RPM, Volume 16, Number 15, April 6 to April 12, 2014

A Life of a Clear Conscience
1 Peter 3:13-17

By D. Marion Clark


Peter's epistle begins in such a nice way. He tells of all these wonderful blessings we have, how we are such special people; then, just when we are feeling so great about the Christian life, he throws these water balloons at us, that splash us with sobering exhortations. Obey every authority. Are some unjust and harsh? All the better to submit to because it honors God. Are neighbors insulting you and treating you wickedly? Bless them.

These are tough admonitions, and take fair warning, he is not going to let up. Let's look at this new text.

Suffering Response

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? We can almost hear the readers saying the same thing we are thinking: "Peter, wake up to reality. A lot of people are going to harm us and take advantage of us if we do good." But remember who Peter is. This is a disciple of Jesus Christ who witnessed the suffering of his master. This is an apostle who has already suffered for his Lord. We know that he has been thrown in jail at least once for the purpose of being executed. Peter knows persecution for the sake of doing good.

Yes, it is true that one can be unjustly ill-treated, but it is also true that Christians can be ill-treated because of acting by the standards of the world. If we curse those who curse us, more than likely we will experience further cursing. If our priority in life is our own welfare, we are more apt to come into conflict with others. But if we are eager to do good, we very often will find a change in the way others treat us. Note, Peter doesn't merely say do good, he says eager to do good. The Greek word is zelotes, the word we get "zeal" from. We can go through the motions of doing good out of a sense of duty or as a strategy to manipulate. That kind of doing good will certainly lead to harm at some point. But if we possess an attitude by which we are eager to do good for others, then we are more likely to receive blessing back or at least avoid being ill-treated.

Nevertheless, as Peter himself can attest, there may be times when we are mistreated for doing good. 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right. It happens. What then? You are blessed. Count yourself blessed. Remember now, this is the guy who, the first time he was whipped for preaching the gospel, rejoiced that he had been counted worth of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus] (Acts 5:41). And it's no use turning to Jesus for another opinion. He said, Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad… (Matthew 5:10-12).

We might as well go ahead and bring in verse 17 while we are on the topic. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. We naturally think the opposite. We say that you shouldn't complain if you are punished for doing something wrong. You are getting what you deserve. Peter says, as he did in 2:20, that we should see unjust treatment as a good thing.

Now, suffering from neighbors because of being a Christian is Peter's context, but I daresay he would apply his principle to suffering in general. Whatever hits us in life, be it illness or accidents, hits us as followers of Christ, and we are distinguished from the world according to our response. We can grieve over suffering; we can mourn over our losses and be angry with injustice, but our attitude about what happens to us should be decidedly different from those without the hope that we have.

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We know that though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Corinthians 4:16,17). We know that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

This is Peter's point. Thus he goes on in verse 14: "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." 15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. He is quoting from Isaiah 8:12, where God tells Isaiah not to be like the Israelites who fear earthly powers.

The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary… (Isaiah 8:13,14). Isaiah is saying, "Don't fear the world and don't fear what the world fears. God should be our concern. He is the holy One. We as sinners should tremble before him. The best the world can do is kill us. He has control over our very souls. But if we do look to him, he will be our sanctuary who protects us."

Peter tells us to take that same message and apply it to Jesus. Jesus Christ is our Lord whom we are to tremble before and take refuge in. We tremble before him as our glorious and holy Lord, but we come with joy to him as our refuge knowing that our Lord will not turn his people away.

And know further that when we do come, he does not merely comfort us, but he commends us and lifts us up. This is why it is blessed to be persecuted. Let's complete what Jesus said back in Matthew 5:10-12: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We've got the kingdom of God and our persecutions only bring further reward. Remember what Peter said in 2:20: if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this in commendable before God. That doesn't mean that God simply thinks good thoughts about us; it means he will commend us. He does it now, and he will publicly do it in his heavenly kingdom.

This is another reason why we should be able to "take it on the chin" so to speak. Let the world throw its punches; the fight belongs to the Lord and he promises us eternal victory. The ending has already been determined. Those [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:30). Our victory is a done deal. So when we say, "God, did you see the bad thing he did to me?" He responds, "Don't you see the glorious thing I have done for you?" We should not let temporal troubles get the best of us when we have eternal glory awaiting us. That's some hope. Now what matters is that we are able to demonstrate that hope in our lives and articulate it to those who do not have it.

The Prepared Answer

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. Let's go through this admonition carefully. Note first the assumption being made. We will be asked. Somehow we are demonstrating the Christian hope in our lives, which will cause someone to ask about it. And it is hope that is being demonstrated. Although the context is that of Christians living righteous lives, what stands out is their hopeful attitude. They are not demonstrating contempt or arrogance or self-righteousness; they are demonstrating personal hope. People are not saying of them, "What's their problem?" They are saying, "Why don't they have a problem? What's the reason for their peaceful attitude?"

To whom are we to respond? Everyone who asks. It may be the person in authority over us wondering why we still do good work when he's making work miserable for us. It may be the neighbor who has been observing our family life. It may be the parent or spouse who has noticed a change in us for the better. Others are asking, "Why do you bless those who insult you and seem at peace in the midst of trials?"

Peter says Always be prepared to give an answer. Being prepared involves two elements - knowing what to say and being ready to say it.

Can you articulate your hope and give a reason for it? Can you articulate your hope in one sentence? "My hope is in Jesus Christ who died for me." "My hope is in Jesus who took away the guilt of my sins." "My hope is that my Lord Jesus will carry to completion the work he has begun in me." "My hope is that Jesus will keep his promise and take me to his home."

Your answer should be simple because the gospel is simple. There is a branch of theology called apologetics, which specializes in giving a defense of the gospel, and this verse is often quoted as the basis for it. We need to be prepared to give credible reasons for why we believe the way we do. That's true and I am grateful for the work of apologists, but all that Peter is really saying here is to give a reason for your personal hope. If you can debate the scientific issues over creation or the questions raised by biblical criticism, that's good. But what really matters is that you, one, demonstrate a personal hope; two, articulate your hope; and, three, explain the reason for your hope.

What is your reason? "I was burdened by my sin, and Christ gave me the hope I needed." "When I understood what Christ did for me on the cross…" "When I became convinced of the resurrection…" "When I saw the love in a Christian…" What's your story?

Now, that's the knowing-what-to-say element. The other element is being ready to say it. You can know what to say and miss the opportunity to say it. Let me give an example of not being ready. While in college I was once asked by a nonChristian friend why I was planning to be a minister. I explained how I had an interest in ministry, how I seemed to have the gifts needed, and what was involved in getting ready. It wasn't until later that I realized that what she was really asking me was why I was a Christian. I missed it. If she had been more direct in her question I would have known exactly what to say. But I wasn't prepared to take the opportunity that was subtly presented to me.

Don't miss the opportunity. Don't be unprepared. How do you get prepared? The answer is so easy it is embarrassing. Pray. Pray each day in the morning that God will prepare you. Pray before you pick up the phone. Pray in the midst of conversations. Colossians 4:2 says, Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

You will be surprised by the opportunities. They may be brief, so that all you have to say is one sentence. You may get no response or negative response, but if you continue to demonstrate your hope, you will get the opportunities again. Just be ready.

Now, I mentioned that being ready means knowing what to say, but in reality, Peter's primary concern is knowing how to speak. But do this with gentleness and respect. I'm reminded by this verse of a passage from C. S. Lewis's autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

No sooner had I entered the English School than I went to George Gordon's discussion class. And there I made a new friend…His name was Nevill Coghill. I soon had the shock of discovering that he - clearly the most intelligent and best-informed man in that class - was a Christian and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist. There were other traits that I liked but found (for I was still very much a modern) oddly archaic; chivalry, honor, courtesy, "freedom," and "gentillesse." One could imagine him fighting a duel. He spoke much "ribaldry'' but never "villeinye" (p. 212).

Lewis ran up against a Christian who could match his intellect and wit, not afraid to engage in debate, and, yet, most startling of all do so in a courteous manner that showed real respect and gentleness. Here was a man who demonstrated his hope by both his words and behavior, and was prepared to answer with both good reasons and gracious speech. Lewis was affected not only by the reasons his new friend could give, but the spirit in which he gave them.

Peter notes that our conversation should end with us 16 keeping a clear conscience. A clear conscience about what? That we have acted with goodness keeping with Christ and have aimed towards the welfare of whomever we are speaking with. If we come away from a conversation desiring to avenge ourselves because the other person got the better of us, we do not have a clear conscience. If we come away feeling triumphant because we got the better of him, we also do not have a clear conscience. The bottom line in our conversation with others about our faith is not whether we win or lose a debate, or whether we could answer a question with sophistication. The bottom line is whether we articulate our personal hope in Christ and do so out of a sincere desire to draw the other person into knowing such a hope.

Do we actually care about the person, even the one who is insulting and ridiculing us? Do we really love Christ and bear a deep hope for the life we will have some day? If we answer yes to both questions, then we will be ready with a clear conscience to give an answer to the questions people ask.

Peter completes verse 16 saying, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. His point is not that our motivation is to shame our neighbors. Our motivation is to glorify God and win our neighbors. If we behave in such a way, then, sooner or later, our neighbors will have to testify that we live and behave well.

"That Christian in my dorm may be a Puritan, but he is the one person who won't make fun of me like the others." "It should bother me more that she thinks her religion is the only right one, but she never acts stuck up or gets defensive." It is who we are and how we care that, in the end, has the biggest impact on our neighbor.


I want to close with such an illustration from the book Chapter and Verse by Michael Bryan, a skeptic of Christianity. Wanting to write a book explaining the evangelical mindset to his fellow skeptics, he spent a few months at a Christian Bible college in Texas getting to know the faculty and students. One activity he joined was a multi-day bus trip to Jacksonville for a preachers' conference. On the trip back there was a time for people to stand in the front of the bus and talk about the conference. Bryan himself got up, spoke about one of the sermons he heard, and concluded this way:

I told the people from Criswell that I wasn't totally impervious to the beauties of Christian faith, and I wasn't. I'm not. I thanked them for taking me along and concluded with the promise that if I ever did walk the aisle as a Christian, in whatever kind of church, wherever it might be, young Philip would be by my side (one of the students on the bus).

Bryan continues to write:

Then I crawled into my bunk and listened to some other confessions. Soon I realized that one young woman two bunks away was crying, and continued to, as others on the bus spoke, for what seemed half an hour. The tears were pouring out. Finally she took the microphone but was so emotionally wrought she could barely speak. Her name was Cheryl Baker and this was the hardest thing she had ever done, she said, and paused.

"And it concerns Mike Bryan."

I had been lying down. Now I sat up. Cheryl said she was burdened by the weight of my lost soul. Something about my testimony had shivered through her like an arrow. She had been weeping all that time for me. She finished talking, walked back down the aisle past me, we hugged as best we could, and she went on to her own bunk. Someone else began speaking. I didn't hear a word of it. I was frantically trying to understand how someone I had met only a few days previously, with whom I hadn't exchanged fifty words all together, could break down under the weight of a stranger's forlornness, as she perceived it. In Cheryl's heart and mind and world there's only one way to heal any hurt or help any need, and she knew I hadn't accepted that way. If I hadn't realized it before, I certainly did that night on the bus heading home to Dallas: take away the church services, the fine preaching, the indoctrination, the group dynamics, harangues about sin and guilt, take away John 14:6, Revelation, chapter 20, the resurrection appearances, and the entire Bible, even, and you are left with the true heart of the Christian faith and all the others, which is simply the human heart itself. That's hardly profound but it's a fact easily forgotten. Remembered, it tempers my own more dismissive moments.

People may dismiss our arguments and reasons, but even our enemies will not dismiss our love and our hope. May we always be prepared to show both.

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