Outward Modesty, Inner Beauty

1 Peter 3:1-6

By T. J. Campo

May 23, 1999

"In the same way, you wives be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. And let not your adornment be merely external-braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear."

I saw a movie preview recently, I didn't see the movie, but it seemed to be one of those instances in which you feel that if you've seen the preview, you've seen the whole movie. I believe the name of the movie is, "The Love Letter," and its about a letter that was written, both the recipient and the writer of which are unknown. I suppose it was addressed to "My dear one," and then signed, "Your one true love," or something along those lines. As I was able to discern from the preview, this letter apparently is circulated among many hands and each person's hands into which it falls, begins to think this letter was written to him, and then begins to speculate on who the writer might have been. As` the plot unfolds, more and more confusion ensues until finely it appears that everything sort of degenerates into a comedy of errors, as each person tries to make this letter fit into his or her own circumstances.

Thankfully, that's not the case with this letter. We know the writer of this letter. We know that the Apostle Peter, one of Jesus' original 12 disciples wrote it, and we know the recipients of this letter. It was not written specifically to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in the late Twentieth Century - it was written to a group of believers who lived in the First Century AD, Mediterranean world. Therefore, as we seek to apply it, we have to apply it dirivitively to ourselves - not directly - but we have to seek to extract from it eternal principles and eternal truths which apply to all Christians in all days.

It's important that we remember these things and see this whole teaching in its proper context lest we also find ourselves confused and lost in a comedy of errors. The truth that we are about to articulate must be seen in the context and in the setting in which it was originally designed. We need to remember that this writer was once a man who was a stranger to the grace of God. In fact, he was explicitly opposed to the idea, or any suggestion, of a suffering Messiah.

You remember when Jesus prophesied to Peter that Jesus would suffer and die at the hands of sinful men and Peter stopped Him, broke rank and said, "Lord, may God forbid this. This will never happen to You."

As we look into Peter's life, we realize the reason that Peter was so opposed to the idea of a suffering Messiah was that Peter was largely ignorant concerning the depth and enormity of his own sin. In Peter's mind he was a relatively good person, sinful, to be sure, but needed only someone just to "wash him up." He needed a Messiah to give him some penance or some good works to do, and then he'd be fine. "But, Lord, the depth of my sin is not such that I need an innocent and righteous man to die in my place. That's just going to an extreme."

Remember what Jesus said about seeking to impress upon Peter how deep his problem and how extensive his need really was? Jesus is able to structure the circumstances of Peter's life in such a way that Peter must confront the extent of his own evil heart. Peter did indeed find himself in a situation in which he was embarrassed by his relationship to Jesus Christ and denied Jesus at the very time when Jesus was going to the cross to die for Peter's embarrassment, cowardice, and sin.

But with the work of Jesus completed on the cross, completed in the resurrection, and when Jesus had ascended into heaven and poured out the Spirit upon His church, Peter became a man transformed by the deep love and empowering grace of God. That's why, as we read this letter, we have to understand that it is a letter saturated with grace, marvelous grace. Here was a man, once a stranger to grace, now transformed by grace. Peter's mind is fixated on the grace of God that would provide a suffering substitute for a sinner like him, the coward.

There is an emphasis in this great letter on the work of God to save sinners - not the work of sinners to get to God. Peter never gets the cart before the horse. He never makes it seem as if we just would shape up and act morally, we would merit the grace of God to come down from heaven. It's the other way around with him. Consistently. It's about the grace of God coming down, sovereignly at God's decision, and finding out unworthy, like you and me, and transforming our lives so that we can never be the same. Peter can't stop marveling at that whole idea of God's work transforming for himself a people from every tribe, nation, tongue and language, and to make that people holy in the way they actually live.

It's important that any moral teaching in this letter, including the teaching on modesty, be founded on, and connected to an understanding of the work of God in Christ to give people new hearts that desire obedience to God and that God is calling out a people for Himself. He is transforming a, "…royal priesthood…a holy nation…a chosen race" a people for God's own possession who would be called out of darkness into God's marvelous light, that they might proclaim the excellencies of Him who called them by their transformed lifestyles. Because God has accepted me and accomplished my salvation through the work of Christ, I, as a member of God's adopted family, desire holiness, long for obedience, and look for a righteous display of Christ's fruit in my life.

Brethren, I want to tell you this - the church, if we survey history, from the nuns to the Nazarenes, the church has oftentimes separated the teaching on modesty from the work of Christ and has put primary emphasis on people's outward appearance that it might be holy and has neglected the priority of changed hearts. More than anything else, I want to tell you that we must separate moralism from Christianity because they are two different religions.

Moralism has to do with people shaping themselves up in order to earn the grace of God. Christianity has to do with the grace of God finding people out and issuing forth in a moral transformation. If we don't deliberately attach our modesty teaching to a proper understanding of the work of God in Christ, we'll end up with a kind of moralism that would delight the devil. "How could moral behavior delight the devil?" I heard a quote recently from the great Presbyterian minister from Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, Donald Gray Barnhouse. Someone asked, "Dr. Barnhouse, what it would like for the devil to have total dominion over a particular city?" Barnhouse said, "That's easy. In that city all the children would arrive at school on time, neat, well dressed, and they would all get good grades. There would be no bars or houses of ill repute. All the people would act in the best behavior and they would all go to church on Sunday and they would go to churches where Christ and Christ crucified was never mentioned."

The devil delights in moralism because it keeps people from getting their hearts transformed by His powerful grace. I have no doubt, as I consider the lives of the Pharisees, that they were the most modest people, dressing in the most holy garb you could ever imagine. But Jesus, as he confronts them, rebukes them time and time again because though their outward appearance looked "holy" inwardly they were dead and their hearts had never been transformed. Jesus speaks to these modest dressers, "You are children of your father, the devil."

Right from the earliest words in Peter's letter, this whole atmosphere of grace is established and Peter sets the tone for the entire letter making it clear that modesty, or any moral obligation, must be seen as the fruit of Jesus' righteousness at work in a person's life, and not the other way around. Therefore, Peter's first words in Chapter 1 set the tone in these words, "I write to those who are chosen by the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, in order that they may be obedient to Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood. May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure."

Just a few verses after that, "Fix your hope completely on the grace of Christ which is to be revealed." Not, "Fix your hope on your hard work" nor, "Fix your hope on your modesty or your morality." "Fix your hope completely" - see your goodness as coming ONLY from the righteousness of Christ which was accounted to you apart from anything you did to deserve it. GRACE! By the choice of the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit that we might be redeemed in order to obey Jesus Christ.

Grace is what compels us. Grace is the true engine toward moral transformation. Grace frees us to live holy lives. Any so-called moral reform, which is not sincerely and deliberately motivated by grace, leads only to judgmentalism, self-righteousness, frustration, and eventually to bitterness. Really, I don't want to be in a church that is characterized by those things and I know you don't, either.

I do want to be a part of a holy church, so it's important that we, like Peter, not get the cart before the horse, but see that Christ's work always issues in moral transformation.

The moral imperatives, that are before us today, are (1) negative, and (2) positive. The negative imperative is stated in v. 3: "Let not your adornment be merely external-braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses…"

Notice that the word "merely" is in italics in most translations. Perhaps when you see a word in italics you say it a little louder. But that's not why they're in italics, but it is to indicate that the italicized word is not in the original Greek text. The English translators supplied it in order to make it sensible to the English reader. Here, the use of the word, "merely," is completely justified because it brings out Peter's true intention. What he's saying is not to prohibit all outward adornment in a man or woman, but that a person who is transformed by the grace of God should be concerned primarily, not with his or her outward appearance, but with the inner beauty of the heart. Peter says that any woman who is a part of God's transformed race should not be preoccupied with her outward appearance.

Now, the question arises, "If Peter is not prohibiting the wearing of all gold jewelry, all hair styling, all dressing up, where then, do we draw the line?" If I were a woman I would want that question answered. "Where, in paying attention to my outward appearance, does wholesome attention become sinful preoccupation?"

In an attempt to draw some lines, I'd like to lay out for you three preliminary considerations and principles pertinent to fashion, modesty, and dress, as we consider a topic which I believe is important for this congregation, which finds itself in the middle of hot, South Florida.

  1. Principle #1: Every culture under the sun values some form of female ornamentation. So true is this, so universally understood, that the prophet Jeremiah used it as a proverb to indicate certainty. Showing that all cultures pay some attention to the outward appearance, especially of women, Jeremiah wrote these words: "Can a maiden forget her ornaments and can a bride forget her wedding attire?" The implied answer is, "No way!" Women will always be concerned with their outward appearance. It's that way in every culture. And as such, it's not necessarily an unwholesome thing. Every culture has its ceremonial dress. In primitive cultures it might be a bone through the ear, a plate in the lip, or a shark tooth bracelet or a bear claw necklace. In the great Western empires it might be the rubies, diamonds, and emeralds in the crown of England's Queen. This tendency toward ornateness is universal among cultures and not necessarily evil in itself.

  2. Principle #2: Tastes, styles, fashions, and standards in outward decoration vary from culture to culture and from time to time. Did you know that if we were in Calcutta, India, we would be considered scandalous and every woman in this congregation would be looked on as a loose and immoral woman? In India, only the fast women expose their ankles and the calves of their legs in public. Yet, in India it is entirely appropriate for a woman to come to church exposing a bare midriff -something that we might find in our culture to be a distasteful. Some of you older ladies remember when woman just didn't wear pants in public. I was thinking about this - to our younger generation, the phrase, "Who wears the pants in that family?" doesn't even make sense. Today, standards have so changed so that few would consider the wearing of pants, even in church, provocative or immoral.

    A review of our principles: (1) Every culture places some value on female ornamentation - it is not necessarily evil. (2) Tastes, fashions, and standards differ from culture to culture and from time to time. The question: If those two principles are true, how must a woman who is a Christian decide what she will or will not wear.

  3. Principle #3: For the Christian woman, choice of clothing is not entirely dictated by culture. Choice of clothing must at least consider the norms of her particular culture because there is on universal standard of clothing presented in the Scriptures. We don't find an "inch" standard for hemlines above or below the knee.

    To fill out this principle, here are words full of wisdom, written by Robertson McQuilken, a great man of God. In his book on Biblical ethics he writes: "The modest Christian will not adopt any new style that is ostentatious, drawing attention to self, or that increases sex appeal, until that style is no longer considered ostentatious or stimulating. The modest woman will wait until the new style has a history long enough so that spiritually mature Christian men are not tempted to lustful desire." In a sense the Christian woman is a step behind the times. She waits to adorn herself with any new fashion until that fashion will no longer turn heads. As long as that fashion remains flamboyant and will necessitate drawing attention to herself, she won't wear it.

The Christian woman deliberately seeks to not draw attention to herself and not to make her dress sexually stimulating. Its just part of the lifestyle of what it is to be a Christian woman. Let me add my own thought to this: I want to speak to the young girls in the Christian homes in this congregation, and even to some degree, to the older among us who are perhaps new believers. Christian girls and Christian young ladies must be taught by older believers and Mom and Dad, that to intentionally or negligently dress so as to be sexually stimulating is tantamount to being an accomplice to adultery.

I know those are strong words, but I truly believe that Scripturally speaking, they are true. Jesus, in speaking to men said this, "I say unto you that if a man looks upon a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." I think the corresponding application to the fairer gender is this, "If any woman dresses in such a way as to entice a man to lust, she becomes an accomplice in his mental adultery." To go beyond that, ladies, it's even more serious than my words up to now have indicated. Our Savior also said, "If anyone causes another to stumble it would be better for him to have a boulder tied around his neck and to be cast into the depths of the sea."

"Stumbling blocks will come," said Jesus, "but woe to the one through whom they come." Especially to the new believers and to the young ladies - the matter of dress for you must be quite a deliberate matter. You can't just pick whatever happens to be hanging in the closet. It must require thought. When you go shopping it can't just be whatever strikes your eye - there must be deliberation behind the choice of your clothing. Now, I'm certain of this, many people dress deliberately to turn heads and to entice men and boys. Yet, the transformed woman, the woman for whom Christ has worked, for whom Christ has died, the woman in whom the Spirit of Holiness works - that woman dresses deliberately not to attract attention to herself but to direct attention to another, even to Christ.

I live in this culture. I understand what a visually oriented, appearance obsessed society we live in. I go to the grocery store and I understand that every time I approach the cashier I will be assaulted by a plethora of images which I imagine have a strong impact not only on men, but on women who measure themselves according to those images. I know you are under a tremendous amount of pressure to look enticing in your dress. It's powerful.

But I want to say this: There is a more powerful influence. God is powerful. The Gospel is powerful! God's Spirit is powerful and He is able to liberate insecure, self-centered, people-pleasers like you and like me. He is able to free us from that strong desire resident in every sinful person that to get respect and to measure one's self-esteem according to how much respect or how much attention, or how much desire he elicits from another person.

Jesus is able to make us complete in Him so that we can live without the admiring gazes of others. I don't have to be a slave lingering long in front of a mirror spending much time and money so that people will like and accept me, because I am already accepted by the most discriminating judge in all the universe, God the Judge of every living soul has accepted me. So I don't care what you think about me and I don't have to care because God has accepted me and that's all that matters.

To you parents and to those of you ladies who have grown past being concerned about this - we have to pray for younger ladies. The pressure to conform to some cute little long-legged standard is intense. Certainly the frequency of eating disorders makes it clear that it has become for some literally a matter of life and death. We have to pray for our young ladies and we have to speak the truth to them in love. They need to be told by their Mom's and Dad's about how they can have true acceptance by God who doesn't look at the externals. They need to be told that God, through the Gospel, can set them free from the fear of people's opinions and the simple lust that they have to be admired by others.

That's the negative. There remains the positive. This positive injunction is that the Christian woman be called to cultivate inner beauty. "But let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God." Some people, Christians and non-Christians alike, will talk about the cultivation of an inner life. I want to encourage you in that. Frequently by that they mean intellectual stimulation, reading of books, coming to appreciate fine art, literature, and food, traveling, and becoming good conversationalists; that we be a cultured people, and these are good pursuits and good blessings from God.

But, Peter has something else in mind here when he talks about the cultivation of the inner person. He talks about the cultivation of the imperishable quality of gentle spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. "For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear."

This quality, this imperishable quality of a gentle spirit, has always been seen in holy woman in every age. It never goes out of style, because God values it. That's what makes this universally applicable. I should address at least one word to the Christian men in our congregation. Just as society is seeking to press our women into it's mold, society is seeing to do the same to you and to tell us that what's most important about a woman is her measurement. How long are her legs, how does she look, and what clothing does she wear? Society is seeking to foster in men this deliberate optical illusion that true beauty consists in what is merely external.

I have to ask you, "What really do we value in a godly woman?" This, in the final analysis, with modesty and with most any moral issue, is the question: "Am I seeking in my lifestyle what God values, what others value, or what I value?"

The call to you ladies which comes from this text is to be like Sarah who hoped in God and who grew more and more to long only for the acceptance of God and to live only for eternal values. The call to you ladies is for you to be courageous. It takes courage to live this way. Will you be swayed by societal pressures - a society that is obsessed with outward appearance? Will you yield to your own insecurities and be a people-pleasing woman or will you be a woman transformed and empowered by the strong grace of God and the powerful work of the Spirit so that you are frightened by no fear?

These are women who can submit to their husbands because the Gospel empowers them to do so. These are women who can focus on true beauty and gentleness of spirit because they recognize God's eternal values.

Our Father in heaven, we pray that You would work in us in such a way that we as a congregation would be focused primarily on the Gospel, secondarily on changed, transformed hearts, and thirdly, on the fruit of such transformation which inevitably will yield modesty and that imperishable quality of inner gentleness and beauty. I pray for the ladies in this congregation that they seek out what is God's holy way of life, and that they, by the work of the Spirit within them, not be frightened by any fear. Give us that blessing we ask, in Jesus' Name. Amen

In coming to Him as to the living stone, rejected by men but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Our Father, we thank You for being committed to this great endeavor, that to make Yourself a temple on the earth, one not made with hands, but a living temple made of living stones - individual lives brought into submission to Christ through faith. Father, we thank You that in this congregation You are indeed carrying on that work and are welding us together as a spiritual house, a temple built of living stones. Lord, we pray that in the way we relate to one another we would relate in holiness to one another - would do all that is our power to stimulate the other toward love and good deeds. We pray that you would empower us to do that. We confess to You, that fallen as we are in Adam, it is not native to us to love other people and we ask that You would so overcome our self-centerdness, that we might actually lay down our lives for one another. And that the world, seeing the way we love one another, might know with certainty that these are the disciples of Christ. Father, we pray that in the sermon, and as we turn our attention to the life imparting Word of God, that we would see afresh the empowering grace of Jesus, would give ourselves to Him, and would receive from Him all that is necessary for life and godliness, that we might reflect the character of God to a watching world and that we might know the joy, peace, and love that belongs as an inheritance to all the adopted sons and daughters of God. Lord, we thank You for so marking us with Your love, for so purposing toward unworthy people like ourselves, that we might be included in the great family of God, that you have adorned us with the beauty of holiness and that is possible for us, wearing the righteous robe of Christ's obedience, to come into the very presence of God and find acceptance with the most discriminating judge of all the universe - even God our Father. Lord, we pray for this church and ask that You continue to do a good work in our midst, even for Your own glory, and we pray that as we come to give to You that which is Yours, that we would have it pressed upon our minds that every good and perfect gift has come from You, that all that we have belongs to God, and that it is our great joy to praise God, from whom all blessings flow. In Jesus' Name we pray these things, Amen.

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