Throughout new covenant history, various Christian groups and denominations have held to some form of Christian perfectionism—that is, the teaching that, in one way or another, it is possible for a Christian, this side of the grave, to attain perfection. Some have taken this teaching from 2 Peter 1:4, which speaks of Christians as “partakers of the divine nature.” They argue from this phrase that Christians have been given a perfect nature, which cannot sin.
This teaching has, at times, had grave consequences. Douglas Moo tells the story of being called to offer counsel to a particular church that had a member promoting this teaching. This member had counselled a woman in the church to follow her husband into serious sexual sin because, after all, she had a perfect nature that could not be touched by sin.
If that sounds a little like the Gnostics of whom John wrote, it should. Peter seems to have encountered similar false teaching in the churches to which he ministered. He wrote to counter this error in 2 Peter 1:3–11.
As we saw in our introduction to this letter, Peter was more concerned about the sinful behaviour that false teaching would invite than he was about his readers being technically correct in every doctrinal discussion. He knew that embracing false teaching would eventually lead to errant living. We see this principle coming through clearly in the text before us this morning.
When Peter wrote of Christians being “partakers of the divine nature,” he was not suggesting that we have a perfect nature that is somehow incapable of sinning. Instead, he was saying that, by virtue of our justification, we have entered a relationship with God that makes it possible, and indeed makes us responsible, to pursue righteousness. Believers can overcome sin by the grace of God given in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Christians must do this. We must “make every effort” to supplement the faith given to us in Christ with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.
As is so often the case, there are extremes to which Christians are sometimes tempted to veer when it comes to the doctrine of sanctification. There are some who insist that it is the Spirit’s job to work sanctification in the Christian’s life. After all, the Spirit produces fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23) and it is God who works in us to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13). Sanctification is therefore God’s job, and we must just let go and let God.
Other Christians tend to overemphasise the need for human participation in sanctification. It is our responsibility, they say, to not confirm to the evil desires of the flesh (1 Peter 1:14–16). We are responsible to put off the old self and put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22–24). We have no one to rely on but ourselves for our growth in holiness.
In fact, the Bible teaches both realities. That is, it teaches us that God’s Spirit works in us to produce holiness but also that we must cooperate with the Spirit to grow in holiness. We are responsible to rely on God’s Spirit for progressive sanctification. The consistent teaching of the New Testament is that Christians are privileged to participate with God’s Spirit in their growth in Christlikeness. Peter’s readers need to understand this if they would avoid the godless living promoted and modelled by the false teachers. We need to understand the same. Here are three truths we must understand when we consider our privilege to participate in the divine nature.
First, we must examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. Everything that Peter writes in this section assumes that his readers were believers. It is only those who had been called to “his own glory and excellence” who could experience the power for sanctification. If you want to grow in holiness, the first step is to repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.
Second, we must use every means possible to grow in holiness. Peter exhorted his readers to “make every effort” in this regard. We must recognise the gracious gifts that God has given to us for growth in holiness. We must give ourselves to Scripture, prayer, corporate worship, and Christian fellowship if we will make progress in Christlikeness. We must take responsibility.
Third, we must do the above while relying on the Spirit for growth in Christ. We cannot drum up sanctification by our own will. While we must take responsibility and put in the effort, we must do so recognising that, if God does not work in us, we will not grow. We must therefore pray fervently for the grace we need to grow in Christ.
As you reflect on 2 Peter 1:3–11 this morning, ask God to help you to take seriously your responsibility for growth in Christlikeness, and then pray for the help of the Spirit to participate gladly in the divine nature.