jesus suffered and died so you could die and rise and live. Jesus substitution is meant to result in imitation. He’s providing an example for a whole way that his people will be called to and enabled to live. What is that example? What does it look like to live free?
It looks like cross-bearing. It looks like dying to our rights and our ideas and our emotions and to rather present ourselves like whole-burnt-offerings, to be totally consumed and consecrated to the worship of God. It looks, like Jesus’ life looked, as if the whole business of my life is to die to my self-direction and rather obey the Father’s will for my life.
Not for part of it, not for some sort of walled-off, spiritual portion of my life. No, me. My whole self, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions, actions; my political self, social self, parental self, sexual self, intellectual self—everything.
Let me give you an illustration of what Peter is talking about when he says that Jesus’ suffering for us is an example. I’m a bit of a font nerd. It really, profoundly bothers me to read something in a bad font. Like, it would be difficult for me to read even a really good book if it was printed in Papyrus. My sermon notes are in a very particular combination of two fonts—and the weight matters to me, the leading, the kerning. It matters to me.
If you are in the market for a font, one of the things you’ll do is look at some samples of writing in that font to see if it’s going to fit your application of it. So you’ll go to a font website, and they’ll have a sample sentence written out in that font that includes every English character, something like, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
Now, when little boys and girls were learning to read and write in Greek, they would use tablets with sentences like that, sentences that used every letter in the Greek alphabet. Clement of Alexandra records examples of the sentences that they would use in his book Stromata from the late second century. So the students would trace over the writing on these tablets to learn their letters.
The word that Peter uses for “example” in this sentence is actually a reference that that practice, to a pattern to be traced in order to learn. The word is a graphic illumination of what the Apostle wants us to see that God is doing in our suffering.
He wants that cruciform pattern, that cross-shaped pattern of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, to be like the tracery we follow to shape the letters of our lives—that our whole lives would bear the imprint of death to self, death with Jesus, and resurrection with Jesus, life with Jesus. This dying and rising life is what Peter says we were saved to!
Don’t Fall for The Law/Gospel Boxing Match
So listen: Don’t ever let someone convince you that obeying Jesus after salvation is not a part of what Jesus saved you for. Don’t ever fall for the idea that Christian obedience is in a boxing match with justification by grace alone and through faith alone.
They’re profoundly not. Our obedience to Jesus in response to his salvation is at odds with the grace of God in salvation the way that falling down is at odds with the law of gravity—as in, they’re not. These are friends, not foes. Now, we can absolutely screw this up.
How Can We Screw This Up?
Let’s talk about that, about how we can screw this up. Because there is a reason people feel tension between these friends, a reason why we keep trying to put these truths into a ring and make them engage in various displays of fisticuffs. There are three basic ways we can screw this up:
1. Put the imitation cart before the substitution horse.
The real fisticuffs are between salvation by works and salvation by grace, not salvation and the fruit of that salvation.
If we reverse the order, we ruin everything. The cart of imitating Jesus doesn’t move one inch down the road on it’s own. It’s pulled by the substitution, resurrection, Spirit-empowering horse.
2. Deny substitution for imitation.
If we try to have imitation while denying substitution, we become one more stalwart, law-keeping, conservative moralist.
We try to get the fruit of Christian culture without the tree it grows on. We vainly press for conservative values while thoroughgoingly missing the point about what it is that we’re trying to conserve through the generations anyway—the gospel of free grace that makes free men.
Or we become one more leftist radical claiming that Jesus was some kind of mere political radical who gives us an example of how to fight the powers that be, but not the cosmic, divine Lamb of God who suffers and dies in our place to take away the sin of the world.
We turn Jesus into another Che Guevara or Gandhi and call him a good teacher to imitate—all the while really ignoring who he actually was and what he actually came to do.
3. Deny imitation for substitution.
We could screw this up by denying the imitation altogether in favor of substitution. We could act as if Jesus in no way intended for us to actually follow him, be changed, or imitate him.
When we do that, when we deny imitation for substitution, we become antinomian, grace-misunderstanding, grace-abusing fideists who end up denying the power of Jesus to actually save his people from their sin. We truncate the gospel.
See, our salvation isn’t only from the penalty of our sin—from the wrath of God for sin; this salvation is so good that it actually breaks the slaving power of sin in the people of God.
A gospel that refuses imitation or calls it legalism is a gospel that says, “Jesus saved you in eternity, but not now. He doesn’t intend to do anything about the prison you’re in now. When you die, he’ll bust you out. Hold tight, buckeroo.”
No! Jesus is much more powerful than that. The gospel is much more powerful than that. It saves us, washes us, cleanses us, puts a new heart in us, brings new buds of new life out of renewed soil. It makes you free. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for eternity and for tomorrow.
Will you sin? Of course! Will you fail in you imitation of Jesus? Over an over. And yet his grace will still be sufficient, and his love will still be so great as to call you further up and further in to his transforming grace.
One Last Way to Screw This Up
I know I said three ways we could screw this up, but I want to leave you with one final way we can screw this up. And it is a massive way. Losing this from our engagement with this glorious gospel would be like losing the caffeine from coffee, the fat from whipped cream, or the sugar from a doughnut—in other words, it would make it lame.
I’m talking about joy. When you and I stare at these truths, it’s very easy for the first reaction we have to be sadness—as we see the gravity of our sin and our guilt creeps up afresh; we killed Jesus!
Or a sense of our unfinishedness, right? We know exactly how we failed to imitate Jesus in his death-to-self freedom this morning as we got our kids ready to come and worship Jesus.
There’s a possibility that we might end up where the Israelites were in the book of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra stands before this great multitude of exiles whom God has returned to the land, whom God has enabled to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
And Ezra brings out the book of the Law of Moses and reads the word of God to all the people for hours, while others helped the people understand what the Scriptures meant.
And what happens is maybe unexpected to us. These people, who have seen God work miraculously in bringing them back into the land and rebuilding the walls and frustrating their enemies, as they hear the Word we’re told, “…all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.”
I love what the Lord led Nehemiah and the leaders of the people to do next. They stopped what they were doing and commanded the people to go and celebrate what the Lord had done and was doing for them. They told the people,
“Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Amen and amen. We screw this up when our obedience becomes drudgery and our response to the gospel of grace fails to end with celebration. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine; your God has saved you and your God is saving you.