This portion of Peter’s letter raised plenty of questions for our group:
- What does “finished with sin” mean (1 Peter 4:1b)?
- When was the gospel preached to “the dead” – before or after they died (v. 6)?
- How does love (and whose love) cover sins (v. 8)?
- What does it mean to “be as one who speaks God’s words” (v. 11)?
- How are our suffering, God’s glory, and joy related (vv. 13, 16)?
- Does God really will suffering (v. 19)?
While we discussed each of these questions (and others) to varying degrees, this blog entry will only consider two: “finished with sin” and “suffering according to God’s will.”
With the “therefore” in verse 1, Peter clearly connects his train of thought with the themes of submission and suffering from the previous chapter (and through most of the letter). Christ’s suffering is “an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21) that is to shape our understanding (1 Peter 4:1a) of the Christian life. Then Peter says that somehow suffering is related to being “finished” with sin, or “ceased” (ESV, NASB) or “done” (NIV). Our group considered several possibilities in trying to understand this verse.
We immediately rejected the perfectionist idea that if you suffer enough, you will become perfect and no longer sin. The rest of the teaching of Scripture clearly contradicts that concept.
Christ suffered and defeated sin, but the verse says “finished” or “done” or “ceased” from sin (pauō, παύω). Since He never sinned, the verse cannot be saying He stopped sinning.
Peter could be describing martyrs. They suffered and died and are no longer subject to sin. But the next verse describes the time remaining to live, so it seems unlikely that those who have died are his meaning.
Another suggestion was that “finished” with sin means to no longer be under sin’s control or power. The Message paraphrase takes this view, “Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want” (emphasis added). We discussed the idea that suffering can reinforce for us “the greatness and weight of spiritual issues.” Trials can change our behavior to more fully follow and honor God. “The stakes have to be raised before we take the game quite seriously.”
Most of our ideas presumed a cause and effect relationship. Suffering (a cause) leads to being finished with sin (an effect). Might the relationship be reversed? Could ceasing from sin be a cause and suffering be the effect? Peter goes on to affirm the changed lifestyle (ceasing from a variety of sinful activities, v. 3), and then he describes the effect from the pagans: “They are surprised – they slander you” (v. 4). The J. B. Phillips paraphrase seems to suggest this perspective: “You must realise that to be dead to sin inevitably means pain.” Theologian Wayne Grudem says the phrase “finished with sin” means
‘has made a clear break with sin’, ‘has acted in a way which shows that obeying God, not avoiding hardship, is the most important motivation in his or her action.’ Thus, following through with a decision to obey God even when it will mean physical suffering has a morally strengthening effect on our lives: it commits us more firmly than ever before to a pattern of action where obedience is even more important than our desire to avoid pain.
Gruden’s insight helps in understanding the idea of “suffering according to God’s will” (v. 19). Many people (including some in our group) feel uncomfortable with the idea of God causing or allowing or permitting suffering. But the alternative seems worse. When suffering happens, the thought that God is completely disconnected from the events would be quite alarming. On the other hand, the words of a pastor are encouraging: “Nothing happens to us that has not first passed through the heart of the Father.” I for one want to know that any suffering I face is “according to God’s will” and not a random, arbitrary happenstance. There may be (there almost certainly are) times when physical or emotional suffering make possible the strengthening of our faith, increasing our resolve to follow the narrow road at any cost. May we follow Peter’s admonition and entrust ourselves to a faithful Creator in difficult circumstances.
 J.I. Packer, “Introduction: Why Preach?” in: The Preacher and Preaching, ed. by Samuel T. Logan Jr. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), 7. Quoted by John Piper, “A Passion for Christ-Exalting Power,” http://www.desiringgod.org/biographies/a-passion-for-christ-exalting-power (accessed January 17, 2014).
 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), 45; Kindle edition location 527.
 Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 167.