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Robert Letham on 2 Peter 3:9 in Response to John Owen on the Same

July 10, 2009

[Hulse’s prefacing remarks:]

One of the readers of Reformation Today has pointed out that John Owen, a foremost and respected theologian, restricted the meaning of 2 Peter 3:9 to ‘the elect’. The text reads as follows, ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness: but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.’

In seeking to refute Arminianism Owen became intolerant of the Arminian interpretations and said, ‘I shall not need add anything concerning the contradictions and inexplicable difficulties wherewith the opposite interpretation is accompanied.’ He also said, ‘That to believe that God has the same will and mind towards all and everyone in the world is to come not far short of extreme madness and folly’ (Owen’s works vol. 10, p. 348ff.).

We do not believe that God has the same will and mind towards all in the world in as much as he has by sovereign election determined to save a people for himself. We are dealing now with the question of his revealed will, in which he will have all to be saved. This Owen himself, and all the Puritan divines, maintained. The question before us is whether 2 Peter 3:9 should be included as one of the passages which either directly state or infer that God’s revealed will is for all to be saved. Under pressure Owen sought to restrict it, but was it necessary to do so?

Since this issue arose from the article by Bob Letham, ‘Theology well formed or deformed?’, we have asked him to give us an exposition of 2 Peter 3:9. He has responded as follows:

[Letham’s answer:]

The particularity of redemption is not endangered by adopting a more inclusive reference than Owen would allow. Indeed, Calvin himself understood Peter’s language in precisely that way. However, we would all agree that our ideas should not rest on human authority or tradition, but on biblical exegesis.

There are, in fact, strong exegetical reasons in favour of viewing the clause in 2 Peter 3: 9 (‘God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’) as having a universal reference.

A problem surrounds the pronoun in the preceeding clause (ύμας). If we allow that είς ύμας is preferable to both the textual variants (είς ήμας) and (δί μύας), the question remains: What is the extent of the reference of those to whom God’s longsuffering (μακροθυμεί) is displayed? Is it displayed to the readers of the letter, to believers, only? Or is it shown to the ungodly as well? The personal pronoun itself has a built in ambiguity. Even if Peter intended it to refer particularly to the recipients of the letter there is no evidence that would demand its restriction solely to them. At least there is no certainty that the longsuffering of God is restricted to believers.

Even if we were to restrict the scope of God’s longsuffering in 2 Peter 3:9 to believers, that of itself would not require us similarly to restrict the reference of the following clause since the latter might be intended to enunciate a general principle (God is not willing that any should perish) which would undergird the more pointedly specific statement that preceded (God is longsuffering toward you).

Elsewhere, Peter reflects on the longsuffering (μακροθυμεί) of God. In 1 Peter 2:20; 3:9, 14-17; 4:1, 12-19) he draws attention to the forebearance God showed in the days of Noah, prior to the Flood. Five factors are present in the context of 1 Peter 3:20 which are of importance for us:

1. the godly remnant (όλίγοι) who were eventually saved through water;

2. the ungodly to whom God exercised μακροθυμεί;

3. God, who exercised μακροθυμεί;

4. the preparation of the ark;

5. the eventual flood.

In the context of 2 Peter 3:9 the same factors are evident if we allow for developments in the history of redemption:

1. the churches to whom Peter was writing, who were facing mockery from their pagan neighbors (vv. 3-7);

2. the ungodly scoffers who were belittling the promise of Christ’s return (vv. 3-7);

3. God, who is not slow in fulfilling his promise but exercises μακροθυμεί (vv. 8-9);

4. the Lord’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (vv. 4,9,13);

5. the impending Judgment day in which the world will be destroyed by fire as at the Flood the world was destroyed by water (vv. 5-7, 10).

Peter evidently viewed the flood as a significant precursor (almost a type) of the Last Judgment, and thus the circumstances which attended that great cataclysm are seen as analogous to those which exist in these last days, the final age ushered in by the death and resurrection of Christ. He was probably echoing the teaching of Jesus himself (Luke 17:26).

In the days of Noah, God’s longsuffering was specifically directed to the ungodly. Though they provoked him so intensely that he determined to destroy the world yet he allowed man a breathing space while the Ark was being constructed and also gave a promise of deliverance from the coming judgment through the Ark itself. Moreover, God’s μακροθυμεί was manifested in conjunction with Noah’s own preaching or proclamation (2 Peter 2:5) – whether this was by word or deed is of small account. Since there is this clear parallel between the days of Noah and the last days in which we are living it should not be difficult for us to see that God’s continuing longsuffering is also associated with the distinctive proclamation of the last days, the promise of deliverance from the coming judgment-by-fire by Christ, and that it continues to be displayed towards the world of the ungodly. He could legitimately send all men to instant damnation yet he provides a time for repentance and extends a promise of mercy in Christ, which nevertheless is regarded with contempt (2 Peter 3:3f.).

Thus there should be no reason why the extent of reference of God’s μακροθυμεί in 2 Peter 3:9 should not embrace a wider constituency than the recipients of the letter, or the elect, alone. In this case, the subordinate clause that follows, ‘God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’, means precisely what it says and is therefore a reference to God’s will as expressed in the gospel promise and not to his hidden will in election.

Erroll Hulse and Robert Letham, “John Owen and 2 Peter 3:9,” in Reformation Today 38 (July-Aug., 1977), 37-38. [Some reformatting; and underlining mine.]

Credit to Theological Meditations

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