2 Peter 3:9, without doubt, is the single most popular verse used by Arminians/synergists to dismiss the biblical doctrine of election, bar none. The meaning of the verse is simply assumed, and because of this, no time is taken to study it, which is the very hallmark of tradition. I have to admit that I made this exact assumption for the first couple of decades of my Christian life, even as a pastor. I was a synergist and the synergistic interpretation seemed obviously correct to me. Because of this, I saw no need to study the text in order to examine my traditions. In this regard, it’s been well said, “those most enslaved to tradition are those who think they do not have any.”
The Arminian/Synergist Interpretation
Roger E. Olson (PhD, Rice University) is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He self identifies as an Arminian. Insisting that 1 Timothy 2:3-4 teaches much the same truth as 2 Peter 3:9, Olson writes these words,
“Above all Arminians insist that God is a good and loving God, who truly desires the salvation of all people. Note 1 Timothy 2:3–4: “This is good, and pleases God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”; and 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Arminians regard these and similar passages of Scripture as clearly and unequivocally pointing to God’s universal desire for salvation of every person.” 1
But is this interpretation correct? To answer this question, let us begin by reading the verse in its context, beginning with the first portion of the chapter:
2 Peter 3:1-9 – “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Exegesis of the Text
The first thing we notice is that the subject of the passage is not salvation but the second coming of Christ. Peter is explaining the reason for the delay in Christ’s second coming. He is still coming and will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. (v. 10) The second thing to notice is that the verse in question (v.9) speaks of the wishing or willing of God (depending on the translation utilized). “God is not willing” for something to happen.
Theologians have long recognized that there are three ways in which the will of God is spoken of in Scripture.
There is what is called the Sovereign Decretive Will, sometimes referred to as the Sovereign efficacious will. This refers to the will by which God brings to pass whatsoever He decrees. This is something that always happens. Nothing can thwart this will (Isa 46:9-11). This will is also known as the secret will of God because it is hidden to us until it comes to pass in the course of time.
Secondly, there is the Preceptive Will of God. This is God’s will revealed in His law, commandments or precepts. As the course of human history reveals, people have the power to break these commandments and do so every day. It is important to state that although men have the power to break these precepts, they do not have the right to do so. His creatures are under obligation to obey all His commandments and will face His judgment for not doing so.
Thirdly, we have God’s Will of Disposition. Dr. R. C. Sproul states, “This will describes God’s attitude. It defines what is pleasing to Him. For example, God takes no delight in the death of the wicked, yet He most surely wills or decrees the death of the wicked. God’s ultimate delight is in His own holiness and righteousness. When He judges the world, He delights in the vindication of His own righteousness and justice, yet He is not gleeful in a vindictive sense toward those who receive His judgment. God is pleased when we find our pleasure in obedience. He is sorely displeased when we are disobedient.”2
There are many in the Reformed community who look at 2 Peter 3:9 and feel that what we have here is God expressing His will of disposition. They believe the text to be saying that God is not wishing or desiring to see any human being perish (in one sense), even though that is exactly what will happen if a person does not come to repentance. The fact that people perish is not something that makes God happy. And yet, to uphold His holiness and justice, He must punish rebellious sinners by sending them to an eternity in hell. John Frame expresses this view as he writes, “God’s will is sometimes thwarted because he wills it to be, because he has given one of his desires precedence over another.” And again, “God does not intend to bring about everything he values, but he never fails to bring about what he intends.”3
A lot could be said for this view of the text and I have many Reformed friends who hold to it. It does seem to solve many problems. However, I am convinced of a different view.
What follows is a lengthy quote by Dr. R.C. Sproul. He writes, “Let us apply these three possible definitions to the passage in 2 Peter. If we take the blanket statement, ‘God is not willing that any should perish,’ and apply the sovereign efficacious will to it, the conclusion is obvious. No one will perish. If God sovereignly decrees that no one should perish, and God is God, then certainly no one will ever perish. This would be a proof text not for Arminianism but for universalism. The text would then prove too much for Arminians.
Suppose we apply the definition of the preceptive will of God to this passage? Then the passage would mean that God does not allow anyone to perish. That is, he forbids the perishing of people. It is against his law. If people then went ahead and perished, God would have to punish them for perishing. His punishment for perishing would be more perishing. But how does one engage in more perishing? This definition will not work in this passage. It makes no sense.
The third alternative is that God takes no delight in the perishing of people. This squares with what the Bible says elsewhere about God’s disposition toward the lost. This definition could fit this passage. Peter may be saying here that God takes no delight in the perishing of anyone.
Though the third definition is possible and attractive to use in resolving this passage with what the Bible teaches about predestination, there is yet another factor to be considered. The text says more than simply that God is not willing that any perish. The whole clause is important: “but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”4
I find Dr. Sproul’s logic here convincing. So let’s ask a further question of the text, namely, Who are the “all” and who are the “us”? Are these references to all people everywhere on planet earth?
When we follow the pronouns of the passage the answer becomes immediately apparent. The people Peter is addressing are clearly identified. He speaks of the mockers as “they”, but everywhere else he speaks to his audience as “you” and the “beloved.” This is vitally important.
But surely “all” means “all,” right? Well usually, yes, but not always. This has to be determined by the context in which the words are found. When a school teacher is in a classroom and is about to start the class and asks the students, “Are we all here?”, he is not asking if everyone on planet Earth is in the classroom. Because of the context in which the question is framed, we understand that he is referring to all within a certain class or type; in this case, all the students in the class. To say that he is referring to all people on planet earth would be to grossly misinterpret the intended meaning of his question. So, the question in 2 Peter 3:9 is whether “all” refers to all human beings without exception, or whether it refers to everyone within a certain group. The context of 2 Peter 3:9 indicates that Peter is writing to a specific group of people and not to all of mankind. The audience is confirmed when Peter writes, “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved…” (2 Peter 3:1)
According to the first chapter in this epistle, this group had “received a faith of the same kind as ours” by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, NASB).
Can we be even more specific about who this group is? Indeed, yes, because if this is the second letter addressed to them, the first letter makes it clear who he is writing to. 1 Peter 1:1 begins this way, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect…”
As we read through the passage in 2 Peter 3, there is nothing that would indicate that the audience changes in any way. The same group is being addressed throughout. So Peter is writing to the elect in 2 Peter 3:8, 9 saying “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (emphasis mine)
I would agree with Dr. Sproul (and other scholars) who believe that the will of God spoken of here is not God’s will of disposition but His Sovereign decretive will. God is not willing that any should perish. He will not allow it to happen. Allowing for this premise then, if the “any” or “all” here refers to everyone in human history, the verse would prove universalism rather than Christianity. Universalism is the false doctrine that teaches that everyone will in the end be saved, with no one going to hell.
As has been established, if God is not willing (in His decretive Sovereign will) that any person perish; then what? No one would ever perish! Yet, in context, as Dr. James White asserts, “Peter limits his use of ‘all’ and ‘any’ to a specific audience, ‘you.’”5 In other words, the “any” that God wills not to perish is limited to the same group he is writing to, the elect; and the “all” that are to come to repentance is the very same group.
This interpretation makes total sense of the passage. Christ’s second coming has been delayed so that all the elect can be gathered in. The elect are not justified by election, but by putting their faith in Christ. If a person is to be saved they must come to Christ in repentance and faith. The doctrine of Sovereign Election simply explains who will do so. The elect will. Jesus assured us of this when He said, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me” (John 6:37) and is confirmed by the testimony of Luke in Acts 13:48 when he observed that “… all who were appointed to eternal life believed.” All who had the appointment, made the appointment.
2 Peter Chapter 3 teaches us that the reason Christ has not yet returned is because there are more of His elect to come into the fold. That is why He did not return yesterday. At this point in time, not all of the elect have come to repentance and faith. Therefore, Christ has not yet returned to the Earth in power and glory. Christ’s second coming may seem to be delayed but God is being very longsuffering toward us (you, beloved) not willing that any should perish but that all come to repentance. Rather than denying election, 2 Peter 3:9, understood in its biblical context, is one of the strongest verses in favor of it. The Lord Jesus will return, but only after all His elect, beloved people have come to repentance.
- Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism electronic [Kindle] edition, p. 68
- R. C. Sproul Essential Truths of the Christian Faith Tyndale Elevate; Illustrated edition (1998)
- John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterean & Reformed, 2001), 113
- James White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and the Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free, Calvary Press; Revised edition (May 15, 2000)
- R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God, Tyndale Elevate (April 6, 2021)