Understanding 2 Peter 3:9

Question: The Bible seems to teach Divine election very clearly, and yet 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not willing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. How do you explain this verse?

Thanks for your question. I have found two main ways this verse is dealt with by Reformed people; the first being my approach (shared by people such as Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. James White, and others); and another by such people as Dr. John Piper.

Without doubt, this is the single most popular verse used to dismiss the biblical doctrine of election, bar none. We usually assume the meaning of the verse without taking time to study it, which is the very hallmark of tradition. In fact, traditions are so strong that many do not even feel the need to study the verse in context because they believe there is no need to do so. I have to admit that I did this for many years. Those most enslaved to tradition are those who think they do not have any. First of all then, let us read the verse in its context.

2 Peter 3:1-9 – This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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.

The first thing we notice is that the subject of the passage is not salvation but the second coming of Christ. Peter is explaining the reason for the delay in Christ’s second coming. He is still coming, and will do so very unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (v. 10).

The second thing to notice is the clear identity of the people he is addressing. He speaks of the mockers as “them”, but everywhere else he speaks to his audience as “you” and the “beloved.” This is very important because the assumption that is usually made is that the “you,” the “any” and the “all” of 2 Peter 3:9 refers to everyone on the planet (past, present and future).

But surely “all” means “all,” right? Well usually, yes, but not always. This has to be determined by the context in which the words are found. For example, if a teacher asks his class of students, “Are all here?” he is not asking if everyone on the planet is present in the room, but rather he is referring to all the students enrolled in the class.

So, the question in 2 Peter 3:9 is whether “all” refers to all human beings without distinction, or whether it refers to everyone within a certain group.

The context indicates that Peter is writing to a specific group and not to all of mankind “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” 2 Peter 1:1. The audience is confirmed when Peter writes, “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.” (2 Peter 3:1)

Can we be even more specific? Yes, because if this is the second letter addressed to them, the first makes it clear who he is writing to. 1 Peter 1:1 – “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect” So Peter is writing to the elect in 2 Peter 3:8, 9, saying:

“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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.”

If the “any” or “all” here refers to everyone in human history, the verse would prove universalism rather than Christianity. (Universalism is the false doctrine that teaches that everyone will in the end be saved, with no one going to hell). If God is not willing that any person perish, then what? No one would ever perish! Yet, in context, the “any” that God wills not to perish must be limited to the same group he is writing to, the elect, and the “all” that are to come to repentance is the very same group. Christ’s second coming has been delayed so that all the elect can be gathered in. God is not willing that any of the elect should perish, but that all of them come to repentance. Rather than denying election, the verse, understood in its biblical context, is one of the strongest verses in favor of it.

The second way to look at 2 Peter 3:9 is the way John Piper approaches it – which is found here.

I think Dr. Piper’s argument is terrific and gives great insight on a number of important points, but disagree that the passage (2 Peter 3:9) actually teaches what he says it does. The context of 2 Peter 3 shouts and screams that Peter, when speaking of “all”, is actually referring to all of the elect.

29 thoughts on “Understanding 2 Peter 3:9

  1. John Piper actually agrees that 2 Peter 3:9 appears to be talking about a limited “any”. Indeed, normal use of language demands it. You can’t fill in “any WHAT” with whatever you wish. It has to come from the context. Piper’s position of “two wills of God” would certainly come into play, however, for passages like 1 Tim 2:4 and the like.

    Therefore, since I like, agree with, and see the need for Piper’s explanation on God’s multiple wills and I certainly see that the language of 2 Peter 3 demands a clear presentation of who the “any” are (and it’s not “all humans”), I would suppose it could be said that I go with both … just not both for 2 Peter 3.

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  3. John

    this has been a very helpful thread!

    Thanks.

    I would only add my two cents to it by acknowledging the “work” of the Holy Spirit acknowledged by the Apostle Peter in the first epistle that bears his name.

    And I would elucidate that point with these verses from Genesis 1:1-2

    Gen 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
    Gen 1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

    Peter writes about the sanctification work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been here from the beginning working among the creations, both the Elect and otherwise.

    He is the one who selects us excising us from the worldwide population by the Gospel of the Kingdom message.

    He is the one who vindicated Christ before the Throne of Grace once He was raised up from the dead and speaking confirmation in our hearts the same vindication. While everybody is guilty before God, not everybody turns to God seeking salvation through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    And one final notation from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, 2 Cor. 2:16:

    2Co 2:14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.
    2Co 2:15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,
    2Co 2:16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

    It is a hard pill to swallow and impossible for one to make the conclusion that God desires “all” to be saved when we have such contrary evidences revealed in the Scriptures that teach us otherwise. Your analogy of a teacher asking the question about those students of his class makes it clear about this truth.

    Thanks again for such a clear testimony of the Truth sometimes hard to comprehend!

    I leave off here with these Words of Faith and Truth in Grace:

    Jer 33:14 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
    Jer 33:15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
    Jer 33:16 In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’

    Well, while those days have come and gone, yet the power of the Spirit of those Words about the events of those days remains and as is apparent to all of us these days in the world we find ourselves sojourning through, not everyone in the world these days accepts that the LORD is our righteousness!

    Some people simply reject Christ out of hand. The fragrance of Christ is a message of death to them!

    Some people are attempting to gain sufficient merit before God by their own works of righteousness so as to be accepted by God for entrance into His Paradise on their terms and not on the terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom! These shall not make it in!

    And, then, of course, there is the Elect of God, known from the foundation of the world, adopted, called and chosen from the world, who stand firm in Christ’s work by His gift of Faith fully acquitted and accepted in the Beloved living for the Glory of the Lord, minute by minute daily!

  4. I’d like to ask a question, but please know first, I have no agenda. I leaned heavily toward Reformed Theology but have struggled with this verse and have found many Reformed explanations wanting. So the question I ask is out of genuine interest in your response and for no other reason. (Isn’t it sad I have to explain that?) So here’s the question:

    Why this wording? Why “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”? If the meaning were different than the wording, why weren’t different words used? ( I know that’s impossible to answer) My point is that even given the context, IMO, this particular wording gives an entirely different impression than what most Reformed scholars say it does. If the Lord is Sovereign (as I believe He is), if He has predestined some for salvation and some not, than what’s the purpose in the patience and the point of wishing none to perish? Why wish it if it’s not going to happen anyway? It would seem, both given the context and the wording, that its bit more muddy than your explanation makes it appear. I just don’t see where the “all” in this passage can only mean the elect given that the Lord is “not wishing that any should perish…”. If the definition of “all” is the elect, it would seem to make the “wishing that none should perish” unnecessary.

    I look forward to your answer.

    Jeff Parsons

  5. Hi Jeff – Just a quick response: I am trying to understand your thinking but instead find the passage making perfect sense in the way I interpret it. God has His ends (which is His elect coming to a saving knowledge of Christ) but He accomplishes these ends through the use of means – through prayer, through careful and patient teaching (2 Tim 2:25,26); through the preaching of the gospel (“how shall they hear without a preacher” Romans 10:14), and through Christ not coming back until all the elect come to repentance. Once He returns, He will separate the sheep from the goats and there will be no time left for repentance. It is this aspect that is spelt out clearly for us in 2 Peter 3:9.

    The reason Jesus did not return to earth yesterday is because there were more of His elect to come in to the fold today. He is not slack concerning His promise though – He will return, but in the meantime, He is not willing that any of His elect perish but that all of them come to repentance. Far from being an unnecessary statement, it is a source of great comfort to know that God has not forgotten His promise, and that He will accomplish all He desires in the saving of His elect people.

  6. Stan,

    John Piper mentions the approach I would make to the text but only as a POSSIBLE interpretation, but then seems to steer away from it because he feels Arminians might not be convinced by it. I have a tremendous respect for Dr. Piper but here, as elsewhere, would want to build my thinking on what the text actually says rather than build my thinking and defense upon the possible view of the naysayers.

  7. Thanks for this, John. In context then, we might read the text to say,

    “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any [of you; of the elect] should perish, but that all [of you; of the elect] should reach repentance.”

    Wonderful, wonderful article!

  8. I find it interesting that God is expressing concern that the elect might NOT reach repentance…doesn’t reformed theology teach that the elect are not able to resist His grace? Why would God be concerned that the elect might not reach repentance?

  9. Buddy – You ask “why would God be concerned that the elect might not reach repentance?” I think the passage is saying that the reason why Jesus’ second coming might seem to be delayed (to us) is because God is not willing that any of the elect should perish but that all of them reach repentance.

    Lets assume that some of God’s elect sheep will come to Christ today (which I think is a valid assumption). Well then, this being the case, Jesus’ second coming did not happen yesterday for the simple reason that if He had done so, the elect sheep would not have had opportunity to have done so.

    A person is not saved just because they are elect, but because they come to Christ in saving faith – and it is the elect who will do so (John 6:37 “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me”; Acts 13:48 “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”). And, they will do so through the use of means, which include the preaching of the gospel and Christ not returning in His second coming until all His elect reach repentance.

    Jesus will not lose a single sheep given to Him by the Father, and He Himself said “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” (John 6:39)

    Lets make it personal. If you (Buddy) came to Christ on a certain date, aren’t you glad that Jesus did not return to earth the day before? 2 Peter 3:9 is teaching that He did not do so, because of His great love for you – He was not in any way willing for you to perish but that you would reach repentance. Likewise, He has delayed His second coming until all His elect have come to Him.

    • “Lets make it personal. If you (Buddy) came to Christ on a certain date, aren’t you glad that Jesus did not return to earth the day before?”

      But if he would have come 1000 years ago I would not have been born and would not have sinned. So by God delaying, more people are being born, and more people being condemned.

      Or are you saying the elect are a group of people that includes people that have not been born yet? I assume you are.

      At any rate, verses like this harm my belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, but not my belief in Christ.

      • Having read it more, are you also assuming predestination? Because without predestination no one would be the elect and every day more and more are dying and condemned.

        • When God elected people for salvation, He did so before even one person was ever created (Ephesians 1:4).

  10. That does make sense. It’s interesting to think that one day, the very last of the elect will repent and trust Christ, and then that’s it.

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  13. So let me be clear as to what you are saying here. Are you saying that there is no need to take the Gospel to the World, make Disciples and teach them to follow Jesus because it has already been settled; the saved are saved and the lost is lost? Hmmm, I guess I’ve been misinterpreting John 3:16 this whole time by mistaking the “who so ever, for the who so ever and the not the already saved”. I truly understand the need to rightly divide the word of God. But I believe as Christians we are doing a disservice to those who we should be trying to reach by mudding up the bottom of the pond so bad that the unbelievers are afraid to take a step in faith.

    If you would only respond to John 3:16 for I’m reminded of 2 Timothy 2:14-18 14Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.

    Thank You

    • Alan, No I am not saying that in any way at all. The elect will believe (as in Acts 13:48 – “all who were appointed to eternal life believed”) and will be reached through the MEANS of the preaching of the gospel.

      How shall they hear without a preacher? The answer to that rhetorical question is that they will not – they will not hear without a preacher.. and if God has ordained that they will be saved He has ALSO ordained that they will hear the message of the Gospel so they can believe it and be saved. God ordains BOTH the ends (His elect coming to faith (John 6:37 – “ALL that the Father gives Me will come to Me”) AND the means (God uses means to achieve His ends), the preaching of the gospel.

      Regarding John 3:16, I would point you to these resources here, any of which will answer your query: http://effectualgrace.com/category/john-316/

      It is so important to test our traditions and I hope you will do so, even with regard to the precious truth of this verse.

  14. Brother John,
    Thank you so much for your clear and solid explanation of a difficult passage – and for your loving responses to the comments. In response Alan’s question about the truth of a sovereign God taking away the necessity of sharing the Gospel with the world – I would also submit that we do not follow Christ’s Great Commission out of a belief that by doing so we (in our own power) are going to save a lost and dying world. We undertake missions simple because it was the command of our Lord. Had He instructed me to dig holes and then fill them in again until He returned, that is what He should find me doing! The truth is that He HAS elected those who are His, and He also graciously shares with us the joy of seeing His work brought to fruition, so that through the foolishness of preaching men might be saved, and He might be glorified even more.

    Praise Him for His Grace!

  15. Why do you keep replacing “wishing” with “willing” before the phrase “that any should perish”?
    Your argument repeatedly uses “willing”, but the text says “wishing”. It seems to me to be a pretty important distinction.

    • The word “wishing” in the ESV is translated “willing” by the vast majority of translations. In this particular context the English words simply describe the fact that God does not wish or will for a certain thing to happen.

  16. Dear friend, Although you are doing a service in bringing things to notice, I see that your understanding of a rightious Father is incomplete. If what you say were true, then God would not in any way be the perfect rightiousness the He is.
    The trouble starts in the translation of from greek to english. If we are looking through calvinistic sunglasses, we will translate things acording to that veiwpoint. But it is the whole understanding of how and who God is that will help us to translate correctly.
    The word you are translating “elect” is infact translated mostly as “you”. This throws new light on the subject.
    I see God as one who gives everyone a fare chance to come to Him. That is the gospel which I go out on the streets with and whom He confirms in signs and wonders. Jesus said,” go out to all nations and make disiples” etc. Anyone can recieve Christ by repenting from ungodliness and recieving Christ as lord and saviour. Thank God for that.
    Be blessed and lett our loving father fill you with a deeper understanding of His nature. Have a humble and open heart. you are not the first to have made a mistake. We all do from time to time.

    Paul

    • Paul,

      While I very much appreciate the spirit in which you write I must respectfully reject your argumentation. I once held to your view, but now see it as merely a human tradition rather than Scripture’s true teaching on this subject.

      The love of God is multi-faceted and clearly, He has a different measure of love for His people than He does for His enemies. If we read Deuteronomy 7, God reveals a different measure of love for Israel than He does for all other nations and chose them to be His people.

      6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

      God never explains why He set His love on Israel in this unique way. He never explains His electing love. He does not need to. But clearly, He set His love on Israel in a way He did not for the Canaanites, Jebusites, etc. In Amos 3:2 God declares that He knew Israel (in the redemptive sense of knowing) alone: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth…”

      If your reasoning is correct Paul, you would have to accuse God as being unrighteous for having a different measuere of love for Israel than He did for the other nations, choosing them alone when He could have chosen all peoples. I hope you can see that this would not be correct in any way at all and would actually be a serious accusation towards God’s character.

      Likewise, God was not unrighteous for having a different measure of love for Jacob than He did for Esau (though he was a twin from the same womb) and in His electing love, chose one brother (Jacob)rather than the other. In Romans 9 your very question is raised as a possible objection to the concept of divine election and then totally dismissed by the Apostle:

      10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

      14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

      Did God love Jacob and Esau equally? Clearly not.

      Did God show an equal measure of love to Jacob and Esau. Again, “no.”

      Was it unrighteous for God to act this way?

      Some would argue “yes” but God clearly and emphatically denies that. Some translations render the final phrase of verse 14 as “God forbid!” Mercy, by its very definition can never be demanded and God reserves the right to show mercy as He sees fit.

      It came as a shock to me to understand that when I held to the same view as you now do, I was actually holding to the exact same argumentation as the imaginary objector in Romans 9 (v. 14), accusing God of unrighteousness. To continue to hold that position when the Apostle dismisses it in no uncertain terms would mean standing in total opposition to the God who inspired Romans 9 – that is not something recommended, may I say. I realise I was scripturally way off base in my traditions regarding the love of God and needed to test my firmly held assumptions.

      Back to the 2 Peter 3 passage – Whenever the word “you” is used, we always have to look at the context of the sentence and passage to be able to rightly determine who is being refered to. I hope you can see this.

      For instance, I am writing the word “you” just now – and it could possibly mean all of humanity, or all carpet layers in Nebraska, or all Italians in New Jersey, or all right handed people.. which is it? – who exactly is being referenced when I write the word “you”?

      Well context here would say that the “you” is actually one individual who goes by the name of Paul – yes, I write this to “you” Paul.

      Likewise, if we follow the pronouns all the way through the 2 Peter 3 passage (and I invite YOU to do so), the “you” clearly refers to the beloved ones to whom He is writing: it is the second time he is writing to them, and in his first communication, identifies them as the elect:

      1 Peter 1:1 – Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect

      2 Peter 3: 1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved… 8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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.

  17. John,

    It is good you have noted the context in your explanation of this oft quoted verse. My experience with Calvinistic writing is that context is often ignored. As a non-Calvinist, I had always regarded this verse as very clear, and never gave it much thought. My position would have been “all” means all mankind. Of course you understand this does not demand universalism in our system, so your 3rd to last paragraph is a bit of a strawman.

    Then I read your article and realized I had overlooked something very important. Although normal grammar does not require the pronouns “usward”, “any,” and “all” to refer to the exact same group, they certainly must be linked in some way, as these pronouns appear in the same sentence. Yet, my understanding was of two separate groups- saved and lost. You point out Peter is writing to the elect, and so “usward” most certainly refers to these Christians. Then you state “any” and “all” is a subset of this larger set, those elect not yet saved. This quite stumped me as it did provide a relationhip between these pronouns my interepration did not.

    So I went back and did some deeper context study, going beyond merely noting Peter’s audience. I found verses like these: 1Pet 1:24; 2:10, 25; 4:3. It is clear from these references, when Peter speaks of us as the “beloved”, he is placing us as a subset of all sinners, formally a part of the parent set of all lost men. Understanding this, when we get to our verse in question, we find such a view makes a very consistent and logical relationship between “usward”, “any”, and “all”. “Usward” being a subset of the other two pronouns, which refer to all lost men, who the elect are formally a part of, and not some supposed unsaved elect as you mistakenly write. So you see, where your interpretation does not, the non-reformed interpretation completely matches Peter’s theme.

    Thanks for the article though, even though you missed the deeper context of Peter’s letters, you did spur me to a more thorough study of God’s Word, which is always profitable.

    • Pastor Chen,

      Allow me to quote in full the verses you reference:

      1Pet 1:24; for
      “All flesh is like grass
      and all its glory like the flower of grass.
      The grass withers,
      and the flower falls,

      2:10, Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

      25; For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

      4:3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you;

      You write, “It is clear from these references, when Peter speaks of us as the “beloved”, he is placing us as a subset of all sinners, formally a part of the parent set of all lost men.”

      I do not see that at all. They do no such thing.

      John

      • Why John, it couldn’t be more plain.

        In 1Pe 2:10, the Lord uses the same word “people” in describing both sets. “Once” you were lost people, “now” you are saved people. And obviously the “you” in the text refers to his Christian audience as you have stated, which he also uses the words “elect” and “beloved” to refer to. In vs. 25, it’s the exact same pattern, except the word tying the 2 sets together is “sheep”.

        1Pe 1:24 shows the larger parent set is all lost men, indeed “all flesh”, and not merely the as-yet-unsaved elect, as you might choose to argue.

        • No one has ever said that the word “you” or “people” always means the same thing in every context. That is not true in English, Greek or any language. If I was addressing a group of carpet layers in Norway and said “I find the people here so welcoming. I am impressed so much by you” it would be understood that I was not at the same time referring to dentists in Oklahoma or Chinese businessmen on vacation in Canada. Context (where we find a word and its setting) is key to correct interpretation.

          We find out how the word “you” is being used in 2 Peter by staying in the immediate context, not going elsewhere.

          • In fact John, you yourself go back and connect 2Pe 3 back to 1Pe 1:1, and state it’s the same audience. Well, that audience is a part of the larger set “all flesh”.

            So, for you to say we must stay in 2Peter to understand the pronouns, appears to be a refutation of your own position.

          • I believe I established the meaning of the word “you” in 2 Peter 3:9 in its context and within the same context (the same chapter) showed this was the second time Peter wrote to them. I do not see how you have established any legitimate refutation of my position and I stand by what I have written. We will let the readers decide.

  18. And I not saying “you” means the same thing in every context either. That would be nonsensical for sure. I am obviously talking about the specific context of Peter’s letters. Your illustration does not remotely parallel what I said. Peter’s two letters are the immediate context of any “you” found in them. His audience is defined clearly at the beginning of each letter FOR THE WHOLE LETTER, and doesn’t change in any narrower context or smaller section of the letter. If he intends to narrow the context for a section, he uses the appropriate noun, such as “wives” and “husbands” in 1Pe 3. Of course, this smaller group is still a subset of the original larger audience.

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