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by Robert Leinweber

Peter (1): Sinfully Deviating From the Guidance of Divine Grace

by Rev. Martyn McGeown 

In Canons 5:4 the Reformed faith addresses the question of “lamentable falls” that sometimes occur in the lives of God’s people. One prominent example of a saint who fell lamentably was Peter, whom Canons 5:4 mentions. In the same fifth head of doctrine the Reformed fathers address a number of related topics connected to such lamentable falls. 

First, as we shall examine in this blog post, the Canons address the cause of such falls, ascribing the blame entirely to the sinning believer: Peter “sinfully deviated from the guidance of divine grace,” he was “seduced by, and complied with the lusts of the flesh,” and, due to the “neglect” of watchful prayer, he was “drawn into great and heinous sins,” even by “the righteous permission of God.” 

God is not at all to blame for Peter’s lamentable fall, although he was entirely sovereign over it.

It is my purpose to examine that fall more closely. 

Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples, having eaten the Lord’s Supper with them. Suddenly, he issues a warning to Peter: “Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). To sift wheat is to place it into a sieve and then to shake it violently to and fro, the purpose of which is to separate the wheat from the chaff. When the sieve is shaken, the finer grains of wheat fall through the holes to be collected in a receptacle below, while the coarser chaff rises to the top. Satan desired to sift the eleven disciples (the word is “you”—plural) in order to destroy them. Satan’s aim with this temptation was to prove that the disciples were chaff, not wheat; to expose the disciples’ faith as counterfeit and worthless; to prove that the disciples’ discipleship was not genuine; and to rob Jesus of his closest followers, thus destroying the New Testament church in its infancy. 

The sieve that Satan employed was the painful trial of seeing Jesus betrayed, arrested, taken from them, and killed. Satan even desired to capture the eleven disciples, calculating that they could not, in their present spiritual state, withstand such a blow. 

Jesus adds the comforting words, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (v. 32). Satan has desired to have you, but I have prayed. Satan desires to destroy you, but I have interceded. In verse 31 Jesus speaks of the eleven disciples (“you”), but in verse 32 Jesus focuses on Peter (“thee”—singular), not because Jesus neglected to pray for the other ten, but because Peter will be in the greatest danger, because Peter is especially weak, foolish, and impetuous, and because Peter’s fall will be the greatest. Jesus’ words, therefore, contain a warning and a promise. The prayer of Jesus preserved Peter from certain ruin and final apostasy. Peter did everything to destroy himself, but Jesus did not let Peter go. Satan sought to pluck Peter from Jesus’ hand, but Jesus held tightly to Peter. 

Satan had a malicious purpose, but God’s purpose with the sieve was very different. Satan was an instrument in the hand of the Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God sifted the disciples to purify them, to prove the genuineness of their faith, to strengthen and purify their faith, and to magnify his name. And so it proved to be, for although the disciples fell lamentably, they did not apostatize fully and finally from the faith. Instead, they emerged from Satan’s sieve shaken, humbled, but not destroyed. 

Peter is an example of one who sinfully deviated from the guidance of divine grace, and who by the righteous permission of God fell into great and heinous sins (Canons 5:4). We see this in the narrative. 

Peter reacts to Jesus’ warning foolishly and sinfully. “Lord,” he responds, “I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death” (Luke 22:33). This was the boast of a bold, self-confident, proud, and foolish heart. Peter was not afraid of Satan’s sieve. Others might fall, thought Peter, but not I. Peter felt ready for the trial, whatever it might be. Peter did not need prayers and warnings, he thought. Peter should have fallen to his knees in horror: “Lord, spare me—I am not ready. Lord, please do not allow Satan to sift me—I am so weak that I cannot stand for a moment. Lord, lead me not into temptation, but preserve and strengthen me by the power of thy Holy Spirit” (see Heidelberg Catechism, LD 52). But Peter did, said, and thought none of those things. He walked self-confidently and presumptuously into temptation, and he fell. 

What about you, believing reader? Are you proud, self-confident, and even presumptuous in your attitude to sin and temptation, as Peter was? Do not say, “I can handle any temptation: I can stand—I don't need prayer, I don't need the Holy Spirit to strengthen me. Other church members might need to pray, they might need the sixth petition, but I do not.” Do not even say, “The Holy Spirit is always with me. Therefore, he will strengthen me even without prayer” (see Heidelberg Catechism, LD 45). If that is your attitude, God will humble you by leading you into temptation so that you learn to know your weakness. If that is your attitude, expect to be shaken violently in Satan’s sieve to shake the pride out of you. Your pride will come to the surface in Satan’s sieve, and God will beat it out of you as chaff is beaten out of the wheat.

Thus we see why Peter fell.

First, Peter did not know his weakness: “I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death” (Luke 22:33). Are you really, Peter? Peter was sincere enough: his zeal cannot be questioned, but he did not know his own heart. Jesus corrects him: “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (v. 34). But Peter did not believe Jesus. 

Second, Peter underestimated the enemy: he did not appreciate how powerful Satan is, and he did not heed the warning. Satan, the one who toppled holy Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; Satan the one who moved David to number the people; Satan who tempted Job and plunged him into miserable poverty, wretched disease, and devastating bereavement, that Satan now has eyes on you, Peter! How will you stand? 

Third, Peter ignored the warnings. Jesus warned him about being “sifted.” Peter dismissed it. Jesus spoke of Peter’s faith almost failing, where the word is eclipsed, which suggests that Peter’s faith would be so attacked that it would almost go out, as the sun is eclipsed. Peter ignored it. Jesus spoke of Peter being converted, where the word is “turned about,” which suggests that Peter would have to be restored to the right path, from which he would deviate for a time. Peter dismissed it. Jesus urged his disciples to pray, “Pray that ye enter not into temptation” (Luke 22:40). Peter and his fellow disciples fell asleep: they did not pray. Finally, when Jesus was arrested, Jesus gave his disciples a way to escape, saying to the men who accompanied Judas Iscariot, “I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way” (John 18:8), but Peter gave no heed. Instead, he attacked the servant of the high priest with the sword in a foolhardy attempt to save Jesus, and having failed, Peter followed Jesus afar off. 

Fourth, Peter not only did not pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” but he deliberately walked into temptation. John tells us how Peter gained admittance to the high priest’s palace (John 18:16). Why did he go and what did he expect to achieve? Jesus had told him repeatedly that he was determined to die, and Jesus certainly could have prevented his arrest if that had been the Father’s will, but Peter refused to accept the Father’s will: he placed himself in harm’s way. Peter then sat in the midst of coarse, ungodly men near a fire: these were the men who had been with the company that had arrested Jesus. Some of them had been in the Garden of Gethsemane. They were not friends of Jesus. Peter did not spend that night in the company of fellow believers, but he sat with the ungodly. Thus he entered into—he even ran into—temptation. 

But Peter was recognized. As the men waited for the outcome of Jesus’ trial, chattering about the man whom they had arrested, undoubtedly abusing him with their blasphemous tongues, Peter approached the fire for heat. A woman saw his face in the firelight, and she exclaimed, “This man was also with him” (Luke 22:56). Peter panicked: “Woman, I know him not” (v. 57). How easy it is for us to do what Peter did: we sit with the ungodly, listening for a time to their godless chatter, their crude jokes, or their blasphemous words. Suddenly, the conversation reaches a lull, and we are recognized: “You are a Christian, are you not—what do you think about these things?” or “What are you doing here—I thought you were a Christian?” And then we are tempted to say nothing, or, worse, to say, “I am not a Christian,” out of fear of the disapproval of the ungodly. 

Perhaps you say, “I am strong enough to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, and to stand in the way of sinners, and to sit in the seat of the scornful. I will still confess Christ in that atmosphere.” Really—are you stronger than Peter? Peter denied him. 

In fact, Peter denied Jesus three times, with increasing vehemence, as panic and fear increased within him, until finally he swore that he did not know his Lord. “He denied it with an oath” (Matt. 26:72). He swore on the holy name of God, the God who searches the hearts of men and punishes liars, that he did not know Jesus of Nazareth, thus breaking the ninth and the third commandments of God’s law. Finally, when Peter’s Galilean accent betrayed him and a relative of the high priest’s servant, Malchus, whose ear Peter had cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane, identified him, Peter knew only one way of escape: emphatic denial: “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man” (Matt. 26:74). Picture the scene: terrified Peter cries out, swearing by God’s name, calling God to curse him if he is lying, “I do not know him. You have the wrong man. I am not a follower of this Jesus. I have nothing to do with him.” 

While the curses were still in Peter’s mouth, two things happened. First, the cock crowed (v. 60). Morning had come. “Cock-a-doodle-do!” To everyone else the cock’s crow was normal; it had no particular significance. It happens every morning. But that sound pierced Peter’s soul: it meant something to him, for had Jesus not mentioned the crowing of a cockerel in his warning to Peter? Second, “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter” (Luke 22:61). It appears that, while Peter waited in the courtyard, Jesus the prisoner was transferred from one place to another within the palace. Perhaps Jesus looked down upon the courtyard below, and saw his distressed disciple, and Peter looked up and saw Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was brought through the courtyard. We cannot tell. One thing we do know is that their eyes met, for a brief moment. Jesus did nothing to draw attention to Peter: he did not endanger Peter’s life; he did not publicly rebuke or reprove Peter. He looked at him silently: his look was a look of reproof, a look of disapproval, and a look of wounded love. It was also a look that filled Peter’s soul with bitter sorrow and shame: “And Peter remembered” (v. 61). He remembered what Jesus had said. He remembered his own proud boast. He remembered Jesus’ words about his future denial and the crowing of the cockerel. 

The Canons explain what happened to Peter. He was not “so influenced and actuated by the Spirit of God, as not [in that particular instance] sinfully to deviate from the guidance of divine grace” (Canons 5:4). Was that the fault of the grace of God? That was the Arminian slander at Dordt, but the Reformed fathers vehemently repudiated the slander. The sin was Peter’s fault, as we have abundantly demonstrated. 

When we sin, we must not say, “Oh, I sinned because I was not so influenced and actuated by the grace of God. Therefore, my sin is justified.” God forbid that we should say that! When we sin, we must say, “I sinned because I sinfully deviated from the guidance of divine grace. I sinned because I was seduced by, and I complied with, the lusts of the flesh. I sinned because I neglected to watch and to pray that I might not be led into temptation. Therefore, I am guilty of sin, and I deserve the consequences of sin. In fact, I deserve to perish, and I would perish, but for the pardoning mercy and the rich grace of God.” 

It is to the consequences of sin that we turn next time, God willing.


Next: Peter (2): Losing the Sense of God’s Favor for a Time

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