Apologetics · Bible · Biblical Doctrines · Calvinism · Jesus · Reformation · Salvation · Theology

The Extent of the Atonement

It is the understanding of Reformed theologians that only the elect will receive the benefits of the death of Christ. Arminians oppose the idea that the purpose of God in sending Christ to Calvary was not to definitely secure the salvation of those who are to be the heirs of salvation, but simply to make salvation possible for all. Arminians insist that God has done everything He can, to save as many as He can, because He is not willing that any person perish. It is said that God is a gentleman. He will not violate the free will of man. God will not force anyone to be saved. He will not drag anyone to Calvary.

The main problem with the Arminian position is that the Bible teaches the exact opposite. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). The word for draw is helkuo, and means “to drag”, literally or figuratively. Sinners need a Divine rescue. They need to be dragged to safety at the cross of Calvary, for they cannot help themselves.

Turning to 2 Peter 3:8-9, the argument is made by Arminians that God does not want anyone to perish, and it is only an act of a person’s free will that they do perish.  The text says,

“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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 repentance.”

The first response to opponents of the Lord’s definite redemption of His own is to ask a question. “If God does not want anyone in all the world to perish, why then do so many perish?” God is sovereign, and in His sovereignty He could have ordained that every single man, woman, and child, including Judas Iscariot, be converted. “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Psa. 115:3).

No one can stop God from doing what He wills to be done. “For the Lord of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? And his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?” (Isa. 14:27). Job recognized that God can do all things, and no purpose of His can be frustrated, denied, or diminished. “I know that thou canst do everything, and that no thought can be withholden from thee” (Job 42:2). If God had willed the salvation of individuals so that no one would perish, then no one would perish. But people do perish. Judas perished. Atheists perish. The followers of Mohammed perish. All who reject Jesus Christ as personal Saviour perish. So, what does 2 Peter 3:8-9 really teach?

Any understanding of the text must begin with understanding two words. The first word is, “willing”, and the second word is, “any”.

There are three main ways the Bible speaks of the will of God.

The first way the Bible speaks of the will of God, is the decretive will of God, which can also be spoken of as the sovereign efficacious will of God. This is the ultimate will of God. The decretive will of God means that God brings to pass what He has sovereignly decreed shall be brought to pass. God speaks, and it is done. God speaks, and the universe springs into existence (Gen. 1:1). God speaks, and His will is accomplished. The decretive will of God must happen. There will be no other effect based on God’s absolute authority and power. No creature has this power of will. The will of man is not that efficacious. Individuals issue executive orders, or decrees, and hope they will produce the desired effects. God alone can decree that which shall come to pass. If 2 Peter 3:8-9 teaches that God has decreed that no person shall ever perish then no person will ever perish, and this verse becomes the classical text to teach universalism.

Another way the Bible frequently speaks of God, is His preceptive will. A precept is a law, or a command. The Ten Commandments illustrate the perceptive will of God. The Beatitudes manifest the perceptive will of Christ, as He gave His commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. Individuals do have the power to break the perspective will of God, but the perceptive will of God will not be violated with impunity. It is the will of God that individuals be holy, repent, and love (1 Peter 1:16; Acts 17:30; John 13:34). The perceptive will does not always come to pass.

If 2 Peter 3:8-9 is teaching that God is not willing that any should perish in the perceptive sense, then the text is teaching that God does not sanction, or give His moral permission to people when they perish. There is a sense in which this is true, because the command is for all people to come to Christ, and many do not. The failure to obey the command to believe in Christ, is a failure to obey the perceptive will of God. This is a possible understanding of 2 peter 3:8-9, but it is an awkward understanding.

There is a third way the Bible speaks of the will of God, and that can be called the will of disposition. This anthropomorphic expression of ascribing to God a human attribute in order to understand Him, helps in understanding what delights God. For example, we are told that God has no pleasure, God does not delight, in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32). God does not get any great personal thrill in sending people to hell even though He will to do it, or it would not be done.

A judge in the court might take no pleasure in sentencing a particular person to incarceration or death, yet he will do it in order to maintain justice. The judge may not get any personal pleasure. It is possible that 2 Peter 3:8-9 is to be understood this way. God takes no pleasure in the death of those who perish. He is not willing, in a dispositional sense, that any should perish but He knows many will, they must perish in order for divine justice to be served.

Which of these three understandings best fit the willing of 2 Peter 3:9 depends upon what is meant by the word, “any”. “God is not willing that any should perish.”

If Peter is talking about “any” in the sense of any, and all human beings in the world, then the interpretation must refer to God’s dispositional will. God does not delight in the death of the wicked, and in that sense, it is not His dispositional will that any should perish.

But, Peter may not be using the word “any” in an unrestricted sense, and for this reason. Whenever we use the word “any”, in common usage, we are assuming some reference. The question arises, “Any what?” “Of which group?”

Peter does not say that God does not will any person perish. He does not say that. We have to supply that “person” as if it were tacitly understood.

Question. “Is there any other possible reference to the “any” besides “any human being”? Answer. “Yes.” There are other possibilities including a particular group, or class, such as Jews, or Gentiles, or American. It is possible that Peter has in mind a particular class which he refers to in his epistles as “the elect” (1 Pet. 1:1, 2; 2 Pet. 2:6). The elect make up a distinctive group.

Question. “Is Peter speaking of people?” “Is he speaking of the body of disciples?”, of which Peter is a member. “Is he speaking of the whole number of the elect?” Answer. Jesus had mentioned that none whom the Father had given to Him would be lost (John 17:12).  Everyone in that class, or group, whom the Father had given to Christ, would not perish. The elect are certainly going to be redeemed.

While Peter is not specific about which group he is referring to with the word “any”, but Peter is not silent either. Notice verse 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 repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).God is long suffering toward “us”. Grammatically, the immediate antecedent to the word “any”, is the word “us.” The word “us” must refer to those to whom Peter is writing, and that is the beloved of God, v. 1. “This second epistle, beloved, I write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance”.  It is perfectly clear that Peter is saying that God is not willing that any of us, the elect, the beloved, should perish, but should come to repentance. And all of the “us” will come to faith according to the promise of Christ Himself.

The conclusion is this. Christ had a definite purpose in mind when He died, and that was to “seek and to save the lost”. Christ was to die for His people (Matt. 1:21). Christ was to give His life a ransom for “many” (Matt. 20:28). Christ was to die for everyone, not without exception, but without distinction, meaning Christ was to die for Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female. God is not a mere spectator in the drama of redemption. He will not withdraw from the work of redemption, but will actively, and finally redeem those whom He has determined will be the heirs of salvation. God is not in heaven hoping that souls will be saved. Apart from His divine participation no soul would ever be saved for no person, born dead in trespasses and sin, has any life, or ability, to effect their own salvation.

If a person is saved, it will be because of free grace. If a person is lost, it will be because of their will. Every soul in hell freely choses to reject Jesus Christ as personal Saviour. Individuals willingly reject Christ because they are born into the slave market of sin and act according to their nature. That nature is in bondage to sin. The unbeliever is free to sin. In their bondage to sin, in their freedom to be as sinful as they please, the ungodly freely hate God. They freely suppress the truth, and deny the Lord of Glory. If a soul is made free by the grace and power of almighty God, then are they free indeed. Only grace can make blind men see, deaf men hear, and dead men live. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ it is not because of your will in and of yourself by nature, but because of His free grace. Individuals are not born “of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13) who will have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Rom. 9:15).

In matchless mercy God will have mercy upon anyone who will call upon the name of the Lord. But, who will call? Who will come to Christ? The answer, all those whom the Father has given to the Son shall come, because for them He died. Jesus laid down His life for His sheep. Would you know if you are one of those for whom Christ has died? Here is a simple way to know. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved?” (Acts 16:31). If your heart is hardened to the gospel, then ask God to make you willing to believe, and may today be the day of your salvation.

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