When “All” Is Not “All” At All!
James R. Aist
“The Lord is not slow concerning His promise, as some count slowness. But He is patient with us, because He does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Unfortunately, within evangelical Christianity, there have spring up over the years, several teachings that seem to be biblical and sound right and true at first glance, but, upon closer study and more thorough examination, are found to not really be biblical teachings at all. Here are several examples in the New testament where the word “all” does not mean, literally, all:
- Luke 2:1 “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The Roman Empire did not extend to all of the known world, but only to the world within its borders.
- 1 John 2:20 “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things.” The saved do not know when Jesus will return;
- John 21:17 And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Even Jesus does not know when He will return;
- 1 Corinthians 10:23 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things edify.” Lying, stealing, murder, etc. are not lawful for Paul;
- Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things because of Christ who strengthens me.” Jesus does not help us to sin!
As you can see, “all” does not always mean “all” in the literal sense wherever it occurs in the Bible. The key to understanding the true meaning of “all” in the New Testament is to refer to the context in which it is used. Often, the context will reveal a qualifier that must be applied to get at the true meaning.
That said, the example I want to focus on here is found in 2 Peter 3:9. Many have erroneously interpreted this verse to be saying that God does not want “any human beings” to perish but, rather, that He wants “all human beings” to come to repentance (and be saved). While these may be outcomes that God would prefer, that is not at all what this verse is saying, and here’s why:
- Any correct reading of this verse must provide an explanation of why Jesus has not already come again, as He promised He would (2 Peter 3:3-4);
- 2 Peter 1:1 makes it clear that this letter was written to all and only to Christian believers of his day. 1 Peter 1:2 reinforces this identification of Peter’s audience as “the elect” of God, which, by extension, would include those elect who were not yet saved;
- Throughout 2 Peter, Peter refers to his audience as “us”, “we”, “you” and “brothers” and consistently speaks of their heavenly inheritance;
- By contrast, unbelievers are referred to as “they” and “them” throughout, emphasizing their eternal punishment in hell;
- So, we can see that when 2 Peter 3:9 speaks of “us”, he is referring to only God’s elect, both the already-saved and the not-yet-saved, not all of mankind;
- Thus, a more explicit and scripturally harmonious rendering of this verse would read something like this, “But He is patient with the not-yet-saved elect, because He does not want any of His elect to perish, but all of His elect to come to repentance.”
- Further confirmation for this rendering can be gleaned from 2 Peter 3:15, where Peter makes reference to Paul’s explanation of why the Lord is tarrying; namely, so that all of God’s elect, in particular, the chosen Gentiles, will be someday included among the believers before Jesus comes again (Romans 11:25, and click HERE). That is what Peter means here, in verse 15, when he writes, “…the patience of our Lord means salvation”, meaning salvation for those elect who have yet to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
One could also point out that if it is not God’s will that “any human beings” perish but, rather, that “all human beings” come to repentance (and be saved), then He is not doing a very good job of saving sinners, because, as Jesus said, the majority of people do not take the narrow path that leads to life, preferring, instead to take the broad path that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). Finally, if you want to make a biblical case for God bringing “all human beings” to repentance and salvation, then you will have to look elsewhere. Such a doctrine is a heresy called “Universalism”, and that is not a biblical doctrine.
For a more comprehensive treatment of 2 Peter 3:9 “rightly divided”, click HERE.
(To read more of my articles with biblical themes, click HERE)