2 Peter 2:1 and the Atonement

Though I did not receive this question from the internet community, I thought it might be helpful to post it here (along with an answer) since it is frequently raised. The question pertains to the Reformed presentation of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement and the extent of said atonement as mentioned in 2 Peter 2:1. The passage reads:

But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.

Reformed theology confesses, in the words of the Canons of Dordrecht (2.8), that:

it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father…

In other words, for the Reformed, only the elect are redeemed by Christ for only the elect are the objects of Christ’s redemption according to God’s eternal plan. However, this seems to contradict Peter’s statement that false prophets and teachers are bought by the Lord and yet perish, indicating that the atonement is for more than just a particular people (the elect) and does not guarantee final salvation (contrary to the Reformed teaching concerning the “Perseverance of the Saints,” namely that all those for whom Jesus died are infallibly saved and kept by God’s grace). 2 Peter 2:1, therefore, would be the death knell to the Reformed understanding of what is popularly presented as a ‘limited atonement’.

However, several questions must be asked of the text before we surrender the aforementioned article of the Canons of Dordrecht. They are as follows:

1) Who was bought?
No one but false teachers. Even if this verse teaches that there were some who were effectually redeemed by Christ’s blood and fell away it does not teach that everyone in the entire history of the world was redeemed by Christ. So already this verse fails to teach a universal atonement even if it contradicts the teaching of the Canons of Dordrecht.

2) Who bought them?
The Lord, or despotes (in the original Greek), the master, lord, owner of His people. This word is not a term of affection or intimacy. Its meaning is closer to explaining the relationship between a master and slave than a Father and child. It does not necessarily speak to the atoning, or reconciling work of Christ nor is one required to read it in this fashion.

3) What were they bought with?

The text does not say nor does the context indicate anything in particular. In fact one must assume that Christ’s suffering and righteousness were the cost. However, Peter later compares these false teachers to the fallen angels, the world in days of Noah, and Balaam, of whom it is not indicated were ever redeemed from their sins or saved by Christ. Quite the opposite is true: we know that demons are not saved, the world perished in the time of Noah, and Balaam was not of the children of Israel.

4) What were they redeemed from?

The text does not say. So we should not assume that they were redeemed from the condemnation or power of sin. Indeed Peter says that they are yet “slaves of corruption” (vs. 19). They remain as dogs and sows (vs. 22). Thus they are not bought with the blood of Christ which ensures our salvation from sin (1 John 1:7), reconciliation (Ephesians 2:3) and sanctification (Hebrews 9:14). Indeed if, according to Peter, these false prophets will be destroyed, how can that be if by the blood of Jesus we are saved from God’s wrath? (Romans 5:9)

5) What were they redeemed unto?
I believe that vs. 20 provides the explanation of this verse: these false prophets escaped the pollutions of the world for a time. They were professors of Jesus and members of the church. Thus they had knowledge of Christ (similar to Hebrews 6:4-6) but never had a saving relationship with Him. “They went out from us but they were not of us” 1 John 2:19. Indeed, Jesus Himself declares that He never knew them in a redeeming way (Matthew 7:23).

Therefore this verse fails to provide a solid and irrefutable basis for rejecting the Reformed understanding of the atonement as summarized above.

Of course this post does not answer all the objections people have to the Reformed understanding of the extent of the atonement, but it does indicate that 2 Peter 2:1 cannot be used to militate against it. It also instructs us to take great care when we use scripture in our theological conversations so that we properly understand the intent of a verse or text before we proclaims its true meaning.

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2 thoughts on “2 Peter 2:1 and the Atonement

  1. What a wonderful article, your analysis is a blessing to me because it is so scripturally and contextually based……..Thank you, Don

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