Q – On Thursday evenings, I teach a Bible study through the book of James. We are in our 17th meeting and have flown through the text. We are already on James 1:18! Well, guess what topic came up? One of your favorites – election. I walked the group through Ephesians, Romans, and parts of the Gospel of John. The debates came up over 2 Peter 2:9 and I clarified who Peter’s target audience was.
However, they brought up, “What about 1 Timothy 2:4, where God desires ‘all men’ to be saved? I recall you teaching on this before but I couldn’t find it in your Q & A section. Have you already tackled that question? If not, could you?
Jim – Yes, you’ve found it, the third piece of the Arminian puzzle. Almost without fail, when discussing God’s sovereign election of grace with its opponents, they will take refuge in these three verses:
And, of course, 1Timothy 2:4.
1 Timothy 2:4 reads,
“Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
On the surface, this certainly looks like the definitive statement concerning God’s determined desire to have every man and woman alive, with deference to all, come to a saving knowledge of Him. But, that interpretation creates a whole host of theological conundrums.
First off, Biblical scholarship is unanimous on the fact that this letter was written by the Apostle Paul. This is the same man who wrote the great treatises to the Roman and the Ephesians, in which he unabashedly declared God’s right, power and predetermined decision to save a particular people. Paul was dogmatic in his assertions that God is all-powerful and works everything – everything! – in accordance with His own will.
So, if the Arminian interpretation of 1Timothy 2:4 is correct, we immediately plunge headlong into two huge dilemmas.
1) Paul is a very contradictory theologian. On the one hand, he clearly argues that God does all things in accordance with His own will and is powerful enough to enact every minute detail of His plan, especially where salvation is concerned.
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” (Eph 1:11)
Yet, on the other hand, Paul declares that God sincerely wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, despite the fact they will not all arrive at that destination.
So, Paul does not seem to know whether God can enact His will or not.
2) The second, more complicated dilemma is a question of power. To wit: why, given God’s preeminent power, is He so incapable of seeing His supposed desire of universal salvation come to fruition?
According to Arminian apologists, the answer lies in the fact that God always allows – and indeed favors – the free will and unencumbered choice of every individual. God would never encroach on any person’s freedom of choice. Therefore, despite His expressed desire that all men be saved, some will be lost through no fault on God’s part. They simply refuse to be saved and God – in spite of His own desire – deigns to condemn them.
So, who has all the power in that relationship? Well, the sinner, of course! The human will takes precedent over the eternal, sovereign will. God is powerless to save any person who refuses His gracious offer. God has a desire; men have a desire. God has a will; men have a will. But, between the two, it is the will and desire of the creature that supersedes the will and desire of the Creator.
The implications of that notion are huge. For instance, why do we worship God and thank Him for saving us when it was actually up to us to make the saving decision? Sure, God may want everyone to be saved. But, we are the ones fulfilling His dream. He should be thanking us, don’t you think?
Or, what was Jesus doing on the cross? Was He actually saving anyone, or was He merely making salvation a possibility provided we would come along later and validate His work. The blood is essentially a down-payment that we ratify and take advantage of by deciding to make it effective.
In other words, salvation is no longer an act of God. It is the result of mutual effort between God and the sinner. There’s no real grace, beyond the fact that God was willing and desirous of our participation. But, in the end, it was all up to us.
You get my point. Clearly, Paul was not teaching universal salvation, universal redemption, or even the notion that God’s will is ultimately thwarted. Any of those readings would force us to the inescapable conclusion that Paul is a dodgy theologian, at best. And if that’s true, how can we trust anything he says? How do we know which one of Paul’s multiple positions is the correct one?
No, no. Paul was not contradicting himself. He was making a point. And, his point was the God is “no respecter of persons.” The high and mighty estates of human leaders do not impress God. But, we’ll come back to that in a moment.
First, let’s read 1 Timothy 2:4 in its context –
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. (1 Tim 2:1-6)
The primary confusion in this passage arises from Paul’s use of the word “all.” In the Greek, it’s “pas.” That little word can mean several things. It can indeed be used to include everything or everyone. But, just as easily, it is used to designate “all kinds” or “all types.”
To determine the proper meaning in 1Timothy 2:4, we need only to follow Paul’s use of this same word in this same letter. For instance, in 1Timothy 6:10 we read –
“For the love of money is the root of all (pas) evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
What’s immediately apparent is that the love of money cannot be the root of every single evil thing that ever occurred. Certainly, sexual sins are not motivated by money so much as they are motivated by fleshly lust. Even the first sin – Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit – was not motivated by money (which did not exist either materially or conceptually). So, Paul’s meaning must be more exclusive than that.
And, it is. Paul’s use of the word “pas” was meant to designate “all kinds” of evil. And, most other translations render it exactly that way. The ASV, NAS, NIV and NKJV all read, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds (or ‘sorts’) of evil…”
So, now we know something about Paul’s usage of the word “pas.” The question is whether that was his intended meaning in 2:4. And, the context determines that.
Remember that Israel was living under Roman dominion as the early Church began to flourish. As the gospel of Christ spread through the Roman world, persecutions began. Naturally then, the Church came to reckon the civil authorities as enemies of the faith. But, Paul admonished Timothy – knowing that Timothy was a rising leader in the Church – not to automatically dismiss the civil powers and authorities.
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;”
Paul insisted that prayers and supplications be made for “all men.” Then he defined what he meant by “all men.” They are the kings and all that are in authority. Paul’s use, then, of “pantoon anthroopoon” or “all (pas) men (anthropos)” was not meant to designate every person who ever lived. It concerned a particular “kind” of men – those in authority.
So to be clear, in 1Timothy 2:1, “all men” equals “kings and all that are in authority.”
Now, why did Paul want prayers made for these heathen leaders?
“… that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”
Paul knew that God could change the hearts and direct the minds of every person. Paul’s desired result would be that the Church could live without the threat of violence or terror, leading God-fearing, honest, Christian lives. But, Paul also knew that such a concept would be hard for suffering saints to swallow (pardon my alliteration). So, he assured Timothy that he had the mind of God on this account.
“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;”
Praying for those in authority – to the benefit of the Church – was a perfectly acceptable and God-honoring enterprise, according to Paul. And, who knows? Perhaps God would even save some of those leaders, given His desire to save “all kinds of men.”
“… who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
Now, here’s the big question. Who are the “all men” in verse 4?
Well, they are the same “all men” mentioned in verse 1. The subject has not changed. This is continuation of the same thought.
Once again, in verse four; “all men” equals “kings and all that are in authority.”
Paul was not arguing that God desires that every individual person in the world be saved. If Almighty God desires universal salvation, then He will most assuredly accomplish universal salvation. His arm is not limited in its ability to save.
Paul was arguing that it was right and Godly to pray for the authorities who persecuted the Church, because God wants “all kinds of men” to be saved – even the ones in authority. So, Timothy was instructed to pray for the salvation of those men. Or, at very least, if they were not saved, that the Church could live peaceably.
So again, despite what it may have looked like on the out-of-context surface, Paul’s use of the word “pas” designates “all kinds.” And, God is certainly willing that “all kinds” of men be saved, as opposed to Jews only; or as opposed to the downtrodden and oppressed only. So, pray for those in authority. God just may save them. He does not have to save “all” of them. But, He certainly may save any of them He desires, despite their high estate. Because, as is often cited, “God is no respecter of persons.”
The next few verses make this exegesis all the more obvious. Paul declares that there is only one mediator between God and man – Christ Jesus – “who gave Himself a ransom for all.”
Was Paul suddenly advocating universal redemption? Did Jesus pay the ransom price for every sin of every individual who ever lived? Or, was Paul continuing in the same vein of logic, declaring that every type, sort, or kind of man must be saved by Christ, the one and only mediator?
In verse 7, Paul declares that he was ordained an apostle to the Gentiles and wants men praying to God everywhere (as opposed to only in Jerusalem) –
“Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.”
It should be obvious that Paul is continuing his “all kinds of men” line of thinking here. As the apostle to the Gentiles, he knew that God was spreading his worship out into the whole world – a concept the Judaic Christians initially resisted. But, Jesus the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” was now declared to have given Himself as a ransom for all kinds of people.
So, the context shows that Paul was completely consistent in his thinking and theology. There is no contradiction with the doctrines of grace. And, once we pull the three legs out from under the Arminian stool, they are left with no support at all.
I hope that helps.
Yours for His sake,