On Sunday evenings, our church has been studying what the Bible says about how God saves people. We’ve considered God’s intention in salvation as it relates to doctrines such as election as well as God’s purpose in evangelism. We’ve seen that these twin purposes of God work together to accomplish the same glorious end.
However, we also need to consider God’s desire in salvation. The general desire of God to save sinners is distinguished in Scripture from His ultimate intention, which cannot be thwarted.
God’s will of desire is not the same as God’s ordained will of decree. For example, God desires that all people wouldn’t sin, but all people do in fact sin; therefore, this desire of God is not based on His sovereign will of intention, but rather on His stated will of desire.
When God wills something with His sovereign will of decree, that thing will happen. God created the heavens and the earth by His sovereign will of decree and it came to be for His good pleasure. God’s sovereign will of decree in salvation is that all whom the Father gives to Jesus for salvation will in fact come to Jesus (Jn. 6:37). Nothing can thwart this purpose.
We’ve also seen that Christians have been sent by their Savior with a great invitation. Our God is a missionary God. He sends His people into the world to make the gospel known to all.
The Father sent His one and only Son from His heavenly throne down to the “far country” where we live. He came to redeem a people for Himself; to purchase redemption for every person given by the Father to the Son. This was God’s intention in sending His Son to earth.
The invitation to believe the gospel, to come to Christ, to repent of sins, to be saved by grace through faith goes out to every nation and to every individual under heaven.
The same God who ordained the doctrine of election is the same God who ordained biblical evangelism as His chosen means of bringing every one of His elect to Himself. Both of these truths reflect the explicit teaching of Scripture.
According to the Bible, no one is able to respond to the gospel unless God enables them to do so (Jn 6:44, 65; Mt 11:25-27, Eph 2:1-9). This too is explicitly taught in Scripture.
However, God does desire the salvation of all people in a general sense and God is the Savior of all people in a general albeit temporal sense.
1 Timothy 2:1-4 and 4:10 are often used as proof-texts to deny the particular redemption of God’s elect. These verses appear to teach that God wants to save everybody, but He can’t for reasons beyond His control (i.e. “the free will of man”).
Those who believe that God intended to save everybody have to add that second clause to escape the charge of universalism. Yet that’s exactly where general atonement leads when you read verses guaranteeing the salvation of Christ’s sheep and then apply it universally, the logical conclusion is universalism.
Clark Pinnock is a modern example of a Bible “scholar” who once held to a biblical view of theology and even biblical inerrancy, but then he began to question some of the hard truths of Scripture. He gradually moved from a reformed view of the sovereignty of God toward Arminianism, then toward Pelagianism, then open-theism, and eventually he embraced universalism.
But why should anyone be surprised at this? Each step leads logically (and theologically) to the next step. Pinnock is just being honest in going where his theology has led him.
So we shouldn’t shrink from addressing these difficult texts in their context to understand what God is saying to us in these wonderful verses. We’ll find that God is the Savior of the world in a general sense, but nothing is beyond His control, especially in His intention to save His elect.
Keep in mind, we must take every doctrine of the faith and every belief and we must relate it to every verse of Scripture so that its shape and form will be biblical.
As a basic rule of biblical interpretation, the explicit teaching of Scripture always controls our interpretation of the implicit teaching of Scripture. Therefore, an implicit (or paradoxical) verse of Scripture must not be used to overthrow the clear meaning of an explicit teaching in Scripture.
These verses (1 Timothy 2:1-4 and 4:10) could be used by universalists if they let the implicit teaching (what the verse appears to say) overrule the explicit teaching of the rest of the New Testament where universalism is clearly denied.
But again, this method of distorted interpretation isn’t possible without doing great violence to the clear teaching of Scripture throughout the rest of the Bible.
That said, let’s look at what 1 Timothy 2:1-4 and 4:10 are actually telling us.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [1 Tim 2:1-4, ESV]
Later, in 1 Timothy chapter 4, verse 10 says…
“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.” [1 Tim 4:10, ESV]
Combining these two passages, we read that God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth and that God is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Are these verses the definitive rejection of the doctrines of election and definite atonement?
Only if you believe that the Bible contradicts itself or if you interpret the explicit teachings of Scripture by means of the implicit. Both of these approaches will lead you into error.
In 1 Timothy 2:4, God says through Paul that He is “our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
There are three things to notice in this verse. First, Paul is addressing a situation in Ephesus where some teachers may have denied that God is the Savior of the world in a general sense.
In Ephesus, Caesar was worshiped as the “protector, provider, and savior” of the people of the empire. Paul wants the church at Ephesus and the world at large to know that God is truly the Protector of the world, the Provider for the world, and the Savior (or deliverer) of the world.
Paul refers to God as our Savior throughout First Timothy (1:1; 2:4; 4:10). He wants the world to know that God desires all men to come under the wings of His salvation and deliverance.
Second, In 1 Timothy 2:4 the word “desire” is from the word thelo. Thelo reflects God’s will of desire which flows from His feeling and inclination. God is inclined to save anybody. It’s God’s nature to save as an act of grace, not because people deserve to be saved by Him.
But there’s another word for God’s determined sovereign will; that’s the wordboulomai. This will (or desire) comes from God’s precise determination; it inexorably fulfills God’s intention without fail.
So 1 Timothy 2:4 is referring to God’s inclination to save anyone, not to His actual sovereign intention (as is the case for God’s elect, 1 Timothy 4:10).
Third, the phrase “all people” in 1 Timothy 2:4 is used in the same context as “all people” in 1 Timothy 2:1 – “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…”
The “all people” in this context doesn’t refer to every single individual. He isn’t saying that our prayer list should be an exhaustive and tedious register of every name of every individual in the world. That would be impossible, since we don’t know every name or every person.
What he means in 2:1 by “all people” is all kinds of people. We should pray for all kinds of people in the world, for all types of people. Then Paul enumerates some of the kinds of people for whom we should pray in particular: “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).
Then in verse 4 of this same chapter, the phrase “all people” is used again the same way. God desires and is inclined to save all kinds of people, all types of people in the world. And this is in fact what the rest of Scripture describes.
Revelation 5:9 says of Christ, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…”
God is saving people from every nation and people group in the world. People are coming to Christ out of paganism, out of dead religions, out of Roman Catholicism, out of the Hindu and Muslim religions, out of atheism… all kinds of people are being drawn to the Savior.
Then in 1 Timothy 4:10, when God says through Paul, that He “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” He is referring to the salvation of all kinds of people in one sense, and in a second sense he’s referring to salvation as God’s benevolent temporal deliverance of all people (i.e. common grace), but especially as Savior of those who actually believe.
So he distinguishes between general deliverance by God as the Savior of all people from God’s particular saving work in the lives of those who actually believe the gospel. That’s the difference between temporal common grace and sovereign election when it comes to salvation.
When we exposit through First Timothy later this year, we’ll cover these verses in the context of Paul’s instruction to Timothy, but this overview of two verses from that epistle provides a general understanding of how implicit verses are to be interpreted in light of the explicit verses regarding God’s will of desire and His sovereign will of intention.
With love in the Truth,