Every true believer desires spiritual growth. Because regeneration implants the life of God within the dead spirit, exchanges the governing disposition of the soul from sin and self to love of God and righteousness, and freely grants a new nature to the believer, there will not only be the desire for growth but some measure of observable growth over time. There will be some clear distinction from the world and possession of new desires, beliefs, and longings. But, the true Christian also possesses the flesh – the complex of rebellious attributes and unique propensities to sin that have been shaped by their past experiences, their environment, and their personality. And the flesh is as utterly depraved as ever, despite the glorious new nature the believer has been given. When sin is engaged in for prolonged periods of time, spiritual sensitivity is dulled. The appetite for God and His beautiful ways shrinks. Holiness becomes drudgery, and sin begins to shine with an enticing allure. It is easier to give into sin, and harder to establish patterns of the Spirit’s fruit.
Sometimes true believers can go for seasons of time in carnality and fruitlessness (which, in itself is the Lord’s discipline, a means to draw their redeemed “taste buds” away from the ugly filth of sin). It is especially during these periods that Christians must be exhorted to act upon their identity in Christ and “become what they are.” But how can this be done, especially if the taste of sin is still on the lips of the flesh? In 1 Peter 2:1-3, the Apostle Peter gives all Christians the power to pursue genuine spiritual growth.
Sin is the opposite of spiritual growth. For the believer, who is supposed to persistently pursue Christlikeness and fruit-bearing as the means to perseverance to final salvation, sin (especially prolonged sin) is like turning backwards on the pathway and going the way one came. Sometimes it is completely going off the path altogether! So sin is not merely rebellion and transgression; it also impedes the believer’s progress in the things of God, in being “renewed…according to the image of the One who created him” (Colossians 3:10). Thus, it would only be natural for the believer to deal in some decisive sense with sin in order for spiritual growth to occur. In order for this to be dine effectively, it must first of all be rooted in the believer’s identity in Christ. The “therefore” of verse 1 ties back to 1:22-23; the Word of God has given life to the believer by faith, and has positionally cleansed the soul so that practical obedience (specifically, loving other Christians, the members of the covenant community) can take place. On that basis – the sovereign, initiating, decisive and conquering work of God in the soul – the regenerate man or woman can deal effectively with sin.
The phrase translated “putting off” is forceful and picturesque; it refers to the stripping off of smelly, dirty clothing. The implications of this are obvious. Normal people generally do not want to be anywhere near soiled things; it’s in our nature to want to be clean and keep stark lines of demarcation between us and anything filthy. And, dirty clothes are not viewed as pleasant or attractive or something to be held on to; rather, viewed as the disgusting things they are, they are shed quickly and forcefully. It is no accident that Peter employs this kind of language here. Rooted in our new nature, we are to view ourselves and sin as incompatible, and to see sin for the ugly, contaminating and destructive thing it is. This will enable us to deal with it appropriately.
Peter then gives a general, non-exhaustive list of sins to put off. (It is instructive to note the sins he deems worthy of explicit mention, as well as what he does not include. He does not merely not list other sins, but he also leaves off what believers are to “put on” in their place. Obviously, with the completion of the scriptural canon believers enjoy access to other non-exhaustive lists of godly virtues to wear to God’s glory. However, Peter is not above implicitly exhorting his readers to use sanctified common sense and meditation to think about the godly opposites of these immoralities. As with Paul’s vice list in Galatians which concludes with the general “and things like these” (5:21), the believer under the tutelage of the indwelling Holy Spirit, can discern which qualities are most appropriate to take up once these evil ones have been displaced.)
“Malice” is a term for general, foundational evil. We might call it the attitude or disposition toward wickedness out of which specific attitudes, thoughts, actions and choices flow. “Deceit” can refer to treachery, a kind of selfish and manipulative misrepresentation to get what one wants from others. “Hypocrisy” is that cultivation of a false persona to elicit praise and adoration from others and mask what is wrong or what would hinder you from getting what you want. That this word is plural indicates the multifacetedness of this sin and the many ways one can engage in it. These first three sins are interconnected – they spring from a foundation of unclean malice; one is then motivated to deceive to lay claim to one’s lusts; and all of this is hidden through hypocrisy, for one would surely be condemned if one was exposed as filled with these things. (Remember that Peter is writing to regenerate people who have a concern for holiness; often believers will manipulate their image and appearance so as to garner praise and hide from other Christians those things that would be condemned. Worldly people, of course would be the exact opposite. It is interesting Peter is calling for humble “transparency” among the members of the body.)
Peter continues his list with “envy,” a resentment towards other people for having things you want. It is closely tied to the unlisted din of list, though envy is directed towards a person while lust is for an object. “Slander” is literally “to speak down against” and refers to any defaming, demoralizing, and disparaging communication towards another person (including God). It is the character assassination Jesus condemns as murder in Matthew 5:22.
Why does Peter list these five sins and not others, such as unbelief, prayerlessness, lack of love, apathy towards the things of God, indifference to others, or will worship? There are several likely reasons. First, these are either attitudinal or verbal sins and both will cut off the effectiveness of the Word in the believer’s life – James makes it clear that believers must have a proper attitude to receive the Word effectively, and cites both pride and that pride expressed in speaking against the authoritative counsel of God in the Word as sins which will cut at the root of the sanctifying work of the Scriptures (James 1:19-21). Peter is counseling suffering believers on how to make the Word’s power effectual in their lives by dealing with sin; the Word cannot do its work if the sins James highlights as especially devastating are present.
Second, note again that Peter bases the putting off of sin in our identity in Christ in 1:22-23. In 1:22, Peter commands us to love other Christians fervently, from the heart – in other words, deeply, persistently, covenantally, sincerely, and explicitly. It is not to be a surface-level, feigned love (in fact, the marginal reference denotes “unhypocritical” love), though it is to be expressed externally. Rather, it is it be a genuine, thorough, and sincere love. Realizing also that Peter was present when our Lord said that love for Him finds outward expression in obeying His commands (John 14:21, 23-24), and realizing that Peter is an emissary of Jesus Christ to the churches (that is what “apostle” means), loving other believers is inextricably tied to loving Jesus Christ fully and unreservedly. With that foundation, look again at the vice list in verse 1. All of these sins may be classified as relational, either impacting one’s relationship to God, other people, or both. In other words, these specific sins are the direct opposite of the love for other Christians and for Christ that our new birth is designed to produce. They cut explicitly against the grain of our identity in Christ. They are a direct attack on their reign of Christ in the believer, who rules to restore the sin-destroyed oneness between believers and Himself and between fellow Christians. As the new covenant community, the new humanity of Ephesians 2:11-22, as priests under God, we are to image Him and reflect His ways. God is not hostile to His own Word, is He? God is not a posturer, a user of others, a slave to a general clinging undertow of evil, is He? No indeed! So for His Word to find an abiding, powerful, operative place in us, spurring us to spiritual maturity, we must strip off the sin which gets in its way and makes its riches of no effect to us.
Erik’s introduction to this point was blunt and direct: “If you practice sin, you can’t long for the milk.” Humans were created with spiritual appetite. Our sin nature and the resultant total depravity has corrupted that appetite towards unholy things. Thankfully, because of our regeneration believers are no longer totally depraved but have new life and the imputed righteousness of Christ! Yet our evil flesh remains, and its distorted perception and value system pulls us toward sin. When sin is indulged in, it reverts us practically to the wickedness before our salvation, when spiritual things tasted bad and wicked things were satisfying. It is very simple: You can have an appetite for the Word or an appetite for sin, but not both. Whichever you indulge will shape your spiritual taste buds. As believers it is our duty to “become what we are” and conform our practice, our lived reality, to the perfect standard outlined in the Word of God and imputed to us in our justification. So, once we have begun the process by putting off out sin, we must continue the process by actively pursuing the Word of God.
Peter’s instruction for this aspect is most interesting. The description of this desire is “as newborn babies.” The idea is of a literally just-born infant. Like these newborns, Christians are to long for something, and for the same reasons. The “something” in our case is “the pure milk of the Word” (ESV reads, “the pure spiritual milk”), with a purpose: “that you may grow in respect to salvation.” The image here is instructive, and reinforced: Like babies, long. The pattern is first introduced in who we are to be like, and then is reinforced by the verb Peter chooses. Babies cry for milk with an insistent, single-minded, passionate, and internally-driven desire. They are focused. They are persistent. There is no rest for mom until they are fed! Peter says, be like that if you are to grow. Why? Because if you have no desire for the Word of God, you won’t pursue it. You won’t read it, much less enjoy reading it, or internalize it and store it up as you are commanded to (cf. Proverbs 2:1, 3:1, 10:14). Second, the verb Peter employs to reinforce and explicate this thought is used to mean one thing: A deep-seated, decisive, heartfelt passion. It sees the value of a thing and responds appropriately with longing. It is used in the LXX of Psalm 42:1 to describe the Old Testament worshipper’s soul-cry for Yahweh, and it is used in the new covenant literature to articulate ordinate longings for fruitful Christian fellowship (Romans 1:11), our glorification and resurrection unto the new earth (2 Corinthians 5:2), the rich presence and well-being of other Christians (Philippians 1:8), the restoration of a geographically distant Christian relationship rooted in right faith and ordinate love (1 Thessalonians 3:2), and (depending on how it is translated) the indwelling Holy Spirit’s personal longing for a holy and fruitful covenant relationship with believers that honors and glorifies Him (James 4:5). In every case it describes a forceful, un-ignorable, front-burner, compelling attraction of the heart. It is not merely an intellectual thing but a response of the affections rooted in a right intellectual valuing of the object. The idea is that God claims all of us, and to say that the Christian life should not affect our emotions and that it is strictly limited to the will and the intellect is a distortion and truncation of the Christian life and such thinking must be repented of! God means to have all of us, and it is very easy for the enemy of men’s souls to say that on part or the other of the holistic person is negligible, thus limiting the Lordship of Christ over that aspect of personhood and allowing sinful beliefs, bad fruit, and strongholds to develop. At the very least, in believing emotions do not matter, we believe something that does not honor the Lord. Allow God to have everything in you that is rightfully His by the Cross—which is all of you!
God desires for us to rightly desire the right things. And we honor Him greatly when the set of our soul’s affections is toward that which is of Him and His dear kingdom. The object of our desire is the “pure” word. And the idea here is that the Word is clean; it has not the slightest impurity or falsehood or corruption in it. This means, of course, that the Word is infallible and inerrant, but it also means that the Word is exalted and heavenly. Though written by men, it is yet from Heaven. It is in a category by itself, for no other book can claim this thoroughgoing purity and goodness. However, the implication is also that we are to regard the Word as pure. It is pure whether we believe it to be or not; but we are to honor it for what it is. I think this is an implicit key to desiring it. The new nature longs for that which is holy and of God and only that; meditation on the awesome purity of the Word will cast off the remnants of sin restricting and dulling our desire and our affections will come into line with what our minds perceive the Word to be. The ESV as noted above renders this verse “the pure spiritual milk”; “spiritual” is used only one other time in the New Testament, in Romans 12:1. There is a multiplicity of ideas here. The Word is of the Spirit, not the flesh; it comports with reason (it is not irrational, though sometimes its truths are incomprehensible to the finite human mind), and it is logical—it is cogent, layered, and following its arguments depends on understanding logic and being able to make connections between ideas.
The Word is uncontaminated by evil and human frailty and weakness. It comes from and comports with the Spirit, not fleshliness. In contrast to the hyper-ecstatic experiences of charismatics that bypass the mind, the Word is reasonable even as it dismantles our fallen and distorted perspective. And, like any well-written piece of literature, it is logical and relies on comprehensive arguments both explicit and implicit to get its points across. Thus, reading the Bible can never be a facile or passive thing – one must have reverence, and a bowed knee, and be ready to think and wrestle and ponder. Only then will the milk be consumed and nourish the soul.
The final point Peter makes is another indicative, bookending the truths mentioned in 1:22-23. The Word helps us grow into salvation “if [we] have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” The whole pathway to the commands of verses 1 and 2 is summed up here. Commands are always rightly performed when rooted in the work of God, in the “indicatives” of what God has done in and for us. You will not have the power or desire to put off sin or pursue the Word if you have not experienced the goodness of God personally. Certainly this refers to salvation (a spiritually dead person cannot obey God or pursue His Word ordinately). But it refers to more than that. The power for obedience is partly found in experiencing the covenant love and kindnesses of God. God is a person. The Word, illuminated and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, which He uses to renew our minds and thus guide us in the way of righteousness, is how this person speaks to us. He is a person, the Person, speaking to and desiring relationship with other persons. Meditate on how the Lord, your King, God and friend, has been kind to you, a sinner. Think of what He has given you that you do not deserve and could never earn. Think of the sheer fact of your existence. That you possess an eternal soul. And fill up a list of blessing, both general and particular, both earthly and heavenly. Experiencing His goodness in salvation and in blessing will re-orient our thinking away from the sin which so easily entangles and in accord with our identity in Christ. It will activate our spiritual taste buds. And, with a determination to cast off our sin and to desire the precious Word of God afresh, we will find ourselves moving ever further on the pathway towards the fullness of salvation in time and eternity which our Lord purchased with His lifeblood.