The apostle Peter issues further1 warnings in his second epistle. Some verses in these later warnings are sometimes offered by eternal-security deniers as proof that Christians can lose their salvation by later sinning it away: “For if after they2 have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” (2 Peter 2.20-21).
Evidently, Peter had noticed that some people had come to church in order to escape the worst of the corrupt culture around them, and in order to better themselves. (This was the case, even though in the church situation that Peter is addressing, the truth was mixed with much error.) They had been coming to church for a while, but have they been converted? Or did they merely appreciate the moral purity and community that they heard Christianity had a reputation for, and they wanted this to be a good influence upon themselves? Did they remain unchanged in their heart?—because after a while, they left the church and returned to their old ways.
The question is: did the apostle regard these “unstable souls” (v.14) as true Christians? No. Peter indicates that they were never saved. Notice how he concludes by referring to them metaphorically as having remained as “dogs” and “sows” all along, whose unchanged nature becomes evident again after a period of suppression: “But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire” (v.22).
It would have been better for such temporary fellow-travellers if they had never known “the way of righteousness.” Now their latter end will be worse than the end of those who have never known the gospel of Christ.
The warnings of perdition (i.e. complete and utter ruin, including everlasting punishment in Hell) for apostasy are true enough—but these warnings encourage true believers to persevere in the faith and to repent and flee from such errors.
These warnings are used by God to bring us to sense and to pull us out of our lapses into old habitual sins, to rescue us from damnable heresies and from succumbing to the world’s temptations—even when these same temptations are taught by so-called Christian pastors.
The Christian life is not static. It is a “walk” of persevering effort as God enables by his grace, but a walk in which the true Christian can sometimes, sadly, take a wrong path and fall into error and sin.
True, godly perseverance involves keeping on the right way—and where necessary, repenting and returning to the right way—following the Christian path by heeding the Scriptural warnings.
The great invitation of the gospel includes God’s great promise which he makes to all who turn to Christ in faith and repentance: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16.31; compare John 3.16; Romans 10.9).
Through “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20.21), which God bestows as gifts by his sovereign grace, a spiritually regenerated sinner “closes with Christ,” as our spiritual forebears used to say. They come to Christ because the Father draws them to him (John 6.44). This is how God establishes his covenant of grace with his elect people.
God keeps his promises. God has promised in the law, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18.4,20; see also Deuteronomy 27.26; Galatians 3.10). And God has promised in the gospel, “whosoever believeth in should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16).
Believe the gospel. Repent of your sins, turning from them with grief and hatred. Turn to God, begging him for mercy and forgiveness. Work to cultivate “fruits meet for repentance” instead of your sins (Matthew 3.8). And with God’s enabling you “to will and to do of his good pleasure,” you will “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12-13).
There is no such person as a true Christian who does not grow as a Christian. (Admittedly, some true believers struggle spiritually, but they will inevitably repent and return to God’s way). There are many who claim to be Christians, but the absence of all real repentance, and their deliberate and ultimate failure to live as a Christian ought to live, reveals the fact that there has been no regeneration of their soul.
What our Lord says concerning false prophets holds true for all false converts: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7.15-20).
Jesus also warned certain religious leaders of woe to come for their attempts at appearing to be truly religious while being nothing of the kind inside their hearts: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matthew 23.27).
The apostle Paul teaches Christians: “Ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them [i.e. the practitioners of false religions and counterfeit forms of ‘Christianity’], and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty”3 (2 Corinthians 6.16-18; see also Ezekiel 11.20; Zechariah 8.7-8; Revelation 18.4).
Paul continues: “Having therefore these [covenantal] promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7.1).
Understand the apostle’s argument: true Christians—who are the “dearly beloved” to whom Paul writes, and the dearly beloved of God—possess these promises that are integral to the covenant of grace. And, seeing that these promised blessings are indeed ours, therefore we ought to cleanse ourselves of our former unchristian manner of life—we should put off the old man with his deeds, and we should instead strive toward perfectly manifesting holiness (i.e. a life set apart from sin and worldliness), living in reverence of God.
This “they” are, as Peter has described them, “unstable souls” who came to church but who did not believe the gospel of Christ, and who remained unsaved. They have been taught “the way of righteousness,” but they preferred false doctrines, and were “beguiled” by teachers and preachers whose false gospel promised them liberty, and much else besides (see 2 Peter 2.14,19). ↩︎
Where such sins appear within a Christian community, those who commit them must be excommunicated (see 1 Corinthians 5.9-13). ↩︎