Last month we considered 2 Peter 1:10-11. This month we will consider another difficult passage in 2 Peter. Recently I received a question from a reader about 2 Peter 2:20-22. He felt that it dealt with unbelievers who knew about the gospel but had never really accepted it in their hearts. My understanding of the passage follows.
First, notice that there is a change in referrent. Verses 17 and preceding refer to coming false teachers. However, verses 18 through 22 refer to people who are duped by the false teachers. Verses 18 and 20 indicate that the people being drawn into sin by the false teachers are those “who have actually escaped from those who live in error” and who “have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Only believers fit that description. [N.B. The word “knowledge” in v 20 is the same term which is used in 1:2,3,5,6. It is a term used in 2 Peter exclusively of believers. See also 1:1,9 and 3:1,8,14,17-18 for further proof that 2 Peter is addressed to believers.]
Second, it is evident in all three chapters of 2 Peter that Peter is concerned that his readers – believers – might fall into a sinful lifestyle as a result of the wiles of the false teachers whom he knows via prophecy are coming soon. Peter urges his believing readers to be diligent so as to keep from stumbling and falling (1:5,10; 2:18-22; 3:14,17). We err if we read into 2 Peter the idea that anyone who fell away would prove to be a false professor. Peter never questions the faith of his readers. Rather, he acknowledges it (e.g. 1:1). What he questions is the progress of their sanctification.
Third, the real question is this: What does Peter warn his readers will happen if they fall? Most commentators suggest that eternal judgment – hell – is in view. They point to verses 21 and 22 However, a careful reading of those verses suggest that temporal judgment, not hell, is in view. Notice what isn’t said. Peter makes no reference to hell, the lake of fire, unending suffering, or any similar term or phrase. He instead says that it would be better for a believer never to know the way of righteousness than to have known it and then turn away in a licentious lifestyle.
It is a grievous mistake to understand those words to mean hell. If they do, Peter is teaching that believers can lose their salvation – something he did not believe (cf. Luke 10:20; John 13:10; Acts 10:43-48; 11:16-18; 15:7-11; 1 Peter 1:23-25; 2 Peter 1:9; 3:8-13). Rather, Peter is simply saying that if a believer grovels in a life of sin, his life here and now will be worse than if he had never become a Christian. While both non-Christians and Christians experience the terrible consequences of their sins here and now, those consequences are even worse for believers because we are God’s children with the Holy Spirit living within us. Certainly conviction of sin is greater. So, too, new consequences for our sins come on the scene (e.g., rebuke by a Christian friend, church discipline). And, the more a believer resists God’s discipline, the more He turns up the heat. That is not necessarily true for a non-Christian.
The reference to dogs and pigs in verse 22 is often cited as proof that false professors are in view. Actually I think the references show that believers are in view. Notice that the dog and pig are said to have been free from their filth. Only believers are free of their sins. Surely the reader of 2 Peter would harken back to 1:9 where Peter refers to his readers as being purged from their old sins. Peter was not referring to forgiveness there. All our sins, past, present, and future are forgiven in Christ. He was referring to our new natures. Believers have a nature which is free from the sins which used to enslave us. Whenever a believer walks in the darkness he has forgotten who he is (2 Peter 1:9) and has allowed the flesh to rear its ugly head.
The word “better” in 2 Peter 2:21 is crucial. When explaining this passage ask your audience, “better WHEN?” The text, properly understood, only allows one answer: better in this life. The false teachers promised their potential dupes liberty (2:19). They actually delivered bondage and temporal judgment. May we all take heed. Sin pays lousy dividends.