I have always wondered what it would be like to speak on a subject concerning which my training and experience has made me an expert. At last it has happened, for I would like to address the subject of failure.
While failure is not necessarily the most popular subject, it is one that is absolutely mandatory for all of us because failure is one of the few things all of us do frequently and skillfully.
The complexity of American life offers an abundance of opportunities to fail. Many grapple with an overwhelming sense of failure as an aftermath of divorce. Others may sense failure at the loss of a job or on the occasion of being passed over for a raise or a promotion. Failure can also be experienced at the heartbreaking disappointment of a wayward child. For the sincere Christian failure is a certainty when one focuses upon the rigorous requirements of discipleship given in the Scriptures. Even for those who may appear to be a success, there is the haunting fear of failure in the future.
This week I came across the results of a most interesting study:
“In 1928 a group of the world’s most successful financiers met at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Present were:
The president of the largest utility company.
The greatest wheat speculator.
The president of the New York Stock Exchange.
A number of the President’s Cabinet.
The greatest “bear” in Wall Street.
The president of the Bank of International Settlements.
The head of the world’s greatest monopoly.
Collectively, these tycoons controlled more wealth than there was in the United States Treasury, and for years newspapers and magazines had been printing their success stories and urging the youth of the nation to follow their examples. Twenty-five years later, let’s see what happened to these men.
The president of the largest independent steel company, Charles Schwab, lived on borrowed money the last five years of his life, and died broke.
The greatest wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died abroad, insolvent.
The president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, was recently released from Sing Sing Prison.
The member of the President’s Cabinet, Albert Fall, was pardoned from prison so he could die at home.
The greatest “bear” in Wall Street, Jesse Livermore, committed suicide.
The president of the Bank of International Settlements, Leon Fraser, committed suicide.
The head of the world’s greatest monopoly, Ivar Krueger, committed suicide.
As I said all of us need to give our attention to the subject of failure.”127
Now, before we begin to deal with the failure of Peter in the denial of our Lord, let us be sure we agree on what we mean by failure. Failure may be either real or imaginary. Many times as I finish preaching a sermon on Sunday and then begin to think back over it, I am greatly distressed at how poorly I fulfilled my obligation as a preacher. Now you know that this kind of failure is … real, right?
Furthermore, some failures are our responsibility, while others are completely beyond our control. Some failures are not deliberate or intentional, while others are a result of willfulness and disobedience. In other words, not all failure is sin.
Peter’s failure is of the worst type. In a sense, it was premeditated, for our Lord warned him that it would happen. Peter’s denial was a deliberate, worse yet, a repetitious error. To put it bluntly, it was sin.
It is important to grasp the fact that Peter’s failure was of the worst type, for if God can forgive this kind of failure—if God can somehow use the failures of willfulness and sin to strengthen our faith and deepen our commitment, then He can surely use the other less dramatic kinds of failure which are common to our experience as well.
Luke, not by chance but by design, precedes the prediction of Peter’s denial by informing us that during this Last Supper the disciples had been disputing with one another. “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which of them was regarded to be greatest” (Luke 22:24).
Personally, I believe that this dispute was the outgrowth of a struggle to get the place of honor at the table as they entered the upper room. Fortunately for me, some scholars agree with this suggestion.128
When our Lord washed the feet of the disciples, He was, I think, teaching them a visible lesson in humility, something which they all lacked at the moment.
Rather than pattern their lives after the Gentiles (Luke 22:25), the disciples should follow the example of their Lord (Luke 22:26-27). In our Lord’s service the eldest, rather than claim his status as the senior member, should think of himself as the youngest and serve the others. Position is not the pretext for status, but a platform for service. It is not without significance that Peter is thought to be the eldest of the twelve.129 If such is the case, Peter would have been more inclined to have claimed seniority, and our Lord’s words would have been especially directed toward him.
I am not at all surprised, then, when the prediction of Peter’s denial flows out of verses 24-30 with no apparent break: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
While we shall not dwell upon verses 35-38, it would seem that they also relate directly to the prediction of the imminent denial of the Lord by Peter. A decisive change was taking place within the nation Israel. When the disciples were first sent out to herald the good news of the Kingdom (Luke 9:1ff.; 10:1ff.), they did not need any provisions or means of protection. This was because they were riding on the crest of the wave of Jesus’ popularity. They would generally be warmly welcomed and given a home and hospitality.
But from now on Jesus was not to be regarded as a possible Messiah nor as a national hero. Being rejected as the wrong kind of Messiah, Jesus was to be regarded and executed as a common criminal. When the disciples went out again to preach the Gospel, they must be prepared to face a hostile world. For this reason they must give heed to their personal provisions and protection.
This is precisely what Peter did not perceive and did not consider carefully enough in his hasty and emphatic expression of loyalty and devotion. Discipleship had been a relatively easy way of life during the period of Jesus’ rising popularity. But from now on discipleship would carry with it disdain, rejection and persecution for the cause of Christ.
Several observations should be made concerning these unsettling words of the Master.
(1) It was a word of warning. Jesus warned not only Peter, but all130 of the disciples here that Satan had requested, and evidently obtained, permission to test them and to attempt to destroy their faith. Although these words were not heeded, they were, nonetheless, a clear warning to the disciples.
(2) Verses 31 and 32 constitute a specific prophecy. Peter was predicted to deny Jesus three times, and that before the sun rose in the morning.131 While a warning focuses upon what might happen, the prophecy predicted very specifically what was going to happen. Peter’s denial was no mere possibility. It was a certainty.132
(3) These unsettling words contained not only a prophecy, but a promise. Just as it was certain that Peter would fail, so it was also sure that he would be restored. Let us never lose sight of the assurance of verse 32: “But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
In these verses the error of sinless perfectionism propagated in Christian circles is dispelled as mere myth. This is the view that believes that once a person is saved he cannot sin any longer.133 Well, Peter did sin, and you and I know ourselves well enough to admit that we are no different than Peter. Both experience and Scripture refute this doctrine (cf. Romans 7, 1 John 2:1).
I believe that it is vital for the Christian to grasp the fact that he is capable of sinning, indeed, that he is pre-disposed toward it. More than this, we must grasp the fact that sin is virtually inevitable. I have not said (nor will I ever do so) that sin is unavoidable, nor that it is excusable. For Peter the sin of denial was inevitable, and for you and me some sins (though we know them not) are inevitable, simply because God has ordained to use them in our lives, to overrule them for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
Because Peter’s denial has been so frequently misinterpreted and badly abused, we should attempt to clear the air by carefully defining what was the nature of this denial.
(1) It was not just an individual act of denial. To put it in other words, Peter’s sin was no solo. Jesus had said that Satan had demanded permission to sift all of the disciples as wheat.134 In Matthew’s account, Jesus said, “… You will all fall away because of Me this night …” (Matthew 26:31). Peter, as usual, may have served as the spokesman, but he did not fail alone.
(2) Peter’s denial was no mere act of cowardice. Unlike most of the other disciples, Peter followed his Lord after the arrest. Granted, it was ‘from a distance’ (Matthew 26:58), but that was far more than most of the others were willing to chance. Also, let us not forget that Peter was willing to die for his Lord. When Peter pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the high Priest’s servant, Malcus (John 18:10), he undoubtedly failed to accomplish his objective, which was to cut off his head! Peter was willing to go down fighting in a blaze of glory; he simply couldn’t tolerate passive acceptance of suffering and injustice—yet.
(3) Peter’s denial evidenced a temporary failure of his faith, but not a denial of his faith. We must make this distinction if we are to take the words of the Lord Jesus seriously (and literally!): “… But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail …” (Luke 22:32). We must come to one of two conclusions here. Either the prayer of Jesus was unanswered (and so Peter’s faith really did fail), or Jesus’ request was granted and Peter’s faith merely faltered, but did not completely fail.
Peter denied knowing his Lord, but his statement cannot mean that his love of Jesus, which had grown over those years together with the Savior, suddenly died. There was still faith, hope, and love, though momentarily overshadowed by doubts and fears. Who of us can deny that such doubts and fears have troubled our hearts and challenged our faith?
If I may attempt to draw a feeble analogy, I do not believe that an act of adultery on the part of either a husband or a wife is sufficient basis for dissolving the marriage relationship. This is why I do not advise the so-called “innocent party” to initiate divorce when their partner has been unfaithful. An act of immorality, in my opinion, does not necessarily prove that all love and commitment has been cast aside. Such was the case, I maintain, with Peter and his relationship to his Lord.
Seldom do we find a text that gives us such a clear picture of the underlying factors and forces behind man’s sin. To fully understand human failure we must consider divine sovereignty, satanic activity and human responsibility.
The question of the existence of evil in the sovereign will of an all-wise, all-powerful God is a difficult one, one that has troubled men through the ages (cf. Psalm 37,73). (If we were to conclude that God is in control only when good prevails we would wonder, as many do today, if there is a God at all.)
If there is a God and He is omniscient (knowing all) and omnipotent (all-powerful), Who is sovereign, in complete control of His universe (Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:20-21), then nothing can take place apart from His knowledge and permission. We know this has to be the case with Peter’s denial.
It is stated in our text that Jesus was fully aware of the specifics concerning Peter’s imminent denial. More than this, Satan had asked and obtained permission to ‘sift the disciples like wheat’ (Luke 22:31). We must conclude that this sin of Peter was a part of God’s plan and purpose for his life.
Theologians would say that Peter’s denial was included in the eternal decree of God, purposed before the beginning of time. When Peter failed, he did not thrust himself outside of the purpose (or decree) of God, but continued within it. God’s program for man’s redemption, His purposes for the church, for the apostles, and especially for Peter were not suddenly set aside by Peter’s sin. God’s plans for Peter were realized both in spite of and because of Peter’s sin.
(1) God not only permits sin, He purposes to include it in His eternal plan in such a way as to perfectly achieve His will, and yet without Himself being the originator of it (cf. Genesis 50:20).
The significance of this cannot be underestimated. So often today Christians suppose that God’s will and His sovereign control includes only that which is sinless and perfect. When the Christian commits some sin, he feels as though he has suddenly been swept from the purposes of God for his life. He supposes that God has not only crossed out that sentence in his life, but He has torn out the page and thrown away the book. The rest of his life, in his mind, must be wasted, in the words of one song, ‘taking laps around Mt. Sinai.’
It is only when we come to realize that God’s control and His purposes for us include our sins as well as our acts of obedience that we have done justice to His sovereignty. It is only when we grasp the fact that we are never beyond hope, never beyond restoration, that we will have the hope which is necessary to go on. We know that we will fall and we will fail, but that God will use that sin and failure to build us up and make us useful instruments.
(2) Luke reveals to us that Satan had a hand in Peter’s sin of denial (Luke 22:31). By this we are reminded of Satan’s involvement in the purifying of Job’s faith (Job 1:6f.). We should be encouraged about several things with respect to this satanic attack on Peter.
a. Satan had to ask permission135 in order to attack Peter, just as he did with Job. The demons had to get permission from our Lord even to possess pigs (Mark 5:12). Satan’s subversive activities are always subject to divine permission.
b. While Satan seeks to bring about our destruction, God allows him to oppose us for our strengthening and advancement in the faith (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Satan’s thinking is so twisted by sin that he achieves the will of God while he supposes that he is opposing it. His apparent victory at the cross of Calvary is just one example.
c. While Satan entices men to sin, he does not and he cannot compel men to follow his suggestions. The stock excuse ‘the devil made me do it’ may be popular, but it is not biblical. Satan can shake us and sift us, but he can never keep us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
(3) We come to the real source of Peter’s failure—self. While God purposed Peter’s failure and Satan promoted it, it was Peter who perpetuated the denial of his Lord. While much has been made of the process by which Peter failed, the text clearly implies that the whole matter can be summed up by one word, self. Here is the source of our sins as well.
When the Savior began to wash the feet of the disciples Peter vigorously protested because such an act was unbecoming to one in His position. Peter was not just concerned over the incident of the foot washing, but with its implications for him as a disciple. How could he use his office as a means of securing status and the services of others if Jesus would not?
When Jesus foretold Peter’s denial, again, he strenuously resisted such a possibility. No chance! No way! Such is the confidence of the flesh. Self-confidence kept Peter from praying as he should have when with his Lord in the garden of Gethsemane.
In the final analysis self is at the center of all sin. Self-assertion and smug self-confidence are at the heart of man’s sin and rebellion against God. As it was with Peter, so it is with us.
Let us be clear on this matter of responsibility for sin. God in His sovereignty purposes to use sin to demonstrate His glory and to bring about our good. Satan, in his perversity, solicits men to do that which is evil, hoping to thwart God’s purposes. But in the final analysis it is neither God nor Satan who can be blamed for our sin; it is self which must accept moral responsibility.136
Much confusion in Christian thinking could be cleared up by a firm belief in this biblical principle: The Christian’s failure is never purposed for his destruction, but for his development. I have not made this up in my own mind, it is clearly stated in the Word of God,
“The steps of a man are established by the Lord; and He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; because the Lord is the One who holds his hand” (Psalm 37:23-24).
“The Lord sustains all who fall, and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14).
“For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity” (Proverbs 24:16).
This is why Satan can achieve God’s purposes without knowing what he is doing. Satan thinks that causing a Christian to sin brings about his destruction. God allows Satan to promote sin and failure, purposing it as a means of our development and strengthening.
Look at the great men of the Bible and you will see men with feet of clay. Abraham not once, but twice, sought to preserve his own life while jeopardizing the purity of his wife (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-7). David fell into immorality and committed murder in an effort to cover up his iniquity (2 Samuel 11). While the sins of these men brought painful consequences, they also resulted in a deepening faith and greater commitment.
Such was the case with the denial of Peter. It deepened his love for the Savior and developed faith and humility. Peter was destined to the role of a leader within the church, and even among the apostles (cf. Matthew 16:18-19; Acts 2:14ff.; 5:lff.; 9:32-12:17). He was, as a result of his fall and restoration, to be a source of strength to the others (Luke 22:32). This was accomplished by the lessons he learned in his fall. Let us consider several of these lessons.
(1) Peter learned he could not trust himself. All of the bravado of his boast, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33) was swept away by his humiliating failure. In the power of the flesh we can do nothing well, except to fail (Romans 7:14 ff.).
Failure is neither accidental nor incidental to Christian growth; it is essential. Erwin Lutzer has written a book entitled, Failure: The Back Door to Success.137 It is an excellent book, but personally I would change the title to “Failure: The Only Door to Success.”
There is irresistible logic behind the order of Romans 6, 7 and 8. In chapter 6, Paul informs us of the necessity of holy living. We have (positionally) died to sin and have been raised to new life in Christ. We must, therefore, live differently if we are to practice our position and our profession. To fail to live a holy life is to deny our possession of eternal life.
In chapter 7 we are reminded of the impossibility of godly living in our own strength. While we are desirous of a Christian walk and know what is right and what is forbidden, nevertheless we persist in doing wrong and evading the right. This is because the flesh is weak, unable to do what the law commands.
In chapter 8, Paul informs us that we are no longer under condemnation for our sins and that God has given us His Spirit to bring about in us what the law demands and what we, in the flesh, cannot accomplish.
It is only when we come to the point of absolute failure that we give up trying to live the Christian life in the power of the flesh. God’s power is appropriated in our weakness and death. That is the inviolable law of the spiritual life.
When Peter failed at his denial of the Lord, he learned the difficult lesson that God’s work cannot be accomplished by resolution, determination or self-effort—not even by a positive mental attitude. God’s work can only be done in God’s way—by distrusting self and depending upon His enablement. That is what must happen in our lives also. Have you come to the point of despair yet? If so, that is God’s way of showing you the futility of self-effort in the Christian life. Reckon yourself to be dead to sin and alive unto righteousness through the marvelous grace of God. Here is our strength.
“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ … Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9,10).
(2) Peter’s fall was a death blow to his pride and arrogance. “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23). “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:65).
There is no cure for pride quite so effective as that humiliation of failure. There is no quality more necessary for leadership than that of humility. There is ample evidence of a meek and gentle spirit in Peter’s words of counsel to his fellow-elders in his first epistle: “Therefore, I exhort … at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:1-6).
(3) Peter gained a deeper appreciation of the depths of the grace of God. Human failure opens wide the door through which grace alone can enter. In the midst of shameful failure, Peter found forgiveness and restoration. God’s favor was not granted as a reward for faithfulness, but because of failure. Here is grace greater than all our sins.
When we experience the grace of God at times of failing, there is no other response than love and gratitude. Guilt is never a proper motive for service, but grace occasions love, the strongest motive of all. This was the thrust of our Lord’s words to Peter in the twenty-first chapter of John: “Simon, son of John, do you love Me? … Shepherd My sheep” (John 21:16).
(4) Finally, Peter’s failure enabled him to be much more understanding and gentle with those under his authority who would fail also. It is difficult to be hard on those who have the same weaknesses with which we struggle.
In short, Peter’s sin did not impair his ministry; it prepared him for ministry, by teaching him not to trust in self, but in God. It gave him even greater motivation for service.
There is a tightrope in this message which I have been trying to walk very carefully. There are two extremes which must be avoided. The first is an overwhelming sense of guilt and failure and the misconception that sin forever removes us from the will of God and that we must resign ourselves to a life of uselessness and futility. In effect, we simply give up out of guilt and despair.
The second error is that of fatalism. “What will be, will be.” Since God has included my sin in His perfect plan, why fight it—it’s bigger than any of us.138 While the reasoning may differ from that above, the outcome is nearly identical—a casual acceptance and resignation toward sin.
God does incorporate our sin into His perfect plan. God does use our sin to glorify Himself and to produce what is good for His children (Romans 8:28). But lest we take a carefree attitude toward sin, let us ponder the painful consequences of sin.
There is a vast difference between punishment for sin and the consequences of sin. We need only look at the case of David. David’s sin of adultery and murder were forgiven, and God removed his guilt (Psalm 51:32). Nevertheless, there were painful consequences for his sin. His son, the product of an illicit union, died (2 Samuel 12:14), and David’s house was continually plagued with violence (2 Samuel 12:10-12).
So also for Peter there was forgiveness, but there were unpleasant consequences. The most painful of all was to look into the face of his dearest friend, whom he deeply loved, and behold His grief:
“But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about.’ And immediately while he was still speaking, a cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, ‘Before a cock crows today, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:60-62).
There is no thought more distressing to me than that of facing my Lord and knowing how deeply my sin has grieved Him.
When I was an elementary school teacher, I was very upset to see a child who had been sent to the principal’s office for discipline, come back with a smile on his face. I determined that no child would ever come back into the room with me with a smile on his face. I took him out for discipline. No one who is a Christian will ultimately have a smile upon his face. Sin is never worth the price—never!
Nothing is more comforting and beautiful than the work of the Savior in restoring Peter. It began before the denial with a word of warning, a prediction, and a promise of recovery and renewal. It commenced with the intercessory prayers of the Lord Jesus on behalf of Peter, for the upholding of his faith and his repentance and restoration.
Perhaps most beautiful of all is the silence of the Scriptures concerning the first appearance of the Savior to Peter. What beauty there is in this brevity, “And that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5).
What our Lord said to Peter we will never know. It is none of our business. And just as Jesus dealt personally and intimately with Peter, speaking words of forgiveness, comfort, and encouragement, so also He seeks us out in our times of failure and guilt. What a wonderful Savior!
This passage is undergirded by a number of principles pertaining to sin and failure.
(1) Our every step, even our stumbling and sin, is included in the purpose and plan of God for our lives. While our motives may be wrong, and our actions displeasing to God, nevertheless God has included them in His plan to display His glory and to bring about what is for our ultimate good (Genesis 50:20; Psalm 37:23-24; Romans 8:28).
(2) Sin, for the Christian, is inevitable in that we will never in this life completely overcome it (Romans 7; 1 John 1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc.).
(3) While sin is, in a sense, inevitable, it is always avoidable and it is never excusable. God never makes us sin (James 1:13). Satan cannot make us sin, though he may tempt us (Luke 22:31-32). Neither do circumstances compel us to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). We are always morally responsible for sin.
(4) For the Christian, all sins are forgiven, but there are still painful consequences (2 Samuel 11-12; Luke 22:61, etc.).
(5) Sin, while painful, is also profitable. “God causes all things (even our sin) to work together for good to those who love God …” (Romans 8:28). No man’s sin has ever kept God from realizing His purposes for that man’s life (cf. Jonah, Abraham, David, Peter, etc.).
Negatively, sin results in painful experiences which instruct us to avoid further unpleasant consequences. Positively, it deepens our grasp of the grace of God and our gratitude for it.
No book ever written is more candid in dealing realistically with the sins and failures of men than the Bible. Modern novelists and film-makers have made much of sin, but their efforts tend only to stimulate our own illicit impulses and passions. The Bible deals much with man’s sinfulness because we are so sinful.
Oftentimes we learn much more from our failures than we do from success. It is no surprise that the success of Jonah is mentioned almost incidentally in one verse (2 Kings 14:25), while an entire book is devoted to an account of his failure. That has to tell us something about the importance and relevance of the subject of failure for men today.
From what we have learned, we should give serious thought to several implications from the denial of Peter as it forces us to come to a biblical perspective on failure.
First, we should expect failure. I do not mean by this the kind of negative outlook expressed by the little boy at the door who says, “You don’t want to buy these cookies, do you?” We should neither seek failure, nor succumb to it, but in spite of our most noble efforts, it will come. The realization that we are, in the words of the song writer ‘prone to wander’ is a strong defense against the wiles of the devil. It was Peter’s smug self-confidence which was his greatest pitfall.
Second, we must learn to view failure as God does. It is often sin, and therefore an abomination to God. But it is also the focal point of the death of Christ. Christ died for sin. For the Christian, all sin has been dealt with by the blood of our Savior. We need not fear the penalty of sin, for that has been borne by our Lord. So we can rejoice in these words of Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Sin is an offense to God, and yet God allows us to fall and to fail so that our faith might be strengthened. Few people are able to minister effectively to others who have not experienced God’s strength in their weakness.
Not only should we learn to accept failure as a part of God’s purpose for our lives, but we should be willing to accept the failures of others. So often we are dishonest in the impressions we give to others. We come to church with a smile on our face and we tout the popular phrases ‘fantastic,’ ‘praise the Lord’ and so on, but inwardly we are miserable. This kind of hypocrisy is nothing less than a lie (cf. Acts 5:1-6), and it discourages others from owning up to their failures and asking for help and encouragement when they need it most.
I must say that preachers are often the most frequent and flagrant violators of this matter of honesty. They fear what people will think of them if they know how sinful they really are. They suppose that no one will listen to someone who doesn’t have all the answers—or who isn’t using them as he should.
Thank God for a man like Dr. J. Vernon McGee. Some time ago, I heard him say over the radio, “If you knew what a sinner I am, you’d reach right up and turn off your radio. But wait a minute; if I knew how sinful you were, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
In this life God has committed Himself to working with failures, and in the process He brings glory to Himself and, by grace, accomplishes what is for the good of His children. I don’t fully understand this, but that is what my Bible teaches and I believe it.
Parents, let your children fail. Just as God lets us fall flat on our faces so that we may be the stronger for it, we must allow our children the privilege of failing, too. And when they do fail, as they most certainly will, deal with them as God does us. Deal with them in grace, for that is God’s answer to human failure.
Finally, I must make it crystal clear that what we have been saying here is for those who have come to a personal faith and trust in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. If you have come to trust in Him as the One Who died in your place, and suffered for your sins, you will never be punished for any sin, past, present, or future. You may be chastened, but never punished (cf. Hebrews 12:1-13).
But if you have never trusted in Christ as Savior this is the one sin that is, in the truest sense of the word, fatal. You must stand before a righteous and Holy God and give account for your every deed (Revelation 20:12-15). What a frightening thought that is. May God enable you to acknowledge your sinfulness, and to accept His gracious provision for your sins in the person of His Son.
128 “More probably the dispute arose respecting the places at the paschal meal—who was to be nearest to the Master; and the feet-washing was a symbolical rebuke to this contention.” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1969), p. 500.
129 “It is assumed that Peter was the eldest: he already possessed his own house and was married, iv.38, when he joined Jesus as a disciple, and about A.D. 63 he described himself as an ‘elder’ (1 Pet. v. 1). John was the youngest (this is taught by tradition and also follows from the fact that he long survived his fellow-disciples and died only about A.D. 100).” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).
130 Many translations of verse 31 fail to reflect the fact that the ‘you’ is not singular, as we would be inclined to expect, but plural. It was not just Peter whom Satan had demanded permission to sift like wheat, but all of the disciples. Peter, as the spokesman and potential leader of the twelve was, of course, the prime target, and thus the singular ‘you’ in verse 32. A literal translation of verses 31 and 32 would be, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded all of you, in order to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed on your behalf (Peter) that your faith will not (ultimately) fail. And you (Peter), when you have returned, strengthen your brethren” (my translation).
131 “The Romans and the Jews divided the night into four watches—6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; 9 p.m. to midnight; midnight to 3 a.m.; 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. It was between the third and fourth watch that the cock was supposed to crow. What Jesus is saying to Peter is that before the dawn comes Peter will deny Him three times.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), II, p. 380.
132 Here we come upon a great problem to many. How is it possible for God to speak with such certainty concerning a sin that is yet future, and yet not be responsible for making it happen? Is God certain that a particular sin will occur because He is causing it to happen? If so, God makes men to sin, does He not?
In the Old Testament book of 2 Kings we find what, in my estimation, is the key to the solution of this dilemma. In chapter 8 Ben-hadad, king of Syria, was seriously ill. He sent his servant Hazael with a generous gift to the prophet Elisha, to learn if his illness was fatal. When Hazael put this question to Elisha, the answer given was ‘no,’ and yet Elisha went on to tell Hazael that he knew that Ben-hadad would die by his very hand. The result would be the suffering and death of many Israelites.
Wasn’t Elisha lying to king Ben-hadad? Not at all. Ben-hadad wanted to know if his illness was terminal. The answer to this question was no. Then Elisha went beyond the question posed by the king and revealed that although Ben-hadad would not die of this illness, he would be murdered by his own trusted servant.
You see, God, in His omniscience (knowing all things) is fully aware not only of what will actually take place (that Ben-hadad would be murdered), but also of what could take place (that Ben-hadad would have recovered had he not been murdered). In other words, God knows both all things actual and all things possible.
God knows precisely what you and I would do in any given set of circumstances. Our Lord knew that Peter, given his circumstances, would deny Him three times. God is in control and intimately involved in the affairs of men and the course of history to such a degree that what will happen is a certainty. Since what will happen is certain, and since God knows what we will do under those circumstances, God can predict our behavior without error, and yet not be accused of compelling us to sin when we do.
The police may set up a decoy in order to catch a criminal, but when that person is arrested and tried, he cannot blame the police for making him commit the crime. The circumstances in which the criminal found himself were simply such that they revealed the character of the culprit. So it is with God and man.
133 Usually it will be said by those who are perfectionists that when a Christian sins he loses his salvation. Such cannot be the case, for if Hebrews 6:4-6 teaches us that a Christian can sin and lose his salvation, it also teaches that once we have lost such a salvation, it cannot be regained.
135 A number of translations render verse 31 in such a way as to indicate that Satan ‘demanded’ permission to sift the disciples like wheat. This may well be the sense of the original term, and if so, it only serves to illustrate the pride, arrogance, and audacity of Satan. Nevertheless, permission was still necessary for Satan to go about his task.
136 In dealing with man’s failure and inherent tendency toward sin, we intersect the doctrine of man’s total depravity. Since some may react strongly to the implications of what I have said thus far concerning man’s waywardness, alleging that it is destructive to his self-image, let me say a few words about the relationship of man’s total depravity to his self image.
Every man, saved or unsaved, should find great significance and security in the fact that God has created him just as he is, divinely fashioned to the minutest detail while still in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). We are God’s unique creation, created in His image (Genesis 1:26). The doctrine of total depravity does not imply that we are totally worthless as sinners. Rather, it contends that fallen man is affected by sin in every aspect of his personhood (intellect, emotion, will). A glass of water with one drop of poison added to it is completely poisoned, though it is not 100% poison. Total depravity does not mean that fallen man is worthless to God or other men; it simply means that he has nothing to commend him before God. He cannot earn God’s favor (which, incidentally, modern psychology rejects as establishing performance orientation—a person can be accepted only if he performs according to expectations).
The awesome truth of Christianity is that God loves man as he is—sinful and rebellious. God has placed infinite value on fallen man, having given His Son for man, while he was yet fallen and sinful (Romans 5:6-8). More than this, once man has accepted God’s free gift of salvation, he becomes a son of God (John 1:12; Romans 8:15-17). How could any man, woman, or child ask for more than this—to be a child of God? And beyond this, every child of God is endowed with unique spiritual capacities for service and ministry, and each is assigned a particular function within the body of Christ, which no one else can perform (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12).
Self-image, when divorced from a vital relationship with the Creator and Savior of men is simply a veiled form of vanity and pride. Self-image, when viewed from the divine perspective is to see oneself as he truly is, the object of divine grace, a child of God!
138 This is, in effect, the erroneous conclusion dealt with in Romans 6:1ff, Notice that while the premise is correct, “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20), the application is completely unbiblical. Here is where much error comes from in Christian circles—taking biblical principles to unbiblical and sinful conclusions. Sin is thereby committed in the name of orthodoxy.