After Peter gave exhortations to believers to be holy in all of their conduct and to conduct themselves with reverential fear, Peter gives his next exhortation towards brotherly love
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God, for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. 1 Peter 1:22-25
In this passage, Peter gives two sources or pillars by which Christian love stands: the obedience of faith and the new birth by the Word of God. According to Peter, both are necessary if we are to love our brothers in Christ with the true earnestness and genuineness that scripture commands us to.
The Purified Soul
Peter grounds his exhortation to love based upon our obedience to the truth through the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who freely gives us obedience and purity heart that enables us to have genuine love for our brothers in Christ. The implicit assumption here is that in our former days, we had impure hearts and our impurity could never produce the genuine love that Peter calls for in this passage. Peter describes our impurity as “passions of your formal ignorance” and “the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.”
First, we must realize that we are impure because of our own depravity. The primary characteristic traits of our state of ignorance of God are the passions that our heart produces. Our passions or lusts flow from our original sin (inherited from our first parents, who brought sin into the world) and these lusts seek to fill up our emptiness with earthly things. The primary characteristic trait of knowing God is the longing to put on Christ. In this way, our sanctification is first described negatively (i.e. “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance”) and then positively (i.e. “be holy in all our conduct”). Paul describes this in his letter to the Ephesians
… to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24
Therefore, our hearts must be purified from the old man. Second, we must realize that we are impure because of the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers”. This goes beyond our original sin and addresses what we have received from our own heritage. It is tempting here to think solely of the Jewish Christian in this context. We know that Jewish believers had two distinct problems that hindered their maturity in Christ: their inherent depravity and the traditions of their forefathers. Jewish Christians had innumerable burdens of empty ceremonies and useless ceremonies which they received by tradition from their fathers and teachers (cf. Matthew 23:2-4). We also know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that the Judaizers tried to impose some of these traditions (such as circumcision) upon Gentile Christians. However, it is naïve to believe that only Jewish converts have their traditions. Before the kindness of our Savior appeared, we were all pagans who were wedded to our vanities that we received from our heritage. For some, it may be asceticism, whereby we attempt to achieve true godliness through self-denial and severity to the body (cf. Colossians 2:20-23). For some, it may be mysticism, whereby we chase religious ecstasy to achieve true spirituality. We all are prone to idolatry and we are especially prone to bring our empty idols into Christianity. If we are aware of it, we can guard ourselves appropriately and rely upon the scriptures to weed out the idols in our heart.
So how do we obey the truth mentioned above? The answer to this is by faith in the gospel. By receiving, believing, embracing, and loving the truth of the gospel, we begin to rid our heart of the lusts associated with the old man and the futile ways inherited from our heritage. Peter repeats this point in Acts where he defends the conversion of the early Gentiles by stating that God cleansed their hearts by faith (cf. Acts 15:7-9). The gospel is a means through the work of the Holy Spirit of producing inward purity and directs us to the purifying blood of Jesus (cf. John 17:17). Hoping in God through faith in the gospel cleanses out the futile, empty hopes of the flesh. Furthermore, it convinces us that if we live for money, comfort, leisure, and fame (which all are fleeting like flowers of the field), we will wither and die. When this new hope cleanses out these futile hopes and confidently trusts on the eternal promise of God, then can we love one another earnestly from the heart.
The Imperishable Seed of Regeneration
Peter also grounds his exhortation to love based upon our new birth by the Word of God. In particular, Peter emphasizes that we are born again by the living, abiding, and inperishable Word of God. First, Peter draws the contrast between the imperishable seed of the Word of God and the perishable, corruptible seed on our natural birth. This is an important point because when you are born by someone’s seed, you take on the character of that seed. Essentially, the seed constitutes your nature and each person will live depending on the seed of their birth. Scriptures testifies that the seed of our natural birth is corruptible by its nature and thus, we have the character which is derived from this seed. This is the essence of the moral inability of man to submit to God. In reference to the carnal man, Paul states
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:6-8
Again, Paul repeats this point
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:15
In contrast, the spiritual man that has been born again by the seed of the Word of God is fundamentally different. James states
Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of truth that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. James 1:18
Again, John repeats this point
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9
The main point is that our character is defined by the seed of our birth. Those who are born of an earthly and human seed cannot please God. Those who are born again by the Word of God reflect the nature and character of the Word of God. This is not merely an imperative statement, but it is also a definitional statement of the Christian. As Jesus states, that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (cf. John 3:6). Christians are given the ability and duty to fervently and genuinely love fellow believers because they have been born again
Peter also emphasizes that the seed of the Word of God is both living and abiding. Here, the emphasis is given on the lasting nature of the Word of God. The Word of God endures forever and will not fail us. Therefore, our new birth will never fails us and will continue to last. If this seed – the Word of God – has brought us into being by the new birth, then it will keep us as new creations in Christ. Our new birth is not a transitory experience that can fade away, as some may claim. The failure of the new birth in keeping believers is a failure of the power and efficacy of the Word of God to endure in the heart of His people. Our new birth is a lasting reality because it is generated by the lasting and enduring seed of the Word of God. This is the hope of the gospel and this is why regeneration is absolutely essential before any discussion of Christian exhortations should be given.
Peter strengthens his case by appealing to the authority of the Old Testament. In quoting Isaiah 40:6-8, Peter is emphasizing how firm our foundation is on the Word of God. The Word of God that Peter is describing is the gospel that has been preached to them. At this point, Peter has praised God for our ransom by the blood of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the keeping power of God, and the inheritance of God. This was the marvelous news preached to Peter’s audience and it’s the marvelous news preached us. This good news will not fade away like the grass and flower of the field. It will not wither or fail, but it abides forever. This is the hope of the gospel and it’s the ground by which we ought to love our brother.
Because we have been born again by the imperishable, enduring Word of God, then the fruit of this Word will produce love. As all words that are commonly used in our society, love has been overused to the point that it has lost its meaning. What type of love should we exhibit towards our brothers? I believe that Paul answers this question well. In dealing with the issues of division in the Corinthian church, Paul gives the definition of love befitting of a Christian:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
We see immediately that this type of love reflects the character of God and the regenerative nature of the believer. It’s the type of love that regenerate believers have because of the seed of the Word of God within them and it’s the type of love that the natural man cannot understand or submit to. We see from this passage how self-sacrificial true love is. This love is seen in our patience and gentleness with others such that we do not become irritable or resentful. This love is seen in its humility such that we don’t seek our own interests. This self-sacrificial love is seen by its enduring nature such that it can truly bear all things and endure all things. This love expresses itself in faith in that it believes all things and hopes in all things. This love expresses itself in truth by rejoicing with truth and turning away from wickedness. This love – the fervent, enduring, and passionate love from God – is the love that we are called to and is the love that we can exercise because we have been born from above.
In writing this section, I’m reminded of my own weaknesses in this, but I’m also reminded of the hope of the gospel in accomplishing what would be impossible otherwise. On this past Sunday, the choir at my church participated in a hymn festival where local choirs within the city came together to form a mass choir. Since I’m in the choir, I was asked to participate. To be honest, I did not want to go to this event since I knew what to expect at such an event. I knew that I would be the only Black person around and I knew that being a Black man (who is a member of a southern Presbyterian church) around southern Baptists and southern Methodists tends to invoke a lot of stares. I also knew that there are many aspect of southern Baptist church life that generally irritate me (that’s a blog for another day). While debating the decision to go, this passage came up: how do I earnestly and genuinely love the Church in this situation? After dealing with this issue I decided to go. Of course, what I expected actually happened: there were a number of stares and a number of people who purposely avoided interacting with me. When I felt myself becoming irritated, I remember the above the passage that love is not irritable or resentful. The outcome of the hymn festival met my expectations unfortunately, but I learned that I must always exercise genuine love from the heart (and make no excuses for it). Again, I see my own weaknesses here, but I’m reminded of the hope of the gospel. I’m empowered, motivated, and challenged to be holy in my conduct, to conduct myself in reverential fear, and to fervently love the Church from a pure heart.