What part does knowledge play in the Christian faith? Dr. Allen Curry preaches a chapel message on 2 Peter 1:5 at RTS Jackson.
I’d like to read the last few verses of Peter’s second letter, 2 Peter 3:14–18 through the end of the book. Hear now God’s Word:
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. 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.
And then from the passage from which our thoughts will be directed today, the first chapter of Second Peter, the fifth verse:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”
Let’s pray once again.
Father in heaven, open now your Word to us, but open now our hearts also to your Word. O living Spirit, these are your words that you gave to Peter as you buoyed him along. Now give them to us in such a way that they will penetrate into our hearts, and that penetration will be evident in the way we live to your glory. Please do this, we pray, for Jesus’s sake, Amen.
Seldom do people ask seminary students: what type of industry or business are they in? But it does seem to me that if someone asks us what kind of business or industry we were about, it would be fair to say that we’re in the knowledge industry. We are thinking about knowledge and at seminary that’s our stock-in-trade. We spend hours on end trying to gain new knowledge or master knowledge that we have already heard of in such a way that we can quiz ourselves in papers and in exams. Knowledge is something that’s about at a seminary. It’s always present. It’s always pertinent to any discussions that we may engage in.
I suspect that we work on knowledge, but we don’t often reflect on just what knowledge is and what it ought to do for us and how it ought to characterize us. My suspicion is that we’re too busy mastering it and molding it and using it to really step back and to say just what is this business that I am in? Just what is it that I’m about?
Peter, as he writes to the church, acknowledges that knowledge plays a central place. And I think that’s true, as you look through the book, that he talks about knowledge. He talks about knowledge, both in terms of a kind of positive thing, but I think he also presents knowledge to us because the way in which his opponents use knowledge and the way they abused it. Peter wants us to have a legitimate understanding of knowledge over against all of those illegitimate expressions that were around the church at that day.
It’s interesting to note to that even though the idea of knowledge was abused in the world in which Peter lived, Peter doesn’t call his audience to run away from knowledge. Those of us who have lived within American fundamentalism have found that that’s one approach to handling knowledge. Knowledge is out there, and it is owned and used by those who don’t hold to the Christian faith, and so the only antidote to knowledge is ignorance. And I think we have to be careful that we don’t fall into that trap, and it is certain that Peter doesn’t fall into that trap. But rather he comes along and he claims great benefits for those who have a genuine knowledge.
Peter Has a Hebraic Understanding of Knowledge
And so in the text that I read to you from verse 5 of the first chapter of 2 Peter, he tells us that to our faith we are to add virtue and then we are to supplement that virtue with knowledge. I suspect that it’s useful for us to ask the question as Peter talks about knowledge, just what is it that he has in mind? To really understand what Peter’s about, we have to recognize who Peter is, that Peter’s a Jew. He was a faithful Jew, and as a faithful Jew, there were certain things that he knew about knowing. He had ideas about knowledge that were very clearly based upon Old Testament ideas.
To know someone is to have a relationship with that person.And one of those Hebraic ideas about knowledge that Peter certainly would have had is that knowledge conveys the idea of a relationship, that to know someone is to have a relationship with that person. And that’s why God can know people, not that he’s somehow not cognizant of them, but that he has some kind of relationship with them. So, for example, in Deuteronomy 34, we read that “since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This wasn’t some separated kind of knowledge that God had with him, but it was a face-to-face, relational kind of knowledge.
Knowledge in the Old Testament, Hebraic knowledge, also is frequently knowledge of the doings and sayings of God. People know things because God does something or because God says something. And so we find that kind of usage as well in the Old Testament. That’s a part of it. Knowledge also in the Old Testament had to do with being able to discern between right and wrong. I don’t think it’s accidental that that tree in the midst of the garden was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Knowledge enables someone to make discernments about what is good and evil.
It’s appropriate for us to imagine that Peter, as he talks about knowledge here, does so out of the context of having been raised in Judaism and having been raised with these kinds of ideas of knowledge behind him. So these Hebraic antecedents certainly play a major role in what Peter has to say, but as he uses knowledge here and “to know,” it’s clear that the knowledge that we have is a knowledge that does something for us as well. It picks up on all those Hebraic ideas, but Peter’s also talking about the knowledge that we have of what Jesus Christ has done is really what God uses to bring us to himself.
Knowledge enables someone to make discernments about what is good and evil.Look at the way he puts this out for us in verses 3 and 4. And Peter’s idea of knowledge is very close to the way in which John uses this in 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” I think that’s what Peter has in mind as he writes to the people in this third chapter.
We can also see something about what Peter means by knowledge as he ends this book by calling everybody to come to have a knowledge of the grace of Jesus Christ, that they are to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, that is in what they know about him, not just about, but also with him, that that kind of relationship. All of those things, it seems to me, are entailed in what Peter argues for at the end of the book, and that’s what he’s talking about with knowledge.
Peter Warns Christians Against False Notions of Knowledge
But Peter in this book is not just talking about the positive things about knowledge, but one of the things Peter wants to be very clear about is that the people to whom he writes don’t get caught up in false notions of knowledge. Because false notions of knowledge are clearly in these proto-Gnostics; these people were using knowledge in ways that when they presented their understanding of knowledge to the people in the churches what happens is people in the churches turned out to be libertines. They engaged in licentious kinds of behavior. So Peter, as he presents knowledge, wants to make sure that people don’t get involved in the wrong kind of knowledge. And I think we have to pay attention to Peter’s point here that when we have knowledge and we add knowledge to our faith, when we supplement our faith by knowledge, one of the things that happens is that we don’t use knowledge in inappropriate ways.
I suspect that every one of us . . . has struggled with using knowledge as a way to boost our egos.And my suspicion is that’s something that those of us in this room have to really wrestle with: the ways in which we use knowledge in inappropriate ways. I suspect that every one of us—faculty, students—has struggled with using knowledge as a way to boost our egos. Think of the way you make comments in class or ask questions. How many times do you ask questions not to find out answers, but to let people know how erudite you are in the asking of questions? You use knowledge not as a way to find out something else, but it’s for everybody else to say, “Boy, he really asks good questions, doesn’t he? He’s really smart.” That’s one of the ways in which we can abuse knowledge, and it leads us away from what genuine knowledge really is.
We also use knowledge frequently as a form of power, either to defend ourselves or to manipulate others. Husbands do this. Your wife wants you to do something. Your wife makes a suggestion that something ought to be done, and you don’t want to do it. And rather than sitting looking your wife in the face and saying, “I don’t want to do that,” you go and you dig all this knowledge up that you have from theology books and you try to convince her that it’s not good for you to do or it’s not right for you to do what she has asked you to do.
My wife regularly queries me because I have these strange Puritan ideas about holidays. And she says to me, “Do you have those strange Puritan ideas about avoiding holidays because you just don’t like holidays or are you really a Puritan?” And I have to pay attention to that question. You see how we can abuse knowledge. It’s not only when we use knowledge sometimes to manipulate our wives, we can actually do that with our little kids. Fathers, kids say, “Daddy, let’s do this because it will please me.” Daddy wants to do other, and so Daddy gives some nice theological explanation of why he ought to do other.
These aren’t exactly the things that Peter has in mind, but Peter is warning the people that when they have knowledge, they can use knowledge in inappropriate ways. When you use knowledge in inappropriate ways, it draws you to places where you end up away from where genuine knowledge ought to take us.
Now Peter, as he talks to the church here, not only warns them about false knowledge, but he tells them here that they are to supplement their faith with virtue and with knowledge. And he goes on to tell them that this knowledge ought to add to, it ought to build up, it ought to fill out a faith. I think we have to recognize that the knowledge that we have while we’re engaged in this business of knowledge has to be a knowledge that helps us, out of our faith, to engage in virtue. That stands to reason, that the knowledge that we have ought to enable us to discern between right and wrong. That’s a part of the reason why that tree was called the knowledge of good and evil. We ought to be able to make those kinds of discernment and we ought to be able to make those kinds of discernment out of our faith.
We ought to be able to say, how is it that one who faithfully belongs to Jesus Christ, one who truly trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ, one who can acknowledge the character of his sin will know what it is that he should do? Do we reflect on all of those wonderful things that we learn about in systematic theology? We learn about the wonder of God, we learn about the a marvel of his character, and we learn that there is a God who lives in and of himself without needing anything else at all, that he is this self-existing God. And do we ask ourselves: now that I know these propositions about him does it make any difference in the way I go about trusting him? Does it make any difference whatsoever in the way I go about honoring him?
Do we reflect on all of those wonderful things that we learn about in systematic theology?I mean, let’s get concrete. Did you think about him when you came here this morning to worship him? Did any of the knowledge that you have that you got after you suffered through theology proper, did it make one ounce of difference when you came into his presence and determined to declare his glory?That’s what Peter wants this knowledge to do. When you supplement your faith with knowledge, when you supplement your trust with knowledge, then it is that knowledge that enables you to discern what you are, what you ought to do. It makes your faith a faith that is more sufficient and that will make your faith flourish.
Christians Need to Act on Their Knowledge
Now Peter not only reminds the people, not only tells the people that they are to supplement their faith and virtue with knowledge, but he in this passage also tells them to make every effort, to be determined that they will do this and that they will engage in kinds of effort to supplement these things. That’s exactly what Peter puts before us. And the knowledge of the sort that Peter encourages comes from the gathering of information, certainly. But it seems to me it comes more from experience, wedded both to information and to reflection. If you are going to make an effort, if you are going to put forth some kind of diligence in order for these elements like knowledge to be added to your faith, then you’re going to have to be able to think about these things. You would have to be able to reflect on them.
And that’s something that within the confines of seminary life, we seldom do. We are so busy gaining knowledge that we never let knowledge come and penetrate into that faith. In your prayers, when you are declaring to God your trust for him, do you reflect on what you know about him? Do you think about him and the way he is? When you come into God’s presence, is your breath ever shortened because you know he’s holy and righteous? And you can’t imagine that you are in his presence, the anomaly of it, the oddity of it is both frightening and amazing.
Then you think more, and you reflect on all those things that you have heard about the atoning work of Jesus Christ. And you say, “I’m in God’s presence, and he looks at me and he sees me as righteous. He doesn’t see me in my sin because I have the very holiness of Jesus Christ.”
Do you ever sweat about that, like you sweat over Hebrew and Greek verbs? Spend the same kind of time wrestling with the perfection that you get because of what Jesus Christ has done as you do in trying to discern what a perfect verb sounds like. Peter says, “Make every effort.” Engage yourselves. Be diligent so that these things will come about.
Peter also in this same passage tells us that if we labor to have these qualities, then we will be able to make our calling and election sure. Look at verse 10, he says, “Therefore, my brothers be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things, you will never fall.”
I think we have to ask ourselves: how do these qualities like knowledge have something to do with our calling and our election? I think Calvin is right, but I think Calvin is only partly right, as he said, certainly this is subjective. This is a part of assurance, and I think we have to recognize that. That when we reflect on how we function in our faith, in our trusting in Jesus Christ, and if we see, for example, that the knowledge that we have garnered about who God is and what God has done and the knowledge that we have of the Word that God has given to us, if that knowledge begins to impel us to live and to act, to function in certain kinds of ways, if those kinds of ways are in conformity to the very truth that we have come to get hold of, then we’ll have a subjective encouragement to us.
But I also think that, as Peter writes here, he also has some objective things in mind. Peter is telling us that these are those things that ought to characterize those who are the called, those who are the elected ones. We ought to be thinking about these things in terms of making sure our calling and election. But it seems to me what Peter has in mind here is that if we do the things that create these qualities that he has set before us back there beginning in verse 5 to 7, if these qualities are present in our lives, then the other things that would cause us to fall, those things that would cause us to stumble won’t be there.
But what I think Peter has in mind here is that if we do the good, then we won’t be doing the bad. And so it is for us then to discipline ourselves, to be engaged in that which is good, so that therefore it is a testimony not only to us, but it also is a demonstration that as we do that which is good, then we won’t be engaged in that which is wrong, and therefore stumbling will not be a part of our lives.
And again, I wonder if all the knowledge that we garner as seminary students, all those books that have underlining and overlining and highlighting and notes in them, do they impel us to do those kind of things that are the opposite of those who fall? To engage in those kind of actions and activities that will keep us walking in the right path? I think that’s what Peter means when he suggests to us that we supplement our faith with knowledge, with understanding, that it leads us and directs us to engage in those kind of things that will be right and keep us away from those things that are wrong.
This is where discernment has to come in. This is where we have to think about what it means to be right and wrong. We sit in this room, and we have to recognize that our responsibility for doing the right is different from the responsibility for doing the right from lots of other people because those to whom much has been given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). And so, you know something about what is right. And so it is for us then to take that knowledge and to use it so that we can figure out what is right and engage in that which is right to keep us from that way which is falling. That’s how our knowledge is a supplement to our faith. We need to think along those lines.
But it’s not only in terms of moral kinds of principles and practices, it’s also in terms of the way in which we conceive of our lives. One of the struggles that we have as we live in this world is that this world keeps telling us about our rights. It keeps reminding us about what we deserve, and we know what we deserve. We know what we’ve earned. We have earned God’s wrath and curse forever. Now, does that knowledge keep you from falling and stumbling into all the errors of this world? Would you define yourself over and over again like Peter did? Simeon Peter, slave and apostle of Jesus Christ. That’s the way we make our calling and elections sure so that we don’t end up stumbling, defining ourself rightly and appropriately, longing and looking forward to the time, as Peter says in the next verse, when Jesus will come back again and welcome us into his eternal kingdom.
Some of you may be getting uneasy out there and saying, “Is that really any way for someone to deal with calling and election?” I think we have to remember how Peter does this as he frames these qualities that he sets before us in verses 5–7. He, first of all, starts off by telling us what Jesus Christ has done. He has redeemed us. He has taken away our sin; he has made us his sons and his daughters. Jesus has done that for us.
You know what Jesus has done for you. Have you used that knowledge?And then he goes on and tells us what these things are. He reminds us of what happens to us when we do have these qualities, and then he comes and he says to us that this is the way in which we make our calling and election sure. That we give diligence so that we can demonstrate both to ourselves and to the world round about us that we are those who have really been saved by Jesus Christ.
And when we don’t put forth the effort to add these qualities, we put a lie to the very fact that we say we trust in Jesus Christ. We make that denial. You see, if you’re going to make your calling and election sure, if this language that’s used here is really the language of the court, if it’s really a language that comes from legal areas, then if you are going to make your calling sure, if you’re going to make your election sure, if you are going to be able to declare that that is something that is viable and right, then you’re going to have to live in a certain way, a knowledgeable way that doesn’t put a lie to the fact that Jesus Christ has come and died for you and redeemed you.
But you know that. You know what Jesus has done for you. Have you used that knowledge? Have you been making an effort to take that knowledge to enhance your faith so that you and all the world knows this is one of Jesus’s children? You are the redeemed. And the reason why you and everybody else knows you are the redeemed is you live thusly.
Let’s pray together.
O Lord, our God, grant to us not only knowledge but add that knowledge to our faith and allow us to live then as the redeemed of our savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.