An Apologetic of Virtue from the Second Letter of Peter

By Chad Thornhill

The field of apologetics, by nature, can seem a distant discipline from something like spiritual formation. In formal ministry training, courses such as apologetics, logic, and philosophy are often entirely separate fields of inquiry from ethics, discipleship, and spiritual formation. Concerning the practice of apologetics, we may, indeed, see little or no relationship between an apologetic argument and Christian virtue. Such a dichotomy, however, seems out of place in the writings of the New Testament, and the letter of 2 Peter provides evidence for a much closer link between virtue and apologetics.

The audience of 2 Peter faced a difficult combination of vices based on the testimony of this letter. Two central problems stand out concerning certain false teachers who were negatively influence this community of believers: a denial of the future return (and judgment) of Jesus Christ and, consequently, the promotion of living a morally frivolous life. The two problems have obvious correlation in that if there is no account to be given to God for one’s life, one therefore can live however one pleases.

The first problem is demonstrated in several places in the letter. A first allusion to the denial of the Lord’s return is seen in 2 Pet. 1:16-21, where Peter argues the transfiguration of Christ is grounds for believing in the reliability of biblical prophecy (1:16-18; 20-21) as well as in the future return of Jesus (1:19; likely what Peter refers to with the “the day dawning” and the “bright morning star”). Further, 2 Pet. 2:9 likewise references the future judgment of the wicked who will “be punished at the day of judgment.” Finally, 2 Pet. 3:1-13 brings into sharp focus the denial of Christ’s return on the part of the false teachers, where “scoffers” mock the idea of the return of the Lord (3:3-4) and consider the “slowness” (3:9) of his return as a sign he isn’t coming at all.

The second major problem, the promotion of hedonism, takes up the attention of most of chapter 2. Peter describes the lives of these false teachers as morally and sexually unrestrained (2:2, 4, 7, 10, 13, 14, 18-10), greedy (2:3, 13-15), living without regard to God (2:5-6), lawless (2:9, 16), arrogant (2:10), irrational (2:12), blasphemous (2:10, 12), deceitful (2:13), and futile in their ways (2:17-18). Their lives lack moral restraint and are completely unconcerned with the desires and directions of the Almighty.

How does Peter call his audience to respond? Peter gives seven direct commands to his audience in response to these two major challenges (found in 2 Peter 1:5, 10; 3:8, 14, 15, 17, 18). Two of Peter’s commands relate primarily to these believers avoiding the doctrinal deception of these false teachers concerning the Lord’s return. In 2 Pet. 3:8, Peter urges his hearers to not overlook the reality that God’s timetable cannot be measured by human conceptions of time. This means that the judgment of “slowness” concerning the return of Christ is a faulty evaluation of God’s timing. Further, this “slowness,” Peter asserts, is motivated by God’s desire to bring about the repentance of the ungodly (3:9). In relation to this doctrinal concern, Peter commands these believers to consider the patience of the Lord “as salvation” (3:15), meaning the seeming delay of the return of Christ is evidence of God’s desire to save humanity. Concerning the denial of the return of Christ, these two commands direct Peter’s audience to realign their thinking in relation to what the false teachers suggest.

The bulk of Peter’s commands, however, concern drawing the attention of his fellow believers to their own moral lives. The first commands of the letter, found in the chain of 2 Pet. 1:3-11, center on the production of moral virtue. Having prayed for these Christians to be firmly grounded in knowing that God has gifted them all that they need “for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3), something that flows from their participation in the life of God Himself (2 Pet. 1:4), Peter urges them to supply to their “faith” virtue, knowledge, self-control, endurance, devotion to God, sibling affection, and love. That “faith” and “love” bookend this list likely means Peter sees faith (belief and trust in God) as the foundation of the Christian life and love (seeking the good of another) as its chief goal. “Virtue” concerns the presence of moral excellence. “Knowledge” in the letter concerns both the content of faith as well as the personal and relational experience of Christ. “Self-control” relates to the ability to control one’s impulses and desires. “Endurance” describes the ability to press on in difficult circumstances. “Devotion to God” relates to reverence and worship of God in all dimensions of one’s life. “Sibling affection” concerns the familial relational bonds that exist between believers. This production of moral virtue is reinforced in 2 Pet. 1:10, where Peter urges his hearers to “make certain” their calling and election. His language here asks these believers to reflect upon their response to God’s invitation to belong to his people, meaning it is a call to carefully consider the new identity which they now possess.

The next cluster of Peter’s moral instruction comes in 2 Pet. 3:14-18. Here, in the letter’s conclusion, Peter gives a group of three commands: “make every effort to be found at peace” (3:14); “guard yourselves” (3:17); and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (3:18). Peter qualifies this first command to “make every effort to be found at peace” with the Lord as relating to being “pure and blameless in Him.” Purity and blamelessness are moral qualities for Peter which have an eschatological focus. Though this activity is to take place now, it prepares these believers for successful “entrance into the eternal kingdom” (2 Pet. 1:11). Peter’s command to “guard yourselves” (3:17) is directed at avoiding the error of these “lawless persons,” the false teachers, who live without moral restraint, meaning Peter’s strategy for how they might do focuses on developing their own moral restraint. Finally, Peter’s command to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (3:18) directs the attention of these believers to the further their pursuit of the “generous care” (“grace”) and personal knowledge of the Lord. That they can grow in these areas suggests a similar moral dimension to this instruction as well.

While Peter addresses the doctrinal concern represented in the errors of the false teachers, the weight of his focus is upon the moral lives of his audience. Having defended the assurance of a future divine judgment, Peter asks his audience (cf. 3:11), “What kind of people should you be in holy behaviors and godly actions?” Peter’s concern illustrates an important dimension of a biblically informed apologetic response. This is not to suggest, of course, that doctrinal matters are of less importance that ethical ones. Peter’s focus illustrates, however, that the godly character of a believing community is a primary means of witness against false teachings and ethical turmoil. An effective component of the witness of the local church must incorporate the “growing in godliness” of God’s people. The development of trust in God, moral excellence, personal knowledge of Christ, restraining one’s impulses, perseverance in difficult circumstances, reverence for God in all dimensions of one’s life, relational attachments to other believers, and seeking the good of others creates a community whose character becomes of witness of God’s love and goodness which can be found in Christ. Such a witness of Christ-like living is indeed a chief confirmation of the truthfulness of the gospel (cf. John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:11-21).

In our desire to demonstrate the truth of the gospel to an unbelieving world, the goodness and beauty of the gospel, in theory and in practice, should be corresponding realities. A question to consider, then, in recognition of Peter’s emphasis, is in what ways are we cultivating the goodness and beauty of the Christian life in our churches and ministries in addition to clearly articulating the truth of the Christian message? Peter’s urging to these first century churches reverberates to us today, calling us to the same kind of transformative living in communion with God through Jesus Christ for the sake of the Christian mission. So let us likewise ask ourselves, “What kind of people should we be in holy behaviors and godly actions?”

Published April 3, 2024

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill is the Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies and a Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies for the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University. He is the author of numerous academic reviews, articles, and book chapters, as well as the author of The Chosen People (IVP, 2015), Greek for Everyone (Baker, 2016), and co-editor of Divine Impassibility (IVP, 2019). He is currently writing a commentary on 2 Peter for the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series.