1 Peter 3:15 and Cultural Engagement

By Darrell L. Bock

1 Peter 3:13-18

The key text is [verse 15]:

But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness and respect.

First Peter is a great book. Much of it covers engagement. The apostle Peter, the author, sat at Jesus's feet and took the engagement class the Savior held as he prepared the disciples to go into the world with the gospel.

One of my favorite engagement passages is 1 Pet 3:15, a verse often used in Scripture-memory programs. We are to be prepared to explain what we believe, our hope. Our faith is not ultimately about ideas, though it certainly has those, but is about hope.

Peter had one word he could choose to summarize everything that faith comprises, and he chose “hope.” That hope is about understanding and appreciating why we are on Earth and how we can connect to the Creator who made us. First Peter 1:13 ends with the exhortation to “set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” We see that hope in the way that God made the connection between us and him possible. It is why the believer’s message is called the good news. We get reconnected to the living God. We “get located” in the way we were designed to live, both now and for eternity.

First Peter 3:15 is an exciting call and a wonderful verse. But we often miss what is around it that helps answer our question about what intelligent engagement involves.

Starting in verse 13, we’re given a picture of the world as it ought to be: “Who . . . will harm you if you are devoted to what is good?” If we do good to others, things should go well. Simple enough.

Only we live in an upside-down world, so the next verse reads, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:14a). Now, look at that verse. It anticipates that we will suffer for doing right, just as Jesus taught his disciples (Matt 5:10-12). It sounds as if Peter actually understood what Jesus had been saying in effect throughout the entire second half of his ministry: “If you follow me, there will be pushback. The disciple bears a cross daily. That is the world we engage in and with. Yet we are blessed, because our acceptance does not come from the world but from God and being faithful to him.”

The next part of the verse is even more amazing. “But do not be terrified of them or be shaken” (1 Peter 3:14b NET). There is no cause for fear as we engage, even though we can anticipate rejection and injustice.

Now, I have to be honest. A lot of what I see in the church’s response to our culture looks like fear or our being shaken. We fear for the loss of the Judeo-Christian net I mentioned earlier. We tremble at the way the world lives and the choices it makes, disturbed by the influences it produces. These are disturbing events, but they should not surprise us.

Our fearful responses never help us engage well. The believer’s hope and identity rests in God. It is at this point that we connect to Christ as our hope and march into the world ready to engage, ready to give a defense, ready to stand firm, and armed with the spiritual resources that allow us to stand. And our dominant message is positive. It is about hope.

The tension of sharing the gospel and engaging with our culture is always a balance between the challenge the gospel presents to people about their sin and failure to live rightly and the gospel’s invitation to enter into hope and a new kind of life. As we engage, we have to simultaneously challenge and invite. How do we do that well?

The church often fails by focusing so hard on the challenge that the hope gets lost. We so wish to highlight what is wrong in the world that we mute the hope that God has made available, or we defer that hope to the future alone. Yet his hope starts now, in this life. Now, the only reason to come to a new hope is because we realize shortcomings in this life, many of them our own. So, challenge has to be there somewhere. Yet our landing place is hope. It cannot go missing. Biblical hope is not about prosperity or a trouble-free life. It exists in a life that is plugged into God’s purpose for creating us and aligned with his reasons for making us to begin with. So, in our engagement, it is important that we never lose the message of hope in the midst of a defense of the gospel and the challenge that comes with the gospel.

The only way for good news to be good news is for the good news to be in the message! And it needs to be communicated with an appreciation of why the news is good (because there is a rescue) and why grace is grace and not deserved or merited.

Often, we stop reading 1 Pet 3:15 right there at the mention of being prepared to give a defense for our hope. That is a major mistake. We don’t merely offer our content, but the tone we present it with matters. Verse 16 says: “Do this [give this defense of hope] with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame.”

Of all the things to digest here, let me make three quick points:

1. Our engagement should come with gentleness and respect. It is not to be delivered with fear, or anger, or resentment but with hope, because it is hope we share. We need not be threatened; we can be gentle and respectful because we know God stands with us. We engage, not arrogantly but humbly, because it is only by the grace of God that we stand in this hope. I see less of this gentleness combined with respect than I would hope to see from the church as it engages the world. We can do better here.

Gentleness and respect are crucial in engagement. The two terms refer to a positive kind of meekness and humility placed alongside a regard for those with whom we interact. Tone really matters because it communicates our love for those we challenge with the gospel.

2. Our good behavior will be slandered. This is the second time Peter has said our good will meet with bad. Every good deed will be punished. Do not be surprised when pushback comes. People don’t like to be challenged, though it is a part of the gospel message. However, it’s not the whole message. Hope still needs to be the dominant note.

3. We are to maintain a good conscience while knowing God is fully aware of the wrong we have experienced. First Peter 4:19 consoles us as we suffer: “Let those who sutfer according to God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing what is good.” The shame our accusers will have is before God. This is one of the reasons we need not fear as we engage.

In 3:17, Peter explains why we can conduct ourselves in this way: “For it is better to suffer for doing good [yet another mention of injustice!], if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” We are not to respond to the world in kind, even in the face of unjust responses. Disciples engage and show a different way of relating, even to those who reject them. This is part of how we love our enemies in a distinctive way.

The reason for this approach is what Peter says next: it is the example of Jesus himself (v. 18). He was the just One. He suffered and served in order to draw the unjust to God. Only note that the text does not only put it so generically. It says, “that he might bring you to God.”

Peter personalizes it with a reminder about our own entry into grace. Christ is our model. We suffer because we are mirroring what he suffered so that we may be like him.

We ought to remember where we came from and how we arrived at such blessing. In other words, as we engage others and mirror Jesus, we need to recall that there was a time when God was gracious to us while our backs were turned on him. We should be able to understand what it means to be opposed to God and how God drew us graciously to him. That is the tone that matters.

We operate with cultural intelligence when we engage in the same manner that God interacted with us. We focus on hope even as we challenge people, and we do so with gentleness and respect because we remember our own experience of his grace.

Darrell L. Bock is the executive director of cultural engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

This passage is excerpted from Dr. Bock’s book Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World (B&H Academic, 2020).

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Recommended Resource

One of the key pillars of the Christian worldview is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. As the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). Thus, defending the resurrection has always been one of the chief tasks of apologetics, and one that requires ongoing development as new evidence, fields of study, and objections emerge.

Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus brings together some of the most notable Christian scholars who have defended the resurrection, including J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Craig Evans, and Darrell Bock. The essays are written in honor of Gary Habermas, one of the foremost defenders of the resurrection in our generation. With chapters on the minimal-facts argument, near-death experiences, the uniqueness of Christianity, historical epistemology, and lessons for apologists from Habermas’s ministry, these essays provide a snapshot of some of the best available scholarship on the resurrection.

The excerpt below is taken from Alex McFarland’s chapter “What Aspiring (and Veteran) Apologists May Learn from Gary Habermas.”

What Aspiring (and Veteran) Apologists May Learn from Gary Habermas

To be sure, Gary Habermas has shaped the lives of countless people, my own included. Habermas’s accomplishments as an academic, an apologist, and as a Christian public figure are notable. His scholarship about ancient evidence for the life of Christ, near-death experiences, dealing with doubt, or his “minimal facts” defense of the gospel are all significant. Equally compelling has been the Christ-honoring way in which he processed the loss of his wife, Debbie.

As pop-level atheism became a cottage industry in the early 2000s, the skeptic’s world was rocked when news broke that one of their champions, Antony Flew, affirmed theism. Habermas’s lengthy friendship and dialogues with Flew decisively contributed to this. And how many apologists get written into the scripts of theatrically released feature films? Factor in the significant role he has played in Lee Strobel’s journey, and it becomes clear that Habermas is one of the persons most used by God to raise awareness for apologetics over the last two decades.

But what I’ve learned about apologetics from Gary Habermas goes well beyond refutations of naturalistic theories about the resurrection.

So often, apologetics is assumed to be a pastime of intellectual jousting that takes place among bookish believers. Even many pastors and Christian educators (who would, presumably, be favorable toward apologetics) can be dismissive of this realm of study. “You will never need that C. S. Lewis stuff,” a senior denominational leader once said to me, “unless you are on the campus of Yale University. Islam, atheism, trying to prove the Bible—those issues the average believer will never deal with.”

That person’s low view of apologetics was especially ironic in light of the fact that issues he referenced (Islam, atheism, the authority of Scripture) are, in fact, exactly the topics Christians in the Western world must know how to address. Some complain, “You can’t argue someone into the kingdom of God,” or, “Apologetics may help reassure believers, but it doesn’t win the lost to Christ.” I am mindful of the fact that some in the church have not had unfavorable experiences with apologetics, but rather negative encounters with apologists.

Once, while encouraging a group of ministers to bring more apologetics and biblical worldview content before their people, one pastor shared a story that broke my heart. The pastor explained that a two-person apologetics team had come to the church to speak to their youth. During the Q&A time, a teen girl innocently asked a question about Jehovah’s Witness literature that had been coming to her house. She said she had been reading their Awake magazine, and to her it seemed to make sense. “What do you guys think?” she asked.

The two young men (perhaps well-meaning but misguided) launched into a rapid-fire rebuttal of everything related to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As her youth group friends watched, the speakers did a five-minute “data dump” on the girl, critiquing both the publications and her for having read them. The pastor grew fairly emotional as he ended the story: “Alex, that teen girl was so embarrassed that she left the room crying. The worst part is that the two apologists seemed to show no concern, and they high-fived each other at the end of their talk.”

That encounter illustrates how the apologetics and life of Gary Habermas remains so exemplary. The pastor’s experience still makes me cringe whenever I think back on it. I agreed with him that the behavior described typifies a sort of apologetics that should never be encouraged. But Christian friend and ideological foe alike will agree that Gary Habermas, the man, is undeniably a credit to the worldview he represents. Habermas proclaims truth; better still, he lives it.

I am reminded of a time that Habermas presented his “minimal facts” argument before hundreds of students at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

The standing-room-only crowd listened intently as a long line formed for the Q&A period. In characteristic fashion, Habermas fielded comments, objections, and helped more than a few students who did not quite know how to frame their question. One young man came to the mic and made it clear that he did not like the conclusions Habermas drew from the implications of Christ’s physical resurrection.

“If I’m understanding you,” the student reasoned, “the resurrection would mean that Jesus is God, and the way of salvation.” The young man’s tone grew belligerent: “Is that what you’re saying?”

“You got it,” said Habermas. “You are tracking with me, yes.”

The college student appeared more and more agitated as it sunk in that the resurrection would, indeed, validate Christ’s messiahship. His volume rising, the student said, “I don’t like this! I don’t like this!” Half the audience seemed to want the aggrieved student to step aside, and half seemed bemused to watch the meltdown in process. Habermas offered, “I get it, you’re not comfortable with where this is going. But just to say that you don’t like it, well, that’s not an argument.”

Amazingly, the student waved his hands, as if to say, “Be gone!” to both Habermas and his content. Storming away, the young man growled into the mic, “AARRRGGHHH!” Some snickered at the exchange, and the program concluded. But I watched Gary Habermas seek out the young man, who clearly had no idea he was trying to argue the resurrection with the topic’s most astute scholar. It was a powerful sight to watch Habermas, like a gentle big brother, listen to the student, diffuse the young man’s anger, and minister the gospel. Apologetics comprises both scholarship and shepherding.

Find Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus at Lexham Press or Amazon.

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