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Be Holy, for I am Holy

Why Peter Grounds Our Holiness in the Holiness of God

If my experience was anything like yours, you didn’t like learning grammar as a child. There were so many rules that seemed so irrelevant as to what was going on at the playground or down the street with friends. We were completely oblivious to the fact that without these grammatical rules we couldn’t communicate with our friends on the playground or down the street, nor could we make sense of their words to us.

In 1 Peter 1, we have a basic grammar lesson. Peter has described Christians throughout the Roman province of Asia Minor as “elect pilgrims of the Diaspora” (v. 1; ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς). He’s proclaimed to them that they’ve already been blessed with the new life of salvation (v. 3) while they await its full consummation in eternity (vv. 5, 7, 9). To put it into various grammatical tenses, pilgrims have been saved and will be saved. Then notice how in verse 13 Peter transitions to a new section of his epistle with “therefore” (Διὸ). While he’s already described the past and future tenses of the pilgrims’ salvation, now he writes about its present tense.

Time and time again the apostles write with a “gospel grammar.” They write first about what God has done or has promised to do for us, and then about what God is doing in us and through us as we respond to him in faith and love. In the first twelve verses of 1 Peter 1, the apostle writes in the indicative mood; that is, he speaks about us with statements of fact: we are God’s elect, we have been born again, we have a living hope, we have an eternal inheritance, we are being kept by God’s power, and we will be completely saved when Jesus returns. In verse 13 Peter changes course, speaking in the imperative mood; that is, he speaks in statements of command. The purpose of all this grammar is that we know Jesus better and seek to live for him more fully. As one old writer said, “The consideration of our spiritual privileges by Jesus Christ should stir us up to the study of holiness.”[1]

In 1 Peter 1:13–16, the apostle writes of the pilgrim’s present preparation in journeying through this life towards the life to come. He does so with two main imperative verbs: “set your hope” and “be holy.”

Looking in Hope

In this life, pilgrims are to be preparing themselves by looking forward in hope to the life of the world to come. “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 13). The main action verb is the imperative “set your (pl.) hope” (ἐλπίσατε). This verb has two subordinate verbs that explain how we are to set our hope on the grace of God at Jesus’ revelation.[2]

By preparing your minds for action

First, set your hope on the grace of Jesus’ coming again by “preparing your minds for action.” The image is girding up the loins of your mind. Imagine those images you’ve seen of clothes in the ancient world, or, that are still worn in the Middle East. The basic garment of the first century was a long, sleeveless shirt that reached down to the knees. But during activity, such as work, war, and exercise, it was tucked up into the belt, at the waist, to make what was basically a pair of shorts. The idea that this image of girding up the loins of our minds is conveying is that we are to “get our minds ready” for the coming of the Lord. The pilgrim Christian life, then, is to be looking forward to Jesus’ coming again when we will experience the fullness of his grace. Click To Tweet

This idea comes from past redemptive history. In speaking of the coming Passover, the Lord instructed the Israelites to eat it “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste” (Ex. 12:11). Just as Israelites girded up their clothes in preparation for the coming salvation of the Lord from Egypt, so too we need to gird up our minds in preparation for the coming of the Lord to save us from this world. This is also what Jesus said in Luke 12:35–37:

Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.

Note the contrast between being asleep and being awake spiritually.

By being sober

The second way we are to set our hope on the grace of Jesus’ coming again is by “being sober-minded.” This is not merely “don’t be drunk,” which is true, but this is a mindset and a way of life. Instead of being sober from alcohol, we are to be sober from the intoxicating ways of the world. For example, the world wants us to be addicted to its 24-hour news cycle—we have to keep up with the Kardashians, we need to know what Jim Rome said, and we need to know what a local politician in Kansas said and how that shows the global agenda is here. When we’re intoxicated with the ways of the world we lose our spiritual alertness for “the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

The pilgrim Christian life, then, is to be looking forward to Jesus’ coming again when we will experience the fullness of his grace. We do this with alert minds and sober lives.

Living in Holiness

There’s a second way pilgrims are to be preparing themselves already in this life for the life of the world to come: by living in holiness. Waiting for Jesus alertly and soberly is not to be passive; we’re to be active. The second main imperative verb in these verses explains how: “be” (γενήθητε) as in, “be holy” (ἅγιοι…γενήθητε). This imperative comes in the middle of a long sentence: “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”—there’s the main imperative verb—“holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (vv. 14–16).

Note well that this call to live in holiness is couched in familial terms: “as obedient children,” meaning, “as children of the gracious heavenly Father I’ve just described in the previous verses.” In his opening description of pilgrims, Peter spoke of the blessings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that are ours. Some would read this as speaking of election by the Father, sanctification by the Spirit, and justification by Jesus.[3] But I think this text is best understood by the older interpretation of Martin Luther and John Calvin. They understood the grammar and syntax of this verse to say God the Father chose us that we would be converted and set apart by the Spirit for the purposes of our being obedient and our being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ.[4] In other words, a part of our identity as pilgrims is that we exist so that Holy Spirit will make us obedient (v. 2; εἰς ὑπακοὴν). Here in verse 14, Peter describes us “as obedient children” (ὡς τέκνα ὑπακοῆς). One writer said, “Whenever the children of the Lord consider their dignity of sonship they should be thereby strongly moved to the study of obedience to their Father: which consists in a sincere endeavor after conformity to all his commands, without exception of any.”[5] This obedience we are to have is twofold.

Negative Holiness: By not returning to the world

First, we are called to holiness negatively, meaning, we are to be living in holiness by not returning to the world: “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” This means holiness is turning away from sin, and we’ll see in a moment, positively turning to righteousness. It means forsaking the darkness of the world and basking in the light of the Lord. We are not to go back to the world’s way of living from which we’ve been saved.

If you’ve ever seen the music video for Pink Floyd’s famous, “Another Brick in the Wall,” you will remember the long line of students going into a meat grinder. They’re all being conformed to the system. But what’s the song about? Not conforming: “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control.” Pilgrims await the revelation of Jesus and his gracious world to come; they are not to be living as this world lives. Pilgrims await the revelation of Jesus and his gracious world to come; they are not to be living as this world lives. Click To Tweet

The word “passions” (ἐπιθυμίαις) means the unholy longings of fallen humanity. Peter goes on to say, “Beloved, I urge you, as sojourners and exiles, to abstain from the passions (ἐπιθυμιῶν) of the flesh, which war against your soul” (2:11). Again, we are to live “no longer for human passions (ἐπιθυμίαις) but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions (ἐπιθυμίαις), drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (4:2–3).

We see practical ways these passions are expressed all around us. Women are constantly bombarded at the checkout stand in grocery stores with magazines featuring airbrushed models that have undergone thousands of dollars in plastic surgery. Men’s most powerful and most vulnerable sense is sight and advertisers spend billions of dollars a year in producing ads with the least amount of clothes on woman as possible. “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.”

Positive Holiness: By reflecting the Father

Second, we are called to holiness positively, meaning, as God’s children we are to be living in holiness by reflecting our Father: “but as he,” that is, the Father of the children in verse 14, “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.’” In what ways are you to be holy? “In all your conduct,” meaning, your inward life and your outward life; the parts of your life that seems religious, and the parts of your life that the world wants you to think are just civil or “secular.” We are to have a “universal holiness” as the Puritans called it. “All” does mean all here and that’s all “all” means here!

Most interestingly, why does Peter say we are to be so universally holy? Because our God is! It’s amazing that when Peter wanted to call Gentile converts to live holy lives, he didn’t appeal to Roman cultural norms or even Roman philosophical natural law; he appealed to the Levitical law of the Old Covenant. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” comes right out of Leviticus 11:44–45 at the end of the kosher laws, Leviticus 19:2 at the beginning of a lengthy list of laws expanding on the Ten Commandments, and Leviticus 20:7 and 20:26 in the midst of all kinds of laws for Israel. Not only does Peter show us that such a command is not just an “Old Testament” thing, it shows that it’s a universal human thing. God made us in the beginning in his image and likeness, and his will is that we would reflect his glory, but in Adam we fell from the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). He still desires this, but now dead sinners must be reborn first (1:3). Peter grounds the pilgrim’s holiness in the holiness of the pilgrim’s God because he is Creator, but also because he is new life Giver. As John Calvin said: “The sum of the whole law and of all that God requires of us has this end in view, that His image should shine forth in us, so that we should not be degenerate children.”[6]


[1] Alexander Nisbet, 1 & 2 Peter, Geneva Series of Commentaries (1982; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1995), 34.

[2] On these two participles being used with instrumental force, see Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 77–78.

[3] E.g., Robert Traill, “Eleven Sermons on Important Subjects, From 1 Peter i:1–4,” in The Works of Robert Traill, 4 vols. (1810; repr., Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press, n.d.), 4:18–23.

[4] Martin Luther, The Catholic Epistles, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther’s Works 30 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 6–8; John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of Peter, trans. William B. Johnston, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 12:230–231. See also the lengthy discussion in Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 54–56.

[5] Nisbet, 1 & 2 Peter, 37.

[6] Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of Peter, 12:244.

Daniel R. Hyde

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde has been the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA since planting it in 2000 and also serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books including Welcome to a Reformed Church & God in Our Midst (Reformation Trust), From the Pen of Pastor Paul: 1–2 Thessalonians (EP Books), How Does Justification Make Me Joyful? (Reformation Heritage),  and most recent Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (The Davenant Institute). Currently he’s writing his doctoral dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on John Owen’s theo-political theology of worship, a topic he’s contributed chapters to academic volumes by Ashgate and Brill. He’s written for Ad FontesAmerican Theological InquiryCalvin Theological JournalMid-America Journal of TheologyPuritan Reformed Journal, and The Confessional Presbyterian.

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