Peter (3): Certainly and Effectually Renewed to Repentance
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the third entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Martyn McGeown. The second entry is Peter (2): Losing the Sense of God’s Favor for a Time.
In recent blog posts we have been studying Peter as an example of one who “sinfully deviated from the guidance of divine grace” (Canons 5:4), so that he “lost the sense of God’s favor for a time” (Canons 5:5). As far as Peter was concerned, he had broken fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. He had plunged himself into deadly guilt. He was guilty and knew that he was guilty. As far as Peter’s consciousness was concerned, he had no sense of the Father’s mercy or of the Savior's love.
Peter provoked God to anger, as a disobedient child provokes a long-suffering parent. God withdrew his Spirit from Peter, but not wholly or completely, for “God preserved in him the incorruptible seed of regeneration” (Canons 5:7). In other words, Peter lost the sense of God’s favor, and the grieved Spirit withdrew from him, so that for a time he did not testify to Peter that he was a child of God. What a miserable experience to feel the hot displeasure of his offended, heavenly Father!
But Peter did not become unregenerate or return to that state of being “dead in sins” from which God had quickened him (Eph. 2:1-3). Peter dared God by his sins to disown him, but God with a heart full of pity did not tear up his adoption papers (since those papers are sealed with Christ’s blood): he did not send Peter back to the devil, whose son he was by nature. Peter incurred a deadly guilt in his own conscience, but God did not reverse his verdict of justification in heaven. Peter danced, as it were, on the very precipice of hell, but God did not permit him to fall into the pit or thrust him headlong into it. Contrast that with Judas Iscariot, who never knew the love of God, the grace of Christ, or the blessing of the Spirit. Therefore, when the traitor fell, even though he knew some remorse, he experienced despair, and by hanging himself he precipitated himself into the flames of hell. Peter deserved the miserable end of Judas, but God would not permit it, for “God’s counsel (with respect to Peter) [could] not be changed, nor his promise (to Peter) fail, neither [could] the call according to his purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated” (Canons 5:8).
God’s love never changed. That love followed Peter into the high priest’s courtyard, but the God of that love never approved, but abhorred, what Peter did. God is very highly offended and the Spirit is grieved, and the sinner who is thus guilty knows it. God makes sure that he knows it. God withdraws his gracious countenance, and God in holy anger chastises his disobedient child. And yet, say the Canons, such disobedient Christians can only go so far: God does not “wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit,” permit them to “lose the grace of adoption” or to “forfeit the state of justification,'' or to “commit the sin unto death.” Moreover, God does not “totally desert” them or permit them to “plunge themselves into everlasting destruction” (Canons 5:6).
Something, therefore, happened to prevent Peter’s perdition, which “with respect to [Peter] [was] not only possible, but would undoubtedly [have happened]” (Canons 5:8). God worked in Peter the grace of repentance. Or God granted Peter the gift of repentance. Or Peter repented. Those three statements amount to the same thing. Two of them emphasize the activity of God in working, granting, giving, or conferring repentance, while the third emphasizes the activity of Peter who repented. “Man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received” (Canons 3-4.12).
Canons 5:5 explains, “[They] sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.” Whose returning? Not God’s returning, but their returning. Whose returning? Not Christ’s returning, but Peter’s returning. When is the sense of God’s favor restored? Not before they repent, but on their repenting. The Canons use the word “until.” God withholds, as chastisement, a sense of his favor from his sinning children until they repent.
Thus, Canons 5:5 emphasizes repentance as an activity of man.
Canons 5:7 emphasize the gift of God. “He (God) preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration … He (God) effectually renews them to repentance.” God worked repentance in Peter. God granted or gave repentance to Peter. God conferred repentance on Peter. What is the purpose of such a gracious work of God? “That (so that) they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator.” Who seeks and obtains forgiveness of sins? Not God! He grants the grace to seek and obtain. The returning, repenting, sorrowful, heart-smitten sinner seeks and obtains remission of sins. Peter, the returning, repenting, sorrowful, heart-smitten, bitterly weeping Peter, he sought and obtained the remission of sins. How did he seek and obtain it? In the way of his repentance. Not before he repented, which would be absurd and would make Peter’s repentance unnecessary, but after he repented. Where did he seek and obtain it? Not in his repentance, as if repentance were the ground of his forgiveness, or the condition on which the forgiveness of his sins depended, but “in the blood of the Mediator.” What is the purpose of such repentance, worked in the sinner by the grace of God? Answer: “That (so that) [he] may again experience the favor of a reconciled God.” Is it possible to experience again the favor of a reconciled God without repentance? Of course not. Listen to Canons 5:7 again: “[God] … effectually renews [the formerly impenitent believer] to repentance …. SO THAT [he] may seek and obtain remission… SO THAT [he] may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore his mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.”
There is, therefore, an order, a divinely-determined order: first, God works in the child of God sorrow over sin and true repentance (he does so “certainly and effectually” and “by his Word and Spirit”); second, by virtue of God’s gracious work, the child of God repents (he turns in true sorrow from his sin, “returning into the right way of serious repentance,” which includes “a sincere and godly sorrow for [his] sins”); and third, God restores to the child of God “the light of [his] fatherly countenance” so that he “[experiences] the favor of a reconciled God.” Such was the experience of Peter: “And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out and wept bitterly” (Matt. 27:75); “And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered… And Peter went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62). Bitter weeping, which God worked in Peter’s heart through the word remembered and by the operation of the Spirit, was necessary before Peter knew again the shining of the light of God’s countenance upon him.
To return to the last blog post, the child of God (assuming now, as I said, that the sinner in question is a child of God and not a reprobate hypocrite, who never experiences God's fellowship) does not experience God’s fellowship while he persists in adultery or in the abuse of his spouse or children. He only experiences God’s fellowship again when he “returns into the right way of serious repentance.” Saying, or pretending, that he is sorry while he continues to walk in his sins is not “the right way of serious repentance.” Even bitter tears without a changed heart and life are not “the right way of serious repentance.” “Godly repentance worketh repentance unto salvation not to be repented of, but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
Let others say, “The Lord never withdrew the sense of his favor from Peter.” The Canons contradict him. Let others say, “The Lord restored to Peter the sense of his favor before Peter repented.” The Canons contradict him. Let others complain, “You make Peter’s experience of covenant fellowship conditional on Peter’s activity!” I deny it, and I respond, “Either do justice to the Canons use of ‘until’ or stop pretending to believe the Canons of Dordt.” That God determined that Peter’s activity of repentance occurred before he restored to Peter the experience of his favor does not make it a condition for the same.
The Canons ascribe the whole glory of salvation to God without denying that faith and repentance are activities of the child of God. In Canons 5:8, immediately after explaining that God preserves his child in his salvation by working in him repentance, which repentance is his activity (not God’s activity), and which activity (the believer’s activity of turning in sorrow from sin) precedes God’s activity of restoring to him a sense of his favor, we read, “Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings.” Notice that: Peter’s repentance is not to be attributed to Peter’s merits or strength. Why not? Did not Peter repent? He did, but he did so only by virtue of the grace of God. To paraphrase Acts 11:18: “Then hath God also to Peter granted repentance unto life!” Had God not granted Peter repentance, Peter would have been hardened in his sins, and Peter would have perished. Notice that repentance precedes life in Acts 11:18 (“repentance unto life”): not the life of regeneration, which is always first, but the life of the conscious knowledge of the forgiveness of sins.
Repentance also precedes the reception of certain benefits of salvation in Acts 3:19, words preached incidentally by Peter himself, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins might be blotted out.” Obviously repentance does not blot out our sins (only the blood of Jesus does that), but without repentance no man can have the conscious knowledge and assurance that his sins are blotted out. God does not blot out the sins of the impenitent no matter how orthodox they claim to be.
Peter’s experience is by no means unique. Every backsliding believer can testify to a similar experience. If Peter is the classic New Testament example, surely David is the classic Old Testament example. David fell lamentably into the gross sins of adultery and murder and he walked in impenitence for a considerable period of time. In Psalm 32 he reflects upon that time. When David writes, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring… thy hand was heavy upon me” (vv. 3-4), he describes a time when he experienced neither justification nor sanctification. He experienced only guilt, shame, and misery, and, worse than that, he did not want to repent, which only prolonged his misery and provoked God to increase his chastisement. And as long as David refused to repent, as long as he refused to confess and forsake his sin, the blessedness of the experience of fellowship with God was denied to him. David very highly offended God, he incurred a deadly guilt, he grieved the Holy Spirit, he interrupted the exercise of faith, he very grievously wounded his conscience, and he lost the sense of God’s favor for a time (Canons 5:5).
For many months David would not, and could not, repent. And such he would have remained but for the grace of God. Then the Spirit of grace worked in David: he stirred up David to see his sin, to hate his sin, and to turn from his sin. And as David did so, he began to seek God’s mercy, impelled to do so by the Spirit of grace. A child of God, who has long lived in sin, only begins to seek God again when the Spirit works. Of his own initiative, he would never do that. Without the power of grace, he would languish in misery.
When the Spirit impels the child of God to seek God afresh, the Spirit always brings two truths before his conscience: the reality of sin and the mercy of God. The reality of sin brings shame and misery, and the reality of mercy gives hope. Without the knowledge of sin, we would never feel the need to seek God. Without the knowledge of mercy, we would never dare to seek God. David knew God to be just (therefore, he trembled because of his sin). David also knew God to be merciful (therefore, he sought him for both justification and sanctification).
Instrumental in David’s restoration is Nathan the prophet. The scene is thrilling: a hardened king and a bold prophet; a tale of injustice and an indignant king; and finally a stunning denunciation and a heartbroken king. The result of Nathan’s interview with King David is Psalm 51, a song full of earnest entreaties. David, who had been asleep spiritually, is now awake. Who awakened him? The Spirit of God did! How did the Spirit awaken him? He used the preaching of Nathan to impress upon him the seriousness of his sin and the mercy of God. Notice Nathan’s sermon: “Thou art the man… thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword and hast taken his wife to be thy wife” (2 Sam. 12: 7, 10). What is the fruit of this awakening? David’s repentance. Notice David’s confession: “I have sinned against the Lord” (v. 13). And notice Nathan’s promise (you might call it Nathan’s proclamation of the gospel, the good news, to David): “The Lord also hath put away thy sin: thou shalt not die” (v. 13). If Nathan had not assured David of the mercy of God, David would have been in despair. In response to that gospel, David, who after his confession still feels guilty and ashamed, prays the words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy upon me…Wash me…Purge me…Make me to hear joy and gladness…Deliver me.” And notice especially verse 12: “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” Restore, O merciful Jehovah, what thou hast taken away from me: restore the joy that I once had in thee. Do it, O faithful God of the covenant, in thy mercy, in the way of my repentance, which thou hast worked in me!
That’s how the experience of salvation works. We are emotional creatures, not unfeeling blocks of wood. Sin affects our emotions. Sin affects our consciences. Sin is a matter not only of outward activity, but also of the heart. That’s why sin is called uncleanness and filth in the Bible: it makes us feel dirty. That’s why salvation is called cleansing and washing: not only does it make us clean, but it makes us feel clean.
When God forgives, he makes us feel forgiven. When God makes us feel forgiven, we experience the blessedness of justification. When God impresses our sin upon us, we feel the need to be clean. We are not satisfied with justification; we also want to be sanctified. We feel the need to be renewed. Paul puts it in these words: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit. 3:5-6). What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ? It is to be justified, renewed, and sanctified, with the result that, our sins having been forgiven, we begin to live holy, blameless, and obedient lives (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 70).
Peter’s experience under God’s chastening rod changed him: it made him “much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord” (Canons 5:13). To that we turn next time, God willing.