Bible Exposition

1 Timothy 2:4

    The Scriptural declaration in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God wills both the salvation of all mankind and the realization of the truth for all is a difficult one for those who think there will be an eternal hell. This is especially so of those who recognize along with Augustine and Calvin that God’s will is being carried out in certainty. This is the dilemma: If God has determined that only a certain number of people who are chosen by God beforehand will ever be saved and come to appreciate God’s glory, how can it be said that He wills the salvation of all? Augustine’s explanation was that the word “all” here should be understood as all sorts of people and therefore seen as referring only to those who are predestined to believe in this life.
    But from Augustine’s day to the present there has been much dissatisfaction with this theory. It does not harmonize with the scriptural presentation of God as the Creator of all, Whose power, righteousness and wisdom serve His love in giving His Son for sinners. Furthermore, in urging us here to pray for all mankind, Paul is surely not advocating some kind of tokenism, where we make mention of someone from every group and level of human society. But isn’t that what Augustine is saying when he speaks of God saving all kinds of people, namely that God makes sure He saves some of every type and class, but not every individual? In his 5 volume history of Christian doctrine, entitled THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION (University of Chicago Press, 1971-1991), Jaroslav Pelikan, frequently refers to this problem which Augustine and his followers have had with 1 Timothy 2:4. This does not mean that others who do not follow Augustine in his interpretation have no problem with the passage, but Pelikan’s comments do illustrate some of the problems involved in squaring this passage with the doctrine of an everlasting hell.
    In the first volume of THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION, page 321, Pelikan writes: “. . . Augustine’s teaching that the will of God must always, in sovereign grace, achieve its intended purpose was not easy to harmonize with the biblical assertion that universal salvation was the will of God. If not all men were saved, did this mean that God had not willed it or that the saving will of God had been frustrated? Augustine resorted to various devices to square his position with 1 Timothy 2:4 . . . ‘All men’ meant all the predestined, because every kind of human being was represented among them . . . .”
    In volume 3 (page 90) Pelikan comments on the problems the monk, Gottschalk, introduced in his attempts to follow Augustine in his interpretation of this passage in 1 Timothy:
    “This statement of Paul’s, the predestinarians had to admit, was ‘extremely perplexing and much discussed in the writings of the holy fathers and explained in many different ways.’ Therefore its interpretation was ‘not to be settled precipitately, but very cautiously.’ They rehearsed Augustine’s various attempts to circumvent the text’s affirmation of the universal salvific will of God. From the use of the identical word ‘desires’ in 1 Timothy 2:4, ‘who desires all men to be saved,’ and in Romans 9:18, ‘He has mercy upon whomever he desires,’ Gottschalk strove to demonstrate that ‘truly God has not in any way desired to save with eternal salvation those whom, as Scripture testifies, he hardens.’ The ‘all men’ in the text must mean ‘all men who are saved’ rather than ‘all men’ in general.”
    In volume 4, dealing with the Reformation, Pelikan observes (page 237):
    “There had also been diverse ways of construing the admonition of the apostle Paul to pray for kings and rulers because of ‘God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ This passage had always been a conundrum to Augustinian doctrines of predestination and the will of God. Martin Bucer, to whose exegesis of the Pauline epistles Calvin acknowledged his indebtedness, followed Augustine’s explanation that the saving will of God of which the passage spoke pertained not to individuals, but to classes of men.’
    Even in modern times the puzzle persists, as Pelikan shows in volume 5 (page 45):
    “Contemplating the complexity of the paradoxical relation between the universality of a gracious divine will for ‘all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ and the particularity of a human free will that could frustrate this divine will and reject grace and salvation, a Greek Orthodox theologian was speaking for all Christians when he exclaimed that this was ‘an obscure and sublime doctrine.’”
    But for those Christians who were not satisfied to leave this passage in the realm of sublime obscurity but who wanted to appreciate its value for their lives and faith, such a dismissal was not very helpful. Pelikan continues in volume 5, page 116, as follows:
    “. . . many were increasingly inclined to ‘stretch the mercy of God’ further than his justice and therefore to look with fresh attention at those passages of the New Testament that ‘seem to import that those who make the best use they can of the small measure of light that is given them shall be judged according to it. Is it not incumbent,’ they asked, ‘on those who make any external revelation so necessary to the happiness of all mankind to show how it is consistent with the notion of God’s being universally benevolent not to have revealed it to all his children, when all had equal need of it?’ In the light of such a question, the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 2 seemed to be ‘sheer universalism,’ and Origen’s speculation about universal salvation seemed more attractive than ever.”
    This last reference was particularly to the writings of Johann Wilhelm Petersen (1649-1727).
    Finally in noting the ideas of the Second Vatican Council, Pelikan recounts (vol.5, page 332):
    “While continuing to affirm that ‘the mission of the church is fulfilled by that activity which makes her fully present to all’ and that the will of God the Creator (in the long-mooted words of the New Testament) for ‘all to be saved’ would not be completed until that missionary work had achieved its goal of converting the world to the gospel of Christ, the council also moved to consider the doctrinal meaning of the status of non-christians in their own right.”
    In all of this one still wonders why the simple explanation that God wills the salvation of all and has given His Son for that salvation and thus is the Saviour of all mankind, cannot be accepted more eagerly by those who believe the gospel and rejoice in God’s grace to them. The older ideas that God wills the salvation of only those He has elected to salvation in the current age, or that He wills only to provide, but not necessarily give, salvation to all, and the modern ideas about God depending on human beings to bring about what He wills, must not satisfy any of us who believe that Christ died for sinners and that we are saved in grace, apart from our works. God wills that all mankind be saved, and He is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will (Eph.1:11).
Dean Hough


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