Was Peter a legalist?
That nagging question just wouldn’t leave me alone as I read through 1 Peter 1 a while back. Few New Testament authors emphasize holiness, purity, and obedience more than Peter. According to him, we have been elected for “obedience to Jesus Christ,” prepared for righteous living so that we can be “obedient children” who refuse to give in to sinful passions. And this obedience is part of the process through which we are tested, refined, and saved, with the ultimate goal of being “holy in all your conduct” so that we can be holy as God is holy.
And this is just from the first chapter of his first letter.
Peter clearly has a thing for obedience. And, to make things worse, he also tells us that this perfectly holy God is the one who will judge us “impartially” according to our deeds. That can’t be good. I don’t know about you, but I could use a little partiality. If God judges me strictly according to whether my deeds match the standard of his perfect holiness, I’m in a lot of trouble. No wonder Peter says that we should conduct ourselves “with fear.”
If he wanted to scare us, mission accomplished.
And then Peter’s argument takes an odd turn. Right at the end of the chapter, he tells us that all of this is “the good news that was preached to you.” Good news? Did I miss something? How exactly is it good news that we’re supposed to live perfectly obedient lives and that we’ll be judged impartially against that standard? If that’s the good news, I’ll pass on hearing the bad.
Is it any wonder that I got to the end of this chapter with that nagging question: Was Peter a legalist?
The problem, of course, is when we read these statements without the rest of what Peter says about the gospel. In this one chapter, Peter offers a robust framework for understanding the gospel. And it’s only in the context of that broader view of the gospel that his comments about holiness and obedience make sense.
According to Peter, the gospel Is…
Right away Peter grounds his appeal in the fact that his readers have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, and for obedience to the Son (v. 2). So, when he makes his later comments about the fundamental importance of obedience in the Christian life, he has already grounded the story of obedience in the larger story of the Trinity and what God has done for us. The good news only becomes truly good news when we see it in light of what the Father, Son, and Spirit have done, are doing, and will continue to do for us.
Like most NT authors, Peter quickly connects the gospel to the power of the resurrection for providing new life and a new hope (v. 3). A gospel that leaves us mired in our sin and brokenness, struggling to meet a perfect standard by sheer willpower, that’s not good news at all. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Peter’s gospel is one that offers real transformation through the power of the resurrection. That is our living hope.
Peter spends quite a bit of time pointing to the future. He reminds us that we have an amazing inheritance waiting for us in heaven (v. 4) and that God himself is guarding us so that we will in fact see the ultimate salvation that he has in store for us at the end (v. 5). By focusing on the sure and certain end of the story, Peter again reminds us that this is a story about the triune God and what he is doing in and through his people. The call to obedience needs to be read in light of the fact that God has already secured the end of the story for us.
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to see all the obedience, holiness, and judgment, and completely miss that Peter actually places a far greater emphasis on God’s grace and mercy. It is by “his great mercy” that we were born again (v. 3). And it is surely by grace that he guards us faithfully to the end (v. 5). Indeed, this grace is so amazing that God sent prophets to proclaim it to the people so that they would be well prepared for the day in which he would pour his grace out upon them (vv. 10-12). And we do prepare ourselves for action, but we do it by setting our hope on the grace that we will experience fully with the coming of Jesus (v. 13). And God’s grace is most clearly displayed in we were ransomed by the precious blood of the Messiah (v. 19) despite the fact that we had fallen far short of the standard of perfect holiness that he requires. So, even with his emphasis on obedience and duty, Peter is quite clear from beginning to end that his gospel is all about grace and mercy.
For Peter, the gospel has only been revealed fully in Jesus Christ (. And that makes the gospel very new. But at this same time, it is incredibly old. It begins, of course, in eternity past with the foreknowledge of the father (v. 2). But Peter also offers a gospel that has to be understood through the story of God’s people, Israel. Peter fills his whole description of the gospel with Old Testament language that would normally be reserved for Israel: election, inheritance, testing, glory and honor, holiness, children of God, judgment, perfect lamb. These are all Old Testament concepts that need to be understood from that perspective. Thus, for Peter, the gospel is grounded in the Old Testament, even if it was not fully revealed until the coming of Jesus. (By the way, some might argue that maybe Peter was writing to Jews and that’s why he used so much Old Testament language. But, if you read through the rest of the book, it seems pretty clear that he is at least writing to a mixed audience, if not one comprised primarily of gentiles.)
Peter has much more to say about the gospel in the rest of the book, especially about the good news about the people he has formed to serve as his priests in the world, his visible representatives in a broken world. And he’ll also go on to say more about the importance of obedience, walking faithfully in his footsteps even when the path is brutally difficult and painful. But, for Peter, the call to obedience always flows from a gospel that is always already grounded in the triune God who graciously transforms his people and faithfully preserves them, in keeping with all of his ancient promises, so that his ultimate, eschatological goals will inevitably be accomplished.
“And this is the good news that was preached to you.” Now I can see why.
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.