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How often God takes someone who has failed greatly, even repeatedly, and turns him or her around into an amazing leader. The prison ministry of Discipleship Unlimited has many ex-offenders, even those who have been repeat offenders, in leadership positions now where they are AMAZING. What turns a great failure into a great leader? I have been pondering this, and as I pondered and prayed, this is what happened.

I received an e-mail from a new believer from our Alpha group. He wanted to know: “How many times will Jesus forgive me for the same sin? Doesn’t my repetition show that my repentance isn’t genuine?”

Such a good question, and not an easy one to answer. I talked to my friend Twila in the locker-room of the Y. Twila has memorized the book of Hebrews this year and this verse flowed from her: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:26)

I paled! “Twila, I have sinned deliberately. I had to deceive myself to do it, but in my heart of hearts I knew. Every time I overeat, every time I resist forgiving…”

She paused, clarifying “deliberately” as hard hearted and rebellious — and also putting the verse in the whole context of Hebrews of God’s people who were trampling on the Son of God and ignoring such a great salvation. If we ignore such a great salvation there is no more sacrifice for sin. And there are other warnings about not sinning so that grace can abound.

Our discussion made me realize how easy it is for me to regard sin lightly, counting on His grace. He doesn’t want us to be in denial about the seriousness of sin. But if we are truly repentant, He is faithful and just to forgive us (1 John 1:9)

I wrote my friend and said it was good to take sin seriously, for God does, but if his repentance if genuine, even if we do it again and again and again, He will indeed be faithful and just to forgive us.

But if we are doing something again and again — it is serious and we need to face why we keep doing it.

Jesus made Peter face it so He could mold him into a great heart, a great leader. He almost seems harsh with Peter, but it was discipline that was for his good — and Peter received it and became the leader of the early church.

Peter Preaching Fra Angelico 1433  St Mark's Cathedral
Peter Preaching
Fra Angelico 1433
St Mark’s Cathedral

Peter was sure he would never deny Jesus. He was sure he loved Jesus more than the other disciples. He said, “Even if all of these deny you, I will not.”

But Peter denied him again and again and again.

In this week’s sermon, Tim Keller, though he admits much of Jesus Christ Superstar is silly, remembers this scene, which touched him:


Important things are said when time is running out.

The verse last verse in John’s 1st letter is:

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

And the very last story in John’s Gospel is this story of

Jesus shaping a great failure into a great leader.

There is so much to learn about

facing our sin

facing our denial

and fearing God enough to have a play-dough heart.


Let’s go!


1. What stood out to you from the above and why?


Bible Study

2. Read Matthew 26:30-35

A. What does Jesus say will happen to all of them with the shepherd is struck?

B. How does Peter feel he is different?


3. Read John 18:17-19 and describe the scene.

4. Read John 21:9 and describe the scene.

5. Fragrance triggers memories. What memory do you think Jesus was trying to trigger in Peter and why?

6. Read John 21:15-19

A. What does Jesus ask Peter three times, and why do you think He asks three times?

B. Why is it not heartless of Jesus to probe Peter so deeply?

C. How might the knowledge of how he was going to die prepare Peter to be the apostle to write the letters to strengthen suffering believers?

D.  What do you think was the sin beneath the sin that caused Peter to deny Christ, and how did Jesus repeated question help him see the solution? 

E.  Tim Keller says “Every sin is a denial of Christ.” Explain.

7. Contrast the reaction of Peter to Jesus in a similar miracle in Luke 5:8 with his responses in John 21:7. What do you think made the difference?

8. Read Hebrews 12:1-11

A. In verse 1, the author talks about the sin which clings so closely, or the sin that easily entangles you. As you are still before God, what does He tell you that might be in your life?

B. Imagine Jesus were to confront you about this as He did Peter. How might He set the scene? What question might He ask you repeatedly?

C. Why should we not be afraid of the Lord’s discipline? Find everything you can in verses 5-11. 

9. Let this lead you into prayer.


Paid Keller Sermon


If the above link doesn’t work, click here or go to gospelinlife.com and type “Healing of Peter” into the search bar. Select the sermon titled “Healing of Peter.”

10. Share your notes and comments.


11. What is your take-a-way and why?

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    D.  What do you think was the sin beneath the sin that caused Peter to deny Christ, and how did Jesus repeated question help him see the solution?
     I imagine that fear of man was the reason for Peters denials. He feared what they might do to him if he claimed association with Christ.
    For Peter to love people, to be Jesus hands and feet, to speak the truth in love, he needed overcome his fear of what people might think of him or what they might do to him. His relationship with Christ, his love for God, his fear of how awful and without hope his denial had left him needed to eclipse his fear of man.
    E.  Tim Keller says “Every sin is a denial of Christ.” Explain.
    On a broad level, every one and every thing was created by God and for God.  When we do wrong to one another, the wrong is done first and foremost to God. David when repenting of his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband prayed to God “against you and you only I have sinned”
     Jesus in forgiving sin, in claiming authority to do so, was claiming that he had the right to forgive, thereby saying he was the one who had been wounded by the offense.

    On a personal level, I am bought with a price, God is jealous for my heart. When I flirt with my idols, enjoying what they offer I am committing adultery. I am turning my back on my true love. The God of the universe has condescended to open up a relationship with me, it is wonderful and sobering. Though I am prone to, I don’t want to wander away, I want to more and more fear the cost of wandering.  I don’t want to deny him. I want the weight of his love to surpass the desire for the fleeting things that tempt me.

    1. These are really good answers, Chris. I had only ever thought of Peter being afraid of what they might do to him, but now I’m thinking also about his fear of what people might think of him. He had seen Jesus mocked and hated…he may not have been ready to have the same done to him. I think of how often I’m afraid to speak up for Jesus because I’m embarrassed of what people might think of me…why do I care?!

  2. I stumbled on this this week LOVE IT 

    1. Liz-I just watched it, wow! 

    2. Loved this Liz!

    3. Liz, this was wonderful!  I copied the link and sent it to a friend who’s son is really struggling right now.  Thank you for sharing it!

  3. 7. Contrast the reaction of Peter to Jesus in a similar miracle in Luke 5:8 with his responses in John 21:7. What do you think made the difference?    In Luke 5:8, Peter experiences the awesome mystery of Jesus’ holiness and power at once.  I appreciate Liz bringing up Isaiah 6 as Isaiah and Peter have similar responses.  The mysterium tremendum!  Peter feels small and sinful when he sees himself next to Jesus, and tells him to go away.   In John 21:7, Peter jumps in the water and swims to Jesus, not even waiting to ride in the boat.  He can’t wait to be near Him!   The first incident was at the beginning of their time together.  Peter knew he was a sinner and was ashamed.  He knew he did not measure up and was awe-struck by Jesus’ presence.  The incident in John, was after the years they had spent together.  Peter had learned of Jesus’ righteousness first hand but also knew and felt deeply Jesus’ unconditional love.  He still knew he was a sinner.  But he knew he was forgiven and that Jesus wanted His company.  He had experienced the crucifixion and the resurrection and now, the new beginning; forgiveness even after his denial and sin against Jesus.  What this says to me is that we need to have both responses.  We DO need to tremble and see our unworthiness.  (this is what I see sorely lacking in so many churches today).  But we need to know that when we are clothed in HIS righteousness, we stand clean before our Lord.  And the overflow of our heart’s gratitude propels us to run to Him. 

    1. I like your answers too, Wanda! “He still knew he was a sinner. But he knew he was forgiven and that Jesus wanted His company.” Yes, we need to have both responses. When I get “unbalanced” to either extreme, I either take His grace for granted, or I back away from Him when I sin, fearing He doesn’t want my company anymore.

  4. A. In verse 1, the author talks about the sin which clings so closely, or the sin that easily entangles you. As you are still before God, what does He tell you that might be in your life?
    The fear and approval of man, I am realizing it clings so closely that sometimes I am blind to the control it has over me.

    B. Imagine Jesus were to confront you about this as He did Peter. How might He set the scene? What question might He ask you repeatedly?
    Do you love me? Do you rejoice that I have written your name in heaven that you are mine? Why do you turn away from me over concern for what people think of you?  
    Ouch, ouch, ouch

    C. Why should we not be afraid of the Lord’s discipline? Find everything you can in verses 5-11. 
    I am His child
    I must not forget I am His child
    When He is speaking to me, commanding my attention, I need to stop and hear Him
    He leads me in paths of righteousness for His namesake, because I belong to Him and because He loves me
    Out of respect for God I need to submit, to be humble, to know I don’t understand what He understands
    He disciplines me with hard things for my good, to make me fruitful, to train me
    9. Let this lead you into prayer
    Oh Lord, I am so grateful for your steadfast love. For the sake of your name forgive my iniquity, for it is very great. Forgive me for doubting your goodness when my path has been hard, for my wicked defiant stance of standing in judgement of you for what you allow to come to pass. For I understood you are sovereign, but have doubted at times your loving kindness. 
    Teach me your ways, grant understanding and wisdom to me.  When I am disciplined open my eyes to your purposes for it in my life. Open my eyes to my sin, let me be sensitive to when I am stumbling into darkness, and let me rush to you for mercy, make the path back into the light plain to me. I don’t know want to be caught in a snare, a slave to the opinions or approval of man, I want to be your bondservant and a slave to no lesser thing.
    Thank you for your promise of freedom, that you have promised to continue the good work you’ve begun in me,  in Jesus precious name Amen

  5. Here I am again with “huge” notes.   This time I rationalize that it is okay to post such complete notes because this was a paid sermon, and not everyone will be able to access it.    This is the first time for me that I can do so — I finally got it arranged with Gospel in Life so I can use a gift certificate (bought for myself) so I can pay for Keller’s sermons.   My first check to them was either lost in the mail or by them, so I had to stop payment on it and issue a new one. This time it was a success!  
    John 21:4-17
    Dr. Timothy Keller
    Healing of Peter
    Peter – how good you make us feel. Because we can identify with you.   Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him three times.   What did Peter say?  “ Although all of these would fall, I will never fall. I will die with you if necessary. “
    We all know that Peter followed Jesus at a distance, and they took Him into the high priest’s house,  and out in the courtyard Peter got around a fire with some soldiers and other people, and they asked him three times if he was a follower of the one in chains now, and he said “No, No, No!”    
    In Jesus Christ Superstar, they had Mary Magdalene hearing the denial, and she said “Peter don’t you know what you have said, you have gone and cut him dead.” and Peter answered, “I had to do it, don’t you see, or they would go for me.”   “It’s what He told us you would do, I wonder how he knew.”   
    As soon as Peter denied Him the third time, Jesus comes out, He is lead across the courtyard, and He turns to Peter and He looks at him. At that moment the cock crows, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.    Peter has just given himself the worst wound a human can give himself.
    There is a place in the play “A Man for All Seasons” by Robert Bolton, where Sir Thomas Moore is saying to his daughter, Meg, that when you make a promise in a sense you take yourself in your hands like water, and if you open your hands you lose yourself and you can never find yourself again.    She was trying to tell him to just break his promise, “Don’t go to the stake.”  Sir Thomas Moore was saying, if you break your promise, you lose more than the promise, you lose yourself in the process. 
    That’s what had happened to Peter.   Peter had made all of these claims.   He had rested himself in his own mind and his heart on his certainty that he was a man of integrity and of courage.   At the moment of crisis, his life was laid bare.  He was revealed as a coward, as someone who saves his own skin. As someone with no integrity at all.  Not only that, even though all the disciples forsook Him, Peter in a specifically flagrant way denied Him – he lied.  Peter was to be a leader in this great movement and now he is the last person in the world anyone would follow.   He is mortally wounded.
    Back in the Book of Numbers, there is a place where God says to Israel, “I am the one who healeth thee.”   Jesus is not just a Great Physician – He is a surgeon.  He gives us lay people the willys.  He cuts – he goes inside.   Jesus always heals through repentance.    You see what Peter’s problem was?    He denied the Lord, but he first denied what the Lord said about his weakness. 
    Because he refused to repent, he was someone who denied his Lord, and lost himself.   God, the Lord Jesus can heal you, but only by repentance.      In case you are saying that is no way to heal someone – you heal someone by affirmation and love, not by telling them about their sin.  Your objection is superficial.  It is simplistic and naive.   If you think you have got to choose between repentance and love.   You don’t understand repentance.     Everyone in this room has denied the Lord, and you have lost yourself.   You have inflicted yourself with the same wound Peter has.  Some are bleeding outside and some are bleeding inside so you can’t see it.   That is the worst kind of wound there is – you don’t know it is there.  
    First of all, let me tell what His surgical procedure is – three steps: 
    1.   He opens you.
    2.  He finds the tumor. 
    3.   He removes it. 
     Step one – you have to open.   Open the skin.   First step in repentance is to take responsibility. He says,   “Peter you denied me three times.  I am going to ask you three times if you love me.”    “Peter, before when you said stupid things, you compared yourself to other disciples, and you said I love you more than these.   He is asking “Do you love me more than these?”    Peter never says he loves Him more than these.   Peter says “I love you.”  Jesus is rubbing his nose in it.    Peter denied Jesus three times – all of them in front of a fire.  Did you notice where Jesus takes Peter to remind him of what he has done?   He takes him to a fire of coals.   Doesn’t Jesus have any sensitivity?  Doesn’t He realize how upset Peter must be about all of this?  Jesus gets him by the nape of the neck and says “Look at what you have done calmly – take a full look at it.  Name it.”   Repentance starts when blame-shifting ends.  You can’t repent until you start to take responsibility for what has happened.  Not blame your circumstances or conditions, but take it fully on your own shoulders.  
    Logs – logs are long.   If you have one end of the log resting on your back, and you try to throw it off of you, it is going to go about 3 inches and then come on down and hit you somewhere else.  You don’t have control of it, you can’t master it, because you don’t have the weight of it all on you.    If you can pull the whole log up onto your back only for a moment, you will have the power to heave it – the same is true of your guilt.   If you blame others or your circumstances, you are saying “yes I did it BUT”   The BUT means you have part of the log on the ground.  Repentance begins when you say “Yes, I was mistreated, but I am miserable because of my responses to being mistreated.”  There are people who will try to tell you that you are a victim – you can’t help it.   Getting that log up onto you –you may not be able to bear it more than a minute.  You have to get it on you before you can get it off of you.   It just feels excrutiating.    A lot of you have never gotten any further with repentance than that.  Some people think that is all there is to repentance.   The surgeon has to do more than just open the patient up. 
    Step two – The surgeon finds the trouble spot.  Where’s the infection, where’s the tumor?  The second stage is that you have to unmask your sin and name your sin. You have to find the root. 
    Jesus does not talk about Peter’s behavior.   What was his actual sin?  He lied and was a coward. Jesus never mentions them.   Imagine: what if Jesus had said, “Peter, are you ever going to lie again? Are you ever going to chicken out again.”’   Peter would say “No.” And   Jesus says “Good.”   That’s the way a lot of people treated you, and the way you treat people.   That is not repentance.    The question is what is the root sin beneath the behavioral sin.   Christians understand sin as an inward thing.  Christians see sin as a motivational thing before it is a behavioral thing.    What Jesus is asking Peter is “Peter, do you love me more than these.”   What Jesus is after is he is trying to get Peter to denounce something.   Peter is saying, “Yes Lord, I love you, but he is also saying is “No Lord, I don’t love you more than these.”   “Peter do you see that pride is what got you.  Don’t you see that cowardice is a lack of humility.  Don’t you see that your foundation was competitiveness–Your ability to look down on other people.   I wasn’t your foundation – you had another foundation.”   He was really trying to show Peter that the heart of sin  was trying to play God and push God out to the margins, away from the center.   All sin is denying Christ.  Every time you sin, what you are saying is “I want that throne back, I don’t want you to be ruling over me – get to the margins of my life.  I will let you know when I need you.”  
    Repentance always means not just looking at the behavior, but also seeing that it is really me pushing God out of the center of my life.    
    Some years ago he was counseling a woman back in Virginia.   She had bitterness against her ex-boss who had fired her unfairly, and really affected her career quite a bit.   She was so eaten up with anger that she just wanted to take his head off.  She couldn’t forgive him.   So the Keller and the woman just spent some time sitting together and essentially, shaking their finger at her behavior.   One day God helped them and it was revealed   that there was a deeper problem, and she began to realize that the reason she was so much madder at her boss than she had ever been toward anyone before was that her career was far more important to her than Jesus.   Then she had no trouble forgiving him.    
    In science fiction fairy tales, you have this monster which takes the shape of beauty.   As soon as someone breaks the spell so you see the monster’s true ugliness, 90% of the monster’s or villain’s power is gone.   When it looked beautiful, it was bewitching.   In the C.S. Lewis Narnia Chronicles there is a beautiful witch who is trying to Puddleglum and the little children and put them under enchantment.  She has them down under the earth, and she tells them there is no sun, there are no trees, there are no stars,   “there is only my kingdom.”   As they are falling under the spell, Puddleglum puts his foot into the fire and it wakes him up, and he says “I know there is a sun, and I know there are trees and there are stars, and I no there is a heavens above.   He unmasks the lie.    You will never get over your sins, bad habits, and flaws if you only look at them in the most superficial way.  Unless you see them rooted and related to your desire to push God to the margins of your life.   Then it will lose its power over you. 
    Thirdly, it is not enough to just to open the problem and see what it is – you have to get the tumor out.    You expel it through the power of grief.   In verse 17, it says that Peter was hurt because Jesus had asked him the third time about his love.   The word hurt in Greek also means to grieve and to mourn.   It is not until he starts to grieve in the right way, does he have the power to get rid of this old and false foundational motivation.     Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10 “Godly repentance leads to freedom, but ungodly sorrow leads to death.   Plenty have wept over their sins.   You can grieve over yourself or over your Savior.    
    Moral people, religious people, say look what my sin cost me.   Look at the punishment it is bringing.   Christians say “Look how it is hurting my Savior.”  One is self-pity,  the other is repentance.   This is all the difference between heaven or hill.    A moral person brings their sin to Mt. Sinai and thinks about all the punishment that is coming.   A Christian brings his or her sin to the cross, and asks “Is this the return I give my Savior for his overwhelming love for me?    You repent by saying “I am loved – how can I treat Him like this?”    Looking at your Savior not yourself.   
    Keller likened it to his experience with doing marriage counseling.   If the wife said her husband had hurt her and didn’t hear her complaints.  The husband would say that he didn’t realize how he had hurt her.   They would reconcile and try again.  However, Keller said he came to realize there are two types of husbands – one is upset because his wife is leaving him – the other is concerned because he has hurt his wife.    In the latter case, the change in the husband was permanent and the marriage would survive, in the former case the change was only temporary and they would return to him for counseling again.   He had one word for them “REPENT!”    
    A Christian is someone who knows knows they are forgiven and and therefore can really repent.  A moral person is someone who hopes that they will be good enough through their performance for God to accept them.   Therefore they can’t repent.    Peter has been prepped.  In Luke 5, Peter’s experience with the miraculous catch of fish, and Peter responds “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”   In this passage in John, Peter goes through the same thing – hasn’t caught any fish – told to let down nets on the other side.    There is a miraculous catch of fish.   This time Peter runs TOWARD Jesus like a crazy man.    How could these be the same Peter.   The Peter of Luke 5 was not a Christian.  When anyone came along to show him his smallness, he was traumatized.   He had lost himself.   Peter of John 21 realized Jesus came not as a teacher but as a Savior.   Peter had been prepped for surgery.     
    Ask yourself – when you fail or you are criticized, does that make you want to go to God or stay away?     Mark 14 – Peter curses himself.      Peter learned that the best place for a sinful man is at the feet of Jesus.   
    There is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation on anyone who truly repents.      

    1. Deanna–you really bless us. Your notes are a gift. I needed to be reminded of this “God, the Lord Jesus can heal you, but only by repentance. In case you are saying that is no way to heal someone – you heal someone by affirmation and love, not by telling them about their sin.”

    2. Deanna, thanks again for the huge notes. There is so much to absorb here and it is so important.
      Yet I find most important that  the teaching that the best place for a sinful man is at the feet of Jesus.
      I do see myself in Peter and I am glad to see the analysis of Jesus’ work in him.

  6. Thank you, Deanna, for the lovely notes. I copied them into a Word Document to save and read and ponder later. I will not have time to download the sermon so I do appreciate your thorough notes. We may not get a lot more responses on the blog for a bit as some are heading to the retreat with Dee. 
    Praying for all you retreaters out there. I hope your time together is a little taste of heaven, a “foretaste of glory divine”. 

  7. I also don’t think I’ll get a chance to download and listen this week.  We have our grandchildren here and it is BUSY!  I feel unbalanced when i don’t get some down time every day to sit and read/pray/listen but I have to weigh this with only getting to see them a few times a year 🙂  So your notes are GREATLY appreciated.   I have to go back and copy/print several you have done recently, Deanna.  You are indeed a gift!  I’m glad you finally got the Gospel in Life website workable for you!

  8. This is a message so many hurting people need to hear because there is so much joy to have with and in the Lord you miss out on,  Keep on sharing the truth like this.