“Lifestyle evangelism” is often maligned among evangelical Christians, yet Peter makes clear that it is a powerful and necessary component for effective witnessing. How do we do it? Mostly by being in love with Jesus. Are we in love with Jesus?
Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17
My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.
Last Wednesday, a nominee for deputy budget director named Russell Vought appeared before a senate panel—a panel that would either recommend or not recommend that his nomination be approved by the full Senate. He got into hot water, however, over something he wrote last year on a blog. He was writing about a controversy surrounding his alma mater, Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago, and the school’s views concerning Islam. In that blog post, he wrote that Muslims have a “deficient theology,” and that they “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
One senator on the panel called these words “indefensible,” “hateful,” “Islamaphobic,” and an “insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” So the senator said that he could not recommend that Vought be confirmed.
Which reminds me that I shouldn’t plan on serving in a high government post any time soon! There’s no way I could be confirmed!
In writing what he wrote, however, Mr. Vought was simply affirming a classic Christian doctrine, which all orthodox Christians everywhere have believed from the very beginning of the Christian movement: that salvation is found through Christ alone. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” As Peter said in Acts, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
So it’s not just Muslims, but all of humanity, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, who “stand condemned.” And the Bible even says that nominal Christians who profess Christian faith but whose lives show no evidence of repentance are also in grave danger.
The good news, of course, is that God loves every one of these unbelievers, and every one of those nominal believers, and is at work, right now, to bring them into a saving relationship with him through Christ. In fact, he’s calling people like Vought, like me, like you, like these young people who were confirmed or baptized earlier, and everyone else who follows Christ to play a role in this missionary effort. God’s plan of salvation includes using us Christians to save others.
So yes, our mission is urgent… because, like Russell Vought, we believe that apart from Christ, people do stand condemned—because of their sins. So when it comes to salvation through Christ, we Christians are exclusive: you have to know Christ to be saved. That’s why our church invests so much time, money, and effort into the lives of children and youth; it’s why, for example, Paulla, Tracy, and myself spent so much time teaching confirmation class: because nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance. If these young people today sincerely trusted in Christ, and if they continue to trust him for the rest of their lives, then they can be confident that nothing—“neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation”—will be able to separate [them] from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. They’ll have eternal life.
But apart from Christ we have no hope. We are dead in our trespasses. We are bound for hell.
So it’s understandable, in our culture, which emphasizes being inclusive and tolerant and nonjudgmental, that this senator, who by his own admission is not religious, would consider the traditional Christian belief in the exclusiveness of Christ intolerant, narrow-minded, unloving, bigoted, hateful, and fearful.
By all means, it’s unfair that he and many others would view us Christians that way, but that’s the world we live in. That’s our culture. People are bound to misunderstand who we are and what we’re about.
I’m sure that the people to whom the apostle Peter is writing this letter would be able to relate! People in their culture were literally saying that Christians were murderers and cannibals. Why?Because they talked about “eating” Christ’s body and “drinking” his blood in Communion. People said that they were literally committing incest. Why? Because they had these things called “love feasts” at secret church meetings with their “brothers and sisters” in Christ. It’s ridiculous and incredibly unfair, but that’s what opponents of Christianity were saying!
So what were these Christians supposed to do about this malicious slander? Peter’s answer is found in verse 12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” As I said last week, this “day of visitation” is Judgment Day, when Christ returns, and the dead are resurrected, and we all face Final Judgment. Peter says that he wants Christians to live lives of such integrity and high moral character—lives characterized by love and good deeds—that it will “silence the ignorance of foolish people,” as he says in verse 15. But not only that: the way we live our lives, Peter says, will literally play an important role in bringing people into a saving relationship with Christ. So that these people who are now slandering Christ and his followers might, on Judgment Day, glorify Christ—because they will have repented of their sins and trusted in him!
Peter says we are to witness through our actions. And we have a lot of evidence that this kind of “lifestyle evangelism” played a powerful role in the explosive growth of the early Church.
For example, in one early letter from the second century, a writer named Mathetes describes the Christian way of life to a powerful Roman leader named Diognetus, who was a pagan. The writer says these Christians are indistinguishable from us in so many ways: they dress like us, they talk like us, they eat the same food as we do, they pay taxes like us, they obey laws like us… in so many ways their behavior is the same. Except… And here I’m quoting directly from the letter: “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” What does that mean? You see, whereas we have a crisis related to abortion in this country, in the Roman world if you had an unwanted baby, especially a baby girl, it was perfectly legal and acceptable to leave that baby at the city’s garbage dump to die of exposure. The Christians didn’t do that. The writer continues: “They have a common table, but not a common bed”—meaning, they share their food with everyone, but they don’t sleep around; even then, the Christian sexual ethic was deeply countercultural. He writes: “They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all.”
These early Christians were famous for their commitment to the sacredness of human life, to sexual chastity, and to generosity. In fact, if you recall world history, you may remember that the first emperor to convert to Christianity was Constantine. From that point on, the Roman Empire had a succession of at least nominally Christian emperors. With the exception of an emperor named Julian—now known as Julian the Apostate. Julian wanted to return the empire back to its pagan roots. There was a problem with doing that, however, as he freely admitted in a letter to a pagan priest. He wrote: “If we want to be successful in our effort to revive the worship of Roman gods, we’re going to have to do something for widows and orphans!” Because, as Julian said in the letter, Christians were famously generous—not just to their own widows and orphans, but to non-believing widows and orphans as well.
No one in the history of the world had ever seen that kind of commitment to generosity and good deeds!
Peter tells us here that the Holy Spirit will use our behavior, our lifestyle, our generosity, our good deeds to win people to Christ! Of course, if you’ve heard me preach before, you know that I’m the last person to downplay the necessity of also using words when we witness. But what we do plays an important role.
And that’s exactly what this new effort that Carol Greer described in our Mission Moment was all about. As we go out into our community and show people “random acts of kindness,” they’re not going to know what hit ’em! Please, brothers and sisters, take these cards… Put them to good use! Show our community what we’re all about. Let’s be famous for our good deeds.
Now, I said a couple of weeks ago that I never want to preach another “try harder”-type sermon—you know, a sermon whose message is, “We need to try harder. We need to work harder. We need to be more generous. We need to do more good deeds.” First, because they don’t work anyway, and they just make us feel guilty. Second, because being a Christian isn’t mostly about what we do—even doing important things like witnessing through our good deeds. Being a Christian is about who we are… in here, in our heart. If what’s in here isn’t right, then it doesn’t matter what we do.
And Peter is also not interested in telling us to try harder. He’s also interested in what’s in here. He said that we Christians need to be like infants who “long for pure spiritual milk”—the milk of God’s Word. We are people who have “tasted that the Lord is good.” In other words, we’ve experienced for ourselves this love of Jesus Christ, and it has melted our hearts. We are people who have fallen in love with Jesus—so of course we’ll do what he tells us to do in his Word! If we’re in love with him we will!
Remember that Prince song from the movie Purple Rain? He tells the woman that he loves: “You—I would die for you.” Well, of course he would! If he’s truly in love. That’s nothing special, really. Anyone who’s in love—or who remembers what it’s like to be in love—knows that feeling—“I would die for you.”
If we are Christians, we are in love with Christ—or we ought to be. And this love for Christ means that we’ll do anything for him, including what Peter says in verse 16: we will be “slaves of God.” The Greek word for “slave” is doulos.
Doulos is often translated as “servant” or “bondservant,” but let’s not minimize or water-down the reality: to be a doulos means that we belong entirely to God; we are his possession; he owns us. He paid for us with the precious blood of his Son Jesus. We exist now to love and serve him alone. Our only interest is in doing his will. Our only interest is glorifying him. Everything we have—our time, our talent, our possessions, our money—belongs to him. Everything we do, we do for him.
So we are slaves of God—not against our will, the Bible says, but voluntarily, willingly, gladly, joyfully! And this is what we were created to be.
In fact, Peter says something in verse 16 that sounds like a contradiction: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants”—or slaves—of God. In Christ, you are truly free, Peter says. But to be truly free means to be a slave to God. How is that possible?
Let me give an example. We have a cat named Peanut now. He doesn’t do much—he eats, he sleeps, he purrs, and he shows our family a lot of love and affection. One thing he doesn’t do is worry. When he finishes eating, for instance, and his food bowl is empty, he doesn’t wonder whether one of his human masters is going to fill up the bowl again. And he doesn’t look at the large bag of Purina Cat Chow sitting next to the food bowl and think, “That bag is about three-quarters empty. Will there be another bag to replace that one when that one runs out?” He never gives it a second thought.
Can you imagine being that free—free from worry? Free from stress? Free from anxiety?
If it were possible for our cat to put into words what he’s thinking, it might sound something like this: “My master knows what’s best for me. My master will take care of me, no matter what. I can depend on him completely. I can trust in him completely.” And as a result he’s free—from the burdens of fear and worry and anxiety that so often enslave us!
How does he achieve this kind of freedom. By having us as his owners, of course! He is, in a way, our slave. He isn’t free to do whatever he wants, but he is free to be exactly the cat that God created him to be. And I’m exchange he’s deeply happy and content.
What if we had that same attitude of complete dependence on our heavenly Father? What if we could trust him like that? “I belong to my heavenly Father. He will take care of me, no matter what. I can depend on him completely. I can trust in him completely. So I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to worry.”
Last week, on the local news, we heard about a church bus from Huntsville, Alabama, that overturned near the Atlanta airport. The bus was carrying a group of youth who were on their way to Botswana, in Africa. They were going on a mission trip—not unlike mission trips that our youth group has gone on. One of the youth, a 17-year-old girl named Sarah Harmening, died in the accident. She was not unlike the youth we confirmed and baptized today. Her parents spoke to the media, and her mother looked into the cameras and urged people to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord—just the way their daughter had. It was deeply moving.
One of Sarah’s friends read a text that Sarah sent hours before leaving on the trip. In the text she quoted from 1 Peter: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” Sarah went on to write, “This is such a great reminder. We are like a wisp of smoke. We are only here for a moment. And this is not about us. Life is not about us. It’s about God, who is eternal. So I want to dedicate the one moment I’m here completely and entirely to him.”
And so she did. Will we? Will we dedicate the “one moment” we’re here completely and entirely to him?
Undoubtedly, many people who heard this on the news thought it was a tragedy. It was clear that her parents didn’t think so. How can it be a tragedy when you die doing exactly what the Lord wants you to do? How can it be a tragedy when, in the moment that Sarah died, she heard her Lord say to her, “Well done, good and faithful servant”—or doulos, slave. “Enter into the joy of your master.”
I want to live and die doing exactly what the Lord is calling me to do. I want to hear him say those words of me. Don’t you?
1. John 14:6
2. Acts 4:12
3. See Romans 8:38-39.
4. “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com. Accessed 10 June 2017.
5. Matthew 25:21