Question: “There are some verses in Scripture that seem to contradict the idea that God chooses only the elect to be saved – for instance, 1 Timothy 2:3-6, John 3:16, and 2 Peter 3:9. How are we to understand these “Arminian”-sounding verses?
1 TIMOTHY 2:3-6 – “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
There are two potential problems with these verses: first, Paul says that God "desires all people to be saved;" and later, he says that Jesus Christ "gave Himself as a ransom for all." Taken out of context, these statements seem to contradict what the Bible says elsewhere - that God chose some people, not everyone, to be saved, and that Christ died for those whom God chose, not for everyone.
However, if you look at these statements in the context of what Paul says just before them (in verses 1 and 2), it takes care of the apparent problem. In verse 1 Paul says, "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people..."It's obvious that "all people" in verse 1 must mean the same as it does in verse 4. In verse 1 "all people" cannot mean every single person in the world - who of us could attempt to offer four different kinds of prayers (supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings) for all 5 billion people who are currently alive! Paul goes on to mention Kings and people in positions of high authority, because he recognizes that we tend to neglect praying for people that influence our lives from a distance. It's obvious that, in context, "all people" means the same thing in both verse 1 and verse 4, namely, "all kinds of people" - rich, poor, black, white, powerful, powerless, etc.
This is related to one of the most important "mysteries" that God revealed in the New Covenant in Christ; that the people of God would no longer be ethnically and geographically limited primarily to Israel. The inclusion of the Gentiles and the “universalization” of the church was a new and exciting message that Paul was called by God to announce to the world. Therefore, he often emphasizes that the Gospel and the Kingdom are for all people, people from all nations, tribes, tongues, races, and social classes, no longer primarily for the Jews. Christ is the Savior for all men without distinction, not all men without exception.
JOHN 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s ironic that this verse is seen as contradicting Reformed theology, because I see the third chapter of John as one of the clearest presentations of the Reformed view of God's sovereignty over the process of salvation. The Bible does teach that God will save anyone who will come to Him by faith in Jesus Christ. However, the Bible also teaches that, in our fallen state, we are hostile to God and would never even want to come to Him unless He first changed our hearts (Romans 3). That change is what Christ is referring to in John 3:3-5, when He says, "...unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God...unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." He makes it clear that unless the Holy Spirit gives you a new, spiritual birth you will not see, understand, or desire to enter God's kingdom. In verse 8, Jesus refers to the doctrine of God's election, "The wind blows where it wishes...So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." In other words, no one controls God's Spirit; He regenerates all whom God has chosen. Paul says essentially the same thing in Romans 9:15-16: "For [God] says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy."
So, what is the meaning of "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish...?” The issue here is similar to the question of what "all men" means in 1 Timothy 2. Here the problematic word is "world." If you do a concordance or word study on how the word "world" is used in Scripture, you find that it has at least four different meanings: 1) the created world: land, sea, sky, and creatures 2) the world that is under Satan's dominion, that is in opposition to Christ and the church 3) all the people in the world and 4) all the different nations and types of people in the world - not only the Jews, but the Gentiles also.
In the immediate context, "the world" corresponds to "whoever believes in Him," and in verse 17 Jesus says that God sent His Son "that the world might be saved through Him."
Since Scripture is clear that everyone in the world will not be saved, the word "world" in these must mean all the elect from all nations, races, and social classes. Again, "whoever believes in Him" will not be lost, but we know from the rest of the chapter (and the rest of Scripture) that only those whom God chooses and regenerates by His Holy Spirit will have the ability to see and believe in Christ, and to enter God's Kingdom.
2 PETER 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
This verse says that God is delaying the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment because He is patient and is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." Again, the key issue is who do the words "any" and "all" refer to? The context of these verses answers the question very clearly. The whole sentence makes perfect sense if the specified audience ("you") corresponds to the words to the words "any" and "all": "The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise...but is patient towards you, not wishing that any [of you] should perish, but that all [of you] should reach repentance." So, again, the words "any" and "all" refer to the elect, not every single person on the earth.
So, the doctrine of election affirms that everyone who turns from their sins and believes in Jesus Christ will be saved; however, sinners in their fallen state do not have the ability to repent and believe unless God takes away their heart of stone and gives them a heart that grieves over its sin, desires to come to God, and believes in the promises of Christ (Ezekiel 11:17-20). That's why God must choose us before we choose Him - a choice that He made, Scripture says, before the foundation of the world. Salvation is God's work, from beginning to end.