“For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? ‘And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the Godless man and the sinner’ ” (1 Peter 4:17-18 NASV)?
I have ceased trying to identify and remember how many close calls I have experienced while traveling in South Asia. After all, many threats and near disasters may occur without really drawing attention to themselves. When trekking in the Himalayas on steep trails any stumble or brief loss of balance could easily result in a fatal fall. Any drive on the narrow twisting roads could end with an accident causing injury or death. In addition to those everyday dangers, there is the constant possibility of a terrorist attack or violent crime. Whenever I come home safely I am aware that I am fortunate, and may honestly feel that I “barely made it.”
The apostle Peter applies this same sense of relief to eternal salvation. He points out that even the righteous are saved with difficulty (1 Peter 4:18). Some translations render his key word “scarcely” (NKJV), others “barely” (NET) or “hard” (NIV). In any case, the point is that salvation is not obtained easily, even for those we would consider most deserving.
I suspect that most readers of these verses attribute the difficulty of salvation to the one seeking or needing it. We interpret Peter’s meaning as “one must do all he or she can to please God, and even then it will barely be enough.” But that suggests a meritorious element to salvation which is contrary to grace (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our salvation is not of ourselves (we cannot earn it) no matter how righteous we may be. What then is Peter actually saying?
Salvation is God’s gift of grace to fallen humanity. He provides it. He does all of the work to achieve it. Sometimes I fear that the average professing Christian does not realize how difficult the task was, even for our all-powerful and all-wise Creator. Paul was astounded at the power of the gospel to save (Romans 1:14-16). He marveled at the eternal mystery (secret) which God alone could know by which sin was forgiven (1 Corinthians 2:7-13).
What Peter reminds us of is that even God had to go to the limits of his resources to save his people. It required all of his wisdom, all of his power, and all of his love to satisfy the demands of justice. That is truly a remarkable thought and one that should produce gratitude and love within all believers.
I have heard many suggest, “God could have saved man from sin by any method which he desired to use. He just happened to choose the gospel of Jesus.” That is far from the truth, and may even approach blasphemy.
To suggest that God sent his son to die on the cross unnecessarily (that is, it would have been unnecessary if he could have saved us without Jesus’ death) is to question both his love for his Son and the extent of the agony which Jesus endured. The incarnation and death of Jesus was and is the greatest sacrifice ever offered, the greatest gift ever given. And it was given because nothing else would suffice. It was all that God could do, and much more than anyone else could do, to redeem me from my sins. It is in that sense that even the righteous are barely saved.
There is one more implication to this concept which Peter identifies. If God saved unbelievers or the impenitent unjustly, what would that say about his relationship to the righteous? Would it not mean that faith, submission, repentance, and discipleship were irrelevant and meaningless? If Jesus’ death and sufferings provided redemption to those who believed in him and obeyed the gospel, but others who refused to accept him were saved anyway, would God not be shown to be callous, even untrustworthy to those who loved him most?
No, Peter saw accurately that the tremendous effort God made for the righteous must of necessity condemn the unrighteous. Otherwise, his sacrifice was futile and meaningless. And that can never be.