How Do Calvinists Explain 2 Peter 3:9?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, April 3, 2010 at 3:02pm
QUESTION: Calvinists believe in the total depravity of all human beings, which means that no one is able to respond to the gospel in faith and repentance. This requires the belief in unconditional election, which means that God unilaterally chooses to save some sinners but not others. He does this by bestowing upon the chosen ones his irresistible gift of grace, in the form of regeneration, faith, repentance, and justification—all at the same time. He COULD do the same thing for every sinner, but simply has chosen not to do so. My question is this: in view of this scenario, how does the Calvinist handle 2 Peter 3:9, which declares that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (NIV)? But if he CAN save all people but simply chooses not to, this sounds as if he does not WANT to save everyone. Is this not a contradiction of 2 Peter 3:9?
ANSWER: Yes, it certainly SOUNDS like a contradiction, but the Calvinist has an explanation for it. The basic explanation is this: God has TWO wills, one that is hidden or secret or mysterious, and one that is revealed to everyone. In many cases God’s secret will determines that something will happen that is contrary to his revealed will.
God’s secret will is called his decretive will because it is equivalent to his eternal decree, by which in eternity past he foreordained and predetermined every single thing that will ever come to pass. This eternal decree or decretive will is comprehensive (universal, all-inclusive), efficacious (causal, determinative), and unconditional (not influenced by anything outside himself). The Calvinist J. G. Howard has summed it up: “Scripture teaches us that God has a predetermined plan for every life. It is that which WILL HAPPEN. It is inevitable, unconditional, immutable, irresistible, comprehensive, and purposeful. It is also, for the most part, unpredictable. It includes everything—even sin and suffering. It involves everything—even human responsibility and human decisions” (from his book, “Knowing God’s Will,” p. 12). Gary Friesen says this is God’s exhaustive, sovereign will by which “He is the Ultimate Determiner of everything that happens” (“Decision Making and the Will of God,” p. 202).
What this means is that on the level of this secret or decretive will, those who perish in hell do so because (on this level) God WANTS or WILLS them to be lost. But at the same time, on the level of his revealed will (as in 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4), God declares that he “WANTS all men to be saved” and “everyone to come to repentance,” while “NOT wanting anyone to perish.” Indeed, it must be acknowledged that God extends the OFFER of salvation to all: “And whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17); and “whoever believes in him shall not perish” (John 3:16). But in view of the secret, decretive will of God, which is obviously selective when it comes to salvation, even many Calvinists have difficulty with this “free offer of the gospel.” Thus they must appeal to the TWO levels of God’s will.
Two of my professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, wrote a small booklet called “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” trying to explain the apparent hypocrisy in offering the gospel freely to all men while knowing that God has predetermined that some will not and cannot respond to it. They say, “It would appear that the real point in dispute in connection with the free offer of the gospel is whether it can properly be said that God DESIRES the salvation of all men.” Citing a Calvinist document that affirms such desire, the authors explain that “in predicating such ‘desire’ of God,” the document was dealing with “not the decretive or secret will of God, but the revealed will” (p. 3).
Murray and Stonehouse grant that there are Biblical texts that express “the will of God in the matter of the call, invitation, appeal, and command of the gospel, namely the will that all should turn to him and be saved. What God wills in this sense he certainly is pleased to will. If it is his pleasure to will that all repent and be saved, it is surely his pleasure that all repent and be saved. Obviously, however, it is not his decretive will that all repent and be saved. While, on the one hand, he has not decretively willed that all be saved, yet he declares unequivocally that it is his will and, impliedly, his pleasure that all turn and be saved. We are again faced with the mystery and adorable richness of the divine will. It might seem to us that the one rules out the other. But it is not so. There is a multiformity to the divine will that is consonant with the fullness and richness of his divine character, and it is no wonder that we are constrained to bow in humble yet exultant amazement before his ineffable greatness and unsearchable judgments. To deny the reality of the divine pleasure directed to the repentance and salvation of all is to fail to accept the witness borne by such a text as this to the manifoldness of God’s will and the riches of his grace” (pp. 20-21).
The authors conclude thus: “We have found that God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfillment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious, and why he has not brought to pass, in the exercise of his omnipotent power and grace, what is his ardent pleasure lies hid in the sovereign counsel of his will. We should not entertain, however, any prejudice against the notion that God desires or has pleasure in the accomplishment of what he does not decretively will” (p. 26).
How shall we evaluate this attempt to explain the inconsistency between God’s so-called decretive will and his revealed will? We certainly can accept the idea of “mystery” and “multiformity” in God’s will. What we are asked to accept here, though, goes far beyond mystery and manifoldness. In this Calvinist explanation we are dealing, plainly and simply, with contradiction. A basic law of logic (and logic is grounded upon and derived from God’s own nature) is the law of non-contradiction. This law says that no statement can be both true and not true, in the same sense, at the same time. But the Calvinist says that it IS God’s will that all the lost be saved, and it is NOT God’s will that all the lost be saved. Assigning the first desire to one level of God’s will and the second to another level of his will does not remove the contradiction: it is the same God in both cases, and the desire is sincere in both cases. The same God decrees things to happen that he does not desire to happen, things that are the opposite of what he desires.
The problem here is that if God is free to transcend the laws of logic (i.e., to go against his own nature) in this one area, how can we trust anything he says about anything else? What is left of Titus 1:2, which says that God “cannot lie” (NASB)? Or of Paul’s declaration in Romans 3:4, “Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, ‘That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You are judged’” (NASB)?