Is it Possible to be Sinless in this Life?1
The question seems outrageous. Sinlessness in this life is a fool's dream, a fantasy of those who have failed to take seriously what the Bible teaches and what experience repeatedly confirms. Well, then, what are we to make of 1 Peter 4:1? Continue reading . . .
The question seems outrageous. Sinlessness in this life is a fool's dream, a fantasy of those who have failed to take seriously what the Bible teaches and what experience repeatedly confirms. Well, then, what are we to make of 1 Peter 4:1? There the apostle says, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” There it is: “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” What are we to make of this?
Are we being told that if we will but embrace suffering as Christ did that we can attain a state in this life of sinless perfection? No. I don’t think so. Peter nowhere in this epistle envisions this as a possibility and numerous texts throughout the Scriptures explicitly teach otherwise.
Could it be then that Peter is saying that to suffer physically for our faith serves to purge and purify us from sin, even if we should never reach a state of sinless perfection? There is an element of truth in this, as 1 Peter 1:6-7 suggests. There we see that suffering refines and purifies our faith; it intensifies our commitment to Christ and weans us off reliance on the world and flesh. But I still don’t think that’s Peter’s point in this passage.
I'm not completely sure, but I believe that John Piper is correct when he says that what Peter means is that if you trust God enough to suffer for doing what is right (as 1 Peter 3:17 says), then you have made a decisive break with sin.
Peter’s point here is that whoever suffers for doing what is right and continues to serve and love God in spite of it has experienced a fundamental reversal in their relationship to sin. That doesn’t mean he or she will never sin again, but that by their decision to embrace suffering rather than deny God and turn from it, they give evidence that their lives have taken a decisive turn for holiness and away from sin.
In other words, says Piper, “choose suffering because if you don't, you will choose sin.” But if you do suffer for righteousness sake, you will prove that your bondage to sin has been broken. Get the thought and the purpose in your head that Christ is worth suffering for; live out that conviction when the choice comes between suffering and sin; and in suffering sin will be defeated and you will be triumphant. If you come to the point where you suffer for righteousness' sake, you have ceased from sin, not in the sense of sinless perfection, but in having made a clean break with your former history of indulgence in sin. Tom Schreiner put it this way:
“The point is not that believers who suffer have attained sinless perfection, as if they do not sin at all after suffering. What Peter emphasized was that those who commit themselves to suffer, those who willingly endure scorn and mockery for their faith, show that they have triumphed over sin. They have broken with sin because they have ceased to participate in the lawless activities of unbelievers and endured the criticisms that have come from such a decision. The commitment to suffer reveals a passion for a new way of life, a life that is not yet perfect but remarkably different from the lives of unbelievers in the Greco-Roman world” (201).
What it means to make a clean break from sin is then explained in 1 Peter 4:2. To make a break with sin is to resolve not to live for human passions but for God’s will, a resolve that is clearly seen by one’s willingness to endure suffering for righteousness’ sake. When you suffer for what's right, it's a sign that you have renounced sinful human desires and embraced the will of God as a higher value.
By the “passions” or will of the flesh, Peter is referring to what we today typically have in mind when we say, “If it feels good, do it.”
His point is that there is a sure fire way to avoid suffering. Just join with the world in their practice of sin! Blend in with the surrounding culture. Become one of them. Become like them. Don’t stand out in a crowd because of your moral convictions. Embrace the moral values of the world and the people in that world will leave you alone. Or they may praise you. But you will surely escape ridicule and mockery and the suffering that comes with it.
Note well. Peter appears to be saying that there are only two alternatives. Either you embrace suffering as the inevitable calling of all those who follow Christ, or you continue in sin together with those who reject him. May our lives be such that we live wholly and solely “for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2).