His heart was pounding as he pushed through the small sea of dull-colored cloaks. Though the night was unusually chilly, sweat dripped from under his dark curls as he looked for a secluded spot where he could still see his master. The temple guards yelled and shoved bystanders aside, making it more difficult to hear what the high priest was saying to Jesus.
Voices grew louder with the burgeoning crowd, and Peter became increasingly concerned that he might be identified as a “follower of Jesus.” For the last three and a half years Peter didn’t care if he was recognized. The burly disciple wanted the entire nation to know that his rabbi was Israel’s deliverer. Jesus was the miracle worker, and the Man who could move through angry mobs untouched had emboldened the already arrogant fisherman. The small, tight-knit band of disciples was unstoppable, and all fear quickly dissipated because their leader could walk on water, multiply bread, and confound both religious and Roman leaders.
Peter was not alone in his false sense of pride. The disciples regularly jockeyed for position with Jesus. James and John—the sons of Zebedee—requested that they flank Jesus on the left and right sides of His throne when He came into His glory (Mark 10:37). But nobody could challenge the “earthly” position retained by Peter. He was an adviser of sorts—at least he was in his own mind. He was quick with rebukes for the Son of God, and Christ often answered these brash reproofs by humiliating Peter. Yet none of this squelched the embers that simmered in Peter’s breast, and at the moment of greatest threat to his sorrowful master, Peter made the ultimate commitment.
He Wants to Sift You Like Wheat
Like Job, Satan desired to prove the character of Peter (Luke 22:31). Jesus warned Peter of his impending trial and assured him that he would initially fail the test: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (v. 32 ESV). This did not set well with the overconfident disciple. “Had Jesus forgotten how I dropped my fishing nets and followed Him without any knowledge of where I was going? Did I leave Him like some of the others when He preached about eating His flesh and drinking His blood? I’ve always been there in the most extreme moments. How can He say that my faith will fail?”
Peter retorted, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33 ESV). He had no idea how he was playing straight into the devil’s devices. He had forgotten the scriptural admonition of his youth that said, “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man” (Ps. 147:10 ESV). God did not trust in man’s fleshly ability. He rather “takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (v. 11). But Peter, filled with zeal and overly sure of his own commitment, made a promise to Jesus that even if every other disciple would fall away, he would stand firm in the season of tribulation.
Fear of Man and the Denial of Christ
It was not at the tip of a Roman sword that Peter denied he even knew Jesus’ name. He was not standing before the high priest when he pretended to be a curious spectator prying into the early morning melee. Rather, it was at the crackle of a young woman’s accusation—“This man also was with him” (Luke 22:56 ESV); it was at the recognition by another that forced Peter to “curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man” (Matt. 26:74). His denunciation was so loud that Jesus turned and fixed his eyes upon Peter (Luke 22:61). The rooster crowed for the third time.
Peter’s denial of Christ is one of the few stories included in all four of the Gospels. Each instance features great detail, so much so that Peter must have had a hand in insuring that his greatest sin was recorded. There are apparently great lessons to be learned from his most embarrassing life moment.
There is also great theology to be gleaned here. We can learn much about what God expects of man and how man is to view his relationship with his Creator. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks of children, “What does the Bible primarily teach?” The abbreviated answer is, “The Bible primarily teaches what man must believe about God and what God requires of man.”1
Basic theology must reshape our view of God. I say “reshape” because our sinful tendency is to place man in the center of the world and therefore shove God to the margins. We don’t realize the effect this has on our Christian outlook. God soon becomes a servant to us. Salvation becomes something God owes us (lest an unjust thing happen and we end up in hell!). Whatever we do for God, therefore, becomes a favor—it becomes something we can exalt in.
Basic theology should show us the painful but necessary truth about the nature of man. For too many Christians, their doctrine of man is that he is essentially good but only battles with an annoying handicap called “sin.” Man deserves to be redeemed because he has something God wants—God is desperately in need of man’s fellowship and has sent Christ in order to secure it.
Basic theology must also reveal what God expects of us. Contrary to the over- usage of such terms as “godly values” and “Biblical principles,” the Scriptures present us with commandments, statutes, precepts, and judgments. Values and principles are vague and flexible concepts that afford us great latitude in determining how we are to live. Modern man is in search of such spiritual principles. In the end, this reduces the Christian faith to a baptized version of Buddhism where believers care more about the keys and principles to a happy life than the laws that teach men to better glorify God. As Rushdoony notes: “The major concern of most church members is not the Lord’s battles, nor the urgency to make a stand against compromise, but, ‘How can I best enjoy life?’”2
The Theology of a Promise Keeper
As previously noted, Peter’s denial of Christ is given ample space in all four of the New Testament Gospels. Despite the four perspectives on the audacity of the zealous Galilean, much of modern Christianity is positioned on the same weak footing that quickly gave way to Peter’s pride. In Peter’s theology, man was to make a commitment to God because man’s ethic was something he created. Man tells God what he will do for Him. Man doesn’t wait for God to tell him first.
Within the last seventeen years we’ve witnessed a Christian movement established squarely on the misguided theology of the unsaved Peter: a movement that sought to do God a service, but has left a theological residue that undermines Christian commitment. As in all theological deviations, the victim is always the law of God. The tendency of zealous men is to make “the commandment of God of none effect by [their] tradition” (Matt. 15:6), and the Promise Keepers men’s movement has created a new tradition established upon what men promise God.
In 1990, University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney followed through on an “inspiration” he received to fill his home stadium with thousands of men gathered for encouragement, edification, and equipping. Promise Keepers developed quickly within a few short years, McCartney’s vision was fulfilled, and the movement went national.
Up until that time, a good many mainstream churches were involved in such Christian organizations as the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. However, these were limited gatherings of business owners and teenage athletes—they were not able to address the “felt needs” of the millions of men that McCartney felt desperately needed ministry.
As is often stated, a great deal of contemporary Christianity is essentially a woman’s faith. Effeminate terms like intimacy, relationship, encounter, and touch permeate most sermons while sanctuaries are decorated with flowers, pastel colors, and soft images of Biblical scenes. If men are addressed in a church service, it is often in rebuke for irregular attendance and undependable involvement. This leaves men silent and seething as their personal problems simmer just below the surface of crossed arms and scowling brows.
A New Environment for Men’s Ministry
McCartney’s men’s movement came at just the right time. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the specter of a foreign enemy. The self-indulgence of the 1980s gave way to disillusionment and an absence of personal direction. The advent of the Internet brought pornography on demand to men who would never darken the door of a seedy peep show, but were now drawn in by digital perversion and private sex. Compounding the male dilemma was the continued recession from the late ’80s along with increasing globalization and the offshore movement of jobs.
Men were ready for something different—something that would inspire them to find their place in a world that was pushing men aside. They found it in the massive gatherings of the Promise Keeper conferences. It was male bonding par excellence, and a new breed of Christian men resolved their social crisis by making an “uncompromising commitment to Christ.” It all seemed to make sense. God wanted something more out of men, and Promise Keepers provided them with a “rule book” to make it happen.
The name “Promise Keepers” is based upon the seven promises that make up the ethical beliefs of McCartney’s vision of a new man:
- A Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
- A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity.
- A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and Biblical values.
- A Promise Keeper is committed to supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by actively giving his time and resources.
- A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of Biblical unity.
- A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30–31) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20).3
The movement quickly developed into regional meetings that packed arenas and outdoor stadiums usually filled with professional or collegiate sports fans. Tens of thousands of men of all backgrounds and denominations gathered to hear messages, pray, and repent. Attendees usually left “fired up” to bring this male enthusiasm to their respective local churches. Men’s groups grew exponentially.
There are obviously many scriptural exhortations contained in the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper. However, the simple premise behind Promise Keepers is explicitly Arminian. Once again, man will contrive new and innovative ways to “do God a service,” rather than simply live according to the commandments He has given us. Are seven promises somehow easier than ten commandments? Has God asked man to create various means and methods to glorify Him?
Adding insult to injury is the repeated slander of “legalism” that we theonomists often hear because of our emphasis upon Biblical law. But groups like Promise Keepers demonstrate that they are more than legalists in their contrivance of new standards and priorities of Christian service—this is the definition of legalism. They are like the Apostle Peter in that they promise our Lord what they will do for Him. And, like Peter, pride goeth before their fall.
“Wild at Heart”
Promise Keepers has helped to spawn a plethora of men’s-oriented ministers and programs. Within the last few years, books like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul have encouraged men to “be men” by living from the alleged raw masculinity being suppressed within their inward parts. Eldredge’s book is replete with references from the movies he’s seen, the mountains he’s climbed, the rivers he’s fished, and the myriad of other macho adventures he’s pursued. His thesis is that men are “wild at heart” and must therefore answer to the “call to the wild.”
This line of thinking has inspired new men’s groups like GodMen whose tagline reads “When Faith Gets Dangerous.” Their website boasts of their GodMen events going beyond previous men’s movements: “More powerful, raw, and real than any other men’s event you know.”4 These closed-door conferences feature almost profane language as men drone on about addiction to pornography and other vices. The group’s leader is a comedian, Brad Stine, and he regularly pushes the envelope of decency in an effort to “be real” with men.
In addition to the group therapy over habitual sin, GodMen, like Eldredge, seek to “celebrate the masculine spirit.” This is a moving beyond the Promise Keeper emphasis of men’s ministry to a Spartan-like glorification of masculinity. No doubt, testosterone-laden films like Gladiator and 300 play into this mentality. For modern men’s movements, manhood means masculinity. This is a gross misdirection from the scriptural concept of being a man.
Manhood Means Responsibility
In R. J. Rushdoony’s salient examination of Biblical psychology, Revolt Against Maturity, his thesis is one of the more profound I’ve ever read. In an effort to correct the Freudian and Darwinian underpinnings of contemporary psychology, Rushdoony radically repositions the starting point of psychology to squarely Biblical grounds:
Humanistic psychology looks backward to a primitive past to explain man, whereas Biblical psychology looks neither to the child nor a primitive past to explain man but to a mature creation, Adam, and to God’s purpose in man’s creation. If man in his origin is a product of a long evolutionary past, man is then best understood in terms of the animal, the savage, and the child. However, since man was in his origin a mature creation, his psychology is best understood in terms of that fact. Man’s sins and shortcomings represent not a lingering primitivism or a reversion to childhood but rather a deliberate revolt against maturity and the requirements of maturity. By ascribing to man, as humanistic psychologies do, a basic substratum of primitivism and racial childishness, this revolt against maturity is given an ideological justification; the studied and maturely developed immaturity of man is encouraged and justified. If man is reminded rather that he was created in Adam into maturity and responsibility and that his revolt is against maturity and responsibility, his self-justification is shattered … The fact of a mature creation is one of the basic and most important facts of a Biblical psychology. It is a fact of incalculable importance.5
Man was created fully mature and given a responsibility—a job, if you will. His work was intellectual (naming animals), emotional (dealing with his wife), physical (maintaining the garden), and spiritual (communing with God). These are all the present responsibilities delegated to modern men. Ironically, the men attending events like Promise Keepers and GodMen are failing in part due to their anti-intellectualism, misunderstanding of the position of women, laziness, and a false spirituality.
Rushdoony is correct. There are no answers for these men in Prozac or by searching out their childhood. Their problems are directly related to their rebellion against the mature position to which God has called them. Their pastors have failed them in reinforcing the false ideologies of modern men’s movements, and the therapeutic approach of Promise Keepers and GodMen is only creating a greater separation between men and their responsibilities.
Do We Need Male Group Therapy?
“But, Chris, what about guys who are hooked on pornography? Don’t we have to have a forum of some kind for men to talk these things out?” There are no forums mentioned in the Scriptures. There is only Biblical instruction. Young men are admonished to “flee … youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22), and married men are commanded to “drink … from [their] own cistern” (Prov. 5:15–20). It’s that simple.
“But, what if men are dealing with a sexual addiction from which they cannot break free?” Oh, but they can, if they “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:3–4 NKJV). Most men—including myself—are ethically weak. We are capable of a great deal more, but we’ve become “wearied and faint in [our] minds” (KJV), and do not yet realize that we are capable of going to the level of bloodshed in our resistance to sin. We just don’t want to.
Being a man means being responsible—and doing so without whining. If you can climb a mountain to prove your manhood, then you can love your wife as Christ loves the church. If not, then climbing a mountain is relatively easy. If living wildly masculine is how you determine your manhood, then you are grossly misguided and headed for greater failure. God does not want you living wild. He wants you to be silent (Prov. 10:19, 17:28), working with your hands (Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11), and performing His commandments (1 John 5:3).
The Masculine Soul
A masculine soul is one that is content and impassioned with the responsibilities God has given him. Real men don’t require profanity and a hunting license in order to feel more masculine. Real men understand they have a task to perform, and they do it with diligence and patience knowing that a reward awaits them.
Our Lord did not say, “If you love Me, keep your promises.” Rather, He said, “[K]eep my commandments” (John 14:15). We do not demonstrate our love for God by contriving a list of what we deem important and then struggle to fulfill it. Genuine love for God recognizes that He has spoken infallibly in His Word and our only response should be a willing obedience.
The Apostle Peter learned this firsthand, and the story of his humiliating fall is recorded for all generations. Peter made a “promise” to our Lord that he would not deny Him. Before morning Peter would do so three times. This serves as a lesson to all future “promise keepers” that beginning with your own concept of what God expects of you will lead to embarrassing moments of denial.
Although I could not find the reference, I recall a story written in a previous issue of the Chalcedon Report by Brian Abshire in which he recounts a meeting with a friend who had recently returned from a Promise Keepers rally. With enthusiasm he told Brian that he needed to come and hear this new message for men. Brian simply retorted that he already experienced what Promise Keepers promised because he attended a Reformed church!
Some of the godliest men I know of proceed from the Reformed faith: Calvin, Knox, Hodge, Warfield ,Dabney, Machen, Van Til, Rushdoony, et al.—they all exemplified an unequaled work ethic and sense of responsibility. No doubt these steely backbones are the direct result of an equally masculine version of the Christian faith. Not a faith that engages in chest thumping, but one that so exalts the Creator and His law-word that man is left with an immense awareness of his responsibility to the Creator. This is Biblical manhood.
The twelfth Psalm begins with “Help, LORD, for the godly man ceases! For the faithful disappear from among the sons of men” (Ps. 12:1 NKJV). If we continue to make man and his contrived morality our starting point, we shall soon see the faithful man disappear. He himself does not vanish—only his faithfulness. A man-based morality is quickly compromised when placed under threat; for why should I be faithful to what I created? I will simply lower, or redefine, my standards in order to accommodate my weaknesses.
We are in a time that is corporately similar to Peter’s denial of Christ. While our Lord is being examined by unbelievers, statists, and apostate religions, His people are busied with new ways of doing Christianity—ways that deemphasize the law of God. Such a version of Christianity will easily fold under genuine tribulation. We are building upon the morass of sand when we should be building upon the solid rock of hearing His sayings and doing them (Matt. 7:24–27). There should be but one message preached: to the law and to the testimony (Isa. 8:20)!
1. Douglas Kelly and Philip Rollinson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1986), 5.
2. Rousas John Rushdoony, Chariots of Prophetic Fire: Studies in Elijah and Elisha (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2003), 2.
4. See http://www.godmen.org/about.htm.
5. Rousas John Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity: A Biblical Psychology of Man (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1987), 6f.
- Christopher J. Ortiz
Christopher J. Ortiz is a freelance writer and independent communications specialist servicing churches, ministries, and publishers.