“Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “ 2 Peter 3:18
Two realms of growth
To grow in grace and to grow in knowledge, Peter suggests, are not precisely the same thing. It is quite possible to do one without doing the other: to acquire knowledge without that knowledge making the least impact either on character or on experience. This is true in ordinary walks of life, where knowledgeable people are sometimes surprisingly immature, and even childish, in their personal relationships and reactions. It is certainly liable to be the case with Christians, too, in their sphere of specialized knowledge, the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter’s view is that God’s people should experience a balanced growth, knowledge and character interacting in what, nowadays, we refer to as a “learning process”.
For every biography in the Bible makes it clear that God never gives us a knowledge of Himself as purely academic information. The Bible knows nothing of knowledge for its own sake, but only knowledge that will contribute to the moral ends of God in the character of His people. This knowledge is not something that we can collect, in the same way that some people collect Biographies of Napoleon or butterflies on pins (even though there are some Christians who give the impression that this is what they are doing). Fresh knowledge is supposed to be followed by practical outworking and the outworking, in its turn, should yield fresh knowledge. The two things can never diverge very far from one another.
Apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit we could never, of course, gain any knowledge of God to begin with. The initiative is with Him: He starts the process. There comes an initial revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ to which we may respond and, if we do, we have begun the process of growth — knowledge and response, knowledge and response — for the rest of our lives. But it seems valid to suggest that, once we have started, much of our growth in knowledge comes, and is supposed to come, as a product of our own experience up to that point: an interest on the capital we have invested.
This is a proposition about which we need to be very clear, for it stands in contrast to two false positions which are all too commonly to be encountered.
- One of these is to imagine that we can arrive at the initial knowledge of God without the Holy Spirit’s revelation, either by our own intelligence or our own experience — whether that experience is of nature or of our fellow human beings or is induced, say, by the use of drugs. But the door to heavenly understanding is not unlocked by any of these things.
- The other mistake is to think that, because God’s initial revelation of Himself is admittedly indispensable, we are entitled to a fresh revelation, with voices from heaven and writing on the wall, every time we confront one of life’s smallest decisions. But once the learning process has begun, we are responsible for all the knowledge which past lessons have imparted: we are supposed to be able to respond rightly when we are confronted by the same test a second time, because we recall the solution from the previous occasion. We expect this from our own pupils in school, and there seems no good reason why God should expect any less from us.
In practice, of course, we learn some things more quickly than other. Most of us can recall from school days subjects we were good at and other subjects of which we never seemed able to get to the point. And so we were kept in late or made to do extra hours of work until we finally made something of them.
This much is the common experience of God’s people and an expression of our own weakness. But it is interesting to find that it is true of some of the great figures of the past, too. In fact, there is no career which so well illustrates this uneven rate of progress, this ability to learn some things faster than others, as does that of Abraham.
The example of Abraham
The beginning of everything for Abraham was the initiative of God: “Get thee out” (Genesis 12:1). That command, and his obedience to it, launched him on a career, a “learning process”, with world-wide effects. God promised to bless Abraham, and ourselves through him, and this He certainly did. Now all the promises made at God’s subsequent appearances to Abraham concerned two things: (1) a place or land to live in, and (2) a family to succeed him through an heir whom God would give. And the remarkable thing to notice is the speed with which Abraham adjusted to the one idea and the slowness with which he absorbed the other…
Of course, Abraham learned at last. This, surely, is the significance of Genesis 22 and the sacrifice of Isaac. On the other side of life [the Promised Land] Abraham needed no such test: he had been sacrificing the natural advantages all along, and God had blessed him for doing so. Now he was required to put into use the knowledge of God which he had gained elsewhere; to use it in relation to his precious son. And this time, at long last, he grasped the point. We have only to listen to the angel speaking to him, after the knife stroke had been checked: “… neither do thou any harm unto him: for now I know …” (Gen. 22:12) What a wealth of meaning, what years of patient instruction, went into that now! At long last Abraham had learned, but what a time it had taken, and what stern measures had been necessary!
There is a small and happy postscript to add. The exhortation to grow in grace and knowledge, with which we began, was written by the apostle Peter. There never was a man who needed more to grow in grace than Peter. Peter had left all to follow Jesus, but in other respects, and especially where his own personal standing was concerned, he was a painfully slow learner, blundering from mistake to mistake. But it is this same Peter who now speaks of growing up and he does it in a context which shows the grace he himself had learned. For what precedes the exhortation is a reference to Paul and his epistles. Peter urges his readers that, to grow in grace they should pay close attention to Paul’s letters, even although he recognizes that there are things in those letters which are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). It sounds, in fact, as if Peter did not understand them himself! But this really is Peter writing — the leader of the twelve, the man who had been with Jesus from the beginning, and he is writing about Paul; Paul the persecutor of the Church, the johnny-come-lately, the authoritarian apostle. And he describes him as “our beloved brother Paul.”
How he must have grown in grace! And if Peter could do it, there is hope for us, too!
Toward The Mark Magazine, Vol 1., Issue 2, March, 1972
Subheadings and bracketed words added