Whenever we hear of a brother or sister in the Lord “falling” into sin, we can be fairly well assured that it wasn’t a sudden fall. Great sins like the one we read with Peter’s denial do not happen on a sudden, but are fed by a gradual series of downward steps. So, what steps marked Peter’s backsliding condition? Thanks to J. C. Ryle for the wording of some of these categories.
First, he exhibited a proud self-confidence. He had said (v. 33) that if all else were to leave him, he would follow Jesus to prison and to death! "Though all else may deny you, I certainly will not!" Paul warned, "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).
Second. The second step to outright denial was a sluggish neglect of prayer. Remember how Jesus had warned all three disciples to “Watch and pray that they may not enter into temptation?” Instead, three times Jesus returned to find his disciples sleeping instead of praying. Whatever the reason, whether sleepiness, sorrow, or both, they neglected the only practice which would have aided them in the trial of their lives!
Third. The third step was fickle indecision. In other words, he turned first one way then the other. When the enemies of Christ came into the garden, Peter fought with his sword, then he ran, then turned again and followed from a distance. Sin leaves us "in a cloud." I have often told the church that every sin comes prepackaged with a cloud of doubt. The more sin, and the fewer confessed and forsaken, the more dull we are and incapable of seeing clearly how to move.
Fourth. The fourth step was that Peter mingled with bad company. He entered the High Priest’s house and sat among the servants by the fire, trying to sort of “blend in.” The other Gospels tell us that all the disciples abandoned Christ. Only John, it seems, was allowed to enter the courtyard. It's not so much the "company" he kept, but his response to that company. Let us be careful too, that we mix with the lost but mostly in order to be a light to them of God's rich grace.
Fifth. The fifth and last step is the natural result of the previous four. He was overwhelmed with fear when he was charged with being a disciple. He had welcomed each step that led to his eventual denial. His triple denial did not happen in a moment but was the result of the previous four steps. Each sin paved the way for this final result, denying his beloved Master!
1) Let us beware of any signs of backsliding, no matter how small those beginnings may seem. We do not know how far astray we may end up when once we’ve chosen to take the first step! Be careful then, professing Christian, of saying of any sin, “It is just a little one.” As soon as you’ve done that, you open yourself up for disaster!
2) Learn the importance of prayer! Of these five steps, only one—prayer—could change things! If Peter had prayed instead of sleeping, that could have staved off his pride, given him a decisive faith and courage to handle what was coming. Let us never underrate the place and necessity of prayer to avert such dangers every day. I fear this greatest of tools is left in our box unused because we simply do not believe it really works. What a dreadful shame it is, that such a clear and consistent command of our Lord is left unheeded. Need we wonder at all why the things of God seem to roll off our backs? Pray first. Pray often. And we’ll find a wonderful alteration in our character!