The Empty Promise of Heresy
Topic: Expository Passage: 2 Peter 2:17-22
(Read Text) In 2006, when I first started at Inter-City, we brought a group of teens to Apple Valley to help spread the word about Life Point Baptist Church as it was just getting started. The teens worked hard all week, and as a reward for their hard work, we decided to do something fun. Since we were a group of Michiganders in SoCal, the girls were determined to see Hollywood Blvd.
They had seen all the glitz and glamor of the Oscars, and that’s what we assumed it would be. But when we got there and started walking around, we were sorely disappointed. It was crowded, dirty, and much smaller than we imagined. The scenes from T.V. made it look so glamorous, but reality popped that balloon.
I imagine we’ve all been there. Some advertisement looks extravagant and wonderful, and we build this great expectation. But the real thing disappoints. Similarly, our passage tells us that heresy and heretical teachers are doomed for the same disappointment. We see that today. False teachers look slick, they have professional advertising, and they know how to tug on our hearts. But their teaching never satisfies the way Christ does.
The same is true of every temptation to sin. Satan promises so much, but he never delivers on his promises. And Peter warns that he doesn’t just disappoint, he destroys our faith and our freedom and, in some cases, he leaves people doomed for God’s wrath.
So, this passage provides a necessary warning to be discerning primarily, when we hear spiritual teaching but, by extension, whenever Satan tempts us. And as we reflect today on the emptiness and consequences of Satan’s lies, I hope we will also see the goodness of the gospel and be challenged to hold fast to all that it teaches and requires, because God alone delivers on his promises and satisfies the heart. With this in mind, notice in vv. 17–19 that…
I. False doctrine delivers empty promises (vv. 17–19).
Big Promises: Right off the bat, Peter illustrates the empty promise of false teaching, and by extension, every temptation of Satan. He compares the false teachers to, “Wells without water (and), clouds carried by a tempest.”
With that first picture, imagine someone traveling across the desert on a hot day. He is exhausted, and he is out of water. He’s getting desperate when he spots a well or a spring. The sight gives him hope and excitement. But imagine his disappointment, when he gets to the well, and it is bone dry. It doesn’t deliver on its promise.
“Clouds carried by a tempest” also illustrates empty promise. It reminds me of how very often the mountains to our South are covered in dark clouds. The clouds seem to promise a big rain. But so often the dry desert winds break them apart, and all that promise turns out to be nothing. And Peter’s point is that false doctrine and false teachers bring similar disappointment.
Then vv. 18–19 describe 3 ways that false teachers deceive people through this sort of empty promises. First, “They speak great swelling words of emptiness.” Have you ever hit your thumb with a hammer? It swells up like a sausage, but your thumb hasn’t grown; it’s just swollen.
That’s how Peter describes the language of false teachers. They talk big, and they speak with incredible confidence. People think, “That sounds really impressive, and he certainly sounds like he believes it’s true. How could someone who speaks with such conviction possibly be wrong?” It’s very sad how many people are deceived simply by the conviction of a false teacher.
However, Peter notes that underneath these “great swelling words” was just emptiness. Their message was not true; therefore, no matter how appealing it sounded, it couldn’t produce spiritual life or any eternal good. Don’t let yourself be baited by big talk, impressive philosophical language, or pushy, confident salesmanship. Be discerning, and stay anchored to truth.
Then notice a 2nd hook that the false teachers use to catch their prey, “They allure…” Peter uses the same verb as v. 14 that is here translated as “allure.” It comes from the world of hunting and fishing. It’s as if the false teachers dangle a fat, juicy worm before their audience, and they hide the sharp hook running through the worm.
Here the bait is sexual perversion. Peter mentions “the lusts of the flesh” and “lewdness.” Peter already used the word translated lewdness in v. 7 to describe the vile perversion of Sodom. Similarly, we saw last week that the false teachers reveled in their immoral lusts and exploits.
As disgusting as all of it is, lust and other sexual temptations are clearly effective. Lots of people will flock to a teacher who promises that you can be spiritual while also indulging your flesh. Who doesn’t want to “Have their cake and eat it too”?
Sadly, many people have gained a following by being loose with holiness. Sadly, that’s even true of many popular evangelical leaders. They aren’t heretics, but they build a following in part by downplaying holiness.
For example, Mark Driscoll exploded onto the scene 15 years ago by being crass and crude in the pulpit. People loved his edgy speech. Similarly, about 10 years ago, Tullian Tchividjian sold a lot of books by teaching that any effort toward holiness is necessarily legalistic and hypocritical. Of course, lots of people were happy to dismiss confrontational preaching and to stop putting effort into holiness, even if it didn’t match Scripture.
Of course, recognize that Satan has plenty of other ways to dangle lust in front of our eyes. It’s startling how much damage he does year after year to people’s spiritual health, their marriages, and their families with sexual temptation. But I don’t care how appetizing the bate may be, there’s always a hook buried underneath. Resist, and do not be fooled.
Then v. 19 mentions a 3rd hook (read). The freedom the false teachers offered was almost certainly related to the sexual promiscuity of v. 18 as well as other types of unrestrained living. They told people, “You can be your own master. You can do whatever you want. You don’t have to worry about all those Bible commands and all that fuddy duddy conviction stuff. Just relax. Be free!”
This message has been popular in every age. So many people dismiss any discussion of holiness as legalism. Instead, they encourage people to just love Jesus and follow your heart, as if godliness can take whatever shape you want it to have.
It sounds great! Who doesn’t want to be rid of the struggle against the flesh? But Peter notes that there is a hook buried in this juicy worm also. Even while the false teachers promise freedom, they are themselves “slaves of corruption.”
In other words, what they think is freedom is actually slavery to sin. Thomas Schreiner is absolutely right when he says of this verse, “(People) who cannot look at a woman without contemplating adultery and have hearts exercised and trained in greed are truly slaves.”
We see this all the time in people around us and often in our own hearts. Yes, chasing your sinful passions is often exhilarating in the moment, but it doesn’t produce lasting joy. And when you chase a passion long enough, it begins to control you, and it steals more joy than it produces.
For example, I guarantee that a healthy marriage will bring you more joy than any sexual fling. Yet how many people are so blinded by lust that they chase the momentary pleasure of adultery and lose something much more precious. The same goes for alcoholism, drug abuse, and every other sinful habit. They create far more misery than joy.
So, why is the promise of freedom that undergirds so much false teaching just a ruse? Notice the proverb in v. 19b. No one is truly free; we are all slaves to something. “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness” (Rom 6:16)?
Again, everyone is a slave. The only question is, will your slavery lead to joy in the Lord and his eternal reward or emptiness today and judgment in eternity? Maybe there is someone here who is hesitant to repent of your sin and receive Christ as Savior, because you like being your own master. You are scared of what Jesus will require if you submit your life to him.
I hope you will see that you are not truly free. Jesus said, “Most assuredly I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). You may think you are making your own decisions, but sin and self are blinding you to a better joy and eternal reward. It’s not worth it. Come to Christ and repent.
And if you are saved, don’t buy Satan’s lie of freedom in sin. No, the only true freedom is found in Christ. Jesus promised, “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Hold fast to him and to the wisdom and holiness of his Word.
In particular, pursue spiritual health and maturity, because the best defense against Satan’s deception is a growing faith. Notice in v. 18b that the false teachers prey on, “The ones…” There is a textual variant here. I think the better reading in context is the one in the footnote, “Those who are barely escaping…” The idea is that the false teachers prey on young and immature believers who aren’t firmly grounded in the faith.
Just like a pack of wolves targets the weakest members of a herd—the young or the injured—the false teachers target the vulnerable members of the church, whom they can deceive into believing a lie. So, don’t be content to remain a spiritual infant. Grow a strong biblical and theological foundation and walk in Christ every day. The healthier and stronger you are, the less vulnerable you will be to Satan’s lies.
In sum, the false teachers promised so much, but it all proved to be nothing more than a dry well and empty clouds. Even worse, it led to slavery and destruction. False teaching has the potential of bringing terrible damage to God’s church. As a result, v. 17 ends with the ominous warning, “For whom…” God will judge these false teachers by condemning them to the darkest pit of hell. Then vv. 20–22 develop this reality by warning…
II. False doctrine produces divine judgment (vv. 20–22).
This is another instance where God’s sovereign promises rub against human responsibility and our limited knowledge of God’s purpose.
Specifically, Peter uses lots of language in vv. 20–21 that is normally reserved for genuine Christians. In fact, Peter uses much of the same language he used in 1:3–4 to describe genuine conversion.
Both passages mention “escaping the corruption of the world.” Both ground the Christian experience in “the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” As well, v. 21 mentions the “way of righteousness,” and the NT often describes the gospel as “the way.”
So, it’s clear that the false teachers had at one point professed to believe the gospel and had shown strong evidences of conversion. However, they had since dramatically shifted course. Verse 20 states they had become “entangled” in the “pollutions of the world.” Not just that, worldly pollution had “overcome” them. You could also say, “defeated them.”
We’re not talking about minor spiritual setbacks. Peter describes utter defeat. Verse 21 says they have “turn(ed) from the holy commandment,” meaning the gospel and its ethical demands. They had rejected the very core of what it means to be a Christian both theologically and practically.
So, I want to emphasize that it’s not as if these guys merely had a difficult sin habit they couldn’t kick. It’s not like they really wanted to change, but they were struggling to do so. No, they had willfully rejected the gospel and the new life required of Christians.
I’m emphasizing this for those of you with a tender conscience, because I don’t want to encourage the wrong kind of doubt. Doug Moo rightly points out in his commentary, “The very fact that someone is worried about having committed the unpardonable sin shows that he or she has not. Such concern and desire to believe suggests that the Holy Spirit, far from abandoning this person, is still at work in his or her life.”
That’s very well said. Conviction is solid evidence of the Spirit’s work and should give us assurance. But the false teachers had no such conviction. Instead, they boasted in their sin.
As a result, notice the grave warning that ends v. 20, “The latter end…” In light of how v. 20a describes their supposed conversion to Christ, the “latter end” is pretty clearly the final judgment of God; whereas, the “beginning” has to be the judgment they faced prior to professing faith in Christ.
So, Peter says that by accepting and then rejecting the gospel, they faced a worse judgment than if they had never claimed to receive Christ at all.
And v. 21 confirms that this is exactly what Peter means (read). I don’t think there’s any way you can read this verse as simply warning against a loss of reward. I say that because the worst seat in heaven is far better than the best seat in hell.
No, Peter says those who know the truth have a greater responsibility, and if someone knows the gospel and comes near to all the blessings of the gospel and then rejects it, they will face a worse judgment than the ignorant pagan.
So, is Peter saying that they lost their salvation? That can’t be what Peter means, because notice the promise of 2:9. God will preserve the elect and judge the ungodly.
Therefore, we must understand all the language in v. 20 about conversion as coming from a human perspective. To Peter and others, it appeared that the false teachers had been converted, but looks can be deceiving. A couple of weeks ago, we saw that Lot is a perfect example of this reality.
But in time the false teachers proved that their conversion was not genuine. It was an outward show that was not reflected in their hearts. It’s not that they lost their salvation; it’s that they never were truly saved, and in time their true nature revealed itself.
And notice that v. 22 confirms that this is exactly what Peter means (read). Peter recites 2 proverbs that both make the same point, though in a rather disgusting way. Vomit is disgusting, right? Every parent has had a kid throw up all over their clothes, and it’s gross. Well, Peter points out that rather than being disgusted by their vomit, dogs eat it. Gross!
The 2nd proverb is similarly disgusting. We had pigs on the farm, when I was a kid, and it was something to watch them when we would get a big summer rain. They would roll around in their own sloppy manure and just have a blast. Then they’d lay down and sleep in the smelly muck.
The question is why do dogs eat their own vomit and pigs wallow in their own manure? The simple answer is that it’s their nature to do so. They aren’t forced to do these things; they do them instinctually.
And Peter’s point is that when the false teachers returned to all of the ungodly practices of their pre-conversion state, it wasn’t that they lost their salvation. No, their true nature came out. They may have been cleaned up for a time, like a pig that gets washed before the county fair. However, washing a pig doesn’t make it a cat. It’s still a pig, and if he sees some mud on a hot day, he’s going to jump in, because that’s what pigs do.
Similarly, the false teachers had cleaned up the outside for a time, but their hearts were never transformed. In time, that became apparent through their rebellion and sensuality.
So, Peter closes the chapter with a damning indictment on the false teachers. Their conduct proved that they had never truly been saved; therefore, v. 21 warns that they will face a severe judgment, when they stand before the Lord. Yes, these guys could make quite the sales presentation. Their style of Christianity sounded so sensible and appealing to immature believers. But the end was the most severe form of God’s condemnation.
What does all of this mean for us? First and foremost it means that you must not let yourself be deceived by Satan’s devices. No matter how good another gospel or another ethic may sound, if it does not match what the Scriptures teach, it’s wrong.
And whatever immediate benefits and pleasures it may offer, none of them are worth the cost. Sin enslaves and blinds us in this life, and it leads to God’s judgment in the next. So, when Satan hangs that bait in front of you, always remember that it’s a dry well and an empty cloud.
As a result, a second important application is to hold fast to the gospel and seek your satisfaction and joy in the Lord. “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish; You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry. But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all Your works” (Ps 73:25–28).
This means that you go after the Lord through a commitment to Bible study, prayer, life in the church, and obedience to his will. It means that you live all of your life in the conscious presence of the Lord and in conscious dependence on the gospel.
And praise the Lord that we can do so knowing that God will be faithful to his every promise. “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations.” He will not lose any of his own. So, walk in him and trust in him.