Question: "What does it mean that God is not willing for any to perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)?"
Answer: It is always important to study Bible verses in context, and it is especially true with 2 Peter 3:9, which reads, “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” (KJV). The second half of the verse, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” is frequently used to argue against the doctrine of election.
The context of 2 Peter 3:9 is a description of scoffers who doubt that Jesus is going to return to judge the world with fire (2 Peter 3:3–7). The scoffers mock, “Where is this coming?” (verse 4). In verses 5–6, Peter reminds his readers that God previously destroyed the world with the flood in Noah’s time. In verse 7, Peter informs his readers that the present heavens and earth will be destroyed with fire. Peter then responds to a question he knew was on his readers’ minds, namely, “what is taking God so long?” In verse 8, Peter tells his readers that God is above and beyond the concept of time. It may seem like we have been waiting a long time, but, to God, it has been a blink of an eye. Then, in verse 9, Peter explains why God has waited so long (in our view of time). It is God’s mercy that delays His judgment. God is waiting to give more people the opportunity to repent. Then, in the verses following verse 9, Peter encourages his readers to live holy lives in anticipation of the fact that Jesus will one day return.
In context, 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is delaying His coming in judgment in order to give people further opportunities to repent. Some of the confusion regarding the meaning of 2 Peter 3:9 is the wording of the KJV translation: “not willing that any should perish.” Not willing makes it sound as if God does not allow any to perish. However, in 17th-century English, willing carried more of an idea of desire than of volition. The modern English translations of 2 Peter 3:9 render the same phrase “not wanting” (NIV and CSB), “not wishing” (ESV and NASB), and “does not want” (NLT).
In no sense does 2 Peter 3:9 contradict the idea that God elects certain people to salvation. First, in context, election is not at all what the verse is talking about. Second, to interpret “not willing that any should perish” as “does not allow any to perish” results in the false doctrine of universalism. But God can “not desire” anyone to perish and still only elect some to salvation. There is nothing incongruous about that. God did not desire for sin to enter the world through the fall of Adam and Eve, yet He allowed it. In fact, it was part of His sovereign plan. God did not desire His only begotten Son to be betrayed, brutally tortured, and murdered, yet He allowed it. This, too, was part of God’s sovereign plan.
In the same way, God does not desire anyone to perish. He desires all to come to repentance. At the same time, God recognizes that not everyone will come to repentance. It is undeniable that many will perish (Matthew 7:13–14). Rather than being a contradiction to 2 Peter 3:9, God’s electing and drawing of some to salvation is evidence that He truly does not desire people to perish. Were it not for election and the effectual calling of God, everyone would perish (John 6:44; Romans 8:29–30).