Blessed assurance - 2 Peter 1:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about Arthur F Burns who was the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and former ambassador to West Germany. He was a man of considerable gravity and influence. He had been economic counsellor to numerous Presidents ranging from Eisenhower to Reagan. When he spoke people listened. Arthur Burns was also Jewish, so when he began attending an informal White House group for prayer and fellowship in the 1970s he was accorded special respect. But, no one quite knew how to involve him in the group and each week when different people took turns to lead he was passed by out of respect and reticence. However, one week the group was led by a newcomer who wasnt aware of the unusual status Burns occupied. As the meeting ended, the newcomer turned to Burns and asked him to pray. There was a sharp intake of breath by some of the old timers as they looked at each other wondering what would happen next. Well, without missing a beat, Burns reached out, held hands with the others in the circle and prayed this prayer: Lord, I pray that you would bring Jews to know Jesus Christ. I pray that you would bring Muslims to know Jesus Christ. Finally, Lord, I pray that you would bring Christians to know Jesus Christ. Amen. Now he wasnt attempting to be clever or facetious, he was simply underscoring a point that many people often make, namely, that it is only too possible to have the label Christian without exhibiting the characteristics of the one they claim to follow- Jesus Christ. Far too often it seems, as far as the world is concerned, there is a mismatch between Christian profession on the one hand and Christian action on the other. An American T- shirt simply says Jesus, save me from your followers. Or as George Bernard Shaw once quipped, Christianity might be a good thing if ever anyone tried it. But leaving aside for a moment the sad fact that it is only too possible for someone to be a false believer, saying one thing and persistently doing another, such observations need to be tempered with another truth, that in one sense Christians are still people in the making. They havent fully arrived at their final destination which is heaven. As the car bumper sticker has it, Be patient, God hasnt finished with me yet. Now this idea that, although it is true to say that a person becomes a Christian at a particular moment when they cast themselves upon the mercy of God in Jesus and yet that it is also a lifelong process, is not only important from the standpoint of witnessing to a watching world, so they should see that Christianity does make a difference, it is also important from another standpoint- the standpoint of the assurance of the believer. You see, if you are a follower of Christ and dont come to terms with the fact that you should be changing gradually, then your faith can readily come under attack for you may feel that you are not changing fast enough and so begin to wonder if you are a Christian at all- so you doubt. And that is also when you become vulnerable to religious leaders who will take advantage of you. They will come in and offer you quick fixes so you can be assured you are a Christian, but not on the basis of a changed lifestyle, but on the basis of having a particular experience or teaching , saying if you have this experience or follow this teaching then you can be sure you are a real Christian- and we are the people to supply it. Just think for a moment of how the salesman tries to get you to change the product you are using. For years you have been quite happy with Flush floor cleaner. But the salesman comes along to offer you an alternative. For a start you get more in a box- 15% extra. It is also 30 pence cheaper. Better still you get a free gift with this one- a family ticket to Alton Towers. And although it will be claimed to be better- you cant beat Flush. But you can see what the aim is cant you? It is to create a dissatisfaction with the original product. Well, that is precisely what certain religious leaders do so that they can sell you their new product. They want to get you to wobble in you faith. It is happening today and it happened at the time of Peter as we see from his second letter. At the beginning of chapter 2 we read of false prophets who are secretly introducing destructive heresies. And what they are destroying is the Christians confidence in their faith: Was Jesus really the unique Son of God? Was he really returning one day to judge and remake the universe? Am I really born again of the Holy Spirit and going to heaven when I die? Well, can you be sure? Because Peter wants you to be, which is one reason why this letter was written. God doesnt want you to be lured away by the get spiritually rich quick con artists, however sincere they may be. He wants you and I to have the quiet confidence that we already have everything we could possibly need as we make our journey from this world to the next. How can we be sure? Let us look at that question under three headings: The Divine gift; the Human response and the Eternal hope.
First of all, the Divine Gift vv 1- 4. Verse 3 is the key to understanding this whole section: 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. Here is the basic reason why Christians can be sure, because fundamentally Christianity is not self-manufactured. It is a divine gift not a human achievement. Peter is saying that out of the inexhaustible store of his omnipotence God has fully equipped us to make and keep us as Christians. His divine power is all we need to ensure that we have everything to live a godly life. That is what the text says.
Now this begins at conversion- the moment we become followers of Jesus. That is hinted at in v3 To those who through the righteousness of God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours. Notice that word received. Peter doesnt say To those who are giving Jesus a try, but to those who have received a faith. The word used here means to obtain by lot. That is, the spiritual response which launches a person upon the Christian pathway is a divine gift. We do not generate it any more than we can arrange the outcome of a lottery. But notice two other things which Peter says. He speaks of Jesus as God and Saviour thereby right at the outset dispelling any doubts about the identity of Jesus- he is divine. But he also speaks of these people as receiving a faith as precious as ours- literally equal to ours that is an apostle, someone who has seen the risen Lord. There is no spiritual hierarchy in the Christian life. Peter is saved on the same basis as Mrs Smith is saved- by trusting in the Lord Jesus. Of course the false teachers will tell you something different-that they are the ones who have had special revelations, who can zap you with the Spirit so you can fall down or have gold teeth or whatever the latest claim happens to be. But Peter doesnt not pull rank. Indeed, did you notice how he described himself in v 1? Simon Peter, slave and apostle of Jesus. He puts himself on the same level as every believer, a humble servant of Christ. Now let us pause right there and ask: Do you feel unsure about your status in the Christian family? You look at others, the spiritual giants like Nathan and think If only I had faith like that? Then let me ask you to take a look into your own heart. As you look there do you find a trusting in the Lord Jesus ? It may be a hesitant faith. It may be a weak faith. But it is sure faith nonetheless. Well, that was the faith Peter had which made him , miracle of miracles- a Christian.
But Peter goes further in v 3 to say that the divine generosity which brings us to faith is the same divine generosity which keeps us in the faith. We have what we might call the attractiveness of faith- as he speaks of the God in Jesus who called us by his own glory and goodness. It is as we read the Gospels and the life of Jesus that we are attracted by his own moral beauty and perfection. His very personality captures us so we come to trust him. But once that faith has been sealed , the same moral goodness becomes the inspiration and goal of our own spiritual progress. The more we get to know of Jesus, the more we want to become like him. Do you not find that? In the depth of our own self-disgust he breaks through to display the kind of person we in our better moments would like to be.
But this story of divine generosity takes a step further. Not only does he provide power he gives promises- great and precious promises Peter describes them, and every single one of them is found here in this open book- the Bible and not at some spiritual convention. Whoever comes to me, I will not cast out says Jesus. I will never leave you nor forsake you says God. I will send another comforter to be with you, the promised Holy Spirit, says Christ. These promises are not for a select few, they are for every believer. And as we take hold of these, the results are quite astonishing- v4 , we, become partakers in the divine nature, escaping the corruption of the world caused by evil desires. Dont embarrass them, but just take a look out of the corner of your eye to the person sitting next to you. To the security cameras they may not appear anything special but if they are a Christian then they are very special indeed, because God is not to be found at the end of the church building in the fenced off area called the sanctuary, he is to be found in that person. That is a surprise but it is true. Because you see, the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in that person and that is why you should not abuse them or bad mouth them- they are partakers of the divine nature. So could they want anything more? Do they need anything more? The answer is, no. You have Gods power by his Spirit and Gods promises by his Word so there is nothing more to be had. But that doesnt mean that we can now sit back, fold our arms and wait around for the second coming. For Peter goes on to speak about the human response , just take a look at what he says in vv 5-9. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
What is the proof that God is working in you? It is that you have been set to work for God. God has made the supreme effort to save you by sending his Son to die for you and so you are to make the effort to work out the difference that makes in your life. Not by doing this without God, but doing it because of God. If God is in you ( and he is) then this should show itself by an steady transformation of you character.
Now the word translated add in v5 is a rather interesting one . In ancient Greece , in order to keep public spending to the minimum, wealthy men were expected to personally contribute something to public works. They might sponsor a stage production for example, or build a battleship. This act of lavish co-operation on the part of a benefactor was called adding. Gordon Brown might go for this, in fact he already has, it is called PFI. Now Peter is saying to us, that we are to invest all of our personal resources in Gods holiness project. We are not building stages or ships, but holy characters. And step by step he lists those qualities that we are expected to contribute.
First of all there is faith, which is where all true change must begin. We do not put our trust- in our own self- efforts- that is the sin of Pharisaism and leads to pride. We put our trust in God and that leads to goodness. And this comes through knowing the Gospel- knowledge, there is nothing anti-intellectual about being a Christian. When a person becomes a Christian they begin to think about things in a way they never did before.
Notice too, the importance of self-control and perseverance. These are words of discipline: the power to resist self-indulgence on the one hand and opposition on the other. So instead of lying around in bed, the Christian will be up and praying, reading Gods Word or at church making most of his time on a Sunday. When the snide remark is made, the Christian wont hide, but will keep on keeping on.
Peter also mentions godliness, a favourite word of the Greeks. It means the well balanced moral life, not being given over to extremes. So the Christian wont play the hermit engaging in a total withdrawal from the world to keep pure, nor will he let everything slide thinking, Who cares God will forgive me anyway and so plays the field with girls and goes mad at the night club like everyone else. There will be that wonderful moral symmetry in the life of a believer ,living out a different life in the world, exhibiting values and attitudes which are fast disappearing from our post-Christian society- curtesy, restraint, kindness and thoughtful consideration.
And notice where this ladder of Christian virtues ends: brotherly affection and love. Within the Christian community there should be a level of affection for each other that causes the non-Christian to sit up and say Wow. What is it with these people? You dont see East Enders being re-enacted here in church, with people screaming and balling at each other, tearing each others hair out. Or is that Coronation Street?! They are actually fond of one another and they show it. And not only that but they show love to everyone apart from their own number regardless of their race, colour or background. There is something about their lives which has the touch of God about them.
This ladder of Christian virtue begins with faith in God and ends with loving like God. In short, faith in Jesus slowly makes you more and more like Jesus. Think of it like this: we are like children who say to their Fathers , Dad, will you lend me a pound so that I can buy you a birthday present? We have no buying power of our own, we are entirely dependent upon the generosity of our father. It is like that with us and our heavenly Father. We are totally dependent upon him for the power to change and his promises that he will enable us to change, but he is the one who wants us to do the buying of the present, making the investment of adding to our Christian lives. Indeed according to v 9, not to invest in Christian growth reveals that you are blind and have forgotten what you were saved from in the first place- your sins. So are you investing?
And so we come to the Eternal hope vv 10-11: Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Now could this be a word for someone here tonight? That one reason why you are not so sure about your salvation and your relationship with God is, to be frank, that you have simply stopped growing? If the truth be known the spark has gone, your testimony is ten years out of date. The point of that bible study, that prayer time, the meeting with other Christians like this, is so that we can change and so be sure. You know, there is the equivalent of the Christian couch potato who simply sits there , lazily stuffing himself or herself with Christian teaching, growing overweight on Christian meetings and doing absolutely nothing about it. Or to change the imagery, being a Christian is like riding a bike, so long as the wheels are turning you will remain upright and keep moving forward, but the slower you move the more difficult it is to keep your balance. By adding to your faith these virtues, says Peter, is the only way you will ensure that you will not fall. now by that he doesnt mean that we will never sin, or fail or slip, but that inspite of the setbacks we will make it to heaven in the end- receiving, as he puts it, a rich welcome into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
You see, God wants you to be sure of your eternal destiny. He doesnt want his children frozen with uncertainty or left open to the latest false teachers to come into the church. But he wants you to be sure on a proper basis. That is why the Bibles teaching is so well rounded and balanced. The grounds for our salvation is the finished work of Christ for us on the cross. The outworking of that salvation is the continuing work of Christ in us by his Spirit as we act on the promises of his Word. And if we keep this balance then we will always be kept humble and sure. This is beautifully illustrated by the burial ceremony of the Habsburg emperors, who were laid to rest in the Capuchin monastery in Vienna. When Emperor Franz Josef died, the grand cortege arrived at the closed doors of the monastery and a herald knocked at the gate. From within, the voice of the Abbott could be heard asking: "Who are you who knocks?" "I am Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, " the herald replied. "I dont know you. Tell me again who you are." cried the Abbott. "I am Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Galacia, Lodomeria and Dalmatia, Grand Duke of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Styria and Cornthia.." "We still dont know you. Who are you?" the Abbotts voice reiterated. Whereupon the herald knelt down and said: " I am Franz Josef, a poor sinner humbly begging for Gods mercy." Let us pray.
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