Christians like to philosophize about the nature of salvation and argue over the question of free will verses the will of God. Do I choose God or does God choose me? Are we inherently good creatures who are seeking after God or an answer, with a “God sized hole” in our lives that we are trying to fill? Or are we by nature evil, enemies of God who do not seek after Him, and are stopped in our tracks by His unmerited grace?
Many argue that the most well known verse in all of the Bible speaks directly to the issue:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
– John 3.16
Whoever believes in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins will be saved. Period. This verse that children learn before they even understand the meaning of the words says it clearly. However, does the statement that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish” mean that everyone has equal ability to believe? If “God so loved the world”, does that mean that He loves, impacts, draws and works in every person’s heart the same? Are we left as the determining factor in our faith?
Another verse that regularly leads to confusion on the topic is 2 Peter 3:9:
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
At face value, pulling this verse out of the paragraph and argument that Peter is building, it sounds like God is sitting up in Heaven wringing His hands and waiting to see everyone in the entire world believe in Him. Removing it from context makes the promise ambiguous and, tempers His sovereignty by making it appear as though He is dragging His feet and waiting for more people to repent.
This is the danger of proof-texting. Proof-texting is what people do when they approach Scripture with an agenda. Have you ever heard someone say, “He backed Himself up with Scripture”, or have you ever asked someone to “prove it with Scripture”? It is essential that our belief system be grounded in Scripture and when we are studying doctrines, disciplines and beliefs, there is a time and place for cross referencing passages and memorizing key verses. John 3:16, for example, outlines the overview of the Gospel and can be quoted on its own. However we must remember to never interpret a verse without understanding the full argument of the author and we must always weigh a verse against the full teaching of the rest of Scripture.
We must also the deep questions of exclusivity, to see if a truth claim made in one passages truly contradicts a truth claim made in another. For example, we learn in Ezekiel 33, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked:
‘As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’
– Ez 33.11
It is impossible to devoid the instruction from the context of Israel in this verse, unless you quote only half of the verse (which some people do, sadly). God is speaking through a prophet to call His people, Israel, to repentance from their sin. But we learn a truth about the heart of God, that He takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked. Does that necessitate that He is not the judge and not in control of the destruction of the wicked? Some would argue that very point. But if we believe the rest of Scripture, then we know that God wrote the moral and holy laws, He defines good and evil, He determined the only path to forgiveness, and those who do not walk the narrow path go to Hell. He wrote the rules. He enforces the rules. He sends people to Hell who have not taken refuge in Jesus. Does that contradict what Ezekiel says, that He takes no pleasure in it? Of course not! Do you take pleasure in everything you have to do? Do you take pleasure in disciplining your children?
Now, let’s turn to Peter. There are multiple levels to understanding this verse in its context and against the rest of Scripture. What is the promise? It is the promise of the second coming, the dawning of the New Earth. Peter was encouraging the believers not to lose heart, that God will keep His promise to send Jesus back for them. For us. And he builds the argument that even though it feels long to us, God exists outside of time! He sees history in its completion, He is not confined to our liner 24 hour day systems. To Him, one day can be as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3.8). So what then does he mean by, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”? Let me ask you a simple logical question. If God sees the end, if He can simultaneously exist in this moment, December 4th, 2014 and at Armageddon, at creation and in the New Earth, does He already know who will be saved? Does He already know who will make it to the New Earth? And if He already knows, does He gain or lose anyone by delaying His return? No. The end is already written. God knows who will repent, and He is in control of the timeline. So Peter is explaining that God has not yet returned because He has not yet finished His redemptive work in those who will believe.
But, someone might argue, Peter says “that all should come to repentance”! Doesn’t all mean all?
Consider this. When you call a meeting, and the keynote speaker says, “Is everyone here?” does he mean everyone in the entire world? When you throw a big birthday bash and say, “I have invited all of my friends”, do you mean that you have invited everyone you have ever known and befriended throughout your entire life? When you have a family reunion and send out invitation to the entire family, have you invited everyone who is in any way related to you? Or do you invite first generation blood relatives? Or just those ones who live in commuting distance? I would argue that nearly every time you use the world “all” or “everyone” or even “the whole world”, your intended meaning is not every human being who is alive, or every human being who has ever walked the face of the Earth.
Now, this is a logical and apologetical argument that holds no weight until it is considered against the rest of Scripture. Let’s now return to John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life.”
God so loved the world…so that whoever believes might have life! This is a glorious statement. Anyone who believes can have eternal life. But we saw in 2 Peter that God already knows the end. He already exists in the end. He already knows who is going to believe. This truth makes the next two verses abundantly more clear:
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
– John 3.17-18
John is stating that everyone who believes has eternal life. No question about it. But He also states that Jesus, as God, has already judged the unbelievers and they will spend eternity in Hell! God, outside of time, knows those people who will not believe and they have been judged since before they were even born, because God can see the entirety of their lifespan in a single moment. It’s over. So the glory of John 3:16 is not humanity believing, it is Jesus dying on the cross. Jesus is the redemptive path. He is the Savior. God so loved those who would believe that He sent Jesus, because those who would not believe are already judged and condemned.
Now, the final question that we must weigh as egalitarian Americans is, Does God try to call everyone in the same way? Does He only know in advance how we will respond, or does He actually play a part in our belief and faith?
Consider Paul. He was a Jew who hated and murdered Christians. He ranked up there with Osama Bin Laden. He hated Jesus, the Church and He made every effort to stop Christian progress. But one day Jesus knocked him off his donkey, blinded him with a bright light and told him that He was the way to salvation. Jesus Himself gave Paul instructions about a man to meet and then healed his blindness and called him to be a missionary.
Did Jesus do that to you?
Jesus sought out and called the twelve disciples personally to follow Him, but interacted with thousands more. The demoniac at Garasene asked Jesus if he could stay with Him, and Jesus told him to go home and witness to his friends and family. Jesus did not call those in His physical presence in the same manner, why would we assume that He calls us all in the same manner?
No. Rather, the picture that Scripture paints is that Jesus calls His church as His bride. Do you love your spouse the same way that you love the rest of your family? How about your friends? Or the rest of the world? Jesus loves His Church and calls His Church in a special way, in an affectionate way reserved for His bride. If we cheapen His love in our understanding to think that He loves those who hate Him and are going to Hell in the same way He loves us, it is no longer special. It is no longer Biblical. It is no longer the love of a groom to his bride.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
– Eph 2.8-9
Faith itself is a gift of God. He is taking His time to complete the work that He desires, to see all whom He loves as His bride come to repentance by giving them the gift of faith in due time. He does not, however, take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked. His heart is not inclined to evil, though He does have holy and righteous wrath against ungodliness and He will punish sin fully. This is not a contradiction, but part of the beauty of the depth of grace.
Do you have faith today? Then know that you are loved specially, as a chosen bride. As the beloved. You have been given a beautiful gift of faith, of salvation, of intimacy with Almighty God. Consider the way in which you were called. You probably were not knocked off your horse and blinded by Jesus’ light. You were probably not approached by Jesus while you were fishing or collecting taxes and admonished to leave it all behind and follow Him. But your calling is unique, in deep love. Revel in that today. Love Him more for it today. And let’s be the mouthpiece by which He may call more people to repentance!