Question: "What does it mean that the righteous is scarcely saved (1 Peter 4:18)?"
Answer: In 1 Peter 4, Peter challenges believers to understand that suffering and difficulty will be part of our lives (1 Peter 4:12). Even in that suffering, we should continually rejoice because one day Christ will be revealed in glory and we with Him (1 Peter 4:13). In this context, Peter says, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,
‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’” (1 Peter 4:16–18).
Peter’s quotation is from the Septuagint translation of Proverbs 11:31, which says, “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (Brenton, 1844). Peter uses this quote in the context of preparing believers to suffer for the cause of Christ.
It is worth remembering that Peter had tried to escape the potential of suffering for Christ when Jesus was arrested. Rather than be associated with Jesus, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. By the time he wrote his epistles, Peter had come a long way and had indeed suffered for Christ throughout his ministry—he would ultimately die as a martyr because of his preaching of the gospel of Christ. In encouraging believers to rejoice even in suffering for Christ, Peter exhorts them that they should not suffer for doing wrong (1 Peter 4:15)—believers should be cautious not to do wrong. We should be holy in our behavior because our Father in heaven is holy (1 Peter 1:15–16). But when believers suffer for being associated with Christ, that glorifies God (1 Peter 4:16).
As Peter cautions against doing evil, he reminds that judgment begins with the household of God. Peter rhetorically asks, if God takes righteousness so seriously that He first judges His own people, then how serious will the judgment be for unbelievers (1 Peter 4:17)? If the righteous will “scarcely be saved” (as the King James Version phrases it), then what will become of those who are not believing in God (1 Peter 4:18)?
Peter recognizes that God’s saving grace has been provided (1 Peter 1:3–5). Peter knew firsthand what that provision cost. God’s grace is free to all who will receive it by belief in Jesus, but it was not free to God (1 Peter 1:18–19). Jesus paid the ultimate price to provide us with that gift, and all three Persons of the Trinity exert effort to ensure our salvation. The Father chose us to be in Christ to be holy and blameless as His adopted sons (Ephesians 1:4). The Son redeemed us by shedding His blood as a substitution, dying in our place (Ephesians 1:7). The Holy Spirit seals us as God’s pledge or guarantee that we have been redeemed and have eternal life (Ephesians 1:13–14). These are just a few examples of what God does on our behalf. While nothing is difficult for God, Peter recognizes that the righteous will “scarcely be saved” (1 Peter 4:18), or as the NASB puts it, “it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved.” Further, if God has done so much to express His kindness to those who don’t deserve it, how grave will things be for those who reject His grace and kindness (by not believing in Jesus Christ)?