An Overview of Standard Viewpoints
There are a number of views on what it means that the "false teachers" were "bought" by the "Lord."
1 These views are summarized in Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003) under 2 Peter 2:1. He categorizes like so:
The buying is actual, but "nonsoteriological" (i.e., not relating to salvation). Schreiner accurately notes this was John Owen's view, who was a staunch advocate that Christ's atonement was only made for and applied to the elect (i.e. particular redemption/limited atonement), and so he cannot allow for the verse to be a reference to atonement. See Book IV, chapter V of Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ for his discussion where he attempts to argue for the conclusion of
a deliverance, by God’s dispensations towards them, from the blindness of Judaism or Paganism, by the knowledge of the gospel; whereby the Lord bought them to be servants to him, as their supreme head.
Even though Schriener holds a similar position on atonement as Owen, he is correct to reject this view on the passage when he states
The problem with this view is that the New Testament nowhere else uses the word for redemption [the contextual meaning of ἀγοράζω as buying a person] in association with Christ in a nonsoteriological sense.
The buying is actual and soteriological, but believers can commit apostasy and lose salvation. Schriener does not elaborate on this view at this point, but saves the discussion for 2 Pet 2:22, where he states:
What do these verses [all of chapter 2, but specifically v.17-22] say about apostasy? Can a genuine believer forsake his or her salvation? We can certainly see why most commentators draw such a conclusion after reading these verses in 2 Peter, for they are not merely a warning about apostasy but reflect on those who have abandoned the church, who were previously members of it. ... Perseverance is the mark of genuineness, as Peter taught throughout the letter. Only those who continue to live a life of godliness will receive the reward of eternal life (1:5–11). Those who teach that genuine Christians can and do apostatize are taking these verses seriously, and sometimes believers who deny such a possibility brush them off without serious reflection.
While Schriener sees the apostate view as one that takes the "verses seriously," he (I think rightly) rejects it:
Nevertheless, I think it is a mistake to conclude that genuine believers can apostatize. The God who calls believers will see to it that they will reach their destination, participation in the divine nature (see the comment on 2 Pet 1:3). Furthermore, we saw in 1 Pet 1:5, from the same author (see the commentary there), that God guards believers so that they will certainly [emphasis his], not probably, obtain eschatological salvation. Peter did not contradict himself, teaching in one place that believers can fall away and in another that they cannot.
The buying is actual and soteriological, but the application of the purchase is still potential, based upon true belief. This is the standard unlimited atonement view of those that believe that true believers cannot become apostate. Schriener believes this view has issues because it
seems to say that eschatological judgment will be the destiny of those who were bought by the Lord, who were members of the church, who, apparently, acknowledged Jesus Christ at some point as their Lord and Savior. The verse does not refer to people in general who are the potential beneficiaries of Christ’s death [emphasis his].
So he sees issues (rightly, I think) with the actuality of the purchase only ending up being potential in the acquiring of what was purchased.
The buying is phenomenological language (i.e. by appearance), not actual. This is Schriener's view:
I would suggest that Peter used phenomenological language. In other words, he described the false teachers as believers because they made a profession of faith and gave every appearance initially of being genuine believers. Peter did not refer to those who had been outside the community of faith but to those who were part of the church and perhaps even leaders among God’s people. Their denial of Jesus Christ reveals that they did not truly belong to God, even though they professed faith. Peter said that they were bought by Jesus Christ, in the sense that they gave every indication initially of genuine faith."
But Schriener's phenomenological view has two serious flaws. First, he builds it upon the phenomenology of the apparent "Christian" walk the false teachers had in looking like real Christians in the later verses; yet the "buying" of them is not something observable, that is, Peter cannot be calling on any observable phenomenon in that transaction to build his statement upon. But second, and the more fatal flaw, is that the denial of their own buying by the Lord is the chief "destructive heresy" that Peter says will bring their "swift destruction." That is, the purchase must be something actual that they, in their false ways, are denying. If they were denying something that did not occur, then one could hardly condemn them for being "false" or "heretical" for that denial.
As you can see from my comments above either in agreeing with Schriener, or in opposition with his view, each of those views has issues reconciling the verse in my opinion. Before I get to my view, which is not one that Schriener covered, let's discuss the passage itself further.
Context of 2 Peter 2:1
Given the meaning of ἀγοράζω as an exchange of one thing for another in a purchase arrangement (as in note #1 below) and that purchase being denied as a basis for the chief condemnation of the false teachers in 2 Pet 2:1 (as I noted in my opposition to Schriener's view in point #4 above), Peter must be making a factual statement that some actual purchase of these false teachers occurred.
The word ἀγοράζω is not used otherwise in Peter's writings.
2 The clear contexts where it is used of Christ's work are in Paul's writing (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23) and John's (Rev 5:9, 14:3). The composition of Revelation is likely after Peter's writing. However, 1 Corinthians is one of Paul's earliest epistles (ca. AD 53-54), also generally considered genuinely Pauline by even the most critical scholars), and the book of 2 Peter (if authored by Peter, as I hold, is ca. mid to late AD 60s) itself declares that Peter is familiar with some of Paul's writings (2 Pet 3:15-16).
3 So there is circumstantial cause to see Peter possibly utilizing the same language as Paul from 1 Corinthians to refer to this purchase transaction that theologically is known as the atonement (of course Peter could have simply used the term himself, based on redemption language from the Hebrew bible [Old Testament]). The point here is that, theologically, the book of 2nd Peter in historical context may be drawing its theology from almost all of what is now termed both the Old and New Testaments, with just a few exceptions of later writings.
Peter also does not use the related ἐξαγοράζω (exagorazō), also used by Paul of Christ's redemption from the curse (Gal 3:13) and the Law (Gal 4:5).
What is clear, as Schriener also had noted in objection to John Owen's view, is that the terms, when used of God/Christ purchasing something in the New Testament, always refer elsewhere to the soteriological work of purchasing people from something and to God/Christ.
There is no reason to see Peter using it differently than Paul or John here:
- Peter sees himself as one purchased, a "bondservant ... of Jesus Christ" (2 Pet 1:1a). There, δοῦλος (doulos) refers to the purchased state of a slave, hence "bondservant."
- Peter sees himself in unity with those that acknowledge this relationship by faith, his primary audience of "those who have obtained like precious faith" (2 Pet 1:1b).
- Peter sees the faithful as having "all things that pertain to life and godliness" (2 Pet 1:3a) and "having escaped the corruption [φθορά, phthora; in this context probably meaning depravity, but otherwise means destruction or decay, so in this case, moral decay] that is in the world through lust" (2 Pet 1:4b). This is the grounds for the believers holy behavior (2 Pet 1:5ff).
- Peter sees, in contrast, these false teachers that have denied their purchase (denied being owned by God/Christ) are "slaves [δοῦλος] of corruption [φθορά]" (2 Pet 2:19). By denying their purchase by God, they are not liberated, but in bondage to that corruption. And so they "will utterly perish in their own corruption [φθορά], and will receive the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet 2:12b-13a).
So within the context of 2 Peter, Peter is using other slave language that goes along with the idea of a master (δεσπότης) as one who has purchased (ἀγοράζω) another person, and therefore has certain expectations of that one whom he has ownership and authority over.
We find the Owner's expectations further articulated in both positive (calling for holiness) and negative (anticipating eternal judgment/destruction) ways in 2 Peter:
- Positive: "giving all diligence to add ... even more diligent to make your call and election sure" (1:5-10)
- Negative: "destructive ways ... made to be caught and destroyed" (2:2-12)
- Positive/Negative: "the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment" (2:9)
- Negative: "the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men" (3:7)
- Positive: "what manner of person ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness" (3:11)
- Positive: "be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless" (3:14)
- Negative: "untaught and unstable people twist [Paul's—yes, not Peter's specifically—writings, and 'the rest of Scriptures'] to their own destruction"
What Peter makes clear throughout the epistle is that the Owner has a right to demand what He will (holiness, godliness, etc.) and a right to judge those that do not meet His requirements. This indicates that both believers and unbelievers, saved and unsaved, are under His ownership, even if the latter do not recognize it.
To summarize thus far, every indication in the text of Peter shows that he means God/Christ made an actual, soteriological purchase transaction (of which Scripture only recognizes the atonement as such) of the false teachers, and thereby as His bondservants, they should recognize and embrace that fact, living holy lives because of it (as he calls the faithful to do as well); but those that do not recognize/embrace (unbelievers) it will face eternal judgment for it, and those true believers, "beloved," that get caught up into the lies of those that do not recognize/embrace it will "fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked" (2 Pet 3:17). Believers can still fall to temptation if they are not seeking to walk godly (2 Pet 2:9), not diligent in pursuit of that, thus being made "shortsighted, even to blindness, and [having] forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins" (2 Pet 1:9).
So if the atonement, the purchase of redemption, has actually been made for these false teachers that are evidently unbelievers (by their denial of the purchase), how is it that they end up in eternal judgment?
As I said above, I do not entirely agree with any of the four views Schriener gave. That is because my view of atonement differs from many modern scholars (meshing better with some of the early church fathers). So a fifth view would be:
- The buying is actual and soteriological, and the redemptive result will be their resurrection from the penalty of sin, which is death. In denying their purchase, they deny Christ's work to redeem them from the penalty. When they could have been made "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4), having "an entrance ... supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet 1:11; notice that the entrance into this kingdom is yet future for the believer in Peter's mind; other Scripture would indicate that the kingdom entrance comes after belief [Act 14:22], but is predicated on belief [Mt 18:3 et al.], being born of water and Spirit [Jn 3:5]), they instead find they are facing destruction.
This contrast of delayed entrance into the kingdom vs. destruction comes after the resurrection, when the unjust are resurrected to condemnation (Act 24:15, Jn 5:29) and face the second death of casting in the lake of fire (having been freed by Christ from the first, physical death) because of their unrighteousness, while the just are resurrected to eternal life (also Act 24:15, Jn 5:29, along with other passages, such as Jn 2:25), and enter freely the gates of the kingdom capital, New Jerusalem (Rev 21:27, 22:14). Notice that Peter himself speaks of the burning destruction of the heavens and earth (2 Pet 3:10-12), which fire on "the day of judgment" is tied as well to the "perdition of ungodly men" (2 Pet 3:7), as the fire is part of their "punishment for the day of judgment" (2 Pet 2:9).
God restrains judging the earth at this time because He is "longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet 3:8). In context, that "us" refers to the "beloved," of which some still need to repent (become believers) and leave their ungodliness, for in context, the perishing refers back to the judgment of the ungodly in v.7. So God gives time for those that will yet come to accept the Lord who bought them, while reserving those that deny that purchase to their judgment for denying that God made such a purchase of them.
The false teachers are bought, just as all humanity was, and so will be redeemed from death by the resurrection that Christ has purchased. Those that accept it and believe will find eternal life, those that deny it and disbelieve will find eternal judgment. Both outcomes by the decree of the One Who bought them all, having rights of ownership to reward or punish as He sees fit.
1 The "bought" is an aorist active singular masculine participle form of the verb ἀγοράζω (agorazō), making it the noun ἀγοράσαντα (agorasanta), and hence translated "who bought." The verb has the idea of acquiring something in exchange for something (usually money).
It should be understood that the word translated "Lord" here is not the typical κύριος (kurios), but the accusative form of δεσπότης (despotas), which has a slightly stronger idea of legal control and ownership of persons than κύριος, which is more generally legal control of property. Both carry an idea of authority. The use of the term δεσπότης is not clear cut that it refers to Jesus Christ, as it generally is used of God (the Father, in my Trinitarian view), with a clear contrast of use in Jude 4. But even if it is God the Father, it seems unarguable that the purchase He made was itself via the transaction of Christ on the cross, which is really the only "purchase" by God in Scripture.
For the above info, see the entries for the Greek words in William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
2 I hold a view that the apostle Peter is the one who wrote 1st and 2nd Peter, and that the text is inspired by God. These presuppositions are not defended here.
3 The direct context of the statement on the familiarity with Paul's writings does not itself indicate 1 Corinthians is a candidate (see my answer to this question here). But that does not mean Peter is only familiar with Paul's writings that might be directly tied to the context of 2 Pet 3:15-16. And even here, the "purchase" language does still deal with "salvation" (which is a topic of the direct context there, per v.15).