PETER'S CONVERSION

 

The apostle Peter was unquestionably one of the most influential people who ever lived. Christ honored the apostle by choosing him to preach to the Jews the first gospel sermon ever recorded (Acts 2). He also selected Peter to preach at the house of Cornelius the first gospel sermon to Gentiles (Acts 10 and 11). When the four gospel writers provide a list of the apostles, they always list the apostle Peter first. That does not mean he occupies a place of primacy among the apostles, but he certainly was a leader among them. He was almost always the first  to speak up in answer to our Lord's questions. For example, when the disciples in general had begun to desert the Lord, Christ asked his apostles, "Will you also go away?" The apostle Peter responded: "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and know that thou are that Christ, the Son of the living God" (John 6:66-69).

 

Peter was a great man and a great preacher, but he often made blunders, just like the rest of us do. When Jesus demonstrated great humility by washing the disciples' feet, the apostle Peter protested: "Thou shalt never wash my feet." Jesus gently rebuked Peter: "If I do not wash you, you have no part with me." Then Peter went overboard by saying, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head" (John 13:8-9).   From this exchange between the Lord and Peter, it ought to be obvious that Peter sometimes spoke when he should have been listening. We may glean from Peter's encounter with the Lord that Peter's heart was not always right. The Lord himself said, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt 12:34).

 

After Jesus had promised the apostles he would build his church on the truth that he was the Christ, the son of the living God and would give them the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he began to show the apostles what would come to pass in the immediate future. He said he would have to go to Jerusalem, "and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord; this shall not be unto thee." Jesus turned and said unto Peter, "Get behind me, Satan, for you are an offense unto me: for you savor not the things of God, but those that be of men" (Mt. 16:16-19, 21-23). The word "savor" in modern English means to think. Jesus accused Peter of thinking as a fallible human being, not as God thinks.

 

Judas Iscariot betrayed our Lord and Savior with a kiss. After Judas had identified Jesus with a kiss for the Jewish leaders, some of them seized Jesus. The apostle Peter drew his sword and cut off the right ear of the high priest's servant whose name was Malchus. Peter must have thought Jesus Christ needed the protection of an earthly weapon. But Jesus said to Peter: "Put up your sword into the sheath: the cup which the Father has given me, shall I not drink it" (John 18:2, 10-11)?  The apostle Matthew quotes Jesus as saying further to Peter: "For they who take the sword shall perish by the sword. Do you think I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be" (Mt. 26:52-54)?

 

After the church of our Lord was established in Antioch of Syria, Peter and some other Jewish leaders visited the church. The church at Antioch was composed primarily of Gentiles. Peter had learned through an unusual vision that God provided the Gentiles an opportunity to believe in Christ and to obey the gospel. Peter expressed this most inspiring and comforting concept at the house of Cornelius: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he who fears God and works righteousness, is accepted of him" (Acts 10:34-35). Some of the Jewish Christians in Judea apparently questioned Peter's wisdom in going among Gentiles to preach the gospel. Peter explained: "Forasmuch then as God gave them (that is, the Gentiles) the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; who was I, that I could withstand God? When they (that is, the Jewish Christians from Judea) heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (Acts 11:17-18).

 

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah had foretold the coming of a new covenant. The new covenant was not to be for Jews alone, but for all men. "For they all shall know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:31-34). God gave the apostle Peter powerful evidence that the Gentiles were to be included in the new covenant. But in his weakness and prejudice, he forgot the lessons God had given him. He visited the new Gentile congregation in Antioch to see for himself how the church was getting along. Please listen to Paul's account of Peter's behavior. "But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision. And the other Jews likewise dissembled with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If you, being a Jew, live after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why do you compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews" (Gal. 2:11-14)?

 

The word "dissembled" means to act the hypocrite. Paul accused Peter of acting the hypocrite. That is a very serious charge against one of the leaders among the apostles. But there is no question that Paul's accusation was justified. Oddly enough, some prominent religious liberals imagine that Paul and Peter from that time onward were competitors in their service in the kingdom of God. How absolutely and inexcusably ridiculous! In his second epistle, Peter mentioned some of Paul's epistles. He referred to Paul as "our beloved brother" (2 Pet. 3:15). Do you ever wonder if some theologians and biblical scholars are searching for a new approach to scripture— even if it does not make sense—that will give them a small measure of immortality? All of us want to be remembered. I want to be remembered as one who preached the whole counsel of God and preached it with love.

 

Have you ever wondered how the apostles—including Simon Peter—came to an understanding of who Jesus was? O, I am aware of their call into the apostleship, but how were they convinced that Jesus was the Christ? How were they converted from serving Satan to following the Savior of the world? They were all Jewish. Some of them may have been John's disciples and learned from John that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). I know Jesus called the twelve to serve as foundation stones in the Lord's kingdom (Eph. 2:20). John gives us some insight into the way Jesus called them. When John identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, two disciples heard him and followed Jesus. "One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first finds his own brother Simon, and says unto him, We have found the Messiah, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, You are Simon the son of Jonah; you shall be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone" (John 1:36, 40-42). Most of us know this story from John's gospel, but it does not give us any information about Peter's initial conversion.

 

I use the term, "initial conversion," because there were other times in Peter's life when he needed converting. On one occasion, our Lord said to the apostle Peter: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail: and when you are converted, strengthen your brethren" (Lk. 22:31-32). Peter apparently did not fully understand what Jesus was saying to him. He pledged himself to go with Christ, whether to prison or to death. It was on this occasion that Jesus informed Peter that he would deny him three times (Lk. 22:33-34).

 

But Peter was already a follower of Christ. Why would Jesus say, "When you are converted, strengthen your brethren?" The word "convert" (epistrepho in the Greek) means to turn about, to turn towards. It is the same word Peter used in appealing to his Jewish hearers on Solomon's porch of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. "Repent therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19). The King James Version translates the verb as if it were passive voice, but it is active voice. It should be rendered: "Repent, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out." The turning again is what the person does—not what God does for him. What I have said about the word "convert" in Acts 3:19 is also true of Peter's conversion. Jesus actually said to Peter, "When you have turned again, strengthen your brethren."

 

The reason I have emphasized the voice of the verb "convert" is because of Calvinism's teaching on this point. Calvinists teach that conversion is wholly of God. Man has no part in his conversion. Calvinism's influence on the King James Version of the Bible led the translators to make this mistake regarding conversion. If man is saved by grace alone through faith alone, whether he turns again from sin could not in any way affect his eternal destiny. He might want to turn again; others might pray that he would turn again; but failure to turn again could not cause him to be lost eternally. If you think I may have misunderstood the Calvinist position or I may be exaggerating it, please be assured of the truthfulness of what I am saying. Don Rhodes' book, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), recommends that Christians maintain holiness. But if we must maintain holiness to sustain our salvation, that goes against God's gospel of grace (p. 274). In other words, if a Christian turns away from holiness, he is not required to turn again to holiness. Otherwise, he would not be saved by grace alone through faith alone.

 

You know from what Christ told Peter that Christ's words cannot be harmonized with the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Or perhaps Jesus did not mean what he told Peter. No honest student of scripture could ever accuse our Lord of merely making a suggestion to Peter. If Peter had not turned again, his soul would have been in jeopardy. If that were not true, why would Christ be concerned about Satan's desiring to have Peter and to sift him like wheat? If Calvinism were true, Peter could not fall form grace. There was no way Satan could have the apostle. But Jesus Christ prayed that Peter's faith would not fail. Was it impossible for Peter's faith to fail? Did it really matter in the long run if his faith did fail?

 

Both Paul and James express grave concern about those who fall from grace. In fact, Paul says concerning those who seek to be justified by the law of Moses, "You are fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4). Please listen to Paul. "Brethren, if any man be overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering yourself, lest you also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). This not a mere theoretical or hypothetical observation; there was a genuine danger of being overtaken by a fault. Unless a person's eternal welfare is at stake, urging Christians to restore their fallen brethren seems to be a waste of time and energy.

 

James warns: "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he who converts a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5:19-20). James does not mean to leave any doubt about the possibility of erring from the truth. He knew both by inspiration and by observation that Christians can and often do err from the truth. He also knew the dangers they faced if they did not repent of their sins and return to the way of truth. So he urges fellow Christians to convert them from the error of their way. The word "convert" in this passage from James is exactly the same word Jesus used of Peter and Peter used in his sermon on Solomon's porch. If a child cannot fall from grace, there is no absolute need to convert the sinner from the error his way. It might be admirable and advisable, but it is not essential. Yet James argues that those who restore fallen brothers and sisters in Christ are saving souls from death and hiding a multitude of sins.

 

When James spoke of saving a soul from death, what death did he have in mind? You know he cannot be speaking of physical death. The author of Hebrews tells us very plainly: "And it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). Whether you are an atheist, an erring child of God or a faithful Christian, you are going to die. James had in mind what John calls in Revelation "the second death." "But the fearful, and the unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death" (Rev. 21:8). Do you not understand from this passage how absolutely essential it is for Christians to work at restoring erring brothers and sisters?

 

The apostle Peter understood from his own experiences, from observing the lives of other people and from divine revelation the possibility of Christians’ straying from the path of righteousness. In his second epistle, Peter wrote of those who had once been faithful Christians. He said that they had "escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." When they become entangled again therein, and overcome, "the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For if had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog has turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire" (2 Pet. 2:20-22).

 

Do you honestly think that people who are in rebellion against God, as these false prophets were, do not need to be converted from their ungodliness? Do you remember what the author of Hebrews said about those who neglect the great salvation? "Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of  reward, how shall we escape, if we neglect the great salvation;" (Heb. 2:1-3)? Two observations on this passage are in order. The inspired writer was not speaking of unbelievers. He did not use the word "reject." He was concerned about neglect of the great salvation. But how could they neglect what they did not have? In other words, they had to be Christians. Besides, he asks, "How shall we escape if we neglect?" He included himself among the number who were in danger if they neglected the great salvation.

 

What did the author of Hebrews have in mind in the following passage? "He who despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses. Of how much sorer punishment, suppose you, shall he be thought worthy, who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and has done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him who has said, Vengeance belongs unto me, I will recompense says the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:28-31). In these verses, the author of Hebrews could not be speaking of unbelievers. They were never sanctified by the blood of the covenant. The author says the Lord will judge his people. Unbelievers do not belong in that category of God's people.   The conclusion to this great passage is very clear: Christians who have fallen away are in danger of being lost. Faithful Christians must exert every possible effort to convert them from their ungodly behavior. Jude exhorted his readers: "Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh" (Jude 21-23).

 

Our lesson today has been devoted to the saving of erring brothers and sisters. But we must do all within our power to point those who are not children of God to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

 

Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334

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