The Reformed Faith
Part V: The Universalistic Passages
Probably the most plausible defense for Arminianism is found in the universalistic passages in Scripture. Three of the most quoted are: II Peter 3:9, "Not wishing [or, KJV, not willing] that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance"; I Tim. 2:4, [God our Savior] "who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth"; and I Tim. 2:5,6, "...Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all."
In regard to these verses we must keep in mind that, as we have said earlier, God is the absolute sovereign Ruler of heaven and earth, and we are never to think of Him as wishing or striving to do what He knows He will not do. For Him to do otherwise would be for Him to act foolishly. Since Scripture tells us that some men are going to be lost, II Peter 3:9 cannot mean that God is earnestly wishing or striving to save all individual men. For if it were His will that every individual of mankind should be saved, then not one soul could be lost. "For who hath resisted his will?" (Rom. 9:19).
These verses simply teach that God is benevolent, and that He does not delight in the sufferings of His creatures any more than a human father delights in the punishment that he sometimes must inflict upon his son. The word "will" is used in different senses in Scripture as in our everyday conversation. It is sometimes used in the sense of "desire" or "purpose." A righteous judge does not will (desire) that anyone should be hanged or sentenced to prison, yet he wills (pronounces sentence) that the guilty person shall be punished. In the same sense and for sufficient reasons a man may will to have a limb removed, or an eye taken out, even though he certainly does not desire it.
Arminians insist that in II Peter 3:9 the words "any" and "all" refer to all mankind without exception. But it is important first of all to see to whom those words were addressed. In the first verse of chapter 1, we find that the epistle is addressed not to mankind at large, but to Christians: "...to them that have obtained a like precious faith with us." And in a preceding verse (3:1), Peter had addressed those to whom he was writing as "beloved." And when we look at the verse as a whole, and not merely at the last half, we find that it is not primarily a salvation verse at all, but a second coming verse! It begins by saying that "The Lord is not slacking concerning his promise" [singular]. What promise? Verse 4 tells us: "the promise of his coming." The reference is to His second coming, when He will come for judgment, and the wicked will perish in the lake of fire. The verse has reference to a limited group. It says that the Lord is "long-suffering to us-ward," His elect, many of whom had not yet been regenerated, and who therefore had not yet come to repentance. Hence we may quite properly read verse 9 as follows: "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some count slackness, but is long-suffering toward us, not willing that any of us should perish, but that all of us should come to repentance."
In regard to I Tim. 2:4,6 "Who would have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth ... who gave himself a ransom for all," is used in various senses. Oftentimes it means, not all men without exception, but all men without distinction - Jews and Gentiles, bond and free, men and women, rich and poor. And in I Tim. 2:4-6 it clearly is used in that sense. Through many centuries the Jews had been, with few exceptions, the exclusive recipients of God's saving grace. They had become the most intensely nationalistic and intolerant people in the world. Instead of recognizing their position as that of God's representatives to all the people of the world, they had taken those blessings to themselves. Even the early Christians for a time were inclined to appropriate the mission of the Messiah only to themselves. The salvation of the Gentiles was a mystery that had not been known in other ages (Eph. 4:6; Col. 1:27). So rigid was the pharisaic exclusivism that the Gentiles were called unclean, common, sinners of the Gentiles, even dogs; and it was not lawful for a Jew to keep company with or have any deals with a Gentile (John 4:9, Acts 10:28, 11:3). After an orthodox Jew had been out in the marketplace where he had come in contact with Gentiles he was regarded as unclean (Mark 7:4). After Peter had preached to the Roman Centurion Cornelius and the others who were gathered at his house, he was severely taken to task by the Church in Jerusalem, and we can almost hear the gasp of wonder when, after Peter told them what had happened, they said, "Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance to life" (Acts 22:15), that is, not to every individual in the world, but to Jews and Gentiles alike. Used in this sense the word "all" has no reference to individuals, but simply to mankind in general.
When it was said of John the Baptist that "There went out unto him all the country of Judea, and all they of Jerusalem; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mark 1:5), we know that not every individual did so respond. We read that after Peter and John had healed the lame man at the door of the temple, "all men glorified God for that which was done" (Acts 4:21). Jesus told his disciples that they would be "hated of all men" for His name's sake (Luke 21:17). And when Jesus said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself" (John 12:32), He certainly did not mean that every individual of mankind would be so drawn. What He did mean was that Jews and Gentiles, men of all nations and races, would be drawn to Him. And that is what we see is actually happening.
In I Cor. 15:22 we read, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be make alive." This verse is often quoted by Arminians to prove unlimited or universal atonement. This verse is from Paul's famous resurrection chapter, and the context makes it clear that he is not talking about life in this age, whether physical or spiritual, but about the resurrection life. Christ is the first to enter the resurrection life, then, when He comes, His people also enter into their resurrection life. And what Paul says is that at that time a glorious resurrection life will become a reality, not for all mankind, but for all those who are in Christ. And this point is illustrated by the well known fact that the race fell in Adam, who acted as its federal head and representative. What Paul says in effect this: "For as all born in Adam die, so also all born again in Christ shall be make alive." Verse 22, therefore, refers not to something past, nor to something present, but to something future; and it has no special bearing at all on the Calvinistic-Arminian controversy.
Two other verses that also are often quoted in defense of Arminianism are "Behold, I stand at the door, I will come in to him and will sup with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20); and "...he that will [KJV, whosoever will], let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17). This general invitation is extended to all men. It may be, and often is, the means that the Holy Spirit uses to arouse in certain individuals the desire for salvation as He puts forth His supernatural power to regenerate them. But these verses, taken by themselves, fail to take into consideration the truth that already has been stressed in this article, that fallen man is spiritually dead, and that as such he is as totally unable to respond to the invitation as are the fallen angels or demons. Fallen man is as dead spiritually as Lazarus was dead physically until Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth," and the Pharisee Nicodemus, "Except one be born anew [or, from above], he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). And again, He said to the Pharisees, "why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word" (John 8:43). Apart from that divine assistance no one can hear the invitation or put forth the will to come to Christ.
The declaration that Christ died for "all" is made clearer by the song that the redeemed sing before the throne of the Lamb: "Thou wast slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9). Oftentimes the word "all" must be understood to mean all the elect, all His Church, all those whom the Father has given to the Son, as when Christ says, "All that which the Father giveth me shall come to me" (John 6:37), but not all men universally and every man individually. The redeemed host will be make up of men from all classes and conditions of life, of princes and peasants, of rich and poor, bond and free, male and female, Jews and Gentiles, men of all nations and races. That is the true universalism of Scripture.