Scripture, particularly the New Testament, often highlights seemingly paradoxical principles. For example, in his second epistle, the apostle Peter informs us that God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” (2 Peter 1:3) Yet, two verses later, the apostle exhorted his readers to “make every effort to add” (2 Peter 1:5, NIV) to their faith a list of godly character traits, thereby implying both that adding those traits is a goal of their faith and that their achievement takes effort. Within the span of two verses, the apostle reminds us of our dependence on God and our responsibility to apply all diligence toward exhibiting the godly life to which he has called us. Similarly, Peter wrote of us having an “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” (1 Peter 1:4), yet tells us to “be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure.” (2 Peter 1:10) If our calling and election can never perish, spoil, or fade, how can we make our election any more sure? The seeming contradiction in those two verses is not an aberration in Scripture, but one of its key principles, namely that “though the power for godly character comes from Christ, the responsibility for developing and displaying that character is ours.” (Bridges, p. 73) Thus, God enables us to be holy as he is holy through his past grace and through his active working in the inner man, but we bear responsibility for acting on his grace and for actuating the power he provides us. For this reason, we can (and should) give God all glory and honor for any good we possess or do, yet are held accountable for our iniquities (Mt 12:36). The epistles of Peter convincingly support Bridges principle, while at the same time revealing to us both why it takes every effort to live such holy and godly lives and why we ought to expend ourselves so completely in this attempt.
Allen and Mark Black described the principle of complete dependence yet complete responsibility well in The College Press NIV Commentary: 1& 2 Peter when they wrote that “through Jesus God saves and empowers, but Christians must allow him to do so by putting forth effort.” (Black & Black, p. 163) As noted by Bridges in The Practice of Godliness, the apostle Paul wrote both that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39) and that “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor 9:27) Similarly, our Lord and Savior noted both that “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (John 10:28) and that we must “strive to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able.” (Luke 13:24) In each of the above pairs of verses, the promise concerns the eternal life granted to believers in Christ Jesus, a gift that is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), yet a gift for which we are “beat our bodies” to attain. If the gift is so assured that neither trouble nor hardship, persecution nor famine (Rom 8:35), nor anything else in all creation (Rom 8:39) shall separate us from it, then why are we exhorted to make every effort to ensure that we receive it? Peter sums up our motivation well, when he says that “Christ died for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) He died that we might have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade.” (1 Peter 1:4) Death, which has haunted man since the Fall (Gen 3:19), has lost its sting (1 Cor 15:55) through an act of love so astounding that it compels us to act. As Bridges writes, “True grace always produces vigilance rather than complacency.” (p. 267) To remain moribund in the face of such love seems inconceivable, though it is the daily struggle all of us who believe face.
Driven to act, we might still fall astray, though, without proper direction to our actions. The apostle Paul labored mightily so that “he might not be disqualified for the prize.” Above, it was noted that promise for which we ought to exert all effort to attain is eternal life, which, though given as a gift, should not be taken for granted, but should compel us to act. Effort misdirected can, at the very least, make us “ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8) That is why Peter, as do other Biblical authors (e.g., Gal 5:22-23), gives a list of the virtues (faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love) that a believer should possess, and these in increasing measure (2 Peter 1:5-8). As he writes, “if you do these things you will never fall”, but rather “will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:10-11) Peter uses the phrase “never fall”, while Paul speaks of not being “disqualified for the prize”, but the principle is the same. Both writers were concerned with ensuring their election and the salvation of their readers. To them, such assurance required and compelled effort, and the list of virtues provided by Peter in his second epistle gives a list of the qualities for which a believer should strive in his walk with the Christ Jesus. In other words, Peter gives direction to the motive force that drives us onward. We are, as the apostle wrote elsewhere (1 Peter 1:15), to be holy as God is holy and these particular characteristics are representative of those which our Lord possesses.
Given the explicit instruction contained in the above verse and the details regarding what constitutes holiness, it might seem simple, provided the divine motivation (John 3:16) for our right conduct, to evince the qualities God desires. Yet, Peter felt the need to “always remind” his readers ”of these things” even though his readers knew them and were “well established in the truth” (2 Peter 1:12) they had. What was his concern, if they already knew of the divine promises and were grounded both in thought and action concerning them? He wanted to see that his readers would “always be able to remember these things.” (2 Peter 1:15) Was he worried that his audience might forget the lessons he taught much as a man might forget the principles of chemistry he learned as a freshman in college? Or, did he fret that his readers might suffer age-related memory loss and lose the knowledge he had imparted due to simple physical breakdown? No, though, the man who forgets his chemistry lessons typically suffers his forgetfulness for the simple reason that he never put the lessons into practice outside the classroom and the senior who may forget the location of his car keys often remembers those things he holds most dear, the things he spent a lifetime ingraining into his very person. Still, I think Peter’s main concern was the forgetfulness a career-minded man might have regarding his wife’s birthday or his daughter’s dance recital. Rather than suffer a physical loss of memory, or a distance from the things he once remembered, this man forgets the things he knows for the simple reason that something else, such as his work, crowded out the very things that should be most important to him. In the epistles of Peter, the ‘something else’ that might push out the effective knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ from his reader’s minds was, in the first epistle, the rampant persecution that believers’ faced and, in the second epistle, a rapid upsurge in the proliferation of deceptive and destructive heresies that might sway his readers from the truth, thereby making them ‘forget’ the things they once knew. The struggle these believers faced drove the apostle to reinforce these truths he well knew before he “left the tent of this body” (2 Peter 1:13) because he knew that keeping the faith requires a fight, the good fight, as Paul describes it. (2 Tim 4:7)
Thus, given the extreme circumstances his readers faced or might soon face, the epistles of Peter bring the principle that we are both entirely dependent on God yet wholly responsible to live godly lives into sharp relief. In particular, the epistles show the need to stand fast in the true grace of God. (1 Peter 5:12) While on the one hand the first epistle contains a series of imperatives, such as “be self-controlled and alert” (1 Peter 5:8), it also commands us to cast all of our anxiety on God because he cares for us. (1 Peter 5:7) By implication, we could not do one without the other. Peter exhorted his readers to “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering” (1 Peter 2:18) if necessary, but realized that the strength to do so must come from knowing that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree.” (1 Peter 2:24) When Peter enjoined his readers to make every effort to evince the virtues befitting a Christian, he knew that achieving attaining such virtue might come at great cost, for others “think it strange that (we) do not plunge into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse” (1 Peter 4:4) on us for it. To “stand fast” in the midst of grief suffered in “all kinds of trials” such as the ‘peer pressure’ to sink back into a sinful lifestyle as well as the threat of physical suffering, would require every ounce of strength these Christians could muster. Yet, when Peter wrote of his purpose for the epistle, he said that it was to encourage his readers and to testify to the true grace of God. (1 Peter 5:12) An epistle noted mostly for its imperatives and calls to godly living has as its foundational purpose a reminder and testimony to God’s grace.
Similarly, the second epistle of Peter contains a strong exhortation to godliness (2 Peter 1:5-8), followed in chapters 2 and 3 by an extended warning against deceptive heresies, but concludes with a command to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) When combined with 2 Peter 2:3, “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”, the implication is that such knowledge is paramount to both leading a godly life and to repelling the false teachings of those who have turned away from such knowledge.
Yet, the apostle promises in 2 Peter 1:10 that if you add to your faith the virtues listed in 1:5-7, you will never fall. In the context of the epistle, never ‘falling’ clearly implies falling prey to the false teachers and prophets against whom Peter warns so strongly in chapter 2. These false prophets preached licentiousness (2 Peter 2:13) and one of the strongest defenses against their teaching was to hold fast to the Lord’s commands in word and deed; i.e., to live “holy and godly lives.” (2 Peter 3:11) So, while knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ appears to be what enables us to live such holy and godly lives, we are not exempt from exerting effort to ensure that we act on the power he provides. Rather, we are commanded to live lives worthy of the gospel with the terrible promise that if we fail to hold to the teachings handed down to us by the apostles, and which we believed at first, we “are worse off at the end than [we] were at the beginning.” (2 Peter 2:20)
What, though, is the knowledge that shall enable us to live holy and godly lives in the face of “destructive heresies” that are secretly introduced? (2 Peter 2:1) In the context of his second epistle, the knowledge that holds us fast to the faith is our hope of “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13) Indeed, the “very great and precious promises” God gives us provides the motivation for godly living, the wellspring, so to speak, from which our strength to resist false teaching arises, as can be seen in the transitional “For this very reason” of 2 Peter 1:5 that marks the entry into his exhortations to holiness. Also, while the negative reinforcement of not falling if one holds to a godly life is upheld, the positive reinforcement of receiving “a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11) is reiterated. The whole purpose of the epistle, in truth, is to ensure that his readers are not among those who follow the “shameful ways” (2 Peter 2:2) of the false teachers so that they might partake in that rich welcome. Those who received this letter appear to have been suffering doubts regarding that great salvation, due at least in part to the seductive heresy of the false teachers (2 Peter 2:1) and the apostle sought to reinforce their faith by reminding them of things they already knew and were practicing that they might not forget the Lord’s teaching when the false teachers subtly introduce their destructive teaching. As the Lord promises certain destruction to “those who rebelliously follow their sinful desires” (Black and Black, p 187), so he protects those who remain faithful to him and will protect those who are not swayed by the false teachers. Yet, while God provides the means through his great and precious promises of salvation, we must act on those promises.
Thus, the first and second epistles of Peter illustrate the principal noted above that though God provides the power for godly character, we bear responsibility for evincing it. The letters show this by addressing the circumstances of the apostle’s readers. Two of the forces that commonly afflict believers were present in extreme forms for the recipients of these letters, namely that of persecution from without and of corruption from within. Both sets of circumstances threatened to unseat the believers from their firm seating in Christ and were addressed with exhortations to godly living interspersed wisely with reminders of the knowledge that had been passed down to them from those who were eyewitnesses of the glory of Christ. (2 Peter 1:16) Such knowledge is painted as essential to proper outworking of the Christian faith, the very means by which we may have “life and godliness.” (2 Peter 1:3) In the first epistle, Peter includes promises of future glory (1 Peter 5:4), as well as reminders of past actions, (1 Peter 2:21-24) whereas the second epistle focuses on the future glory to be revealed on the day of God (2 Peter 3:12). Comparatively little mention (see, though, 1 Peter 1:2) is made of the present work of the Spirit, such as in Phi 2:13, to enable us for right conduct, but our dependence on God for our salvation and for our present need to live holy and godly lives is present throughout the apostle’s writing.
Also relatively absent from the two epistles is mention of another obstacle to our following the straight way of God, namely our spiritual enemy, Satan. Yet, our ultimate enemy is not forgotten (1 Peter 5:8) and perhaps underlies the struggles believers face. The apostle may imply this by including mention of the devil last, as if saying that he is the one who seeks to “devour” us (1 Peter 5:8) through the means listed previously. Nevertheless, when Peter enjoins us to “resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9), he likely is suggesting that we resist him by standing firm in the faith, similar instruction to that contained with regard to resisting human pressures both from without and within (see previous notes about 2 Peter 1:10-11). So, the primary sources of resistance to our faithfulness in 1 and 2 Peter remain the threatened persecution of believers from external sources and the false teachers who may infiltrate the church, though the underlying cause of our struggles may be Satan, furious that his time is short. (Rev 12:12)
Thus, the epistles of Peter show three areas of struggle that Christians face in the effort to live holy and godly lives, pressure from external sources, deception from within, and an unseen enemy who may preside over the two other struggles. Peter consistently exhorts his readers to stand fast in the faith in which they already stood. By implication, such steadfastness requires considerable effort (2 Peter 2:5), even to the point of unjust physical suffering (1 Peter 2:19). When the apostle Paul speaks of “pressing on” and “straining toward” the goal of salvation in Phi 3:12-14, he echoes the urgency and call to exertion that pervade Peter’s epistles both in the necessity for godliness in a Christian’s life and the unflagging discipline such godliness requires. Yet, as Bridges remarks, “discipline without desire breeds drudgery.” (p. 261) The apostle Peter appears to understand this, for even as he calls his readers to “prepare [their] minds for action”, he also exhorts them to “set [their] hope fully on the grace to be given [them] when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:13) Peter consistently reminds his readers of the grace of God in Jesus Christ and stimulates them to increasing awareness of this grace. Indeed, as noted above and in 2 Peter 1:3-5, such knowledge of our living hope provides both the means and the motivation for a productive and efficient life in Christ. We simply have to act on it.
Thus, we conclude that the epistles of Peter uphold the principle stated in Bridges’ Practice of Godliness, that “though the power for godly character comes from Christ, the responsibility for developing and displaying that character is ours.” (Bridges, p. 73) We see the consequences of not fulfilling our responsibility in 2 Peter 2:20, where the apostle relates that those who escape the corruption of the world by knowing Jesus Christ but later fall prey to it again are worse off than at the beginning. Yet, we also see that the knowledge on which our steadfastness depends also provides the motivation for it true that we shall not escape if we ignore such a great salvation (Heb 2:3), but it also true that Christ’s love ought to compel us because one died for all. (2 Cor 5:14) Those who live, therefore, ought not to live for themselves, but for Him who died for us and was raised again. (2 Cor 5:15) We are exhorted to make every effort to live in such a fashion because of the resistance we face, but we are also driven to such effort by the hope that shall not disappoint us (Rom 5:5) because if we persevere we shall “receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:11) That is why the apostle wrote the two epistles, that his readers may remember the true grace of God and to stand fast in it (1 Peter 5:12) in order to share in the imperishable inheritance he offers.
Bridges, Jerry. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1983.
Black Allen, and Mark Black . The College Press NIV Commentary:1 & 2 Peter. Joplin, MS: College Press Publishing Company, 1998.