In a very positive and clear way the Bible teaches that God does not desire for anyone to perish, but to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. For instance, in 2 Peter 3:9, he says: “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.” Paul says, “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” (1 Tim. 2:3–4).
In addition, we can—in fact, we must—also say that God does not will that all be saved. All things which God wills he desires, but not all things that he desires does he will.
Some theologians have made the very helpful distinction between God’s prescriptive will and his decretive will. The former denotes God’s revealed will to mankind in the form of a command. These are the things that God wills for man to do. Here we can say that it is God’s will, his desire, and his command that all men repent and be saved. But the latter denotes God’s eternal, sovereign decree by which he ordains all things which come to pass according to the counsel of his will. And in this eternal sense of God’s will we can say that he wills for some to be saved and some to be condemned. Compare, for instance, these two Scriptures:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph. 1:11)
For he 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. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:15–24)
Not inspired, but also very helpful reading, is the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 3 on this.
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