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Did Peter lose his salvation when he denied Christ?

Zimou Tan's depicts Jesus' deep spiritual journey.
Zimou Tan's depicts Jesus' deep spiritual journey. | Zimou Tan

First, those darned servant girls outed him (Matt. 26:69-71), and then his accent sent him down for the count again (Matt. 26:73). Not once, or twice, but three times Peter said of Jesus: “I do not know the man” (Matt. 26:74).

Not pretty, but let’s pull back from the normal “How could you do that Peter?” reaction for a minute and ask an important question: did Peter’s denial of Jesus at that point in time result in a loss of his salvation?

Did Peter move from a saved to an unsaved state when he said he’d never met Christ? Before you answer, let’s make things a little more personal.

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Imagine you’re teleported back in time to Oregon’s Umpqua Community College where, in 2015, 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer went on a shooting rampage, specifically asking victims if they were Christians and shooting them dead if they responded “yes.” Suppose he came to you and (as a Christian) you answered “no.” Would you, right then, suddenly become damned to Hell for your lie?

Plenty of people say that both you and Peter were — at least in that moment — lost for eternity. But would that be true?

What does "denying" Jesus really mean?  

Some say you can’t get a more explicit answer to this question than Matthew 10:32-33 (also found in Luke 12:8-9) which has Jesus saying: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in Heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in Heaven.”

In Luke, Jesus also states: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26).

In addition, we have Paul who seems to back this up when he writes: “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us” (2 Tim. 2:12). John also says, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

Regarding Peter, a few say Mark alludes to his ouster from the faith when he appears to be excluded from the rest of the disciples in what the angel said after Christ’s resurrection: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7, my emphasis).

Lastly, even Peter himself talks about those outside the faith who are found “denying the Master who bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1).  

Whether it’s Peter or you/me, we have a few options open to us to answer the question of what happens when you “deny” Christ but then go on like Peter did to “finish the course” (2 Tim 4:7): 1. The person was not saved before denying Christ, but has a real salvation experience afterward; 2. The person was saved before denying Christ, backslid and fell into condemnation, but then was re-converted; 3. The individual sinned but was saved the entire time.

Option 1 is a tough sell because Peter certainly appears to have had a divine revelation and faith experience where Jesus was concerned: “He [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:13–17).

King James Bible advocates are quick to counter and point out that Jesus said to Peter in the upper room: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31, my emphasis). Most other translations, though, more accurately translate the Greek term epistrepsas used in the verse to indicate repentance: “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32, my emphasis).

Where option 2 is concerned, there’s a galactically-large debate over whether a Christian can be saved one day, and not the next, but then gets saved again, and on and on. I’m not a fan of this thinking with a few verses in Hebrews standing out to me on the issue: “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Heb. 6:4–6, my emphasis).

That leaves us with option 3, that Peter was truly saved the entire time. This is where I land for the following reasons.

First, it’s important to clearly define what “denying” Christ truly refers to. Is it a simple refusal to admit that you know Jesus in an interpersonal way as in Peter’s case or that you lie and say you’re not a believer as in the situation of a gun that’s pointed at your head?   

Put another way, do you think when Peter denied Jesus he lost faith in Christ — that he concluded that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that He didn’t have the words of eternal life (John 6:68), and that he was washing his hands of the one he had followed for several years?

That’s hard to swallow in my opinion.

In Revelation, I believe Jesus makes a quick statement to the church at Pergamum about what denying Christ more fully involves: “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2:13, my emphasis). Even when they saw Antipas killed, the believers at Pergamum didn’t throw up their hands, say “OK, I’m out” and bail on their belief of Jesus being their Savior.

In Peter’s case, as bad as the situation turned out, it seems far more likely to conclude that he acted cowardly when faced with the possibility of death and, to save his own skin said he didn’t know who Jesus was. Moreover, we have something Jesus said to Peter in the upper room that seems to indicate his faith never left him — something we’ve already looked at, but let’s see it again:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31–32, my emphasis).

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson goes so far as to say: “Scripture doesn’t tell us Peter was saved because his failure was more straightforward, more normal than Judas’… Nor does Scripture say that Peter was saved because he was regenerate … Peter was saved because Jesus prayed for him ... There’s a message there for all of us: Our security doesn’t lie in ourselves. It doesn’t even lie in what God has done within us, wonderful although that is. It lies in Jesus and His intercession for us. Remember what Hebrews says: ‘He is able to save to the uttermost those who drawn near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’” (Heb. 7:25).

So, there you have it — I believe Peter didn’t lose his salvation when he denied Jesus, and if we’re really saved, we’ll persevere as he did and enjoy the power of Jesus’ continued intercession for us before the Father as well. 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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