Lord, I suppose there are few things that are more dangerous in terms of Christian ministry than to deign to teach or preach about Holiness. I may be able to speak about it and expound upon it from the Word, but I am just as vulnerable as any of my fellow students to violating it; perhaps more so. Father, I pray for all of us: open our eyes as we study Your Holy Word, and give us the weapons we need to wage war upon the enemy’s onslaughts against the holiness of our hearts. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Therefore,… As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Read that passage again, but stop and ponder the first word. “Therefore.” We are entering into a section of this book which is filled with commands from God — instructions on being holy and so forth. This marks a change from where we have been. Those of you who have been studying with us up till now will recall that the last twelve verses constituted one long, extraordinary sentence celebrating the extravagant and inexplicable grace and mercy of God multiplied to His honored children. It is precisely at that point that Peter says “Therefore.”
It is so important that you never forget this principle: The commands of God always come AFTER a “therefore”. God never comes to us and says “Be good!” He always comes to us and says “I AM good… and good to YOU. Therefore… be good!” We could never attain the second, except for the gracious gift of the first. Please hold this close to your heart. Our behavior — our conduct in this life — is never to win His favor. Our lives are simply meant to be one long Thank-You note for His love.
So what should that thank-you note look like? This passage has a couple specific instructions in that regard. And, as I said before, they take the form of commands. In fact, we essentially have two imperatives in these verses. One is a “Thou shalt not”, and the other is a “Thou shalt.” He starts with the negative one in verse 14 and moves on to the positive one in verses 15 and 16.
Verse 14: “As obedient children…” Note that he does not say, “As obedient slaves” or “As obedient prisoners.” This isn’t a forced labor camp he is inviting us to. He chooses the word “children” to remind us of the incredible relationship that He Himself initiated when He “begot” us into His family (v.3) and bequeathed to us a family “inheritance” (v.4). He is saying, now that we are children, with a new Father, we should be like kids who “just want to be like dad”.
And from that warm and enticing starting point, he turns to the heart of the matter. He says, “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” Other translations have “do not comply with the former lusts, as in your ignorance.” The word translated “passion” or “lust” is the word epithumias. It literally means “desire”. It is used in Scripture in regard to both wholesome desires and evil desires. Peter uses this word frequently, but he usually modifies it with adjectives like “evil”, or “fleshly”, or “human”. Here in our passage, he simply describes them as your “former” desires — the ones you had when you lived in ignorance.
It is critical to understand that when God begins to work on your spiritual life, he starts by dealing with your “wants”. He is saying that when you lived in ignorance, your “wanter” was broken. That part of you that desired things, that part of your mind that wanted this or that — that part was defective. When God builds a Christian, He starts by fixing your wanter. There was a group of men who were studying this passage with me, and I asked them. What do you think was principally wrong with our former desires — our “wants”? They thought for a moment and responded that they were usually selfish (or perhaps always selfish), and that they were “unholy”. Now, certainly those statements are all true. But examine this verse closer: how does Peter characterize these desires? He tells us that they are characterized by “ignorance”. Our wanters were defective because they were ignorant — they simply didn’t get it. And all too often we still don’t. When we struggle with sin, we are struggling with broken desire.
John Eldredge, in one of his recent podcasts, spoke about the meaning and character of sin, and he described it as not primarily an issue of behavior. He explains that sin is all about “where you look for life apart from God.” The fundamental problem with our ignorant wanters, is that we think that we can find joy, or life, or fulfillment elsewhere than God. That’s the true nature of idolatry. And I think that is what Peter is talking about. He is saying that before we were Christians, we were ignorant: we simply didn’t know God, we didn’t know where true life is found, we didn’t know what our hearts truly desired or how they could be truly fulfilled. We were ignorant. We didn’t know or understand true value.
John Piper calls this “the fallacy of the nickel”. Have you ever held your hand out to a young child and showed them a dime and a nickel and asked them, “Which one do you want?” That child, not knowing true value, invariably looks at those two coins and says, “Oooh! I want the big one!” That big shiny nickel — that’s got to be the best one. Well that’s us too, guys. We don’t know what’s truly valuable. Our wanters are broken. We crave the nickel, and God says, “You just don’t understand.”
But, unfortunately, that’s not the only problem with our desires. It’s not just that they are broken and ignorant, but the desires are corruptive. They can actually deform us. Look at Peter’s instruction again; he says, “Do not be conformed to the former lusts of your ignorance.” That’s a very poignant word that he chooses here, and it’s only used one other time in Scripture. The word “conformed” literally means “to be shaped or formed into a pattern or mold.” When we got to this word during our Bible study at work, I pulled out a small tub of children’s play-doh. In it I had a model of a little brain which I had made beforehand. (I’m kind of a play-doh master, if you want to know the truth.) So, I held up the brain and I said, “Gentlemen, this is your ‘wanter’.” And then I pulled out a medicine bottle and removed the cap. I explained that this cap represents all your desires, the things you want — all of the sedatives or stimulants, the things that have a tendency to intoxicate your soul. The biggest problem with our wants besides being ignorant, according to Peter, is that they can actually re-form our brain. (And here I took the bottle cap and pressed it firmly into the brain, squishing it down until the brain took on the exact shape of the cap.) “This,” I explained, “is what it means to be conformed to a mold.” The picture here is of a constant force, bearing down on us, trying to shape us, trying to deform us. And Peter says, it is our job to earnestly and unceasingly resist.
I mentioned that there is only one other place in Scripture where this word is used. You probably know which verse I am referring to. It is Romans 12:1, and Paul uses it there with the same thought in mind when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be renewed by the transforming of our minds.” Do not be shaped by the relentless forces that are bearing down on us. Resist them. Push back. Fight for your life. This is a wrestling match and our opponent wants to pin us to the mat. Actually, worse: he wants to permanently re-shape our brains. He wants to conform them and mold them. See, that’s your problem: you’ve got a moldy brain.
Now we move to the positive side of the command. The “Thou shalt.”
Verses 15-16, “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior, because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’.”
Now, before I get to the Big Word in this passage, I want to focus in on a little word that you probably didn’t even notice. It’s the word “behavior”. It is sometimes translated “conduct” or “way of life”. This is a very important word to Peter. In fact, it is one of his favorites. He uses it all the time. He actually uses it more in his two letters than all of the other writers of the New Testament combined. If you color and scribble in your Bible the way I love to do, and you underline all the places where this word is used, you’re going to see it all over this page and the next. You see, Peter is a man of action. He was just a simple fisherman, after all. He doesn’t really care much about all your lofty theology. He’s not interested in your spiritual-sounding words and your good intentions. For Peter, it’s all about what you do. Holiness — true godliness — is manifested in what you DO when you go to work in the morning, and what you DO when you get home at night. It is about what you DO when you are alone in your car or alone in your living room. Yes, the spiritual life starts with reshaping our “wants”, but it’s not complete until it reshapes our actions.
And our actions, Peters says in bold capital letters, should, above all, be HOLY. So what does “Holy” mean? You have probably heard it said that the word Holy means “set apart.” And that is true, but that deserves some unpacking. Holiness is a concept that is threaded all through the Old Testament. Indeed, the verse Peter is quoting here is mentioned word for word in at least three places in Leviticus alone. (Lev 11:44, 19:2, and 20:7). The term holiness was applied to all sorts of things back in the olden days. The people were to be “holy”, the instruments in the temple were “holy”, even the priest’s garments had to be “holy.” In all of these cases, this “holiness” idea — this “set-apartness” — had two aspects: first, they were to be different, and then they were to be dedicated to God. Another way of saying this is that all of these people and things and temple artifacts were to be separate from everything else, and surrendered to God’s purposes.
In other words, they were supposed to be weird.
Recently in church, I walked up to one of my friends whom I really respect but hadn’t seen in a while, and I said, “Dude, you’re weird! And I’m serious. And I mean that as a compliment.” And then I walked away. (Yeah, you’re glad you’re not one of my friends, right?) The next week he tracked me down after church and said, “Kevin, what did you mean by that comment last week?” So I explained, “You are not like everyone else. You’re different. You’re not afraid to pray for somebody in the hallway. You’re not afraid to share the gospel with strangers on the street. You don’t care what people think about you. That makes you weird, dude. And I love that about you. I want to be more like you.”
Holiness is weird, friends. Deal with it. It separates us from the rest of the world and makes us different. But it is a difference for a purpose. We are to be different so that we can be put to use by God. We are set apart for God.
But there is another facet of holiness, as it is used in the Old Testament, that I want you to key in on. We’ve been looking at holiness as it applies to people and things. But, of course, this is just a “derivative” holiness, so to speak. The true meaning of holiness — its source and fullest expression — is the character of God Himself. So what do we mean when we say that God is “holy”?
Well, we could turn to our earlier definition and say that He is “different”. That is certainly true: He is separated from everything else in heaven and on earth. He is absolutely unique and set apart. But when we get to the second part of our definition we run into a little problem. We say He is “dedicated to…” what? There is nothing higher than Him to be dedicated to. He is the pinnacle, the highest, the absolutely perfect. What is His separateness… for?
And of course, the answer must be: Himself. He is dedicated to all that is good, and all that is good is HIM. And so He is rightly and appropriately committed to the glory and triumphant display of all that He is. In fact, that is what the true definition of holiness is. Piper defines it as “the absolute perfection and value of God.” He is the supremely valuable One. He is the crowning personification of perfection. He is HOLY.
And now, do you see it? We have come full circle: We started by saying that our broken wanters did not see true value. And now we have come to the conclusion that GOD HIMSELF is the very One who DEFINES true value. He IS the highest value in life and history and the universe. And so as we look to Him, and gaze upon Him, and bury our faces in the folds of His garments, it is then that we begin to want — to truly want in the very core of our souls — to be LIKE Him. When we finally see Him, all our crummy nickels become dead weight in our pockets — worse than worthless. Our wanters are finally transformed and we begin to crave His beautiful holiness, and yearn to reflect it in our hearts.
That, dear believers, is the true story of what God is doing in our hearts. He is not forcing us with whips and threats to conform to some unattainable standard of morality. He is reaching down with the tender touch of a loving father, and gently lifting our chins so that we can look into His glorious face, and He is saying, “You are mine!” And with those words and that revelation, we look with awe into the very eyes of the one who is thrice-Holy, and we cry out: “I want to be just like you, daddy! I want to be just like YOU!”
And so the great and ironic mystery that confounds the angels and prophets and saints is that this One — this One who is eternally and manifestly Set Apart from all else in the universe — this holy God actually invites us into His separateness. He bridges the infinite divide and draws us into unity with His majesty. Into familial likeness. Into His very holiness.
And if that doesn’t fix your wanter, my friends, I am afraid nothing will.