Those Who Deny Jesus
Lately, I have found myself reflecting on the person of Simon Peter in the Gospels. Peter himself, at Jesus’ most dire moment, claimed “I do not know him” (Luke 22:57) for fear he might be put to death. Yet, when Jesus rose from the grave, he welcomed Peter back into His presence and restored their relationship (John 21:1-19). Why does Jesus love Peter, someone who has renounced His name?
I started thinking about this narrative in the Gospels because I was reading Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Makoto Fujimura is a renowned artist, and the header image of this article is one of his paintings). This book explores Shusaku Endo’s influential novel, Silence, in order to discuss the history of Christianity in Japan. Christians have been persecuted in Japan for a long time, but the time both Fujimura and Endo explore was when persecution was the most severe.
In the Tokugawa era in Japan, the Japanese government and its rulers committed mass persecution of Christian believers in the country. To make this persecution as powerful and effective as possible, they refrained from executing Christians as often as possible, instead forcing believers to deny Jesus with extensive torture. Japanese Christians and foreign missionaries were forced to step on wooden or bronze images of Jesus or Mary (called fumi-e). If they did not step on these images, renouncing their faith, they were physically tortured until they would do so.
As I read about these Japanese Christians renouncing God, I felt the desire to convict them in my mind as traitors of Christ. I felt the urge to claim they are beyond the grace of God. Yet, did Peter not deny Christ just like these men and women? Even more, do I not deny Christ in many of the ways I live? Of course, true apostasy is characteristically different from our every day, “common” sins (Matthew 10:32-33; Hebrews 6:1-12; 1 John 2:18-27). However, we cannot diminish the full weight of those common sins. What does it look like for an apostate, someone who has forsaken Christ, to receive the grace of God? Is such a thing possible? And what does it look like for us, who have not renounced Christ, to receive His grace?
If Jesus restored Peter into relationship with Him, then we, at the very least, know that renouncing Christ is not a sin too great for God to forgive. We know that the God who is faithful can restore someone who has denied Him, someone who has denied knowing Him. God can and does restore those who have verbally and explicitly renounced His name, and those who do so in implicit ways through their thoughts, desires, words, and actions.
I do not wish to portray renouncing Christ as something we are free to do. I do not wish to condone apostasy in any way. I also do not wish to idolize martyrdom. Paul speaks to a weariness toward this sort of idolatry:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
-1 Corinthians 13:3
I am saying, however, that those who have lost their lives for Christ have died unto life. They have died for someone worthy to live for. They have died for someone who brings them into life. I also wish to say that those who have denied Christ, even in dire and explicit ways, are not beyond the love of God. They are not “too far gone” for the love of God to redeem them into communion with Him.
Apostasy and the Preservation of the Saints
Some might ask: “if someone renounces Christ, doesn’t that mean they were not saved in the first place?” This question stems from a Reformed doctrine, the preservation of the saints (I use preservation instead of perseverance deliberately). The doctrine states that those whom God has saved will never be let go from His grasp. If He has saved them, they will be with Him in glory. Many reference Philippians when discussing the preservation of the saints:
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
So those that truly know Christ would not renounce Him, right? When I ask this question, I remember Peter and his betrayal. I believe Scripture portrays him as truly having faith in Christ, even though he believed imperfectly as we do. Yet, he denied that he knew Christ, and even more, Christ welcomed him back into a relationship with Him!
So, what do we do with this narrative? First, I think there are some who renounce Christ who never knew Him. They did not, in the deep recesses of their being, know the love of Christ, and so they did not see Him as one worth dying for. Nevertheless, there are some that know Christ who will deny Him—just like Peter did. These individuals are the ones that repent of their sin.
Let’s compare Peter with Judas. Judas betrayed Jesus, giving Him to the authorities to be murdered on the cross. Judas felt guilty and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). On the other hand, Peter denied Jesus three times and felt guilty for what he had done and for what he had not done. Whereas Judas ran in despair to the tree to kill himself in twisted “penance,” Peter ran in remorse to the tomb of Jesus to marvel at the news the women bring to him: that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb and that he has risen.
Denying the name of Jesus is not an “excused” sin, even through Christ’s love is strong enough to forgive apostasy if repented of. Denying the name of Jesus is not beyond the grace of God. Not only is God willing to save those who have deserted him (all of the disciples!), but He is willing and able to save those who renounce His name in the daily minutiae of their lives. Each of our sins claims that Jesus is not Lord. Each of our sins claims that we are our own god. Each of our sins, even though not apostasy, is a denial of Christ’s authority and love.
When I get angry in the car and cut someone off on the road, I am trying to take control from God. When I fall into lustful thoughts and actions, I am trying to make my own rules instead of receiving the loving commandments that God has given to me for my good. When I abstain from forgiving someone who has hurt me, I am claiming that I am better than God—I am saying that I am too good to forgive, even though my perfect, good God tells me to forgive. Although Scripture separates apostasy from the category of common, daily sins, all sin denies the name and power of Jesus. Though they are characteristically different, there is hope for the Christian who sins, whether apostasy or not, that the Lord has saved and forgiven us, and that he is continuously forming us into the image of Christ.
Repentance and Looking to Jesus
As we realize the weight of our sins, as we come to see that we deny Christ in the ways we sin, may we remember that Christ’s love is enough to cover our sins. Jesus, with his death on the cross, has already done the work of forgiving sins. In addition to remembering the work of Christ, name your sins. Naming your sins to yourself, to God, and to friends will expose the darkness within you. Let the light of Christ shine into you by practicing private and public confession, whether that’s by solitary prayer, corporate confession in your church’s liturgy, or a conversation in a quiet room with a friend. Pray that the Lord will continue His work in you and that He will change your heart to love His commandments and the holiness to which He calls His people. Pray that He will give your heart the disposition of repentance. The Lord forgives those who come to Him in humble repentance of their sins, apostates and everyday sinners alike.
Peter had a heart trained in repentance. He knew he had sinned when he denied knowing Jesus. He had to face the resurrected Jesus guilty and wanting Christ’s love. By God’s grace, his relationship with Christ was restored, and he lived a life devoted to the gospel. He sought to know the love of Christ more deeply and share the joy of that love with others. Learn from Peter and let God, His Word, and His Spirit train your heart in the ways of repentance.
I wanted to leave you with something to contemplate. This is a poem by Scott Cairns called “Late Metanoia” (which we could rephrase as Late Repentance):
As we have all denied him, as we all
have grown more lost along the way, we need
now answer his most simple question: Do
you love me?
Should we deign to answer yes,
yes, yes, you know, Lord, that I love you, then
we must rise up, set out to feed the lambs.
As we have all made what little progress
we have made in fits and starts, as we all
have gained some ground, lost most of it again,
the question come around again each day:
How shall I yet hope to love him, how make
of this my love a covert for his sheep?
As we fail and succeed in growing in faith, how can we hope to love God more? How can we make a shelter for His sheep? We look to Him instead of ourselves. It is God who has the power to grow our love for Him; it is God who works through us to bring in and protect His sheep. In the case of those who deny Jesus in the act of apostasy, how can they hope to love God more and care for His sheep? They as well need to look to Jesus instead of themselves. They need to go to Him in humble repentance as others do with their sins. It is God who has the power and desire to save. God works through His people, even those that deny Him. He brings them to repentance and back into His loving arms.