The War Against the Soul and the Glory of God
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series 1 Peter: Grow in the Grace & Knowledge of Christ
1 Peter 2:11-12
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
What these two verses make clear is that there are two tremendous issues in the world. They are, I think, the most important issues in the world. And one of the reasons we know that we are aliens and strangers in the world is that the modern world we live in does not believe that these two issues are the main issues. If the world believed this, the newspaper and the television and the theater and the university and popular music and industry mission statements and government goals would look and sound very different than they do. But in fact we live in a world that shows by its priorities and values and commitments and standards and preoccupations and pleasures that it does not regard these two issues as paramount. In fact, they are not even on the list of the world's priorities.
The two issues that dominate these two verses—and indeed dominate the whole New Testament—are the salvation of the human soul and the glory of God. The two great issues of the Bible are how the soul of man might not be destroyed and how the glory of God might not be belittled.
Salvation of the Soul
In verse 11 Peter says, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul." The ultimate issue in that verse is that the human soul is in danger of being destroyed. A war is being waged against the soul in this world. If the war is successful, the soul is lost.
Jesus said, "What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul? For what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26). If the soul is lost, the whole person is lost. And there is no way to negotiate to get it back. When this war against the soul is over, it's over. There is a great gulf fixed and none can cross one way or the other—from heaven or from hell (Luke 16:26). If the anti-soul forces win this war, the soul is lost forever.
So this is one of the great issues in the world. It affects everybody without exception. And it affects everybody forever. And it affects everybody forever in an ultimately serious way. And yet our world does not give serious attention to it. There is no column in the newspaper, there is no public service announcement on the radio, there is no soundbite on television, there is no values-clarification course in our schools, there is no government agency or even a welfare pamphlet that counsels us how to wage war for the eternal life of our souls. We are told how to wage war against AIDS; against sunstroke; against mosquitoes; against drunk driving and pollen and depression and rape and fire and theft and cholesterol and dandelions. But the world we live in gives no counsel on how to fight for the eternal life of the soul.
Our modern world is massively preoccupied with the inconsequential. We are so oblivious as a culture to what will one day seem so obvious that we will call ourselves blind for not seeing it—namely, the eternal well-being of the soul and its relation to God. Is it any wonder that Peter begins this second section of his letter the same way he did the first one by calling us "aliens and strangers" (cf. 1:1)?
That's the first great issue in these two verses and in the Bible—the salvation of the soul. It's the issue of how to wage war so that we will not lose our souls.
The Glory of God
The second great issue is mentioned in verse 12—the issue of the glory of God. In verse 11 the issue is how the soul might not be destroyed. In verse 12 the issue is how the glory of God might not be belittled:
Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
The goal of human behavior is the glory of God. "Keep your behavior excellent so that . . . the Gentiles might glorify God." The positive significance of our lives is derived from whether our lives direct people's attention to the glory of God.
If we live our lives in such a way that they don't point people to the glory of God, then our lives are without positive significance from a Christian standpoint. What we become is just an echo of a God-neglecting culture. We fit into the world so well that our lives don't point beyond the world. We are no longer aliens and strangers, but simply conforming citizens of the God-ignoring world.
But from the biblical standpoint the greatest issue in this world is the glory of God. All human behavior is meant by God to get attention for God. "Keep your behavior excellent so that they will glorify God." As far as God is concerned, your life has positive significance to the degree that what you do from the time you get up in the morning till the time you go to bed at night points people to the glory of God. (Keep in mind, lest you infer from this that solitude has no positive significance, you are one of the people you are to point to God.)
So there are two great issues in the world—the salvation of the soul and the glory of God. Or: how the soul of man might not be destroyed and how the glory of God might not be belittled.
The Need to Recover These Two Great Issues
In one sense I would be satisfied this morning if you would embrace just that with all your heart. If that were the deep conviction of your soul and driving confidence of your heart, I think the rest of this text would take care of itself.
The reason I say this is that the most basic issue in modern life seems to me to be the absence of the supremacy and centrality of God. And what is needed so desperately in the world is people for whom God is everything. I agree with David Wells in his new book called God in the Wasteland when he says,
It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God's existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgments no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertiser's sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a condition we have assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life. His truth is no longer welcome in our public discourse. The engine of modernity rumbles on, and he is but a speck in its path. (p. 88)
So if a thousand people this morning would not just give lip service to this text, but make it the overarching, integrating truth of our lives—that the two great issues in the world are how the soul might be saved and how God might be glorified—then God might become heavy again in a thousand spheres around these cities instead of being weightless and unimportant. And then maybe the gospel of gracious salvation from the wrath of a holy God would make sense and be believed.
But there is more in this text. And since I believe God put it there to help make the text real in our lives, let me spend the time we have left helping us focus our minds and hearts on it.
I'll just mention two things.
Aliens, Exiles, and Strangers
Peter has mentioned twice already (in 1:1 and 1:17) that true Christians are aliens and exiles and strangers on the earth. Here in verse 11 he mentions it a third time, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers . . . " He must regard this as important. So we should too.
It will help us restore the weightiness and importance of God in our world if we remember that we are aliens and exiles. The reason we are aliens was given in verse 9: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession . . . he called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." We belong to God, not to the world and not to America. We learn to live from him, not from television or fashion catalogues. We are aliens because we are God's.
We must cultivate the mindset of exiles. What this does mainly is sober us up and wake us up so that we don't drift with the world and take for granted that the way the world thinks and acts is the best way. We don't assume that what is on TV is helpful to the soul; we don't assume that the priorities of advertisers are helpful to the soul; we don't assume that the strategies and values of business and industry are helpful to the soul. We don't assume that any of this glorifies God. We stop and we think and we consult the Wisdom of our own country, heaven, and we don't assume that the conventional wisdom of this age is God's wisdom. We get our bearings from God in his Word.
When you see yourself as an alien and an exile with your citizenship in heaven, and God as your only Sovereign, you stop drifting with the current of the day. You ponder what is good for the soul and what honors God in everything: food, cars, videos, bathing suits, birth control, driving speeds, bed times, financial savings, education for the children, unreached peoples, famine, refugee camps, sports, death, and everything else. Aliens get their cue from God and not the world.
So one way to make God visible and weighty for the sake of our world is to see ourselves as exiles and refugees from heaven.
The Battle for Desires First, Then Behavior
Another thing to notice in this text is that the battle for the soul and the battle for the glory of God is fought first at the level of our desires and then at the level of our behavior—first at the level of what we feel, and then at the level of what we do.
Beautiful Conduct Springs Only from Right Desires
Verse 11 says that it is "fleshly lusts [or desires] that wage war against the soul." So Peter says abstain from them. Then in verse 12 Peter says we should keep our "behavior" excellent so that people will see and give glory to God. So first he focuses on desires and then on behavior. This is the same pattern we saw in 1:14–15. "Don't conform to the desires of your former ignorance, but . . . be holy in all your conduct." Fight first at the level of desires and then at the level of conduct.
The reason for this is that conduct is not excellent—it is not beautiful; it is not going to point people to the glory of God—if it does not flow from right desires. Jesus said, "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity" (Matthew 23:25). In other words, it doesn't do any good to try to shine up the conduct on the outside without changing the desires on the inside. There is a different sound to a barrel full of leaves and a barrel full of oil.
How Does Excellent Behavior Point to God's Glory?
How does verse 12 work? How does excellent behavior point people to the glory of God? The answer, I think, is given in 1 Peter 3:15. "Always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you." What they see is some external action, and what they ask about is your internal hope.
What Peter is saying here is that when people look at you, what they see expressed in your actions is what you hope in. So they see a certain way of acting—some humble act of love (Galatians 5:6) or some righteous act of courage (Hebrews 10:34) or some self-denying act of generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)—and they notice that you must not be hoping in what people usually hope in—self-exaltation, safety, money—and they are puzzled as to where your hope is. So they ask about your hope: where do you get your confidence, your contentment, your satisfaction when you act that way?
When we direct our desires to God and find hope and contentment in his mercy and power and promises, then our outward life starts to show what Peter calls "excellent behavior"—a humble love and fearless courage and self-denying generosity and joyful simplicity and peaceful suffering. These behaviors point to God's glory because they point to a stable, sure, satisfying object of desire and hope that is not of this world.
So if you want to fight for the soul that it not be destroyed, and if you want to magnify the glory of God so that it not be belittled, and if you want to say yes to the weight and importance of God in this God-neglecting modern world, then see yourself as an exile from heaven and focus your desires on God so that your hope is in him and not in this world, and the result will be an emerging beauty of behavior that conquers all slander and finally brings praise to God.