Exegeting 1 Timothy 2:4: God Our Savior, Who Desires All People To Be Saved

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To some Calvinists, the very mention of an Arminian exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:4, in an effort to defend the biblical notion that God desires the salvation of every individual on earth, is insulting, both logically and theologically.

As Alan Kurschner, from the Triablogue blog, stated, “Arminians start with the human-centered assumption that if God does not love all people undifferentiated, then he would be unjust to love some more than others. The Calvinist begins with the Biblical principle that because man is unworthy of grace and deserving only of death, God in his holiness, wisdom, and freedom chooses to love and elect any creature he desires.”

Did you notice that, according to Kurschner, Arminians start with a “human-centered assumption,” while the Calvinist “begins with the Biblical principle”? How very odd that the Arminian’s defense of God’s love for the world is a “human-centered” concept (cf. John 3:16)! That bit has always puzzled me. I mean, how is it that Arminians even “assume” that God desires the salvation of the world except by means of biblical revelation and all that is revealed about the character of God in the Bible?

If anything, the Arminian “begins with the Biblical principle” that God loves the world (John 3:16) and desires its salvation (1 Tim. 2:4), while the Calvinist starts with the philosophical notion that if single, unconditional election unto salvation is true, then God cannot genuinely (and consistently) imply that He loves and desires the salvation of the world.

Paul wrote a letter to Timothy between AD 63-66 about fighting “the good fight,” and “keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Tim. 1:18-19 NASB and henceforth). He left instructions with Timothy concerning worship, prayer, and leadership in the church. He warned him against the dangers present in his culture and even in the church.

In chapter 2, Paul urged Timothy to pray “on behalf of all men . . . so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (2:1-2). Paul noted that such a thing is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (2:3). Nero was in power during this time, and life in the empire was anything but “tranquil and quiet” for Christians.

It was AD 64 when Rome began to burn. As Herbert W. Benario has noted, “The fire began in the southeastern angle of the Circus Maximus, spreading through the shops which clustered there, and raged for the better part of a week. There was brief success in controlling the blaze, but then it burst forth once more, so that many people claimed that the fires were deliberately set.”

Who was to blame for starting this fire? It was blamed on Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, held secret meetings and called for people to repent and believe on Christ Jesus. Paul and Peter were ministering in Rome during this time, which gave Nero “fuel for the fire” in making them “his scapegoats.” It is easy to understand why Paul “urged” Timothy that “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life . . .” (2:1-2).

Paul then declared that doing so is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires [present tense] all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). Paul did not say that God had “decreed” all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. He simply said that God “desires” (present tense) all people to be saved. That distinction needs to be made. Universalism is heresy. How could Christ Jesus confess that a majority of humanity will be rejected from God’s kingdom (Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23) if God had “decreed” (in the strict sense of that word) to save everyone?

The Greek word for “desires” (in verse 4) is thelo (cf. Mk. 9:35; Lk. 20:46; Jn. 16:19; 2 Cor. 12:6; Gal. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:7; 5:11). I. Howard Marshall remarks, “Some scholars have drawn attention to the use of the verb thelo in 1 Timothy 2:4 and have argued that this verb is weaker than the verb boulomai and that it may simply express ‘the Biblical notion that God does not take pleasure in the death of a sinner (Ezek. 18:23).’ These two conclusions do not stand up to scrutiny, as the following . . . arguments indicate. . . .

“So far as the linguistic problem is concerned, it is true that thelo normally expresses a wish or desire, but this does not necessarily mean that it expresses a mere wish as opposed to a real purpose. The range of meaning of the less-commonly used verb boulomai [for “will” or “desire”] is also wide. It can express both an intention and a determination. The closeness of the meanings of the two verbs can be seen by a glance at the associated nouns; both can express the will or purpose of God. . . .

“Surprising as it may seem, Paul never uses boulomai of God except in this verse [1 Cor. 12:11], and the only other New Testament uses are Matthew 11:27 (Luke 10:22); Luke 22:42 (where the use is identical with that of thelo in James 4:15); Heb. 6:17; James 1:18; and 2 Peter 3:9.

“The last of these texts is especially instructive for our purpose because it declares that God does not will that any should perish but rather that all should come to repentance. Here, in effect, we have a precise parallel in thought to 1 Timothy 2:4 using the stronger word. He, therefore, who contends that it is a weaker verb that is used here must explain why the stronger verb is used to the same effect in 2 Peter. . . . From all this it follows that we cannot weaken the sense of 1 Timothy 2:4 by claiming that the verb has a weak sense. What is expressed is what God genuinely desires to see happen.”1

It is not a little peculiar as to why Calvinists balk over 1 Timothy 2:4 since they often make such a sharp distinction between God’s varying degrees of love. Since, in their view, God loves His elect to a degree that He does not love others, then why should their interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4 appear so forced or strained in explaining away the obvious implication (such as the ridiculous amount of effort spent on an attempt to make “all men” in 2:1 mean “all kinds of men” ~ the reference is not to races of people, but to people)? Could not God be said, in their view, to especially love His elect but to love the world in another fashion? And if so, then why not interpret 1 Timothy 2:4 in those terms instead of performing the aforementioned hermeneutical gymnastics? Or does one suppose that they, too, understand the implications that if God indeed “desires” that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, then it would be inconsistent of Him to elect only some unto salvation by a mere decree?

Not only do we find Paul confessing that God desires the salvation of all people, but he then built upon that undeniable truth by stating, “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” (2:5-6, emphasis mine). Shall we contend that Christ gave Himself as a ransom for “all kinds” of people in an effort to deny that His ransom was actually “for” all people (to be received by faith ~ Rom. 3:25)? Is Paul trying to convey that Christ is a ransom for people categorically, or is the thrust of the passage the majesty of Christ’s offer of justification to all people by faith in Him, as the Arminian (and the Bible) insists?

And yet the writer to the Hebrews states, “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3b; 2:17; 10:12). Christ Jesus was to be a sin offering (Rom. 8:3; 1 John 2:2), offering salvation to all who would, by grace, believe on Him (Rom. 3:25).

Scripture is too clear in stating that God does not desire the death of the wicked but would, rather, be pleased at their repentance (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11) to believe in Calvinism’s model. And if Calvinists were correct, in that it is God’s good pleasure to reprobate the majority of human beings, having not elected them by decree unto salvation from before the creation of the world, and this for His glory, then the Bible simply cannot be read at face value, but must be interpreted through a strict Calvinistic lens.

1 I. Howard Marshall, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 55-56.