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. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, "A dog returns to its own vomit," and, "A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire."This is describing a group of people who were in bondage to sin. Then there was a great change in their lives and they began living righteously. But then they fell back into sin even more heinous than what they were doing originally. The most striking question these verses raise is whether the "they" were ever Christians. There are three possibilities:
- They were Christians who fell back into a state of sin but did not cease being Christians.
- They were Christians who fell back into sin and ceased being Christians. (They lost their salvation.)
- They were non-Christians who became even more debased.
But we know that possibility 1 is wrong because the text says that "the last state has become worse for them than the first". In the beginning they were not Christians, but on their way to hell. If their end state was merely "a Christian in sin", this would still be a better state. So regardless of what their intermediate state was, we can conclusively say that their end state was non-Christian, going to hell.
Possibility two is a more plausible argument. But this would conflict with other Bible passages that seem to teach that God keeps His true followers from falling back into sin. For example, Romans 8 says that "these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified". In other words, the people God has chosen to save, He will completely save. He will not "drop" them part way through their rescue, somewhere between "justification" (being acquitted) and "glorification" (entering the full presence of Jesus in heaven).
When we start looking at related passages, the message of this passage becomes more clear. For example, you remember Peter's statement that "the last state has become worse for them than the first"? Peter actually got this from Jesus. In Matthew 12 (and Luke 11), Jesus said:
"Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came'; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first."Jesus is describing a man who has been under the overt control of Satan. But the man undergoes a reformation of sorts. From outward appearances, he's turned over a new leaf. The demon leaves--for a while. But the man has not been truly "regenerated" -- he has not experienced the new birth of John 3. We know this because of the word "unoccupied". He does not have the Spirit of God living in him, as is promised to all Christians. He does not have the new heart of flesh with the law of God written on it, as promised in Hebrews 8. He's still the same old rotten corpse with a new set of clothes. So when the demon goes "house-shopping" again, he finds this man's soul without a defender. He invites some other homeless demons to move into the vacant home with him. And the man's life becomes even more sin-dominated than before.
So, when we use Matthew 12 as a commentary on "the last state has become worse for them than the first", it begins to appear that Peter is describing people who have merely experienced a temporary, external reformation, not the permanent change of being regenerated by God. We find further evidence for this in Peter's own words about the dog who returns to his vomit and the pig who returns to the mud hole. When the dog had expelled the vomit, it had not ceased being a dog. When the pig was hosed off, it did not cease being a pig. Their core natures had not been changed. They had simply undergone a short-term improvement. When they returned to their vomit and mud, they were merely following their natural instincts.
There are two important lessons we can take away from this.
First, if you find yourself doing things you feel guilty about, attempting to reform yourself can be dangerous! Sure, you may find a way to wash off the mud of an external habit. But the core depravity that produced this habit will still be in your heart, and will reappear with time, in far more sinister and resistant forms.
Second, when Christians meet people who are sinful, we need to be careful to share the gospel with them, and not mere moralisms. If we simply urge them to clean the outside without first addressing the rottenness within, we can actually leave them in worse shape than they were before, with less chance of ever truly being saved.
Reformation without regeneration is dangerous!