On Sunday we spent a bit of time considering God’s plan to harden Pharaoh’s heart and then judge him for his obstinate refusal to let the people go. The passage has implications for our understanding of God’s control of human decisions. This subject is not only difficult to understand, but also is difficult to reconcile with other passages of Scripture that seem to uphold that God does not harden people or that He desires for all people to be saved.
In a blog series many moons ago, I worked through some of these passages seeking to explain them in their appropriate contexts. But it’s been a long time and I’m sure it would be helpful to revisit these things, especially as we’re working our way through Exodus, where we will be confronted on numerous occasions with the meticulous sovereignty of God.
2 Peter 3:9 is a verse that is frequently cited as being a difficulty for the notion that God hardens some sinners and elects others to salvation.
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.
A cursory reading of this verse, outside of its context, would seem to present a very different picture from passages like Exo 4:21-23 and Romans 9:6-26, which teach that God hardens some and draws others. Peter, here, seems to say the opposite – that God desires all people, not just some, to be saved.
But the key phrases in the previous sentence are “cursory reading” and “outside of its context.” When we look carefully at the verse in its context, the difficulty disappears altogether. It will take a while to develop this – more than one post – but if you’ll hang in there, you’ll most likely be able to understand how this works and you’ll also be able to help others who have questions about it.
Let’s consider first the immediate context of the verse. In a later post, we’ll look at the greater context of 2 Peter, including the first couple of chapters. Peter writes 3:9 as part of a response to skeptics who claim that the Lord is not going to return. He warns in vv1-3 that scoffers will come in the last days, and in v4 he gives the content of their scoffing:
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."
The argument of these scoffers is that Jesus must not be coming back since nothing has changed since the beginning of time. Peter’s first point in response is that these scoffers overlook the fact that God has already brought judgment once before in the form of the flood (3:5-7). His second point is that God does not mark time as we do – a thousand years is as a day and vice versa (3:8). In other words, it may seem to us like the Lord is slow to fulfill His promise to return, but that is only because of our relative experience of the passage of time.
His third point is crucial and is found in 3:9: 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’s essential that we keep in mind that this verse is answering an objection regarding the return of the Lord. The promise mentioned is the Lord’s promise to return for His bride. Peter is explaining why the Lord has not returned yet. He has not returned yet, “because he is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The Lord is patient – He is waiting to return – until “all” repent.
Those who contend that this verse refutes the idea that God chooses to harden some and to draw others hold that “all” means all people without exception. They would say that this verse indicates that God wants every single person to be saved.
But will the context allow us to understand “all” in this way, especially if we keep in mind that this is being given as a reason for the Lord’s waiting to return? Who is “all”? If “all” is all people without exception and if God is waiting to return until “all” repent, then we are forced to conclude that the Lord will never return because other Scriptures are clear that not all people come to repentance. In fact, 2 Peter alone contains numerous references to the certain judgment of the wicked (2:1, 3, 4-9, 12-13, 17, 21; 3:7, 10, 11-12, 16). It is not merely a possibility that some will not repent and therefore be judged. It is a certainty predicted in this very epistle. It is a certainty that some will not repent. Therefore, if Jesus is waiting to return until all people without exception repent, He will never return.
But that is clearly not Peter’s point. This section is intended to reassure the recipients that the Lord IS going to return. After all, Peter is refuting those who say that the Lord is not going to return. He’s going to return when “all” repent. It must be that “all” does not mean all people without exception.
And we can know that “all” doesn’t mean all people without exception based upon 3:9 itself. Consider the grammatical structure of the last half of the verse:
because he is patient toward you,
not wishing that any should perish,
but that all should reach repentance
The parallel phrases “not wishing that any should perish” and “but that all should reach repentance” both modify the clause, “He is patient toward you.” In other words, both of those phrases clarify or explain the preceding clause. “You” is the key word here for helping us to understand to whom Peter is referring. The Lord’s patience is not toward all people without exception, but toward a specific group, “you.” The “any” that He does not want to perish and the “all” that He wants to come to repentance are both contained in the “you” of the main clause. That’s the grammatical structure. The grammar of the text itself will not allow us to understand “all” to be all people without exception. Rather, it is “all” of the “you.”
So who is the “you”? The context tells us. We’ll look at that next time.