“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.