By Ken Yates
All my Christian life I’ve heard people say things like this: “A real Christian would never commit that sin.” Of course, those who say such a thing differ on what that sin would be. However, one of the “really big” sins is to deny Christ. It is common to hear preachers and Bible teachers say that anybody who is truly a believer could never do that.
All of that is arbitrary. Why is denying Christ worse than a host of other sins, like adultery? What if a believer denies the Lord in a moment of anger? What if his life, or the life of a family member, is threatened? What if, especially as a new believer, he is exposed to some teachings by a cult that leads to denial? What if he does it when he is simply having a very bad day, such as after going through painful chemotherapy because of cancer? What if he feels sorry for doing it later, and if so, how much time can pass before it is too late to confess that sin?
Hopefully, if we consider these kinds of questions, we will reconsider our opinion on this matter. The view that a believer cannot deny the Lord springs from a very basic misunderstanding. It fails to see just how sinful we are. As long as we are alive on this earth, we will possess our flesh. In that flesh, in the right situation, a believer can commit any sin, including denying the Lord.
Thankfully, due to the grace of God, eternal life is a free gift we receive by believing in Jesus Christ for it. It can never be lost, even if we deny Him.
Once we understand such things, it is wise to realize the danger we face. While we cannot lose our eternal salvation, we can dishonor the Lord by denying Him. We can look at believers who have done it and learn from their experiences.
There is a famous example of such a believer in the New Testament.
The Apostle Peter famously denied the Lord three times. This, by itself, should settle the issue of whether a believer can commit that sin once and for all.
It is easy to understand why Peter did what he did. He was under enormous pressure. He had attacked a governmental official a few hours earlier in a garden, attempting to murder him (John 18:10). Those who were asking him if he knew Jesus, suspected that he had been in the garden. In fact, one of them was a relative of the man Peter attacked (John 18:26). Peter feared for his safety.
This was compounded by the fact that Jesus Himself was on trial, right above the spot where Peter was standing. The Lord would be given a death sentence by the court He stood in. It was dangerous to be associated with Him.
Peter had the natural desire to value his own comfort. He knew that if he spoke the truth about Jesus, he would be punished. He feared what the authorities would do to him. He wanted to avoid any negative consequences. Mark relates how he sought his own comfort in even the smallest detail: while Jesus was being beaten, Peter was warming himself by a fire because of the coolness in the air (Mark 14:67).
Of course, Peter knew it was wrong to deny Christ. As a result, he tried to avoid doing so. In his first denial, he simply walked away from the girl who questioned whether he knew the Lord, saying he didn’t understand what she was saying. This did not work. A larger crowd noticed him in his new location. The same girl pointed out to the bystanders that Peter was an associate of Christ. He could not simply walk away, but he had to deal with several accusations. He had to deny it many times. Peter had gotten the attention of a large group, and they pressed the issue. After thinking it over and observing him, they confronted him again. He had to repeatedly and strongly deny that he knew Christ.
Peter was more concerned about what those around him thought and would potentially do to him than doing what was right. Every believer should realize we could all find ourselves in a similar situation and do the same thing.
We also know how he responded. When he realized what he had done, he went out and wept bitterly.
In the Gospel of Mark, we also see in another way just how painful his denials of the Lord were for him.
“Mark, Put This Next”
There is a long tradition in church history that states that Peter was the source for much of the material that Mark uses in the Gospel of Mark. Mark was not an eyewitness for most of the events in Christ’s life, so Peter’s input would have been extremely valuable.
It would have been difficult for Peter to relate to Mark how he had denied Christ as the Lord faced His death on the cross. Peter was brutally honest about his failings, but his shame concerning his actions intensified as he continued the story.
Peter told Mark what happened to the Lord next. In Mark’s gospel, the account of Christ’s trial before Pilate occurs immediately after Peter’s denials (Mark 14:66-72; 15:1-15). We can almost hear Peter telling Mark to put them side by side. Peter wants the readers of the book to understand his betrayal. He wants us to see he was just like Pilate.
There are a lot of parallels between Peter and Pilate in this section of Mark. Jesus stood on trial before the Sanhedrin. Now, He stands on trial before Pilate. In both instances, His life is on the line. Both trials will result in Him being found worthy of death.
Like Peter, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent and unworthy of death. But he too is afraid to speak the truth. He is worried about the people around him and what they will say. As a Roman governor, he had a comfortable and prosperous life. He was in danger of losing that if he did the right thing. He was very concerned about his own personal comfort.
Pilate was in his position in Judah because he was appointed to it by those in power in Rome. He also had to answer for any decision he made to his superior in Syria. Historians tell us that his loyalty to Rome had begun to be questioned by Caesar. In addition, the Jews had made some complaints about him. As a result, Pilate was on shaky political ground.
Now, the Jews were saying that Jesus was claiming to be the King of the Jews. They said He was a threat to Rome. But Caesar proclaimed that he was the king. How would it look if Pilate simply let Jesus go? Pilate was concerned about losing his job and any other possible punishment he would experience if he did not kill Jesus of Nazareth.
Like Peter in the previous section, Pilate tries to get himself out of the situation. He doesn’t want to kill Jesus, so he tells the crowds that He is innocent. He then offers to release Him because it is the Passover, as a demonstration of Rome’s grace to the Jews. He scourges Jesus, hoping that the crowd would be satisfied with that level of punishment and spare the Lord’s life.
None of this, however, works. Like the crowd that prompted Peter to deny the Lord, the crowd in front of Pilate call for the crucifixion of Christ and compel Pilate to crucify Him. Peter wept bitterly. Pilate also regretted what he had to do and washed his hands before those who called for the crucifixion.
Pilate was an unbeliever. Peter was a believer. But they had something in common. When it came to how they reacted to the sufferings of Christ, they were more concerned about their own safety than doing the right thing. They feared what the crowd around them would do to them.
Anybody who has ever believed in Jesus Christ for eternal life has it. It can never be lost. That is the promise Christ has made to us. It is a gift because of God’s grace towards us in His Son. The sins we commit cannot change that in any way.
Throughout church history, however, many have wanted to deny these truths. Certainly, they claim, there are some sins that would cause us to lose eternal life. Others would say there are sins that a Christian could never commit. One of those sins is denying the Lord.
Peter shows us that is not the case. He teaches us that even after we have believed in Christ, we continue to be subject to fearing for our own safety and comfort. We can become more concerned about what the crowds and the world think of us and what they might do, than pleasing the Lord.
In other words, to put it simply, we are still sinners. It is sobering to realize that we can be like Peter, and do what he did. But Peter, through the Gospel of Mark, wants us to see that we can also be like Pilate. We can think and act like the unbelieving world, just as Peter did.
We need to recognize what we are capable of doing in our sinful flesh. The next time you think of a sin you could never commit, look at the portraits of Peter and Pilate that Mark places side by side for us in Mark 14–15. It is only then that we will have the wisdom to ask the Lord to live through us and strengthen us against those temptations.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He leads the GES international ministry, cohosts the daily podcast, and assists Bob in all aspects of the GES ministry. His new book, Elisabeth, is a powerful testimony to the power of God manifested in a Christ-centered family. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.