[K:NWTS 1/2 (Sep 1986) 4-17]

A Sermon on I Peter 1:3-5

Geerhardus Vos

We are all undoubtedly familiar with the characterization of Peter as the apostle of hope. The well-known distinction runs: Paul the apostle of faith, John the apostle of love, Peter the apostle of hope. Of course generalizing definitions like this are apt to be somewhat misleading. They would be wrong if they were to give us the impression that in Paul hope was not particularly prominent or for John faith [was] not especially important. A single glance at the writings of these two apostles would suffice to convince us of the contrary. These three are necessary ingredients of all Christian life. The only question can be–which of the three is the most characteristic in each; or, what is the same thing put in a different way, in connection with which [does] the individuality of each find clearest expression?

These great Christian virtues are not something arbitrary. They correspond closely to the fundamental dispositions and activities in the natural constitution of man. What a man is temperamentally by nature that he will as a rule be temperamentally in the state of grace. Evidently Peter's was a temperament of hope. We can observe this in all that is recorded of him in the Gospels and Acts. And thus in his regenerate, Christian life also he retains this peculiarity. That side of redemption which has to do with hope most deeply impressed, most strongly appealed to him. And, therefore, he was used by the Spirit as the apostle to interpret for us the nature and influence of Christian hope. The whole epistle bears witness to the prominence of this factor in the writer's mind. It is, of course, highly significant that it emerges here at the very beginning before any other thing is mentioned and that it is immediately introduced in such a way as to make us feel that the essence of what Christians are consists in this–that they have a hope. They are begotten again for that. When they were made new creatures, it was that they might have a new hope. But in the sequel also the writer returns to it. In the thirteenth verse of this chapter, he exhorts the readers as follows: "Wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober and set your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." In the third chapter, the fifteenth verse, he enjoins the readers to be ready always to give answer to every man that asks them a reason concerning the hope that is in them. And not only of the religious life of his readers, but of religious life in general, especially of the religious life of the old covenant, he makes hope the keynote. Of the holy women of old, whom he holds up as examples to the Christian women of his own time, he has nothing greater to say than this, that "they hoped in God" (I Pet. 3:5).

And what is even more characteristic is the close connection which the apostle establishes between faith and hope. In the seventeenth verse of this chapter, he exhorts the readers to pass the time of their sojourning in fear: fear in view of the holiness of God who as Father without respect of persons judgeth according to each man's work. But fear is not the whole of the Christian consciousness. There is another side to it and that is hope. The God who is judge is also the one who has given Christ as a savior. The Christians are believers, through Christ, in a God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory for the express purpose that their faith might also hope in God. For thus, it seems, we must render the close of the twenty-first verse rather than "that your faith and hope might be in God." In thus closely connecting faith and hope, our epistle bears a certain similarity to the epistle to the Hebrews with which it also possesses some other interesting points of contact. In Hebrews, you will remember, faith is in one place defined as "the substance of things hoped for" (Heb. 11:1).

Hope and the Future

Let us for a few moments consider this idea of the Christian hope and the significance the apostle ascribes to it for the practice of religion. In the first place, we notice that the hope of which the text speaks is not a general sort of hopefulness–the expectation of future blessedness in an indefinite sense. It is true the Christian is a man of hope so far as his outlook upon the future as such, be it near or remote, is bright and cheerful. But what Peter means is something different from this, something far more specific. The hope he refers to is the hope of the future kingdom of God, the final state of blessedness, the hope of heaven, as we would call it. This is stated in so many words; for the apostle after having first said that we were begotten again unto a living hope, goes on to substitute for the conception of hope that of the inheritance reserved in heaven for us. And [he] adds still further that while this is reserved for us, we are also guarded for it as for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. The Christian is a man, according to Peter, who lives with his heavenly destiny ever in full view. His outlook is not bounded by the present life and the present world. He sees that which is and that which is to come in their true proportions and in their proper perspective. The center of gravity of his consciousness lies not in the present but in the future. Hope, not possession, is that which gives tone and color to his life. His is the frame of mind of the heir who knows himself entitled to large treasures upon which he will enter at a definite point of time; treasures which will first enable him to become a man and develop his powers to their full capacity, and every one of whose thoughts therefore projects itself into the period when he shall have become of age and enjoy the fruition of his hope.

It is characteristic of youth to live in the future because youth knows instinctively that the true realities, the great possibilities of life lie before it; that that which it now is, is merely provisional and preparatory; that growing is for being. Yet even more emphatically this is true of that youthful stage of Christian life which believers spend here on earth. For after all, that which young people expect in the future is indefinite and uncertain. They know that what they have is not yet the true life. But what the true life, when it comes, will bring, if it comes at all, they cannot tell. Here hope is negative. But the Christian's hope is positive. His youth is like unto that of the heir during his minority who knows precisely what awaits him. Nay more than this, the Christian has the assurance which no heir in temporal things can ever have. He knows with absolute certainty that not merely will the inheritance be kept for him, but that he will be kept for it. Here then there is something that possesses all the requirements necessary to make hope a safe and normal life-principle. The Christian can hope perfectly. He is the only one that can hope perfectly for that which is to be brought unto him. For him not to have his face set forward and upward would be an anomaly, sickliness, decadence. To have it set upward and forward is life and health and strength. The air of the world to come is the vital atmosphere which he delights to breathe and outside of which he feels depressed and languid.

Undoubtedly, the early Christians, as we observe them in the New Testament and even later, had more of this youthful spirit of the faith than you and I and Christians of the present day can boast of. Christianity in a certain sense has grown old in us. We do not, as much as we ought to, have our hearts in eternity. What is the reason? It is easy to say that the Christians of the apostolic age expected the speedy return of Christ which would soon make an end of the present world; and that for this reason they had a great advantage over us. To some extent this may be true, although to a far larger extent I believe that a precisely opposite connection between these two facts might be affirmed. I venture to say that the apostolic church was so much interested in the return of the Lord and the time of his coming because spiritually it was predisposed for making this a question of supreme concern. In other words, because [it was] a church full of hope, it pondered with eager interest the problem of the how and the when its hope was to be realized.

Hope and the Second Advent

There is a very easy way of testing this. To us, to every believer individually, death, and through death, the eternal world is just as near as the second advent could have appeared to the Christians of the time of Peter and Paul. Does the absolute certainty that we are so near to it have the same influence upon us as their belief had upon them? And if not, does not the difference plainly arise from this–that the forces of eternal life were so strong in them as to keep their hope ever fresh and green, whereas in our case they are frequently so weak as to make our hope little more than a profession, a name. Where are the few nowadays (we may ask it not excluding ourselves) who carry with them the consciousness of belonging to another world, of being heirs to an unbounded future? [Where are the few who are conscious] to the same extent (I shall not say as Peter and Paul were) as the plain, average believer in those times was, so that for the whole New Testament wherever we open it, there blows upon us, as it were, a breeze fresh from the ocean of heaven? And what a pity that we succeed so little in creating and reproducing this atmosphere around us! What a dignity it lends to the Christian life to have such hope even theoretically. If you have ever moved for a time in circles where the Christian faith had ceased to exist, where the belief in immortality had practically vanished, where people lived consciously and professedly for this world only (and do not even attempt any longer to break down the bars that shut them in), then you will have felt how sadly life was degraded, how pitifully brought down to the animal stage, even though it had all the advantages of worldly refinement and culture, simply because this element of hope had been taken out of it.

Modern paganism in this respect is not substantially better. It is worse than ancient paganism, being more self-conscious and confirmed. And of ancient paganism Paul already summed up the whole sad story in the double statement that it was without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12), an exile from what is the noblest birthright of humanity. Now if this be so, how imperative in view of it becomes the duty of every true believer in the present age to cultivate the grace of hope; to make himself remember and to make others feel, not so much by direct affirmation, but rather by the tone of life that the future belongs to us and that we belong to the future; that we are children of the world to come and that even now we allow this world to mold and rule and transform us in our thoughts and desires and feelings. If we could only learn again, brethren, what Peter calls "to hope perfectly" (1:13), what a witness of the reality of the Christian religion, what a powerfully attractive influence there might proceed from this one manifestation of our spiritual life! People not having such hope would feel the difference between themselves and us and regret at not having it might in many instances offer the first inducement to regain an interest in it and inquire about it.

Consequences of the Life of Hope

The necessary consequence of this life of the Christian in hope is that he learns to consider the present earthly life a journey, a pilgrimage, something that is necessary for the sake of the end, but which does not have any independent value or attraction in itself. This also is a thought which pervades and colors the entire epistle. Peter in the very opening words addresses the readers as sojourners of the dispersion–two terms which strikingly express that they are away from home, scattered in a strange world, a colony with regard to heaven, as truly as the scattered Jews were a diaspora with reference to the holy land and Jerusalem. He tells them to gird up the loins of their minds as befits a traveller journeying through. And again he says: "Pass the time of your sojourning in fear" (1:17). Once more: "Beloved I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul" (2:11). Without a certain detachment from this world, other-worldliness is not possible. Hope cannot flourish where the heart is in the present life.

Two things, however, ought to be remembered here in order not to misunderstand this teaching. In the first place, this detachment from the world is not and ought not to be an external matter, but an internal disposition. The question is not whether one shall deny himself all earthly, temporal possessions. He might do that and yet in his heart be far from a pilgrim, a sojourner. And on the other hand, he might not do this and yet inwardly obey the exhortation of the apostle because he had succeeded in disengaging his heart. And in the second place, such an inward attitude towards the world cannot be assumed and maintained artificially by merely compelling ourselves not to love the present life. If this is to be a natural, healthy state of mind, it must be the result of a greater, a supreme interest in the life to come. The negative must be the effect of the positive. The love of heaven must drive out the inordinate love of what is earthly.

Hence the author entirely directs his exhortation to the positive side. He does not urge the readers to make themselves strangers on earth or even to consider themselves so, but simply takes this for granted as a fact which none of them can be unaware of. All he does is to point out how their situation in the world bears out the truth of their not being of it. He tells them repeatedly that their sufferings are due to this. For you will observe, the suffering of which the epistle speaks so much was not suffering in general, but suffering of a specific kind–that brought upon believers by the enmity of the world; whence also it was prefigured by the suffering of Christ. And the world makes the Christian suffer because it instinctively recognizes that the latter belongs to a different, to an opposite order of things than itself. The malice of the world springs from reservations that the believer should refuse to identify himself with the world. "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you" (4:12)–the same sufferings are accomplished in your brethren which are in the world, i.e., because they are in the world–wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them into the same excess. If we are true believers, brethren, though we ourselves should sometimes forget, the world will not fail to remind us of the difference between it and us. And, on the other hand, if we at any time feel perfectly at home in the world, if our consciousness of its necessary antagonism to us is entirely in abeyance, then there is abundant reason for us to examine ourselves. And the probability is that we have been backward in cultivating our hope upon God and the world to come.

Hope and Regeneration

In the third place, we observe that this hope of the believer is something into which he has come by being born again. Its origin is ascribed to God: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." God took mercy upon us because he saw us leading a life without hope. And therefore by a new birth, he radically changed our world for us so as to make it a world of hope. The peculiar way in which the apostle expresses this fact ought to be carefully noted. He might have said, "God gave us a new hope," or, "God brought us into a new hope." But what he says is, "God begat us again unto a living hope." Undoubtedly this representation is chosen in order to emphasize the comprehensiveness and persuasiveness of the hope which the Christian obtains. It means a change as great as the crisis of birth; a transition from not being to living, when the hope of the gospel breaks upon our vision. The change is not partial. It does not affect our life in merely one or the other of its aspects. It revolutionizes our whole life at every point. What this means is a total regeneration of our consciousness, a regeneration of our way of thinking, a reversal of our outlook upon things in their entirety.

The term "to be begotten again" or "to be born again" does not always have the same meaning in Scripture. Sometimes it stands for that fundamental act whereby God implants a new spiritual life in us deep beneath our consciousness and beneath all our experience in the center of our nature. In that case, regeneration is confined, as it were, to a single point and from this point the implanted life expands and unfolds itself. But there is also in the New Testament a wider conception of regeneration according to which it describes the change in us as it presents itself to our own conscious experience and therefore the change not of a single point within us, but the change as reflected in the entire compass of our consciousness. It is the coming in of the new life as a complex, rich world of new relations and new realities and new reactions. In this sense Paul says that when anybody is in Christ, he is a new creation (II Cor. 5:17); not merely a new creature, but a new creation–behold the old things have passed away, all around him has become new. When a man becomes conscious of his being in Christ, there takes place such a transformation of his spiritual environment for him that it may be fitly compared to the great world-change that shall take place before our eyes when the new heavens and the new earth appear at the end of time. These two regenerations resemble each other in their pervasive, comprehensive character.

Peter and Resurrection Hope

Now in this sense also, I take it, Peter affirms that believers have been begotten again unto a living hope. In all probability the representation, while applicable to all believers, was influenced to some extent by the apostle's memory of his own experience. There had been a moment in his previous life when all at once in the twinkling of an eye, as it were, he had been thus translated from a world of despair into a world of hope. It was when the fact of the resurrection of Christ flashed upon him. Under the two-fold bitterness of his denial of the Lord and of the tragedy of the cross, utter darkness had settled down upon his soul. Everything he expected from the future in connection with Jesus had been completely blotted out. Perhaps he had been even in danger of losing the old hope which as a pious Israelite he cherished before he knew the Lord. And then suddenly, the whole aspect of things had been changed. The risen Christ appeared to him and by his appearance wrought the resurrection of everything that had gone down with him into the grave. Nay, there was far more here for Peter than a mere resurrection of what he had hoped in before. It was the birth of something new that now for the first time disclosed itself to his perception. His hope was not given back to him in its old form. It was regenerated in the act of restoration. Previously it had been dim, undefined, subject to fluctuations–sometimes eager and enthusiastic, sometimes cast down and languishing; in many respects earthly and carnal, very incompletely spiritualized and, apart from all these defects, a bare hope which could only sustain itself by projection into the future, but lacked that vital support and nourishment in a present substantial reality without which no religious hope can permanently subsist.

Through the resurrection of Christ, all these faults were corrected; all these deficiencies supplied. For Peter looked upon the risen Christ as the beginning, the first fruits of that new world of God in which the believer's hope is anchored. Jesus did not rise as he had been before, but transformed, glorified, eternalized, the possessor and author of a transcendent heavenly life at one and the same time, the revealer, the sample and the pledge of the future realization of the true kingdom of God. No prolonged course of training could have been more effective for purifying and spiritualizing the apostle's hope than this single, instantaneous experience; this bursting upon him of a new form of eternal life, concrete and yet all-comprehensive in its prophetic significance. Well might the apostle say that he himself had been begotten again unto a new hope through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. And, of course, what was true of him was even more emphatically true of the readers of his epistle, who, if they were believers from the Gentiles, previously to their conversion had lived entirely without hope and without God in the world.

The Goal of This Hope

This substantial renewal which the consciousness of man undergoes when he is brought in contact with the resurrection-life of Christ is still more clearly expressed in the other statement of our text. For you will observe that the apostle describes the goal of this new begetting in two ways. First, he says, "unto a living hope" and then he says, "unto an inheritance, incorruptible, undefiled and that fadeth not away." What he means is evidently nothing else than that through the resurrection of Christ, his hope has been made to terminate directly upon the heavenly inheritance in all its compass. It was a birth into a state of consciousness that knew itself infinitely rich in heavenly places in Christ. [It was a birth] in which all the thoughts and the aspirations have for their fixed background this sense of nobility of being heir to untold treasures. What matters is that the inheritance is not yet received, so far as our legal title to it is concerned and our ideal possession of it! We have been born unto it through the resurrection of Christ.

The three adjectives "incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away" describe the spiritual, heavenly character of the inheritance. They describe that aspect of it in virtue of which the hope of the believer can justly be called a new-born hope–distinct not only as a new fact, but distinct by its new qualities. They describe that in which the inheritance which Peter expected after the resurrection differed from that which he expected before. These adjectives simply unfold what is already given in the statement that the inheritance is reserved (or rather preserved), kept secure in heaven. Because by its very nature it belongs to the heavenly, spiritual world, it is exempt from corruption. The forces of decay that rule in this world of death cannot attack it. It is undefiled–the principle of moral evil, the power of sin cannot invade it. It fadeth not away–even the lapse of time which in a normal world destroys the beauty and freshness of things cannot dim its glory for it is constituted under the laws of eternity and not of time.

A Living Hope

By no means however does it follow from this that existing under such laws and so securely protected from the corruption and defilement and decay of this world, it is also debarred from exerting its power in this world and acting upon us while we form yet part of this lower order of things. For the apostle, as you will observe, describes the hope to which the Christian has been born again as a living hope. This is but another way of saying that the inheritance unto which he has been born again is a living inheritance; an inheritance that moves and sways, that strengthens and inspires us, and that not merely subjectively through our knowledge of it, but objectively through the spiritual power that proceeds from it. The word "living" is used in two other passages in our epistle. It is said of the word of God that it "liveth and abideth forever" (1:23). And Christ is called the "living stone" (2:4) unto whom coming believers themselves also as living stones are built up a spiritual house.

From this we can infer what is meant by a living hope. Just as living stones are different from ordinary stones in that they do not wait passively until somebody comes and puts them into a building, but lend themselves in free spiritual activity for the purpose of edification; so a living hope is a hope which is not dead material in the mind of the believer, but an active force in his life, something that makes its influence felt and carries him along–that sustains and inspires him. The hope of the Christian can do this because it relates to something that is not purely future, but already exists in the present because it is a hope in an inheritance, the most real of all realities. The inheritance may be invisible, but this does not detract in the least from its power to become operative in our life. Nay the very fact of its being invisible vouches for its efficacy because this invisibility means that it forms part of the spiritual world and the spiritual world is infinitely more real and infinitely more powerful than the things which our eyes can see. Hence the Christian, while not having seen it, loves it and rejoices in it greatly with joy unspeakable and full of glory. He fashions himself according to it. He purifies his soul in harmony with the purity that intrinsically belongs to that world. He abstains from fleshly lusts because they war against the spiritual nature of the soul by which he is related to this spiritual realm which is the object of his hope. He is of sound mind, sober unto prayer. In all these things he but conforms himself and responds to the claims which his heavenly destiny has upon him. He lives in the presence of the world to come and allows it to be the ruling factor in all he thinks and does.

Finally, brethren, the living hope of which the apostle speaks has this for its peculiarity that it possesses a personal center in Christ and God. All through the epistle this is strikingly brought out. That which controls and attracts the believer in this hope is not a confused mass of expectation, not a medley of fantastic dreams. There is a unifying idea in it; it is, in the last analysis, the certainty that there is a state in store for us which shall bring us face to face with God and Christ. The Christian is a sojourner here and must live in the future because he knows full well that under the present conditions he can never attain to that full possession of God and his Savior for which in his best moments his heart and flesh cry out. The veil of sense lies between; the barrier of sin lies between. Even though he lay hold of God as Moses did–seeing the invisible–there is something that lies beyond his reach, that eludes his grasp. And the believer knows, moreover, that as long as he cannot fully possess God, God cannot fully possess him nor be completely glorified in him. This sentiment lies at the basis of all genuine God-born Christian hope–the sentiment which enabled even the Psalmist under the old covenant to transcend the darkness and mystery of death and to say, "Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fulness of joy; in thy right hand there are pleasures forever more . . . . As for me I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness" (Ps. 16:11; 17:15).

Preached on Conference Sunday, November 13, 1904, at
Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey

(The sermon above is transcribed from Vos's personal sermon notebook deposited in Heritage Hall of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan and is used here with their kind permission. The editor has reduced the manuscript to typescript and supplied minor corrections as well as the subheadings.)