Monday, April 21, 2008

Restoring Grace

Thoughts on John 21:15-19.

I remember sitting in a Knoxville restaurant, wringing my hands as I waited for my friend and mentor to meet me. I was nineteen years old, and I believed the Lord had called me into ministry. This friend had confirmed God's call in my life, but he didn't know everything about me. So, when he arrived, I decided to fill him in.

"Denny," I said, "I think I'm disqualified from ministry." He was puzzled and asked me to explain. So, I went into a fifteen minute story about a "major sin" I had committed 2 years earlier, how it haunted me even though I had asked God to forgive well as asking those that my sin had hurt to forgive me. After I got done, I simply waited for him to say, "You know're are disqualified from ministry."

Instead, he surprised me with this question: "Do you believe that the Bible is true?" I didn't see how this was relevant at the time and said, "Of course, but what does that..." He cut me off and asked again, "Do you believe that the Bible is true?" A simple "yes" was my reply. He smiled and began to explain.

"Toby, if the Bible is true, and your sin has been have repented...then your sin is forgiven by God. It's as far as the East is from the West. God has removed your guilt. So, the only guilt you can be feeling is generated by the Enemy. He's your accuser...not God." As much as I knew what Denny said was true, my heart struggled to believe it. We talked more as we ate, and by the end of dinner, I knew that what God was saying to me through my friend was true. I left the restaurant with a stomach full of food and a heart full of peace.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever wrung your hands in guilt over some old sin? A sin that haunts you, even though you have repented and confessed...even though you have asked forgiveness of both God and those you may have hurt? Do you find yourself going through your "sin resume" often...explaining to God and others why you're no good to serve the Lord?

If so, then think about Jesus' restoration of Peter in John 21. In verses 15-19, we find Jesus publicly restoring Peter to usefulness for the kingdom's sake. Peter's restoration is intentional, penetrating, humiliating, gracious, and complete. I'm sure we could think of more things to say, but let's just briefly think through these five adjectives.

1. It is intentional - Notice the setting of these verses. It's not just Peter and Jesus in a corner somewhere having a private conversation. It's out in the open, with the disciples sitting around the fire watching everything happen. In fact, it was at a fire such as this in Matthew 26 that we find Peter weeping bitterly after he had denied the Lord three times and the rooster crowed.

Why did Jesus intentionally restore Peter in public...with the other disciples right there? One good reason can be found as we think back to the disciples last night together before the crucifixion. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus had predicted Judas' betrayal. It was also at this supper that Jesus predicted the scattering of his followers when he was killed. In response, Peter proudly and boldly proclaimed, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away" (Mt. 26:33).

In front of all the disciples, Peter had basically said he was a better follower than them and that he would never fall away. The fact that he denied the Lord may plant doubts about Peter's future leadership in the minds of the other disciples. Without this public restoration, it wouldn't be too strange to imagine the apostles' eyes rolling as Peter preaches at Pentecost. You see, Peter needed to be restored with respect to these other men. He had bragged in front of them, and he had fallen. So, he needed to be restored in front of them. It was Jesus' intentional way of showing His approval of Peter once again.

2. It is penetrating - The fact that this restoration is penetrating comes in Jesus' questioning of Peter's love. He doesn't ask, "Do you fear God?" or "Are you sorry?" or "Don't you believe in me?" or many other questions. He simply asks, "Do you love me?" That has to sting. It has to penetrate the heart of Peter to know that his Savior is questioning his love.

Facing our failing and our sin is part of restoration. It stings, but it is necessary. When a small spot of melanoma (i.e.- a type of skin cancer) was found on my right leg back in 2003, the doctor didn't just shave a little off the top at that place. There was a significant chunk taken out. Do you know why? It's because the surgeon wanted to make sure he got it all. Jesus, like a surgeon, wants to make sure he "gets it all" as he deals with Peter. The questions sting so much that Peter is grieved by the third time it's asked, but they are necessary for his restoration.

3. It is humiliating - It's interesting to me that Peter doesn't make the same kind of bold claim that he did at the Last Supper. No longer was he boasting of how he would be the last disciple standing. No longer was he saying things like, "See, we have left everything and followed you" (Mark 10:28). Now, Peter appealed to no accomplishment or trait of his own. He simply appealed to Jesus' knowledge of his heart. "You know I love you" was Peter's three-time response.

It's as if he's saying, "You can't look at my actions of the past few days, you can't listen to all the claims I've made in the past...but just take a look at my heart. See my heart the way you could see the Pharisees' heart, and you'll know. You know this failure is eating me alive, but you also know I love you, Jesus." Restoration is a humiliating experience, and it is so appropriate that Peter would later write, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5).

4. It is gracious - I absolutely love Jesus' response to Peter. Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" Peter says, "You know I do." And then, Jesus does not say, "Then why did you deny me?" That might be how we would respond...don't you love Jesus? Then why did you make such a stupid decision!!! Aren't you so glad that Jesus doesn't treat us this way? Aren't you glad that when we come to the God's throne of grace we find mercy and grace and not constant reminders of our failure?

In this moment, it's as if Jesus is forgetting what is behind in Peter's life and pointing him toward the goal toward which he must press (Phil. 3:13b-14). What is this new goal? "Feed my sheep." Jesus is saying, "You love me, Peter? Then be passionate about what I'm passionate about. Feed my sheep, care for them, love them, leave the 99 for the 1, lay down your life for them."

And Peter would do just that as one of the main preachers that helped establish the church. He would do it in letters to scattered and suffering believers. He would do it by reminding other elders like him, "Shepherd the flock of God" (1 Peter 5:2). Jesus graciously gave Peter a hope and a future, instead of rubbing his nose in the past. What an amazing grace we have in Christ!

5. It is complete - We can see the completeness of Peter's restoration in a couple of things. Most obviously, Jesus asks Peter about his love three times, restoring Peter for his threefold denial of the Lord. Also, we see Jesus' commission to Peter at the end of verse 19. Take notice of it, underline it, highlight it.

Jesus says, "Follow me." It is the same call that Peter received when he first started with Jesus. The call didn't change. He was still called to leave everything, to take up his cross, to love God and love others, to preach the gospel, and to deny himself for the gospel's sake. There is no asterisk beside this new call with a footnote saying, "This isn't a real call because you blew it, so your effectiveness has been diminished."

If anything, Peter will be even more effective as a shepherd because of his fall and restoration. His ministry would have been incomplete without it. This is why Jesus told him that Satan would sift him, but "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32). Peter would be better equipped to shepherd and restore souls because the Great Shepherd had restored his soul.

Peter's restoration is intentional, penetrating, humiliating, gracious, and complete. It is only by the grace of God that Peter was restored, and it is only by the grace of God that you and I are restored when we fail. Don't sell God's grace short on what it can accomplish in restoring you to usefulness. Instead, do what our restored friend, Peter, wrote, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).

I'll leave you with some amazing lyrics from Caedmon's Call:

You're rerunning the mistakes
In the theater of your mind
Hoping that there'll be a happily ever after this time
Oh let go, your sin is not an axe
That can fell the Sacred Tree
Oh let go, your regret is not a net
That can dredge the forgetting sea
And a wise man once told me
I was dying just the same
The past can be like sidewalk chalk
If you will dance and pray for rain
Oh let go, your sin is not an axe
That can fell the Sacred Tree
Oh let go, your regret is not a net
That can dredge the forgetting sea