A refutation of the Arminian interpretation of 1st Timothy 2:4.
We begin our series on David Cloud’s proof texts against Calvinism in his article titled, “Some” Here is the first major false doctrines that are a danger to Bible-Believing Churches today. statement that he purports to contradict Calvinism,
“The Bible says that God wants all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-5; 2 Pet. 3:9).”
3. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4. who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
I need to say a few words about how Arminians approach this text before I provide an exegetical objection to Cloud’s interpretation. Next to 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4 is by far the most cited verse that Arminians use against Calvinists. The intention behind quoting, “who wants all men to be saved,” is to throw water on any idea that God has elected individuals to be saved, and to deny a particular intention in the atonement, as well as deny any notion that God has a special salvific love for his children.
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. I often ask Arminians whether God is just to destroy all the people in the world. The answer is usually “yes.” Then I ask, if so, can God be merciful and choose to elect some to be saved? Here is where they balk.
Why do they commit this blatant inconsistency? Arminians believe that “grace” is only grace if it’s given to all people. Yes, I know what you are thinking, “But that defeats the very meaning of grace.” Exactly, grace is undeserved. If God in his freedom chooses to give one person electing grace, he is not required to give someone else this same grace. “But that’s not fair!” someone may object. That’s right, it’s not fair-it’s called grace. We don’t want God to be fair. We want him to be merciful. If God were fair with us, we would all get our just due: to perish eternally in our sins.
Exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:4
The context has already been touched on above, but let me give it flesh. Arminians are fond of citing only part of verse 4, “who wants all men to be saved.” The default meaning for them is “every single individual on this planet.” I often hear them say, “all means all.” Well of course it does, but the question is “all of what?” This is where context must determine what “all” is referring to. So let us examine it by looking at the couple of verses that precede verse 4, 1.
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone- 2. for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4. who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
We could work backwards from verse 4 to 1, or forward from verse 1 to 4; either way, it is all connected. But let us work backwards to see the flow of Paul’s thinking. Notice verse 4 begins with “who”; the antecedent is obviously “God” in verse 3, which begins by saying that there is something good and pleasing to our God. What is “This” that Paul is referring to? Here we need to view verses 1 and 2 together as a unit. Paul is urging Timothy the importance of prayers and other spiritual disciplines to be made for everyone. He is not telling Timothy to open up the Ephesian phonebook and start praying for the Alphas and work all the way through to the Omegas.
Rather, Paul gives the key statement by noting that the regal class of kings and the higher social class of those in authority should be included in prayer and other disciplines. Why does Paul urge this command? So we may, “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Is Paul simply urging them to pray that the authority ruling powers will be mollified? No! Paul has something more eternally hoped for than temporal appeasement from the oppression of rulers; he would like to see them be saved. Hence, Paul immediately follows up by saying, “This is good,.” Paul has in mind that God does not intend to save only one particular social class of and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth people, but all social classes, including kings and those in authority. To read “all men” as “every single person in the world” is not warranted by the context and reveals a reading of one’s tradition and false notions into Paul’s important message to Timothy.
Arminians have wrongly interpreted this verse from a horizontal perspective. That is, they have read into this text the idea that all individuals in the world are in view. But Paul is giving us a vertical point of view of particular social classes. Therefore it is correct to say that Paul is speaking of all “kinds” or “sorts” of people, i.e., it is God’s desire that the social class of those in higher authority are not excluded from his saving grace.
In addition, if we are to grasp the full force of the meaning behind Paul’s statement “all men” in verse 4, it is necessary to briefly look at the historical context behind 1Timothy. Paul is writing Timothy who is in Ephesus and urging him to stay and fulfill teaching and ministerial duties (1). Try to imagine yourself as a Jewish convert being commanded to pray for-not just kings and those in authority-but Gentile kings and those in authority. This command obviously affects Gentile and Jewish listeners differently, but for the latter it would have been much more shocking to be exhorted to pray for not just heathens, but heathen authorities! God wants “all men” to be saved, those of the social class of kings and those in authority, which included Gentile authorities.
Another point that requires attention are the couple of verses that follow verse 4. It reads, “5. For” there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6. who gave himself as a ransom for all men- the testimony given in its proper time In verse 5, Paul uses the important connecting word “For” to give us the causal reason for what came before it. Paul is introducing sacrificial language in which he ties together the mediation of Christ with his atonement. Once again, we find the phrase, “all men,” in which Christ gave himself as a ransom. It would be absurd to state that Christ gave himself as a ransom for every single person on this planet, for if he did, every individual would be saved, not to mention that God would have no basis to judge any man for his sins (Cf. Matt. 20:28). Incidentally, it would be silly to read the following verses that contain the phrase “all men” or “all” with it meaning “every single individual on the planet” (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28, Mark 13:13, Acts 21:28, Acts 22:15). Others could be cited, but this sampling demonstrates clearly that it is an exegetical fallacy to use the default meaning “every single individual on the planet” when approaching these texts.
Paul is affiming that God has included the Gentiles in his plan of salvation by Christ giving himself as a ransom for “all men,” not just for the Jews; hence, the reason he immediately follows by saying, “And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle…to the Gentiles.” Given this context, we can begin to appreciate the ethnic dynamics of the Pauline gospel message.
In summary, Paul uses “all men” in verse 4 to refer to all social classes (in this case, inclusion of kings and those in authority); then in his second use of “all men” in verse 6 he refers to all (in this case, inclusion of Gentiles). With these contextual and historical dimensions of ethnicity the text, we can value why it is essential that we are careful not to import our 21st Century modern American cultural assumptions back into a 2,000-year-old Jewish letter. It is imperative that we listen to the historical context, as well as the immediate context to learn its intended meaning, rather than force our preconceived ideas of what we think the text should mean.
My friends, I ask you. Have you prayed for your authorities today? Or do you keep your prayers limited to only your social group? Have you prayed for other ethnic groups, or only your own?
Heed the command of the apostle Paul and pray for them, for he says that this is good and pleasing to God our Savior