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Hard Sayings of the Bible is the handy reference book you need. Here you will find explanations of over five hundred of the most troubling verses to test the minds and hearts of Bible readers. Four seasoned scholars, all with a notable gift for communicating with people in the pew, take you behind the scenes to find succinct solutions to a wide variety of Bible difficulties, ranging from discrepancies about numbers to questions about God's justice.
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Christians recognize that before people know Christ they are in bad shape, for they live under the judgment of God, who has commanded all people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. It is therefore not hard to see how Christ enables people to escape from the corruption of the world, since this corruption is tied up with their pre-Christian life. Nor do most of us lack for examples of people who have again been "entangled" in the world after they knew Christ; we may even know some who after initially turning to Christ have later totally rejected the gospel in word as well as in action (although most of our "backslidden" brothers and sisters would still confess to the truth of the gospel, even if it is playing no active role in their lives). Yet 2 Peter 2:20 does more than make these common (if sad) observations. It states that such people are "worse off" than before their initial conversion. How can this be the case? Aren't they still Christian even if they are backslidden? Will they not go to heaven despite their sinful life? And isn't this "better" than their original state? Isn't salvation by faith, not works? What 2 Peter says appears incompatible with our concept of a God of grace and mercy.
When we read this verse in context, we recognize that the people being discussed are the false teachers whom Peter opposes. They were once orthodox Christians who were "cleansed from [their] past sins" (2 Pet 1:9), or "washed" (2 Pet 2:22). They had come to know Jesus Christ, and this was a personal knowledge that released them from "the corruption of the world," or, in Pauline language, the power of sin over them had been broken. And they had come to know "the way of righteousness" (meaning a righteous lifestyle; 2 Pet 2:21). It is not that in some way they had been taught poorly or had not experienced the power of God freeing them from the world and its desires. They had experienced all of this. They were in every way righteous and orthodox.
But now they have done exactly what they are enticing others to do (2 Pet 2:18-19). They have claimed freedom, but their freedom is a freedom to live according to their desires. These desires have mastered them. They have rejected "the way of righteousness" or "the sacred command" (perhaps the teaching of Jesus or even the Old Testament standard of righteousness). They are back doing what they did before they were converted, but now they are claiming Christian justification for it.
Peter says that such people are worse off than before they were converted. He takes his words from the story in Matthew 12:45 and Luke 11:26 about the person cleansed from a demon who ends up in a worse state because the demon returns with seven others. The implication is that the person is in more bondage than before. Yet although verbally 2 Peter is closer to the statement about the demonized person, we are reminded even more of Luke 12:47-48, in which Jesus says that the person who does not know his master's will is beaten with few blows, while the one knowing it and still disobeying is beaten with many blows. Applied to the people in 2 Peter this indicates that the knowingly disobedient people he refers to will get a worse punishment than they would have received had they never been converted. They had been introduced to Jesus and experienced the power and freedom of his lordship, but now they have turned their backs on his teaching and are walking in willful disobedience.
This, then, is the state of the apostate, including the moral apostate who still tries to rationalize his or her sin with Christian theology. As Hebrews 10:26-27 says, "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." These people knew the truth and had been freed from their sin, coming under the rule of Christ. Now because of their web of rationalizations Christ is no longer Lord and they "deliberately keep on sinning." Peter has already told us of their end: "Blackest darkness is reserved for them" (2 Pet 2:17). God will still forgive them if they repent, but people who have rejected truth they once knew fully and have woven a fabric of doctrine to justify their sin will be most unlikely ever to repent. This letter, then, appears to be more aimed at those people the false teachers are beginning to deceive (see 2 Pet 2:18) than at the teachers themselves, for while the teachers are not beyond grace, they are certainly not listening to the ideas of the author.
The teaching of this passage (and of the New Testament in general), then, is that people are responsible for what they know. To reject truth one has once appropriated is far more serious than never to have known it. Furthermore, only those who follow the way of righteousness, who are really following Jesus as Lord and have therefore been freed from the corruption in the world, are on the way to the kingdom. To claim to be "saved" while living in sin is self-deception of the worst type. It not only blinds one to one's own state, but it may deceive those who were getting along well in the faith, dragging them back into the quicksand in which those living in sin are themselves trapped.
This verse, then, is not implying that righteous living saves a person, but that salvation means repenting from a sinful lifestyle, turning to Christ as Lord, and living under his kingship. Where the results of this process (such as a freedom from the power of sin) are lacking--even if they once were present--we have no right to think for a moment that such people are in the kingdom, especially if they show no grief for their sin and are not attempting to forsake it. Furthermore it is dangerous to imply that such people are headed to heaven (even if without "reward"), for it cheapens the grace of God and implies to others that they too can take the "low road" to heaven and get in without truly submitting their lives to Christ. Such an implication could effect the same result that the false teachers were trying to produce in Peter's day, that is, entice a believer who is in the process of escaping the "corruption in the world" back into the entrapment.