Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
The Lord Jesus Christ himself warns his people to beware: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
The apostle Peter writes about the damnable heresies of false prophets and false teachers, and of their swift destruction from the Lord: “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1).
The apostle Paul also warned a group of church pastors: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:19,20).
Are true Christians here being warned, again and again, to cleave to the truth and to reject error, in order to not be drawn away from the Lord Jesus Christ? Yes. Is it possible for true Christians to believe in error? Yes. Is it possible for true Christian pastors and teachers to teach damnable heresies? Yes, sadly it is possible.
So then, do we find in these Scriptural warnings evidence that true Christians, including true Christian teachers (i.e. preachers), can lose their salvation—even as in this case, by being led away from Christ by heresies? No, that does not necessarily follow.
Increasing in the Knowledge of God
Christians do not receive a complete, comprehensive, error-excluding knowledge of all truth all-at-once when they are born again. Biblical doctrines are taught and learned, reading after reading, study after study, sermon after sermon, day after day throughout a lifetime.
Peter understood this: “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). And so did Paul: “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;…increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9,10).
Even referring to Christians as disciples (Acts 20:20) implies this ongoing studentship.
Our grasp of Biblical teachings and their logical connection to each other is built up in our minds, piece by piece. Therefore it is not only possible for true Christians to entertain error in their thinking for a time, but it is inevitable that we will do so while we have imperfect understanding of everything.
Moreover, as these solemn warnings of our Lord and his apostles clearly state, Christians can be confused by false doctrines, and they may struggle with them—and they may even be led astray by them—for a while. Furthermore, any deceived Christian can be instrumental in deceiving others, whether they are ordained pastors or not.
Yes, oftentimes contradictory ideas and doctrines can get in the way, hindering and undoing Christian growth in true knowledge. And yes, such teaching can be so contrary to the Gospel that it is “denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Peter 2:1).
So, can true Christians lose their salvation by having it deceitfully stolen from them by false gospels—false doctrines that denigrate the Saviour’s efficacy and sufficiency—false doctrines that direct people to works-religion, self-righteousness, human potential, and personal development through self-help?
Those Arminians who deny that God totally preserves his saints say “yes” even while they hold to such a system themselves: for they believe that a person’s own self-wrought faith is what effectually saves them. Where Arminianism says that the Lord Jesus Christ’s blood only makes it possible for people (anyone and everyone) to be saved by their own faith, it denies that Christ has actually and irrevocably “bought” his people with his own blood.
Redeemed, Cherished and Protected
But the Lord has indeed bought his people. And he cherishes and protects his purchased possession to the fullest. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 6:27-29).
We are redeemed—blood-bought by the Christ himself, cherished and protected. In a word, we are SAVED!
This being the truth, therefore it must not be true that all these solemn warnings carry within them an implication that those who are saved by Christ, and are kept safe in the hand of God, can lose their salvation.
But they are nonetheless warnings, so consider yourself warned! You must beware false doctrines and those that teach them.
So what is this “swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1) that God may sometimes have to bring upon those whom the Lord has bought—if it is not that they lose their salvation? It is a tragic event that kills them.
This must be said: there is the ultimate threat of being slain by God in this solemn warning. We have already considered how it is written, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:6)1. And here the apostle Peter warns that this chastisement may result in abrupt removal from this world.
Christian teachers, who teach false doctrines that effectively deny the Lord that bought you: Peter has these solemn words to say to you. Compare and understand also Paul’s solemn statement of fact concerning some partakers of the Lord’s supper in Corinth:
“But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:28-30). This “sleep” is a metaphor for death.
Do not think that God takes sinful doctrines any less seriously than he does sinful deeds.
Come out From Among Them
There is more that needs to be said.
Even among saved, Christ-bought Christian leaders who are so deceived that they teach “damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1), there will also be unsaved leaders teaching the same damnable heresies.
What a dreadful state a church has fallen into, when such errors have taken over, where the pastors teach Christians to return to sinful—damnable ways! And what a seriously dreadful state a church has fallen into, when under these heresies and the sinful practices resulting from them, there is no way of identifying who in congregation or pulpit is a true Christian and who is not.
How does God deal with such a compromised church?
The Bible teaches us that God does deal with false teachers and their followers. For his own honour, God brings “swift destruction” (v.1) even on those among them who have been blood-bought by the Lord. After repeated rebuttals, warnings and calls to repentance, and after chastisement of afflictions not being heeded, there is only one course of action remaining.
God will not endure “the way of truth being evil spoken of” indefinitely (see v.2). God will allow these errors to run their course for as long has his purposes require, but then he will swiftly consign them to history.
True Christians who are ensnared in these corrupt churches do heed the warnings and therefore “come out from among them” (see 2 Corinthians 6:13-16). They are delivered, as were Noah and Lot before them (2 Peter 2:4-8). “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (v.9).
God delivers his people—by bringing them out of such congregations—and he judges those who are not his people in those congregations.
The Lord Jesus himself affirmed: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Some false teachers (i.e. teachers of false doctrines) are not true Christians but are unsaved. They may have deliberately infiltrated the Church of Christ in order to subvert it. They may through sheer self discipline withhold themselves from outward sin for a while, in order to pretend to be Christians. But their true nature will eventually manifest itself, and especially so in a church that they have turned evil by their damnable heresies.
Meanwhile, other false teachers are true Christians, but they have been led astray so that they also teach and practice the same evils as the unsaved false teachers.
The word evil does indeed apply here. The ungodly will “walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness”, and they will behave as “natural brute beasts”, “having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin”, and they will “allure through the lusts of the flesh, through wantonness” (2 Peter 2:10-18).
God will judge perverse heretics who make great efforts to drag down Christians into becoming “servants of corruption”—turned evil, like themselves (v.19).
Christians must come out from such churches—they must flee from them.
Escape the Pollutions of the World
Peter issues more warnings later in his epistle. Some verses in these further warnings are also sometimes offered by eternal security deniers as proof that Christians can lose their salvation by sinning it away:
“For if after they 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).
Here Peter describes some people who have come into the church in order to escape the corrupt culture around them, and to better themselves. But they later leave the church and return to their old ways.
The question is: does the apostle regard these people (this “they” of whom he is warning his readers) as true Christians? They come to church for a while, and may even occupy pulpits for a while, but have they been converted?
“They” were taught the “way of righteousness” and the “holy commandment”—but the apostle indicates that they were never saved. We note how he concludes by referring to them metaphorically as having been “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 people if they had never known the way of righteousness.
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 bring us back from our lapses into old habitual sins, 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 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, a personal reformation (or, return) to the right way, following the path by heeding the Scriptural warnings.
If a pastor or theological seminary teacher comes to understand that a part of what he was teaching was an error—even a heresy, then he will know that he must repent even if it means he must leave, for the honour of God.
Whereas fake Christians repeatedly and ultimately fail to repent and reform.
To be continued.