Why 2 Peter 3:9 Doesn’t Refute Calvinism

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.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Alongside John 3:16, this is one of the most common proof texts I am presented with when someone tries to refute the doctrines of Calvinism. The argument appears compelling when the verse is not understood within its original context. The Socratic approach taken usually sounds something like this: “How can God only choose some when 2 Peter 3:9 points out that he wants all to reach repentance? Doesn’t God having two competing will contract Calvinism’s ideals? How can God contradict Himself? How can you believe in a god like that?”

While 2 Peter 3:9 seems like a near-perfect trump card for a Calvinism debate, with careful exegesis of the text, we see that it doesn’t negate Calvinism at all. Instead, it’s a beautiful scripture that speaks primarily to the patience of our Lord and the hope of salvation for His church.

I think it’s a mistake to get stuck and bogged down into a lengthy “will of God” discussion here. One only has to pay close attention to the context of 2 Peter and the true meaning shines forth. That’s not to say a “will of God” discussion isn’t valuable – it is! I’m only pointing out that in terms of reconciling 2 Peter 3:9 with the doctrines of grace (Calvinism), it’s probably overkill.

When studying any biblical text, understanding the context of a verse(s) helps bring about clarity to the message. This is especially true for New Testament epistles. Though they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they retain the personality, themes, and background of their author. Knowing and applying this reality adds depth and insight to any reading. Notwithstanding, it’s still easy to study the epistles in a chapter/verse vacuum and neglect that they were written to specific people, in a specific place, and with specific needs.

Perhaps this eisegetical, contextual neglect is an artifact of our bible-verse-on-a-coffee-cup Christian culture. We prop up a verse, like Jeremiah 29:11 for example, on billboards or signs and the text begins to absorb a host of new meanings and applications. Why? Because it’s presented alone and without context. We lose sight of the fact that the verse speaks directly to the Israelites and their Babylonian exile, and readers are left to subjectively make up their own meaning and application.

In the case of the university I attended, Jeremiah 29:11 was put up on ornamental tablets all over campus to suggest a divine promise that all students will have a blessed future. While the sentiment isn’t evil, its also not entirely honest to the text. The result is often uninformed Christians with misapplied understandings of church history, theology, and expectations of the Christian life.

I highly recommend devoting time to reading the epistles as a whole and not paying attention to the chapter and verse assignments. These divisions were not there in the original letters, and while they may be helpful for reference and attribution, they can be distractions from aggregate themes and message. 2 Peter is no different.

To rightly understand 2 Peter 3:9, we must remove it from the vacuum and call to attention the letter’s original audience. Who was Peter writing to when he made the statement about God desiring all to come to repentance? This contextual data is key to a right understanding. Stated in the greeting, Peter addresses his audience: “To those who obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). This letter is written to specifically to believers.

As we move into chapter 3, the recipient of the letter is reestablished to remove any question of what Peter means in verse 9. Peter writes, “This is the now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved” (2 Peter 3:1, emphasis added). Such an affectionate title is reserved only for the church, those in covenant relationship with the Lord. Then, he begins to address a concern held among the believers as to why the Lord had not yet returned. It’s at this point, we arrive at the paragraph containing our primary text of interest:

 

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. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:8-10, emphasis added).

 

Peter is explaining to the church that the Lord is patient towards them so that none whom the Lord has called will perish. Jesus isn’t just taking His time, He is waiting for all future generations of Christians to come to faith. How encouraging!

This text has nothing to do with God’s sentiment towards all mankind everywhere and for all time. Rather, it’s a beautiful demonstration of God’s love for His people and their assurance of salvation. Jesus will return when every single one of His sheep have been returned to the fold. Every moment that the Lord doesn’t return is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to His elect. For a moment, pause and reflect on how amazing God’s love is for His people. He is delaying the ushering in of His eternal kingdom, in spite of all the world’s injustices and evils, to ensure that not one of His beloved is lost. Praise to His glorious grace!

For completeness, I want to point out one other New Testament usage example of the Greek word “all” in our text. The word used in 2 Peter 3:9 is  “πάντας” – for us non-greek scholars, “pantas”. The Apostle Luke uses “pantas” in Luke 4:36 when he says, “they were all amazed…” He is referring to all those that saw Jesus heal a man with an unclean demon. Luke certainly doesn’t mean that all people everywhere for all time were amazed in that moment – that’s nonsense and the context doesn’t support that interpretation. I don’t know anyone who would claim it does. Yet, many are reluctant to apply the same logic to 2 Peter 3:9.

Context is critical.

 

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    Ordinarily I do not point out small mistakes in writing unless one affects understanding, but I will point out two errors in this article because both are in quotations of Scripture.

    II Peter 1:1 is quoted as saying “with outs”–it should say “with ours”.

    II Peter 3:10 is quoted as saying “will come like a and then”–it should say “will come like a thief and then”.

    Maybe you should write a series of articles about verses which are often quoted out of context and consequently are either misunderstood, or underappreciated, or both. Jeremiah 29:11 is applicable to Christians, but it loses much of its profundity when it is not understood in connection with its context. I do not mind if it is quoted out of context–I just wish that everyone knew what it means in context.

    The Institute for Bible Reading promotes the reading of the Bible without chapter and verse assignments. One can learn about them at their website.

    • Jack Lee

      Thanks for the extra eyes – those typos have been corrected; it may take a few mins to update. I am with you on Jeremiah 29:11. I think there are general applications for Christians – but when it’s isolated from the original context, it becomes less effective in my opinion. Scripture will always be most impactful when rightly understood.

      Regarding reading the bible without chapter and verse assignments, I have been wanting to get a copy of http://www.bibliotheca.co . Have you seen this? it’s a very elegant approach.

      • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

        No, I did not know about Bibliotheca. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

        • Jack Lee

          You’re welcome!

          • Tailgunnersam

            Always the context sophistry when a verse doesn’t fit. And then the straw man on one old OT verse. And sadly all to deny free will and eternal security.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    You can’t have it both ways. Either Peter means by “all” “all of you”, that is specifically whichever congregation of 1st Century Christians to whom the letter is addressed (“the beloved” at the beginning of the chapter) or he actually means “all”. You are simply inventing an addition to the text by reading in the qualification to “all” you think Peter should have written in order to be a good Calvinist.

  • Glenn Harrell

    Thanks Jack,
    Long reach to make yet another perch for Calvin to sit on. Trying this hard to rearrange the meaning of this text and to proof-context the nature of God is admirable.
    I only wish Calvin could read this. He would surely pat you on the back.
    God’s character (you call sentiment) of patience and longsuffering is no respecter of generations.
    He certainly is patient with you and me. He reminds his children that, whether His return would happen then or today–“v15–“don’t forget that the Lord is patient because he wants people to be saved.”
    Why can’t God get his way?

  • Rod Bristol

    Calvinism’s God is too small. Its concept of God’s sovereignty falls far short of the God of the Bible. The Bible reveals that God wills his creatures have a will of their own, which they can choose to submit to his. Nothing can defy the will of God, except whom God gives the power to defy him. To say that God’s omnipotence implies that God’s will can never be successfully opposed is to limit God by human logic. God has no obligation to behave according to our logic in any case whatever. God is not willing for any to perish, but he permits his beloved creatures to spurn him, thus willing themselves to perish.

    • Glenn Harrell

      Beautifully spoken Rod.

  • zionred

    That verse isn’t needed to refute Calvinism. The rest of the Scriptures does it just fine

  • Ashwin

    I agree context is critical. However, the context does not prove Peter was specifically speaking about “the Elect”.
    The letter was addressed to the church. However, the direct context is not the church. It is a question raised by “ungodly mockers”.
    2 Peter 3:3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? ..

    Peter is supplying an answer to the Scoffer’s question as below:
    2 Peter 3:8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 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.

    The context is God’s motive for delaying his coming. And his motive is his desire that “Everyone” comes to repentance.The context does not justify concluding that “everyone”; means only the elect. In fact, its a ridiculous way of interpreting what Peter says. If we view it that way, then how do you interpret 2Peter 2:1-3?
    2 Peter 2:2 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

    Do we use 2 Peter 1:1 as proof to say Peter is addressing believers and hence Peter is teaching that the false prophets & those who follow them mentioned are believers ? If so, the rest of the chapter would destroy the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. If not, we will have to admit that Peter is addressing a group which contains both believer as well as unbelievers.

    The best interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9 is that God desires all people of the world to repent. We know this because the same sentiment is repeated in various parts of the OT and the NT in verses such as Ezekiel 18:23,32; 1 Timothy 2:4;Acts 17:30-32 etc.

    The calvinistic interpretation leads to a strange hermeneutic where the Doctrine drives how a text is interpreted as opposed to context.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13