Salvation and God’s Will

I sometimes wonder if God is pleased with the way things are going. With all that is happening in the world it seems like he must be quite frustrated. Things started off so well in the Garden of Eden but went downhill quickly. He started over with Noah but that didn’t work out. Next he called out a people to be his own but, again, things went awry. Finally, God offered up his Son to provide salvation for the world (John 3:16). Second Peter 3:9 says God did this because he does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance. God wants everyone to be saved, but, alas, as before, man’s pesky free will keeps frustrating God’s wishes. Fortunately some do agree to take God up on his offer of salvation. At least Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross wasn’t for nothing. There are some of us humble enough to admit that we are sinners in need of a savior. In the end, though, God’s will that everyone be saved is held hostage by man’s sovereign will. God can only do so much. He was required to give man free will concerning salvation (and everything else) so we would not just be puppets in his hand. If we were puppets our love for him would not be genuine. Also, since God is omniscient he knew there would be those who would accept his offer of salvation so he chose them to be his. Even though he wants everyone to be saved, he really only wants those who want him. So God’s will that everyone be saved is subject to man’s willingness to accept his offer of salvation.

Is this really the description of God’s will concerning salvation that we find in the Bible, especially 2 Peter 3:9? I submit the above description of God and salvation contains serious errors. What does 2 Peter 3:9 say about God’s will and salvation? In order to consider this we must briefly examine God’s will in general. God has one will but typically theologians distinguish between two aspects of God’s will, his will of decree (decretive or hidden will) and his will of precept or disposition (preceptive or revealed will). Deuteronomy 29:29 says,

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)

Here we see God’s will distinguished between the “secret things” (decretive will) and “the things that are revealed” (preceptive will). Note that God’s preceptive will flows from his decretive will since God decrees that he will give us his law (or precepts, what he desires or is pleasing to him). Thus, God has only one will. What God decrees (his decretive will) necessarily happens. As Job said,

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2 ESV)

Or as God says through Isaiah,

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isaiah 46:8-11 ESV)

Or as Balaam said to Balak,

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19 ESV)

After Nebuchadnezzar experienced God’s judgment he proclaimed,

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35 ESV)

The psalmist declared,

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3 ESV)

Paul told the Ephesians,

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11 ESV)

Clearly God will accomplish what he intends to accomplish (what he decrees). His decretive will is never thwarted. But what about God’s preceptive will? God gives us his law (what is pleasing to him) but we certainly fall very short of the law he has given us. This is why Romans 12:2 says we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that by testing we can discern God’s (preceptive) will, what is good, acceptable, and perfect. Other than what is revealed in Scripture, we cannot discern God’s decretive will since most of what God decrees falls under the “secret things” of Deuteronomy 29:29.

How do these two aspects of God’s will relate? Sam Storms puts it this way,

God’s decretive will refers to the secret, all-encompassing divine purpose according to which he foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. His preceptive will refers to the commands and prohibitions in Scripture. One must reckon with the fact that God may decree what he has forbidden. That is to say, his decretive will may have ordained that event x shall occur, whereas Scripture, God’s preceptive will, orders that event x should not occur.[1]

And John Frame says, “God does not intend to bring about everything he values, but he never fails to bring about what he intends.”[2]

For example, God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. This was God’s command to Pharaoh, his preceptive will if you please. However, God decreed that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites leave. Consider Exodus 4:21-23.

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:21-23 ESV)

The Lord told Moses to go to Pharaoh, perform the miracles, and warn Pharaoh God would kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if Pharaoh did not let God’s firstborn, Israel, go. Even though God’s preceptive will for Pharaoh was that Pharaoh let Israel leave, God’s decretive will had determined that Pharaoh would not let Israel leave. The Lord said to Moses in Exodus 9:16 (which Paul quotes in Romans 9:17 to demonstrate God’s sovereignty in showing mercy and in hardening),

But for this purpose I have raised you (Pharaoh) up, to show you my power, so that my name (the Lord) may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16 ESV)

Peter gives the most dramatic example of God’s decretive will and preceptive will in his Pentecost sermon.

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV)

The Jews and the Romans violated God’s preceptive will, that is, they sinned by crucifying Jesus (and they were responsible for their sin). However, God decreed they would do this in order to accomplish his purposes. (See this post for a short discussion of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.)

How does all this relate to the claim in 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not desire (or will) that any should perish and that all should repent? Is this will referred to in 2 Peter 3:9 God’s decretive will or his preceptive will? It should come as no surprise that opinion is divided over this question. Which aspect of God’s will is applicable depends on the words any and all in the last part of the verse.

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 ESV)

If any and all refer to every single person then clearly the aspect of God’s will referred to by wishing (wanting – NIV, willing – KJV, NKJV) cannot be God’s decretive will. If God decreed that every single person be saved, every single person would be saved. The willing or wishing here must refer to God’s preceptive will. So, to put in John Frame’s terms, God values the salvation of everyone but does not intend the salvation of everyone. (Again, if God intended the salvation of everyone, everyone would be saved.) We see this in other places in Scripture.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 ESV)

Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37 ESV)

God takes pleasure in repentance and does not take pleasure in seeing an unrepentant person die. He desires repentance, and as Acts 17:30 says, he commands all people everywhere to repent (preceptive will). However, as 2 Timothy 2:25 says, God must grant repentance.

On the other hand, what if any and all are restricted by the context of the verse? That is, they do not refer to every single person. If that is the case, then wishing would refer to God’s decretive will. Typically, when someone refers to 2 Peter 3:9 they only quote the last part of the verse, the part about God not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. No context is considered, but the context is critical. The chapter concerns the return of Jesus in judgment. People scoff at the idea of Jesus’s return since things are continuing on as they always have, but Peter reminds the scoffers that the same word that created everything will destroy everything. Then Peter says in verse 8 through 10,

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 ESV)

The Lord does not count time as we count time. What seems slow to us is purposeful delay for the Lord. The Lord is patient. But take notice that the Lord is patient toward you. There is a specific object of his patience. Who is this you with which the Lord is patient? Notice in verse 8 Peter is writing to the beloved. Also, note the larger context of the recipients of the letter.

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:1 ESV)

Peter is writing to those who belong to Jesus. So in verse 9 of chapter 3 when Peter says the Lord is patient toward you, he is saying the Lord is patient toward his people. When Peter continues on by saying “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” the context requires we understand he is speaking of God’s people, the elect. Thus, the sense is “not wishing that any (of you) should perish, but that all (of you) should reach repentance.” God is delaying the “day of the Lord” (verse 10) so all of his elect will be saved. This lines up exactly with what Jesus says in John’s Gospel concerning God’s plan and purpose for his people.

What does John’s Gospel say regarding God’s intention for his people? First, the Father wills (decrees) to give his people to the Son. In John 6:37 and John 17:6 we see the Father gives a people to Jesus, and John 6:37 says those people will (not might) come to him.

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:37 ESV)

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (John 17:6 ESV)

Second, the Father wills the Son die for his people.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11 ESV)

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15 ESV)

Third, the Father wills the Son not lose a single one of his people and ultimately raise them from the dead.

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:38-39 ESV)

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44 ESV)

In John 10:16 Jesus says because he already has other sheep (the Gentiles) he must bring them as well.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16 ESV)

Jesus does not say once he brings the sheep they will be his, but he must bring them because they are already his. So the Father has decreed the Son will redeem every single person the Father has chosen, keep every single person the Father has chosen, and glorify every single person the Father has chosen.

God’s purpose regarding his elect will be accomplished. Thus, in 2 Peter 3:9, the Lord is patient because it is his (decretive) will that every single one of his elect will not perish but come to repentance.

I believe God’s wishing in 2 Peter 3:9 is God’s decretive will but even if it is God’s preceptive will, the Bible does not allow the idea that God is waiting and hoping that some will be saved but he really has no control over who is saved. God has decreed the salvation of his elect and none will be lost. He is never frustrated.

[1] Sam Storms, Chosen for Life, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 131.

[2] John Frame as quoted in Sam Storms, “Chosen for Life,” in John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001), 113.

This entry was posted in Soteriology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.