Sermon preached on 1 Peter 3:13-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/31/2021 in Novato, CA.
Five hundred years ago in 1521, Henry the VIII, King of England, was bestowed the title of the Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X of the Roman Catholic Church. That was a title the English monarchs have continued to embrace, even after Pope Leo revoked the title when King Henry VIII broke off from the church when the pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce, but I digress. But the pope gave Henry that title “Defender of the Faith” because of how he sought to defend the church of Rome against the teachings of Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers. Henry wrote a book titled Defense of the Seven Sacraments and it took aim specifically at Luther and his critique of Rome’s sacramental system. Just the year before, Luther had boldly written his famous treatise on that very issue, titled, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. So, King Henry defended the Roman Catholic Church these teachings of Luther. But here’s the issue. Henry was heralded as the Defender of the Faith, but it was actually Martin Luther who was the real Defender of the Faith – the true Christian faith. Henry was heralded as the Defender of the Faith, but he was actually unrighteously persecuting a righteous defender of the faith. By the time Henry’s book was published, Luther had been recently excommunicated by the pope and then declared a heretic and outlaw by the Edict of Worms by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Luther had plenty of chances to recant his views and escape much suffering and persecution. But Luther didn’t, because he really was defending the faith.
This example from history is a very fitting illustration of our sermon passage for today. Often when we study this passage, we think about it in terms of apologetics toward those who do not claim to profess the Christian faith, like to atheists and agnostics. But on this Reformation Day we remember that we also have to defend the faith against those who claim to be teaching the faith themselves. We have to defend the faith from any from within the church who would turn away from sound doctrine. Even if they are leaders in the church. Even if they persecute you and try to make it sound like you are the heretic. With this historical illustration in mind between King Henry and Luther, let us work through our passage and receive this renewed call for us to be a real defender of the faith.
Let’s begin in our first point to think of suffering for righteousness’ sake. We find that language explicitly in verse 14. The idea is found in verses 13-14 and again in verse 17. Peter begins with what is normally a safe assumption in verse 13. He asks, “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” Ordinarily, people aren’t going to persecute you and pester you if you are living a good and godly life. Normally people aren’t going to bother you if you are doing the right thing. And yet Peter then continues in verse 14 to acknowledge that sometimes this isn’t the case. Sometimes you might suffer for righteousness’ sake. Sometimes the enemies of the faith will try to flip the script. In their unrighteousness, they’ll call the righteous wicked and themselves righteous. In Luther’s case, how true that was. It was righteous for Luther to advocate for the true doctrines of God’s Word. And it was literally for righteousness’ sake when Luther taught that we need to find a righteousness not of our works but a righteousness which is of faith. Luther was doing the right thing to stand up for this soul-saving truth. But he was persecuted for it. He suffered because of his defense of the faith. After the Diet of Worms in 1521 when the Emperor ruled against him, he had to flee for his life and go into exile for a time. But notice what Peter would tell Luther in verse 14. If you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.
And we will be blessed if we suffer for righteousness sake. If we, in 2021, have to stand up against any in Christendom who try to bring a different gospel which is no gospel, we will likely have to endure some suffering. When in the early 1900s J. Gresham Machen stood up for the gospel in the face of the false religion that had infiltrated the Presbyterian church, he had to endure much suffering. Yes, it ultimately resulted in the formation of our denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and we have indeed been blessed in that. But that only came after Machen and others endured so much slander, hostility, ecclesiastical charges and trials, and more. In our day, we will surely endure suffering if we have to confront false doctrine like they did. But in the eyes of faith we know that it is the right and blessed thing do, as Peter tells us here. These are blessings we might not truly know until glory. But in faith, we know we are blessed to stand up against false doctrine, even if we suffer because we take that stand.
Peter speaks to our souls when he goes on to say, “have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” It is easy for us to say today in a friendly crowd to defend the true faith against strong opposition. But when you are actually in that fight, it will surely be scary and troubling. Our hearts will be tempted to fear the people in the church who are teaching the false doctrine, especially if they are leaders in the church. That was the case with the examples of Luther and Machen. While Luther and Machen were both leaders themselves in the church, they had to go against church governments that were dominated by advocates of false doctrine and could censure them if they didn’t back down. That is scary. When you are like Luther summoned to go to the Diet of Worms, you go not knowing if you will be coming home. When you see leaders who should be standing up for the faith actually perverting the faith and calling you the heretic, that is troubling. Peter speaks to the souls for whomever would have to endure this, calling us to not fear them and not be troubled. Instead, he goes on to say in the next verse that we need to honor Christ in our hearts. Our hearts will be tested when we are called to suffer for righteousness sake. Will we let our hearts give into fear, or will we honor Christ in our hearts in the face of fear and trouble? Our hearts can forgo the fight and the trouble and the fear if avoid the fight for the truth. But that would not be honoring Christ in our hearts. Let us honor Christ in our hearts.
Let’s turn now in our second point to consider how we are to be ready to give a defense, verse 15. Peter says we need to be ready to give a defense for the hope that we have. Yes, there will be many occasions in life that you will need to defend yourself for this or that reason. But today Peter is talking about our defending our faith. He says to be ready to give this defense to anyone. We need to be ready to defend it to anyone, agnostic, atheist, someone of another religion, and yes, against heretics, even heretics in church leadership.
The word for defense here in verse 15 is apologia in the Greek. It’s a technical term for giving a legal defense, but can refer to more generally to offering a defense of something in general. It’s the root for where we get the English word apologetics. That’s what the discipline of apologetics is – it’s a defense of the Christian faith. Yet, when we speak of apologetics, we usually think of defending the faith to outsiders. We think of offering proofs for creation versus evolution. We think of offering evidence for the reliability of the Bible manuscripts. We think of exposing how people’s actions show they really do know there is a creator and lawgiver. We think of how to respond to outsiders’ attacks against Christianity. We don’t usually think of apologetics in terms of defending the faith from doctrinal error and heresy from within Christendom. Well, that is fine if we want to think of the disciple of apologetics that way. But when it comes to verse 15, realize it absolutely would apply just as well to defending our faith from internal threats.
This is very much what Martin Luther had to literally do at the Diet of Worms in 1521. He was summoned to appear and give an answer and a defense for his teachings of the faith. It was a legal proceeding before government and church officials and he gave his defense. We continue today to have to give an answer and defense for the doctrines of grace revealed in the Word of God. Sometimes that might require a formal defense like what Luther endured at the Diet of Worms. Other times it will be more informal, in various conversations you may have with others. Today, the defense might again be offered to Roman Catholics, but it also might also need to be offered to various peoples who claim to hold the faith of Protestant Christianity when they actually don’t. We must be ready to be defenders of the faith in our day, in however the Lord calls, and even if it means persecution.
But notice how Peter says we should give that defense. Verse 15, with gentleness and reverence. This can also be translated as with meekness and fear. So, Peter says there is a right way and a wrong way to offer our defense of the faith. To be gentle or meek means that we are not harsh and overbearing in how we make our case. We can speak boldly without being offensive to our opponents. We can be fair in characterizing their view, not setting up a straw-man argument. We can make sure we don’t get angry or impatient or start yelling at our opponent. In the heat of an argument, we have to be so very careful with not just what we say, but how we say it.
As regards to giving our defense with reverence or fear, it is not entirely clear if Peter is saying that we need to show this toward our opponents or toward God. The preceding context would suggest he means we should show it toward our opponents, but the following context of having a clear conscience before God would suggest he means we should it toward God. So then, if toward our opponents, Peter would mean that we need to show the proper honor that is due to other people, especially if they are in positions of leadership. You can disagree with someone and defend your views to them, without sacrificing due honor and respect. However, if Peter means that we should show this toward God, then it would mean we shouldn’t back away from defending our faith because we fear the persecution we might get for our views. We would need to fear God over man in such a case. Ultimately, both of these things are true, and may both be in mind by Peter. In defending our faith, we must make sure to give the fear and respect due to others, and also to give the fear and respect due to God. It’s sort of like how Jesus said we need to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
So then, Peter makes an important point here about defending our faith. He not only calls us to defend our faith, but he also calls us to think about how we should defend our faith. We should make our defense while still be gentle and meek in our demeanor. And we should make our defense without sacrificing all due fear and reverence and honor that is due to everyone. Realize why this is such a fitting point in context here. Peter has said that we need to be prepared to suffer for righteousness. He says we might do the right thing, like defend the faith, and be persecuted for it. But if we defend the faith but are sinfully offensive in how we defend the faith, we will surely provoke our opponent’s wrath. They may then persecute us and afflict us because of that. In other words, we might obscure the opportunity to suffer for doing good. We might even think we are being persecuted for our faith when really we might be being persecuted because we were being a jerk.
This is an important application. When we defend the faith, we can be tempted to be offensive about it. Even Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, when asked if he would recant what he wrote in his books, did apologize for the harsh tone found in some of his words, though he did not apologize for the substance of what he taught. Certainly, there were other Reformers that sometimes struggled with sometimes using harsh and disrespectful language in the heat of an argument. This will yet be a temptation for us today, and I’ve seen plenty of modern examples of people defending the faith with the right truths but the wrong tone.
In our last point for today, I direct our attention to verse 18, that “Christ also suffered.” Should our faith be tested with the potential to suffer for righteousness’ sake, Peter points us to our Lord who also suffered. For Peter to say the Christ also suffered is to make this connection between Christ’s suffering and our potential suffering.
But notice that Peter goes on to say that Christ suffered “once for sins”. Here Peter reminds us why Jesus suffered as he did. It was for the gospel of salvation. It’s so Jesus could make the way of salvation for his elect by dying on the cross to pay for our sins. In other words, Jesus didn’t just suffer in general, he didn’t just suffer for people in general, but he suffered specifically for us.
Peter further explains this by saying that Christ suffered as the righteous for the unrighteous. We need to let that sink in. We need to own that. We just said he died for sinners, in other words, people like you and me. Now Peter explains that means he died for the unrighteous. In other words, people like you and me. We are the unrighteous in God’s sight. Christ, on the other hand, is the righteous one who suffered for righteousness’s sake. He suffered because he lived righteously and people hated him for it. He suffered because he taught about the demands of righteousness and people hated him for it. And he suffered for righteousness’ sake so that we would have a way to become righteous not by our works but by faith.
So then, Peter says that Jesus’ sufferings mean he died in the flesh. Yet, in the power of the Spirit, he was raised to the resurrection life. None of us here today, in whatever suffering we’ve experienced for righteousness’ sake, have to die for it. And yet, in our mystical union with Christ, we have died with him. Our old unrighteous man died on the cross with him. We’ve now had a new birth being made alive in Christ Jesus by the Spirit. Again, all this we know, because Christ suffered and he suffered for us. He the righteous suffered unrighteously so that he could make us unrighteous people righteous.
So then, do you see why Peter especially points us to Christ Jesus here? Not only is this a wonderful reminder of the gospel, which we always need. But it is also the basis for why we should now be willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake, even as defenders of the faith. Jesus suffered to turn us toward righteousness, let us not turn back to unrighteousness again. Even if when dealing with unrighteous people who would want to make us suffer because of our stand for the righteousness of Christ. This is how we became saved, it’s because Jesus suffered for us at the hand of the unrighteous. How can we not be willing to suffer for his sake if God so calls. In fact, we can reflect Jesus’ saving works for us by doing so.
Indeed, God may even use this to awaken the hearts of our opponents. Verse 16 spoke of how our righteous suffering from the unrighteous might shame them when we treat them with meekness as we give our defense. If an unrighteous perverter of the faith persecutes us, let us respond as a picture of Christ to them. Who knows, God might even use our suffering for righteousness sake to save someone who is like what we were – a lost sinner needing the gospel. Let us see how our suffering for righteousness’s sake in defending the gospel can itself be an illustration of the gospel. As we put on Christ like this, that is part of how we are defenders of the faith.
In conclusion, Trinity Presbyterian Church, I remind us that not everyone who has born the title Defender of the Faith has actually been a true defender of the faith. The Reformers had to defend the faith when the church seemed so upside down, calling what was right wrong and what was wrong right. Today, we are in a world that seems to be doing the same thing. But we must contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
How will we know if we are on the side of truth? How will we know if what we are defending is actually the truth and that we aren’t actually defending heresy? Well, that faith that we contend for, which was delivered to the saints, has been recorded for us and our posterity in the Holy Word of God. Upon the Scriptures, and them alone, do we found our faith. And in them we see the righteousness of God revealed in Christ Jesus, received by faith, and given as a gift of his grace. Let us each look to genuinely bear the title Defender of the Faith, all to the glory of God! Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.