…[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4
1 Timothy 2:4 is one of the two most common prooftexts used to deny the doctrine of unconditional election. (The other is 2 Pet 3:9, already covered in this series.) Admittedly, on first glance it seems formidable.
But before we discuss that, let's take a quick theology refresher. The doctrine of unconditional election teaches that God has chosen some for salvation and that His choice is uninfluenced by any factor outside of His own person. He chooses according to His own good pleasure.
The related doctrine of predestination goes further teaching that God sets into motion the events that will inevitably lead to the salvation of those He has elected to save. In other words, not only does God choose to save certain individuals (election), He actually accomplishes it (predestination). And therein lies the conflict with 1 Timothy 2:4, so say those who would deny these doctrines. Their argument follows that if God chooses to save certain individuals to the exclusion of others, then how could Paul write in 1 Tim 2:4 that God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth? The two are incompatible, they say, therefore God does not unconditionally elect some, but truly desires to save all equally.
Open and shut case, right? Not exactly. In fact, like the case of 2 Peter 3:9, there is no possible interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4 that turns out to help the Arminian’s argument. This is true because of the range of meaning of two words in the verse, “desires” and “all”.
The concept of God’s desire or will in the Bible can refer to two different ideas. First, there is God’s sovereign will, which refers to His eternal plan that includes literally everything that ever happens. It always succeeds, it cannot be thwarted, and it is meticulous in nature (Ps 33:11, 115:3; Isa 14:24-27, 46:9-10, 55:10-11; Dan 4:35; Eph 1:11). Second, there is God’s moral or revealed will. It includes all of the moral commands in Scripture, from the moral law in the Pentateuch to the imperative sections of the epistles. God "desires" that these commands be kept. So, in 1 Tim 2:4, “desires” must refer to one of these two concepts, either God’s sovereign will or His moral will.
The second word “all” can mean “all things or people without exception” (Eph 1:11), and “all kinds” (Exo 1:14). In order for the Arminian argument to ring true, the first definition must hold – “all” must mean “all people without exception.”
If we take the two possible meanings for “desire” and the two possible meanings of “all”, and look at each of the possible combinations, we end up with four ways to view this verse. We'll look at them one at a time. In the end, we’ll see that none of the four supports the Arminian’s case denying unconditional election.
The first interpretation holds that “all” means “all people without exception” and “desires” refers to God’s sovereign will. An expanded translation would be, “[God] sovereignly wills all people without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The second of the four interpretations holds that “all” means “all kinds,” and “desires” refers to God’s sovereign will. An expanded translation would then be, “[God] sovereignly wills all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The third interpretation holds that “all” means “all people without exception,” and “desires” refers to God’s moral will. An expanded translation for this interpretation would be, “[God] calls all people without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The fourth interpretation holds that “all” means “all kinds of people” and “desires” refers to God’s moral will. An expanded translation for this interpretation would be, “[God] calls all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Before looking at the context, let me eliminate one of the above, the first interpretation that God sovereignly wills all people without exception to be saved. This one cannot be considered a viable interpretation since it would amount to universal salvation. Even though there are people who believe in such a concept, this does not work biblically due to the voluminous references in Scripture to the damnation of some sinners (John 3:36, Rom 2:5-8, Matt 13:41-42, 2 Pet 2:1-3, and Jude 7 to name a few). Eliminating this option now will tidy up the coming discussion.
That leaves us with options 2, 3, and 4. Let’s start with option 2, “[God] sovereignly wills all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” How can we say that “all” means “all kinds” here? Vv1-2 are the key: 1 “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
“all people” at the end of v1 are the same Greek words we find in v4. This is why vv1-2 are so helpful – they define “all people” for us so that when we see the same words in v4, we know what the author means. How does he define “all people”? The beginning of v2 tells us: kings and all who are in high positions. This kind of phrase is referred to by grammarians as an appositional phrase. This simply means that it functions to define the noun or noun phrase that precedes it. That this is the case is supported by the fact that the same Greek preposition hyper – “for” – precedes both “all people” and “for kings and all who are in high positions,” without the conjunction “and” between them. For this reason, we know that the two phrases do not refer to two different groups, as if it read, “for all people and for kings…” Rather, the grammar itself dictates that we understand the two phrases to refer to the same group: “for all people, namely, kings and all who are in high positions.”
To say then that God sovereignly wills all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth does nothing but strengthen the doctrine of election. This is a sound interpretation and the one held by many strong reformed apologists. If this is the correct interpretation, the Arminian argument is destroyed. That’s now two interpretations out of four that do not help a synergistic attempt to deny unconditional election.
I will tell you now that I do not hold this second view. I do not see anything in the context that indicates “desires” is referring to God’s sovereign will. I think a much more natural reading takes this to be a reference to God’s moral will. So that this post doesn’t go too long, I’ll save the third and fourth options for next time. I believe the correct interpretation is one of these two. I encourage you to take a look at this passage yourself and see which view you believe is correct.