Does God Desire All to Be Saved?
In my sermon this Sunday I encouraged our church to meditate on 1 Tim 2:1-4 this week. One verse that may have stood out to some of you was verse 4, "[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." This same thought is repeated a few verses later, "Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all," verse 7. Many a Christian over the years has been puzzled by these passages. If God desires all people to be saved, then why aren't all people saved? There have been four basic interpretive traditions of this passage:
- Universalism. This is a heretical (non-Christian) perspective that simply ignores passages of Scripture that talk about anyone going to hell or passages that teach about faith in Jesus Christ being a prerequisite for salvation. So, God desires all people to be saved, therefore all are saved.
- Open Theism. This is another heretical perspective that assumes that God does not know, nor determine, the future. Open Theists claim that for God to have an authentic relationship with us, He cannot know the future. God desires all people to be saved, but He can't do anything about it because He is dependent upon us to make those choices.
- Arminianism. This is a Christian perspective that understands that God knows the future and is in control, yet for God to have an authentic relationship with us He cannot impinge upon our choices--our "free-will" must be preserved. So, God desires all people to be saved, yet not everyone is saved because not all choose to be saved. (The name "Arminianism" comes from Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian who rebelled against the standard teaching of the church back in the late 16th century.)
- Reformed. This is a Christian perspective that would understand that an individual's salvation is entirely dependent on the Lord. Our decisions and choices are real and we are held accountable for them, yet apart from the Lord's intervening work, none of us would choose God, thus it is God's prior choice of us that determines our response. The reason that "all" are not saved is because God has not determined that "all" will be saved. (The name "Reformed" comes from the Protestant Reformation which occurred in the early 16th century, especially the tradition that followed John Calvin's teaching. The "Reformed" understanding of God's sovereignty in salvation was the predominant position throughout church history, but had been lost in the period leading up to the Reformation.)
An Understanding of 1 Timothy 2:4
As far as the interpretations go, it would seem like the Reformed tradition has the biggest problem with making sense of this verse. In fact, 1 Timothy 2:4 is a traditional proof-text that Arminians will typically run to when trying to discredit Reformed theology. So, how can those of the Reformed tradition make sense of this verse? If the Reformed believe that not all are saved because God has not elected all to be saved (see Rom 9:14-23), then how does 1 Timothy 2:4 make any sense at all? Doesn't the passage plainly say that God "desires all people to be saved"? There are two basic interpretations of this verse (and other verses similar to it):
(1) The Two Wills of God. This is what is sometimes referred to as God's "antecedent" and "consequent" will (Thomas Aquinas) or God's "secret" and "revealed" will (Jonathan Edwards). A contemporary proponent of this perspective would be John Piper who refers to the "will of decree" and "will of command." This interpretation would see a difference between what God desires to happen and what He ultimately decrees to happen. God desires all to be saved, but He does not ultimately decree that all are saved. John Piper explains, "God wills not to save all, even though he is willing to save all." A helpful illustration would be Ezekiel 18:23, "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?" God takes no delight in the death of the wicked--He does not enjoy it. And yet, the wicked still perish. God desires something (the wicked not perishing) that does not ultimately happen. Why would God desire something but not get it? Why would He desire to save all, but not allow all to be saved? Universalists reply, "If God desires all to be saved then all must be saved." Open Theists reply, "God may desire all to be saved, yet all aren't saved because God can't save all." Arminians and Calvinists (Reformed) repudiate both of those replies.
Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that the problem does not lay in God's inability nor do they ignore the Bible's teaching of the reality of hell. Offering an alternative for why God does not save all, Piper explains, "because there is something else that [God] wills more, which would be lost if he exerted his sovereign power to save all." Believe it or not, both Arminians and Calvinists affirm this--the two wills of God. They simply disagree on what God's higher commitment is that prevents all persons from being saved.
John Piper explains:
"The difference between Calvinists and Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is. What does God will more than saving all? The answer given by Arminians is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving all people by sovereign, efficacious grace. The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God's glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29)."
Therefore this perspective would say that God desires all to be saved but this "desire" is fundamentally different than what God ultimately determines or decrees to happen.
(2) All Persons Without Distinction. This perspective views that when Paul explains that God desires "all people" to be saved he is not referring to all persons without exception, but to all persons without distinction. In other words, Paul is not referring to God's desire for all individuals who have ever lived, but to all kinds of people. God is not only the savior of Jewish people, but of non-Jewish people as well! This would make sense why then a few verses later Paul emphasizes that he was a missionary to Gentiles (non-Jews). After explaining that we should pray for "all people" because God desires "all people" to be saved because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for "all people," Paul concludes with this: "For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth," 1 Tim 2:7. Why does Paul need to insert that little parenthetical oath (I swear I'm not making this up!). Likely because so few of the early Christians believed that people who were not Jewish could actually be saved.
In Acts 15, there has to be an entire church council held to figure out whether or not its okay for Gentiles to become Christians. The subtext of the entire book of Romans is the division that is occurring in the church between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. It takes a vision from heaven with God coercing Peter to be okay with entering into a Gentile household and sharing the gospel with Cornelius in Acts 10. Heck, in Acts 6, there is a division between between two classes of Jewish Christians because one of them is more culturally Hellenistic than the other--imagine what it would have been like for them to have someone in the church who hadn't been Jewish at all!
For centuries and centuries, Jewish people were told that their people, children of Abraham, were God's chosen people. And if anyone wanted to enter into a saving relationship with Yahweh, they had to first become Jewish. Further, there was a deep animosity that ran between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. It would have been similar to the way a Southerner would have viewed a Northerner shortly after the Civil War. There was deep distrust and anger, not to mention a wide cultural distance between the two groups. Now, after the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus, it didn't matter whether you were Jewish, Greek, Scythian, or slave (Col 3:11). All that mattered was your relationship with Jesus, and Jesus was open and available to any and all cultures, ethnicities, and tribes. So now, Jews and Gentiles were not only going to need to inhabit that same space together, they needed to practice the "one another" commands as fellow church members! This was a massive upheaval to the collective psyche of the recent Jewish converts to Christianity (and remember, the overwhelming majority of the early church was comprised of Jews). This is why Paul's letters are so frequently littered with reminders that the gospel is available to both Jews and Gentiles alike and that in Christ there actually, "is neither Jew nor Greek...for you are all one in Christ Jesus," Gal 3:28 (see also Eph 2:11-22).
Therefore, when Paul is explaining that God desires "all people" to be saved, he is referring to all kinds of people to be saved. Don't think that you shouldn't pray for those emperors or governors (1 Tim 2:2) just because they are Roman or Greek--pray for all people; God desires people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to be gathered around His throne (Rev 5:9-10).
I admit that at first glance the "all persons without distinction" can seem like a cop-out of an answer: so "all" just doesn't mean "all"? But I think that if you spend more time immersing yourself in the New Testament with an eye for it, you will begin to see how central this dilemma was in the early church--it is almost present in every letter of the NT. Thus, I find the "all persons without distinction" argument to be more satisfactory than the "two wills of God" interpretation in 1 Timothy 2:4. That doesn't mean, however, that I would disagree with the general argument made of the two wills of God by Piper (or Edwards, or Aquinas). I think that argument is fundamentally correct and I would affirm the Calvinistic interpretation of God's highest commitment being to the display of His glory. I believe all of that is gloriously true! I just don't think that is the main point Paul is trying to make here in 1 Timothy. I think the thrust of what Paul is getting across is that we should never forsake praying for someone because they belong to a certain class, group, or culture. No "tribe" is too far from God that He cannot save them, so pray, pray, pray with all diligence for God to move His sovereign hand and save.