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 2:21-22)
“An apostate (false teacher) is someone who has the light but not the life, the seed but not the fruit, the written word but not the living word, the truth but not a love for the truth.” Dr. John MacArthur
The Apostle Peter concluded his striking and stirring remarks about false teachers, or apostates, but setting forth a conclusion and two comparisons. Both of these categories should prompt true believers to pause and consider the ultimate end of all false teachers.
To begin with, Peter stated, “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. What did the apostle mean when he used the words “known” and “knowing” to describe the spiritual condition of false teachers? Were they then, and are they now, true believers who have abandoned the faith or are they simply pretenders who never were justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone?
Peter’s conclusion regarding the condition of false teachers was that it would have been better (κρείττων; kreitton), superior or greater to never to have known (ἐπιγινώσκω; epiginosko) or to have knowledge of the way of righteousness (ὁδός δικαιοσύνη; odos dikiaosyne) or doing what God requires or what is right. In others words, false teachers have knowledge about God and living righteously, but they give no evidence of repentance and personal, God-given faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
On the contrary, false teachers turn back from the holy commandment (ἅγιος ἐντολή; hagios entole). This is the pure, divine and superior direction solely belonging to and originating from God. This is the gospel message which not only delivers a sinner from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin. It is a message of not only justification by Jesus Christ but also sanctification by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in each true believer’s life (Romans 3:21-26; Romans 8:1-9).
Peter was saying that false teachers possess a knowledge about Jesus Christ, which could produce true liberty and life. However, when that “head” knowledge is rejected, their ultimate end is deeper corruption by their sin and possibly a greater degree of punishment. Dr. John Walvoord writes that, “Indeed, they would have been better off never to have known the gospel, the way of righteousness, and the sacred (holy) commandment (i.e., the apostolic message) than to have known the truth and have deliberately violated it.”
Peter then provided two striking comparisons about the behavior of false teachers’ ultimate rejection of the gospel. The first is that of a dog returning to its own vomit. Proverbs 26:11 says, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.” In the ancient world, Jews did not consider dogs to be household pets but rather mongrels which ran in ravaging packs. Additionally, the apostle mentioned a “sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” This was common knowledge by the Jews.
Dr. Walvoord comments that, “The underlying principle of both is the same: these apostates (whether false teachers, their victims, or both) never were what they seemed to be and returned to what they had been all along. Dogs and pigs can be scrubbed but not kept clean, for it is in their very nature to return to unclean living. Such apostates are in a tighter bondage, they are farther from the truth, and they are deeper in spiritual filth than ever before.”
Dr. Walvvord concludes that, “Believers today do well to heed Peter’s warning against false teachers, to learn how to discern truth for themselves, and to teach it to others. The false teachers will themselves meet destruction and others will be destroyed by them. But Christians can wage spiritual warfare more effectively if they know their spiritual enemies, the techniques that heretics use, and the end result of their deception.”
What ultimately distinguishes a true believer, and teacher of God, from false teachers? A true believer pursues practical righteousness and holiness in their lives. This pursuit is not in order to attain justification but rather to reflect and demonstrate the justification they already possess by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. True believers in Christ still sin (Romans 7:15-25; I John 1:8-9), but with decreasing frequency and with a hatred of their sin. Ultimately, the true believer in Christ seeks to obey God, based upon God’s love for them and their love for God in grateful response. May this holy obedience to God be said of us and seen in us.
Soli deo Gloria!