INTRODUCTION: This post is longer than most and is more of a study of 2 Peter 2:1 than it is a typical blog. As will be seen in the body of the post, this verse poses significant difficulties in interpretation. I have studied this verse for a long time and wanted to set aside some time now to produce my “once and for all” interpretation.
Here is the verse according to the NASB:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 Peter 2:1 (NASB)
THE DIFFICULTY STATED
The difficulties in this verse are created by the phrase, “even denying the Master who bought them,” and by the significant implications of this phrase with regard to the extent of Christ’s atonement. It seems that Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21), is here stating that “there will be false teachers who introduce destructive heresies” into the church, whom the Master has bought (Greek active aorist participle from the verb ἀγοράζω, meaning buy, redeem, ransom). In the context, the identity of the Master is clearly the Lord Jesus, and His buying or redemption of these false teachers refers to His substitutionary atoning death on the cross. This means that Christ atoned for some who will perish, for the verse concludes by telling us that these false teachers of destructive heresies will “bring swift destruction on themselves.” If this understanding of the verse is correct, then it poses a serious challenge to the doctrine of particular redemption (also known as “limited atonement”), which states that Christ died for the elect, and for the elect only, and that everyone for whom Christ died will certainly be justified and glorified. What I wanted to research, then, is how those who hold firmly to the doctrine of particular redemption as just stated (which is the doctrine I hold firmly and which I believe to be the biblical position) have interpreted 2 Peter 2:1 such that the biblical doctrine stands unshaken.
JAMES BOICE AND PHIL RYKEN IN THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE
James Boice and Phil Ryken address this verse in their book, The Doctrines of Grace. In the section of the book speaking of the perseverance of the saints, they offer the perspective that these false teachers “seem to have been purchased by Christ and will show outward signs of such deliverance, but they will still be false prophets and professors” (p. 171f). My understanding of this interpretation is that, while they appeared for a time to be genuine followers of Jesus, their pretense eventually became evident in their heretical teachings. When these false teachers persisted in their heresies, it became plain that Christ had not, in fact, purchased their salvation.
In addressing the question of how this verse relates to the doctrine of particular redemption, Boice and Ryken suggest, “The best approach is to think of this as describing what these unbelieving teachers claimed (emphasis mine) rather than what they had actually received from Jesus” (p. 129).
JOHN OWEN IN THE DEATH OF DEATH
In John Owen’s masterful work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, there is a large portion of the book devoted to addressing problem texts. Here we find 2 Peter 2:1 in the section discussing the argument “of the Arminians and their successors from texts of Scripture as seem to hold out the perishing of some of them for whom Christ died, and the fruitlessness of the blood in respect of divers for whom it was shed.” In other words, the Arminians claim that there are certain texts of Scripture which teach the eternal perishing of some of those for whom Christ died. From this statement, those who argue for universal atonement (or universal redemption) draw the conclusion that “If Christ died for some reprobates and for some that perish, then He died for all and everyone universally and without distinction.” Owen vigorously opposes the Arminian position and presents his arguments against their understanding of this verse.
THREE POINTS TO BE PROVEN BY THE ARMINIANS
Owen begins by presenting three points that must be proved by those who maintain universal redemption from this verse. The first point is that the “Master” here mentioned refers to Jesus Christ. Second, that “bought” refers to Christ “purchasing them with the ransom of His blood.” And third, that Peter speaks of this purchase in respect to its reality, and not in respect to the estimation of others based on outward appearances (their behavior and changed lives) and based on the public professions of these false teachers. In other words, the Arminians need to prove that Peter is not speaking here of a purchase (“bought”) that is assumed by the human believers in the church based on external evidence (what humans see and hear), but that Peter intends “bought by the Master” to be understood as a reality from the divine perspective.
Here are my own thoughts about these three points. It is my view that “Master” as used in this verse does, in fact, refer to the Lord Jesus, for I cannot imagine who else Peter could intend. Likewise, “bought” here refers to Christ’s atoning death on the cross because, again, there does not seem to be another option. The third point, however, that Peter is speaking of the reality of these heretical teachers being bought by Christ’s blood rather than the mere external appearance of that purchase based on human observation, is much less certain. The substance of Owen’s argument of this third point is given below.
(Just to be sure I am communicating what is happening here, Owen is going to be arguing that, in 2 Peter 2:1, the phrase, “the Master who bought them,” does not mean that Christ actually bought them with His blood, but that the behavior and the professions of these heretical teachers led the church to assume that Christ had bought them. In other words, the verse speaks of the appearance on earth rather than the reality in heaven.)
Here are Owen’s arguments (On p. 252 of The Death of Death). He says first that it is not “certain that the apostle speaketh of the purchase of the wolves and hypocrites in respect to the reality of the purchase and not in respect of that estimation which others had of them – and by reason of their outward seeming profession, ought to have had – and of the profession that they themselves made to be purchased by Him.” In other words, the “purchase” mentioned in this verse is referring not to the reality of their profession, but to the estimation others in the church had of its reality. Also, the estimation, that professing followers of Christ in the church are genuine believers, is the proper estimation to have, at least until their profession is called into question by other evidence. Also, these people, before their heresy, had claimed to be blood-bought followers of Christ. So, the estimation of others based on the hypocrites’ external behavior, the gracious assumption of others that, since they remained in the church, they were genuine believers, and the assumption that the hypocrites’ profession of faith in Christ was genuine all led to the estimation that the Master had bought them.
Owen continues his argument by saying “that it is the perpetual course of the Scripture to ascribe all those things to everyone that is in the fellowship of the church which are proper to them only who are true spiritual members of the same, as to be saints, elect, redeemed.” By this, Owen is saying that the Scriptures typically refer to all members of the church as if they were elect. So it is here. Until these wolves revealed their false profession by their heretical teaching, they were viewed as bought by the blood of Christ. Thus, they ruin their testimony by their heresy, but they do no violence to the divine decree of election. They were only apparently bought by the Master, and their heretical apostasy revealed that their purchase by Christ was only apparent.
CALVIN’S COMMENTARY ON THE SECOND EPISTLE OF PETER
The third source we will consult is Calvin’s commentary on 2 Peter. While Owen directly confronts the difficulty in this verse with his exegetical artillery, Calvin seems to overlook the problem. This may be due to the intent of their writing. Owen writes his treatise to demolish all suggestions of a universal ransom, and Calvin writes his work as a general commentary on the epistle.
Calvin considers that these false teachers are the same as those who “turned the grace of God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). He then reasons that, “Christ redeemed us, that He might have a people separated from all the pollutions of the world and devoted to holiness and innocence” (p. 393, Volume XXII of Calvin’s Commentaries). Many Scriptures could be cited here, but Titus 2:11-14 may fit best. But if Christ redeemed us so that we would separate ourselves from the lusts of the world and would henceforth live holy lives, “They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are not unjustly said to deny Christ by whom they have been redeemed.” In other words, Calvin focuses on the Bible’s insistence that genuine believers are to be holy (See 1 Peter 1:14-16), so that those who continue in their licentiousness or who drift into persistent immorality are revealing that they are not true believers.
In conclusion, the best way to understand this verse is to say that those whom the Master bought claimed to be genuine believers and behaved as genuine believers so that they could “secretly introduce destructive heresies” into the church. Their exposure as heretics revealed that their claim to be bought by Christ’s blood was false. In this way, they brought swift destruction upon themselves.
SDG rmb 12/29/2021 #477