|Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position (2 Pet 3:17).|
Exegetical Overview of 2 Peter and Eternal Security:
Forewarned Not to Fall from Your Secure Position
It is one of the great theological curiosities of our era that so many non-Calvinistic Baptists believe in eternal security (i.e., unconditional continuance in salvation). Two facts make the prevalence of eternal security among Baptists such a great curiosity. First, most Baptists have rejected the larger Calvinistic system in which eternal security is an integral doctrine. These “Majoritarian” Baptists are essentially Arminian who hold to eternal security in isolation from its Calvinist moorings, leaving the doctrine adrift in an incompatible system of beliefs, and making it logically vulnerable. Secondly, eternal security is a doctrine that is not sustained by a contextual reading of the Bible. Rather, Majoritarian Baptists base their doctrine of security on a hit-and-run list of scriptures that fleetingly touch on the issue without any substantial focus. In so doing, they ignore several sustained discussions on continuance in faith which teach that believers can be at risk of forfeiting their salvation. In this article, I address one of those passages, the epistle of 2 Peter; it is one in a series (see also my articles on Hebrews and Jude).
Preliminarily, I have argued elsewhere that Majoritarian Baptists proffer verses in support of eternal security that are characteristically extraneous “by the way” comments that occur in contexts that have little or nothing to do with continuance in salvation. For example, the larger discourse which contains Jesus’ famous statement about snatching sheep from his hand (John 10:29) otherwise lacks any reference to continuance; indeed, most Majoritarians cite the passage without having a clue about the polemics of its larger context. In contrast, Jesus’ warning that he will cut off every branch that does not bear fruit is part of a long discussion which counters eternal security, spoken to his closest disciples in an intimate setting (John 15:6). Passages which deal with the question of continuance in salvation in a sustained and focused way include John 15, the whole of the book of Hebrews, the letters of 2 Peter and Jude, and several passages in the letters to the churches in Rev 2-3. These passages seriously undermine the doctrine of eternal security since they warn believers to strengthen their faith, lest they forfeit their salvation; in contrast, no such passage of comparable length or focus give any hope of unconditional eternal security.
Purpose in Writing
The apostle leaves no room to wonder about his aim in composing 2 Peter. He explicates that he is writing to those who have received a faith as precious as his own (1:1), and that such recipients have everything they need for a godly life (1:3), so that they may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world (1:4). After an eloquent and powerful introduction, he urges them to “make every effort to add to [their] faith… (1:5), asserting that it is to this end that Christians have been given everything necessary for a godly life. He rounds out the introduction by explaining the letter’s purpose:
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:10).
Thus, the letter was written to urge believers to grow in Christ so that they will not stumble, and so that they may successfully complete their pilgrimage to their eschatological reward. Of course, it would be wholly tautological to urge believers to make every effort to confirm their calling and election if they were, in fact, unconditionally secure therein. The introduction makes clear that the recipients are believers in possession of eternal security, yet assumes that present possession is no guaranty of a person’s final state.
The apostle is duly courteous and not presumptuous: “So, I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory…” (1:12). Here and elsewhere, apostolic authors reflect a guarded optimism that believers will persevere, even as they warn that Satan is a roaring lion seeking to destroy them, and that there is a real possibility that they may “fall from [their] secure position” (3:17; cf. Luke 22:32; 1 Thes 3:5; Heb 6:4-6 with vv. 9-12; 10:19-38 with v. 39; 2 Pet 2:4-10). For these reasons, the apostle intends to keep reminding them to persevere for the rest of his life (1:14), and that his reminders will persist beyond his years since he has committed his warnings to holy writ (1:15). He affirms the validity of his gospel and warns that they “will do well to pay attention to it” and to persevere therein until the “day dawns and the morning star rises in [their] hearts” (1:19).
Condemnation of The False Teachers
The second chapter of 2 Peter focuses on the condemnation of the false teachers and their doctrine, but the author’s more immediate urgency is to warn believers against them. The false teachers and their doctrine posed a clear and present danger to the believers. They are particularly dangerous because “many will follow their depraved conduct,” and thus bring “the way of truth into disrepute” (2:2). He fears that these false teachers “will exploit you with fabricated stories” (2:3). The apostle’s tirade against the false teachers is sandwiched between his exhortation to grow in Christian virtue in chapter one, and his concluding exhortations to live holy and godly lives, and to make every effort to be found “spotless, blameless and at peace” with God in chapter three (vv. 11, 14). With these bookends, the apostle frames his warnings against the false teachers in chapter two: believers must grow in their faith so that they will withstand false doctrine. The intensity of the apostle’s warnings and their compositional framing defy any Majoritarian attempt to mitigate the danger by saying it is all merely hypothetical.
The apostle cites God’s prior dealings with the fallen angels, with Noah and the flood, with Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot, and from them concludes that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment” (2:4-10). This reinforces the earlier assertion that God has given believers everything that they need to live the godly life (1:3). Although the passage affirms a strong optimism that believers will overcome the trials that would defeat them, the import of the passage is to warn that God will certainly hold the unrighteous accountable (2:9).
In Ephesus, the false teachers in 1 Timothy were actually fallen leaders who at one time were followers of Christ, but had since made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim 1:18-20). In contrast with those church insiders, the false teachers here in 2 Peter seem to be newly arrived outsiders. Still, the apostle denotes that they had “left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam” (2:15), allowing the possibility that the false teachers themselves had once been believers. Balaam is judged by the apostle as being better than the false teachers, for at least he was responsive to the Lord’s rebuke (2:16).
The Threat to the Church
The apostle turns his attention to the more immediate threat from the false teachers. They entice people who are “just escaping from those who live in error” (2:18). The situation depicted is that the false teachers are adversely impacting new believers who do not yet know any better. To avert this crisis, the apostle issues the most chilling warning of the book. He writes,
If [the new believers] have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning (2:20).
The statement is clear enough. The apostle is discussing the fate of people who experienced salvation from sin through a saving knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Savior. If after their salvation such believers find themselves overcome by the entangling corruption of the world, then their final status is even worse than their initial state, despite having previously experienced salvation. Although the statement is clear enough, the warning is so dire that the apostle feels compelled to clarify further:
It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them” (2:21).
Here, again, the apostle elaborates the situation. He indicates that they had once “known the way of righteousness” but had since turned their backs on the gospel that was delivered to them. He laments that they would have been better off not experiencing salvation at all.
To punctuate his pronouncement with all due emphasis, the apostle famously concludes his warning with illustrations of a dog returning to its vomit and of a washed sow returning to its mud wallowing. To their profound exegetical discredit, the most common rejoinder of so many Majoritarian Baptists is that believers are not pigs or dogs, but sheep. Rarely in the history theological debate do so many people attempt to dismiss and obfuscate so much with rhetoric so empty.
What Kind of People Ought You to Be?
The apostle begins the third chapter by countering those who scoff at the Lord’s coming (3:3-4). He affirms that the day of the Lord will come like a thief, prophesying the roaring disappearance of the heavens, and the fiery destruction of the very elements. This will lay bare the earth and everything done therein (3:10). The apostle then works his prophecy of world destruction into high exhortation:
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming (3:11).
Thus, the opposition to the false teachers again serves as an opportunity to urge holy living. There is much judgment and destruction to avoid, even as believers look optimistically “to a new heaven and new earth” (3:13), which is all the more reason to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace” with God (3:14).
The apostle concludes his letter with a theologically loaded “therefore” statement which implies even more skepticism about unconditional security:
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (3:17-18).
Clearly, the apostle thinks his readers’ secure position is potentially precarious. The Majoritarian simply cannot preach this message without speciously adding, “But of course we know that falling from your secure position could never happen.”
Yet, securing their position by due diligence in spiritual growth is the whole purpose of the letter. The apostle has told them that God has given them everything they need to overcome trials and temptations, so that they will be able to live godly lives. Consequently, they desperately need to grow in grace, adding virtue to virtue. If they fail to add to these virtues in increasing measure, the apostle warns them that they will become ineffective, “nearsighted and blind, forgetting they have been cleansed from their past sins” (1:8, 9). Their growth in grace will serve to ward off false teaching that would otherwise entangle and overcome them and plunge them back into the corruption of the world, with the end result being worse than if they had never come to a saving knowledge of the truth to begin with.
We see then that continuance in salvation is the major concern of 2 Peter, around which everything else is composed. In this letter, continuance in salvation is not just an isolated topic with unrelated “by the way” comments attached to other major concerns. We must pay all the more careful attention, then, to the warnings that we read in in 2 Peter, so that we do not drift away and, as seed sewn in thorny ground, become entangled once again and overcome by the corruption of the world. Accordingly, these warnings against apostasy are less susceptible to proof-texting and theological manipulation than many texts otherwise proffered for consideration.
We might be more inclined to take eternal security seriously if it were based on passages which have a comparable protracted focus on continuance. As it stands, Majoritarian commitment to eternal security is on shaky grounds. It lacks its native underpinnings of the Calvinistic theological system and it lacks sustained contextual support from holy writ. It is indeed quite the theological curiosity that so many Baptists think that eternal security is one of the clearest doctrines of the Christian faith.