With Gentleness and Respect
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Ever since I started attending seminary, this verse has been my theme, my mission statement, my philosophy of ministry, if you will. For almost that long, it has been the signature on all my emails. I used to focus on the first part: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” More and more I’ve realized the importance of focusing on the second part: “do it with gentleness and respect.” At least as important as being prepared to confess our faith, is the loving way we witness to the truth.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Even as he encourages the readers of his epistle to witness faithfully, the apostle does so knowing they will be called upon to do so in the face of opposition. Peter writes to encourage people who have already begun to experience persecution for their faith under Nero; but he predicts that worse ordeals are still to come. Not having the right of citizenship, they could be arrested and imprisoned, held without bail or habeas corpus rights for any length of time, physically abused, subjected to seizure of property, exiled, sent to work as slaves in government mines, and even killed for no other reason than for being Christians.
Peter could understand their bewilderment that God’s people should undergo this kind of treatment—he himself had once expressed horror at the idea of Jesus’ suffering and death and had to be rebuked as though he were Satan himself. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus had told him: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
Peter’s experience of failure, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration uniquely qualified him to write to other struggling Christians. He’d been there. He wrote his letter to help his brothers and sisters see that their painful trials were temporary, that hardship would purify their faith, and that God’s real goal for His children lies beyond this dying world. Peter wanted them to lay hold of this living hope and to share the reason for that hope whatever their circumstances.
Peter undoubtedly had to smile to himself as he wrote these words about nonviolent passivity. After all, was he not the one who was armed in Gethsemane? Was he not the one who gave Malchus the earectomy? He was ready to go down in a bloodbath, thinking that he would thus be honoring God.
Peter could also understand the urge to run and hide. When Jesus was led away to the high priest’s house, Peter followed at a distance. A servant girl’s innocent question was all it had taken for him to deny even knowing the Lord.
But his Master had taught him well. Peter repented and was reinstated. Here, he issues an inspiring call to personal evangelism even under the threat of persecution. Christians are not to bash their enemies over the head, nor are they to cowardly run away when confronted. You are to always be prepared to make a gentle defense of the faith to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you. This is the ultimate in loving one’s enemies—what better way could there be than to seek to share the message of eternal life with them?
St. Peter begins: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…” Does this sound obvious? Does a Christian need to be told this? Of course you do. People hate hypocrisy, and they can smell religious hypocrisy at 200 yards. And unfortunately, you are hypocritical. You like other people to think you are better than you really are. And much of the time, you try to fool yourself, too. You want to believe you’re doing better than you really are. I know, because I do, too!
The selfish poisons inside of you seep from your sinful nature, and that Old Adam needs to be rebuked and contained each day. The Christian self in you needs to reaffirm its faith every day—every day repenting, every day praying for strength to stand up for the truth, every day listening to the Savior’s voice through His wonderful Word. And when your own heart is full of gratitude for being rescued from death and hell, you will be ready to speak, and your speech will have depth and conviction. You will not sound phony.
The next step is “always being prepared…” This is not just a Boy Scout motto. You prepare for other less important things. So, why not prepare to share that which is most important to you: “the reason for the hope that is within you”?
God opens up the door for each of us to share the Gospel. So be prepared. Think about what you might say beforehand. Do it now, when the pressure does not seem so noticeable. Can you summarize the Christian faith in a few sentences?
Here is a simple four-keyword summary of the Bible’s Law-Gospel message that you can keep in mind to help organize all the Bible facts you know.
The first word is sin. Tell people how we are separated from our Creator at birth, that no human being can lift himself up to God’s standards of holiness, that all people by nature are God’s enemies and under His curse.
The second word is grace. Tell people that for Christ’s sake, God loves us anyway. He sent His Son to live and die in our place and pronounced the world not guilty because of Jesus.
The third word is faith. Tell people that all of these good things—forgiveness, peace, spiritual life now, life forever—flow into our lives personally as the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lead us to believe these wonderful promises.
The fourth word is works. Tell people that the Spirit of God comes to live in believers and enables them to live for God. Believers see God’s ways as a delight rather than a burden, and find joy in conforming their will to His will.
Thus prepared, you are ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” The word translated here as “a defense” is apologia, a positive testimony and witness to the truth of the Gospel, particularly in the face of opposition. Christianity is “reasonable.” It stands up to scrutiny and investigation because it is true. Christians are to be prepared to tell others about this truth whenever they have the opportunity.
When you talk to people, you don’t have to argue with them, deliver the perfect sales pitch, try to make God’s ways logical or reasonable, be clever, or take the burden of converting them on yourself. Just tell them what you hope for in God through the merits and work of Christ. Let the Gospel do its work!
As you do so, you must avoid the extremes of unnecessarily offending others in your Christian witness, or neutering the message to appease the modern gods of tolerance and political correctness. You must not unnecessarily antagonize them, nor should you run away from them if they object. Just speak the truth in love.
St. Peter says, “Do it with gentleness and respect.” But even such a gentle and respectful approach will not avoid all criticism or conflict. That’s why he adds: “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
You should not be surprised when you suffer, not even when you suffer for doing right. You live in a fallen world, where all of us are subjected to the consequences of sin daily. Since Adam every human being has suffered—even Jesus. He suffered more than you or I ever will—and He was perfectly righteous. That’s why Peter lifts up our eyes from our own circumstances to the objective reality of the Christ’s atonement: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
Your sin and guilt are more deserving of suffering than you care to admit. Even one sin is deserving of God’s temporal and eternal punishment. And you’ve committed thousands of sins—more than you even realize.
But these words point you to what someone else has done for you, on your behalf, in your place. It reminds you that your need is severe, but that the solution is even greater: the suffering and death of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Christ also suffered “once for sins.” Although you sin repeatedly, Christ’s one act of atonement covers all your sins. This is the Great Exchange: “The righteous for the unrighteous.” The Father loaded the blame for the sins of the world upon a righteous substitute and then had Him executed on a cross in our place. He is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.
Christ did all of this “that He might bring us to God.” You cannot lift yourself up to God. Christ has lifted you up to God. Christ has reconciled you to His heavenly Father. Christ—His suffering, death, and resurrection—are the heart and center of the Bible. This is really the only Good News that you have to share with a world that is lost and dead in its trespasses. This is the Gospel that you need to hear again and again and again for it is the only Word that saves you… that brings you eternal life… that brings you a good conscience.
This is the reason for the hope that is in you, no matter what your outward circumstances: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring [you] to God.” Though He was put to death in the flesh, He was raised to life and has ascended into heaven at the right hand of God. Even so, He is with you always, coming to you often in His Word and Sacraments, bringing you salvation and eternal life, bringing you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.