“If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:18, ESV; compare Proverbs 11:31).
Traveling the mountain roads in Nepal has given me a new appreciation for the term “scraping by.” Frequently when two vehicles meet one must back up to a wider spot in order to allow the other to pass. Even in places where two can pass it is often by the narrowest of margins. I have frequently looked out my window and been unable to see any road beside our vehicle – and many times I found myself looking over a drop-off of hundreds or thousands of feet. Traffic can pass, but it is by no means easy.
Peter’s statement in the text quoted above is often misapplied. We read it and assume he is saying that the righteous are barely able to qualify for salvation; however much they do it is just barely enough. That interpretation legitimizes the concept of salvation by works or merit. The apostle Paul would be very unhappy with that reasoning (Ephesians 2:8-9).
How are the righteous saved? “By grace through faith.” God saves us. The difficulty of saving mankind is and was an obstacle to God’s love and mercy. God is love (1 John 4:8), but he is also justice and righteousness (Galatians 6:7; Romans 2:5-11). Man’s sinfulness presented him with a conflict between equal attributes of his own nature. Because of his holiness he cannot ignore sin. Because of his love for all humans he does not want to destroy them (2 Peter 3:9).
Perhaps you have heard, as have I, that “God could have saved man any way he wanted to; he just happened to choose the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is a false and un-Biblical statement. The fact is that the only way both justice and love could have been satisfied is by the perfect sacrifice of God’s own son. To suggest otherwise diminishes and cheapens the blood of Jesus. If God could have saved sinners in some other way he overpaid to redeem us.
Sin is so powerful and its hold on us is so strong that even God found it difficult to overcome. Only his infinite wisdom and power could have conceived of the plan which succeeded in providing salvation. Paul stated:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9).
Peter also said:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty . . . And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:16, 19).
Only God could have devised and implemented the plan by which he saves sinners from their deserved fate – death and eternal destruction (Romans 6:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). No human or lesser spiritual being could think of it, much less bring it off. It was all that even God could do to save those who believed, were penitent, and were obedient to his will. That required his infinite wisdom, mercy and power. It is that which Peter is describing as “scarcely saving” the righteous.
It is no wonder that Paul could say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). The Gospel is a marvelous mystery, a perfect plan, devised especially for those whom God created and whom he loves. Its complexity proves the power and evil of sin. It also proves God’s deep and perfect love for mankind. Nothing else would work. Even for God, salvation was difficult, but not impossible.