There are not too many stories from the life of Jesus that made their way into all four of the biblical accounts of his life. Each of the authors writes for a different purpose or to a different audience and this leads them to different emphases. Yet one of the stories that each of them tells is Peter’s denial of Jesus. Peter’s darkest moment, his greatest shame, was included by all four of the gospel writers. Isn’t it interesting that in an account of the life of Jesus, all four of them veer for a little while into Peter’s life.
This raises two questions in my mind: How did the gospel writers know the details of this story and why do they all make mention of it? This story could so easily be the stuff of tabloids, meant to bring shame to Peter, to cause people to doubt his faith, to doubt that he could be a worthy leader in the early church. Why would all of the authors risk bringing further shame on this man?
All of the disciples were present when Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him, so there were many witnesses to that part of the story, but they had long since taken flight when Peter actually swore and called down judgment on himself if he was one of those men who knew Jesus. His darkest moment happened in the dark of night and he was the only witness to the whole account. How, then, did the gospel writers know what Peter had done? It seems clear that Peter must have told them. Even while this story must have caused him to blush in shame, he humbly told it to point to the Lord’s grace. Even today, two thousand years later, we rarely think of Peter without thinking of him as the man who sinned and was restored.
Why then did all four of the gospel writers include this story in their accounts of the crucifixion? At least in part because Peter’s fall and restoration was a crucial story of the power of the gospel, that even a man who betrayed Jesus, a man who turned away from Jesus at the most hurtful time, could be restored. The gospel could save even a man like Peter.
This makes me ask, Is my gospel big enough to account for a man who three times denied that he knew the Lord? Is it big enough to account for a man who spent all of those years with Jesus, only to desert him in the end? Is it big enough to allow a man like this to be a leader in the church? Is your gospel big enough for all of this?
What if David lived in our day and what if he was a leader in this little segment of the Christian world when he committed adultery and murder. Would your gospel be big enough to say that even a man like that could be forgiven and restored? I am not talking about things done before a person comes to know the Lord, but things done by those who profess faith, by those who have been given light, who see God for who he is.
I thought of Peter and other characters from the Bible after I wrote an article titled The Legacy of Charles Colson. In that article, one I made public only after much thought and prayer and discussion, I wanted to remind people that Colson did not just begin a prison ministry that has borne a lot of fruit, and he did not just help people recover or discover a Christian worldview, but he was also potentially undermining the gospel through efforts such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and The Manhattan Declaration. His ministry did not extend only in the one, positive direction. For all the good he accomplished, there was also sin.
Not surprisingly, this article generated a lot of feedback, much that was positive and much that was negative. The critiques fell into two broad camps: Some said that the timing of my article was wrong, that it came too close after the man’s death. It is the other ones that I want to discuss today. These people were upset or even outraged that I would raise any critiques of the man they held to be a great Christian leader.
One person wrote to say that what I had written was a “smear piece” full of unwarranted and unChristian accusations. Others said that it was just plain unfair to discuss Colson in this way, to remember him not only for his strengths but also for his weaknesses. There were a variety of blog and social media responses and one, more than any other, stood out to me. Ben Wright who blogs at paleoevangelical made one very helpful improvement to my article. After linking to it, he said this:
We can and should honor God’s servants and commend evidences of grace in their lives. On the other hand, we shouldn’t gloss over the detrimental effects of their legacies—particularly when their choices undermined the clarity of the gospel. I’m not sure it’s helpful either to be silent at the passing of a person with a mixed legacy (and won’t we all have them?) or to redact our eulogies of all that’s regrettable. Rather, I wonder if these occasions might present an opportunity to teach the rising generations.
He went on to quote my words: “Our worldview ought to be big enough to deal with such things [as Colson’s sinful—Challies’ word—contributions to Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the Manhattan Declaration].” Ben offered a crucial one-word improvement:
I agree with Challies, but I actually want to drive his point a bit deeper, because it’s not just our worldview that needs to be big enough to deal with these things. We need to recognize that our gospel is big enough to account for our sinful failures. And we need to recognize that our gospel is far too precious to disregard the sinful failures that distort it.
That word really does make all the difference. I chose worldview because of Colson’s worldview emphasis, but gospel would have been much stronger. Here’s why: If we really get the gospel, if we really believe the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection, of justification by grace alone through faith alone, then we are able to account for a man who was a Christian and who still sinned. We are able to account for a man who sinned significantly. Not only that, but we do not need to pretend that he never sinned or to shy away from raising the weaknesses—yes, even the sin—in his ministry.
If Colson was a believer—and contrary to what some seem to believe, I never said that I believe otherwise—then he is with the Lord and it is his joy to have us recount not a hagiographical account of his life, as if the man stopped sinning at the moment of his conversion, but a true and accurate account that displays gospel grace, not as a one-time infusion given to bring him from darkness to light, but grace given throughout his life, and grace big enough for forgive him for sinful efforts and emphases. As Wright said, “Our gospel is far too precious to disregard the sinful failures that distort it.”
To those who accused me of smearing Charles Colson, I simply ask you, Why is your gospel big enough to save a man but not to account for significant sin after that moment of salvation? Why should we refrain from speaking of a man’s very public sin when that is part of his legacy, part of what he tried to accomplish using the platform given him? Colson made many efforts to downplay the differences between the gospel of grace by faith alone and the false gospel of the Roman Catholic Church, a gospel of grace and faith plus works. This is what he actually did, it was what could have been one of his enduring legacies had not courageous Protestant leaders stood firm and reminded us of all we stood to lose.
I’m convinced that what I wrote is not a smear piece unless all four gospel writers were smearing Peter. What Colson did was actually sinful. Let’s not pretend otherwise and let’s not forget that our gospel is big enough to account even for this. The gospel isn’t just the door to the Christian life, but the sustaining and enduring power for the Christian life. We depend upon the gospel to the end, trusting that it is big enough to account even for those sins we commit after receiving the Lord’s saving grace. We don’t have to pretend that Christians do not sin and that some even sin in big and public ways. Remembering and recounting even those sins brings glory to the Lord—more glory than if we cover them up in shame and pretend they never happened.