In this world of anxiety and fear, it is a radical thing to proclaim the eternal security of the believer: One with the Lord, your future is the same as his. No one can snatch you from his hand; nothing can separate you from his love.
Yet every time I say things like this, someone will point to 2 Peter 2 as though this one chapter could undo the many promises of God and make Christ’s saving work of no effect.
“Peter describes Christians who forsook the Lord and were condemned,” they say. “So much for once saved, always saved.”
Hardly a month goes by when I don’t have occasion to talk about 2 Peter 2. In this chapter, Peter warns about false teachers who deny the Lord and teach heresy. Let there be no doubt he is not referring to Christians. These people are slaves of depravity (v.19) who never stop sinning (v.14). They are not saints but brute beasts who are condemned to perish (v.12).
But were these sinners once saints? Were they Christians who lost the way, and fell beyond the reach of grace?
This is an important question, because if they were once saved, then you can lose your salvation. Just as these false teachers were doomed to reap “swift destruction,” you too could be headed for hell – if you don’t take care.
Is Peter talking about backslidden Christians?
According to nearly every commentary I have read, the answer is yes. “These were genuine Christians who turned their back on God and will now get a worse punishment than the one who never met Jesus.”
Oh happy day.
Even certain grace teachers are convinced that Peter is describing former Christians who are now damned. But were these people ever saved? At first glance, the evidence seems clear enough, for Peter says these false teachers:
– have left the right way and gone astray (v.15)
– have escaped the defilements of the world only to become entangled again (v.20)
– once knew the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (v.20) and the way of righteousness (v.21)
– have returned to the muck like a pig (v.22)
So there you have it. Close your Bibles and get busy working out your salvation because if you don’t stay on the right way you’re doomed, like these guys. “Blackest darkness is reserved for them” (v.17). And for you too, if you’re not careful.
And yet, don’t you find it interesting that Peter never says, “Be warned, dear friends, what happened to them could happen to you”? He never says it because it can’t happen. The very idea that our sins could outlast God’s grace is absurd.
So how do we read 2 Peter 2?
The key to unlocking this passage is Balaam:
They (the false teachers) have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:15)
Balaam the prophet was recruited by the king of Moab to curse the children of Israel (Numbers 22-24). But after encountering the Lord three times – one encounter famously involved a talking donkey and an angel – Balaam blessed the children of Israel.
Unfortunately for Balaam, that wasn’t the end of the story.
The Moabite king was furious that Balaam had not done what he asked. So Balaam, perhaps realizing he was about to be sent home empty-handed, taught the king how to defeat Israel (Rev 2:14). Long story short, the men of Israel were seduced by Moabite women and turned away from the Lord (Num 25:1-3). They were on the doorstep of the Promised Land yet they almost never entered, all because of greedy Balaam.
In the end, the Israelites repented and pressed on to Canaan. And on the way they killed the false prophet Balaam who had done them so much harm (Num 31:8).
When Peter says, “These false teachers are just like Balaam,” he’s saying they are on the wrong side of God. “By perverting the gospel, they are trying to curse what God has blessed. And like Balaam, they will come to a bad end.”
With this key in hand, we can now unlock the difficult verses of 2 Peter 2.
Who are the followers of Balaam?
Verse 15: They have forsaken the right way, and gone astray, following the way of Balaam who loved the wages of unrighteousness…
Peter is not describing Christians but people who have known the right way – as Balaam did – and rejected it. Balaam had a personal encounter with the Lord. He heard God speak and he knew his heart. But when the money was put on the table, Balaam made the wrong choice. He opposed what God was doing, just as false teachers do whenever they pervert the gospel.
Verse 20: For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.
Balaam initially stood up to the king of Moab, yet he never aligned himself with the Lord. His behavior was strange: If the Israelites were as blessed as he said, why not join them? Why stay with the cursed king of Moab?
The prophet was like those Hebrews who escaped the defilements of Egypt but did not enter the Promised Land. They came out but never went in. They died in the wilderness on account of unbelief.
Verse 21: For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.
The one who rejects the way of righteousness (the gospel) is worse off than the one who has not heard it because he has hardened his heart to that which could save him. He has refused the Lord’s holy command to “repent and believe the good news” (see 1 John 3:23).
I hope you can see that a follower of Balaam is not a follower of Jesus. It is someone who has heard and rejected the gospel. They’ve had an encounter with the Lord but turned their back. They’ve tasted the bread of life and spat it out. They have not responded with faith to the grace of God.
Verse 22: It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.”
A Christian is not a dog or a pig! A. A washed sow remains a sow, but a Christian is a brand new creation.
If you don’t know about your union with Christ, you may fall for the lie that says you can lose your salvation. You may even think that Peter is describing condemned Christians.
Fear not; there’s no such thing.
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