Understanding 2 Peter 2:1

Question: Pastor John, I have very much enjoyed reading your insights in the series “The Divine Intention of the Cross” but while I do not deny what you have written, still have a lingering question. In 2 Peter 2:1 it speaks of false teachers who deny the Master that “bought them.” Is this not a clear verse teaching universal atonement – that Christ died for everyone?

Thanks for your question. 2 Peter 2:1 reads:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.

In this passage, Peter is giving a warning to the church in just the same way that Paul and Jude do elsewhere. The message is that false teachers will arise seeking to steer God’s people into error – such error in fact, that they are called destructive or “damnable heresies.” (KJV)

Some false teachings are worse than others. It is never good to miss the mark on any theological point, but there are some errors that are so bad, they cross the line between orthodoxy and heresy to the point that if they are believed, they damn the soul. These are big issues rather than small ones: things such as the deity of Christ (Jesus said, “unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins” John 8:24); the Gospel itself (Gal. 1:8,9); or the denial that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4).

So Peter is writing to alert God’s people concerning the false prophets who will inevitably come in amongst the flock. Old Testament history often records the fact that God’s people have endured far more grief from the enemy within rather than the enemy without. God, in His wisdom, has allowed many false prophets and teachers to have a voice, while always protecting His elect people from their deception.

Jesus in fact made similar warnings. In Matthew 24: 24 we read, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.” Thankfully, the “if possible” statement alerts us to the fact it is not possible for God’s elect people to be deceived by these false christs and false prophets. The elect will not fall for the grandiose worldwide deception, but not because of their great natural wisdom and insight, but because God preserved them as His elect people. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him and a stranger they will not follow (John 10).

Peter then mentions these false teachers who by stealth, secretly seek to pervert the straight way of the Lord and even deny the sovereign rule of Christ over them.

I say this to show that the passage is not a discussion of the extent of the atonement but about false teachers and the inevitable judgment God will mete out to them.

That is important because we should base our thinking on passages that have the issue under discussion in view. Rather than taking a phrase out of a setting dealing with another issue, we should go to passages where the issue is plainly the main point being communicated. We should start with clear passages on an issue before going to texts where the subject is on the periphery, as is the case here. For instance, what Christ achieved by His atoning work is outlined in a far greater way in the book Hebrews, than it is in other settings. I would suggest we start our thinking there, before proceeding to a phrase in less than half a verse in the context of a warning against false teachers.

Many make the assumption that if a person is part of the Christian gathering, he/she is therefore a genuine Christian. Then, from that assumption, look at a text such as this one and come to the conclusion that these false teachers were once genuine Christians. However, that is an assumption that is clearly not true. For centuries, theologians have made a distinction between the visible church (the gathering together of those who profess faith in Christ) and the invisible church (those known only to God as being truly His). We cannot see the human heart and its relationship to God, we can only look for evidence or fruit of a changed life. Not every one who attends a Church is a genuine Christian. The wheat grows up with the tares; but though we can often times be fooled by people, God is never fooled at all – “the Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim 2:19).

The next mistake is to then suggest that because Jesus died for these false teachers, and then they fall into damnable heresy, salvation can be lost. But again, we need to ask if the text actually says that Jesus died for them? Many assume so, but does it?

Let me quote Dr. James White here. “The major errant assumption of most reading 2 Peter 2:1 is found in assuming facts that are not in evidence, all based on the phrase, “denying the Master who bought them.” The assumption is made that “Master” is automatically Jesus as Savior, and that “bought” is to be read as synonymous with “died so as to save.” So often is the text used in this way that few who quote it even give thought to basic questions such as, “why does Peter use a completely different term for Lord or Master here than is normative for Jesus as Lord and Savior (despotes used here is a different term than kurios, the normative word)”? And, “why does the term ‘bought’ used here (hagorazo) appear without a price mentioned (everywhere else it is used of Christ’s death, a purchase price is noted)”? Might there be a reason for this different terminology?”

The fact is that there is indeed good reason for the unusual terminology Peter employs.

“Master” translates the Greek word despotes (from which we get the word despot). By using this term he was clearly not speaking of redemption and salvation (atonement) but of ownership and Lordship.

“Bought” speaks of more than a mere potential transaction but of a real one. The fact that no purchase price is mentioned is significant, again pointing towards ownership rather than atonement.

The Master/servant relationship was well known in the ancient world and it is this that is in view here. The Master is not merely trying to purchase or makes purchase possible, but the purchase is an accomplished fact. The false teachers were purchased by the despotes, the sovereign Lord and Master. The false teacher masquerades as a servant of Christ, and is even given access to God’s people (for a time) but by their false teachings they abuse the privilege given to them and deny His right to rule. In contrast, the true teacher wishes only to communicate the intentions of the one who sent him.

In our own day, an Ambassador would have a similar role in world affairs. His job, when representing a country such as the United States, is to first seek to understand the mind, heart and will of the President, and then go to foreign lands to speak on his behalf. To have this great privilege and then speak his own mind and not the President’s is a rebellious betrayal that could do much harm in world affairs and would incur swift and harsh judgment when this becomes known. That is a good picture of what is being referred to here.

Dr. Wayne Grudem sums up his commentary on this verse in this way: “the text means not that Christ had redeemed these false prophets, but simply that they were rebellious Jewish people (or church attenders in the same position as rebellious Jews) who were rightly owned by God because they had been bought out of the land of Egypt (or their forefathers had), but they were ungrateful to him. Christ’s specific redemptive work on the cross is not in view in this verse.” (Systematic Theology, p. 600). I would certainly agree.

When we take the time to study both the words and the context in which we find them, the meaning of 2 Peter 2:1 becomes clear. The verse in no way negates what other scriptures make clear. Jesus saves His people from their sins (Matt 1:21) redeeming them out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Rev 5:9), thereby gathering into one, the children of God scattered abroad (John 11:52).

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