1 Timothy 2:4 Revisited
In 1 Timothy 2:4, the apostle Paul declares that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Many Arminians see this verse as providing the strongest Biblical support for the belief that God wants everyone to believe and be saved. Realizing the difficulties that this would pose to the doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, Calvinists argue that Arminians have misunderstood this verse. They argue that the context favors seeing this as an expression of God’s desire that salvation not be limited to the Jews alone. This essay will evaluate and critique such interpretations, arguing that they are unconvincing and implausible.
Calvinists typically try to argue that “all men” means all kinds of men. There are two distinct, though not necessarily incompatible, strategies generally employed to make this case. The first strategy appeals to 2:1-2 and the second appeals to 2:7. As we shall see, if the argument from 2:1-2 fails, by necessity, so does the argument from 2:7. While many qualified Calvinist apologists have employed both strategies, I have selected James White and Thomas Schreiner as interlocutors. Each offers a detailed defense for their respective reading.
1 Timothy 2:1-2:“All” Means “All Kinds”
The first strategy that many Calvinists use to argue against the Arminian reading of 1 Timothy 2:4 comes from 2:1-2. The verses read, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority.” James White uses these verses to argue that Paul is simply saying that God desires all kinds of men to be saved. He writes,
“The first appearance of the phrase ‘all men’ appears at the end of verse 1. … The very next phrase of the sentence explains Paul’s meaning: ‘for kings and for all who are in authority’ … Who are kings and all who are in authority? They are kinds of men, classes of men.” (James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom, Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000, Pg. 140)
From the fact that Paul mentions kings and those in authority, White concludes that 1 Timothy 2:4 is simply expressing God’s desire to save all kinds of men (Rev. 7:9).
White’s first mistake is that he assumes that the phrase “kings and all who are in authority” is equivalent to or another way of saying “all men.” But what is the justification for this assumption? Kings are a subset of the broader category of those in authority. And those who are in authority represent a small minority of mankind. Thus, it does not seem likely that “all who are in authority” is Paul’s way of describing all kinds of men. Those who are in authority do not represent all kinds of men. Indeed, this very narrow range of people represent just the opposite of all kinds of men. It seems more likely that Paul is saying that no one is to be excluded from our payers including kings and those who are in authority. As Stanley Outlaw observes.
“‘All men’ should be understood to mean ‘without exception.’ It is obviously the same ‘all men’ referred to in 2:1, for who various approaches in prayer are to be made. No one in the world should be automatically omitted from our prayer list as believers inasmuch as it is the plain will of God for all men to be saved.” (W. Stanley Outlaw, The Randall House Bible Commentary: 1 Thessalonians Through Philemon, Nashville, TN: Randall House, 1990, Robert E. Picirilli, editor, Pg. 202)
The reason Paul feels the need to mention kings and those in authority is because first century Christians faced persecution at their hands. As such, Christians would be likely to neglect offering prayers on behalf of their persecutors. After all, the authorities were trying to kill them. Ironically enough, White acknowledges that this is the reason for why Paul mentions those in authority. But he seems to be unaware that this undercuts his attempt to use this phrase in support of his view that “all men” in 2:1 (and by extension 2:4) means “all kinds of men.” If the reason for mentioning those in authority is to emphasize that not even our worst enemies are to be excluded from our prayers, then 1) this means that the phrase is not another way of saying “all men” and 2) it strengthens our confidence that “all men” really means each and every individual in 2:1 and 2:4. As Stephen Hitchcock says, “The expression, ‘all who are in authority,’ means all of a particular kind or type of man, showing that Paul’s use of ‘all’ is exhaustive for every category.” (Steven L. Hitchcock, Recanting Calvinism, Xulon Press, 2011, Pg. 370)
Does Paul Often Use “All” to Mean “All Kinds”?
White attempts to bolster his case by citing several references where Paul allegedly uses “all” to mean “all kinds.” He cites Titus 2:11, 3:2, Acts 21:28, 22:15, Colossians 3:11, and Galatians 3:28. Let us first note that even if White was correct in his interpretation of all of these other texts, it would not follow that the “all men” means all kinds of men in 1 Timothy 2:4. We must let the context of 1 Timothy itself determine that. But more significantly, White is plausibly incorrect in his interpretation of most of these other texts.
Titus 2:11 reads, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” White’s justification for seeing “all men” as all kinds is that Paul is clearly referring to all kinds of people in Titus 2:2-10. While that is certainly true, White ignores the fact that verse 11 begins with the word “for.” This means that verse 11 is giving a reason for the instructions offered in the earlier verses. In 2:1-10, Paul is instructing Titus to teach proper behavior to the various kinds of people in the church. Verse 11 transitions into an explanation for why this behavior is necessary. Church members are to exercise proper behavior because the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. Nothing in the context allows White to say that because all kinds of people are to exercise proper behavior therefore the grace of God appears to all kinds of men. This is completely arbitrary. There is no reason to suppose that Titus 2:11 is referring to “all kinds of men” rather than “all men.”
The same applies to Titus 3:2 where Paul exhorts Titus to be gentle and respectful to all men. Surely Paul does not mean that Titus is to merely show respect to some people from among all classes. Rather, Paul means that everyone who Titus interacts with is to be treated with dignity and respect. No one is to be excluded from such cordiality.
Acts 21:28 contains a charge that the Jews made against Paul upon apprehending him in the temple. They say that Paul “preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place.” Certainly the expression does not literally mean that Paul preached to every individual on earth. The Jews are employing a rhetorical device known as amplification for the purpose of indicting Paul. People use this sort of expression is everyday language. This does not seem comparable to Paul’s theological statement in 1 Timothy 2:4.
Acts 22:15 appears in the middle of Paul recounting his testimony. He says that he was told that God had chosen him to be a “witness for Him to all men.” White’s interpretation that this means all kinds of men is quite possible here. However, it is also possible that Paul understood this quite literally as his testimony eventually reaching all men. He seems to indicate just this in Romans 1:8-9, Colossians 1:6, 1:23, and 1 Thessalonians 1:8. But whatever Paul’s intent, this example demonstrates that context rather than other scattered references must determine the meaning of “all men” in 1 Timothy 2:4.
Colossians 3:11 says, “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” Similarly, Galatians 3:28 says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In both cases, the statements are clearly delimited to believers. But these texts have little bearing on how one interprets 1 Timothy 2:4 which clearly includes unbelievers.
I conclude that of all of White’s supporting verses, only Acts 22:15 possibly supports the thesis that “all men” can mean “all kinds.” But no Arminian denies that “all” can be restricted when context allows. Acts 22:15, however, is far removed from 1 Timothy 2:4. White has not demonstrated that anything in the context of 1 Timothy 2 allows for “all” to be interpreted as all kinds of men in 2:4. It is worth noting that Paul also uses the term “all” in a very universal sense (Romans 1:18, 2:12, 3:9, 3:12, 3:23, 5:12; Galatians 3:8, 3:22, 6:10; Philippians 2:21, 4:5; Colossians 1:15-17, 2:13, 1 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:12, 5:15; and Titus 3:2). In view of this, it does not seem that White’s appeal to some few texts where “all” might mean “all kinds” serves to demonstrate anything more than that this is a possible interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:1 and 2:4. However, his only contextual argument has been seen to be invalid. Consequently, he has not given us any reason to think 1 Timothy 2:4 should be read as teaching that God only wants some from among all kinds of people to be saved.
1 Timothy 2:7: “All” Means “Jews and Gentiles”
The other strategy that Calvinists have employed in order to avoid this text has been to appeal to the fact that Gentiles are mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:7. Thomas Schreiner explains,
“Does “all people” refer to every person without exception or to every person without distinction? The Reformed have traditionally defended the latter option. … A focus on people without distinction is supported by verse 7, where Paul emphasizes his apostleship and his ministry to the Gentiles.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013, David and Jonathan Gibson, editors, Pg. 376-377)
Schreiner is a careful scholar and I hesitate in charging him with making a basic error. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how the mere fact that Paul mentions that he was an apostle to the Gentiles supports Schreiner’s reading. I feel one must do more than point to the fact that Gentiles are mentioned a few verses later.
It is, of course, true that it was initially difficult for many Jews to accept the fact that salvation was available to the Gentiles. As such, the New Testament authors often had to reinforce this reality to their Jewish readers. But is that what is going on in 1 Timothy 2:4? All things considered, this does not seem likely. There is no evidence that Paul is emphasizing the fact that the Gospel was intended for both Jews and Gentiles here. Paul was not writing 1 Timothy to Jews. Timothy was an apostle to primarily Gentiles and was well aware that the Gospel was intended for them. So there is really no reason to suppose that Paul is offering a reminder that salvation is for both Jews and Gentiles.
Beyond this, and as our examination of 1 Timothy 2:1-2 has shown, Paul reminds Timothy that those in authority are to be included in his prayers. But these are particular individuals – not races of people. So it seems that Paul has individuals in mind as the objects of prayer (2:1), God’s salvific will (2:4), and Christ’s atonement (2:6). Arminius himself made this point centuries ago in his debate with William Perkins.
“If this passage is to be understood to refer to classes, then the apostle would not have said ‘for all in authority,’ but ‘for some, at least, in eminent positions,’ but he openly says ‘that prayers should be made for single individual in that relation.” (James Arminius, The Works of James Arminius: Volume Three, Lamp Post, Inc., 2015, Pg. 343)
The fact that Paul specifically reminds Timothy that kings and those in authority are to be the specific objects of his prayers cuts against the idea that he simply means that God wants both Jews and Gentiles to be saved. The reference to these individuals strongly supports the Arminian reading that “all men” refers to each and every individual without exception.
Can We Know Who to Pray For?
Both White and Schreiner’s interpretations face yet another difficulty. Both agree with the Arminians that the “all men” in 2:1 are the same as the “all men” in 2:4. Notice that in 2:1, Paul is exhorting Timothy to pray for these people. Now if God only wants some from among all kinds of people to be saved in 2:4, this would mean that prayers are only to be offered on behalf of those same people in 2:1. This raises a problem for the idea that “all men” means “all kinds of men.” Calvinists often remind those who criticize them for engaging in evangelism, they do not know who the elect are. But if they do not know who the elect are, then how can they pray for them as Paul commands? C. Gordon Olson puts this point well.
“His exhortation to pray for ‘all men’ (huper pantōn anthropōn) could not be limited to all without distinction, but must also imply all without exception. No restriction to the ‘elect’ is possible here since most Calvinists admit we don’t know who the ‘elect’ are.” (C. Gordon Olson, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism, Cedar Knolls, NJ: Global Gospel Publishers, 2002, Pg. 142)
Perhaps the Calvinist will respond by saying that prayers should be offered generically for the salvation of the elect. But again, this runs into the problem of Paul specifying a portion of the “all men” as kings and those in authority (see discussion above). Paul is most definitely teaching that particular individuals are to be the objects of prayer. As I. Howard Marshall notes,
“There is the difficulty that one does not know whether particular individuals belong to the elect or not. Presumably one simply prays that God’s will to save those who are elect in any and every social group will be accomplished. But this is not in fact what the pastor tells his readers to do; he commands prayer for ‘all kinds of people’ (on this interpretation), not that we should pray that God’s will concerning His elect … will be fulfilled. Thus the limited-atonement interpretation has to resort to what looks like twisting the text.” (I. Howard Marshall, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, Zondervan, 1989, Clark H. Pinnock, editor, Pg. 62-63)
Charges abound that the Arminian reading leads to absurd consequences. It is charged that to literally pray for all men would entail prayers for the dead and other ludicrous actions. James White argues, “Paul is not instructing Timothy to initiate never-ending prayer meetings where the Ephesian phone book would be opened and every single person listed therein would become the object of prayer.” (James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom, Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000, Pg. 140)
White is correct that Paul was not suggesting that each and every individual on the planet is to be prayed for. But neither is Paul suggesting that Timothy should pray only for the elect from among all kinds of men as White’s interpretation suggests. As we have noted, under White’s interpretation, Timothy could not possibly know who these individuals are.
Paul’s command to pray for all men is similar to Jesus’ command to preach the gospel to all men (Mk. 16:15, Matt. 28:19). Jesus did not mean that we, as individuals, are to literally preach to each and every person. Rather He meant that Christians, as a group, are to ultimately reach each and every individual. The same meaning applies to the exhortation to pray for all men in 1 Timothy 2:1. No one should be deliberately excluded from a Christian’s prayers. Remembering again Paul’s reminder in 2:2 that kings and those in authority are not to be excluded from our prayers lends support to the interpretation I have proposed. The Arminian can read this passage consistently. God does not want anyone to be excluded from our prayers because no one is excluded from God’s salvific desire. By contrast the Calvinist can only make “all men” mean “all kinds of men” by turning Paul’s exhortation to pray for these same men into nonsense.
We have dealt with the two primary Calvinist strategies for interpreting 1 Timothy 2:4 at some length and found them wanting. Appeals to Paul mentioning those in authority (2:1-2) have been seen to confirm the Arminian reading of this verse. Moreover, the fact that kings and those in authority are individuals and not nations has been seen to undercut the viability of appealing to 2:7 in an attempt to read “all men” in 2:4 as “Jews and Gentiles.” The only reading of this verse that does justice to the overall context is that God wants all men without exception to be saved and to come unto a knowledge of the truth.