We die once and then enter into judgment (Heb 9:27). In that judgment, Christ will distinguish between sheep and goats, between those who walk the narrow path and those who the wide path, and between the faithful and the faithless. According to Jesus, the first will enter “eternal life,” while the second “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46).
When the Lord judges, he will justly judge those who enter eternal punishment. Yet we should still grieve for every soul that falls into eternal perdition. We should desire the repentance of everyone. And we should take no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
Every Christian should desire that all people repent and come to a knowledge of the truth. And we should do so because God desires the same.
God desires the salvation of all
Peter explains, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). In context, Peter explains why God has not sent another flood-like judgment upon the world. The answer is that God’s patience extends over centuries (2 Pet 3:8).
God desires that everyone would receive salvation. Yet since Peter applies these words to his audience, it seems likely that “everyone” here means the “you” that God “is patient with.” Put simply, “everyone” refers to everyone in Peter’s audience.
Despite this, the reality that some in Peter’s audience may not “come to repentance” and therefore fall away to judgment means that God still desires people to become repentant people. So God patiently waits for people to change.
Nevertheless, the day of judgment will come like a thief in the night (2 Pet 3:10). Peter’s audience ought to do remain faithful, therefore, while God’s patience extends to them. “Bear in mind,” writes Peter, “that our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Pet 3:15).
Peter closes his argument by exhorting his audience to remain on guard: “Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen” (2 Pet 3:17–18).
Two things become clear. First, God patiently desires people to come to repentance. Second, his patience will eventually turn to judgment, and so we ought to do all we can to avoid falling into error and lawlessness and thus falling, “from [our] secure position.”
Paul similarly affirms God’s desire for the salvation of people in 1 Timothy 2:3–4: “God our Savior … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” In context, Paul encourages Timothy to pray for all people which includes kings and those in authority (1 Tim 2:1–2).
Paul in no way hints that he specifies prayer for all Christian kings. Likewise, he does not restrict the extent of the “all people” whom God wants or desires to be saved to a class of people.
Scripture is clear. God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Through patience, God delays the final judgment to give people the opportunity to repent.
The patience of God is not something we should take lightly for as Paul warns: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). Divine patience leads to repentance according to Paul and salvation according to Peter (2 Pet 3:15).
God does not delight in the death of the wicked
In Ezekiel 18:23, God asks, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” The answer is, No, he does not.
He continues, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:30–32).
God calls for repentance. He wants his people to receive “a new heart and a new spirit.” He does not want to judge them for, he explains, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone.”
We can also see God’s compassion when Jesus casts his eyes on Jerusalem and laments: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37).
The imagery here shows Jesus as a loving mother hen who broods over his children. Yet they would not repent. They continued to do evil. Jesus does not delight in the desolation of Israel (Mat 23:38). Yet he will see them again when they bless his presence (Matt 23:39).
God neither delights in the death of the wicked nor desires that anyone should perish but that all would repent and come to know him.
So we should too without denying the reality of eternal punishment
Despite the universal offer and call for salvation (John 12:32; Acts 17:30), not everyone will come. Of these, Christ will say, “I never knew you” before casting them into eternal perdition.
We should hate this reality while affirming the goodness of God’s justice. It is not desirable that some will deny Jesus, love evil, and forever live without God’s presence. It is bad. Yet it is just because God patiently waits for people to repent and his kindness has spread across the world through what has been made.
Yet some will love evil and not good. Some will enter into eternal perdition. We should lament this as Jesus lamented over Jerusalem. We should preach repentance as God preached it to Israel. We should pray for all people and offer Christ the savior for all men to all and sundry. And we should desire above all that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
Note: I did not mention Reformed understandings of reprobation or attempt to fit this reality into my argument above. Partly because the medium of blogging leads to laser-like focus in writing. Other related topics include synchronic contingency and God’s will, which I may write on one day.
Author: Wyatt Graham
Wyatt Graham is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He enjoys his family and writing. You’ll generally find him hiding away somewhere with his nose in a book. Connect with Wyatt via his website at http://wyattgraham.com or Twitter: @wagraham or Instagram: wyattagraham.