The first epistle of the Apostle Peter was written to encourage the church, as God’s chosen people, to persevere through the trials they are presently undergoing as they wait for Jesus’ return. Peter admonishes them to be holy, to be set apart from the surrounding world through their righteous conduct. Even if they are mistreated, they are to continue to walk with God in obedience, following in Jesus’ example. Jesus Christ Himself patiently endured unjust treatment, even to His death, while continuing to walk in obedience to God the Father. As Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God.” Just as Jesus, the one without sin, suffered unjustly for the unrighteous, so we too must be willing to suffer while doing good (see 1 Pet. 3:17).
This is precisely the theme that we find in chapter 4 of 1 Peter. When faced with a “fiery ordeal,” we ought to react not with confusion, but with rejoicing. We are to gladly go through whatever suffering is set before us, following Jesus’ example. “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Peter 4:13). Just as Christ trusted the Father unto death, so we too should trust God during our trials. We should share in Jesus’ sufferings. And when the full glory of Jesus is revealed upon his earthly return, we too will be revealed in glory, as true children of God. For those that are reviled for the name of Christ are blessed, as Peter says. (v. 14) And the blessed will inherit the kingdom of God.
Then we come to 1 Peter 4:17-19, which reads:
17 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? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.
Peter expresses that we should not be ashamed to suffer for Christ, and this thought then leads into verse 17. We should not be ashamed, “for” judgement is at hand. Judgement will begin with the household of God, the Christians. This judgement will be difficult for those who do good, how much more so for those who do evil? Peter is stressing the severity of the judgement.
This thought leads directly into verse 19, “Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.” The term “therefore” here links back to the previous statements. Therefore, since it is with great difficulty the righteous is saved, those who are suffering should trust their souls to God “in doing what is right.”
Now, what does the phrase “in doing what is right” mean? How is it related to the rest of the sentence. The ESV and NIV (among others) have translated this verse in such as way that the “doing what is right” is disassociated with the concept of “entrusting their souls to a faithful Creator.” Below, I’ve listed 1 Peter 4:19 from the NASB, ESV, and NIV. See if you can catch the different nuances in meaning.
NASB: Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.
ESV: Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
NIV: So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
The portion of the quotations above in bold reads in the Greek as “ἐν ἀγαθοποιΐᾳ,” literally “in good doing.” Each of these translations have translated the small preposition “ἐν” (en) here differently. While the NASB follows a more literal word-to-word translation of using the rough equivalent “in,” the ESV instead uses “while.” The NIV replaces the preposition with the conjunction “and.”
The question is, what is the relationship between entrusting and doing good? The NIV and ESV seem to lessen the logical link between the command to “entrust their souls” to God and the instruction to be “doing good.” These translations both essentially communicate to the reader that we are to trust our souls to God, and oh, by the way, you should also continue to do good. Translated this way, these two acts are effectively separate occurrences and do not have any direct affect on each other.
Based on the context, however, it is clear that Peter here is using the preposition “ἐν” (en) to communicate the means by which we entrust our souls to God. There are quite a number of uses for “ἐν” depending on the context, which can cause some confusion. One of the common and accepted uses for “ἐν” is to communicate means or instrumentality (see LSJ Greek-English Lexicon entry here). When used in this way, one could translated “ἐν” as “by” or “with.”
For example, in 1 Peter 1:5 we read about Christians “who are protected by the power of God.” “By” here is the preposition “ἐν” we’ve been discussing. This is a clear example of the translators using “by” to communicate the means by which protection occurs. Another example is found in 1 Peter 1:22 in the NIV, “You have purified yourselves by obeying the truth.” Once again, “by” here is used to translate “ἐν.” Other examples within this same epistle would include 1 Peter 1:6 and 1 Peter 1:22. All this to say the “ἐν” is often used to communicate the means by which something is accomplished.
This usage of “ἐν” to show means also applies in 1 Peter 4:19. Peter is not trying to disassociate entrusting our souls to God from the act of doing good. Rather, he is being intentional by communicating the means by which we entrust our souls to God. We entrust our souls to our Creator specifically by doing good.
Consequently, in light of the common practice of translating “ἐν” as “by” to communicate means or instrumentality, we could fairly translate the verse as follows:
Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator by doing good.
This is exactly in keeping with the context. This is the path of Christ. Jesus suffered according to the will of God. During this suffering, He did not retaliate or look to human deliverance. No, He entrusted Himself to the Father by being obedient, by doing good. Jesus entrusted his life (another way to translate soul here) to the Father by being obedient to death on the cross. He humbly submitted Himself to the will of the Father, willingly suffering, trusting that God the Father would raise Him from the dead, glorifying Him and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens.
That is what Peter is saying. He, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is instructing those believers who were being persecuted for their faith to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. How are they to imitate Christ? They are to imitate Christ by entrusting their souls to God, even as they undergo tribulations. And how do they entrust themselves to God? It is simple, by doing good.
Such an attitude says, “God, you have my life in your hands. I will do good and trust that you will eternally vindicate any unjustness I receive here on earth as I suffer according to your will.” This is the godly attitude we need as our world continues follow the seductive siren call of sin, persecuting those who serve Jesus.