Understanding 1 Timothy 2:4

John, how can election be true when 1 Timothy 2:4 clearly says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”?

Thanks for your question. This is usually the follow up question after people ask about 2 Peter 3:9 which I dealt with if we take a deep breath and summon up the courage to ask the simple question, “what does the context tell us about the use of the word “all” here?”, I believe we will come away with the correct interpretation. Actually, it is absolutely vital we do this because context tells us how a word is being used.

Sometimes the word “all” refers to all people everywhere, in fact, many times it does. On other occasions it means “all kinds” or “all classes or types” or “all within a certain type or class.”

We use the word “all” in the exact same way in the English language. When a school teacher is in a classroom and is about to start the class and asks the students, “are we ALL here?” or “is EVERYONE here?” he is not asking if everyone on planet earth is in the classroom. Because of the context in which the question is framed we understand that he is referring to all within a certain class or type – in this case, all the students in the class. To say that he is referring to all people on planet earth would be to grossly misinterpret the intended meaning of his question.

As we look at 1 Timothy 2:4, I believe the word “all” is being used to refer to all types of people. I say this based on the context. Here is the passage in 1 Timothy 2:1-4:

1 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.

Who are the “all people” of verse 1?

This is a very important question because I believe the “all people” of verse 1 are the same “all people” of verse 4, as the subject matter does not change in any way at all in the intervening verses.

When Paul wrote “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people..” was he asking Timothy to get the equivalent of the local phone book and starting with the alphas and going all the way through to the omegas (the Greek alphabet) begin to make supplication, pray, intercede and give thanks for each individual in the city… or more than that, the whole world? I don’t think so. Why do I say this?

Because Paul qualifies verse 1 with verse 2 when he speaks of “kings” (kings are types of people) and “those in high positions” (note again “those in high positions” are types of people).

Why should we pray for them?

One of the reasons we should pray for them is because these people (kings and those in high positions of authority) make decisions which affect society at large. If these people have their eyes opened, they will not be persecutors of Christians but will enact laws that will actually restrain sin so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” So one of the reasons to pray for them is because good government can mean a measure of peace in a society, and it is a lot easier to spread the Gospel when there is no civil unrest.

The passage also points us to another reason to pray, namely that God desires all (all who?) – all types of people, including these influential people with authority in society – to be saved.

His message to Timothy was this: Do not just pray for the peasants, the farmers and the uneducated (the people who seem to be coming to Christ in great numbers right now), but remember to pray for kings and the very rulers in society who are at this moment persecuting Christians. Make prayer of this kind a priority – do it “first of all” – pray for these people Timothy – make sure the Church is praying for these people – because God desires all kinds of people – even kings (or Emperors like Caesar) and the elete in society – people of every kind, to be saved.

We must remember that the earliest Christians were almost all from the lower class of society, so this would be BIG news to them. As Paul wrote elsewhere.. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Let us now go back to the passage in 1 Timothy 2, for there is still much more to glean.

Normally the verses that follow on from v. 4 are not brought into the equation, but they should. The very next word (after verse 4) is the word “for” which is a linking word, connecting what has been said with that which is to follow.

Why are we to pray for all kinds of men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? The answer is “5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

IF all men refer to all individuals on planet earth we are faced with two huge theological issues. Dr. James White outlines the problems this way:

“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, mediator 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).”

He continues, “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 there is no other consistent means of interpreting these words in 1 Timothy.” (The Potter’s Freedom, p. 142)

We must understand that the function or purpose of a mediator is to mediate – to come between two estranged parties in order to bring them together. Now, if “all men” refers to every individual on earth, then firstly, Christ often fails in his work as the mediator – for the Scripture makes it plain that God’s wrath will indeed be poured out on many in hell. Secondly, we are left with a ransom that in the case of those who end up in hell, does not actually pay for sin – they are in hell paying for their sin. If Christ actually paid for the sins of those who end up in hell, what did Christ’s sacrifice actually achieve for them? The answer is nothing at all. We would be left with an atonement that does not actually atone – a mere hypothetical redemption that achieves nothing in all actuality, for the lost sinner. We would be left with Christ as a failing Mediator who provides a redemption that does not actually redeem. I hesitate to even write those words, such is the scandal of them, but this is what we are left with if “all men” means everyone.

Christ is far more than a hypothetical Savior. Instead He fulfills the original prophecy of Matthew 1:21 when the angel told Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.”

Just as Christ in His High Priestly prayer made it clear that He was petitioning the Father for a distinct people and not the whole world… “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9) so He died (the very next day) in order to save them. Those He prayed for are the exact same people He died for, and the exact same people He is Mediating for now, in the presence of God. He is the perfect High Priest, the perfect Savior and the perfect Mediator on behalf of His people.

Turning to another Scripture in Revelation chapter 5, we are given prophetic insight into the future, revealing to us what Jesus the Lamb actually achieved in His atoning work on the cross. He did not save everybody or make a mere potential atonement available for everyone, but he made an effectual atonement – a powerful one that achieved its desired end or goal of saving certain specific people. What exactly did He achieve?

In Revelation 5:9, the heavenly anthems ring out in praise of the Lamb saying, “…for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed (specific, actual) people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…”

Note the very specific words used here in this verse. It does not say that Jesus ransomed the people OF but people FROM every tribe and language and nation. The Greek word for “from” is ek meaning “out of” – He redeemed people out of every tribe, language, people group and nation.. NOT all without exception, but all without distinction.

I mention this passage in Revelation 5 because this is in perfect harmony with 1 Timothy 2:4 which teaches very clearly that God desires all (all kinds of people) to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. God will have every tribe, tongue, people group and nation represented around the throne as the heavenly host sing of the Lamb who was slain to redeem them.

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

10 thoughts on “Understanding 1 Timothy 2:4

  1. John, I so much love what you are doing here at Effectual Grace. These two passages of Scripture you have recently addressed are obviously difficult passages that confuse many. You have presented and explained the context succinctly and it has greatly blessed me and I’m confident others. Thanks, brother!

  2. Funny thing, John. I think that the “any” in 2 Peter 3:9 is limited (by context) to the elect, but this 1 Tim 2:4 passage is a clear example of the various types of the wills of God.

  3. Thanks Justin for your kind and encouraging words.

    Stan – you make the assertion but provide no basis for it so there’s nothing for me to respond to. Why is it a “clear” example of the various types of the wills of God?

  4. John

    This is another one of the facets of the brilliant diamond of words studying the word “all” and the appropriate meanings applied in the Sacred Scriptures! thanks again!

  5. I wonder if this article by John Hendryx http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/desireallsaved.html is what Stan is getting at. That there is a world of difference between God desiring all men to repent and believe the Gospel and be saved, and God desiring to save the reprobate. I think he makes a good argument, but I can also definitely see the argument you put forward which is probably the more popular interpretation of reformed theologians down through the ages.

  6. ““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? ”

    Christ’s mediation on our behalf does not suggest all men who ever lived but it does suggest he mediates on behalf of all who desire it. No one on either side of this debate deny there are those who will go to hell. The question, rather, is whether or not God made a way for all men to be saved or whether his desire is that all would be saved while recognizing there are many who will never submit.

    If God’s desire is that all will be saved, there must be a corresponding possibility for it to happen. The Calvinist view of predestination negates that as a possibility and removes ‘man’s responsibility’ by virtue of the absolute impossibility that those chosen would or could even deny him. In the same way, if God intended to save some, he necessarilly deny’s others by intent, abandonment or not placing in the many the element of desire to ever respond positively to the Gospel. This denial or neglect is a determined decision to send those to hell which means he intended to create them specifically to go to hell.

    This does not follow the intent or logic of Scriptures like John 3:16 and forces you to accept different meanings and expressions of volume for words like ‘all’ and ‘the world’.

    Again; no one is questioning God’s Sovereignty or man’s depravity. Both are evident and both are detailed in Scripture but neither forces the Calvinist definitions of either election or predestination. There are too many hurdles to jump and words to re-define to make the case.

    God’s foreknowledge is universally understood by Christians on both sides as well; predestination, on the other hand, forces redefinition. It also opens up a well of uncertainty for the lowly of heart while bolstering the strong willed and those with great self esteem, ie; if the measure of a man’s ‘piety’ (using Barnes) is the measure of his conformity to Christ and his related works, how much works or how pious must one be to feel confidence? The measure then is subjective. The man of lower esteem will continually question whether he was truly called while the egocentric will be convinced of the value of his works. This does not follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ who reached out to the lowly, sinful, broken people of his time.

  7. John 3:16 does not deny election. It simply says that God’s love for the world was seen in the giving of His Son so that all the ones who believe will in no way perish. It does not address the question of who will believe… John deals with that elsewhere (John 10:26 for example “you do not believe because you are not My sheep”).

    Yes, the assurance of salvation is subjective, and that is why we are called to wrestle with this issue. Many people (and pastors) wish to avoid this at all costs and just say “look you prayed a prayer in 1997 and that is all that it takes” but Scripture does not see the issue that way – we are not saved by the mere profession of faith but by the possession of faith – authentic faith – and Scripture tells each of us to make our calling and election sure – to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith.

    For someone wrestling with this, Scripture would say “wrestle on” – until you are sure that the faith you have in Christ is genuine… it is genuine if you have love for the biblical Christ and have trusted in Him and His work alone as your only refuge to save you from your sin. All the elect come to Christ in this way, and it is the Holy Spirit who brings assurance of this to our hearts. There will always be a measure of the subjective in this, but to teach another way of assurance is unbiblical.

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