Godliness — Christian Ethics Formed in the Believer
The Pharisees thought that they would be pure before God if they washed their hands before they ate. They believed that defilement originates outside of a man. Mark tells us this in the seventh chapter of his gospel. Of course, they were wrong, but their bad theology does raise an interesting question: if contamination doesn’t come from the outside, then what is its source? There’s really only one other choice. Defilement must originate on the inside. Jesus said that it proceeds out of our own hearts. In other words, the heart of man’s problem is the problem of his heart.
We look around and it doesn’t take too long to realize that this is a universal problem. Psalm 53:3 says, Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Is it just a coincidence that all men happen to hate God? Is this sad truth the result of the food we eat, the water we drink or the world in which we live? No, evil isn’t imposed on us from the outside. It comes from deep within. All men are fashioned from the same mold — a mold that shapes a wicked and corrupt heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
If there is yet any doubt that this is the case, just consider the list of man’s “wonderful” accomplishments: evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. There is not one thing in this entire list that can be attributed to eating with unwashed hands or any other cause outside of man. Sin does not begin out there. It begins in the minds, hearts and souls of corrupt human beings.
The Pharisee had missed the point. They needed to be cleansed where no ordinary water can reach. Nothing they do could cause the needed transformation. Only the grace of God can cleanse the heart of man. And once God’s grace reaches into a man’s heart, it brings forth an abundant fruit to the glory of Jesus Christ. In another place Jesus said, He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:38).
This morning’s text calls us to grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the verses immediately preceding it, Peter reminds us of how much God has already done for us. In verse 3 he says that gives us all things that are necessary for life and godliness. The next verse adds that God showers us with exceeding great and precious promises, the purpose of which is that we might be partakers of the divine nature. That is, as God’s people our lives should display as many of God’s attributes as is possible for creatures to do. And the one attribute here that towers above all the others is holiness. Thus, Peter exhorts us to escape the corruption that is in the world through lust.
The first three verses of our text tell us how to build upon this foundation. It all begins with faith. Each of us must believe that the work of the Lord Jesus Christ satisfied for our sins so completely that nothing in the universe can separate us from the love of God. We must believe that he suffered, died and rose again for our sakes. This faith, of course, is a gift of God, and not something that we create within ourselves.
But our faith is just the beginning of what God wants to see in us. Peter says that we must add a whole range of virtues to (or by) our faith. Interestingly, the word translated add (ἐπιχορηγήσατε) in verse 5 is also the root of our words chorus and choreography. In ancient Greece the state established choruses (χοροί), but the directors of the choruses (χορηγοί) were financially responsible for their training. Thus, the director supported the choir. Later this word came to be used for anyone who supports others. In modern Greek it simply means benefactor and no longer has anything to do with choirs. In our text, Peter’s point is that our faith must be upheld and supported by other virtues — not in the sense that faith needs these other things in order to be faith, but only because we cannot recognize the sincerity of faith (either in ourselves or in others) apart from the virtues that accompany it. Faith, then, is at the beginning of the list.
Now, before we consider the remaining virtues, it’s important to note that the order in which Peter lists them is not necessarily the order in which they manifest themselves in our lives. For example, it would make no sense for patience to come after temperance or for godliness to come after patience, since temperance presupposes patience, and patience is a manifestation of godliness. Rather, Peter is simply telling us that faith has many complements, and that God requires us to add each of them to faith as soon as possible.
The first grace that he mentions is virtue. The word used here is the same word used in verse 3 (cf. I Pet. 2:9) and is sort of a catch-all term. It includes all the righteousness that we should have as believers. The specific things that define virtue follow it in the list.
Knowledge comes next. Some commentators believe that the knowledge that Peter intended here was a practical understanding of God’s will, i.e., in contrast to an academic understanding of Scripture. They say that faith, the foundation for all virtue, already includes knowledge as one of its components, since we cannot believe unless we know what we are to believe. But this not a very good argument, since it assumes that believers have a complete knowledge of the Bible as soon as we’re born again. But the Bible teaches that we need to grow in our knowledge of Scripture as much as we need to grow in our application of it. In fact, the very last verse of II Peter exhorts us to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (II Pet. 3:18).
But even the context of verse 5 favors a doctrinal understanding of the knowledge. Verse 2, for example, says that grace and peace are multiplied by a knowledge of God, that is, by a knowledge of theology. Verse 3 adds that all things that pertain to life and godliness come by the same. Peter says that we must know the one who calls us to the virtues he enumerates in our text. And later verse 8 also summons us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ, the one through whom these virtues are mediated.
On the other hand, we must not think of this knowledge as a mere intellectual understanding. Rather, it is a believing understanding or a knowledge that accepts the propositions of Scripture as a true and accurate account of what really is. You see, unbelievers can intellectually understand what the Bible says. They just don’t believe that it tells the truth. Only those to whom God gives faith know that every word the Bible says is true.
Following knowledge we have temperance. Temperance or self-control teaches us to restrain our desires, especially when lust is concerned.
Patience, the next item in the list of faith-additives, is the ability to bear afflictions without grumbling and complaining. Instead, we should rejoice in our trials, knowing that they have been given to us by a Father who loves us, and that their purpose is to make us more like Christ in our obedience.
Godliness refers to our duties toward God, which we sometimes call the first table of the law. In fact, it might be more helpful to translate this word (εὐσέβειαν) as “piety.” In the list it comes after patience because the two virtues are related. Godliness teaches us to accept God’s providential appointments for our lives patiently, with the assurance that he will come to our aid just as he promised.
Brotherly kindness, on the other hand, takes us to the second table of the law, as it is applied specifically toward other our brothers in the Lord. In fact, brotherly kindness translates a single Greek word φιλαδελφίαν. Philadelphia is literally “the city of brotherly love.” And the fact that it comes immediately after godliness shows that the two tables of the law must go together. We cannot keep one without also keeping the other.
And finally, lest we think that our duty is restricted only to those of the household of faith, the last grace listed is charity or love. This teaches us to show compassion toward all men, even our enemies. The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this. The Samaritan was an enemy of the Jew who fell among thieves; nonetheless he cared for his bodily needs. Our charity toward others ought to go even further. We need to minister to their souls as well, and we do that by witnessing to them of God’s love for sinners in Jesus Christ.
In all of this Peter wants us to understand that the strongest testimony to the genuineness of our faith occurs when this whole range of virtues conspires together, offering a consistent picture of God’s grace at work in our lives. And that’s what each and every one of us should strive for.
A Warning Against Infidelity
According to verse 8, these graces must not only be in a person but also abounding in him. When this is so, we cannot help being productive in our service to Christ. Why? Because the graces themselves constitute (καθίστησιν) us as productive.
From this we learn something very important about these graces. The fact that they are graces means that God gives them to us according to his sovereign pleasure. That’s what verse 3 says: his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness. And yet these graces are also gifts that we must exercise. God gives us faith, but he doesn’t believe for us. He commands us to be virtuous, but he does not do the good works that he has appointed for us to (Eph. 2:10). He also reveals his mind to us on the pages of Scripture, but we have to open the Bible and study it for ourselves if we want the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding. Thus, the graces that God gives us constitute us as productive if, and only if, we make good use of them.
Peter states this truth negatively at end of verse 8. He says that we will not be barren or unfruitful if we abound in the Spirit’s graces. Barren (ἀργοὺς) literally means lazy or sluggish, and unfruitful (ἀκάρπους) means unproductive. Peter uses the negative here to emphasize the positive, viz., that if we exert ourselves fully in the Spirit’s graces God will count us as diligent and productive servants.
Specifically he says that we will be productive in respect to our knowledge of Christ, which will increase our faith, which in turn will testify to the genuineness of our faith.
But those who lack these graces, according to verse 9, are blind and uninformed. They completely lack spiritual insight. In fact, Peter says this twice so that we don’t miss the point. First, he uses the ordinary word for blind (τυφλός). Then he says that such people cannot see things at a distance. The latter word (μυωπάζων) is the source of our word myopic. In Greek, however, it can mean either near-sighted, as the KJV translates it, or able only to see dimly (i.e., as if everything were dark and hard to make out). Either meaning fits Peter’s purpose. He’s simply describing the severity of the spiritual blindness of those who do not make good use of God’s grace. They are so blind that they cannot even see God’s grace in the forgiveness of their sins — something that should be obvious to everyone who has turned to Jesus Christ for deliverance. But the blind cannot see well enough to make it out.
Now, if we take their forgetfulness at face value, the person who fails to appreciate God’s grace would not know the Lord at all. He would be an unbeliever. How can he otherwise if he has forgotten the most basic doctrine of all? But it’s also possible, and I think more likely, that Peter is saying that such a person seems to have forgotten the most basic teachings of the gospel. It appears that way because his life shows no evidence of spiritual awareness. The individual in question may be a true believer whose sin has temporarily taken control of his life, blinding him to the glory and power of the gospel.
Then the question is, How do you distinguish between the two in real life situations? How can you tell whether a professing Christian who lives in sin is a goat pretending to be a sheep or a sheep living like a goat? Of course, we cannot judge what’s in a person’s heart. It’s not our job to run around asking ourselves whether so-and-so is converted or not. But we can evaluate such a person’s response to repeated admonitions of other church members. Jesus gave us the process to follow in Matthew 18:15–20. If somewhere in the process, the wayward brother hears the rebuke and repents of his sin, then thou hast gained thy brother. But if he neglects to hear the church with the result that the church excommunicates him from its fellowship, then he shall be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
But I would urge two cautions here. First, we should never regard an erring member of the church as a heathen until every avenue of restoration as laid out for us in Matthew 18 has been exhausted. Just because an individual doesn’t listen to the first or second admonition does not mean that the Spirit won’t soften his heart to the third. And second, once the steps of discipline have been exhausted and the person in question becomes as a heathen to us, our job then is to evangelize him. As a heathen, he needs to hear the gospel. Our job is to call him to Jesus Christ in faith.
On the other hand, Peter didn’t intend for verse 9 to be a guide for judging others. He wants you to judge yourself so that you might have the assurance of God’s favor. Ask yourself how well you receive admonitions. As a child of God, you should find the wounds of a friend to be faithful (Prov. 27:6).
Exhortation to Diligence
Peter wrote these words for you because he wants you to take the warnings of Scripture seriously. If you’re not reading the Bible for yourselves, then you need to pay extra careful attention when the rebukes of Scripture come to you from others in the church.
But the fact is that you shouldn’t allow your spiritual life to erode even that much. Peter exhorts you in verse 10 to make your walk with Christ your highest priority. The word translated give diligence (σπουδάσατε) literally means to exert yourselves, to pursue eagerly the desired object of your hope and trust. In other words, Peter calls you to strain every muscle and nerve to test the evidences of your calling and election. He wants you to be assured that you are, in fact, one of God’s beloved children.
If you do this, he said, then you will never come to ultimate grief, i.e., you will never give in to any temptation from which you cannot recover. This is God’s promise to you. It’s a promise that should strengthen your resolve to please him in every good work and word.
And this promise further assures you, as Peter wrote in verse 11, that God himself ministers unto you an entrance into the everlasting kingdom of Jesus Christ. The word translated as ministered here is the same Greek word that’s translated add in verse 5. As you add one grace to another to strengthen your walk with God, God himself supplies you with everything you need to do so. And God not only supplies your needs, he does so abundantly (πλουσίως) or richly, so that you will most assuredly come into full possession of the kingdom that he promises those who look to Christ in faith.
Now, we understand that Christian growth means that we must become more and more obedient to the Word of God. None of us would deny that. But what about those areas where the Bible doesn’t give specific legislation? Various subjects have been discussed here, e.g., alcohol, tobacco, playing cards, dancing, movies, and many other such things. These all concern what we generally term Christian liberty.
Several hundred years before the Lord Jesus Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah announced that his mission would be, in part, to proclaim liberty to the captives (Isa. 61:1). This does not mean merely that he would make a verbal declaration of liberty, but that he would declare a liberty that he himself would procure. The question here is, What exactly is this liberty?
One of the best statements on Christian liberty is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The first paragraph of chapter 20 reads as follows:
The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the Gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.
The main idea here is that Christian liberty means that we are no longer in bondage to sin and its consequences, but have been given unfettered access to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, in terms of a practical application what does this mean? What is the appropriate use of Christian liberty in a situation involving the weak and the strong?
In his book The Freedom of the Christian Man Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In other words, although our consciences are not bound by the religious scruples of others, we nonetheless have a responsibility to everyone who professes the name of Christ.
Does this mean, then, that we must refrain from everything that displeases a weaker brother? Not necessarily. When Paul wrote, Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:15), we have to remember that it is impossible for a weaker brother to be destroyed merely by watching us. Rather, our behavior has to be such that emboldens the weaker brother to do something that he conscientiously believes is wrong. It involves a censorship or judgment that pressures the weaker brother to conform to the expectations of the stronger. When this is the case, Paul says that it is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak (Rom. 14:21). What he wrote to the church at Corinth is even stronger: But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend (I Cor. 8:12–13).
Here’s the problem, though: what is the point at which a strong brother exercising his Christian liberty becomes a provocation to fall for a weaker brother? How do we know when we’ve reached that point?
I’m not sure that I can give a hard and fast, universally-binding rule that answers this question because there are too many variables to consider. What I can say by the authority of the Word of God is this: if we believe that we are getting close to the point where our behavior is enticing the weaker brother to violate his conscience, then we need to back off. Our liberty to do anything — even eating meat if that occasions our brother’s fall — is not worth the price of a weak brother’s broken conscience. In this situation, it is true that what the law allows, wisdom and discretion sometimes disallow. Or we can say that love should take precedence over liberty.
As Luther said, we are lords of all and subject to none in the sense that we are free to serve Jesus Christ with a clear conscience in matters where no sin is involved. But we are also servants of every Christian in the sense that we must sometimes voluntarily forego our liberty in situations where our behavior is likely to be the occasion of a brother’s fall.
When you’re tempted to complain that you have to restrict the exercise of your liberty because of a weaker brother, you need to remember two things. First, no man ever gave up as much in the service of others as our Savior did. He had no place to lay his head. His own family believed him to be insane. Men mocked and scorned him throughout his life until finally they nailed him to the tree. He suffered under the just judgment of God for you. He gave his life for your sins and mine. No one took his life from him. He voluntarily surrendered it for us. He said, No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again (John 10:18). Your freedom was bought by his sacrifice. Don’t ever forget that! And second, Christ did not die for you alone. He died for everyone who puts his trust in him, even for those precious brothers who, by his sovereign decree, would be subject to weak consciences. If Christ died for these brothers, then you have no right to cause them harm.
The liberty that we have as Christians is a wonderful gift. We are no longer in bondage to sin. Satan and the kingdom of darkness have been defeated once and for all. But your liberty is not a license to sin. Nor is it a warrant to harm others for whom Christ died. We have to be circumspect in our enjoyment of Christian liberty, using it only as a means to glorify and magnify the one who died to make all of his people free.
The life that pleases God demands the same degree of obedience that expected from those who have gone before us. To Abraham he said, Walk before me, and be thou perfect (Gen. 17:1). To the Jews who came out of Egypt under Moses he said, O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever! (Deut. 5:29). And through the prophet Micah the Lord again reminded his people of his requirements: To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God (Micah 6:8).
The life that pleases God, in other words, consists of the graces that he himself supplies and commands us to use in his service.
Have you adorned your life with the gifts that God himself gives? How prominent is your faith? Do those who work around you know that you’re a Christian? How about your next-door neighbor or the widow who lives down the street? Is your faith strengthened by the addition of virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and love? Have you humbled yourself before God and begged him to make you useful and productive?
The world thinks it’s okay to ignore God’s gifts and exalt the happiness of our fellow men above the glory of Jesus Christ. But there is no surprise here, since this is the nature of sin. But God calls us to a better way. He gave his Son to bear our sins upon the cross. He gives us faith to believe that our sins have been fully satisfied by Christ. He then showers us with other graces, which he wants us to use to his honor and thereby also confirm our calling and election.
Is your life adorned with the obedience that pleases God? The Lord calls you to decorate your life with the seven virtues that God calls you to as his people.
May the Spirit of God, who calls us to faith in Christ, also grant that we might walk before him in holiness all our days to the glory of Jesus Christ! Amen.