17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire” (2 Peter 2:17-22 ESV).
2 Peter 2:17-22
My goal in studying 2 Peter 2:17-22 is to learn what it has to say about the topic of eternal security, in order to answer a question about it in this forum. But to do that I first need to understand it as a whole.
The main point of this passage is this: False teachers are sterile and rootless, doomed to Hell, because they entice weak believers to the slavery of sin.
I say “false teachers” because in 2:1, Peter begins to contrast false teachers with the true teachers/prophets of 1:19-21. And he is still talking about them when we get to verse 17.
Within this description of false teachers, the largest relationship is a Ground (18-22). With that Ground, Peter is defending his assertion that these false teachers are doomed. Within the main arc (17), the emphasis is the Idea in 17a. Within the Ground (18-22), the emphasis is on the Action of the false prophets in 18, specifically in 18c: they seduce weak believers. And the way they do this is described in 19-22.
The question I want to answer was about two phrases within this description, specifically in the Id-Exp relationship in 20-22, which is Paul’s explanation of the slavery of those mentioned in verse 19, who have been enticed by the false prophets (18-19).
The first phrase is “after they have escaped the defilements of the world” (20a).
They “they” likely refers to the weak believers of 18-19, not the false teachers. Notice the Conditional relationship: If someone who has escaped sinful corruption through knowing Jesus is entangled again in sinful corruption, then their state is worse than it was at the beginning.
These people are described both as those who knew Jesus (20a), and as people who used to know the way of righteousness (21a). The question is this: Were such people regenerated, and have then lost their salvation? Or were they never truly saved? But if the latter, what it does mean for Peter to say that they knew Jesus and the way of righteousness?
The second phrase is “after washing herself” (22d). This is a farmyard metaphor referring back to the same spiritual reality as 20a and 21a—of knowing Jesus and the way of righteousness.
I would argue that the loss of a salvation is an impossible interpretation of this difficult passage, based on other clear and simple texts (e.g. John 3:16, 18; 10:27-29). In the immediate context, Peter’s first letter states that believers “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Peter doesn’t say that they “might be guarded, unless they fall away.”
So the way to make sense of Peter’s description of these people is either a) that he is describing people who were never truly saved, or b) that he is describing an impossible hypothetical situation, that of a genuine believer falling away.
The second possibility doesn’t seem to match with Peter’s statement that the false teachers do “entice” people, “those who are barely escaping from those who live in error” (18c). And he says in 22 that the proverb about the dog and the sow does happen to such people. He seems to be describing a real situation.
Those who “have escaped the defilements of the world” (20a) were never truly converted. Such a person is still a spiritual “dog” and a “sow” (22b-c), never having received a new nature.
(I also studied Romans 11:16-24 on the security of the believer here.)