The apostle turns to the first of the evil classes among those of the circumcision who, if not now, had once professed the Lord’s name; the class of corruption in word and deed (2). 2 Peter 3 deals with the philosophic and sceptical class.
“But there were false prophets also among the people, as there shall be also false teachers among you, such as shall bring in by-the-bye sects of perdition, denying even the Sovereign Master that bought them, bringing on themselves swift perdition; and many shall follow their dissolutenesses;5 because of whom the way of the truth shall be blasphemed. And in covetousness with feigned (or, well-turned) words, they shall make merchandise of you: for whom judgment from of old is not idle, and their perdition slumbereth not” (vers. 1-3).
Thus we see that the downward progress in Israel was to have its counterpart in Christendom, and a similar tide of moral pravity both cause and effect of hateful heterodoxy. If God of old, as we were told, raised up for the evil day prophets as marked for the truth as for holiness of life, Satan was not slow to supply prophets as shameless for their lies as for their selfish and corrupt ways. This the O.T. shows but too abundantly; and here the apostle foretells it would be no better but more guiltily where grace under the gospel was more open to be abused than the law.
Let me refer to a modern development as a sample; the party extensively spread over Great Britain and America which adopts J. S. Russell’s Parousia, London, 1878. It is the antithesis of the Seventh-Day Baptist school, which destroys the gospel by its extreme judaizing, and is therefore too repulsive to attract any save those completely under law. But the Parousia delusion captivates the wider and more refined minds who cannot shut their eyes to the “better thing” that Christ has introduced, and the ministry of the Spirit with its subsisting and surpassing glory; yet all herein is taken up in a way merely natural. It starts with the assumption that the Lord’s second coming or presence took place at the destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70! and that thenceforward the promised glory is fulfilled, so that we are now reigning with Christ! and therefore the fullest change so long looked for in both O. and N.T. has already taken place!!
Hence dogmatic and practical Christianity are alike and absolutely annulled in such a pseudo-scheme. For the N.T. contemplates us and our communion; and our walk and our worship are in view of the blessed presence of Christ to receive us glorified to Himself for the Father’s house, where He is now (not we till then). Not only the Gospels cease to apply but the Epistles, to say nothing of the Revelation; for they unquestionably exhort us to a path of suffering, both for righteousness’ sake and for Christ’s name, in a world wholly opposed to Him and His reign. When He really appears, God will use His solemn judgments, so that the world will learn righteousness, especially as Satan cannot then seduce. In short, the enemy has beguiled these visionaries into an entire abolition of all the state and duties of believers on which the Bible insists till “that day,” when all things become new, however true now to our faith and hope, as they will then be in fact and to every eye.
Nor need one do more than glance at another egregious folly under the strange claim of “Christian Science.” It is worthy of a female teacher who cannot be ignorant that the apostle by the Holy Spirit calls her to learn in quietness with all subjection, saying by St. Paul “I do not permit a woman to teach nor to exercise authority over a man, but to be in quietness.” He forbids “exercise,” and not usurpation only. Here too the notions are too preposterous to need anything but a rebuke for their presumption and impiety. If these set up to be new inventions, it would be a very long task to survey all the old schemes of falsehood which have been accumulating since our Epistle, and are designated as “heresies” or more correctly “sects of perdition.” For therein lies the difference of “schism” from “sect”: the former a party within, the latter, more aggravated as being a different party without, as 1 Cor. 11:18, 19 makes plain, though habitually forgotten in systematic divinity.
Even before the Kingdom of the heavens came or the church was founded on the Lord dead, risen, and ascended, He warned (in Matt. 13) of the darnel which the enemy would sow among the wheat. Clearly it is neither pagans nor Jews but nominal Christians, who were not to be cut off, and would pursue their destructive evil till the Son of man come in personal judgment. So in Luke 12. He also described the faithless though professing servant who would put off His return, and accordingly be marked by worldliness and oppressive self-exaltation, and must have his portion with the unbelievers, punished all the more severely because he made not ready nor did His will though he knew it. What an appeal to conscience!
Again in Acts 20 the apostle Paul in his charge to the overseers or elders of the church in Ephesus told them that he knew of there coming in among them after his departure grievous wolves not sparing the flock, and from among their own selves men rising up speaking perverted things to draw the disciples after them. Earlier to the Thessalonian saints he pointed out the mystery of lawlessness at work, not among Jews or Gentiles desperately wicked as they were, but among Christian professors of the latter day which was to develop into the apostasy and the man of sin, the lawless one, to be consumed (not by preaching however sound, but) by the judicial breath of the Lord Jesus. Later to the Philippians he mourned over “many” as enemies of Christ’s cross whose end is perdition. So in 1 Tim. 4 he says that the Spirit speaks expressly of some in latter times falling away from the faith, heeding deceiving spirits in hypocrisy of legend-mongers without conscience yet ascetics; and in 2 Tim. 3 he speaks of the opposite school of self-will or self-indulgence and proud lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, with a form of piety but denying its power. From these the word is, “Turn away,” with a twofold announcement, that all those wishing to live piously shall be persecuted, and that wicked men and impostors shall wax worse and worse. See also 2 Tim. 4:1-4.
The Epistle of James (James 5:7-9) calls to patience and establishment of heart, “because the presence of the Lord is drawn nigh!” “Behold, the judge standeth before the doors.” So Peter in his First Epistle declares it “the time for judgment to begin from the house of God.” And here we begin with his full testimony as to false teachers who corrupt the springs of all truth and righteousness. Jude goes over the same ground, only denouncing its apostate character which was a deeper view. 1 John fully characterises as the “last hour” the appalling prevalence of antichrists gone out, the more freely to work their nefarious way. And we may regard the Revelation as the great Christian prophecy of the approaching judgments, first providential, then personal when Christendom becomes but a sad object for divine punishment. All point to the awful issue: not reunion save in an evil way so far as it may be; but the Lord’s appearing in relentless dealing when the cup of iniquity is full.
There is no difficulty in the apostle’s predicating of these false teachers that the Sovereign Master bought them. It is “purchase,” which is universal, not “redemption” which is limited to those who have in Christ the forgiveness of the offences through His blood. In the parable too we read that He bought not only the treasure but the field. Purchase acquired all as His slaves or chattels; but redemption sets free from Satan’s power as well as divine judgment. Hence they are nowhere said to be “redeemed,” but they were bought though they disowned the purchase in rebellion against His rights.
What can bring a deeper stigma on “the way of the truth” than the dissolutenesses, whatever their form, of these accredited teachers? It is in Jeremiah’s writings where we find most fully the prophets prophesying falsely and the priests conniving at the evil so as to rule. “And my people love to have it so; and what will ye do in the end thereof?” says the true prophet in his anguish. But throughout Jewish history we see the same principle from the beginning to the crisis in our Lord’s day, which ended in the Romans taking sway both their place and their nation. Still more terrible is God’s vengeance on the abominations of the N. T. Babylon and the false teachers who for their covetousness and well-turned words have all along drawn the mass into departure from the truth, despite of His Spirit, and rebellion against God and His Anointed. Jubilant at man’s progress in his own way without Christ, how little they believe that God’s eye is on their selfish merchandise, and that their perdition does not slumber according to the judgment pronounced on such evil even before the deluge! How utterly unfounded to expect in Christendom, any more than in Israel, a real reunion and recovery! For the mass it is worse and worse, whatever superficial appearances say to the contrary. Scripture is clear and conclusive.
In the three opening verses the apostle pointed out in plain and pointed terms the very class of false teachers which is now poisoning the fountains of Christendom. It is itself a prophecy fulfilled to every believer of spiritual intelligence. As in Israel the false prophets, so now the false teachers are a fact more manifest in our day than ever before. The very scattering, which ought not to be among true-hearted saints, but which is inevitable under personal or party pressure, makes the peculiar evil more apparently the work of the spirit of error. They may differ each from the rest doctrinally in other respects; but they all agree to let in scepticism as to scripture, which necessarily destroys divine authority for every article of faith, and therefore directly tends to dissolve the credit of its rule in anything. Now where is there a single denomination free from this malaria? And the worst is that it is no longer eccentric individuals winked at to avoid trouble and split, but now leading seniors and energetic juniors in the ministry are those more zealous for that deadly error, though nominally some may not deny Christ and the truth of His work.
In former days, as the rule when such unbelievers found themselves opposed through their speculations to the Articles of faith they had subscribed, or to their public profession on becoming religious guides, they withdrew from a position they could no longer hold with common integrity. But in our day we see how those who are false in doctrine are bold enough to set conscience at defiance, and cleave to their position and emoluments when they abandon the truth which they had solemnly pledged themselves to preach and teach. It is not therefore the Lord and the truth only which they betray; but they sacrifice plain honesty of principle for a place and a living which they value. This depravity too is severely exposed in the apostle’s words, “through covetousness with well-turned words they will make merchandise of you.” Nor is it his rebuke only since he adds the retribution which must befall those who thus mock God: “for whom judgment of old is not idle, and their destruction slumbereth not.” The maledictions under the seal of the Fisherman may return on the guilty illwisher, but God will surely give effect to the words of the bondman and apostle of Jesus Christ His Son in the solemn Epistle before us.
The apostle proceeds to give examples of divine judgment executed on angels as well as men.
“For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to lowest hell and gave them up to chains [or, pits6] of gloom reserved for judgment, and spared not an ancient world but preserved Noah an eighth (i.e. with seven others), a preacher of righteousness, having brought a flood upon a world of ungodly ones” (vers. 4, 5).
We must not confound this fall of angels with the original defection of the devil and his angels, which had a distinct character and a different treatment on God’s part. What can be plainer than that the earlier defection was before man was created? For the devil their leader became man’s tempter, as his own fault was being lifted up with self-importance and pride against God, and his aim was to lure our first parents into like independence and rebellion. In the case before us the direction of sin was toward man in a way contrary to the nature of angels or of mankind; and so abhorrent to God that He executed an exemplary dealing of His displeasure at the time of the deluge. This too continues through all the ages of man on the earth till final judgment come for wicked men and angels when the eternal state is to open. The devil and his angels have quite another destiny; for they are allowed to tempt man, as their chief tempted even the Son of God when here incarnate, rising more and more during the season of divine long-suffering till the ruin of Christendom, as well as of the Jews, shall revive the Roman empire in the Beast, and the False Prophet of Judea, the Antichrist, to sit not only as Messiah but as God in the temple of God showing himself that he is Gad. Even at the end of Christ’s thousand years’ reign, Satan will be loosed once more to deceive man for a little space. All so far is in contrast with the sinning angels here.
But the comparison with Jude 6, 7, renders another fact sufficiently clear; that the particular time and the special enormity of their sin point to what is described in Gen. 6:1-4, which played a prominent part in the accumulated evil for which the deluge was sent to destroy the world which then was. One knows how repugnant to most minds is the natural sense of this episode, what violent efforts have been made by learned men to evade it, provoked by absurd rabbinical legends gloating in what is vile and strange, and availing themselves of our Saviour’s words in Matt. 22:30 on the very different truth of the resurrection state to deny its possibility. Besides, the word does not necessarily mean “wives” but “women,” though ordinarily so employed. However this be, we may all admire the holy wisdom of God in telling us briefly and even obscurely a tale on which man has so much to say, and so great a desire to fill up the details, if he could.
Next the apostle speaks of Noah with his family of seven preserved when God spared not the ancient world. For this is important in his account of God’s government. If His hand brought a flood on a world of the ungodly, He took care to guard the safety of Noah’s house for the sake of its faithful head. And he draws attention to the interesting fact that Noah was not only a righteous man but “a preacher of righteousness.” The hundred and twenty years of which Jehovah spoke was the space of the preparation of the ark and of Noah’s preaching It has nothing to do with the duration of human life, as some have fancied, but of divine patience before “the flood came and took all away.” To the same time refers the mention of Noah and his preaching also in 1 Peter 3:19, 20 where we are told of their spirits, disobedient as they were to the word of his testimony, and therefore in prison awaiting a judgment still more terrible than aught of a temporal nature, however vast and exceptional
And so it is now. The day of the Lord, of which the Lord Himself warned, and calls His servants to warn, is at hand; and it will come when men say Peace and safety, while their hearts are filled with fear and foreboding of what is about to be on the inhabited earth. Assuredly the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with angels of His power taking vengeance on a guilty world disobedient to the gospel will even more terrify men in its sudden destruction.
The apostle adduces another divine judgment, not so vast as the deluge, but even more solemnly significant, though on a small scale.
“And reducing to ashes [the] cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he condemned [them] with overthrow, having set an example to those that should live ungodlily, and rescued righteous Lot, distressed by the behaviour of those abandoned in licentiousness; for the righteous [man] dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing was tormenting a righteous soul day after day with lawless works” (vers. 6-8).
The awful story is told with holy plainness of speech in Gen. 19. The sinning and doom of angels consigned to the deepest pit of gloom in chains of darkness for a judgment still more terrible; and the ensuing and unsparing destruction of an old world except Noah and his family, are followed by a catastrophe of fire and brimstone on the cities of the plain. There the bold monstrous depravity of mankind sunk to its lowest depths and cried aloud for heaven’s open and indignant vengeance. These were early days comparatively speaking. The boasted civilization of man had borne much fruit to glory in, not only on the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris, but on the Nile. And here on the borders of Canaan, destined for the seed of Abraham, and round the sea into which debouched the waters of the Jordan, were men sunk into unblushing vileness not to be named, save in the days long after by the classic authors of Greece and Rome, who liked moral filth without shame. Host righteously did Jehovah execute His judgment on these cities, setting an example to those that should live an ungodly life, not providentially through the hand of man, but Himself raining upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire out of heaven.
Do any now bearing the name of Christians question this dealing of Jehovah? They may plead the unbelief of an erratic speculator like Origen to excuse their own scepticism, to which, as they allow, the free thinking of Hobbes and Spinoza and the like gave a great impulse; and they are not afraid to cheer one another with the godless cry that they are the winning side. But how will it be when, in the approaching consummation of the age, the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with angels of His power in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? Will it be any consolation to the teachers of those responsible to preach the truth that they were successful in undermining God’s authority in His word under colour of historical investigation which has no real facts but fancy, and of criticism which is not to get rid of human error but to enthrone it and to dissolve, in will at least, all that is divine? Will they encourage one another in their work of mischief when such impious infidelity pays the penalty of everlasting destruction from the Lord’s presence and from the glory of His might? O that where conscience is seared by the power of evil, there might be an ear to hear, and repentance be given to the acknowledgment of the truth, so that out of the snare of the devil, taken as they were by him, they might wake up for God’s will! They may flatter themselves that they are as moral as the old cities were corrupt. But after all to reject God’s word, and claim title to sit in judgment on it, is to have a character of pride and malignity more destructive than the abominable and unnatural debasement of Sodom. If God, not man, is the measure of sin they who are caught red-handed in their war against His inspiration will learn then, if they mock now, what it is to have helped on the apostasy and the man of sin.
But the apostle here as before attests divine mercy as well as judgment. For as before He preserved Noah preacher of righteousness with seven others who shared the ark with him, so now He saved “righteous Lot, distressed by the behaviour of those abandoned in licentiousness.” Peter’s appointed view is righteousness and unrighteousness; as Jude’s was apostasy from a place given by divine will. Both were true of old, and shall be true again in those who hate and deny prophecy, yet will prove its truth in the ruin of those they mislead. And shall they escape, who served Satan’s aim and despised God’s word, because they die before that day to which all the prophets point, though they had “settled” it to have been a mistake? Lot was not like Abraham in the secret of the Lord apart from the scene. But he wee no scoffer, any more than a sceptic; “for the righteous man, dwelling among them in seeing and hearing was tormenting a righteous soul day after day with lawless works.” Whoever heard of such seriousness in a dilettante higher critic? Lot’s was not the more blessed part of Abraham, yet was he truly grieved for the Lord’s sake. And so it will be with a righteous remnant, when the Jews are in their last trial and the mass accept idols once more, and the antichrist too, as the Psalms and the Prophets amply prove.
Thereon the apostle goes out to show the divine government in a more general way both as to good and evil.
“[The] Lord (or, Jehovah) knoweth to deliver the godly out of trial, and to keep unjust [men] for judgment-day to be punished; and especially those that walk after flesh in lust of uncleanness, and despise lordship. Daring, self-willed, they tremble not speaking railingly of dignities (or, glories), when angels, being greater in might and power, bring not against them before [the] Lord (or, Jehovah) a railing charge” (vers. 9-11).
Though it is still the evil day and the enemy is not yet hurled from his place in the heavens (Eph. 6), the eye of the Lord is not closed to the trial of the godly any more than to the ways of unrighteous men. There is a constantly active care of His own to deliver out of temptation, as He reserves unjust men for another day when judgment must requite them. But this is allotted to the Lord Jesus, whom the world despised and rejected. He it is who was determinately appointed of God Judge of living and dead. The Father judgeth none but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son even as they honour the Father. He the Son is therefore the test. He that honours not the Son honours not the Father that sent Him. And as it is the self-emptying and humiliation of the Son in becoming man and dying on the cross which gave occasion to unbelief and contempt, instead of love and subjection, it will be as Son of man that the Lord will judge mankind. Those who believe on the Son of God receive in Him life eternal; those who despise and disobey Him as if only man must be judged by the glorified Son of man; and His judgment on the great white throne (Rev. 20:12) will be as everlasting as His life He gives the believer. There will be no escaping judgment for unjust men, even if a day of judgment too punish them in this life at His appearing.
The gospel has saved those who believe for heaven; but it has not purged the earth of iniquity. This will be in the age to come when the Lord reigns over all the earth. It is not what God is doing now, nor will it be till He appears in glory. The darnel was to grow with the wheat in the world of profession. His servants were too ready to uproot; but His word is, Suffer both to grow together unto the harvest or the age’s completion. Then shall He send His angels; for it will be their work, not ours even then. We have to witness grace. Then a king shall reign in righteousness; and as the result of retribution executed on the wicked, not only shall the righteous nation enter in, which keeps faithfulness, but “when Thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
But “specially those that walk after flesh in lust of uncleanness, and despise lordship” shall incur the divine indignation. To this the grace which God is now showing in the gospel will contribute, because unbelief works to indulge all the more in evil. For if favour be shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness, but trifles with sin, and hopes to walk as he likes with impunity; or as it is written in Eccles. 8:11, “because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the children of men is full in them to do evil.” Nor is it unclean lust only that is peculiarly offensive to God, and nourished by the abused grace of the gospel, but despising lordship. For God in His providence has set up the check of magisterial authority against evil; and what undermines this more than the self-will of man in these last days which pleads liberty against law to indulge in licence and rebellion? It was bad in Judaism; it is worse in Christendom, as this Epistle anticipates, and the corresponding Epistle of Jude. How this defiant haughtiness abounds now! And it will increase to more ungodliness, as the end of the age approaches.
In vers. 10, 11 the wicked spirit is still more pointedly designated. “Daring, self-willed, they tremble not speaking railingly of dignities (or, glories, literally); when angels, being greater in might and power, bring not against them before [the] Lord (or, Jehovah) a railing charge.” The tongue as is shown in the Epistle of James is pre-eminently the index of the inner man’s feelings, aim and character. He cannot always do what he would; but his lips express what he is in audacity and self-will. The fact that some are set in a place above others in authority is enough to rouse hatred and revolutionary desires, to lower and destroy. Men tremble not to speak railingly of dignities. A debased Christianity helps this where the truth does not reign to produce self-judgment, yet is sufficiently known to make little of man’s pretensions and worldly glories. With such presumption of the baptised the apostle contrasts the humility and awe of angels, superior as they are in might and power, who have such a sense of reverence before God as to restrain their speech before Him, whatever be the evils to call out their abhorrence.
Even such a sketch did not suffice adequately to convey what the false teachers would turn out in Christendom. The Holy Spirit proceeds yet more vividly in His anticipative description of their words and deeds.
“But these, as irrational animals born by nature for capture and destruction, speaking evil in what things they are ignorant, shall also perish in their corruption, receiving as they shall wages of unrighteousness, accounting [their] ephemeral luxury pleasure, spots and blemishes, luxuriating in their love feasts [or, deceits], feasting with you; having eyes full of an adulteress and without cessation from sin; setting baits for unstable souls; having a heart practised in covetousness, children of curse; abandoning as they did a straight way, they went astray, following out in the way of Balaam [son] of Beor, who loved wages of unrighteousness, but had reproof of his own iniquity; a dumb beast of burden speaking with man’s voice forbade the madness of the prophet” (vers. 12-16).
It was already shown generally from ver. 10 how these nominal Christians proceed after flesh in lust of pollution, instead of walking according to Spirit, as freed from the law of sin and of death. Then their boldness was contrasted with angels greater in strength and power who are as reverent before the Lord as those were scornful. Now they are compared to such irrational animals as by nature are born to be captured and destroyed. How overwhelming that the apostle has thus to describe false teachers and those that follow their dissolutenesses! They were once enlightened, had tasted the heavenly gift, and became partakers of Holy Spirit, and tasted God’s good word and power of a coming age (not evil as the present is), and now yielded to malevolence, speaking evilly in what things they were ignorant. What was before such but also to “perish in their corruption?”
We may profitably remark that Heb. 6 in reviewing the many and great privileges of such spurious professors does not speak any more than Peter of being born anew or of God, any more than of being sealed of the Spirit. They had accurate knowledge of the Christian revelation and special gift in its characteristic power Mind and feeling can go far in appreciating the wonderful works of God, and the moral beauty and grace of Christ. But in all the scriptures which designate natural men, the utmost care is taken to leave out the communication of life eternal and a divine nature, or “repentance unto life.” This supposes a real self-judgment before God, an overwhelming sense of sin in His sight, of total moral ruin, so as absolutely to need sovereign grace, but it is never found save in those begotten of God. Yet short of it, what is there that the intellect cannot appropriate, enjoy, and proclaim? Ere long the test comes, which life in Christ with the Spirit’s power alone can stand; and Satan so touches and masters them that their departure from God becomes more apparent and complete. Shall they not receive wages of unrighteousness? Can any course of life be farther from Christ than esteeming ephemeral luxury pleasure? He never once sought to please Himself but in every thing to do His Father’s will; and did He not call His own to hear His voice and follow Him? Did He not suffer for us, leaving us a model so that we should follow in His steps?
“Spots and blemishes” were these men, “luxuriating in their love-feasts (or, deceits),7 feasting with you.” To bring self-indulgence into a love-feast was a shame to Christ, and the forerunner of worse corruption. “Having eyes full of an adulteress and without cessation from sin.” It was bad enough at a heathen celebration: what was it before the Holy and True? “Setting baits for unstable souls” in honour of Him who suffered to the uttermost to win the foulest from their sins to God! Who could wonder that they “have a heart practised in covetousness” in order to carry on the basest self-indulgence, where all are bound, denying impiety and worldly lusts, to live soberly, and justly and piously in the present age, awaiting the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ! But these who act as if the cross of Christ opened the door for any abomination, are they not “children of curse?” It was sinning that grace may abound.
“Having left a straight way” (and such surely is Christ), “they went astray, having followed out in the way of Balaam [son] of Beor, who received wages of unrighteousness.” No more solemn or apposite warning could be drawn from the Book of God; none of one who more deceived himself and others; none that so combined the most glowing and grand anticipations for Israel from Jehovah with the subtlest efforts to ensnare into evil which should compromise and endanger them. Yet had he crafty care for his own interest while pretending to be quite above it. Whatever his words, he loved wages of unrighteousness, but had reproof to his own iniquity, and in a form eminently adapted to appeal to his conscience and to be a continual warning in the ease, less sceptical than the west. “A dumb beast of burden speaking with man’s voice forbade the madness of the prophet.” He who boasted of having his eyes open saw not what the ass was given to see, and knew not why she turned aside (from the sword drawn in the angel’s hand), and why she thrust herself unto the wall that Balaam might not have his head smitten, but at most his foot crushed; and why she fell down where there was no other way for her or her master to escape destruction. How much more guilty are false teachers since the Son of God came and gave us understanding to know Him that is true!
The indignant invective of the apostle is not even yet exhausted. So various are the forms of hypocritical unrighteousness, he would have the faithful fully informed and on their guard.
“These are springs without water,8 and mists9 driven by storm, to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved.10 For uttering overswellings of vanity, they allure in lusts of the flesh, by dissolutenesses, those that are just 11escaping from them that walk in error, promising them liberty while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a man is worsted, by him is he also held in bondage. For if after having escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but again entangled and worsted thereby, the last for them is become worse than the first” (vers. 17-20).
It is no longer contrast with angels or comparison with Balaam, but the gravest picture of spiritual worthlessness with the seal of everlasting darkness affixed before judgment consigns to it. It is the privilege of every Christian, not only to be begotten of God but to have the Spirit of His Son given to be in him a spring of water springing up into life eternal. Yea the Lord adds elsewhere, He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water; and that this great gift should not pass away like Jewish favours, but abide for ever. And surely the Christian teacher has yet more, not only the
δωρεα; to enjoy but his special
χάρισμα to make it known, and appreciated, and applied. But these teachers of Christendom, certainly not of Christ, “are springs without water” (they never had any), and “mists driven by storm,” instead of luminaries directed by the Holy Spirit; they express nature empty and fallen, and under gusts of feeling if not the enemy’s power. And the end is not death only but divine wrath for ever, in character with the darkness they loved because their deeds were evil.
For what are the utterances of those that figure for mischief on the ecclesiastical stage? “Over-swellings of vanity” by which to “allure in desires and lusts of flesh by dissolutenesses those just escaping from them that walk in error.” Take three plain examples of false teaching which directly tend to lower the standard of holiness and make provision for flesh’s lusts. 1. Sin is not “the transgression of the law” (as in the A.V. of 1 John 3:4), but “lawlessness” which rejects all subjection to God, and applies to Gentiles who knew not the law as well as to the Jew who did, and to the wicked that heard but obeyed not the gospel. How much evil in Christendom is not touched by the Decalogue! 2. What licence for evil ways is not covered by “so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” in Gal. 5:17? Its real meaning is the wholly different force, “that ye should not do the things that ye would” or desire. The error becomes the religion, or at least practice, of despair which is as far from Christian holiness as can be. 3. There is too the dogmatic error in the misreading of Rom. 7:6, where the too confiding public were taught that the law was dead, instead of the believers’ death to it, so that they should serve in newness of spirit, and not oldness of letter which alas! has ever been the bane of mere profession. It was sad that good men were blinded to what their spiritual instinct must have revolted from; but who can tell the enormous influence of such a threefold cord for misrepresenting God’s word, especially in the hands of unscrupulous, false teachers who gloat in misrenderings which thus consecrate their wicked life and labours?
Love, lowliness, purity are essentials of the new nature, and hence so characterise the Christian that, when failure in any of these respects occurs, the weak are stumbled, and the strong are grieved for the Lord’s sake. But when haughty vapourings as in ver. 18 takes the place of truth as it is in Jesus, one need not wonder that underneath they allure in flesh’s lusts by wantonnesses those just escaping with the skin of their teeth from them that walk in error. For the young are peculiarly open to danger from these seducing ways in those they trust for precept and example. The promise of liberty has a fair sound to their ears. But the apostle points his finger to the fatal spot, which is not now nor ever that of God’s children: they are veritable bondmen of corruption. No swellings can hide or excuse the evil, or disguise effectually to the simplest saint the enemy at work. “For by whom one is worsted, by him also is he held in bondage.”
The very babe in Christ only just escaping is sensitive to vileness and turns away, where old ones are dulled and deadened by theories which apologise for error or evil. Nor is any plea more insidious or successful than unity, precious where Christ is its centre; but where it is not really His, it is the gilded bait of the soul-destroyer. “For if, having escaped the pollutions of the world through true knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but again thereby entangled, they are worsted, the last for them is become worse than the first” (ver. 20). How graphic and energetic and solemn is the apostle’s picture of the soul’s ruin! And this after God’s work in the cross of Christ, this gift of the Spirit sent forth from heaven, and His full revelation to man. Yet the cross had already shown man’s enmity and guilt and ruin, with Satan’s power over him; but, thank God, it has also shown man in Christ perfect for God, for sinners to save, for saints to keep, guide and bless, that Satan be wholly defeated.
But nowhere is the divine value of the cross more ignored than where it is made an external idol, the rival of the crescent that rules the night, or of the sun that rules the day. In all these sin is not seen to be already dealt with to faith for God’s glory; but man profits by unbelief to make a tariff for it in a way suited to circumstances sad his own will for Satan’s pleasure.
The apostle confirms the awful end of the course he had just portrayed by the two concluding verses, one explanatory, and the other in the true proverb applied with its telling figures, too often exemplified.
“For it were better for them not to have known well the way of righteousness than knowing well to have turned back12 from the holy commandment delivered to them” (ver. 21).
The righteous tone of the warning is sustained with apostolic gravity to the close. Knowledge even of the most accurate sort, however desirable, is not the indispensable thing, but faith working by love and yielding our members in bondage to righteousness unto holiness. It is never affirmed or hinted that these false teachers were begotten of God; but they had professed His name who secures every thing that is good to the partaker of a divine nature, to which they had ever been strangers. They had once abandoned the pollutions of the world through the moral effect of what they had received. For the light of Christianity has had not a little influence even on Jews and heathen and infidels; and this the false teachers had profited by as much or more. But when the crisis came personally, and they deliberately succumbed to known evil, their downfall was profound if not rapid.
Therefore it is that we know now that “it were better for them not to have known well the way of righteousness than knowing well to have turned back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” What can be clearer or more certain? The way of righteousness is Christ made known in the gospel; but the truth and the life accompany the way when it is taken by a living faith, and fruit of righteousness follows only through Jesus Christ to God’s glory and praise. Here was nothing but the ground of fallen nature bringing forth thorns and briers, and therefore the end is all the worse for a beginning of outward culture and cleansing, and the end is to be burned as we read in Heb. 6:8. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this also shall he reap. For he that sows to his own flesh shall reap corruption from the flesh; but he that sows to the Spirit shall reap from the Spirit life eternal. In this the false teachers had no more part or lot than Simon Magus in the early days. Their ruin was all the more aggravated by the morning cloud of seeming promise or the early dew of good words perhaps blessed to others, without effect in themselves. The attempt of some to attribute to them a passing from death into life is disproved by scripture which never goes so far, but stops short of salvation by grace. The holy commandment delivered to them was not even mixed with faith in their souls; and from this they at length turned back, that they might do their own will and gratify their evil lusts.
We may see in Heb. 10:26-30 more analogy with our chapter than in Heb. 6:4-8. For in the latter case it was rather a return to Jewish ordinances after having professed the grace of the gospel. In the former it is a return to sins after being confessors of Christ’s death, which means for us death to sin. This case is what we read of in the warning of Peter before us, only that he dwells on the aggravated guilt of false teachers, as the Epistle to the Hebrews does on the apostasy of professing Christians in yielding to sinful lusts. How fully and precisely scripture provides for every danger, and against all evil!
“[But]13 there hath happened to them the [saying] of the true proverb, A dog returned to his own vomit, and A sow washed into rolling in mire” (ver. 22).
The yielding to sin, described in ver. 21, is entirely confirmed by the application to their case by the point of the true proverb that follows: “a dog returned to his own vomit, and a sow washed into rolling in mire.” Never had these evil workers been sheep of the Good Shepherd’s pasture. They had never been transformed by the renewal of mind which is of God’s effectual grace. There was therefore no such anomaly in the Christian sphere as the degradation of a sheep to a dog, nor such a metamorphosis as into swine. When born anew, there is a new life and nature imparted; but the old abides to be disallowed, because we died with Christ to sin. But a dog does not become a sheep, nor do sheep become swine, save in the false science of theology. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). And this it is which the believer receives through faith in Christ, even His life communicated now to the soul in the Spirit, as by-and-by to the body also at His coming again. There is not the most distant thought that the false teachers were ever thus born anew. On the contrary they are described as having no more than what the natural mind is capable of knowing. They might have accurate knowledge in the intellect, but no divine work whereby they were begotten of God. Hence at last came a turning back to a worse state than before they professed Christianity.
What can exceed the loathing our apostle feels and expresses, as he denounces not only the errors but the immoral practices of these false teachers? The apostle of the circumcision describes in solemn terms the ruin of which Paul at Miletus warned the elders of the church in Ephesus. “I know that there will come in among you after my departure grievous wolves not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall rise up men speaking, perverted things to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30). “Grievous wolves” are surely enemies, whether or not they get the position of guides; they were enemies who, instead of loving and tending the flock of God, ravenously and at all cost preyed on the sheep. And the alienated elders, who forgot the Lord with the grace and truth which came through Him, fell sadly from their office when they by means of perverted things drew away the disciples after them. Thus what man built in the Lord’s name, man’s will should mislead and destroy; and such is Christendom, an utter departure from the heavenly witness of Christ to which the church and every Christian is called. That which Christ has built will alone stand, for it is kept through the grace that is in Him, which is unfailing. But all that bear His name are responsible; and guides must give account, not merely as all saints, but of that entrusted to them in particular.
Still these self-seeking chiefs, and even the grievous wolves though violently injurious, are not depicted with the contempt which the apostle attaches to those of whom he warns in this chapter. What figure more expressive of abominable impurity can be found to express “A dog returning to his own vomit, and A washed sow into rolling in mire?” The dog so returning we hear of in Prov. 26:11, where the application is to the fool returning to his folly. Here it is still more emphatically said of him who once knew clearly the glad tidings of Christ and the truth of God in a general way. The better the knowledge, the worse if corruption ensues. What could match it but “A washed sow” again gone back to roll in mud?
Thus the awful issue of unrenewed man here set out in the unerring word of God keeps the security of grace wholly untouched. May the true believer not slip or fall? Surely he may, if unwatchful. But “he shall be made to stand; for the Lord is able to make him stand (Rom. 14:4). Without Him he owns himself lost; but now “we more than conquer through Him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37). A man may preach ever so acceptably; but if he live evilly as one not born anew, he perishes a reprobate. And why any Christian should question this is the leas excusable, since scripture is perfectly plain in its call to self-denial, and in its denunciation of unholiness particularly in such as profess the Lord’s name, with full warning of the awful end.
5 There is no doubt that the Text. Rec. must here yield to much better authority, and the intrinsic sense.
6 It is a question between
σειροῖς (ABC) and
σειραῖς (KLP and the cursives). Here
τηρουμένους has better support than
7 There is no small diversity and correction in the readings here. Cp. Jude 12.
8 For “clouds,” the best authorities give “and mists,” and omit “for ever.”
11 “Those just (or, a little) escaping,” not “those clean (or, really) escaped,” as in the Text Rec. In ver. 20 it is the aorist participle, not the present as in ver. 18.
ὑποστρέψαι B C P etc.
ἐπιστρέψαι K L etc.
δέ is not in A B etc., but in c C K L P etc. Lesser flaws we may leave.