Our defense of our hope, according to I Peter 3:15, must be with meekness and fear. Fear is just that: fear that we will do something in our lives, our confession, our witnessing that makes God angry with us.
So it is true that we are very much afraid that we may do something that makes God angry with us. But we are afraid also that doing something displeasing to him will hurt him. He has done so much for us and given us so many wonderful things: churches where the gospel is preached, schools where the Reformed faith is put into the knowledge of God in all creation, homes which are covenant homes and parents who love us, forgiveness of sins, the privilege of representing Christ’s cause in the world, a glorious hope at the end of our journey here – a book could be filled with what he has done for us.
If now we sin against him, we hurt him by our ingratitude. We slap in the face the One who loves us so much. It is the point that our Heidelberg Catechism makes when it devotes the third chapter to “Our Gratitude” and reminds us that gratitude means walking in obedience to God’s commandment.
There are those who say that in our witnessing we must not “come at people like a bulldozer and simply run them over and plow them under.” There are those who plead for tact, for carefulness, for diplomacy. There are people who claim that we must take a soft approach to witnessing and “catch them with guile.”
I hear what they are saying and take it all to heart. But all these things are, in the truest sense of the word, included in giving a defense of our hope “with meekness and fear.” If we follow Peter’s advice (no, not advice but command, for what he says is inspired by the Holy Spirit), we will not be guilty of any of these things.
I think I learned that in college when there were many PRs in Calvin. Some thought it their solemn duty to pick a fight with every professor who said anything that they thought wrong. They made a nuisance of themselves and gave to PRs a bad name. It is one thing to stand for what one believes and to do so whenever the opportunity presents itself, but it is quite another thing to defend our hope without a smidgeon of meekness and fear.
I recall an instance when my wife and I were in Northern Ireland. There was a man who was interested in and convinced of the truth of the Reformed faith. He wanted to be a minister and wanted to attend Seminary to prepare himself. He was persuaded that the best Seminary in NI was a Baptist Seminary. He enrolled and began his studies.
It so happened that in this school the students were required to deliver a sermon at student chapel toward the end of their first years. This particular man preached on the theme: “Ten Things That Are Wrong With The Baptist Church.” I do not know what text he used. We can easily understand that he was forthwith expelled. His claim was that he was persecuted for his faith. But I had to tell him that what he experienced was not persecution at all, but simply foolishness which brought on him what he deserved. I had to remind him that he knew what the school believed before he enrolled, that he was a guest at the school, and that, while he had thought he was defending the faith, he was not doing so with any discernible meekness and fear—to say nothing about wisdom. He did more harm than good. His “zeal” took him away from the Reformed faith.
It is possible to be overly zealous and bring damage to the cause of Christ. It is also possible to be wishy-washy, soft and bland, a colorless person who mouths insipid nothings, who presents in his witness barley water rather than the meat of the Word. It is possible to be so “tactful” and “diplomatic” that the gospel gets drowned in carefully chosen words and fear of being offensive.
Meekness and fear take care of it all.
One more matter, and then I am finished with I Peter 3:15.
That word “ready” is one of no little concern to me. Are we ready? It is a question worth asking ourselves. When someone asks us a reason for the hope that is within us, are we ready to defend our hope? Suppose the question concerns our belief in creationism instead of evolutionism? Must we tell the one who asks: “Give me a little time. I’ll ask my pastor about that. I’ll have to see if I can find a book in my dad’s library that speaks of that.” Or, if someone wants to defend an Arminian position and teach that God loves all men and that Christ died for all men, are we “ready” to answer him? Or do we put him off until we can read Reformed Dogmatics on the subject?
If someone wonders why divorce and remarriage are wrong and asks you about it, do you have to rush away and read Marriage: the Mystery of Christ and the Church? before you can give your defense of the position that divorce and remarriage are wrong?
In other words, is Scripture an important part of our lives? And does the study of Scripture occupy our attention on a regular basis? Or to put it more specifically: Do we know what our churches believe and why they believe what they do? Do we understand why it is important to believe the doctrines that our churches say are important?
I do not think that when young people make confession of their faith, the consistory must make the central question of the examination: Do you believe that Christ is your personal Savior? Nor do I believe that the Consistory must, above all, judge the matter of sincerity. The all-important question has got to be: “Why are you making your confession in this church? and not in the Baptist Church around the corner?” The answer to that question is crucial for Christian witnessing. Sincerity is not enough. There are many sincere people in the world. What is one sincere about? Paul even speaks of the Pharisees and Israel as a whole who had “a zeal of God.” But he quickly adds, “but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
Here, I think, is where the pinch comes. Many of us are excited about witnessing—as we ought to be. But to take the time to study, to learn, to read, to prepare ourselves to defend our hope—that is something different. We have so many obligations. We are so busy. The demands on us are so great. We can’t find the time for private devotions, must less for studying and reading.
Be ready! That means working hard to learn as much as we can in catechism where we have a golden opportunity to learn. That means attending classes where the truth is discussed and taught. That means being diligent in learning what the PR church stands for and why this is the truth of Scripture. That means a life of diligence in the pursuit of true knowledge.
I say again: Without being ready to defend our hope, we are going to make very poor witnesses and run the risk of doing more harm than good.
Peter’s words are packed with wisdom. I Peter 3:15 is our polestar on the road of witnessing.