Someone has said that 2 Peter is in a remote corner of the New Testament. If so, it is a wonderful corner. We find the theme of the book in the last verse, for this is one of those Bible books that hang the key at the back door.
Peter wrote, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Christian growth for each one of us is not an option. It is a command: “Grow!” The “how” of this growth is explained in the first chapter. One of my colleagues once said to me, “This has got to be the most important passage in the New Testament on spiritual growth.”
The outline here is very simple: (a) God’s provision (vv. 3–4), and (b) our response (v. 5). “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (v. 3), that is, He has given us all things necessary for eternal life and godly living, all things necessary for salvation and for sanctification.
Peter explained that this is provided “through knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” The order in verse 3 is intriguing. He calls us, we respond and come to a knowledge of Him, and then He enables us to lead lives of godliness.
Some of the things necessary for life and godliness are explained in verse 4: He has given us “very great and precious promises”—great because they are from God, precious because of their benefit to us. By these promises we may be “partakers of the divine nature”(NASB) and we may “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” So in a narrower sense now, the things provided for life and godliness are provided in the Scriptures. The promises of the Word of God do two things for us—they make us partakers of the divine nature (that is, they give salvation and eternal life), and they enable us to escape the corruption that is in the world caused by lust (that is, they provide sanctification).
A number of years ago Major Van Sickle relocated from Dallas to Washington, DC. He was with the Salvation Army, and he was a great soul-winner. His ministry was with alcoholics. He told one of them, “If you take the Gospel of John and read it fifty times, I guarantee you deliverance from alcoholism.” Was that a bold thing to say? Well, after reading John seven or eight times, the man trusted Christ. He kept reading the Gospel of John, and before long he was delivered from alcoholism. He came to know the truth, and the truth set him free. The major said that over a period of some five years he had witnessed one hundred conversions and deliverances from alcoholism by the transforming power of God’s Word.
In 1730 John Wesley opened his Bible to this passage in 2 Peter. He read about the “exceeding great and precious promises,” and a few days later he wrote in his diary, “Through all these days I scarce remember to have opened the New Testament, but upon some great and precious promise. I saw more than ever that the gospel is in truth one great promise from beginning to end.” So as we read the Word of God, we should ask ourselves, “Is there some great promise I can claim that will meet me in my present crisis and will help me in my present problem?”
When H. A. Ironside was on the Dallas Seminary campus for what turned out to be his last series of lectures, he was nearly blind. His wife read the Scriptures and he expounded them. In the course of those final lectures, Ironside, a voracious reader, held up his Bible and said, “I wish that I had read other books less, and this book more.” It is only in this book that we have the great and precious promises that make us partakers of the divine nature and enable us to live holy lives in a corrupt world. That is God’s provision. What is our response—or what should it be?
A cynic once described the Christian life as an initial spasm followed by a chronic inertia. I hope that cynical remark is not too accurate, but in some cases it may be. To avoid the possibility, Peter wrote that we must make every effort to work out our salvation. To illustrate how, Peter included in verses 5–7 a list of seven virtues that would be found in a healthy Christian life: “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith” (v. 5). That is the foundation—being justified by faith.
To this faith we are to add “goodness,” a rare word in biblical Greek. It probably means excellence. True human excellence is Christlikeness. Building on the foundation of faith, we are to add excellence, that is, Christlikeness. And to this we are to add knowledge (probably practical wisdom). To this we should add self-control or self-mastery. This means controlling our passions rather than being controlled by them. True knowledge guides us to self-mastery or self-control.
Paul exercised self-control. We read in his writings, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, 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. 9:26–27).
R. G. Lee tells of John Audubon, the naturalist, who exercised great self-discipline to learn something about the world of birds. He would rise at midnight night after night and go out into the swamps to study the habits of certain night hawks. He would crouch motionless for hours in the dark and fog, feeling himself well rewarded, if after weeks of waiting he secured one additional fact about a single bird.
One summer he went every day to the bayous near New Orleans to observe a shy waterfowl. He stood almost up to his neck in the nearly stagnant waters, scarcely breathing, while countless poisonous moccasin snakes swam past his face, and great alligators passed and repassed his silent watch. “But what of that?” he said. “I have the picture of the birds.” For the picture of a bird, Audubon endured all that.
In the pursuit of godliness, then, we must cultivate the virtue of self-mastery. To this we must add perseverance or endurance, which springs from self-control. This is the ability to be unmoved by difficulty and distress. Endurance means accepting our problems and looking at them in the light of eternity. That is what Jesus did when He endured the cross.
To this we are to add godliness, that is, Godlikeness or piety. And to this we are to add brotherly kindness. As the apostle John wrote, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Brotherly kindness may well involve bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
To all this, finally, we are to add love. This agape love seeks the highest good of the other person and is willing to sacrifice so that good can be achieved. This is the love of which John 3:16 speaks: “For God so loved the world that he gave.” It is the love of the father of Ed McCully, a missionary slain by the Auca Indians in Ecuador. One night shortly after he lost his son, he prayed, “Lord, let me live long enough to see those fellows saved who killed our boys, that I may throw my arms around them and tell them I love them because they love my Christ.”
Cultivating these virtues takes effort, but more than human effort is needed. These virtues come to fruition because we have and appropriate the indwelling Holy Spirit, and because we have and apply God’s great and precious promises.
Sometime ago the telephone in my office rang and the conversation that ensued was unusual. The caller introduced himself by saying, “I want to tell you something about one of your students. I have a daughter. She’s twenty-two years old, and she has cancer of the brain. It is terminal. She is in Baylor Hospital. The other evening my son-in-law and I went out to dinner, and we learned that the young waiter who served us was a student at Dallas Seminary. He overheard our conversation. He showed a great deal of kindness and concern. At the end of the meal he said, ‘If you would give me the room number of your daughter, I would be glad to go visit her.’”
That was a Friday night and the man called me on Monday. He said, “I can’t believe it. He’s been there three times. Is he required to do this?”
Here is one student who added to his faith, who showed excellence or Christlikeness and kindness, along with many of these other virtues. And we have the resources to be like Christ Himself, enabled by God’s divine power and the provision of His promises.