When we face a nagging health problem, we often first go to a physician’s office and describe our symptoms. He examines us and maybe runs some tests. If the problem isn’t too bad, he’ll tell us what’s wrong and what we should do. The first part is descriptive (“Here’s what’s wrong”), and the second is prescriptive (“Take this twice a day”).
The book of 2 Peter is like a physician’s report. The descriptive part is in chapter 2. The problem the church faces is a type of antinomianism. People are disregarding moral obligations that go along with being a Christian. The prescriptive part is in chapter 1.
To get a good idea of what Peter prescribes, we can compare what he says to the church to what Jude says in his little letter. Jude, like Peter, warned his readers that many were turning God’s grace into permission to sin (Jude 4). Jude uses many of the same examples that Peter uses: fallen angels, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Balaam. (For these examples and others, compare 2 Peter 2:1, 4, 6, 10, 12, 15-16, with Jude 4, 6, 7, 10, 8, and 11, in that order.) A key difference in the two letters is the prescriptive sections.
Jude exhorts his readers to keep themselves in God’s love by building themselves up in faith, by praying in the Holy Spirit, and by anticipating Jesus’ mercy at his second coming (Jude 20-21). Peter points not at what his readers are to do, but at what they are to be. He gives eight different character traits that Christians should incorporate into their lives (2 Peter 1:5-8).
We can call these character traits “virtues.” Peter is saying: In the midst of this moral cesspool, become the type of person with these virtues. What is a virtue? A virtue is basically an inner tendency or disposition to resist evil or to do good in specific ways. One example is the virtue of self-control (2 Peter 1:6). It’s one thing to resist the urge to gossip, smoke, lust, or gamble a single time; it’s another thing to develop patterns of resisting these sins in our lives.
To borrow an illustration from Rebecca Deyoung, we can think of a virtue like a sled going through snow. If you live near a big hill like I do, then a big snow means it’s time for the sleds to come out. If the snow is powdery, the sled seems to crawl down the hill — at first. As the sled begins to pack the snow down and make lanes, it goes faster. To go faster, however, you must stay in the lanes. Those lanes are like virtues. When you first stop gossiping, your conversations feel awkward. The snow is powdery. As you become self-controlled, then giving thanks, encouraging, consoling, and praising become more natural. The snow is packed down; the sled flies.
Peter begins talking about the virtues by talking about grace. The Lord’s powerful and glorious call and the promise of his return not only change our status, they change us (2 Peter 1:3-4). The list in 2 Peter is certainly not the only list of virtues (For a few examples, see Galatians 5:22-23, 1 Timothy 6:11, Titus 2:1-14, and James 3:17). Compare and pray through these lists. What might the Spirit be convicting you of? What are some examples of people who embody these virtues?