At the turn of the 20th century, a Russian physician named Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel Prize. Dogs naturally salivate at the smell of food, but Pavlov wanted to see if he could cause salivation with another stimulus. As you probably remember from a high school science class, Pavlov rang a bell before feeding the dogs. Eventually, the ringing bell caused the dogs to salivate. Pavlov referred to this as a conditioned reflex.

To one degree or another, all of us are Pavlovian. Over time, we acquire an elaborate set of conditioned reflexes. If someone slaps us on the cheek, our conditioned reflex is to slap back. Or is that just me?

The gospel is all about Jesus reconditioning our reflexes by his grace. The result? We love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and bless those who curse us. We turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give the shirt off our back. Theologians call these the Six Antitheses, but I like to think of them as six countercultural counter-habits.

No less than six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you . . .” (Matt. 7–9). Jesus was reshaping Old Testament mindsets such as “an eye for an eye” (Matt. 5:38). He was challenging our ethic, starting with forgiveness.

Remember in Matthew 18 when Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive? He thought he was being generous by suggesting seven. Jesus ups the ante: seventy times seven. It’s on a beach by the Sea of Galilee (John 21) where this idea of forgiveness is personalized for Peter. This is a post-Resurrection appearance, which means it’s post-denial. Peter had denied knowing Jesus not once, not twice, but thrice, and it was after the third denial that the rooster crowed, reminding Peter of Jesus’ prophecy (Matt. 26:75).

Can I make a Pavlovian observation? I wonder if Peter felt a twinge of guilt every time he heard a rooster crow after that. Every single morning, that rude awakening might have reminded Peter of his great failure, until the morning when Jesus reconditioned his reflexes.

Peter was out fishing when Jesus called out across the water: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” The early morning mist made it impossible to see who said it, but a miraculous catch made it obvious. John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:4–7).

That’s when Peter jumped out of the boat and swam to shore. When he got there, Jesus was frying fish on burning coals. Let’s pause right there—how can we not love a God who makes breakfast on the beach for his disciples?

After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter a question: “Do you love me more than these?” (v. 15). He doesn’t ask it once or twice, but thrice. Coincidence? I think not. Three denials require three reinstatements. This is how and when and where Jesus reconditions Peter’s reflexes.

Have you ever noticed the time of day? John is precise: “Early in the morning” (v. 4). In other words, right around the time the roosters crow. The sound that reminded Peter of his greatest failure—the sound that had produced feelings of guilt—would now produce feelings of gratitude. Jesus did more than recommission Peter. Jesus reconditioned his reflexes with his grace.

Have you ever had someone love you when you least expected it and least deserved it? It’s life-changing, isn’t it? What if we loved others the way God loved us? The gift of Easter reveals that sin without grace equals guilt, but sin plus grace equals deep gratitude that we can carry and express every single morning, afternoon, and night.

We have a tendency to give up on God, but God doesn’t give up on us. He is the God of second, third, and thousandth chances. Even when we feel like we have failed God, this is the God who comes after us, who calls out to us across the water. This is the God who makes breakfast on the beach. This is the God who gives us a new lease on life.

Mark Batterson is the lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC. He is the New York Times bestselling author of 23 books.

This article is part of Easter in the Everyday, a devotional to help individuals, small groups, and families journey through the 2024 Lent & Easter season. Learn more about this special issue here!

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