“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. (21) 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 delivered to them. (22) 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.’”
The problems here are (1) the identity of the persons spoken of here, and (2) the true meaning of this seeming “loss-of-salvation” teaching.
Those involved in this first class condition are the (wayward) believing antagonists. This passage stands parallel to 2.15a, where they are said to have forsaken the right way and gone astray. Positionally, these are saved individuals as seen in 1.9 (“his purification from his former sins”), 2.1 (“bought”), and Peter’s regular use of “knowledge” (ejpignwsi") for true, salvific knowledge (1.2, 3, 8).
The message of this passage suggests that the final state (taV ejvscata = ultimate/final) of those involved is less desirable that the first.14 Provided that the first state means unsaved and the last state involves eschatology (as we hold), the text is problematic in that it appears to imply that a saved person can be worse off than one unsaved. Furthermore, the movement from the state of salvation toward a return to sin appears to reflect a loss of salvation.
It might be argued that those involved were never truly believers, but the salvific language in verse 20 is virtually undeniable. Another possibility, often unsurfaced, concerns the rhetoric of the writer. Driven by a passion to uphold the Apostolic faith delivered to him, Peter may be using every weapon in his arsenal to dissuade the antagonist from continuing in sin, and the reader from following after these false teachers. Although he is describing an actual return from a state of righteousness to a former state characterized by sin, he is not teaching a loss of salvation since the author clearly regards the antagonists as believers.
The antagonists are wayward believers who are deeply involved in licentiousness resulting from a subscription to false doctrine. Peter is employing the harshest language he knows to (1) perhaps convince the antagonists of their error, and (2) dissuade steadfast believers from following these false teachers.
14 The Greek word for “first” (tw`n prwvtwn) means “first,” not former or previous. The Greek language has a word that could have been employed to indicate former, but Peter chose not to use it. Furthermore, if a former position of upstanding Christian were in view, doesn’t it seem a bit obvious that a position of unfruitful unrighteousness leading toward destruction is worse than a fruitful position of esteem in the economy of God? Finally, the first state is likened in the text to “vomit” and “mire” (2.22), not accurate descriptions of the status of the saved.