The glorious truth of justification by faith is being rightly emphasized and popularized today by movements such as Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and in southern Africa, Sola 5, an association to which I am glad to belong. In Peter’s first epistle, you could find support for this kind of ministry several times.
…knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. 20 For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you 21 who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
1 Peter 1:18-21
…and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
1 Peter 2:24
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
1 Peter 3:18
When Peter writes again to this same group of believers just before his death, his greeting is baptized and drips with gospel glory.
Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ:
2 Peter 1:1
Peter loves the gospel, but in his second epistle he surprises those of us who have sympathy for centering our lives on the gospel. The second epistle deals broadly with Christian growth—traveling on the road to Heaven more so than entering at the gate, fighting with sin more so than enlisting in Christ’s army, the process of a child’s growth more so than the moment of a baby’s birth, sanctification more than justification.
It is not hard to see Peter’s focus on Christian growth in the second letter:
2 Peter 1:2-4
• One long sentence.
• How may we find great spiritual blessings like Christian grace and peace?
• These come from theology—a knowledge of God (1:2, 3, 4).
• These promises help us to “escape the corruption that is in the world.”
• These words describe a process of growth and change.
2 Peter 1:5-11
• With all your strength add these 7 virtues on to your faith.
• Work, work, work—the language of synergism, we are cooperating with God.
• Work hard to make sure that you have been called and chosen (1:10).
• By hard work you can expect entrance into God’s kingdom.
At the end of the letter, the last verse he writes before his crucifixion proves what was on his mind.
…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
2 Peter 3:18
What is most remarkable though is how strongly Peter feels about Christian growth or fighting with our sin in order to become like Christ.
Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you.
2 Peter 1:12
Peter always reminds them of the necessity and the means and the results of Christian growth. Even though they have already been taught, he is going to keep on pressing these same points to them.
I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.
2 Peter 1:13-14
Peter: “My brothers, this is what you will get whenever I have a platform.”
Christians: “Aren’t you always talking about this?”
Peter: “This will be my main theme until I die. Write it on my tombstone.”
He was willing to repeat this one section of God’s truth so often that after he was dead and gone, none of them would ever forget what he constantly talked about.
And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind.
2 Peter 1:15
The phrase “these things” is found 5 times in chapter one (1:8, 9, 10, 12, and 15) and it is implied in verse 11. It refers to working hard to add the virtues to your faith. What are these things? Christian growth or sanctification or holiness. Peter has a fixation that has become his own personal, doctrinal emphasis. He gives us an inspired example of a pastor who chooses a certain great theme to mark his life and ministry. Paul’s life was marked by justification by faith and missions. John’s life was marked by love. At least in the second epistle, Peter closes his life with an emphasis on true, Biblical holiness.
These verses make me think that Peter would not have joined a gospel-centered movement because he thought justification was necessary, but not sufficient. With power he preaches faith alone in Christ alone, but when he dies, he wants the people to remember to work with all their might for greater godliness.
If those verses were paraphrased and read in public in some modern settings, Christians hearing it might say, “That’s legalism!” Whatever the contemporary Christian would say, the ancient Christian said, “These things must never be forgotten.”
Putting Legalism to Good Use
Good Works Aren’t All Bad
The Temptation of Eve Is Really About Legalism?