A study in 2 Peter 1:5-11 (2): Encouraged to fruitful knowledge
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This is a study on 2 Peter 1:5-11 by Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: A Study in 2 Peter 1:5-11 (1b): Adding to our faith
“For if these things be in you, and abound…” (2 Peter 1:8)
#1 The promise of fruitfulness
Last time we noticed the exhortation, “Add:” “Add to your faith virtue, etc.” Verse 8 gives the reason for the admonition of verse 5. That is why it begins with the word “for” which means “because.”
Recall the context: Peter writes to those who have “obtained” faith (v. 1); literally, that faith has been allotted to us; that faith is “precious” (v. 1); that faith is equal to the faith of others in the church (“like precious faith or “equally precious faith”—v. 1); that faith makes us partakers of Jesus Christ and it is ours because of the work of Jesus Christ (“through the righteousness of God and our Savior Jesus Christ”—v. 1); by that faith we have “all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (v. 3); and by that faith we have “exceeding great and precious promises” (v. 4).
Recall the admonition: “add:” the meaning of “add” to supply lavishly or generously from the supplies that we have by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The idea is to adorn or decorate our faith. The word “add” comes from the world of music: a patron of the arts will supply an orchestra or a choir with those elements necessary to give a pleasing performance. Similarly when we add “virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity” to our faith, our life is like a beautiful chorus performed to the glory of God.
The admonition of verse 5, “add,” is difficult: it requires effort to be virtuous, to have knowledge, to be temperate, patient, and godly, and to exercise brotherly kindness and charity. That is why Peter writes “Giving all diligence…” There is opposition—our sinful flesh opposes it; the devil hates it and seeks to tempt us to the opposite vices; false teachers corrupt it; and the wicked world ridicules it. The world takes advantage of and mocks the one who adds virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity to his faith.
Therefore, God in his mercy grants us an incentive: an incentive is the promise of a reward as an encouragement to do our duty, especially when our duty is difficult. The reward or the incentive is always gracious: it is never merited or deserved. We do not deserve to be active and fruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ; we deserve to be barren and unfruitful. Indeed, we do not deserve to know Jesus Christ at all: that we do know him by faith is a gift of grace to us. But no faithful Christian wants to be barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The promise of the text is this: “Ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). The apostle expresses it negatively. He does that in order to emphasize the positive. If I say, “You’ll not be sorry,” I mean, “You’ll be glad.” If I say, “He’s no fool,” I mean, “He’s smart.” Similarly, the apostle writes, “Ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful,” and he means, “You shall be fertile and fruitful.” Two words are used: barren and unfruitful.
The first word is barren: “ye shall [not] be barren” (v. 8). In English the word “barren” means unable to produce fruit. We speak of a barren wasteland where nothing can be planted and where nothing can be expected to grow because of the quality of the soil. “Barren” might leave the impression that, if someone does not bear fruit, he can be excused: it is not his fault that he bears no fruit; he just happens to be barren. Or perhaps it might suggest that, although we really desire to have this fruitful knowledge, and although we make every effort, we remain fruitless—we are barren. But that is not at all the idea. The word that Peter uses expresses a very different idea: the word means idle. Idle is another word for lazy or inactive. An idle person refuses to be active; he refuses to make any effort; and for that reason—his own fault—he is fruitless. He is, to use the language of Proverbs, a slothful man or a sluggard, a spiritually slothful man. Such a person is too lazy, and therefore refuses to add to his faith. He is too lazy, and therefore refuses to supply the virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity of verses 5-7. He is too lazy to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. He is a spiritual couch potato: you know the person who lies on his couch all day eating potato chips, drinking pop, and watching TV or playing video games instead of working. Titus 1:12 says about the inhabitants of Crete: “always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” A slow belly is a lazy glutton: he overeats and does not work. The member of the church who does not obey the admonition of verse 5 (“Giving all diligence, add to your faith”) is, spiritually speaking, a slow belly.
Let me illustrate that from the context: verse 5 says, “Giving all diligence, add to your faith.” The idle man says, “No, I won’t do that. I won’t make any effort to add: I will do the bare minimum to get by, going through the motions, to keep the elders or my parents happy, but I won’t make much effort, if any.” He might have a theological excuse for his laziness; he might say, “Well, God is sovereign; and it is his work, so if God wants me to bear fruit, well and good; he will make it happen whether I am diligent or not.”
But it takes effort to add virtue to your faith. Virtue is moral excellence and ethical integrity. It is that spiritual manliness that causes us to say “no” to sin. Our virtue is our active fighting against sin. It is much easier to yield to temptation, to take the path of least resistance, and to do what everyone else does; it is much easier to please the flesh than to please God.
It takes effort to add knowledge to virtue. God does not simply zap us by his Spirit so that we become knowledgeable of him and his truth. It requires study: it is easier to neglect God’s Word; easier to stop paying attention and to daydream in church; and easier to be lazy at school and in catechism.
It takes effort to add temperance to knowledge. Temperance by definition is hard work: temperance is self-denial and self-discipline. It is much easier to give in to our lusts and pleasures than to master our desires and passions.
It takes effort to add patience to temperance. Patience is endurance, bearing up under trials and hardships, putting up with situations that we don’t like, and being content when we don’t have what we want. It is much easier to murmur or to give up in despair than to exercise patience.
It takes effort to add godliness to patience. Godliness is reverence towards God and personal piety, which costs time and effort; often it brings hardship into our life, when we have to give up pleasures for the sake of our devotion to God; sometimes, it even leads to persecution.
It takes effort to add brotherly kindness to godliness. Loving our fellow believers is not as easy as we might think. We are sinners; they are sinners; we irritate them; and they annoy or offend us. We are selfish and so are they, and yet they are, as Psalm 16:3, “the excellent, in whom is all my delight.”
Finally, it takes effort to add charity to brotherly kindness. Seeking the good of others, while we put our needs behind theirs, is exhausting at times, especially when our efforts are often unrecognized or met with hostility. “Charity suffereth long and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). That is difficult.
But, writes the apostle, “Ye shall not be barren.” Instead, you will be very active in your faith, adding to it, supplying it, fitting it out, and adorning it.
The second word is “unfruitful:” “ye shall [not] be unfruitful” (v. 8). Unfruitfulness is the obvious and inevitable result of idleness/laziness. Proverbs 20:4 says, “The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore, he shall beg in harvest and have nothing.” Galatians 6:7-9 describes a principle: you reap what you sow; if you sow nothing (because you are too lazy to sow), you reap nothing. If you are barren/lazy when it comes to adding to your faith, you will be unfruitful. If you refuse to supply virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity, you will be unfruitful.
Or consider the patron of the arts who wants to put on a good performance of a choir or orchestra: we saw earlier that that is the idea of the word “add.” He does not say, “Oh, I couldn’t be bothered to get singers and musicians; I couldn’t be bothered to supply them with equipment and training.” If so, he shouldn’t be surprised if there is no concert or, if there is one, the performance is a disaster, out of tune, with no harmony. A fruitless man is really a worthless man in Biblical terms. A fruitless man produces nothing of value, nothing worthwhile, nothing useful, nothing that glorifies God or helps the neighbor. Such a fruitless man will hear the dreadful words, “Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground” (Luke 13:7). But the promise of the text is this, “Ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).
#2 Fruitful knowledge
Fruitful in what or fruitful with respect to what? The answer is fruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). The knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is our knowledge of him. This is actually one of the great themes of Second Peter. The word “knowledge” appears six times in three short chapters. The verb “to know” appears four times. That is ten references to knowledge in this book. Here are some examples: “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord” (1:2). “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (1:3). “But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18).
That knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ consists of two main things. First, there is the truth of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, as that truth is revealed in the gospel. This is personal acquaintance with Jesus the Savior. It is the knowledge of love—to be loved by him, and to be known to be loved by him. It is in a word the knowledge of the covenant. As Reformed believers we know the covenant as a relationship of intimate fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. That knowledge takes a lifetime to learn as we study God’s Word, hear the preaching, and live in fellowship with our Savior. Second, there is the knowledge of personal salvation, which is expressed negatively in verse 9: “he hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.” Fruitful knowledge belongs to one who has not forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. If we have fruitful knowledge, we know that we are sinners; we know what our sins are; we know that we have the forgiveness of sins; we know that we have been justified; we know that we have been sanctified. Without that knowledge we either were not purged from our old sins (we are hypocrites who make a vain show of being believers) or we have forgotten it (we are in a backsliding condition), so that it no longer lives in our consciousness.
This knowledge is presented as fruitful—neither barren nor unfruitful—so that, as it were, knowledge is a root from which spring fruit. This knowledge is faith. This is the emphasis of our Reformed confessions; by faith we know. The Heidelberg Catechism defines faith as “a certain knowledge and an assured confidence” (A 21). About faith the Belgic Confession says in Article 24: “Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man (the word unfruitful here is idle, as in verse 8—“it is impossible that this holy faith can be idle in man”), for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.” An idle faith is the faith of one who refuses to add virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity.
Fruitful knowledge, then, is fruitful faith, or faith which is not barren (or idle) and fruitless. It is a faith which brings forth much fruit to the glory of God and for the benefit/welfare of the neighbor. If your faith is fruitful in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, you will know Jesus Christ with the intimate knowledge of love and close personal fellowship. And you will also communicate that knowledge to others, so that by your witness they will also know Jesus Christ. A faith to which is added, or which is supplied with, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity, will be a fruitful faith. On the other hand, one who lacks such things—and worse, is characterized by the opposite vices—will not be fruitful to the glory of God. In fact, such faith (which is really hypocrisy) is pernicious and harmful to the one who has it and to those around him. “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness—which are completely incompatible with virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity—but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11).
Be careful not to misunderstand. The meaning is not that by practicing these virtues, you earn or merit God’s favor. The meaning is this: the more virtue you practice, the more knowledgeable you become, the more temperate you are, the more patience you develop, the godlier you are, the more brotherly kindness you demonstrate, and the more charity you practice, the more your faith will bear fruit to the glory of God and for the benefit or welfare of your neighbor. “If these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The words, “If these things be in you, and abound” and the implied warning against barrenness (idleness) and unfruitfulness are a call to activity. Verse 5 was an explicit call to activity—“Giving all diligence, add.” Verse 8 is an implicit call to activity.
Understand the exhortation. The call is not this: “Do nothing—make no effort, or make minimal effort—because these things (virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity) will be in you and abound regardless of your activity or without your activity.” The call is also not this: “Work very hard at cultivating virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity in your life because everything depends on your activity.” Instead, the call is this: “Because God has already given you all things that pertain unto life and godliness, and because you already have exceeding great and precious promises, give all diligence. And as you give all diligence, seek and rely upon God’s grace to work in you so that you add these things to your faith.” The text is similar to, although less explicit than, Philippians 2:12-13: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [there’s our activity]: for [here’s the reason] for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
Therefore, we may not say, “I cannot be virtuous; I cannot be knowledgeable; I cannot be temperate, patient, or godly; I cannot practice brotherly kindness or charity.” Yes, you can—and you must. You have been given all things that pertain to life and godliness. Yes, we are prone to be lazy, tempted to slack off, to do the bare minimum. That is why we need exhortations like this one.
Sometimes, I think that some pastors are deathly afraid of such texts. We are terrified that if we preach the admonitions of the Bible (such as “giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, etc.), and if we add incentives and warnings, as Peter does here, we will be accused of two things. First, we are afraid that we will be accused of emphasizing man, of saying that we must do something. The emphasis, we are told, should not be on what man does or must do, but on what God does in us and through us by his grace and Holy Spirit. But those two things are not mutually exclusive: God works in us, and we do. Second, we are afraid that we will be accused of teaching conditional theology or, even worse, of teaching merit. Peter says, Add virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity to our faith. And then he says that we will not be barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. If we preach and teach that, does that not mean that we merit something by our activity or that something depends on our activity?
In response, remember this: Peter had no such fears, and no preacher should be afraid of preaching what the Bible says. There are passages that are difficult to understand, but there are no verses that teach false doctrine. Peter is ready to die, and this is his last letter; and what does he do just after his initial greetings? He exhorts his readers to activity, “And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith.” Then he gives an incentive to spur them on to that activity, “For if these things (virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity) be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful.” And then he issues a warning to those who refuse to perform that activity, “But he that lacketh these things (virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity, etc) is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.”
Peter has no fear that he is emphasizing man (in the context he has just explained that the source of these things is God’s grace, so that he does not need to repeat himself in verse 8); Peter is not afraid to call man to be active; Peter does not teach merit; and Peter certainly does not allow such fears to make him teach that we may be passive, idle, or lazy in the Christian life. “Be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the church by separating what he of his good pleasure hath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions” (Canons 3-4:17).
Here, then, is the kind of person who has a deep root in Jesus Christ, or who is fruitful. “These things—virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity—are in him and abound.” They are in him: they belong to him, they are given to him, they are cultivated by him. They abound: they are increasing, they are overflowing, they are multiplying in him. Such a person is growing (he is far from perfect, but he is growing), he is not going backwards, and he is not standing still: he is neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. What a blessing and an incentive to continue!
#3 A Fearful Warning
What if a person is without virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity? What if he lives in the opposite vices? First, there is something wrong with his eyesight: “He is blind and cannot see afar off” (v. 9). When the apostle says he cannot see afar off he uses a word from which we get our word “myopic.” Myopic means shortsighted or nearsighted. A shortsighted person can see things close up, but he cannot see things far away. A spiritually shortsighted person sees the things of this world, enjoys the pleasures of sin, and gratifies himself in the here and now, but he cannot see things that are far away: the things of the kingdom of God. He lives for the moment with little concern for the future. Literally, Peter writes, “He is blind, being myopic.” Myopia is the reason for his blindness, and in this case the blindness is his own fault. That is because myopia means to shut one’s eyes or to close one’s eyelids. He shuts his eyes, or closes his eyelids, to things that are far away, so that he is blind to them. Contrast this with 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” In 2 Corinthians 4 we have a man who looks at faraway things, eternal, invisible things; in 2 Peter 1:9 we have a man who closes his eyes to faraway things, so that he is blind to them.
Second, there is something wrong with his memory: “He hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins” (v. 9). He does not look far away—he has spiritual myopia—and he does not look backwards either; he has spiritual amnesia. He has forgotten what God has done in Jesus Christ: he has forgotten not only that he has been forgiven, but that he has been purged, or cleansed, from his old sins. If a person forgets that, he thinks that he has the right to live in such sins. But one who lives in the consciousness that he has been purged says, “I never want to return to the filth from which I was delivered,” and “I will add to my faith virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity.” A person who suffers from amnesia of this kind could very well be a hypocrite, and not a regenerate, justified, sanctified child of God at all.
What are we to make of such a warning? The apostle moves from the second person (“If these things be in you… ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful”) to the third person (“he that lacketh these things…”). By doing that, he makes it not a promise (“you”) or an accusation (“you”), but a warning, a hypothetical situation, a possibility. May God graciously forbid that it be true of us! But its hypothetical nature does not mean that we ignore the warning. There are hypocrites in the church; there are apostates—chapter 2 speaks of them at great length. God uses warnings to prevent the thing that is warned against. God’s children take heed to the warning, while hypocrites scoff at the warning. “And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments” (Canons 5:14).
So, dear reader, I repeat the exhortation: “Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity.” And here is the incentive: “You will not be barren or unfruitful (but abundantly fruitful) in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and you will not be a spiritual myope or amnesiac. May God graciously grant it.