Q – Could you sometime in the future, when you get time write up some commentary for your FAQ page on 1Timothy 4:10? I have a friend struggling with God’s Sovereign grace (Calvinism) and she asked me about this verse and I don’t know how to put what I think into words. Your other FAQs have been amazingly helpful.
Jim – Excellent suggestion. This is one of those verses that is commonly misunderstood because it does not make the transition from Greek to English very comfortably. Here’s the text:
For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. (New American Standard Bible)
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. (King James Bible)
To this end we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, that is, of those who believe. (International Standard Version)
For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (English Standard Version)
The controversy stems from the apparent contrast between God being the savior of “all people” or “all men” and the next clause that places emphasis on “those who believe.” How is it that God can be the Savior of all men if Calvinistic soteriology is correct in asserting that Christ died exclusively for the elect? Doesn’t this verse completely undermine that idea?
Theologians and commentators wrestle with the text in order to fit it into their particular mold. The most common approach among Reformed writers is admit that God is indeed the Savior of all mankind in some sense, but He is also the Savior of believers in a more particular and special sense. As popular as that interpretation is, I don’t agree with it. Nor do I think the text necessitates it.
On the other hand, if we insist that the phrase “Savior of all men” means exactly what the English words say, then we are forced to accept universalism. God is indeed the Savior of all mankind and therefore all mankind will be saved. But, that interpretation flies in the face of Paul’s overall theology and would make him quite contradictory.
So, the Arminian interpreter reads this passage and concludes that God is indeed the Savior of all men, inasmuch as He sent Christ to pay the sin penalty for all people without distinction. But God’s final salvation is limited to only those who believe that Jesus died for them. Despite sending His Son to pay the sin debt for all mankind, only those who choose to believe will be saved, thereby making God the Savior of believers in a special or particular way. In other words: Universal redemption / particular salvation.
But that interpretation ignores the fact that the verse states emphatically that God is the actual Savior – the one who accomplishes salvation – for all people. It does not say that He is the potential Savior or the theoretical Savior. So, the text does not allow for the common Arminian approach, either.
Okay, so what’s the deal, then? If Universalism is rejected and the common Reformed and Arminian interpretations are lacking, how are we to understand this verse? The key to this verse is in the words translated “all” and “especially.” Let’s start with “all.”
The Greek word “pas” contains several nuances, depending on the context and usage. So it’s important to get a feel for how Paul utilized the word. Did Paul always mean to express sweeping universalism when he employed the term “pas”? The answer is no. As James White likes to point out: Sometimes “all” means “many,” but “many” never means “all.”
Often times, especially in Pauline writing, the word “all” denotes “all types” or “all kinds.” For instance, in this same epistle, Paul writes that money is the “root of all (pas) evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). But, is that really true? Was money the motivator in the Garden of Eden? Is money always the cause of murder? Do people commit adultery because they love money so much? Well, no. So, as translators have gained access to larger amounts of ancient Greek writing – not just large texts, but journals, letters, and the like – they’ve come to recognize the various nuances of the word “pas.” Consequently, most modern translations render 1 Timothy 6:10 as, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
And it fits perfectly with the whole context –
But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1Tim. 6:9-10)
The “many” in verse 9 is equivalent to the “all” in verse 10. “Pas” is therefore rendered “all sorts.” Other translations render it “all kinds” or “all types.” They are all valid translations of “pas.”
This is important to understand in light of Paul’s specific ministry to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7). Christianity began among the Israelites. And the Jews at Jerusalem resisted the notion that God would spread the good news to the Gentiles. But, the New Testament writers consistently wrote of God saving “the world” and “all men.” Their meaning was “men of every kindred, tribe, tongue, and race” as opposed to Jews only. The Bible becomes very confusing and self-contradictory when people insist that the apostle John’s use of “world” and Paul’s use of “all” were meant to be understood universally.
Now that we know that Paul utilized the word “pas” in a more limited way (even in this selfsame epistle), let’s turn our attention to the word “especially.” It is the Greek “malista,” the neuter plural of the superlative “mala,” which means “very much.” It can mean “especially,” “chiefly,” or “most of all.” It points at particularity, designating one thing or one type above another.
Beyond that, however, the translators of the International Standard Version rendered “malista” as “that is.” They saw it as narrowing the focus of Paul’s statement from “all kinds of men” to believers in particular. In their explanation of their translation choice, they write: Paul’s use of malista is taking sides! He’s saying that Jesus is the savior of a specific subset of “all humanity” – that is, He’s the savior of “believers.”
So, when we put the pieces together, what the text is saying is:
… we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all types of men (as opposed to Israelites exclusively), that is (or, particularly) those who believe.
Far from being a Universalist credo, or an Arminian proof text, this verse is consistent with the whole of Pauline thinking and theology. Paul preached to uncircumcised Gentiles because God is the Savior of every type of human on the planet. There is no other Savior and no other name under Heaven by which men must be saved. But His salvation – although fully effective – is limited to those people who believe and have faith in Christ’s finished work.
Finally, this understanding is consistent with what Paul has already written in this epistle to Timothy –
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. (1 Tim. 2:5-8)
Paul is making the same point repeatedly. There is one God and one mediator, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all types of men. For that reason, Paul was appointed a preacher and apostle to the Gentiles – types of men other than Israelites. Therefore, Paul wanted men in every place to pray, as opposed to the Jewish notion that the temple in Jerusalem was the exclusive domain of God. The content and message of this epistle is consistent. And so, following Paul’s lead, we work hard and struggle because we have set our hope on the Living God, who is the Savior of all kinds of people, particularly or specially those of every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation who “share the like, precious faith” of Jesus Christ.
I hope that helps.
Grace and peace,