The Doctrines of Grace: When You Have Turned Again
In the midst of the final week of our Lord’s earthly ministry in his estate of humiliation, Jesus has an interesting exchange with Peter about his forthcoming denial. Luke 22:31-34 recounts some of the details of this conversation and they are very interesting indeed. We usually focus our attention on the end of the discussion between Jesus and Peter where Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows. I am sure this was news Peter would have preferred not learning about. My concern, however, is with the opening words of the conversation in which Jesus says something striking about Peter over and above the sad fact of Peter’s coming denial.
In a Job-like scenario, Satan has apparently approached God and asked that he be given the privilege of putting Peter through his paces. Specifically, Satan asked to sift Peter like wheat. Satan no doubt thought he could trip Peter up. He thought he could cause Peter not only to stumble, but to fall to the ground, never to rise anymore. Peter made a pretty big target. He was always putting his foot in his mouth. Peter was always bragging about how he would follow Jesus to his death. I don’t doubt Peter sincerely meant what he said. But he got too big for his britches.
Here’s the thing, though. Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed for him. We know that Jesus regularly prayed about and for his disciples. Before Jesus selected the twelve who would comprise his disciple band he spent a whole night wrestling in prayer (Luke 6:12). Jesus prayed for his current disciples and for those who would become followers of Jesus on account of their ministry in his high priestly prayer (John 17:6ff). So when Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed for him we should take that to signify more than that it is a manifestation of his personal piety. Jesus has prayed for Peter specifically about Satan’s request. Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail him. It certainly looks like that is just what happened. Peter denied knowing his master three times. And he did this under less than physical duress.
Jesus does not end on a “hope so” note. Jesus tells Peter that when he has turned he should strengthen his brothers. Notice the use of the word “when.” Jesus does not say “if” but “when.” Jesus tells Peter, in the midst of telling him he is going to experience a massive sinful failure. But Jesus has prayed for Peter. And when Peter recovers he is to strengthen and comfort his fellow disciples. Jesus has prayed that Peter would survive the wheat-sifting and come out the other side. There is no doubt in Jesus’ words nor is his tone of voice. Jesus has prayed for Peter and while he knows Peter will be tested and tried and will crash and burn. Peter will survive the crash to be of continual service to him and his fellow disciples.
Peter went on to deny knowing his Lord and then, disheartened and dispirited, he seemingly gave up on his call to be a fisher of men and returned to his old vocation of plain old fishing. Thinking Jesus had been irreversibly murdered and that he had played a part in that fiasco, he sought solace in following familiar routines. Later, after the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, the risen Lord would encounter Peter on the shore of the lake (John 21) and he restored him to his vocation of being a fisher of men and a shepherd of the Lord’s precious sheep.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the final letter in TULIP. It has everything to do with it! Peter is among the elect and we see acted out before us the manifestation of that fact in Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Peter was a sinner just like Judas. Judas was no better or worse than Peter. Yet Peter repented of his sin and was restored and he was given an unusual preview of that in this exchange with Jesus. I suppose you could say that Peter was an apostle and he was special and we cannot draw conclusions about the workings of the perseverance of the saints from his unusual case. It is true that Peter did hold the extraordinary office of apostle. Peter played a special role in the foundational era of the church. This is all true. There are aspects of Peter’s experience that we ought not to expect to see applied in the case of all believers.
However, when you bring this conversation between Jesus and Peter into close proximity to some other truths I think we can see Peter as an example of a believer who is told he will persevere. For instance, Jesus is not known to ever have prayed unsuccessfully for anything. Also, Jesus prays for those who are his both prior to his death (John 17) and after his resurrection and ascension (Hebrews). Jesus performs heavenly intercession. He prays for his own. These two truths when brought into conjunction with the conversation we are considering leads me to believe and affirm that Peter serves as an example of the perseverance of the saints. This perseverance or preservation involves the daily repentance and faith of the saint, but it is founded upon the life, death, resurrection, and ongoing heavenly session of Jesus Christ. Peter turned again and strengthened his brothers. That should be an encouragement to us.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.