Does God Desire The Salvation Of All Men?
By Brian Anderson
Does God really desire the salvation of all men? Over the last two thousand years of church history there have been two major views held by Christians regarding this question. A closely related question is, "Why are certain people saved rather than others?" Calvinists claim that the deciding factor in a man's salvation is God's will while the Arminian just as decidedly affirms it is man's will. The question really comes down to, "Does God's sovereign will or man's free will ultimately determine who will be saved?
On the one hand, Calvinists have held that God is absolutely sovereign over all things, including the salvation of all who will ever be saved. They affirm that God has chosen to save a definite number of specific persons out of the human race by the redemption of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In this school of thought, all the credit must be ascribed to God's sovereign grace if any man is ever saved. On the other hand, Arminians have held that God desires all men to be saved, that Christ has died for all men, and that sufficient grace is given to every man that he might be saved. In this school of thought, salvation is ultimately determined by the right use of the sinner's free will. God has done everything He can to save all men, and now it is up to the sinner whether he will make a right use of his will to be saved or not.
Historically, when Calvinists have interpreted 1 Timothy 2:4, where the Bible says that God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, they have done so by saying "all men" refers to "all men without distinction." In other words, God desires all "sorts" or "kinds" of men to be saved. The Calvinist finds himself forced to this conclusion, because he takes at face value passages which say that God chose believers in Christ before the foundation of the world according to the good pleasure of His will (Eph.1:4-6), and that the reason believers come to faith is because they were previously appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48). Additionally they have seen that Romans 9 teaches that God has mercy on whom He desires, and hardens whom He desires, so that salvation does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Rom.9:15-18). Thus, if God has sovereignly decreed who will receive salvation, Calvinists reason, it cannot be true that He desires the salvation of all men.
Arminians, on the other hand, take 1 Timothy 2:4 at face value, and believe that "all men" means "all men without exception," or the whole human race. However, in ascribing that interpretation to 1 Timothy 2:4, they find it necessary to give the passages quoted above a different meaning other than the natural and plain sense. In order to maintain the universal desire for the salvation of all men, Arminians often interpret Ephesians 1:4-6 simply that God has chosen those sinners who make the choice to be in Christ. Thus, they make election merely a ratification of the sinner's choice of Christ, rather than God's sovereign decision to save whom He will.
What can be discerned in this whole theological debate, is that both the Calvinists and the Arminians are forced to give certain passages of Scripture a different meaning other than that which seems to be their natural and plain sense, in order to maintain consistency with their system. Charles Simeon, writing nearly two hundred years ago, noted this problem in the preface to his Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible, where he stated,
Many have carried their attachment to a system so far, that they could not endure to preach upon any passage of Scripture that seemed to oppose their favorite sentiments; or, if they did, their whole endeavor has been to make the text speak a different language from that which it appeared to do. In opposition to all such modes of procedure, it is the Author's wish in this preface to recommend a conformity to the Scriptures themselves, without any solicitude about systems of man's invention. Nor would anything under heaven be more grateful to him than to see names and parties buried in eternal oblivion, and primitive simplicity restored to the Church. (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible (Preface), Zondervan, xxi ff.)
The theological controversy really stems from two doctrines which appear to be mutually exclusive to one another -- God's desire for the salvation of all men, and God's predetermined choice of particular persons to eternal life. Calvinists deny God's desire for the salvation of all men, because they believe it contradicts the doctrine of sovereign election clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. Arminians deny sovereign election because they believe it contradicts the doctrine that God desires the salvation of all men, which seems to be so clearly taught in 1 Timothy 2:4.
Context Of 1 Timothy 2:3-7
Before examining verses 3-7 more closely, it is important that we understand the context for Paul's remarks. It must be remembered that Paul is writing to Timothy to inform him as to how one ought to conduct himself in the church of God (3:15). With that purpose in mind, he has informed Timothy of his obligation to silence the Jewish false teachers who were paying attention to myths and endless genealogies which gave rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God by faith (1:3-4).
In chapter two, Paul continues speaking about appropriate conduct within the church of God, and begins with the subject of corporate prayer. He exhorts the church to offer entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings on behalf of all men. It is clear that Paul is speaking of corporate rather than private prayer, because the entire chapter is devoted to discussing appropriate conduct within the church of God. For example, Paul instructs the women to dress modestly (2:9-10). Surely, the apostle was not concerned how the women dressed in private, but rather was urging them to discretion and modesty in the public meetings of the church. Furthermore, Paul exhorts the women not be authoritative teachers, but to learn with all submissiveness (2:11-15). Again, his goal is to instruct the women in the Ephesian assembly what is appropriate conduct in the public meetings of the church.
It is also clear that Paul is urging the church to evangelistic prayer; that is, to prayer for the salvation of the lost as its principal goal. This can be seen by the fact that Paul says that this praying is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved. The broader context includes a description of Christ as the one mediator who gave himself a ransom for all. The terms "Savior", "mediator", and "ransom", limit the scope of the prayers to the realm of redemption. Thus, the apostle is urging upon the church at Ephesus the duty of praying corporately for the salvation of all. He goes on to specifically mention kings and all who are in authority as one of the subjects of our petitions, stating that a benefit of this kind of praying is the tranquil and quiet life the church can then lead, being unmolested and undisturbed by the governing authorities of the State.
Paul then follows his exhortation to fervent and corporate evangelistic prayer by giving five reasons for this kind of praying.
God Is Pleased When We Pray For All
Paul declares in 1 Timothy 2:3, "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior." By using the term this, he is pointing backward to his exhortation in verse one to pray for the lost. The word "acceptable" means to receive gladly, or to accept with satisfaction. God eagerly accepts the church's prayers for the lost because it is consistent with His desire for their salvation. He is pleased when we set ourselves to pray for lost people the world over. The lost suffer shame and guilt in this life, but also unrelenting agony in an eternal hell in the life to come. It is good and pleasing to God that we take time as a church to pray for them.
God Desires The Salvation Of All
The second reason the apostle gives Timothy to pray for all men is that God desires the salvation of all men. I mentioned earlier that Calvinists have historically interpreted this verse to mean that God desires all "sorts" of men to be saved. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher in London during the last half of the 19th century takes issue with such an interpretation in his opening remarks in a sermon he preached based on 1 Timothy 2:3-4,
You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. "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 the 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. I know how to get rid of the force of the "alls" according to that critical method which some time ago was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard to truth. I was reading just now the exposition of a very able doctor who explains the text so as to explain it away; he applies grammatical gunpowder to it, and explodes it by way of expounding it. I thought when I read his exposition that it would have been a very capital comment upon the text if it had read, "Who will not have all men to be saved, nor come to a knowledge of the truth." Had such been the inspired language every remark of the learned doctor would have been exactly in keeping, but as it happens to say, "who will have all men to be saved," his observations are more than a little out of place. My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the Word of God. I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem to be inconsistent with myself, for whom am I that I should everlastingly be consistent? But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the Word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture. God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression. So runs the text, and so we must read it, "God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 26, Pilgrim Publications, p.50.)
I agree completely with Spurgeon. I believe the natural and plain sense of this text of Scripture is that God desires all men without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. There is nothing in the text itself, that necessarily limits word "all" to the elect alone. If God had wanted to teach that He desires the salvation only of the elect, He could have simply said, "who desires the elect to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," but of course He did not so inspire this text.
However, at the same time I affirm the Scriptural teaching of God's sovereign choice to save a definite number of Adam's race (2Tim.1:9; Rom.9:15-24). When faced with the doctrines of God's desire for the salvation of all and His sovereign election of certain persons to eternal life we need not feel forced to embrace either one or the other, but can and should affirm both at the same time.
In order to do so, we must carefully distinguish between God's will of decree and His will of desire. The framers of the Westminister Confession of Faith wrote, "From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will." In other words, they affirmed that God's decrees include His absolute predestination of all things and events. God's decrees can by no means ever fail or be thwarted. This ascription of absolute sovereignty to God in all things is perfectly consistent with God's Word which declares that,
- We have been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph.1:11)
- God declares the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure (Is.46:10)
- All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What hast Thou done?' (Dan.4:35)
- Our God is in the heavens. He does whatever He pleases (Ps.115:3)
We can distinguish between God's decree and desire if we consider the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Peter could declare, "This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death" (Acts 2:23). The crucifixion of Christ was according to God's sovereign decree. Yet, the men who crucified Christ are called "godless" men. We know that God does not desire that men commit sin. Instead, His Word reveals that He is pleased with holiness and obedience, whereas sin always offends and grieves Him wherever it is found. Thus, in the crucifixion of Christ we have an example of something God decreed that He does not necessarily desire, or take pleasure in.
General George Washington was once confronted with a very difficult and painful decision. One of his officers, Major Andre, committed treason during the Revolutionary War. Washington had to decide either to clear Major Andre of the charges, or to execute him for treason. The Major was a friend of the General's, and thus Washington did not want to have him put to death. Furthermore, Washington had the authority and the power to free the Major or let him go free. However, in this instance, the higher principles of justice and wisdom prevailed over his own personal desires, and Washington signed Andre's death warrant. Surely, if a human being can have emotions complex enough to decree what he does not desire, God, who is infinitely complex in His being, might do the same.
Frequently we make decisions that we do not necessarily desire to make. We may choose to go to work, even though we might really want to go fishing. We may choose not to eat a hot fudge sundae because we are on a diet, even though we would really like to. If we sometimes choose not to do something we would like to do, even though we have the power to do it, isn't it reasonable to believe God might do the same?
Therefore, we are not forced to choose either that God has chosen a definite number of the human family to eternal salvation or that He desires the salvation of all men. Since both are taught in Scripture, the posture of humility is to receive God's Word in its natural and plain sense, whether or not we can completely reconcile these two doctrines with our finite minds. By doing this, we can maintain the Scriptural teaching on God's sovereignty in salvation while at the same time take other passages at their face value which teach a genuine desire on God's part for the salvation of all.
For example, in Ezekiel 33:11 God says, "As I live! I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?" Again in Matthew 23:37 Jesus lamented over the unbelieving Jews of His day, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling." In both of these passages there is a clear desire on the part of God that the lost turn from their wicked ways and be saved from destruction, although God had not decreed that all would in fact be saved from that destruction. Therefore, Paul gives as a reason that we should pray for all men, that God genuinely desires the salvation of all men.
There Is Only One Way Salvation Can Be Obtained By All
Not only is it true that God is pleased when we pray for all, and that He desires the salvation of all, but it is also true that there is only one way that salvation can be obtained by all. Therefore, we must pray for all men, that they will come to see this way of salvation, and avail themselves of it. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Here the Scriptures teach us that there is only one God. Thus, if there is only one God, (revealed in Scripture as holy, just and sovereign), how can sinful man dare approach Him? How can a sinner be made right with God? The answer of the Bible is that there is only one way -- the Lord Jesus Christ is the one mediator between a holy God and sinful men. A mediator is a "go-between." His job is to bring two alienated parties back together. Christ in His work on the cross, has laid the groundwork for sinful men to be reconciled with the thrice holy God, by being punished for their sins. Notice that the Bible says there is one mediator, not two, ten, or one hundred!
Jesus taught this same truth when He declared, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me" (Jn.14:6). Peter declared this singular way of approach to God when He proclaimed to the members of the Sanhedrin, "There is salvation in no one else [Christ], for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
We must pray for all men because all need to be saved, and there is only one way they can be saved - through the blood and righteousness of Christ our mediator. Most men are completely blind to the glory of Christ. They see nothing of value in Jesus Christ, but instead are looking for salvation in all the wrong places, such as good works, religious rituals, priests, or spiritual gurus. We must pray for all men that they might see that salvation comes only through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ Paid A Ransom Sufficient For All
1 Timothy 2:6 states, "Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time." There are at least three basic views of the scope of Christ's atoning work - the particular, universal, and dualistic views.
The Universal View states that Christ died equally for all men. The Particular View states that Christ died for the elect alone. The Dualistic View asserts that Christ died for all, but not for all equally. Perhaps these different ways of looking at Christ's work on the cross can best be understood by a simple illustration.
The Universal View of Christ's atonement can be illustrated by imagining that a ship with hundreds of passengers goes down at sea. Before the ship sinks, an officer wires for help. An hour later, a rescue ship arrives big enough to take in all the shipwrecked passengers. The captain of the rescue ship notices hundreds of bodies bobbing up and down in the ocean, clutching planks and debris in order to stay afloat. The captain calls out from his megaphone, "Anyone who would like to be rescued, raise your hand, and I will take you to safety!" Many hands go up all over the water, and the captain responds by hauling them into his ship and taking them safely to shore.
Now let's change the illustration a little to see the Particular View of Christ's atonement. Again we have a passenger ship that goes down at sea. But this time a man offshore finds out that his wife and four children were on the ship that has sunk. In order to save his family, he rents a six-passenger motorboat, and speeds out to the site where the ship went down. There, as he observes hundreds of people bobbing up and down in the water, he spies his own family. Passing by the drowning multitudes, he directs his small craft to his family, hauls them in, and takes them to safety, while the rest perish at sea.
There are serious difficulties with both the Universal and Particular views of the atonement. The Universal View is represented by a man with a ship big enough to save all, but its captain goes out to save no one in particular. There is no definite design in his rescue mission. However, the Scriptures clearly teach that Christ had a definite people in mind when He went to the cross. The Bible teaches that Christ gave His life a ransom for many, that He laid down His life for the sheep, that He loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Mt.20:28; Jn.10:11; Eph.5:25). Christ did not die for a vague, nameless blob of humanity. Rather, He died to save all those the Father had given Him (Jn.17:2,9,19).
One the other hand, the Particular View sees Christ's mission as the man who went out to save his family in a boat only big enough to save his wife and children. This view fails to do justice to those many texts which ascribe an infinite and inexhaustible sufficiency to the cross of Christ. The Scripture declares that Christ was the lamb of God who took away the sins of the world, that He gave His life a ransom for all, that He tasted death for everyone, and that He is a propitiation not for believers only, but also for the sins of the whole world (Jn.1:29; 1Tim.2:6; Heb.2:9; 1Jn.2:2). Furthermore, Paul did not write "there is one God and one mediator also between God and the elect," but rather, "there is one mediator also between God and men."
Furthermore, those who hold to the Particular View, must agree that the man in the illustration is unable to give a sincere invitation for all those perishing in the sea to be saved, for even if they did desire to be saved, he has no room in his little boat for them. However, we need be in no doubt that God's invitations and offers of salvation to all men are sincere and genuine. Scripture is replete with God's sincere overtures of mercy. "Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other" (Is.45:22). "As I live!" declares the Lord God, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel!" (Ezek.33:11). "And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come" (Mt.22:3).
Happily, there is another view which avoids these pitfalls, and allows one to accept all of the Scriptural instructions about Christ's sacrifice at face value. In order to understand this view (the Dualistic View), imagine that the United States is at war with Cuba. A man's family is taken captive as prisoners of war, and are being taken back to Cuba across the Gulf of Mexico in a Cuban warship, when a violent storm capsizes the ship and causes it to sink. The man in Texas receives word that the warship his family was held captive on has gone down at sea, and being a captain in the United States Navy himself, goes out to rescue them in a massive ship. When he arrives, he quickly locates his family, and hauls them into the ship. Having rescued his family, he then calls out into his megaphone to the hundreds of drowning enemies, "If you would like me to take you to safety, just raise your hand!" Because of their bitter hostility to their avowed enemies, these Cuban sailors would sooner die than be saved by the United States Navy, and so all alike refuse the invitation. After sincerely and urgently offering again and again to bring anyone who wishes to safety, the man finally turns around and sadly heads back to shore.
In this illustration, the ship captain had a definite people in mind in his mission. He went to save his family. At the same time, his boat was capable of saving all those drowning at sea, and his invitations and pleadings were sincere. Likewise, the Scriptures teach that Christ in His death, had a definite design to save His elect, while at the same time made a sufficient provision for all. That is to say, Christ died especially for the elect. He made the salvation of all possible, but the salvation of the elect certain.
Thus, when the Scripture declares that Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all, it must mean that He died sufficiently for all. Take the sun for example. If there had only been one tree on the face of the earth, the one sun would still be necessary for its life and growth. However, although there are billions of trees on the earth, we don't need to have two, ten, or one hundred suns to give life to all those trees. The same sun is sufficient for all, whether there is one tree or a billion trees. Likewise, if there were only one elect person, Christ would still have needed to suffer and die to save him. However, if the number of elect persons were increased to include every person who has ever lived, Christ would not have had to suffer any longer to achieve their salvation. Christ's death is sufficient for the salvation of any possible number of persons. Robert Lewis Dabney wrote, "In itself, Christ's sacrifice is infinite and inexhaustible in merit, abundantly sufficient to take away all the sins that will ever be committed on earth." What Dabney was saying was that God could have saved every person who has ever lived by the death of Christ if He had so chose. The limitation in the atonement is not its sufficiency, but only God's sovereign intention to apply it only to the elect. Therefore, we can pray for the salvation of all men, because Christ's sacrifice is sufficient to save all men.
God Has Called Us To Preach The Gospel To All
The final reason we can pray for the salvation of all men, is because God has called us to preach the gospel to all men. If God had only commanded us to preach to a portion of the human race, we would have no basis for praying that the rest would be saved. But, because we are to preach to all, we can pray for the salvation of all. Along these lines, Paul wrote, "and for this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (1Tim.2:7).
The apostle Paul was commissioned by the risen Lord to preach, not just to Israel, but to all the nations of the world. "He [Paul] is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15). The word "Gentiles" means "nations." The gospel is not the exclusive possession of the nation Israel. Rather, it is to be proclaimed to every nation under heaven. Jesus said as much when He instructed His disciples, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mk.16:15), and "go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" (Mt.28:18-19). We can pray for all, because the gospel is to be preached to all. We are to command all men to repent; we are to invite all to come to the marriage supper; and we are to offer salvation to all on terms of repentance and faith. Thus, it is only right that we should pray for all those to whom we witness and preach.
I began this study by asking, "Does God really desire the salvation of all men?" I believe we may safely answer that question in the affirmative. Yes, God does desire the salvation of all men. Furthermore, Christ has died sufficiently for all men, and we are to preach the gospel to all men. Though God has chosen a definite number of the human family to eternal salvation, He still desires the salvation of all, and is pleased when we pray for all. Therefore, let's take up our responsibility to pray on behalf of all men. When the church meets, let's remember, first of all, to offer entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings on behalf of all men!