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Living as Active Pilgrims: Embracing an Engaged Alienation

One of my favourite NT metaphors for the people of God comes from the General Letters:

These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth.1

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul.2

The reality that we are not yet home but on our way there has been a comfort for believers down through the ages. In the words of one of my favourite hymns in the English language:

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now till I want no more,
feed me now till I want no more.

Yet for all the comfort this truth ought to be, few concepts are as unpalatable in our day than this one. One retired Presbyterian minister writing for a popular reformed Internet journal even went so far as to say the following in response to what he called ‘exile theology’:

What exile theology lacks is a hope in the power of the Holy Spirit to change the culture of nations through the preaching of the gospel. Marxism plans in terms of a long-term future. So does Islam. Exile Theology has no future. What it lacks is a faith in the covenant promises of God. Habakkuk was no exile theologian. He said it well when he wrote, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”3

Setting to one side the misrepresentation involved in such a view, one must still ask the question, “Is that true?”

Is a lack of ‘hope in the power of the Holy Spirit’ the inevitable result of believing that we are strangers and exiles in this world- people who have our ultimate citizenship not in the countries and territories of this world but in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ?4

I would disagree – and it is my contention that the Apostle Peter would disagree. I invite you to engage in a Bible study with me, taking 1 Peter 2:11-21 as our text:

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Household slaves, submit to your masters with all reverence not only to the good and gentle ones but also to the cruel. For it brings favor if, because of a consciousness of God, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if when you do wrong and are beaten, you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.

For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

I want to propose that Peter, in these verses, is calling us to an engaged alienation as the people of God. Peter is telling us that though this world is not our home and we are strangers only passing through, we should live in this world in a spirit of godly engagement with it.

What does this engaged alienation look like?

An Engaged Alienation Begins with Personal and Public Holiness (v.11-12)

Our text begins with a straightforward command:

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul.

In light of who we are as God’s people – foreigners in a ‘land’ not our own – we are to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against our soul.

Before we even begin to think about engaging with the world out there, we have to get serious about dealing with our lusts and desires. This theme of combatting sinful desires is heavily present throughout the General Letters:

Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us…5

But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death…Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.6

Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stable position7

Getting a grip on the flesh isn’t something we relegate to the realm of the super-saved or the deeply committed Christians – it is vital as those who are journeying from this side of glory into the next one.

As those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus, our engagement with this world begins with personal holiness and putting to death the deeds of the flesh.

The purpose for this flows out of the next verse:

Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.

A critical part of our engaged alienation is that we live in the world but we don’t live like the rest of the world around us. We live in such a way as the world around us has to take notice – either in this age or on the day where this age makes way for the world to come.

It is a sad reality that too many Christians have bought into the mindset that essentially says we must be like the world around us to win the world around us. That might make sense on some pragmatic level but Biblically, that option is off the table.

Pilgrim seeking a way of escape outside the City of Destruction
A scene from Pilgrim’s Progress

The world around is watching – we may not like that fact, we may even to try to deny it and it might make us uncomfortable but the world around us is watching. On our jobs, at school, when we socialize – the minute we profess Christ all eyes are on us and if such a thing makes us uncomfortable, we may need to take stock of why it does.

It is also interesting to note what Peter does not say. He doesn’t say, “Conduct yourselves honorably and the Gentiles will like you for your conservative morality, good work ethic, etc.”

The Apostle is writing in the midst of persecution – and the holiness of those being persecuted is not said to do a single thing to alleviate their circumstances or ingratiate them with their persecutors. They are still being slandered!

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there is no purpose to their waging war against the love of the flesh. Their honourable conduct, flowing from an internal holiness, ultimately serves to glorify God.

God is made much of when His redeemed people live in light of their position before a world which is naturally opposed to them.

Living in engaged alienation from the world around us begins, then, with a personal and public holiness.

An Engaged Alienation Affects Every Sphere of Life (v.13-20)

This internal work of God does not just lead to personal and public holiness but it touches every sphere of life. In our passage, Peter specifically focuses on two of those spheres – authority and work.

It Affects Our Relationship to Authority (v.13-16)

Before we proceed, we must state categorically: the Bible nowhere condemns the existence of authority, especially in the civil realm.

That statement may sound as though it is declaring the obvious yet it needs to be said in an age as anti-authority as ours. Even as I write, I confess that it is a hard fact for me to accept – because those elected to power in our age often act as those who frankly shouldn’t be allowed to run a PTA meeting, let alone a state.

Yet the Bible rebukes us all when Peter writes:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good.

Commenting on this passage, Spurgeon noted the following:

We are to obey kings, and governors, and magistrates, even when they may not be all that we wish them to be.

True Christians give no trouble in the State they are not law-breakers, but they strive to do that which is honest and upright. Where the laws are not righteous, they may cause trouble to bad law-givers and lawmakers; but when rulers ordain that which is just and righteous, they find that Christians are their best subjects.

In Peter’s day, the king was a poor creature, and something worse than that. Indeed, I might say of the bulk of the Emperors of Rome, who were the chief “kings” of that day, that they were monsters of iniquity; yet the office was to be respected even when the man who occupied it could not be much more should it be respected when the occupant is what a true “king” should be.8

From the President (if you’re American) or Prime Minister (if you’re British like me) down to local councilors, we submit to those who are above us – even when they drive us mad – because we submit to the Lord of all. It is “for the Lord’s sake” (ESV) that we submit to authority at every level.

Beyond the platitude that says, “Respect the office, even if you don’t respect the man”, an engaged alienation with our culture means that we respect the office because we desire to honour the Lord.

Peter goes on:

For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves.

It is interesting to observe the close connection between personal holiness, our witness and our submission as God’s people-in-exile to government authority.

We submit to governmental authority at all levels, firstly, because in doing so, we advance the will of God by silencing the ignorance of those who make claims against the Gospel. How often has the Christian faith often been pilloried by the unbelieving world around us because believers often demonstrated more needless hostility to authority than submission as unto the Lord? Peter’s understanding – and thus, our understanding – is not that we never speak truth to power when we must but that our first responsibility is to submit for the Lord’s sake.9

We don’t do this merely to “avert attention” from prying eyes and definitely not, as Peter said, “using [our] freedom as a cover-up for evil” but because our submission to human authority reflects our submission to divine authority.

Paul echoes this in Romans 13 when he writes:

Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.10

For the sake of maintaining a clear conscience – both before God and man – we engage in submission from the heart in deference to our Lord Jesus Christ.

It Affects Our Relationship to Work (v.17-20)

Peter transitions from submission on a macro-level to submission in one of the intimate levels – that of working relationships:

Household slaves, submit to your masters with all reverence not only to the good and gentle ones but also to the cruel. For it brings favor if, because of a consciousness of God, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if when you do wrong and are beaten, you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.

The dynamic of the world of the New Testament was one of slaves and masters and, at first glance, we may be tempted to dismiss its relevance but the timeless truth of the passage is a simple one: submission to authority in the workplace is a Gospel affair.

We work hard, not just for nice bosses but also for the incompetent and the incorrigible because that is what pleases God.

An Engaged Alienation Flows from Jesus’ Example as the Ultimate Exile (v.21)

At the base of this life of engaged alienation is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Peter concludes:

For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

If all I have said about engaged alienation sounds like madness, capitulation or, as the author quoted in the beginning of this essay, a lack of trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, then may I boldly suggest you have to lay those accusations squarely at Jesus’ feet.

Follow the logic of Peter’s argument:

  • The reason why you live in the way of 1 Peter 2:11-20 is because you were called to this
  • The foundation of this calling is Christ’s suffering for you
  • In suffering for you, He left an example for the purpose of following in His steps

We live in engaged alienation because no less a God-man than Jesus Christ lived in such way – and died in such a way.
He left the throne room of heaven above and became a Man, a Servant at that.11 He entered into this world that was so distinct from His own (even though He created it) and lived among us. He engaged with the world around Him and never fell into the sinful way of the world around Him.

Ultimately, He went to His own and His own did not receive Him.12 He suffered to the ultimate degree – He died. His obedience to God not only glorified God but brought eternal salvation to untold millions, right down to our present day.13

We live in engaged alienation, ultimately because we are following Jesus who Himself lived in engaged alienation from this world. It wasn’t easy but it was – and ever will be – glorious. It may not be glorious in the here and now but in the long run, the people of God are on a one-way journey to glory. That alone makes the reproach, the ostracism and the rejection so worth it.

  1. Hebrews 11:13. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the Christian Standard Bible. []
  2. 1 Peter 2:11 []
  3. http://theaquilareport.com/the-problem-with-exile-theology/ []
  4. Philippians 3:20-21 – “…but our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject everything to himself.” []
  5. Hebrews 12:1 []
  6. James 1:14-15, 21 []
  7. 2 Peter 3:17 []
  8. http://www.preceptaustin.org/spurgeon_on_1peter#2 []
  9. While we’re on the subject, Peter doesn’t address this but it does merit mention. It is equally damaging to our witness as exiles when believers become bedfellows with the institutions of power. Thankfully, the ostracization of believers by the political mainstream has already begun, making the process of no longer being beholden to power providentially easier than ever. For more on this, I recommend Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel []
  10. Romans 13:5 []
  11. Philippians 2:5-8 []
  12. John 1:10 []
  13. Heb 5:8-9 []

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