Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 4.1-5

1 Peter 4.1-5

[1] Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin. [2] As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. [3] For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. [4] They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. [5] But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

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COMMENTARY: We now commence with the fourth chapter of Peter’s first epistle. There are a few interesting and instructive points in these few verses.

First, Calvin addresses the role of Christ in the Christian’s life. Calvin is careful to ensure that his readers do not conclude that Christ’s only role is to serve as an example to them of how to life. Christ is certainly an example, but he is also more than an example. He is the source of the Spirit, who carries out sanctification in our own lives in an ‘effectual’ manner. Here is Calvin:
The Scripture recommends to us a twofold likeness to the death of Christ, that we are to be conformed to him in reproaches and troubles, and also that the old man being dead and extinct in us, we are to be renewed to a spiritual life…Yet Christ is not simply to be viewed as our example, when we speak of the mortification of the flesh; but it is by his Spirit that we are really made conformable to his death, so that it becomes effectual to the crucifying of our flesh. (120)
Furthermore, Calvin explains that our mortification need not correspond exactly to Christ’s mortification – thank goodness! In fact, as Calvin points out, a comparison does not correspond in every part. As Gregory of Nyssa once argued (and I am interposing this; Calvin doesn’t cite it), if there was no distinction then there would not be similarity but identity!

Next, Calvin notes that the term ‘flesh’ shows up in both verse 1 and verse 2, and is used in two different ways. When it is first used, it is used with reference to Christ and refers to his physical body. When it is next used, it is used with reference to human sinfulness in general. The second definition doesn’t apply to Christ, for Christ lived without sin, and the first definition doesn’t apply to us, because this passage is about sinning and not persecution.

Finally, on first read, it might look like we Gentiles are getting the raw deal in this passage, charged with all manner of immorality. But, Calvin is quick to note, that Peter doesn’t think every Gentile is guilty of each of the listed peccadilloes, but that the listed things are intended to represent all manner of sinfulness. The conclusion being that Gentiles as a group are guilty of all manner of sinfulness, and that “There is indeed no one who has not within him the seed of all vices, but all do not germinate and grow up in every individual. Yet the contagion is so spread and diffused through the whole human race, that the show community appears infected with innumerable evils, and that no member is free or pure from the common corruption” (124). Now, I find this account of total depravity interesting because it sounds much more patristic than do many later proponents of total depravity. Here, sin is a disease of the soul, not the absolute absence of life. It is like a parasite that requires a living host, even while destroying that host from the inside out. This depravity is total in that it touches every person, but not total in that the imagery employed does not imply that nothing but sin exists in the human condition.

Finally, it is fun to note that this is the passage where the creedal “the living and dead” (“the quick and the dead,” for those – like me – who enjoy the older English) line comes from.

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