(If you’ve missed the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.) As we continue to think about 2 Peter 3:9, I’d like to move into chapter 2 and consider how Peter’s argument there supports our interpretation of 3:9.
(As a reminder, 2 Peter 3:9 reads, 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. Our contention is that this does not refer to a divine desire for all people without exception to be saved, but rather is a specific statement about the elect.)
As we saw last time, Peter uses the 1st chapter to exhort believers to good works, as this serves as evidence of one’s genuine conversion. Toward the end of the chapter, in vv16ff, he encourages believers to pay close attention to the “prophetic word,” the Scriptures, reminding them that the Word is not composed of cleverly devised myths or man’s own prophecy, “but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
The purpose of chapter 1 becomes clearer once we read chapter 2. The two main points of chapter 1 – a) be assured of your election by bearing fruit, and b) stay close to the Word – perfectly setup the teaching in chapter 2 regarding false teachers. He warns in 2:1 that just as false prophets have come in the past, so there will be false teachers in the future. They will bring in destructive heresies. That is why it is so important for the believers to be sure of their election and to know the Word – so that they will not be caused to doubt their salvation due to the false teachings and so that they will not be led astray from the truth of the Word due to the false teachings.
It is important to note that from v1 on, Peter is speaking of future false teachers, not the false teachers of old. “There will be false teachers among you,” (v1). And yet, he says of them in v3, “their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” So he speaks of future false teachers with condemnation from long ago. What is the point? Their condemnation is sure. It’s not idle. It’s not asleep. It’s not being held in reserve just in case they don’t get saved. The thrust of the paragraph is that they will certainly be destroyed.
This is a big problem for those who understand 3:9 to communicate a universal intent to save: how to deal with the clash of tenses – future false teachers with certain condemnation from long ago. The classic way of dealing with this problem is to say that the condemnation from long ago represents God’s foreknowledge. That is, He knew from eternity past that they would bring condemnation upon themselves, so He went ahead and condemned them. That’s not how the text reads, but let’s pretend for a minute that it does. If God condemned them from long ago, in what sense does God will “that all individuals without exception should come to repentance,” as the universal interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9 suggests? If He has condemned them from long ago, based on His foreknowledge, which cannot be wrong, there is therefore no hope for their repentance. So the appeal to foreknowledge may help in 2:3, but it backfires with 3:9 and for that reason alone it should be rejected.
Peter has now spoken of two different groups, the elect and the false teachers. Vv4-10 are dedicated to establishing the certainty of the Lord’s rescuing “the godly from trials” – the elect from chapter 1 – and the certainty of the Lord’s destroying the unrighteous – the false teachers from chapter 2. Peter establishes this certainty by reminding the readers of God’s prior works of saving the godly and destroying the wicked. His point is that if God did those things in the past, then He will certainly save the godly believers and destroy the false teachers in the future. The words used of the false teachers’ destruction are chilling: He will “keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”
These references to certain destruction are starting to pile up. And yet, a universal understanding of 2 Peter 3:9 demands that “all” means “all humans without exception,” which would have to include the condemned false teachers. So to hold such an interpretation of 3:9, we would have to say, “God is not willing that any false teacher should perish, even though Peter wrote that God condemned them from long ago. Rather, God is willing that all false teachers should come to repentance, even though Peter wrote that they are being kept by God for destruction.”
When all the context, syntax, and lexical evidence is weighed, it becomes clear that 2 Peter 3:9 does not deny the idea of God’s intention to save the elect. Instead, the evidence affirms that. Christ has not returned because He is patient toward those He has chosen, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.