Understanding 1 Timothy 4:10

Pastor John, I appreciate your blog very much but I do have a question. Please could you explain 1 Timothy 4:10 which says, side effects “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.”

I am pleased to know that you are enjoying the blog and thank you for your question.

This verse has had many interpretations. Here are a few of them:

(1) Universalism – The idea that “God is the Savior of all men” means that all will be saved. This of course is contrary to all sound doctrine and in fact, has always been viewed as heresy by the Church. The proponents of this idea emphasize the love of God as God’s chief and most important attribute, to the exclusion of all others, such as His holiness and His justice. This heresy is very easily refuted because the Bible makes it very clear that some people will end up in hell, forever (Rev. 14: 9-11; 20:15; Matt. 5: 21-22, 27-30; 23: 15, 33; 25: 41, 46).

If the phrase “the Savior of all men” was seeking to teach universalism, the rest of the verse would have no meaning when it says “especially of believers.”

(2) God wants to save everyone but His desire is many times thwarted by the obstinate free will of man (the Arminian view). Note though that the passage does not say He wants to save, but that He actually saves: He is actually the Savior (in some sense) of all men. Also, God’s will is never frustrated (Isaiah 46:10).

(3) God is able to save all men, but though all can be saved, only believers actually are. Again, this is not what the text says.

(4) God is the Savior of all men (in one sense) and especially of those who believe (in another sense). I believe this is the correct interpretation.

As we study the terms “salvation” and “Savior” we find many nuances – many different ways God saves. The most important aspect of salvation is to be “saved” from the wrath of God (Romans 5:6-9), but salvation also includes the idea of rescue from enemy attack (Psalm 18:3); preservation (Matt. 8:25); physical healing (Matt. 9:22; James 5:15) etc. God “saved” not only Paul but everyone else on board ship with him in Acts 27:22, 31, 44. There are numerous ways that “salvation” takes place, but that’s a complete Bible study all in itself.

When we study the word Savior (Greek: soter) in the LXX version (Greek translation of the Old Testament) we see the word used in a way that is far less grandiose than that which we generally think of the word. One example is Judge Othniel is called a Soter (Savior) or deliverer because he delivered the children of Israel from the hands of the king of Mesopotamia (Jud. 3:9). 2 Kings 13:5 talks of God giving Israel a “Savior” so that they were delivered from the hands of the Syrians. The judges of Israel were “saviors” as Nehemiah 9:27 states, “in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies.” (see also Psalm 36:6)

A great deal more could be said to substantiate this idea of a savior, but I think the above would make the point. God provides food (Psalm 104:27, 28) sunlight and rainfall (Matt. 5:45), as well as life and breath and all things (Acts 17:25), for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God preserves, delivers and supplies the needs of all who live in this world, and it is in this sense that He extends grace to them, saving them from destruction every day they live.

God is also gracious in allowing many to hear the proclamation of the Gospel.

All of these mercies are referred to as “common grace.” It is common only in the sense that every living person gets it. This grace should actually amaze us because God is under no obligation whatsoever to give it to anyone. God sustains the lives of His sworn enemies, often for many decades! However, as wonderful as it is, it is only a temporal grace because all unregenerate people eventually die and will face the judgment (Heb. 9:27).

I believe then that 1 Timothy 4:10 teaches that we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior (Soter – preserver, sustainer, deliverer) of all people (showing mercy to all, each and every day they live), especially of those who believe (who receive full salvation from His wrath and everlasting life).

7 thoughts on “Understanding 1 Timothy 4:10

  1. Where would my view fall? I understand that Christ is the Savior of all men in the same way that the old West had a town teacher. That teacher was the teacher of the town (because there was no other), but especially of the kids that went to school. Or, to put it another way, Christ is the only available Savior for all men, and He saves in particular those who believe.

    That’s how I read it (seems obvious to me), but I’m not sure it falls in any of the categories you listed.

  2. Hi Stan – your view probably falls within the third category listed – and would be how I interpreted it for many years, however, I now feel that it does not give sufficient weight to the word “especially” in that there would be no actual effect gained for the non-believer. Your view would make Christ only a potential Savior for all people, not an actual one. I would suggest the words “the Savior of all men” have a much stronger meaning than merely “the potential Savior of all men.”

  3. Greetings,
    Having recently worked on this passage myself, a further answer to those who dislike the idea of “Savior” having two possible meanings here is to focus on the connection between the word “all” and the Greek word ‘malista’ that is translated as “especially.” In 2 Tim. 4:13 and Titus 1:10-11, the word is used in the sense of providing a more detailed explanation of the former general category – ie “that is…” So, “God is the Savior of all men THAT IS those who believe. Thus, Paul is not describing two groups, but further defining what he meant by the first more general classification. Where “all” refers to every kind or class of men, “especially” qualifies or limits salvation to those who believe (From George Knight’s commentary on the pastorals).

  4. Though I could agree with your #4 where I think you’re correct that God is the providential caretaker of all his creation, sustaining it in forebearance, I think the more correct understanding is in part what Stan said. The word malista can be used to mean especially, but is also used to me specifically or as Stan said particularly. In Acts 25 and 26 is is almost without doubt that it is used to mean specifically, and in 1 Tim 5, it must mean that or there is no sense in which one group of elders is favored over the other, but that is the specific point of the double honor.

  5. If the Greek word “malista” means “that is” as claimed, how would that make sense when it is used in Galatians 6:10 – “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially (malista) to those who are of the household of faith.”

    If the claim is that malista means “that is” this would mean “do good to everyone, that is Christians only.” I really dont think that is what the text means. It speaks of doing good to everyone, and especially doing good to fellow believers.

  6. Dear John. Useful site. After reading other opinions I agree with your interpretation of 1 Tim 4:10. This is not my own contribution but I read that in 1 Tim 4:16 the verb “save” shows that “to save” or “Savior” are not to be taken in the redeeming sense within Tim 4 context. Timothy is to protect himself and others (from false teachers) by preaching sound doctrine. In addition, Daniel 6:26-27 includes the idea of the “living God” (in parallel with 1 Tim 4:10) in the context of deliverance. The false gods of both societies (those of Daniel and Timothy) were not able to hear and deliver as God does. I don’t think Daniel 6:27 refers to salvation in terms of eternal life. 1 Tim 4:10 is then saying that we labor and strive (we suffer in this world) but our living God protects and delivers us, in the same way He does so with his enemies (common grace). He is the helper (deliverer, protector) of all humanity, specially of his Church.

  7. JS,

    I didn’t say it always meant “that is,” but at times it does. For instance, your reference in Calvin’s words: Beginning with liberality to ministers of the gospel, “Paul now makes a wider application of his doctrine, and exhorts us to do good to all men, but recommends to our particular regard the household of faith, or believers, because they belong to the same family with ourselves. This similitude is intended to excite us to that kind of communication which ought to be maintained among the members of one family. There are duties which we owe to all men arising out of a common nature; but the tie of a more sacred relationship, established by God himself, binds us to believers.”

    It is true that Calvin makes mention of the wider scope of Christian charity, however, he is right to keep the particularity within the context and so says that Paul begins with the ministers and broadens it, not to the world of men, but to the family of God, applying the principle of general providence. Therefore, he is saying that he means specifically the household of God, limiting the extent of malista. Calvin is purposely setting apart the broader scope and narrowly speaking of the family of God. Which is a matter of the context. Remembering that Paul had used Peter as an example while addressing the whole body at Galatia. So that, he then addresses the brethren and says if anyone is caught in a trespass. The conclusion is that Paul is not limiting correction to the leadership, but specifically to the whole. Then doing good to all men is to do good to the whole of the membership rendering the verse, let us do good to all men especially because they are members of the household of God. That is Calvin’s point and Paul’s and mine. The context tells us how to appropriate the meaning for malista. It would not be proper to be doing doctrinal teaching to the world at large. This was an in house debate. And beside, the world is to receive the Gospel not the training in righteousness just as Paul is forwarding in Timothy. And teaching, not general good-doing is the context.

    To be fair, I think Calvin makes a mistake in 1 Tim 5 in setting a context of ruling and teaching elders. Again, there the context is good rulers of family households, the elderly, both widows and old men. And when the double honor is applied it is applied to those who also teach and train in doctrine, rendering the phrase, because they both teach and train and are good rulers of households. The context is superior and it refers to all members of the household of God and then because some rulers of households are also rulers of the household of God and teach and train they should be doubly honored because theirs is a double duty.

    But then Calvin is not always consistent, for the distinction he makes in Gal 6, he doesn’t make in 1 Tim 5, when I think that the same construction and flow of thought persists. Paul is adressing the errors of believers that should be corrected just as he is in Galatians and the form of the argument is the same. Meaning that, the savior of the all men is refering to believers.

    All that said, I have to agree with the sense in which Calvin and you extend the providence of God. I just think that in the application you are working from the broader context of mankind to the specifics where Paul is working from the narrow context by alluding to God’s patient and extensive providence to all mankind.

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