Does God Want All to Be Saved?
We believe that God has a people for himself: for them Christ died, in them the Spirit works. Those whom God has foreknown and predestined, he will surely call, justify and glorify. But what do we make of passages of the Scriptures which seem to speak about an all-embracing kindness towards the lost which desires their salvation? Here Mr Maclver looks at such a verse.
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
Peter is dealing in this passage with a mocking objection to the matter of Christ's return. He is saying that we must not regard his delay in coming as proof that those who scoff at this idea are right after all. Nor must we see it as proof that God is "slack" concerning his promises. It is not indifference, or inability, on God's part that accounts for such a time as will elapse before Christ returns. It is rather, Peter says in verse 9, that God is longsuffering and also that there is something in God behind that longsuffering and it is that he "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance".
It is here that problems arise for us. Does this not conflict with what the Bible elsewhere reveals about God electing some of mankind to everlasting life? Is it possible that God desires something that he himself has not decreed to bring to pass?
In looking more closely at this verse it will be wise of us to remember that complete answers to such questions may not be revealed to us in God's word, and yet we must not be afraid to study even the furthest parts of what God has been pleased to reveal to us in the Bible.
We must not come to this verse with our minds made up that it does not refer to all mankind, that Peter is only addressing converted, believing people, and therefore, that what we are told here about God is no more than that he does not wish any believers to perish. That, of course, is true, but there are many difficulties in taking this verse to mean that.
For one thing the language in the words "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" is so absolute that it can hardly refer only to believers. Peter is setting out a clear alternative between death and perishing on the one hand, and, on the other hand, eternal life, as entered into by repentance. This surely is a matter involving all mankind — not mankind as elect, or as reprobate, but as a totality — mankind as lost sinners. God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come unto salvation, the salvation he has provided in Jesus Christ the Saviour of sinners.
Comparing the Scriptures
But, is it correct to say that God could regard those he has not elected to salvation in this way? A very important thing to remember in any Bible study is what is known as the analogy of Scripture. That really means that we must look for other passages in the Bible which deal with the same matters, and that we must compare them with this verse, so that we have a consistent interpretation of the Bible. Then we will be in a much better position to see whether our conclusions from the words of the verse itself are likely to be correct.
In Romans 9:22 we find God is described as "longsuffering" towards the reprobate. Romans 2:4 tells us, in language almost identical to 2 Peter 3:9, about the "longsuffering" and "goodness" of God towards those who do not repent. We are told here that God's goodness is calculated to bring sinners to repentance, even though some of them never come. It is still the case that God's goodness, manifested especially in his longsuffering, is a real urge that desires the salvation, not the destruction of man.
In other words, 2 Peter 3:9 is not the only verse in the Bible from which we can conclude that God desires the salvation of all men, even though all men will not be saved. The same emphasis is seen in Ezekiel 33:11 and Matthew 23:37.
So, we can see that to take 2 Peter 3:9 to mean that God is longsuffering even towards those who will never repent and that indeed he is not willing that any of them should perish is not inconsistent with what God has revealed elsewhere in his word. We must now look at some of the implications of this, and some conclusions to be drawn from it.
The first thing to say here, and it is rather difficult to put simply, is that when we read of God not "willing" in these contexts, what is meant is not the decretive will of God.
By "the decretive will of God" is meant that God has decreed, willed in the sense of absolute, eternal decree, whatsoever comes to pass. That includes both the electing of some to everlasting life, and the death of the wicked. That is absolute and unchangeable. But this verse does not teach that, nor does our understanding of this verse interfere with that in any way.
The verse deals with the will of God's benevolence, or God's benevolent will. This includes the fact that he is kind even towards those who despise him, in that he bestows favours upon them in his providence and not only upon his elect people (Matthew 5:44-48). But it also includes the fact that God's kindness actually flows from God's goodness. And it is a goodness in which we can say God desires that all men should live and not die in their sins. This is the heart of 2 Peter 3:9. In other words this is an expression of God's benevolent will in regard to sinners without discrimination. And his will is that they do not perish but come to repentance.
A Harmony of Wills
Secondly, we must conclude from this that God has revealed to us that there exists in himself a desire, or an urge, to something which he has not decreed to accomplish. He has a delight in a matter which he has been pleased not to decree.
It is at this point that we find it impossible to bring these two things together acceptably in our minds. But we must insist that God has revealed to us that this is indeed true of himself, although it has pleased him not to reveal to us why this is so. We believe that in the depths of his own glorious being these issues exist in perfect harmony. What we must not conclude is that there is anything wrong with maintaining that God desires the accomplishment of what he has not willed to bring to pass.
The Gospel Freely Presented
Thirdly, we see from this that salvation is offered in the Gospel, freely and fully, to all mankind without distinction. This is nothing less than an activity of the loving kindness of God. And it is no less than Christ, in all his completeness and sufficiency as Saviour, that is offered. The Gospel call is universal, as is the promise that accompanies it, namely, that the repentant will meet with mercy and enter into life. The benevolent will of God that makes this offer is the will which desires our possession of Christ and the fulness of life that is ours in him. The more we appreciate this the more we will recognise the glory of the Gospel itself, and the urgency with which we must declare it, and accept its offer.
Who Is to Blame?
Finally, we must conclude from this that we have no excuse for our failure to repent. When salvation is offered to us in the Gospel, it is patently irresponsible and sinfully perverse to say that we are not responsible for our unbelief, and rejection of Christ. The fault is not with the Bible; nor is it with God, not even in his decretive will. None of us will be able to say that we rejected Christ and salvation because God did not elect us. We reject Christ because we do not want him, because we are not willing to be saved by him. That is where the Bible squarely lays the blame. Jesus himself put it clearly in John 5:39-40,
You are searching the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they which testify of me. But you will not come to me that you might have life."
Peter clearly insists that Christ will return, the same Christ who is now rejected by those who do not repent and who scoff at the idea of his coming. The delay in his coming is not due to hesitancy on God's part. It is a time of opportunity. An interim of grace. In it Christ, as the fully-sufficient Saviour of sinners, is brought as close as possible to our responsibility and opportunity. There is no other Saviour but he. There is no greater incentive to seek him and to take him as he is offered in the Gospel than the fact that this is God's own desire.
As R. M. McCheyne said in a sermon on Proverbs 8:4, "Very often awakened persons will sit and listen to a lively description of Christ — his work of substitution in the place of sinners; but their question still is, 'Is Christ a Saviour to me?' Now to this question I answer, Christ is freely offered to all the human race. There is no subject more misunderstood by unconverted souls than the unconditional freeness of Christ. So little idea have we naturally of free grace, that we cannot believe that God can offer a Saviour to us, while we are in a wicked hell-deserving condition. Oh, it is sad to think how men argue against their own happiness, and will not believe the very word of God!"