Does 1 Timothy 2:4 Teach That God Wants Everyone Saved?

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  • Does 1 Timothy 2:4 Teach That God Wants Everyone Saved?

    by Jim Bublitz

    Ripped out of it's context, it appears that this passage is teaching us that God wants everyone to be saved. In response to Calvinists appealing to the context of this passage however, our friend Houston John declared: "God provided the means for the gift of salvation for all (and I do mean 'all' instead of the redefinition of the word to 'all kinds' by Calvinists)". Is it true that Reformed Theology actually changes the meaning of words such as 'all'? Let's take a look.

    This topic came up in a recent debate here on Old Truth with a non-Calvinist who goes by Houston John (we'll call him HJ for short). That's a pretty strong accusation to make, that Calvinists are deliberately changing word meanings to fit their system. So I challenged HJ to provide explanations for these other passages which use the word 'all' in a way that means something less than everyone:

    1) Mark 1:5 says "all the country of Judea went out to [be] baptized...in the Jordan". Who does that all mean? Absolutely everyone in Judea, or was it a less encompassing 'all'?

    2) John 8:2 - "All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them" Is that true? Every single person came to Him?

    3) 2 Cor 3:2 - "our letter of recommendation...to be known and read by all [men]." Does that include the emperor of China?

    4) Luk 16:16 - "the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone [same greek word Pas] forces his way into it". Really? Did Pilate force his way into it?

    5) 1 Cor 9:22 - "I am made all things to all, that I might by all means save some". Is that true? Was he made a clown so that, for the leader of Japan whom he used all means to save?

    6) 1 Cor 10:23 - "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient". Wow, adultery and murder are lawful for him under HJ's translation of 'all'! What kind of theology are you teaching HJ?!?!?!?

    7) Eph 6:21 - "Tychicus,... shall make known to you all things". He's going to teach them AstroPhysics!!!!!!

    8) Acts 4:21 - "all men glorified God for that which was done". Really? Did the Pharisees glorify God for what was being done?

    9) Luke 21:17 - "Jesus told his disciples that they would be 'hated of all men'". Imagine that, people in remote tribes of Africa hating the disciples.

    10) Acts 21:28 - "Paul was accused of teaching all men everywhere against [the law]". How did Paul get to every place on earth and teach them things?

    I followed that up with an excerpt from James White's book The Potter's Freedom, which had this to say about 1 Timothy 2 (see the passage in question):
    [Paul] states that such prayers for all kinds of men is good and acceptable "in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."

    If we are consistent with the preceding context we will see "all men" here in the same manner as "all men" of the preceding verses: all kinds of men, whether rulers or kings. But there is much more reason to understand Paul's statement in this way.

    Almost invariably, proponents of Arminianism isolate this passage from the two verses that follow. This must happen of necessity for the questions that can be asked of the non-Reformed position based upon verses 5 and 6 are weighty indeed. Verse 5 begins with the word "for," indicating the connection between the statement made in 3-4 and the explanation in 5-6. Why should Christians pray that all men, including kings and rulers, be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? Because there is only one way of salvation, and without a knowledge of that truth, no man can be saved. Paul says, "there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all."

    This immediately takes us into the meat of the discussion of the atonement, but for now just a few points should be made.

    First, if one takes "all men" in verse 4 to mean "all men individually," does it not follow that Christ of necessity must be mediator for all men as well? If one says, "Yes, Christ mediates for every single human being," does it not follow that Christ fails as mediator every time a person negates His work by their all-powerful act of free will? One could hope that no biblical scholar would ever promote such an idea, for anyone familiar with the relationship between atonement, mediation and intercession in the book of Hebrews knows well that to make such an assertion puts the entire argument of Hebrews 7-10 on its head. For the moment, we simply point out that it is far more consistent with biblical theology to recognize that Christ mediates in behalf of the elect and perfectly saves them than it is to assert that Christ mediates for all (but fails to save all).

    The second point is closely related to the first: the ransom that Christ gives in His self-sacrifice is either a saving ransom or a non-saving one. If it is actual and really made in behalf of all men, then inevitably all men would be saved. But we again see that it is far more consistent to recognize that the same meaning for "all men" and "all" flows through the entire passage, and when we look at the inarguably clear statements of Scripture regarding the actual intention and result of Christ's cross-work, we will see that there is no other consistent means of interpreting these words in 1 Timothy.

    In response to this, HJ's reply seems to have conceded the reality that I wanted to demonstrate about the word 'ALL'. He said:

    Regarding the use of the word "all" I certainly agree that "all" does NOT necessarily refer to every person in the whole world and that there are many examples in Scripture (such as you provided) where it, indeed, does not mean everyone in the world. We are in full agreement.

    However, in regards to the atonment I do believe "all" means "everyone in the whole world". That was what I was clarifying as seems clear to me in the context of my post.

    So although HJ agrees that the word 'ALL' doesn't always mean "everyone everywhere all of the time", he seems to now be implying that Calvinists are twisting the word 'ALL' just on "atonement scriptures". Apparently HJ even feels that Jesus' atonement applies to even those who died in Sodom and whom we know were already in hell at the time of the Cross. That begs the questions, what kind of atonement is it - that fails to atone for sins? And was anyone really saved at the cross? That's perhaps a subject for another page. In this post however, we are trying to get to the bottom of whether Calvinists are really guilty of word-redefinition.

    Calvinists believe that the word 'ALL' needs to be translated according to it's context, in order to determine the scope of who it is encompassing. HJ however, seems to be saying something else however. His rule for understanding the scope of 'ALL' is that, whenever a passage is talking about "atonement" - then 'ALL' automatically gets assigned the meaning "everybody everywhere all of the time". So we would like to ask HJ about the source of this rule. We question, why should someone reading the bible break from normal contextual exegesis in order to accommodate what seems like an arbitrary rule. What troubles us, for example, is someone else might say another greek word always mean one thing when it's talking about a female and another thing when it's talking about a male. Well the burden of proof is upon the person who declares such a rule, to demonstrate it's validity. You can't just say "that's the way it is" and not have evidence for it. We call upon HJ to provide that.

    Also, as a follow-up to James White's excerpt (above) HJ also had this to say:

    You know, Mr. White should perhaps do a little more exhaustive research before stating so unequivocally that it is the proponents of Arminianism that equate the "all" in 1 Timothy 2:4 and following with each and everyone in the whole world. For McArthur, Spurgeon and Henry all equate "all" with "everyone in the whole world".

    Mr. MacArthur: "Since God desires all men to be saved, we are not required to ascertain that a person is elect before praying for that person's salvation. God alone knows who all the elect are. We may pray on behalf of all men with full assurance that such prayers are good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior." Thank you Mr. MacArthur.

    Matthew Henry: "We must also pray for all men, for the world of mankind in general, for particular persons who need or desire our prayers . . .This one God will have all men to be saved; he desires not the death and destruction any but the welfare and salvation of all." Thank you Mr. Henry.

    And last, but certainly not least Mr. Spurgeon who issued quite a sharp rebuke to hard-Calvinist apologists that held otherwise. Spurgeon: "'All men' say they -- that is 'some men': as if the Holy Ghost could not have said 'some men' if he had meant some men. 'All men,' say they: that is 'some of all sorts of men'; as if they Lord could not have said 'all sorts of men' if he had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written 'all men' and unquestionably he means all men." Couldn't have said it better myself, Mr. Spurgeon.

    I thought you guys here were moderate Calvinists. Your interpretation of this passage is not in line with many of the moderate Calvinists you have appealed to in the past. So if not all is in order in the Calvinist house on these verses I find it ironic you fault the Arminian for our interpretation of the same.

    In these quotes, HJ has uncovered a difference of opinion that some Calvinists have between themselves. Just as all Arminians do not agree with each other on everything, this is one area where there is room for some in-house debate. What HJ may not realize though, is that the end result of these different schools of thought is still the same, with all of the parties involved still maintaining full 5 point Calvinism. So it may have been a bit premature for HJ to declare that "all is not in order in the Calvinist house".

    With MacArthur and Spurgeon, what's happening is that they are making a distinction between God's decree and His desire. So for example, these men would say that God does not desire for anyone to suffer (think of a young child with Cancer for example), and yet God has decreed this suffering (which is an inescapable conclusion of God's prescience of future events from eternity past). So these men would also say that God desires that all would be saved, but he has decreed that only the elect will be saved. What I just described is what is often called "the two wills of God" which is believed by John Piper as well, and he has written probably the best description of it that I have read. But the important thing to note, is that the Calvinist proponents of the two wills of God are still maintaining God's sovereign choice in election and His atonement for the elect (the U and the L and the whole TULIP as a matter of fact).

    Other Calvinists maintain that the context of 1 Timothy 2:1-4 is key to understanding what "all men" means in verse 4. We believe that the word 'ALL' in verse 4 means the same thing it did in verse 1 and 2, which is "all types of men" as James White explained above.

    So while HJ is thanking the Calvinists that he has quoted above, we will remind him that this discovery on his part gains him no ground in his disagreement with Calvinism, it only presents another path leading to the same 5 point destination. Furthermore, HJ has more explaining to do if he is going to convince anyone that Calvinists have redefined the word 'ALL'. We maintain that the word is always defined by context, not by tradition or human insistence that it must fit into the translator's own presuppositions. Perhaps HJ will comment further, and clear this up for us.
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