A non-Christian friend of mine recently returned from a trip overseas. When I asked him how his trip was, he looked me in the eye and, with finger pointing and shaking in my face, steadfastly declared, “There is no God.” That was the first thing he wanted me to know. He knew I was a Christian, and he was anxious to give me one more reason why he was not. He reasoned that if there were a God, the places that he had seen on his trip would not be in the wretched and Augean conditions that he saw. For him, the suffering he witnessed was so overwhelming that it was a sure indication God could not exist. My response was very simple, and it stopped the conversation (at least for a while). I simply said to him, “What makes you think that God is responsible for such things?” That question was in itself a kind of defense; it was calculated to make my friend think of the destructive power of sin.
The first epistle of Peter is written to a group of suffering Christians. These are Christians who have been “grieved by various trials” (1:6), who are in exile (1:17), and who thus are living in places foreign to them. They are encouraged not to be surprised when fiery trials come upon them (4:12)—not if fiery trials come, but when they do. The Christian perspective on suffering is in diametrical opposition to my friend’s. This is not surprising. There is an antithesis between Christian and non-Christian; as we said, one is either in Christ or in Adam. That antithesis is not merely theoretical. It applies to the way we think, the way we act, and the way we view the world. In the midst of his readers’ suffering, Peter gives this command: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15, NASB).
Setting Apart Christ as Lord
The command is to “sanctify Christ as Lord.” In the previous verse, Peter refers to Isaiah 8:12–13, which includes a command to regard Yahweh as holy. Peter attributes the prerogatives of Yahweh to Jesus Christ here. The New Testament application of Isaiah 8:12–13 is that Christians, in the midst of their suffering, are to set apart, remember, and recognize in their hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Instead of looking at the overwhelming suffering around them and declaring that there is no God, they are rather to declare, “Jesus is Lord.” They are to “sanctify” or “set apart” the lordship of Christ in their hearts by showing his lordship when suffering comes. Peter then goes on to tell them (and us) that the command to set Christ apart as Lord is fulfilled as we ready ourselves for a defense of what we believe. Peter is telling us here that, when objections and attacks come our way, we are required to respond to them.
If we are honest with ourselves, our mindset may often be more in sync with my friend’s than with Scripture. It may be that, when suffering comes, or when it threatens to overwhelm us in some way, we think that belief in God seems foolish. How could God allow such a thing to happen? Why wouldn’t he prevent this?
Perhaps the most significant point of Peter’s command is the reason he gives for it. It is as simple as it is profound: “For Christ also died for sins once for all” (3:18, NASB). The ironic twist, one that points us to the transposition of the gospel, is not that when we see suffering, we should conclude there is no God. Rather, it is that when we see suffering, we should remember that God himself, in the person of his Son, did exactly that so that suffering and sin would one day cease. Suffering is clear evidence that Christ is Lord; it is not a testimony against that truth. The suffering that is the cross of Christ—the very thing that, on the face of it, might lead us to believe there is no God—is, as a matter of fact, the deepest expression of his sovereign character as Lord.
The Lordship of Christ Directs Us
It is the clear and steadfast conviction that Christ, and Christ alone, is Lord that has to motivate our Christian defense. Peter’s point is clear. In commanding us to set Christ apart as Lord, Peter is not talking about whether one has received Christ as Savior, or as Savior and Lord—not at all. Peter’s point is that, if one is to be adequately prepared to give an answer for one’s Christian faith, the lordship of Christ must be a solid and unwavering commitment of one’s heart.
But why? Again, the answer is as simple as it is profound: because that is what he is! The specific command that Peter gives can be stated more generally. We are to think about and live in the world according to what it really is, not according to how it might at times appear to us. As Peter writes to persecuted and scattered Christians, he recognizes that one of their paramount temptations is to interpret their circumstances in such a way that would not acknowledge Christ as Lord. In the midst of their persecution and suffering, it may begin to look like someone else is in charge. After all, if Christ were Lord, how could these things be happening?
It is the clear and steadfast conviction that Christ, and Christ alone, is Lord that has to motivate our Christian defense.
As a matter of fact, the lordship of Christ explains why these things are happening. The lordship of Christ is the conclusion to, the end result of, his own suffering and humiliation. It is because he was obedient, even to death on a cross, that he has been given the name that is above every name. It is because he suffered that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. The road to his exaltation was paved with blood, sweat, and tears. If we are to be exalted with him on that last day, ours will be so paved as well.
With all of the attendant mysteries surrounding the suffering of Job, two words from God himself—“my servant” (Job 1:8; 2:3)—initiate our understanding of what Job was called to endure. As Job was called to be a suffering servant, Christ was the quintessential Suffering Servant (Isa. 53). Those who know that their Redeemer lives (Job 19:25), who are called to be united to him, will be suffering servants with him as well.
The lordship of Christ is basic to our defense of Christianity. Christ now reigns. He is Lord. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. That authority is the prerequisite to the command to make disciples. Without that authority, baptism and disciple making in and for the church are meaningless. All things have been placed under his feet, and Christ has been given “as head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22). The process of history is the process of making Christ’s enemies a footstool for his feet. That footstool is being built because he is Lord. Just like Jesus’s earthly father, his heavenly Father is a carpenter. He is building a footstool for his Son (see, for example, Acts 2:35; Heb. 1:13; 10:13).
So wherever you go, to whomever you speak, Christ is Lord there, and he is Lord over that person. Since he is Lord, his truth is truth in every place and for every person. All persons are in a covenant relationship with Christ the Lord. They owe him obedience. The same Christ who rules over you, rules over those who oppose him. The fact that someone has not set Christ apart as Lord in his heart in no way detracts from or undermines the central point that he is Lord over all.
This article is adapted from Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith by K. Scott Oliphint.
Could you explain to someone who is a total skeptic—doesn’t believe in God, Jesus, Jonah, or the big fish—why you think that everything the Bible says is true?
Many of us, even Christians, have little patience for rigorous thinking and little interest in careful definition.
Learn more about the life and beliefs of Alvin Plantinga.
Stott recognized the need for both intellect and emotion in Christianity, but, clearly for him, “the greater danger is anti-intellectualism and a surrender to emotionalism.”