Lately, our evening service has been going through the biblical doctrines of grace confessed in the Canons of Dort. This topic lends itself to many questions and opportunities to dig into the Word. For instance, a member wrote to ask how we should understand 2 Pet 1:1-10:
At the beginning of this passage, Peter makes it clear that all good things come from God's "divine power" and that "through them you may become partakers of the divine nature..." He then lists a set of qualities that make us productive and fruitful members of God's kingdom. It is clear that these things come only from God. Later he says that we must "...be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure..." What does it mean to make our calling and election sure? The wording seems to assume that we can take action on our own that affects our election which would contradict the rest of scripture... Can you shed some light on that for me?
THE DIVINE NATURE
First, let's sort out what is meant by, “you may become partakers of the divine nature." As mere creatures, we can never grasp, let alone partake in God's essential being. The “partaking” which Peter has in mind is the Spirit's impartation to us of God's communicable attributes, such as virtue, brotherly affection, self-control, etc. Over time, the divine image comes to be reflected in us.
Unlike sin which results in spiritual bondage, this godly nature produces true freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17). Sanctification can therefore be described as a process of liberation from corrupt desires unto holy preferences. We are no longer simply depraved but are “being renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph 4:23). In this way, partaking in the divine nature means that believers can begin to sincerely will the good, albeit imperfectly.
MAKING YOUR ELECTION SURE
Now that we've been set free from sin unto godliness, one might wonder whether good works determine our final destination? Perhaps God's election is based on foreknowledge of how different people would use or abuse their liberty. Not at all! Growth, however vital as evidence of spiritual life, does not itself serve as the ground of God's eternal decision to elect and call certain people to salvation. Otherwise salvation would not be entirely of grace:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:8-10, ESV)
So what might Peter have in mind when he tells us to “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (NKJV)? This is one instance where confusion is largely resolved by comparing translations. The ESV, for instance, renders the text, “brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
First, the word translated “fall” (πταίσητέ) here means “to stumble or loose one's footing.” Elsewhere, we find this term descrbing believers in the midst of doubt or sin. James 3:3, for instance, admits “we all stumble in many ways.” When discussing apostasy, however, a different term is used for permanently “falling away” from the visible church (ἀποστῆναι). It is reasonable to presume the kind of descent Peter has in mind is not from profession of faith to denial, but from confidence in one's salvation to doubt. The preceding verse highlights this by noting a person who has “forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.” Clearly, he is elect and called, or else he would not be cleansed, yet he has become uncertain of his status.
Second, observe the phrase “confirm your calling.” Confirming doesn't have to mean earning or establishing the ground of something. Suppose a car accident leaves me and several passengers stranded. Geico assures me a tow truck is on the way. After fifteen minutes, I become impatient and doubtful. ‘Are they coming or not?’ So I contact the rental company to confirm. The operator assures me, “the driver left ten minutes ago. He will be there shortly.” In this case, my call to confirm did not initiate the tow truck's coming. He was already headed my way. What confirming did, however, is put me and my passengers at ease concerning the status of our situation.
Even so, confirming one's election by growing in virtue does not influence God's objective and eternal choice. The Lord is already on the way to salvage his wrecked elect! Ongoing spiritual growth, however, settles doubts within ourselves and others concerning the reality of grace at work in us.
Peter's argument relates to the so-called Practical Syllogism common among Reformed theologians. Basically, the syllogism shows how one's election and calling, known directly by God, can be logically inferred by individuals. It goes like this:
1. Only elect people receive the Spirit through calling (regeneration).
2. All those who receive the Spirit walk in newness of life (ongoing faith and repentance)
3. I walk in a way that evidences newness of life
4. Therefore, I have strong reason to believe I have been elected and called.
3. I am NOT walking in a way that evidences newness of life
4. Therefore, I have weak reason to believe I am elect and called.
While this argument does not replace faith in Christ's objective work as the primary basis of assurance, it can serve a secondary role in strengthening our hope.
In light of all this, 2 Pet 1:10 can be understood as saying, “diligently pursue abundant fruits of the Spirit which prove the reality of your election and calling.” Essentially, Paul says the same thing in Rom 8:1-4, “there is therefore now no condemnation... to those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit...” Walking after the Spirit is not why we are no longer condemned, but is proof we are forgiven. Becoming virtuous is not the ground of God's election, but a comforting confirmation of it.
PS: I'm glad to hear our members are pondering God's riches in the Word.