In James White’s book, The Potter’s Freedom 1, he objects to Norman Geisler’s use of 2 Peter 3:9 in his book Chosen But Free 2. Here’s the passage.
1 Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), 2 that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, 3 knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, 6 by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. 7 But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
8 But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
James White points out that the book of 2 Peter, as well as chapter 3 specifically, is addressed to the church. He then concludes that the “you” in 2 Peter 3:9 is those who are already saved.3
Dr. White states: Peter writes to a specific group, not to all of mankind. “To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours.” This not only refers to faith as a gift, as we will see in a later chapter, but it surely limits the context to the saved, for they have received this faith “by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ”. (PF 147)
Notice James White’s use of the past tense in “had received” and “saved”. This does tie in with the inbound context of 2 Peter 3:9, but it also implies that the individuals spoke of had repented in the past. But this leads to the obvious problem in 2 Peter 3:9 of God waiting for something that already happened (i.e. He awaits the repentance of the repentant). As Norman Geisler points out, “the ‘all’ who need to repent cannot mean the “beloved”, (vv 1, 8), since they were already saved and in no need of repenting.” (CBF 208)
James White responds by seemingly contradicting his earlier assertion that they “have received this faith” (i.e. that this relates to the Church who had already repented in the past). He says:
CBF misses the point when it asserts that this cannot be the “beloved” because they have already repented. The point of the passage is that God will bring the elect to repentance throughout the time period prior to the parousia, the coming of Christ. At the point of Peter’s writing, the repentance of every single individual reading this book was yet future. (PF 149)
Dr. White’s argument suspends on Peter’s audience. So is the repentance of those addressed past or future? James White suggests both, leaving us perplexed as to what his view of the passage amounts to. Norman Geisler points out an exegetical problem and James White doesn’t solve it.
Perhaps Peter is addressing a mixed audience as beloved – in the visible church, some had repented and some had not. But Peter speaks to his audience as if they had repented, so this doesn’t help because the inbound context of 2 Peter 3:9 address those who had repented and 2 Peter 3:9b speaks of those who had not. Worse, referring to a mixed audience confuses the elect who had not yet repented with the non-elect pretenders in the visible Church.
The source of Dr. White’s mistake within the text seems to be confusing Peter’s audience with his subject matter. Yes, 2 Peter was written to the church, but Peter doesn’t limit his topic to the church. In chapter 3, Peter discusses the promised return of Christ and destruction of the world. Yes, the promise is to the church, but of course the end of the world impacts more than just believers – it impacts everyone. So while the audience is the church, the topic is universal. Peter addresses the “beloved” with the topic of the coming destruction of the world being suspended on God’s patient desire for all to repent. Seeing this audience/subject matter distinction avoids the problem of waiting for a past event.
Another reason we can see the universal scope is that most likely, Peter is drawing from Sirach 18:8-14:
“8 The number of the days of men at the most are a hundred years: as a drop of water of the sea are they esteemed: and as a pebble of the sand, so are a few years compared to eternity. 9 Therefore God is patient in them, and poureth forth his mercy upon them. 10 He hath seen the presumption of their heart that it is wicked, and hath known their end that it is evil. 11 Therefore hath he filled up his mercy in their favour, and hath shewn them the way of justice. 12 The compassion of man is toward his neighbour: but the mercy of God is upon all flesh. 13 He hath mercy, and teacheth, and correcteth, as a shepherd doth his flock. 14 He hath mercy on him that receiveth the discipline of mercy, and that maketh haste in his judgments.”
The parallels between Sirach and 2 Peter are clear and Sirach’s comparison between the narrow scope of man’s compassion which is limited to “his neighbor” and the broad scope of God’s compassion on “all flesh” shows the topic to be universal.
So why is God patient in fulfilling His promise to the church of Christ’s return and the coming judgment which will destroy the whole world? Because this destruction will close off the opportunity to repent for those who have not yet repented and God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
1James White. The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and the Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free. (2nd edition) Calvary Chapel Press. 2007.
2Norman Geisler. Chosen but Free. Bethany House; 2 edition (September 1, 2001)
3 The NKJV has “us” rather than the “you” found in most modern translation. This is based on a variant within Greek Manuscripts. The Majority Text (a.k.a the Byzantine) has “you” but most of the older texts and early translations have “us”. This variant has little impact on explaining this text. Us would simply include Peter alongside his audience as the recipients of the promise.