What does it mean that God is not willing for any to perish but that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)?

When determining the meaning of any verse in the Bible, it is important to read the verse in context, understanding the ideas expressed before and after it as well as understanding how it fits into the context of the Bible as a whole. When Peter wrote that "the Lord is . . . not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance," he was responding to the argument that God is "slow to fulfill his promise" of returning to the earth to bring judgment to the unrighteous. The whole verse reads, "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). The verse after it says, "But the day of the Lord will come . . . and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed" (2 Peter 3:10). Peter is explaining that God's judgment is still on its way, but that this delay is purposeful in order to allow more people to repent and turn to Him.

This theme of God being patient in order to give humans the opportunity to repent is one we find throughout the Bible. Paul, when writing to the Romans, asked, "Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4). Here Paul is explaining that rather than being a license to continue in sin, God's delay of judgment should be understood as an opportunity to turn away from that sin. Similarly, in the Old Testament, God sent Jonah to the Ninevites to declare that He would destroy the city forty days later in response to their sin. Instead of continuing in their sin or losing all hope, the people repented. Jonah 3:10 records, "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it." Although the Ninevites were guilty of sin and deserving of judgment, because they repented and turned to God, He did not bring destruction. In short, God was merciful.

God does not delight in the destruction or even the disciplining of people. In Hosea 11:8, when thinking about the judgment coming to Israel and Judah, God says, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?... My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender." He desires to be compassionate and show mercy rather than harsh judgment. In fact, God so desires mercy that He "did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). God was willing to endure the agonies of the cross in order to make mercy and forgiveness a possibility. So when Peter wrote that God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance," he was describing the truth that God is a compassionate and merciful God who does not delight in the condemnation of people.

However, the following verse also expresses the truth that God is just and His judgment will come to those who remain unrepentant. Simply because God does not delight in the condemnation of any person, does not mean that no one will be condemned (an idea known as universalism). Some of the confusion comes from the KJV rendering of this verse, which says that God is "not willing that any should perish." Willing makes it sound as though God will not allow any to perish. But the word carries a sense of desire more so than causing something to happen. Scripture as a whole is quite clear that, sadly, there will be those who reject Christ's offer of salvation (John 3:16–18; Matthew 25:41–46; Revelation 20:11–15). In fact, Peter talked about the condemnation of fallen angels, the judgment of the flood during Noah's time, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah earlier in his letter (2 Peter 2:4–6) as examples of God's just judgment on the unrighteous. From these examples, he concludes that "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment" (2 Peter 2:9).

This sentiment was to be an encouragement to the Christians of Peter's day who were facing persecution under Roman emperor Nero. They had believed that Jesus would return bringing judgment during their lifetime and the fact that He hasn't yet returned left the believers vulnerable to the false notion that God's judgment will never come. But Peter confirms that "the day of the Lord will come" and that readers should "count the patience of our Lord as salvation" (2 Peter 3:10, 15). His delay in coming is salvation because it provides us time to turn from our sin and to turn to God relying on Jesus's work on the cross for our salvation. Jesus declared, "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). So, like Jesus beseeched, let us "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17).

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