Peter (4): “Much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord”
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the fourth entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Martyn McGeown. The third entry is Peter (3): Certainly and Effectually Renewed to Repentance.
In our last three blog posts we have been studying Peter as a kind of commentary on some parts of the Fifth Head of the Canons of Dordt. Peter fell deeply and lamentably (Canons 5:4). Peter experienced the bitterness of divine chastisement (Canons 5:5). By God’s grace Peter returned into the right way of serious repentance (Canons 5:5). The light of God’s countenance shone upon Peter again (Canons 5:5). This was to be expected because of Jesus’ prayer: Jesus had warned Peter, as we saw in the first blog post in this series, which warning Peter did not heed: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). Jesus had added, “But I have prayed for thee [singular: especially for Peter], that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (v. 32). That effectual prayer of the Savior preserved Peter from final ruin.
Peter could relate to Asaph, whose “feet were almost gone;” and whose “steps had well nigh slipped” (Ps. 73:2). Peter’s faith had almost failed, almost eclipsed like the sun. But for God’s grace and Jesus’ prayer Peter’s faith would have failed: it would have been utterly extinguished by the powers of darkness. But Jesus had, by his grace, held Peter up, so that he did not “plunge [himself] into everlasting destruction” (Canons 5:7).
That is the power of God’s sovereign, irresistible grace in the life of a child of God who, because he sinfully deviates from the guidance of divine grace, suffers a lamentable fall (Canons 5:4). As Jesus promised, Peter was “converted,” and part of the purpose, and certainly the fruit, of that conversion was that Peter “strengthened his brethren.” Peter, humbled by his experience, was now much more teachable and prepared to be a teacher of poor sinners like himself. Proud, presumptuous Peter would have been a poor instructor in the church, but humbled Peter, having passed through the trial of his faith, was now equipped to teach sinners God’s ways. Having wept bitterly over his own sins, Peter was comforted with a renewed sense of God’s favor. How meaningful were Jesus’ words to the women on the resurrection morn: “Tell his disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7)! Jesus had not forgotten Peter; yet, he categorizes him separately from the disciples: the disciples, and Peter. Only after a threefold confession, “Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee,” is Peter fully restored to his office as a disciple, an apostle, and, therefore, authorized to be a teacher of Christ’s sheep and lambs. A proud, presumptuous man cannot feed the flock. A man who can say, and mean it from the heart because he knows the bitterness of sin and the sweetness of pardon, “I am not meet [not worthy] to be called an apostle” (see 1 Cor. 15:10), is equipped by God’s grace to feed Christ’s sheep and lambs. Peter could now say, after his experience of God’s chastisement, “I am not worthy to be called an apostle because I denied my Lord, but by the grace of God I am what I am,” thus echoing his fellow apostle Paul.
Peter was changed, forever changed. Some of the Puritans were wont to say that Peter could never again hear a rooster crowing without weeping, for it reminded him of his shameful denial of his Lord. Whether that is true or not, Peter was permanently humbled. Yes, he continued to be bold and courageous (even more so after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit); but he was no longer brash, boastful, and self-confident. Similar things might be said about Paul, the former persecutor of the church: he never forgot his shameful past, the thought of which humbled him into the dust; and he never tired of preaching God's gracious salvation, which filled him with inexpressible joy and gratitude.
The Canons describe how recovery from a melancholy fall, such as Peter’s melancholy fall, affects the future attitude and behavior of a child of God. In Canons 5:7 we read that, after God “certainly and effectually renews them to repentance,” the formerly backslidden saints “henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling,” a reference to Philippians 2:12. Before their melancholy fall they had been working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Not working for their salvation, of course; but working out what God had worked into them by his grace, and actively living the Christian life, as God worked in them “both the [willing] and the [doing] of his good pleasure” (v. 13). But they, as Peter had done, had sinfully deviated from the guidance of divine grace and had been seduced by and complied with the lusts of the flesh (Canons 5:4): they had stopped, therefore, working out their own salvation.
The seed of their salvation remains, of course, since it is incorruptible (Canons 5:7; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 John 3:9), but by walking in disobedience they brought down upon themselves God’s chastening hand and holy displeasure. Finally, restored by divine grace, and certainly and effectually renewed to repentance, they “henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” Were they diligent before they were seduced by the lusts of the flesh? Having been restored, they are more diligent, not less.
Grace does not make a man passive. Grace makes a man diligent. When a child of God is graciously restored from melancholy falls and delivered from enormous sins, the result is not presumption, as if the child of God thinks that he can walk in the same sins again without God’s chastisement, but even more diligence: “more diligently.” And if he does again become presumptuous, such a child of God is simply provoking God to increase the blows of his rod, so that he “falls[s] into more grievous torments of conscience” (Canons 5:13). Who can contemplate that without trembling?
Canons 5:13 applies this truth to “those who are recovering from backsliding.” Such recovering souls have a “renewed confidence of persevering.” By God’s grace “they arrive at the certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the church, and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life” (Canons 5:9). What a wonderful “benefit” of salvation is “this certainty of persevering” (Canons 5:12)! It is “the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God” (Canons 5:12). Indeed, “the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive [Latin: stimulus, which means a goad, a prick, that is, something that spurs someone on to do something] to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works” (Canons 5:12). Are you languid in the pursuit of good works? This benefit, the certainty of perseverance, should, and by God’s grace does, spur you on to do good works. Canons 5:13 describes the former, but now recovered, backslider’s attitude to godliness: “it [the renewed confidence of persevering] renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord.” One who is solicitous has interest in, or concern for, something; he is eager, even anxious, to do something. The recovered backslider has much greater concern about keeping the ways of the Lord, is much more careful to walk in good works, and is much more wary about sin and temptation than he was before. Once bitten, twice shy!
That is certainly true of Peter. Cowardly Peter in Caiaphas’ court becomes bold Peter, preaching repentance and conversion to hostile audiences of unbelieving Jews. Peter withstands the Sanhedrin and high priest, the very men who condemned the Lord Jesus to death and pressured Pontius Pilate into authorizing his crucifixion. Or turn to Peter’s two epistles, filled with exhortations to godly living. “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Peter 1:13-15). “Dearly beloved, I beseech you, as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (2:11). “The time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked [in a host of sins]” (4:3). “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (5:6). “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (5:8-9).
Is Peter not speaking from experience? Come, listen to me, beloved: I have experienced the battle with fleshly lusts. I underestimated them and they overcame me. Be warned by my example and seek the grace that I presumptuously refused to seek, lest you, too, suffer similar humiliating falls (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 116; 127). Learn from me, beloved: I was neither sober nor vigilant, and the devil had nearly swallowed me whole, but for the grace of my Savior who delivered me from between his teeth. I did not take heed. I thought I could stand. Learn from my folly.
Peter’s second epistle, if anything, is even more hortatory. In the first chapter he urges his readers to “add to” (or to fit out or to furnish) their faith. They should do this with various spiritual graces and virtues: “virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity” (2 Pet. 1:5-7). They are to do this diligently: “giving all diligence” (v. 5). Connected to this, he urges them to “give diligence [there’s that word again!] to make [their] calling and election sure” (v. 10). Peter’s purpose in writing the second epistle is that he “not be negligent to put [them] always in remembrance of these things” (v. 12) because it is meet (appropriate) for the apostle to “stir [them] up by putting [them] in remembrance” (v. 13). The second and third chapters contain warnings against ungodliness and exhortations to godliness: “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?” (3:11). “Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (3:14). “Beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever. Amen” (3:18).
David, too, becomes a teacher. In the midst of spiritual agonies caused by his melancholy fall into adultery and murder, he cries out, “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit” (Ps. 51:11-12). Notice, by the way, these entreaties are the fruit of the gospel in him: Nathan the prophet has already confronted him and announced pardon to him (2 Sam. 12:13). Yet, his emotional state is not one of serene confidence in the pardon of his sins. He is still struggling. In the midst of his spiritual struggles, he makes this promise to God: “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways: and sinners shall be converted unto thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness” (Ps. 51:13-14).
Assurance and the experience of salvation cannot be turned on and off like a light switch: there is a struggle between David’s assurance of pardon and his consciousness of his sins. We might like a linear (straight-line) experience of assurance: first, we hear the gospel; then, we embrace the gospel by faith; then, we immediately enjoy assurance. That was not David’s experience: David heard the gospel; David struggled with all kinds of conflicting emotions (“Have mercy upon me;” “Blot out my transgressions;” “Purge me;” “Make me to hear joy and gladness;” “Create in me a clean heart;” “Cast me not away; “Restore unto me; “Deliver me;” etc.); and at length David came to the assurance of his salvation again. If we could listen to Peter, we might hear similar language through his sobs: “O Lord, forgive me; O Lord, cleanse me; O Lord, do not forsake me; O Lord, what have I done? O Lord, cast me not away.”
Only after David has passed through the experiences described in Psalm 51 does he reach the mature reflection of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v. 1). Only then can he write to those who walk in sin, or who are tempted to do so, “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee. Many sorrows shall be to the wicked: but he that trusteth in the LORD, mercy shall compass him about” (vv. 8-10).
After his lamentable fall and gracious recovery Peter was more careful and solicitous to walk in the ways of the Lord. In this way, as God ordained, Peter “maintained an assurance of persevering” (Canons 5:13). To that we turn next time, God willing.