Peter (2): Losing the Sense of God’s Favor for a Time
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the second entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Martyn McGeown. The first entry is Peter (1): Sinfully Deviating From the Guidance of Divine Grace.
When we last studied the example of Peter, we heard him with oaths and curses in his mouth, denying the very Lord that loved him (Matt. 26:74). We found him among the ungodly, among sinners, and among the scornful, far away from the blessed way of Psalm 1. Yet the Lord did not leave him there, for the Lord is merciful: “I have prayed for thee, Simon,” he said, “that thy faith fail not” (see Luke 22:32). Notice that Jesus did not pray to keep Peter out of the sieve in which Satan desired to sift him (that request of Satan, like the request to afflict righteous Job, was granted); nor did Jesus pray that Peter would not sin (Peter did sin—and lamentably), but Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, where the Greek verb refers to the eclipse of the sun. Jesus’ prayer preserved Peter from final ruin, but it did not spare him severe chastisement and the miserable consequences of sin.
Indeed, before God mercifully restored Peter, and before he could strengthen his brethren, Peter had to experience the bitter consequences of sin. In the courtyard of Caiaphas Peter walked the dark way of sin and chastisement. His own foolishness and presumption made such a hard way necessary for him. Had Peter heeded the warnings, and had he sought grace in the way of prayer, he would not have passed through that hard way (he would have perhaps cowered behind closed doors with the other disciples, who did not so publicly deny Jesus), but just as stubborn children require many heavy blows with the rod, so Peter had to learn what was really in him, so that he would not be so presumptuous in the future. It was a painful lesson administered in mercy, severe mercy.
Last time we examined in detail the reason for Peter’s fall, noting from the Canons that Peter was not “so influenced and actuated by the Spirit of God, as not… sinfully to deviate from the guidance of divine grace” (Canons 5:4). In this blog post, we study more closely the sharp warning about the dreadful consequences of such falls. I am unaware of a sharper warning in any Reformed confession than the one found here in Canons 5:5. Let us examine the clauses of that article, applying each of them to Peter.
Peter “very highly offended God” when he cursed and swore that he did not know Jesus. Sin offends God, for sin is the transgression of his law. The sin of God’s children very highly offends him, for they sin against better knowledge and against God’s grace. Therefore, God did not smile approvingly on Peter when he denied the Lord. God was “terribly displeased” (see Heidelberg Catechism, LD 4, A 10). Peter “incurred a deadly guilt” when he sinned so lamentably and so deliberately in the courtyard of the high priest. God viewed him as guilty, and Peter knew himself to be guilty: God did not testify to Peter’s conscience the forgiveness of sins. Peter “grieved the Holy Spirit” when he denied Jesus his Lord, and the grieved Spirit grieved Peter’s soul by departing from Peter, so that he felt that God was far from him. Peter “interrupted the exercise of faith” when he denied Jesus with oaths and curses, for at that moment he was not consciously trusting in Jesus Christ, whom he vehemently denied. Peter “very grievously wounded his conscience” when he broke the third and ninth commandments out of fear of man. And Peter “lost the sense of God’s favour,” so that “the light of God’s fatherly countenance” did not “shine upon” him (see Canons 5:5).
Of course! The light of God’s fatherly countenance did not shine upon Peter while he cried, “I swear by all that is good and holy that I do not know Jesus Christ.” God did not approve of Peter or give him a good conscience that everything was well with his soul while he insisted with great vehemence, “If I know this Jesus of Nazareth, may God curse me!” Oh, no, make no mistake about it—as far as Peter’s conscious life was concerned, Peter was guilty. As far as Peter’s conscious life was concerned, Peter did not know the forgiveness of sins, the blessedness of fellowship with God, and the assurance of eternal life. At that very moment Peter was not exercising faith in Jesus Christ—he had repudiated it.
Peter’s experience is not unique. Every child of God feels guilty when he sins. Every child of God offends God when he sins. Every child of God grieves the Holy Spirit when he persists in sin. Every child of God grievously wounds his conscience when he walks in impenitence. And sometimes, especially when the fall is deep, the child of God loses the sense of God’s favour for a time. The Canons do not teach that our assurance is unaffected by our sins. Quite the opposite.
When a professing Christian, even a professing Reformed, even a professing Protestant Reformed, husband (and may God graciously forbid it) lifts his hand to beat his trembling wife, he does not, and he cannot experience, the favour of God. God’s face does not shine benignly upon an abusive husband, even if he has memorized Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics. Such an abusive husband is a monster among men, and must know that God’s wrath is upon him so long as he does not repent, even if he attends church religiously every Sunday and gives generously to the benevolence fund and the mission work of the churches. Shall he live in gross violation of the sixth commandment, hating his closest neighbour, and expect the fatherly countenance of God to shine upon him?
When a professing Christian is in bed with another woman than his wife, as David was in bed with Bathsheba, and when he urges his paramour to murder the unborn child conceived in that sinful act, lest their adulterous liaison become public, the Spirit, who is grieved, does not witness with the spirit of that man that he is a child of God. Such a man interrupts the exercise of faith, he incurs a deadly guilt, and he very highly offends God. Or to use the language of the Psalms, his bones wax old through his roaring, God’s hand is heavy upon him, God turns his moisture into the drought of summer, and he loses the joy of salvation (Ps. 32:3-4; 51:12). So long as that man refuses to acknowledge his sin and break it off with repentance, he does not walk in fellowship with God, for God is light, and that man walks in darkness, even if outwardly he appears to be a fine, upstanding member of a Reformed congregation (1 John 1:5-7).
When a professing Christian (O, the depth of depravity!) does unspeakable things to little children, things that warrant a lengthy prison sentence, things that destroy little children (Oh, it were better for him to have a millstone wrapped around his wretched neck and he cast into the depths of the sea!), shall he say, because he is a professing Christian, and because he believes the fifth point of Calvinism, that his experience of fellowship with God cannot be interrupted? Shall he deny Canons 5:5 and say, as the wicked Jews of Jeremiah’s day (I paraphrase), “The Reformed faith, the unconditional covenant, Calvinism are these”? Shall such a man argue, “We are delivered to do these abominations” (see Jeremiah 7:4, 10)? Shall such a man say, “Because I am a Christian, and my sins are forgiven—past, present, and future—and because the covenant is unconditional, I can never lose the sense of the favour of God”?
I assume for the sake of these illustrations that all of the examples above are true believers (not hypocritical reprobates). If that is so, then those people (the adulterer and murderer, the abusive husband, and the child abuser) are God’s beloved children. Do not misunderstand me—I am not arguing that all adulterers, murderers, and abusers are God’s children who have fallen into very grievous sins. Very few people who walk in such sins are God’s children, and if they are impenitent they do not experience God’s favour. Those who continue in their sins, and never repent, show that they are not God's children: they perish everlastingly. I am illustrating the effect of lamentable falls upon the conscious life of the child of God, and using extreme examples to do so. And remember, too, that David, Samson, Peter, and others, were true children of God, and that they were guilty of such lamentable sins, although no believer in Scripture is ever mentioned as guilty of child abuse.
Therefore, such people as described in my examples above are the objects of God’s everlasting, unchangeable mercy. They were chosen in the decree of eternal, unchangeable, sovereign, unconditional election. From that decree all the blessings of salvation flow to them. Therefore, at the very moment when Peter was denying Jesus with oaths and curses, Jesus loved him, and God’s everlasting mercy was upon him. At the very moment when David lay in bed with Bathsheba, God loved him, and God’s everlasting mercy was upon him. As David’s quill pen scribbled out the death warrant for Uriah the Hittite, God loved him, and God’s everlasting mercy was upon him. When Samson betrayed his secret to Delilah in her boudoir, God loved him, and God’s everlasting mercy was upon him. And when the three men above, the adulterer, the abusive husband, and the child molester (assuming, again, I repeat it, that they are genuinely elect children of God and not hypocrites), perpetrated their wickedness, God loved them, and his everlasting mercy was upon them.
But not as far as their conscious life was concerned!
Allow me to make another illustration. A father in the church has a son, whom he loves dearly. That son is a model student, kind to his siblings, respectful to his parents, and a leading member of the young people’s society. Unbeknownst to that father, however, his son has been going to parties at weekends, where alcohol flows freely. One evening, a call comes through from the police station, “Sir, we have arrested your son for driving under the influence of alcohol. We are holding him at the County Jail.” After the initial shock, the father gets in his car and drives to the jail, where he finds his son. Does he smile benignly upon his still inebriated son—“Well done, son, your mother and I are so proud of you”? Of course, he doesn’t! Instead, through tears of disappointment and pity for the predicament into which his son has brought himself by his foolish, sinful, and now criminal, behaviour, he scolds his son—“How could you do something so stupid? Your mother is heartbroken. Your brothers and sisters are ashamed. Do you realise the shame you have brought upon the family? Do you know what you have done, what this means for you and your future?”
That father not for a moment hates his son, but he is angry, righteously angry, and he makes his son know it and feel it. Perhaps he leaves his son, returns him to the custody of the jail, and even refuses for a number of days to pay his son’s bail, so that his son has time to think about what he has done. Perhaps his son begs him to stay, to bring him home, but he turns his back on his son, knowing that his son must learn a hard lesson. For a time, until his heart is broken in true repentance, he does not know, experience, or enjoy his father’s fellowship.
If that son sitting in his jail cell could see, he would observe his father, his mother, and his siblings gathered around the dinner table, and through sobs praying for that wretched young man, praying that God would break that young man’s heart through hard chastisement, that by God’s grace he might bring forth fruits of repentance.
Or consider Samson. Samson’s eyes were full of adultery and he could not cease from sin. God used the Philistines to put out his eyes. Samson roamed freely around the lands of Israel and Philistia, loitering in Gaza, picking up harlots (Judg. 16:1), and cavorting with Delilah (Judg. 16:4ff.), but God stopped him in his tracks. God used the Philistines to imprison him, so that he was fettered in brass and, like a lowly ox, he ground corn in the prison house. While he was under God’s heavy hand of chastisement Samson did not know fellowship with God. Instead, Samson “incurred a deadly guilt, grieved the Holy Spirit, interrupted the exercise of faith, very grievously wounded his conscience, and lost the sense of God’s favour, so that the light of God’s fatherly countenance did not shine upon him” (see again Canons 5:5).
Oh, the bitterness of sin! Oh, the misery of a guilty conscience! Oh, the misery of one who grieves the Holy Spirit! Do not provoke the Lord to chastise you, for he has many instruments with which to bring you to repentance and he knows exactly which rod to use to break your stubborn heart. Unlike an earthly father, he does not sob helplessly while his children go on in sin, but neither does he smile benignly. Instead, in love he applies the rod to bring us to repentance. And yet he never applies that rod, painful as it is, in his hatred, but always and only in his love. If you want to call the blows from the Father’s rod the experience of the Father’s favour and fellowship, the Canons do not: they call it the loss of the sense of God’s favour (Canons 5:5), which is “more bitter than death” (Canons 5:13).
Peter fell. Peter fell lamentably. But Peter did not fall beyond the power of God’s grace to restore him.
We consider the mercy of God next time, God willing.