Peter as Process

One of the most stimulating discussions I have had over the years in classes and at churches when I am leading a discussion about conversion or about the Jesus Creed “emerge” from this question:

What about you, when do you think Peter was converted?

Let’s look briefly at the evidence.

In John 1 Peter’s brother, Andrew, has heard from John Baptist about Jesus. He fetches Peter and tells him to come meet Jesus who is the Messiah. John tells us that Jesus told Peter right then and there that he was to be called Cephas. He gets a “church vocation.”

In Luke 5:1-11, Peter fishes all night only to be met by Jesus to tell him that he’s been fishing on the wrong side of the boat; then he does what Jesus says; he catches gobs of fish; Peter then runs to Jesus and says, “I am a sinful man!”

In Mark 8:27–9:1, Peter confronts the cross for the first time and rebuffs Jesus and his (silly) idea of dying on a cross. But, here Peter has called Jesus “Messiah” and he has received his commission (actually, that bit is in Matthew’s account).

In Mark 14:66-72, Peter denies any connection to Jesus (which if we weren’t so committed to certain doctrines we’d have to say Peter was edging over the cliff of aposasy). The memory evoked by the rooster leads Peter to weep for his denials.

In John 21:15-20 Peter is “re-commissioned” by Jesus: Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me? (Incidentally, I side with the majority today who see no difference in this text between agape and phileo; God bless CS Lewis anyway.) Peter says, “Yes, yes, yes.” And the denials are undone and Peter is on his way again.

In Acts 2 Peter is, along with the others, overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and he preaches with boldness (something he didn’t have just 52 days or so earlier).

In Acts 10–11 Peter realizes the gospel is for all people, including unclean Gentiles.

Now, you tell me, when was Peter converted?

Was it when he first saw the Messiah? When he confessed his sin? When he confessed Jesus as Messiah? When he embraced Jesus in love after the resurrection? When he got the Holy Spirit in power? When he embraced the fullness of the gospel? Would it surprise you that those with particular theological persuasions start to stand in line behind certain texts?

First, I believe that question, which is innocent in itself, assumes what I will call at this point a judicial sense of conversion. That is, there is a point in time when God says “OK, you’re trust is genuine, you can be brought across the line, and the verdict is ‘forgiven’.” Such a judicial sense of salvation is thoroughly Pauline and jumps right at us from the Reformation on. There are some today who want to say that justification is corporate and about “who is the people of God,” and I do “own shares” in that New Perspective, but I can’t accept anything less than a fully individual perception that includes a coroporate dimension. Apart from the New Perspective issue, I do think too often we do frame conversion questions exclusively in terms of justification and the judicial sense. It is a dimension of the issue.

Second, conversion is just as prominently and perhaps even more so a relational issue. In fact, I’m willing to say that the relational is primary: it is about God’s embrace of us and our embracing God back.

Third, which means we have to convert the question: I like to think of it this way. Peter began a relationship with Jesus in John 1 (actually, it was outside Jerusalem and probably down by the Jordan) and that relationship grew. Peter’s “conversion” is an ongoing growth in his relationship of loving Jesus, and at each stage when he learned something new he was challenged (as we see in John 6) to continue and deepen that relationship or abandon and go back. So, when was Peter converted means “when did Peter begin a relationship with Jesus?” I’d say probably at John 1 but perhaps not until Luke 5. The issue is that he continued to love Jesus and it was that love that was jeopardized in Mark 14 and which needed to be rectified in John 21.

If I’m forced into the “judicial” sense and am asked exactly when Peter crossed the line into God’s favor, I would have to say that I don’t know and I don’t think it matters all that much. (Well, it matters but not in what I am discussing.) And it should be said that an over-emphasis on the judicial dimension retards the relationship (turning into status) and creates the need to make perserverance an additional doctrine rather than one inherent to the status.

It will do us some real good to begin thinking of conversion the way we think of love. We don’t “fall” in love with someone and then say, “Well, now I’ve got the love thing accomplished.” We know that love is something that begins (it kind of unfolds) and then continues or it is not love at all.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Sam

    “…creates the need to make perserverance an additional doctrine rather than one inherent to the status.” As someone who “owns stock” in the npp and the Reformed tradition (and I don’t exactly feel theologically confused) I totally agree: there is a way of looking at perseverance that makes it seem almost a doctrinal appendage, and therefore, an issue to be defended and discussed separately from justification and sanctification and other issues of Pneumatology. Your survey of Peter’s journey with Jesus is spot on, there is a mystery involved which is somewhat existential. There seems to be a heavy dose of this mystery in passages in Hebrews. At any rate, our doctrinal certainty about certain soteriological truths should not be confused with the very mysterious process whereby God’s Spirit breaks open our hearts to his beauty.

  • Patrick

    I’d say Peter&Andrew had been OT believers before Christ myself. As soon as they saw Jesus, they recognized Him. That’s my opinion. Just like John Baptist’s parents recognized Him as an infant. They were saved earlier and as soon as Jesus became a human and they were aware of it, voila.

    Nathanael, same deal. Just waiting for the reality to show in the flesh is all.

    Otherwise, I don’t think Jesus would have renamed Simon as the rock immediately. Does it matter? No.

  • Mike Writhgen

    What if you changed the “crossed the line ” idea from justification to regeneration or adoption? In other words, does the discussion change if conversion doesn’t equal justification but rather regeneration or adoption?

    I for one do not equate conversion with justification, but rather regeneration. Justification is a benefit of regeneration, as is adoption, but is not synonymous with conversion. Louis Berkoph deals with this stating that conversion is actually the response to regeneration. So, was Peter regenerated before Luke 5?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Peter was converted once he died. It is based on your life led.

  • scotmcknight

    Mike, the ordo salutis will always be a bit tricky in this kind of question, but we are more asking when one could say “Now Peter is truly a Christian.” In other words, when did Peter have the sufficient and necessary response?

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    How many Apostles Peter can stand on the head of a pin?

    Nobody knows.

    But regarding your question, since Jesus said to Peter, “When you are converted, strengthen your brethren” I’d say it was when Peter began strengthening his brethren.

  • http://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz steve taylor

    Thanks Scot. It’s a great way of exploring mission and evangelism – Peter as process, Paul as event which I often also use with groups (although Beverley Gaventa is interesting in how she frames Paul as a process through his Jewish worldview).

    John Drane explores this very well I think in Faith in a changing culture – creating churches for the next century, Marshall Pickering 1994 (reprint of Evangelism for a new age, 1994), chapter 4.

    In your list of verses, I wonder if there’s a piece missing – Galatians 2:11-14, in which, despite his racism being exposed in Acts 10-11, Peter seems to revert back to his ethnocentric eating habits. Further evidence of conversion needed as a process, and one that is not only intellectual and relational, but also ethically,

    steve taylor

  • Allen Browne

    How about John 20:22, when Jesus imparted his new-creational (resurrection) breath into Peter and the others (echoing Gen 2:7)?
    (But of course, that’s only part of Peter’s journey.)

  • http://joeloscar.com Joel Johnson

    Hi Scot,

    Thanks for this post. In my work with conversion I started to see many parallels with “relationship language” as well (though I don’t think I got much of that down on the page). This past summer I was met with the challenge of communicating conversion to summer campers over a few days. I relied on relationship language to make the point: We know we have to tend to every other relationship; our relationship to Christ is the same in this way. Conversion is, in part, a journey of knowing God more deeply.

    According to the responses I am reading above, it seems that “conversion as a moment” continues to be our starting point. What you have offered with Peter’s story pushes that assumption in a good direction. Thanks again.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Aren’t you really asking the underlying questions like “what is conversion?”, “how do you know when you are converted?”, “what does conversion look/feel like?”, etc.?

  • Marshall

    Where does the John 21 incident fit into the Lucan narrative? When Peter says “I am going fishing” it sounds as if he is expressing discouragement after the enthusiasm of Pentecost and the communal period … the the grandiosity of the daily procession to the temple, the rather ugly incident of Ananais and Sapphira, the armed attack of the state; no doubt many fell away. I imagine the disciples wanting to withdraw and return to simpler days. At this point Jesus appears and says, now I show you know how to fish rightly, so go feed the people.

    My teacher said you need to be careful at the beginning, because once you set your foot on the path you have no choice. Jesus hooked Peter right at the beginning, and the path took him to assuming his vocation in John 21. The beginning leads to the end, but only at the end can you understand properly where the beginning was.

  • Mike M

    I think it was when Jesus handed a tract to Peter and had him recite “The Sinner’s Prayer.” That was just before Peter’s water baptism recorded in

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    @Marshall (#11, Sept 10, 11:05 am) — Peter didn’t say “I go a-fishing” after Pentecost, he said it shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The incident of Ananais and Sapphira occurred in the book of Acts quite a bit later, and the armed attack of the state even later. You yourself seem a bit confused about where the beginning is.

  • Ben Thorp

    Surely he was chosen before the beginning of time, as one of the elect?


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