Knowledge: A Requirement of Salvation? (Theological Reflections on 2 Peter 1, Part 2)

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Knowledge: A Requirement of Salvation? (Theological Reflections on 2 Peter 1, Part 2)

In the previous article in this series, it was ascertained that knowledge—specifically an ever-increasing knowledge of Jesus Christ—is an essential component to the successful completion of the salvation process in the life of the Christian. An ever-increasing knowledge of Christ is the avenue by which grace (unmerited forgiveness and energizing spiritual-moral power) and peace (through an assurance of salvation) enter into the life of the Christian (2 Peter 1:1). An ever-increasing knowledge of Christ and His promises is the avenue through which the divine power of Christ is dispersed and activated, manifesting itself as divine virtues as articulated in 2 Peter 1:6-7.

It is through a knowledge of Christ and His promises that the Christian may participate in the divine nature, agape (unconditional) love (2 Peter 1:4). Through an increasing knowledge of Christ, the Christian escapes “corruption,” and the active and latent proclivities to sin in his fallen nature are kept dormant, to be finally eradicated at the 2nd Coming of Christ (2 Peter 1:4). Maintaining a knowledge of Christ keeps the Christian from becoming spiritually blind, and keeps him from forgetting what Christ has accomplished, namely emancipation from the penalty and enslavement of sin in his life. As the reader can clearly see, knowledge is indeed power. By knowing who Christ is, by knowing what He taught, by knowing how He lived, by knowing what He has accomplished, by knowing what He has promised, the Christian is empowered to cooperate with Him in absolute, total, surrender, allowing Christ to complete the salvation process in his life (2 Peter 1:10-11; Jude 24).

 

With the establishment of the fact that an ever-increasing knowledge of Christ is paramount to living a successful Christian life, the question must be asked, “How does one practically increase one’s knowledge of Christ?” As pointed out in the previous article, the knowledge that Peter is referring to cannot be limited to the simple memorization of facts. The Apostle Paul tells us that it is possible for a Christian to be “…always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). How is this possible? Is it possible to “learn,” but not actually acquire knowledge? Is there a “knowledge” that doesn’t lead to the truth? The answer is, “Yes, there is.”

 

Gnosticism 101

Perhaps in reading part 1 of this series, the reader may have questioned whether what was being proposed was a new Gnosticism, a popular heretical movement in the early church. Gnosticism, for the purposes of this article, may be defined as a system of salvation based on secret or hidden knowledge. Everett Ferguson sheds more light on this philosophy as a…

 

Desire for special and intimate knowledge of the secrets of the universe. The Gnostic salvation was from ignorance and not from sin. Knowledge was not just the means to salvation, it was the salvation. The knowledge was a knowledge of one’s true self, one’s home in the pleroma [the spiritual universe as the abode of God and of the totality of the divine powers and emanations], and one’s return there.[1]

 

Several points should be articulated here to distinguish what the Apostle Peter is advocating and what Christian Gnosticism proposed in the post-apostolic church. Whereas the Gnostic was primarily concerned with acquiring knowledge about the “secrets of the universe,” and about his “true self,” Peter is constantly pointing his 1st Century audience to Christ: (1) Christ’s righteousness, (2) Christ’s divine power, (3) Christ’s glory and goodness, (4) Christ’s divine nature, (5) Christ’s 2nd Coming, and (6) as this series has been focused on, the acquiring of an ever-increasing knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 1:1-11).

Gnosticism is a corrupt aberration of the true knowledge that Peter is advocating. It is a knowledge focused on self and knowledge for knowledge’s sake. As Ferguson points out, knowledge for the gnostic is not the means to an end, but rather the end itself. The fundamental human problem for the gnostic is not sin (the corruption in the world and in our hearts, as Peter suggests in 2 Peter 1:9) but rather ignorance. Instead of increasing one’s knowledge of Christ, the gnostic devotee pursues increasing one’s knowledge of his supposed “true self.” For Peter, knowledge is a vehicle, an activating agent, and, for sure, a key ingredient, but it is not salvation. For Peter, knowledge becomes salvific only as it is connected with Christ and the works of Christ. This is clearly demonstrated in 2 Peter 1:1-11.

 

Gnosticism 102 (Knowledge Without Experience)

Though most of what is known as Christian Gnosticism today did not actually develop until after the Apostles died, Peter was nevertheless polemically engaged with false “Christian” teachers (2 Peter 2:1), and later warns of “scoffers” in 2 Peter 3:3. These individuals were deemed scoffers because they didn’t believe Christ’s promise to return. But though Peter probably never engaged directly with Gnostics there was indeed a class of Christians that he refers to in the first 11 verses of 2 Peter 1 that this article deems “incipient gnostics.”

 

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:8, emphasis added)

 

From the above statement it can be concluded that there are two types of Christians: (1) Christians who possess an effective and productive knowledge of Jesus Christ, and (2) Christians who possess an ineffective and unproductive knowledge of Jesus Christ. What makes the difference? The possession of the divine virtues articulated in verses 6-7, culminating in participation in the divine nature of verse 4. The knowledge that Peter is advocating is a transformative knowledge of Christ, a knowledge that awakens repentance and a longing to adopt and be enveloped by the divine virtues, the crown jewel being love.

If the knowledge a Christian possesses is not transformative, if it does not awaken a desire to be Christlike, it is ineffective, unproductive, and ultimately puts the Christian in a precarious situation, as when he is not growing in his knowledge of Christ, he is actually losing knowledge simultaneously (2 Peter 1:9; Matthew 13:11-12). Peter concedes that it is possible to have knowledge of Jesus Christ, and yet if that knowledge is not experienced, by surrendering to it, allowing it to manifest itself in divine virtues exhibited in the life, then the sanctification process is prevented from achieving its purposed outcome (participation in the divine nature of unconditional love). The incipient gnostic Christian is, in effect, short-circuiting his own redemption by refusing or neglecting to test the knowledge that he has gained of Christ.

 

Knowledge is not the problem. False knowledge, knowledge that is not tested by experience, knowledge that lacks trust and obedience, is the problem. The incipient gnostic knows of Christ, but does not know His power experientially and has not tested his promises, and thus does not truly understand the knowledge he thinks he possesses. Simply put, he has no relational knowledge of Christ, of the peace and clear conscious of knowing one’s sins have been forgiven, the experience of character flaws conquered, and the trepidation followed by a joyful exuberance of being delivered by the power/promises of Christ from physical, material, or spiritual disasters.

 

So what is Gnosticism essentially? It is an illegitimate path to a false salvation. It is an approach to Christianity that bastardizes and neuters an essential tool in the Christian’s pursuit of Christ and salvation—that tool being knowledge. It espouses a knowledge that retains the cognitive, the formulaic, the static, and the factual, but is devoid of the relational, experiential, personal, transformational, and dynamic. Biblical knowledge, that which Peter espouses, is cognitive and, equally as important, relational. It is cognitive in that it a collection of facts, namely, the life, death, resurrection, and the present ministry of Christ, but it is also relational and experiential, as Peter does not wish his audience to simply know about Christ but to know the person, who is Christ as he has revealed Himself. We should beware of religions and theories that emphasize one aspect of knowledge to the exclusion of the other, the cognitive versus the relational. The God of the Bible wants us to enter into relationship with Him, but He also wants us to enter into that relationship intelligently.

 

This corruption of knowledge can be seen in two strains of Gnosticism known in the centuries after Christ, Gnosticisms that, in essence, emphasized the cognitive over the experiential and vice versa. The soteriology of one strain of Gnosticism that emerged taught that human beings were trapped in material bodies which are sinful and wicked, and that upon death, one would face successive gateways to higher and higher spheres of existence until ultimately merging with God. However, to advance from sphere to the next, the wanderer must know how to petition the being(s) that control the gates to allow access. Access was granted by reciting certain secret words or incantations, allowing the petitioner to traverse to the next gate.

The substance of this type of religion is purely cognitive, a memorization of names and formulae. But its counterpart is equally corrupt found in antinomianism (and probably the Nicolaitans of Revelation 2:6, 15). The antinomians believed that what was done in one’s mortal body, which again was considered a material, physical, sinful trap that the soul must escape from, was inconsequential. They also believed that all souls would eventually and inevitably return to merge with God regardless of how one lived. No actions on the part of the Christian could stop this cosmic reunion, and thus the Christian had no reason to give deference to the law or any type of lifestyle restrictions or regulations towards his fellow human beings or God Himself.

It was an approach to Christianity that professed absolute faith in the cosmic relationship between God and humanity but it was not grounded in facts. In fact, it spurned the revealed cognitive evidence of Scripture that a profligate lifestyle without regard to the laws that govern the relationship between God and humanity would lead only to spiritual disaster.

 

But the Gnosticisms of yesterday still remain. These two strains have their counterparts in the Christianity of today: High-Church formalism that may simply require faith in new, updated, incantations (i.e. ego te absolve) or relational experiences that are not grounded in objective facts, but referred to as “movings of the Spirit.” But Biblical religion is not composed of trivia. It is not a list of formulas or incantations, but neither is it a buffet of fuzzy feelings and blushes. If your religion is full of trivia, then perhaps it is trivial. Religion needs to be relational, and relationships desperately need guidelines and boundaries. Without the cognitive or the relational, one inevitably will fall into Gnosticism.

 

The false teachers Peter is combating are described in 2 Peter 2, and the scoffers he warns of, who will appear in the last days, are described in 2 Peter 3. Below are their characteristics:

 

False Teachers (2 Peter 2) Scoffers (2 Peter 3)
Teach destructive heresies Follow evil desires (vs. 3)
Deny Jesus Christ (and possibly his sovereignty?) Do not believe Jesus will return (vs.3-4)
Depraved Conduct Deliberately forget the judgments of the past (vs. 5)
Greedy Mistake mercy and delay as evidence against the 2nd coming (vs. 9)
Fabricate stories Will be caught off guard by the 2nd Coming (vs. 10)
Seem to doubt that God will destroy the wicked
Follow corrupt desires of the flesh
Despise authority
Bold and arrogant
Sacrilegious?
Blasphemers
Lack Understanding
Carousing
Lust and Adultery
Habitual sinners
Seducers
Libertine slaves of depravity
At one time they had escaped corruption through a knowledge of Christ but now have turned back to the world v. 19-22

 

 

The key is that both groups—the false teachers and the scoffers—are devoid of an authentic knowledge of Jesus Christ. Thus they err, because whatever knowledge they have of Christ, that knowledge is unproductive, unfruitful, and lacks the genuine transformational quality that true knowledge produces, as well as an abiding trust in Christ’s promises and power.

 

But again the question must be asked, “Where and how does the Christian acquire effective, productive, transformational, knowledge of Jesus Christ—a knowledge that is both cognitive as well as relational/experiential?” Peter answers this questions implicitly in 2 Peter 1:12-21.

 

2 Peter 1:12-21

 

It is clear from the first chapter of 2 Peter that the Apostle absolutely believes knowledge is a necessity of salvation. Furthermore, he believes that every Christian must possess, not just any type of knowledge, but legitimate, Biblical knowledge, composed of both cognitive factual elements as well as relational elements, that leads to actual change and transformation in the life of the recipient, in order to successfully climb the ladder of virtues, and partake of the divine nature (i.e. unconditional love and self-sacrifice).  As we learned last time, the incorporation of the divine nature of unconditional love is the goal of the salvation process this side of heaven. It is the overarching principle of the “kingdom of God” hailed by Christ in the Gospels (Mark 1:14-15). Ellen White concurs with this view:

 

Unselfishness [an essential component of unconditional love], the principle of God’s kingdom, is the principle that Satan hates; its very existence he denies. From the beginning of the great controversy he has endeavored to prove God’s principles of action to be selfish, and he deals in the same way with all who serve God. To disprove Satan’s claim is the work of Christ and of all who bear His name. It was to give in His own life an illustration of unselfishness that Jesus came in the form of humanity. And all who accept this principle are to be workers together with Him in demonstrating it in practical life. To choose the right because it is right; to stand for truth at the cost of suffering and sacrifice—“this is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of Me, saith the Lord.” Isaiah 54:17. (Education pg. 154)

 

 

As can be seen from the quote above, the Christian’s “heritage” or entrusted legacy as an ambassador in enemy territory is to demonstrate the real principle of unconditional love in a world controlled by the principles of selfishness. How can this be achieved? The same quotation reveals the answer:

 

To disprove Satan’s claim is the work of Christ and of all who bear His name. It was to give in His own life an illustration of unselfishness that Jesus came in the form of humanity. (Education pg. 154, emphasis added)

 

Or as the Apostle John put it:

 

This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. (1 John 3:10)

 

The life of Christ was given to illustrate the principle of unconditional love. When this truth is coupled with 2 Corinthians 3:18, the contemplation of the life of Christ, it follows that knowledge of Christ’s life, work, and ministry is what transforms the Christian and allows him to partake of the same divine nature of unselfish, unconditional love and self-sacrifice. But can we find this same sentiment in the second half of 2 Peter 1?

 

So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. (2 Peter 1:12, emphasis added)

 

Peter indicates here that his audience is not ignorant of the “these things.” The “things” Peter is referring to are the truths he has stated in the first half of the chapter, namely,  as was stated in the previous article “that an ever-increasing knowledge of Christ is paramount to living a successful Christian life.” Or “an increase in the knowledge of Christ increases one’s faith in His divine promises of forgiveness and power to deliver from sin, which increases the impartation and assimilation of Christ’s character, until one’s inner being is imbued with divine love which fits the Christian for heaven.”

These are the things of Peter is adamantly and dogmatically seeking to remind his audience, to keep the knowledge of Christ foremost in their cognition and meditations. What Peter makes clear in vs. 12 is that it is not enough to simply give intellectual assent to the truth of Christ’s life, ministry, and power just once in one’s life, but that this knowledge must be kept alive in the mind by constant and regular meditation. By knowing these truths about Christ, the Christian is “established in the truth” and possesses it.

 

I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. (2 Peter 1:13-15, emphasis added)

 

There is a pedagogical and homiletical phrase that “repetition deepens the impression.” Clearly, Peter is a firm believer in this principle as he has determined that his last days on earth would be spent recounting the truths about Jesus Christ to his audience, things that they already knew, but which he felt were necessary to review incessantly in order to secure their election. But now Peter reveals in the next verses what exactly he is reminding these believers about.

 

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18, emphasis added)

 

With a little careful investigation, it becomes quite clear what event Peter has in mind: the Transfiguration of Christ that can be found in Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 9. It is a key event in the life of Christ, as well as in those of his inner circle of apostles (Peter, James, and John). It was a grounding event for the apostles and they recorded their experience in the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:16-18 and John 1:14). What Peter highlights in this retelling of the Transfiguration event is the power of Jesus Christ. Peter uses the grounding event of the Transfiguration as evidence for the Second Coming, “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power.” Peter understood (possessed the knowledge) that the Transfiguration event was a token or promise of the Second Coming.[2]

Indeed it was a typological, miniature exhibition of what the Second Coming would be like. But why does Peter feel the need to remind his readers of the knowledge of Christ’s returning, of Christ’s power? It is precisely because of the false teachers and scoffers discussed earlier. False teachers seem to deny Christ’s power and purpose in the salvation process to deliver humanity from the captivity of sin (enslavement to sinful habits; see 2 Peter 2:19). They also seem to deny any retribution for sinful practices (2 Peter 2). The scoffers to come will outright deny that Jesus will return (2 Peter 3:3-4).

Thus Peter uses a singular event in his own life to remind his readers that not only is Christ returning, based on the Transfiguration, but He is returning in power, divine power that is sufficiently potent to execute judgment and deliver retribution to the false teachers, their followers, and the scoffers. Thus Peter’s testimony is warning. However, it is also an encouragement, as it produces faith and confidence in the power of Christ to complete the salvation process (rapture and glorification) and faith and confidence in the promises of Christ to actually bring to fruition what He is capable of doing.

 

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21, emphasis added)

 

Now, Peter turns to a second line of evidence besides his own personal testimony of the surety of the second coming. He turns to the Scriptures themselves, “the prophetic message” that also testifies of Christ and his Second Coming, often referred to as “The Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament. He recommends that his readers “pay attention” to the Scriptures and to understand what the Scriptures are—not simply humanity’s best thoughts of God, or what certain people thing God would say to a particular situation, but rather the word of God, Christ’s words to humanity.

 

The Source of Knowledge

Peter demonstrates by the evidences he uses what type of knowledge is necessary. An experiential knowledge (a first-hand experience with God) as well as a cognitive knowledge (promises and testimony of Scripture) of the fact that Christ will do what He said he would do. It is knowledge of Christ’s power coupled with a knowledge of His unconditional selfless love, demonstrated in history, that allows us to put our trust and confidence in Him and His power.

 

The apostle recommends that his readers believe his personal testimony of his experience of Christ’s power, and how Christ kept His promise to “return” demonstrated at the Mount of Transfiguration. Christ promised that some of His apostles would see His “Second Coming” before they passed away, and Christ was faithful to that promise. Peter is venturing that if Christ was able to keep His promise in the past, He will surely keep His promise in the future to execute the antitypical parousia.

Similarly, out faith and confidence is bolstered by our own personal experiences with God, as well as the personal testimony of others about their experiences with God. These experiences can include overcoming illness, financial difficulties, relationship problems, or even in regards to experiencing victory, through the power of Christ, over enslaving sinful habits. This experiential portion of the knowledge of Christ is, of course, readily available to the believer through the practice of regularly congregating with other believers to share and receive encouraging exhortations from one another.

 

But in addition to the testimonies of others and our own personal experiences, Peter also recommends the “completely reliable” or “more sure word” of prophetic utterances, the Scriptures.[3] Though personal experiences can be incredibly powerful and life changing, and though the testimonies of others can lift our spirits, the study of the Scriptures is the most reliable, the most sure, foundation for the Christian’s knowledge of Christ, His power, and His promises.

 

Getting Practical

Thus far we have established that we need a knowledge of Christ in order to successfully complete the salvation process. Thankfully, this knowledge is easily accessible through the community of the faith (the church), personal experiences with God’s providential leadings in one’s life (experiences in prayer and witnessing), and, most importantly, hearing the testimony of God Himself through Bible study, the last being primary and normative.

 

There are two twin errors which Peter wants his audience to avoid, but the root of the errors is the same: a lack of knowledge. The false teachers have “knowledge,” but they do not understand the knowledge they have, and thus they pervert it (2 Peter 2). They do not understand that God will punish the lawless. The scoffers also lack knowledge, but Peter says that they possessed it and one time willfully and deliberately forgot or rejected knowledge. Specifically, they forgot the knowledge of Christ’s return. One group lacks understanding of Christ, His power and His promises, while the other group deliberately forgets the power of Christ, and forgets His promises. These are twin heretical streams linked by a common source: a lack of the knowledge of Christ.

 

As we learned in the previous article, the Apostle John seems to be the great simplifier of the complex concepts Peter and Paul present to the reader of Scripture. John 5:29 states:

 

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.

 

Again we find the essential elements of transformative, productive, knowledge. The knowledge must be based in cognitive, objective facts and uncontested revelations, specifically the Scriptures. However, it must not stop there. The Christian must go beyond simply memorizing verses for the sake of collecting cognitive information; that information must be used to paint a picture of the Christ the reader has dedicated his or her life to.

In other words, each of us must allow Christ to reveal himself, piece by piece, from Scripture, in His own words. We must receive the testimony of Christ. We must listen to His testimony as He describes His character of unselfish love on every page of Scripture. This will require opening the Bible, reading the Bible, studying the Bible, and, just as importantly, asking the question, “What does Jesus want me to discern about His character from this passage?”

This practice will engender admiration for Christ, which in turn engenders emulation of Christ. Partaking of the divine nature is simply a matter of opening the pages of the Bible, believing that it is the testimony of Christ, and exercising simple faith in His promises and power to transform the selfishness of the human heart into the Christlike, selfless, unconditional love and loveliness of the divine nature.

 

To conclude I think it would be fitting to end with Peter’s own salutation:

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18, emphasis added)

______

Notes.

[1] Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI. 2003. pg. 310.

[2] See Matthew 16 in which the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign from heaven. At the end of the chapter Christ reveals to his apostles that he will be crucified but that he will return “in the Father’s glory” (Matthew 16:27).  He then states the following “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). Immediately following this declaration, Matthew juxtaposes the Transfiguration event (Matthew 17:1-13). The same structure is maintained in Mark and Luke. Apparently, the reader is to understand that the Transfiguration was in a sense a miniature exhibition of the parousia event, the Second Coming, the glory of God being present, Christ displaying Himself in His divinity, as well as the typified presence of the resurrected saints in the appearance of Moses (whom Christ resurrected, see Jude 9, as well as the typified presence of the translated saints in the appearance of Elijah. All in all a marvelous display of Christ’s divine power.

[3] The Scriptures, for the Christian, are composed of both the Old Testament “prophetic utterances” as well “apostolic utterances” of the New Testament. Interestingly, Peter in the same book categorizes Paul’s writing (a fellow apostle) as Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:15-16)

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About the author

Ingram London

Ingram London is the Managing Editor for The Compass Magazine.