Does God will all people to be saved?

By Adam Brown –

Personal Note

I do not pretend this blog post to be air-tight or absolutely conclusive. I initially wrote it for myself as I made every effort to interpret 1 Timothy 2:4. I am sharing it with you so that you might gain insight into my interpretative efforts. I welcome interaction, so long as we are irenic and charitable with one another. It seems to me that this verse – 1 Timothy 2:4 – defies universal agreement.

In Summary

God wills all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Paul asserts this in 1 Timothy 2:4 to affirm that it is good and pleasing to God that we pray for the salvation of all people, including kings and all who are in high positions.

Throughout 1 Timothy 2:1–7, Paul uses the word πάς (all) in a categorical sense. What is true of all people, categorically, may not be true of any and every individual person.

The Scriptures seem clear that God does not will to save any and every individual person. In fact, Romans 9 seems to make it clear that God actively wills against the salvation of certain individuals by hating some, hardening some, and making some for dishonourable use. This activity of God against the salvation of some demonstrates that while God wills all kinds of people to be saved – people from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:10) – God does not will that any and every individual person be saved.

Lastly, the Scriptures also teach that God does not derive pleasure in the destruction of any, even while He wills the destruction of some (c.f. Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).

Introduction

That God wills all people to be saved is undeniable. It is clearly written in 1 Timothy 2:4 (c.f. Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11; Mark 16:15–16; John 3:16; Acts 17:30; 1 Timothy 4:10; 2 Peter 3:9). However, what does it mean?

To begin, let’s look at 1 Timothy 2:3–4:

2:3 τοῦτο (this) is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, 4 ὃς πάντας ἀνθρώπους θέλει σωθῆναι (who wills all people to be saved) and to come to an understanding of the truth.

Now, the following questions:

  1. To what is τοῦτο (this) referring (2:3)?
  2. To whom is πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people) in 1 Timothy 2:4 referring?
  3. Regarding salvation, what else do the Scriptures say that God θέλει (wills)?

Question 1: To what is τοῦτο (this) referring (2:3)?

The antecedent of τοῦτο (this) is 1 Timothy 2:1–2

1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

In v. 1, Paul exhorts the church to pray for all people.

In v. 2, Paul then, more specifically, indicates what he means by “all people.” All people includes kings and those in high positions. Paul gives a reason for these prayers, that those in the church might lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

In v. 3, Paul anticipates and pre-empts an objection by affirming that such prayers are good and pleasing to God. Hence, “τοῦτο” (this) is referring to Paul’s command that the church pray for all people, including kings and those in high position.

In v. 4, Paul substantiates why such prayers are good and pleasing to God. Such prayers are good and pleasing to God because God desires all people to be saved and to come to an understanding of the truth. The πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people, accusative case) in v. 4 directly corresponds to the πάντων ἀνθρώπων (all people, genitive case) in v. 1.

In sum, to rightly interpret πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people) in v. 4, it is necessary to identify the πάντων ἀνθρώπων (all people) in v. 1. The reason for this is that in v. 4, Paul is defending why prayer for these people is good and pleasing to God. Therefore, v. 4 cannot be interpreted apart from its function within the immediate context of the passage. This brings us to our second question.

Question 2: To whom is πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people) in 1 Timothy 2:4 referring?

The word πάς (all) is used six times in 1 Timothy 2:1-7:

  1. 2:1, I desire then, πρῶτον πάντων (first of all). . .
  2. 2:1, . . . that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for πάντων ἀνθρώπων (all people). . .
  3. 2:2, . . .for kings and πάντων τῶν ἐν ὑπεροχῇ (all who are in high positions). . .
  4. 2:2, . . . that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, ἐν πάσῃ εὐσεβείᾳ καὶ σεμνότητι (in all godliness and dignity). . .
  5. 2:4, . . . who wills πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people) to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. .. .
  6. 2:6, . . . who gave himself as a ransom ὑπὲρ πάντων (for all).

Instance (1), πάντων (all) does not refer to any person, but rather to a list of forthcoming instructions. First in this list of instructions is the exhortation to pray.

Instance (2), πάντων ἀνθρώπων (all people) refers to the people that Paul is exhorting his readers to pray for.

Instance (3), πάντων τῶν ἐν ὑπεροχῇ (all who are in high positions) refers to people of a particular social-political category. These people are probably not the exact same as the πάντων ἀνθρώπων (all people) from instance (2), but are, rather, a sub-group within them (a second sub-group would be “kings”).

Instance (4), ἐν πάσῃ εὐσεβείᾳ καὶ σεμνότητι (in all godliness and dignity) refers to the desired goal of these prayers. That is, the prayers for all people, for kings and all who are in high position, are aimed at establishing a peaceful context within which the Christians can live in a way that is consistent with the Gospel that they profess.

Instance (5), πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people) refers to the same people that Paul is exhorting his readers to pray for in instance (2).

Instance (6), ὑπὲρ πάντων (for all) refers to the people for whom Jesus died as a ransom. This is likely the same people referenced in instances (2) and (5).

Of the six uses of the word πάς (all), Instances 2, 3, 5, and 6 ought to be understood together. Instances 1 and 4 do not refer to people, and therefore, can be removed from our consideration.

With this information, let us reconstruct the logic of Paul’s argument. To begin, notice that the same use of “all people” is employed in instances (2) and (5). The two are connected by the coherent logic of the passage.

Pray for all people. Why? Because God wills all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Instance (3) is connected to Instance (2), which thus expands the logic of the passage:

Pray for all people. [Pray even] for kings and all who are in high positions. Why? Because God wills all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Implication: God even desires kings and all who are in high positions to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

This leaves us with Instance (6), which Paul adds as the means by which God effectually saves those whom He wills. This means is the ransom paid by Jesus on the cross:

Pray for all people. [Pray even] for kings and all who are in high positions. Why? Because God wills all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Implication: God wills kings and all who are in high positions to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all.

 In v. 5, Paul clarifies Instance (6):

Pray for all people. [Pray even] for kings and all who are in high positions. Why? Because God wills all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Implication: God wills kings and all who are in high positions to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There is only one mediator between God and [all] people, the person Jesus. Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all.

Finally, in v. 7, Paul highlights his mission to the Gentiles as an exemplary outworking of God’s will to save all people:

Pray for all people. [Pray even] for kings and all who are in high positions. Why? Because God wills all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Implication: God wills kings and all who are in high positions to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There is only one mediator between God and [all] people, the person Jesus. Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all. For this [mission to save all people] I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

In sum, the use of “all people” maintains a categorical sense throughout the entire passage:

  1. Paul instructs the church to pray, categorically, for “all people” (2:1).

This instruction does not require the church pray for every person individually.

  1. Paul instructs the church to pray, categorically, for the political and social elite as two related examples of sub-groups within “all people” (2:2).

This instruction does not require the church to pray for every political and social elite individually.

  1. God, categorically, wills “all people” to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (2:4).

As we will see in Question 3, this will does not effectually save every individual.

  1. Jesus died as a ransom, categorically, for all people (2:6).

While Jesus is the exclusive mediator between God and people, His death does not effectually apply to every individual.

  1. God sent Paul, categorically, to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (2:7).

This mission does not require Paul to preach the Gospel to every individual Gentile.

Thus, the πάντας ἀνθρώπους (all people) in 1 Timothy 2:4 is referring to “all people” categorically. Within the category of “all people” are sub-groups, such as kings (2:2), all who are in high positions (2:2), and Gentiles (2:7). There is no sub-group outside the reach of God’s salvific work through Jesus Christ, which means there is no individual outside the reach of God’s salvific work based on his or her categorical identity.

Such a categorical use of πάς (all) is not unique to 1 Timothy 2:4. We see similar categorical uses elsewhere. For example:

Romans 11:26, “And in this way πᾶς Ἰσραὴλ (all Israel) will be saved.”

The phrase “all Israel” is not identifying any and every Israelite. Rather, “all Israel” is a way of identifying the nation of Israel as a collective group according to Israel’s corporate identity. In context, Paul is reassuring his readers that God has not abandoned the nation of Israel. Likewise, “all people” is not identifying any and every individual. Rather, “all people” is a way of identifying humanity as a collective group according to humanity’s corporate identity.

Genesis 13:3b (Septuagint), “. . . and in you πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς (all the tribes of the earth) will be blessed” (c.f. Genesis 27:18, 26:4, 28:14; Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8).

The phrase “all the tribes of the earth” is not identifying any and every tribe that has ever existed on the earth. Rather, “all the tribes of the earth” is a way of identifying humanity as a collective group without tribal demarcation. In context, God is reassuring Abram that God’s blessing extends beyond Abram and his family to humanity more broadly. Likewise, “all people” is not identifying any and every individual that has ever existed on the earth. Rather, “all people” is a way of identifying humanity as a collective group without categorical demarcation.

A categorical understanding of πάς (all) means:

  1. It is appropriate to pray for the salvation of any and every individual person, regardless of political position, social status, or ethnicity (so 2:1–2, 7).
  2. God wills that we pray for the salvation of any and every individual person indiscriminately (so 2:3–4).
  3. Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient to ransom any and every individual person (so 2:5–6, c.f. 1 Timothy 4:10; Titus 2:11).

A categorical understanding of πάς (all)does not mean:

  1. In accordance with our prayers, every individual will be saved.
  2. God wills the effectual salvation of every individual through our prayers.
  3. Jesus’ death on the cross effectually ransomed every individual person.

This brings us to our third and final question.

Question 3: Regarding salvation, what else do the Scriptures say that God θέλει (wills)?

First, it is essential that we establish that God does not derive any pleasure in the condemnation of sinners (c.f. Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11). However, this is not the same as willing the salvation of any and every individual.

Romans 9:18:

18So then, He shows mercy on whomever θέλει (He wills) [but,] on the other hand, He hardens whomever θέλει (He wills).

One might be inclined to interpret 1 Timothy 2:4 to mean that God wills any and every individual to be saved if only any and every individual also will his or her own salvation.

Romans 9:18, however, makes this interpretation impossible. We learn from this verse that God actively wills the hardening of some people so that they are not saved. A few verses later (Romans 9:22–23), we are told that God wills to prove His wrath and to make known His power through the destruction of certain individuals.

Romans 9:22–23:

What if God, θέλων (willing) to prove His wrath and make known His power, bore, in much long-suffering, with vessels of wrath being prepared for destruction, in order to make known the wealth of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which are prepared beforehand for glory?

 

Though phrased as a question for rhetorical effect, Paul is asserting this as fact.

This verse shows us that in addition to willing the salvation of “all people” (so 1 Timothy 2:4), God also wills to prove His wrath and make known His power by destroying individual “vessels of wrath.”

There are only a few alternatives when we read 1 Timothy 2:4 and Romans 9:22–23 together:

God has two wills that are opposed to one another:

(1) the salvation of any and every individual; and

(2) the destruction of some.

This option is logically incoherent. God cannot simultaneously will the salvation of any and every individual and not will the salvation of any and every individual.

God has two wills that are ordered but not in contradiction, which necessitates the destruction of some:

(1) the salvation of any and every individual; and

(2) the proof of His wrath and the making known of His power.

In this option, God does not will the destruction of any individual for the sake of destroying the individual. Therefore, it is logically coherent.

In this option, it is the second will that is God’s preeminent will. As already stated, God does not will the destruction of anyone for the sake of destroying them. However, His will to prove His wrath and make known His power requires that some are destroyed. Therefore, in willing to prove His wrath and to make known His power, God concedes that the destruction of some is necessary.

God’s first will, that any and every individual be saved, is, thus, limited but not negated. God still wills the salvation of any and every individual even though His preeminent will makes this impossible.

In other words, God wills to prove His wrath and make known His power more than God wills to save any and every individual.

God has two wills that are congruent:

(1)   the categorical salvation of all people; and

(2)   the effectual salvation of some, but not all, individual people.

In this option, the first will considers the corporate identity of humanity as a group. The second will, on the other hand, considers the individual identity of each person within humanity. Collectively, God wills the salvation of humanity. Individually, God wills the salvation of some.

Implicit in this interpretation is that there is no one who is excluded from salvation because they are the “wrong kind” of humanity. For example, Jesus died for Gentiles as well as Jews, for slaves as well as free, for women as well as men (Galatians 3:28), for kings as well as paupers (1 Timothy 2:2), for the social elite as well as the marginalized (1 Timothy 2:2), and so on.

This option highlights the corporate identity of humanity and God’s commitment to humanity as a group that extends beyond Israel.

In other words, in His will to save humanity as a group, God wills to save all kinds of people.

The latter two of these options are both persuasive in their own ways. Nevertheless, the immediate context Romans 9:22–23 tilts the probability toward number 3. For example:

Romans 9:13, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Romans 9:18, “. . . He hardens whomever He wills.”

Romans 9:21, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?”

In each of these examples it is easier to conceive of God hating, hardening, and making vessels for dishonourable use if God’s will to save all people is a categorical truth, which does not apply to any and every individual.

How can God hate an individual whom He wills to save? How can God harden an individual whom He wills to save? How can God make an individual, whom He wills to save, for dishonourable use?

On the other hand, it is conceivable that those whom God hates, hardens, and makes for dishonourable use are individual members of categorical groups of humanity that God wills to save. Paul, himself, seemed to be thinking categorically in Romans 9:24, “even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” God wills to categorically save both Jews and Gentiles, but not any and every Jew and not any and every Gentile. Only those individuals whom He calls will be saved. The same logic assists us in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:4. God wills to categorically save all people, but not any and every person. Only those individuals whom He calls will be saved.

Moreover, this third option makes the most sense of national universalism inherent to the Old Testament (c.f. Genesis 12:1–3, 22:18; Isaiah 2:2, 25:7, 66:18), which is confirmed climactically in Revelation 5:9–10:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:9-10 aptly defines what Paul meant by “all people” in 1 Timothy 2:4. Salvation is universal only insofar as God wills to save people from every tribe and language and people and nation. No one is left out of God’s salvific work on account of his or her personal membership in a particular category of humanity. God desires that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth and they will be made into a kingdom and priests to our God.

In Summary

God wills all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Paul asserts this in 1 Timothy 2:4 to affirm that it is good and pleasing to God that we pray for the salvation of all people, including kings and all who are in high positions.

Throughout 1 Timothy 2:1–7, Paul uses the word πάς (all) in a categorical sense. What is true of all people, categorically, may not be true of any and every individual person.

The Scriptures are clear that God does not will to save any and every individual person. In fact, Romans 9 makes it clear that God actively wills against the salvation of certain individuals by hating some, hardening some, and making some for dishonourable use. This activity of God against the salvation of some demonstrates that while God wills all kinds of people to be saved – people from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:10) – God does not will that any and every individual person be saved.

Lastly, the Scriptures also teach that God does not derive pleasure in the destruction of any, even while He wills the destruction of some (c.f. Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).

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