Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 3.15-18

1 Peter 3.15-18

[15] …Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, [16] keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. [17] It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. [18] For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

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COMMENTARY: To begin, I should note that I have (again) combined two of Calvin’s sections into one for the sake of having more material to work with. Calvin’s avowed pursuit of exegetical brevity is often my cross to bear, although it makes reading his commentaries a rather pleasant exercise – and one which I commend to all of you who are following this series.

Calvin begins by noticing that “Peter does not expressly bid us assert and proclaim what has been given us by the Lord everywhere, and always and among all indiscriminately, for the Lord gives his people the spirit of discretion, so that they may know when and how far and to whom it is expedient to speak” (108). The point, Calvin tells us, is that we ought to be ready to confess and defend our faith from detractors, not that we need to be out talking about our faith all the time. Such a interpretation is in keeping with both Calvin’s predestinarianism – it is only expedient to talk about Christ to the elect but not yet efficiently called, as it were – and with his love of moderation – radicalism is not something that he looks kindly upon. Furthermore, we see here also Calvin’s conception of vocation and offices: “Peter here does not command us to be prepared to solve any question that may be mooted; for it is not the duty of all to speak on every subject” (ibid). Some things are better left to pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, politicians, etc.

What Calvin thinks Peter seeks to communicate in this passage is that every be0liever – the average person in the pew – “should make it evident to unbelievers that [he or she] truly worshipped God, and had a holy and good religion” (ibid). This was important in the context of the epistle’s writing, Calvin notes, which saw Christianity as sacrilegious. Against these claims, Peter wants for his readers “to make it evident to the world that they were far off from every impiety, and did not corrupt true religion” (109).

But, Calvin notes that it is important to join to this Peter’s remarks about having a good conscious. The force of this phrase is that verbal defense of the Christian faith is undermined by a life that lacks virtue. As Calvin puts its, “What we say without a corresponding life has but little weight,” or, “But the defence of the tongue will avail but little, except the life corresponds with it” (110). Furthermore, it is this corresponding life of virtue that causes the enemies of Christianity to be ashamed of their false accusations. It is here that Calvin gives us one of his rephrasings of the Scriptural text in light of his interpretation: “[It is] as though he had said, ‘If your adversaries have nothing to allege against you, except that you follow Christ, they will at length be ashamed of their malicious wickedness, or at least, you innocence will be sufficient to confute them.’” (ibid).

Coming again to the question of suffering, Calvin notes the truth of the notion that it is better to suffer for good than to suffer for evil. The notion operative here is that if one suffers for good, one can at least be comforted by one’s goodness. If on suffers because of evil, on the other hand, not only does one suffers but one also knows that it is one’s own evil that brought this suffering. Now, Calvin notes that such a sentiment “occurs everywhere in profane authors” (111). Calvin knew his Stoics, so one suspect that he is thinking of them. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy also comes to mind in this regard. But, there is something in this passage not found in the ‘profane authors,’ namely, reference to the will of God. The fruit of this is that, unlike the profane, “the faithful have always this comfort in their miseries, that they know that they have God as their witness, and that they also know that they are led by him to the contest, in order that they may under his protection give a proof of their faith” (ibid).

The concluding material on Christ and his acquisition of salvation is fascinating. Indeed, this verse holds the seed to a very robust soteriology, and I am happy to have been made more aware of its presence in the course of the current study. But, Calvin doesn’t do much with it, basically saying simply that Christ’s example encourages us in our trials. This is true, and this is how this verse is functioning in context, but there is so much more here.

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