Thursday, July 30, 2009

...but what about 2 Peter 3:9?

It occurred to me last week after posting about John 3:16 that even though it is the most prominent proof-text used by opponents of the doctrines of grace, it is certainly not the only one. It seems to me that it would be a disservice to our church family for me to leave the impression that once we have a clear understanding of John 3:16, all arguments against God’s sovereignty in salvation have been vanquished. For this reason, I have decided to write a series of posts dealing with the other favorite texts of those who would (a) deny the reformed doctrine of election outright, or (b) assume a synergistic stance on the issue, that is, that God and man both equally initiate salvation.

(Before I proceed, let me define one term. I will be referring to those who deny the doctrine of election outright as Arminians. I realize that a classical Arminian is one who denies the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, but in modern usage, “Arminian” has come to be used as a label for those who deny the doctrine of election, regardless of their stance on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. I will use this label to save myself the trouble of typing “those who deny the doctrine of election outright” each time I wish to refer to this group.)

2 Peter 3:9 is among the most popular texts used to deny the doctrine of election: 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. It is thought by Arminians that this verse eliminates the possibility that God desires to save certain individuals whom He has chosen. Rather, they argue, God desires all individuals without exception to be saved and is patiently waiting for as many as possible to choose to repent. “All always means all.”

The arguments with which this interpretation is destroyed are so copious and varied that one blog post will simply not be sufficient. I will divide the arguments into three groups – semantic, contextual, and syntactical/logical – and will use as many posts as necessary to present them.

The biggest semantic (what the words mean) argument against the Arminian interpretation is simply that the blanket statement “all always means all” is horrible exegesis. Most biblical words have a range of meaning and the actual meaning of each occurrence must be determined by the context. “All” is no different. Looking up the word in an exhaustive concordance is enough to validate the fact that “all” does not always mean “all in existence.” Among other things, it can mean “all kinds” or “all in a certain group.” The context determines the meaning.

Conversely, I’ve heard Arminians accuse reformed people of believing that “all always means the elect.” I don’t know anyone who is reformed who believes such a thing. Rather, they would argue that the context must always determine the meaning of “all,” as with other biblical words that have a range of meaning.

Most of the arguments refuting an Arminian interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9 have centered on that word and its meaning as determined by the context. To be specific, the “all” in 3:9 cannot mean “all” in a universal sense – all people in existence – because the context will not allow it. These arguments are valid and strong and I will get to them in due course. But first, I’d like to show how one can reject the Arminian interpretation without ever leaving 3:9.

There are at least two features of the syntax of 3:9 that disallow the Arminian view. Syntax refers to how the words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs of a text work together to convey meaning. This is crucial to understanding how each part of a sentence is working together, and therefore, what the sentence means.

The second half of 3:9 – not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance – is one participial phrase that modifies the previous verb, is patient. This participial phrase is functioning as an adverb, telling why the Lord is patient.

Now, it is important to look closely at what is said about this patience. The Lord…is patient toward you Therefore, the second half of the verse – not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance – is not given as a reason for the Lord’s patience in general, i.e. his patience toward every living person. Rather, it is given as the reason for His patience toward the “you” in the text. The “all” is contained in the “you.” When I get to the contextual arguments, I will develop this further, but suffice to say here that this letter is not addressed to all mankind. The recipients are a group of individuals professing faith, among whom Peter assumes are some who have not yet come to faith, as indicated in 3:9 and 1:10.

The second syntactical argument involves the same phrase - not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. The participle wishing has a double predicate. It is explicit with the first predicate and implied with the second, so that it should be understood as, “not wishing that any should perish, but wishing that all should reach repentance.” This is where the syntax of the verse logically rules out an Arminian understanding. The Arminian position views “wishing” as a reference to God’s sovereign will. This interpretation would then mean that God is not sovereignly willing that any should perish, but is sovereignly willing that all should reach repentance. This puts the Arminian in a difficult spot. He is forced to argue one of two things: (1) God does not always accomplish His sovereign will, since some do perish and not all reach repentance; or (2) No one perishes and all reach repentance, which amounts to universal salvation.

You can see the difficulty with both options. The argument that God does not always accomplish His sovereign will cannot be taken seriously. The following references are but a fraction of the texts that categorically deny such a thought – Ps 33:11, 115:3; Isa 14:24-27, 46:9-10, 55:10-11; Dan 4:35; Eph 1:11. The other option, that none perish and all are saved, is equally ridiculous even if one only had to contend with the material in 2 Peter alone (1:10-11; 2:1, 3-10; 3:7). It simply cannot be that God sovereignly wills that none should perish but all should come to repentance. If He did, it would be so, but in light of the voluminous biblical teaching that it is not so, we can rest assured this is not His sovereign will.

The Arminian argument becomes even more preposterous if we look at it from another angle. 2 Peter 3:9 is written as an explanation for why the Lord has not yet returned (3:4). He has not returned because He is patient “toward you”, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Again, the interpretation forces the Arminian into one of two corners: (1) the Lord can never come back since lost people continue to be born and He is forced to wait for this never-ending trail of generations to come to repentance; or (2) Peter is lying about the nature of the Lord’s patience (i.e. that He wills that all mankind come to repentance), since His return will remove forever the opportunity for repentance among those unbelievers still alive on that last day.

I agree with the Arminian that “wishing” refers to God’s sovereign will, but I believe that the “you” and the “all” in 3:9 refer to the elect. I’ll make a contextual argument for that assertion next time.

I should point out that a popular argument in reformed circles is that “wishing” does not refer to God’s sovereign will, but to His revealed will, i.e. His moral requirement that all men repent and believe. While I believe this is far more likely than the completely untenable Arminian position, I do not think it makes sense in the context as an explanation for why the Lord is tarrying. In order for the Lord to return, there would have to be a change in His desire that none should perish and all should repent. If the typical reformed view is correct, then the Lord’s moral requirement for repentance must go away in order for Him to return, which would represent a change in His character.

In my view, the second half of 3:9 – [He is] not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance – only makes sense as a reason for the Lord’s tarrying if His patience is toward the elect and He is still accomplishing His sovereign will to save them. Once the elect are all saved, only then would His return not represent a failure of His patience.

Next time, we’ll look at the larger context of 2 Peter to see why the Arminian appeal to 2 Peter 3:9 is invalid.


Brian Jonson said...

Outstanding, Greg! I've read many explanations of this passage but none have been as comprehensive and conclusive as yours.

Charles said...

Hi Greg,

What about I Timothy 2:4? Do you believe that "desires" in this verse also reflects God's sovereign will?


Greg Birdwell said...

One prooftext at a time, my good man! 1 Tim 2:4 is next on the list. Let me ask your permission to hold off until then?