Over the past several months, I have been teaching through 2 Peter. This past Sunday morning, I arrived at the concluding verses of chapter two. Verses 20-21 are troublesome verses for many believers, because they seem to teach that a believer can lose his or her salvation. The passage reads, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them” (NASB).
I explained that, in the context of the passage, Peter is talking about the false teachers and their followers whom he has been discussing throughout the chapter. Peter was explaining that they had a complete understanding of the Gospel and had even cleaned up their lives, but that they were not genuine believers. Consequently, when they fall back into their old patterns of their sinful lives, they were even greater slaves of sin than they were previously.
Peter says they have come to a knowledge of the Word of God. They have heard the gospel. They have heard the proclamation of deliverance of sin and newness of life. They have professed to have laid hold of it for themselves. They have cleaned up their lives externally so that there is a certain attractiveness to them. In one sense they have escaped the defilements of the world because they have come to the knowledge of the gospel, the true knowledge of the gospel. In fact, they know it so well that they are able to give it forth. But they are not true believers.
Jesus explained that no true believer can ever lose his salvation, when He said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). In other words, believers receive eternal life (in contrast to eternal death) and no person or being—including Satan himself—is able to remove one of God’s children from His hand.
In the “Bread of Life” discourse, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to Me” and “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all He has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37, 39). So all those who are the elect of God will come to Christ and He will lose none of them to anyone or anything else.
Paul expanded on this thought with these words: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 38-39). Paul is not speaking in the passage of a generic, general love of mankind, but of God’s special love for His elect (cf. Romans 8:28-34), so the clear idea is that a believer’s salvation is assured and cannot be lost.
But despite all of this clear evidence from the Scriptures of the eternal security of the believer, there are, admittedly, passages in the Bible (such as 2 Peter 2:20-21) which seem to teach that a Christian can lose his or her salvation. Another is Hebrews 6:4-6, which reads, “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” Once again, if someone does not understand the context of what the writer of Hebrews is explaining, it would seem to teach that believers can fall away and return to an unsaved state.
The book of Hebrews was written to those who were coming out of Judaism and beginning to follow Jesus as their Messiah. When they did that, there was a great deal of persecution that began to come down upon them. They were excommunicated from the synagogue, rejected by their families, and cut off from virtually all aspects of social life, including their work and business life. Consequently, some of those who were sort of “tagging along” with what initially seemed to be a wonderful way of life—who had adopted the patterns of Christianity, but did not have the reality of it—suddenly found themselves suffering for the name of Christ. So, many of them decided that it would be easier if they went back to the old ways of Judaism. Life would certainly become much more tolerable for them if they did that. So the writer of Hebrews explains that to leave behind the truth of the Gospel and all that they had experienced of Christ would result in their eternal damnation.
The words used in this passage indicate that their salvation was not genuine. “Tasted” refers to a sampling food for the purpose of examining it, not the full consumption of it. The word translated “partakers” refers to companionship or association with, rather than possession or being indwelled by Him. There are many people today attending churches all over our land who are associated with the Holy Spirit, but do not truly possess Him.
So this passage is not talking about believers losing their salvation, but rather those who associate themselves with Christianity, but are not genuinely saved. And then, for whatever reason, if they decide to turn their back on the truth and reject it, the writer says they cannot be renewed to repentance. Why not? Because they heard the truth, understood it, and experienced the beneficial effects of the Holy Spirit, yet willfully chose to reject all of that revelation and walk away.
After explaining 2 Peter 2:20-21, as well as this passage, I concluded teaching the class and most people went their way. However, one class member spoke to me about the lesson and asked, “So based on all those passages that deal with people who are deceived into thinking they are believers but really aren’t, how do I know that I’m a genuine Christian?”
My response was, “The internal witness of the Holy Spirit, and the fruit of obedience in your life. Evaluate your motives for doing the things you do. Do you do them to look good to other people, or do you do them in order to bring glory to God? Anyone can clean up their life and look good to others, but the real evidence is the driving passion of your life. Is it to glorify God or to glorify yourself?”
What do I base that answer upon? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus twice said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, 20). That is the way to identify a false teacher and that is the way to examine your own life regarding the genuineness of salvation. What is the evidence of true faith? It is the fruit of righteousness in your life.
In his first epistle, John explains in great detail what the evidence of genuine belief will be. He talks about practicing the truth, walking in the Light, loving and fellowshipping with other believers, confessing sin, not loving the world, avoiding sin, and sharing material blessings with others. He then comes to 1 John 5:2-5 and he wraps it up with these words: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
So who are the true Christians? They are those who love other believers, love the Lord, and obey His commandments. As they obey God’s commandments, they find that they are not a burden, but rather there is great joy in their obedience. And they have victory over the world and sin through their faith in Jesus Christ.
Those are the marks of a genuine believer. Are you one?