Will Everyone Eventually Be Saved?
II Peter 3:9
July 24, 2005
Listen to this Sermon
I can think of only four ways to answer the question raised in the title of this sermon:
1) Everyone will eventually be saved.
2) No one will eventually be saved.
3) Some will be saved and some will be lost.
4) There is no way to know.
Let’s consider answer #1, which is becoming increasingly popular in our day. On what ground might we say that everyone will eventually be saved? Several possible answers come to mind.
A) The grace and mercy of God might convince us that in the end, God will find a way to save everyone he created. Note that I said, “God will find a way.” We know that God’s grace goes far beyond our sin, so perhaps we might think that his grace will reach to the point of bringing everyone eventually to heaven.
B) Or we could go to the opposite extreme, and admit that the thought of eternal suffering in hell is almost unbearable. Two hundred years ago, preachers spoke often of the terrors of hell, and even a generation ago, evangelists routinely included at least one sermon about hell during each evangelistic crusade. Think about it. When was the last time you heard an entire sermon on hell? It’s probably been a while. Cultural values have shifted to the point where even inside the church talk of eternal punishment in hell tends to be greatly downplayed.
C) We might opt for answer #1 because of loved ones who have died. After I preached this on Sunday, a man came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “What about my brother who died? Will I ever see him again?” You could not help but feel the anguish of his heart.
D) Consider the vexing question of the fate of those who have never heard. What about them? Will God send them to hell? Or will they somehow end up in heaven even though they have never heard the gospel?
E) Finally, we may answer yes simply because we want it to be that way. Our sense of things may convince us that it ought to be that way so that’s the way we believe it will be. Understandable as that may be, our own preferences are not a safe guide when considering matters of eternal destiny.
This issue has ramifications in many directions. It touches the question of world missions. Why do we spend enormous sums of money each year supporting missionaries in distant places, and why do they risk life and limb every day for the sake of the gospel, if the lost aren’t really lost? Why make such a sacrifice if, in the end, the people of India and China and Korea and Finland and El Salvador and Malawi will all end up in heaven? This question also impacts how we witness to our loved ones. Why spend time in prayer for the salvation of our loved ones if they are going to be saved eventually anyway? And it certainly touches how we view ourselves. What will happen to us when we die? Should we “run to the cross” so that our sins can be forgiven? Or are we just as well off without Jesus?
One Door and Only One
There is only one way to answer this question. We must go back to the Bible and find out what God says. For a subject this important, reason is not sufficient and emotion is not reliable. Our main text today will be II Peter 3:9, but before we go there, let’s pause to quickly consider the word of Jesus in Luke 13:22-27.
Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’
Notice the question Jesus is asked: “Are only a few people going to be saved?” It seems to require a yes answer, which is where Jesus begins. The person evidently wants a number, a percentage. “Is it 20%? 30%? 60%? How many people are going to make it?” Jesus doesn’t directly answer him, but he does remind us that there is a “door” that leads to heaven, and like any door on earth, it swings both ways. You can be on one side or the other.
One door and only one,
And yet its sides are two.
Inside and outside,
On which side are you?
In essence Jesus says, “Don’t worry about anyone else. Make sure you are on the right side of the door.” Don’t get left out of heaven. Then he very clearly says that some people will end up knocking on the door, begging for entrance. But the Lord will reply, “I don’t know you.” In context, it clearly means there will be some religious people who thought they knew Jesus, but he never knew them. A chilling thought for all of us in church every Sunday. Some religious people will find themselves locked out of heaven because they were religious but lost. And some of them will be people who read the Bible, prayed every day, and came to church every week.
God Wants Bolivians in Heaven
But that’s not the end of the passage. Jesus adds two important pieces of the puzzle in verses 28-29.
There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.
First, God intends to have lots of people at his banquet table in the kingdom of God. When God throws a party, he invites people from everywhere. And they will come streaming in from north, south, east and west. Revelation 7:9-10 talks about a vast crowd before the throne from every tribe, nation, language and people group. It’s the same idea here.
God intends to have Bolivians in heaven.
He wants Koreans at his banquet table.
He calls them from the islands of the Pacific.
He intends to save people from Kosovo.
He wants Russians at his table.
He wants Chinese at his table.
He calls them from Canada and Sweden.
He invites them from Czech and Cameroon.
He intends to have Moroccans feasting with him.
He wants Turks there.
He calls Iraqis and Israelis.
He wants a host of believers from Irian Jaya at his table.
In 1908 William Dunkerley wrote these words for the Pageant of Darkness and Light at the London Missionary Society’s exhibition “The Orient in London,” which ran from 1908 to 1914:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.
I do not think it is biblical to suggest that God intends to save only a tiny fraction of the human race he created for his good pleasure. While it is true that there is a “narrow way” that few find, that “few” turns out to be a vast, uncountable multitude from every corner of the earth.
These final verses also suggest that some people who took their place in heaven for granted will be “thrown out,” which I take to mean they will find the door of heaven slammed in their face.
So if the words of Jesus are to be believed (and they must be), then we already have the answer to the question. Multitudes will be saved but not everyone will be saved. Some will make it, others won’t. And Jesus surely intends to warn all of us “religious” types not to think that our “religion” will get us into heaven. We must know him personally.
I. The Problem: God Appears to be Slow.
Now we turn to our text—II Peter 3:9, a famous verse that has sparked a great deal of theological discussion across the generations: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Peter begins with an honest admission. When it comes to judgment, God often appears to be slow. The “bad guys” get away with murder and then they laugh about it. This is not just a theoretical issue. Sometimes we look at the Osama bin Ladens of the world and say, “Why doesn’t God put an end to the evil we see all around us?” As if evil were somewhere “out there” and not inside us. Why didn’t he stop Jeffrey Dahmer? Why doesn’t he put an end to all the killing? There are many answers to that question, but perhaps it is best answered with another question. Why didn’t God strike you dead when you shouted, “I hate you” at your husband? Why didn’t God punish you for cheating on your income tax? Why didn’t God lower the boom when you spread a rumor about a co-worker? God sees it all. He sees Osama bin Laden and he sees you. His mercy causes him not to judge quickly. God waits because he knows how blind we are, how obstinate, how foolish, how prone to evil we are. God waits because he knows we need more time. God waits because he wants us to repent and turn to him.
II. The Reality: God is Patient with Sinners.
Consider these truths:
A) God is “slow to anger.” Exodus 34:6 & Psalm 103:8
B) God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Ezekiel 33:11
C) God loves the whole world. John 3:16
D) God wants all people to be saved. I Timothy 2:4
E) God does not desire that anyone should perish. II Peter 3:9
This progression leads us inevitably to one question. If God wants everyone to be saved, why isn’t everyone eventually saved? Some people would read these verses and conclude that everyone will be saved, but that contradicts the words of Jesus in Luke 13. If many people will eventually be lost whom God wishes to be saved, how can we account for this? This is the nub of the theological debate surrounding II Peter 3:9. One part of the answer takes us deep into a discussion of election and predestination. These are thoroughly biblical doctrines, which I truly believe and gladly preach. How do these truths apply to II Peter 3:9? I would say that God desires some things (the salvation of all people) that he does not purposefully decree. Rather than go deeper into that discussion, I recommend John Piper’s cogent explanation in “Are There Two Wills in God?” He answers yes, which I think is the biblical answer.
In our verse, however, Peter does not delve into those deep waters. He offers an explanation that we can all easily understand. God delays his judgment because he wants all people to be saved, and he delays his judgment to give them time to come to repentance. He restrains judgment and holds back the sword of punishment to give them time to wake up, open their eyes, come to their senses, see their need, and turn to Jesus for salvation. If God had not waited, none of us would ever be saved.
III. The Invitation: He Waits for Us to Come to Repentance.
Peter says that God waits patiently for the lost to come to repentance. That explains why God withholds judgment on the wicked, a term that includes the whole human race.
Why doesn’t God destroy us every time we sin? Good question. He could and if he did, he would be within his rights as our Creator. The one who made us can dispose of us as he wills, any time he wishes. He could blow us away with the breath of his mouth and we would disappear. But he does not. Suppose God killed you the next time you sinned in thought, word or deed. How long would you live? Another day? Another hour? Another minute? Would you last ten more seconds? The cemeteries would be full, except there would be no one left to bury the dead.
Why does God wait for us to come to repentance? First, God does not save us apart from our faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Second, our faith has no power to save unless it is centered on Christ. Jesus invited sinners to come to him. The invitation is always personal, not theoretical. We are not invited to come to a system of doctrine, but to a living Person, the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:28). Third, if we will not believe on him, we will not have eternal life (John 5:40). God has no Plan B for those who choose not to believe in Jesus. He alone is the door that leads to eternal life. Fourth, God commands everyone everywhere to repent. Now that Christ has come, there is no excuse for not believing in him. If we cling to our sins instead of coming to Christ as Savior, we will face him one day as our Judge (Acts 17:30-31). Fifth, God delays his judgment to give us time to repent. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Sixth, God waits for the wicked to turn to him. Isaiah 1:18 reveals the generous heart of God when he invites sinners to “reason together” with him. Though their sins are like scarlet, God will make them “white as snow.” Thus does God treat even terrible sinners who turn to him. When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, he pictured Hester Prynne wearing a scarlet A as the sign of her adultery. God says to adulterers and murderers and all other sinners, “Come to me and all your scarlet letters will be washed white as snow.” That good news often seems too good to be true. A few days ago a friend in Nashville sent me a copy of a sermon by the pastor of a very large church. Near the end of his sermon, the pastor, wanting to show how unlimited the grace of God is, said something like this: “It doesn’t matter if you slept through half your apartment building last week, come to Jesus and you will be forgiven.” Such a statement shocks us and perhaps offends our sense of propriety. Doesn’t that somehow seem to trivialize the concept of serial promiscuity? I’ll grant you that the statement was jarring when I heard it. But theologically the pastor stands on solid biblical ground. If an adulterer like King David can be forgiven, there is hope for the rest of us. When you come to Christ, God won’t quiz you about who you slept with—or if you’ve been sleeping alone. Sin is sin, and there’s plenty of it to go around.
Can Child Molesters Be Saved?
Several weeks ago I preached at Bethany Beach in Michigan. After one of my sermons, a woman approached me with a very pained expression on her face. “Pastor, I’d like to ask you a question. What about child molesters? They can’t be saved, can they?” From the look on her face, I wondered if the question came from some personal experience.
Let me just pause here for a moment … … . .
And keep on pausing … …
And pause some more … . .
And let’s wait a while before we answer that question … .
I know of only one answer. If there are any sinners that cannot be saved, then we’re in big trouble. If there is some sin that is so heinous, so shocking, so terrible, that God can never forgive it, then we’re in big trouble. If there’s one sin like that, there might be ten sins like that. And if there are ten, there might 50 or a 100. If we keep on going, we’ll eventually come to one of “our” sins. Then where would we be?
If there were any sin so heinous that the blood of Jesus will not cover it, we’d better close our doors because sin has triumphed over grace and we have no message of hope to a broken world.
Here’s what I think about the question the woman asked. If a person is truly guilty of molesting children, and if that is proven in a court of law, that person should be put in jail for a long time. And while that person is in jail, I hope someone gives him a copy of An Anchor for the Soul and he gets saved. I have a large stack of letters from prisoners all over America who have read that little book and came to Christ as a result. Some are murderers. Several have written from death row. Some are thieves. Some are guilty of drug-related crimes. Others have committed sexual crimes. They write me to say that having read the book, God opened their heart and they trusted Christ as Savior.
Are they truly saved or not? If the answer is no, then why do prison ministry at all? Why go and preach? Why send books and Bibles to prisoners if they are beyond redemption? Jesus came to bring good news to those who sit in darkness, and there is no darker place on earth than inside a prison. Can child molesters be truly saved? The answer must be yes. Though their sins be as scarlet, they too will be washed whiter than snow. That does not cancel the human punishment they must face, but it does mean they are not beyond the reach of God’s grace.
One Convert Every 17.142857 Years
Seventh, God’s patience has a limit. It had a limit in Noah’s day. For 120 years, Noah preached and preached and preached to his unbelieving neighbors. In the end, only seven people believed his message—his wife, his three sons and their wives. On Sunday, I wondered out loud how many years (out of 120) on average it took to make each convert. After the last service, a teenage girl came up and told me she knew the answer. Her mother said she perked up when she heard a math question in the sermon. I asked her to write it down and sign her name. This is what she wrote:
Noah got a recruit every 17.142857 years.
Pretty impressive. Noah hung in there and never gave up. If a man can’t win anyone except his own family, at least he saved the people closest to his heart. That’s perseverance.
A check of the early verses of II Peter 3 shows that he was thinking about Noah’s flood. God showed enormous patience toward a sinful world by allowing Noah 120 years to preach to his God-rejecting contemporaries. Jesus said they ate and drank and got married and went off to work right up till the day the flood came (Luke 17:26-27). I can imagine that once the animals entered the ark and the big door closed, and once the floodwaters began to rise, men came and pounded on the door:
“Noah, let us in!”
“We’re sorry we laughed at you!”
“Please open the door!”
“I can’t swim!”
God is patient, but his patience has a limit. There comes a time when the door closes and the day of salvation comes to an end.
I conclude from this survey of biblical truth that anyone could be saved, but not everyone will be saved. Several weeks ago I preached from Joel 2:32 and Acts 2:21 that “whoever calls on the Lord will be saved.” Whoever means anyone and it excludes no one. God extends the invitation to the whole human race. If you will trust Jesus Christ with all your heart, you will be saved. That is the promise of God to you.
But what can we say about those who end up in hell? What can we say about ourselves if we end up there? We can only say that the problem is not with God, but with us. No one in hell will be able to blame God.
Hell is Hot. Time is Short.
This truth ought to speak to our hearts about the urgency of the King’s business. Too often Christians say we believe in hell and then act as if we don’t. This week I spoke at Gull Lake Ministries in Hickory Corners, Michigan. On three different occasions I heard Daniel Wallace, the Executive Director, say, “Hell is hot. Time is short.” He’s right on both counts. Between services on Sunday, I spoke with Greg, the man who handles our traffic control on Lake Street. Sunday was the hottest day in six years, with temperatures reaching 104, with the heat index higher than that. Standing in the shade to get a little relief, I commented on how hot it was. Greg looked and me and said, “Not as hot as the fires of hell.” True enough, and that’s the sort of comment you don’t hear much nowadays.
If you contemplate II Peter 3:9, you must conclude that it contains some wonderful news. God is willing for you to be saved. He closes the door of heaven to no one. He wants you to go to heaven, and he takes no pleasure in the thought that you might end up in hell. Why are you not in hell already? The answer is, because God is giving you time to repent and come to him.
Are you a sinner? Then you qualify.
Are you a great sinner? Then you greatly qualify.
Before the Throne of God Above
But how can God possibly take a great sinner into heaven? Just before I left for Gull Lake last Saturday, I picked up a couple of CDs to listen to on the road. A year ago C. J. Mahaney sent me a CD called Songs for the Cross-Centered Life. The next-to-the-last song is a modern rendering of a hymn written in 1863 called Before the Throne of God Above. I had never heard it until recently. The song touched me so deeply that I played it over and over again. Here’s the second verse:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.
The last two lines contain enough gospel to save the whole world. They explain why God patiently waits for sinners to come to repentance.
God is completely satisfied with the work of his Son.
He looks on Jesus who bore my sins.
And then he pardons me.
If God did not “look on Jesus,” I could never be saved. There would be no hope for any of us if God did not “look on Jesus” and count his death as the sufficient payment for all my sin. This is the very heart of the gospel message. We are not saved by anything we do—past, present or future. We are saved only by the work of Christ who died for us. Nothing we do contributes in the least to forgiving our sins or earning God’s favor. Salvation is of the Lord.
That brings us back to the original question. Will everyone eventually be saved? With sadness, we answer no. It might be easier and certainly more popular if we answered yes. But the Bible will not allow us to give that answer. An honest reading of the biblical revelation compels us to say that some will be eternally lost. We do not know how many that will be nor can we look on the face of an individual and know with certainty their eternal destination. Salvation is first and foremost (though not ultimately and completely) a matter of the heart. And since God alone judges the heart, he alone knows who will be in heaven and who won’t. But it is perfectly clear that not everyone talking about heaven is going to go there. And not everyone who goes to church every Sunday will go there. And not all the “good people” will be there.
Consider one final thought. God has done everything necessary for you to be saved. If you are lost in the end, you cannot blame God. After giving his Son to die on the cross, you have no excuse for not being saved. If you end up in hell, you will have only yourself to blame. That you are alive today is a miracle and a mercy of God. Do not mock his kindness by rejecting his Son. Come to Jesus and you will never regret it, not now and not in the life to come. Amen.