We often heard I Peter 4:18, "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the wicked and ungodly appear?" to mean that some Christians may be barely saved, "saved by the skin of their teeth". Read what Richard Sibbes has to say about this in excerpts from his sermon, "The Difficulty of Salvation", published in The Works of Richard Sibbes, Banner of Truth Trust. Dr. Sibbes was a great Puritan preacher of Cambridge from 1626 to his death.
By "righteous" here, is meant that evangelical righteousness which we have in the state of the gospel, namely, the righteousness of Christ imputed to us; for Christ himself being ours, his obedience and all that he hath becomes ours also; and whosoever partaketh of this righteousness which is by faith, hath also a righteousness of sanctification accompanying the same, wrought in his soul by the Spirit of God, whereby his sinful nature is changed and made holy; for "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature," 2 Cor. 5:17.
The same Spirit that assures us of our interest in Christ, purifies and cleanseth our hearts, and worketh a new life in us, opposite to our life in the first Adam; from whence flows new works of holiness and obedience throughout our whole conversation.
There must be an inward inherent righteousness, before there can be any works of righteousness. An instrument must be set in tune before it will make music; so the Spirit of God must first work a holy frame and disposition of heart in us, before we can bring forth any fruits of holiness in our lives.
For we commend not the works of grace as we do the works of art, but refer them to the worker. All that flows from the Spirit of righteousness are works of righteousness. When the soul submits itself to the spirit, and the body to the soul, then things come off kindly.
Take a man that is righteous by the Spirit of God: he is righteous in all relations; he gives every one his due; he gives God his due; spiritual worship is set up in his heart above all; he gives Christ his due by affiance in him; he gives the holy angels their due, by considering he is always in their presence, that their eye is upon him in every action he doth, and every duty he performs; the poor have their due from him; those that are in authority have their due.
If he be under any, he gives them reverence and obedience, etc; "he will owe nothing to any man but love," Rom. 13:8; he is righteous in all his conversation; he is a vessel prepared for every good work. I deny not but he may err in some particular; that is nothing to the purpose. I speak of a man as he is in the disposition and bent of his heart to God and goodness, and so there is a thread of a righteous course, that runs along through his whole conversation.
The constant tenure of his life is righteous. He hungers and thirsts after righteousness, and labours to be more and more righteous still, every way, both in justification, that he may have a clearer evidence of that, as also in sanctification, that he may have more of the "new creature" formed in him, that so he may serve God better and better all his days.
Now, if this man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the sinner and ungodly appear? Where you have two branches.
Now in that the righteous man thus described by me shall scarcely be saved, consider two things.
The righteous are saved. What do I say? The righteous shall be saved? He is saved already. "This day is salvation come to thine house," saith Christ to Zaccheus, Luke 19:9. "We are saved by faith, and are now set in heavenly places together with him," Eph.2:6. We have a title and interest to happiness already. There remains only a passage to the crown by good works. We do not, as the papists do, work to merit that we have not, but we do that we do in thankfulness for what we have. Because we know we are in the state of salvation; therefore we will shew our thankfulness to God in the course of our lives.
How can we miss of salvation when we are saved already? Christ our head being in heaven, will draw his body after him. What should hinder us? The world? Alas! we have that faith in us, "which overcometh the world," I John 5:4. As for the flesh, you know what the apostle saith, "We are not under the law, but under grace," Rom. 6:14. The spirit in us always lusteth against the flesh, and subdues it by little and little; neither can Satan or the gates of hell prevail against us; for the grace we have is stronger than all enemies against us.
God the Father is our Father in Christ, and his love and gifts are without repentance, Rom. 11:29. When once we are in the state of salvation, "He will preserve us by faith to salvation," I Pet. 1:5; and we are knit to God the Son, who will lose none of his members. The marriage with Christ is an everlasting union; whom he loves, "He loves to the end," John 13:1. As for God the Holy Ghost, saith Christ, "I will send the Comforter, and he shall be with you to the end," John 6:14,16. The blessed Spirit of God never departs where he once takes up his lodging. There is no question, therefore, of the salvation of the righteous; they are, as it were, saved already.
Let this teach us thus much, that in all the changes and alterations which the faith of man is subject unto, he is sure of one thing: all the troubles, and all the enemies of the world shall not hinder his salvation. "If it be possible the elect should be deceived," Mat. 24:24; but it is not possible.
O what a comfort is this, that in the midst of all the oppositions and plottings of men and devils, yet notwithstanding, somewhat we have, that is not in the power of any enemy to take from us, nor in our own power to lose, namely, our salvation. Set this against any evil whatsoever, and it swallows up all. Put case a man were subject to an hundred deaths, one after another, what are all these to salvation? Put case a man were in such grief, that he wept tears of blood; alas! in the day of salvation all tears shall be wiped from his eyes.
Set this, I shall be saved, against any misery you can imagine, and it will unspeakably comfort and revive the soul beyond all.
But it is here said, he shall scarcely be saved.
This is not a word of doubt, but of difficulty. It is not a word of doubt of the event, whether he shall be saved or no -- there is no doubt at all of that -- but it is a word of difficulty in regard of the way and passage thither. So it is here taken, which leads me to a second point, that
1. Because there is much ado to get Lot out of Sodom, to get Israel out of Egypt. It is no easy matter to get a man out of the state of corruption. O the sweetness of sin to an unregenerate man! O how it cuts his very heart to think what pleasures and what profits, and what friends, and what esteem amongst men he must part withal! What ado is there to pull him out of the kingdom of Satan, wherein the strong man, Luke 11:21, held him before!
2. Again, it is hard in regard of the sin that continually cleaves to them in this world, which doth, as it were, shackle them, and compass them about in all their performances. "They would do well, but sin is at hand," Rom 7:21, ready to hinder and stop them in good courses; so that they cannot serve God with such cheerfulness and readiness as they desire to do. Every good work they do, it is, as it were, pulled out of the fire; they cannot pray, but the flesh resists; they cannot suffer, but the flesh draws back. In all their doing and suffering they carry an enemy in their own bosoms that hinders them. Behold, this is no small affliction to God's people. How did this humble Paul, when no other affliction lay upon him! "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?" Rom. 7:24. It was more troublesome to him than all his irons and pressures whatsoever.
3. Besides, it is hard in regard of Satan; for he is a great enemy to the peace of God's children. When they are once pulled out of his kingdom, he sends floods of reproaches and persecutions after them, and presently sends hue and cry, as Pharaoh after the Israelites. Oh, how it spites him! What! shall a piece of dust and clay be so near God, when I am tumbled out of heaven myself! Though I cannot hinder him from salvation, I will hinder his peace and joy; he shall not have heaven upon earth. I will make him walk as uncomfortably as I can. Thus the devil, as he is a malignant creature, full of envy against God's poor saints, so he is a bitter enemy of the peace and comfort which they enjoy; and therefore troubles them with many temptations from himself and his instruments, to interrupt their peace, and make the hearts of God's people sad all he can.
4. Then, by reason of great discouragements and ill-usage which they find in the world from wicked men, who are the devil's pipes, led with his spirit to vex and trouble the meek of the earth; for, though they think not of it, Satan is in their devilish natures; he joins and goes along with their spirits in hating and opposing the saints of God; for, indeed, what hurt could they do but by his instigation? How are good men despised in the world! How are they made the only butt to shoot at! Alas! beloved, we should rather encourage men in the ways of holiness. We see the number of such as truly fear God is but small, soon reckoned up. They are but as grapes after the vintage, or a few berries after the shaking; one of a city, two of a tribe, Micah 7:1, Jer. 3:14. They have little encouragements from any, but discouragements on all sides.
5. Besides this, scandal makes it a hard matter to be saved; to see evil courses and evil persons flourish and countenanced in the world. Oh, it goes to the heart of God's people, and makes them stagger at God's providence. It is a bitter temptation, and shakes the faith of holy men, as we see, Ps. 73, Jer.12:1,2. Again, it makes the heart of a good Christian bleed within him, to see scandals arise from professors of the gospel, when they are not so watchful as they should be, but bring a reproach upon religion by their licentious lives. Yea, God's children suffer much for their friends, whose wicked courses are laid to their charge, and sometimes even by their friends; for whilst they live here, the best of all are subject to some weakness or other, which causeth even those that are our encouragers, through jealousy or corruption, one way or another, to dishearten and trouble us in the way to heaven.
6. This, likewise, makes the way difficult; we are too apt to offend God daily, giving him just cause to withdraw his Spirit of comfort from us, which makes us go mourning all the day long; wanting those sweet refreshments of spiritual joy and peace we had before. the more comfort God's child hath in communion with God, the more he is grieved when he wants it. When Christ wanted the sweet solace of his Father upon the cross, how did it trouble him! "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Mat. 27:46. How did he sweat water and blood in the garden, Luke 22:44, when he felt but a little while his Father's displeasure for sin! Thus is it with all God's children; they are of Christ's mind in their spiritual desertions. And when they have gotten a little grace, how difficult is it to keep it! to keep ourselves in the sense of God's love! to manage our Christian state aright! to walk worthy of the gospel, that God may still do us good, and delight to be present with us! What a great difficulty is it to be always stringing against the stream, and when we are cast back to get forward still, and not be discouraged till we come to the haven! None comes to heaven but they know how they come there.
Now, God will have it thus to sweeten heaven unto us. After a conflicting life peace is welcome; heaven is heaven indeed after trouble. We can relish it then. Because God will discard hypocrites in this life, who take up so much of religion as stands with their ease and credit in the world, avoiding every difficulty which accompanies godliness, but, so they may swim two ways at once, go on in their lusts still and be religious withal. This they approve of. Therefore God will have it a hard matter to be saved, to frustrate the vain hopes of such wretches. Alas! it is an easy matter to be an hypocrite, but not to live godly.
What he means by sinner? By sinner he means him that makes a trade of sin. As we say, a man is of such a trade, because he is daily at work of it, and lives by it, so a man is a trader in sin, that lives in corrupt courses. For it is not one act that denominates a sinner, but the constant practice of his life.
Now this question, Where shall the ungodly appear? implies a strong denial. He shall be able to appear nowhere; especially in these three times.
1. In the day of public calamity, when God's judgments are abroad in the world. The wicked are as chaff before the wind, as wax before the sun, as stubble before the fire...
2. But where shall they stand in the hour of death? when the world can hold them no longer; when friends shall forsake them; when God will not receive them; when hell is ready to devour them, etc.
3. And lastly, where shall the sinner appear at the day of judgment, that great and terrible day of account, when they shall see all the world in a combustion round about them, and the Lord Jesus coming in flaming fire, "with his might angels, to take vengeance on such as obey not the gospel?" 2 Thess. 1:8. How will they then call for "the mountains to cover them, and the hills to fall upon them to hide them from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb," Rev. 6:16.