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populationQuestion: The Bible seems to teach Divine election very clearly, and yet 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not willing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. How do you explain this verse?

Thanks for your question. I have found two main ways this verse is dealt with by Reformed people; the first being my approach (shared by people such as Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. James White, and others); and another by such people as Dr. John Piper.

Without doubt, this is the single most popular verse used to dismiss the biblical doctrine of election, bar none. We usually assume the meaning of the verse without taking time to study it, which is the very hallmark of tradition.

In fact, traditions are so strong that many do not even feel the need to study the verse in context because they believe there is no need to do so. I have to admit that I did this for many years. Those most enslaved to tradition are those who think they do not have any.

First of all then, let us read the verse in its context.

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. 

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 do so very unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (v. 10).

The second thing to notice is the clear identity of the people he is addressing. He speaks of the mockers as “them”, but everywhere else he speaks to his audience as “you” and the “beloved.” This is very important because the assumption that is usually made is that the “you,” the “any” and the “all” of 2 Peter 3:9 refers to everyone on the planet (past, present, and future).

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.

For example, if a teacher asks his class of students, “Are all here?” he is not asking if everyone on the planet is present in the room, but rather he is referring to all the students enrolled in the class.

So, the question in 2 Peter 3:9 is whether “all” refers to all human beings without distinction, or whether it refers to everyone within a certain group.

The context indicates that Peter is writing to a specific group and not to all of mankind “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” 2 Peter 1:1. The audience is confirmed when Peter writes, “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.” (2 Peter 3:1)

Can we be even more specific? Yes, because if this is the second letter addressed to them, the first makes it clear who he is writing to. 1 Peter 1:1 – “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect” 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.” 

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). If God is not willing that any person perish, then what? No one would ever perish!

Yet, in context, the “any” that God wills not to perish must be 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. Christ’s second coming has been delayed so that all the elect can be gathered in. God is not willing that any of the elect should perish, but that all of them come to repentance.

Rather than denying election, the verse, understood in its biblical context, is one of the strongest verses in favor of it.

The second way to look at 2 Peter 3:9 is the way John Piper approaches it – which is found here.

I think Dr. Piper’s argument is terrific and gives great insight on a number of important points, but disagree that the passage (2 Peter 3:9) actually teaches what he says it does. The context of 2 Peter 3 shouts and screams that Peter, when speaking of “all”, is actually referring to all of the elect.

This article was written by John Samson and originally appeared on his blog: Effectual Grace. The original posting also includes a discussion thread that you may find edifying. It is reposted here with permission.