NOT WILLING THAT "ANY" SHOULD PERISH???
Inevitably, when discussing Reformed Theology those who disagree with you are going to cite 2 Peter 3:9, "[God is]...not willing that any should perish..." (KJV). Then, typically they follow it up with something along the lines of, "That's it. Settles it right there. He's doesn't will for ANY to perish." However, does this actually settle it? My question is rhetorical as we know it's not that simple. There are several different ways to interpret this passage, and they can't all be right. The first thing that has to be looked at is the definition of the word "willing." The Bible presents the will of God in several different ways. Most commonly it is referred to as 1) His decreed, or sovereign, will, 2) His preceptive, or revealed, will, and 3) His will of disposition or His permissive will.
I can already hear the objections, "Where are all of these words in the Bible? Huh? Where are they?" Let us remember that there are many truths and doctrines in the Bible that are not specifically labeled but are nevertheless true. Humanity has just put a word to these truths for easy identification and representation, a way of codifying, what is being taught. For instance, the most important example would be "Trinity." Is the word "trinity" found in the Biblical text? No. Is the teaching of the Trinity found all throughout Scripture? Yes. Let's continue.
Decreed or Sovereign Will: God's decreed or sovereign will refers to God sovereignly ordaining everything that comes to pass. If God decrees something, it's going to happen. This aspect of God's will is irresistible.
Preceptive or Revealed Will: This aspect of God's will refers to His precepts, or commands. This is where God has revealed to us what we should do and what we shouldn't do. In this sense of God's will we are able to "go against" it. This means we are capable of sinning, of disobedience to His law. We can't do it without facing some kind of consequence, but we can do it.
Permissive Will or Will of Disposition:
When Scripture refers to this aspect of God's will it is speaking of that which is pleasing to God or delights God. This aspect of God's will describes God's attitude and defines what is pleasing to Him. An example would be, although it is clear that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, it is also clear that He wills or decrees their death. We can see this expression of God's will in many Scripture passages.
When we take each one of these different concepts of God's will and apply each one to 2 Peter 3:9 we get different outcomes:
First, one could say God is not willing (in the decreed or sovereign sense) that any should perish. This would mean that every single person would be redeemed. Not one person would end up perishing. If one interprets it this way it goes further than the Arminian would want it to. It's the platform for universalism which is in complete contradiction to what the Bible teaches.
Second, one could say God is not willing (in the preceptive or revealed sense) that any should perish. This means "God forbids, in a moral sense, anyone to perish. To perish is an act of disobedience or sin. Now surely anyone who in fact does perish does so as a law breaker and is guilty of manifold acts of disobedience. It is possible to interpret the text in this manner, but it is a highly unlikely choice. It jars the mind to say that the text means merely that God does not 'allow' people to perish" (R.C. Sproul, What Is Reformed Theology?, p.169).
Third, one could say God is not willing (in the dispositional or permissive sense) that any should perish. In this sense the meaning is virtually the same thing as other passages, for instance, those who say God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This is talking about the common grace and general love that God has for all of humanity. Think for a moment about a respectable human judge in a court of law who sentences a murderer to death, a respectable judge does not enjoy doing this. He doesn't get some kind of sadistic pleasure or delight in doling out this punishment, however, the judge exercises this duty in order to uphold justice. And we know that God is not finding sadistic pleasure or delight when an unregenerate person dies in their sin, yet He still wills that death in some sense in order to uphold justice. Also, this does not mean God is doing something He really doesn't want to do. The ultimate example: God wanted His Son to die on the cross. He predestined for it to happen, He willed it, and He commanded it. "In one sense it pleased God to bruise his Son. His divine pleasure came, not from inflicting his wrath on his beloved Son, but from bringing about redemption. Of these three options, this one fits the whole context of Scripture the best" (Ibid., pp.169-170).
"Any": With having said all of the above, we actually need to pay more attention to the use of the word "any." "Any" can refer to 1) any person in a universal sense or 2) any person is a specific class of people. The text in this case seems to make no direct restriction to a specific class of people. Because of this, many come to the conclusion that "any" refers to humanity in a universal sense, but this view in itself is a limitation and not universal as it refers to only humanity and not angels or animals.
The complete text, however, DOES include a limiting, or restrictive term: "The Lord is long-suffering to us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." The limiting word is "us" and it refers to "any of us." This doesn't take care of the problem right way, however, because "us" can refer to us human beings in a universal sense or to a specific group of us. It makes perfect sense, and uses common sense, that because 2 Peter is written BY a believer TO believers and FOR believers, it is clearly most likely that "us" is referring specifically to believers. In What Is Reformed Theology? R.C. Sproul quotes John Owens:
...who are these of whom the apostle speaks, to whom he writes? Such as had
received "great and precious promises" (2 Peter 1:4), whom he calls "beloved"
(2 Peter 3:1); whom he opposeth to the "scoffers" of the "last days" (2 Peter
3:3); to whom the Lord hath respect in the disposal of these days; who are said
to be "elect" (Matt. 24:22). Now, truly to argue that because God would have
none of those to perish, but all of them to come to repentance, therefore he hath
the same will and mind towards all and every one in the world (even those to
whom he never makes known his will, nor ever calls to repentance, if they never
once hear of his way of salvation), comes not much short of extreme madness
and folly (p.170).
The point Owen is making is that "us" here refers to God's elect, so God is not willing that any of his elect should perish. So, in this particular passage, God's decretive or sovereign will is the meaning which should be applied.
Let me close out this brief discussion by posting this passage in a few different translations, perhaps these will help one see how this explanation clearly fits as the proper interpretation. Then, I will say just a few final words.
2 Peter 3:9
"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
"The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward
you, not wishing [notice "wishing" instead of willing, it's a good choice] for any to perish
but for all to come to repentance" (NASB).
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is
patient with you, not wanting [notice "wanting" instead of willing, another good choice]
anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (NIV).
"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward
you, not wishing [and again we have "wishing" as opposed to willing] that any should
perish, but that all should reach repentance" (ESV).
God sovereignly declares that not a single one of His elect will perish. We see here our election is assured. All of those who are elect will indeed come to repentance. All of those who are elect will indeed come to faith. All of those who are elect will indeed be saved. Not a single one of the elect will perish. This is the core, or better yet the purpose, of election, and this purpose can't be prevented.