What About 1 Timothy 2:4?

Rev. Dr. John OwenFr. James Guirguis over at Out of Egypt has recently posted a discussion of 1 Timothy 2:4, which was part of his homily from this past Sunday. The reading was 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and the relevant portion of Fr. Guirguis’ post is reproduced here:

Today we are focusing on the Pauline epistle to St. Timothy. In this passage from St. Paul’s letter we heard these words “God our Savior, Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” I love this verse. It reminds me that above all God is love. It is His very desire to see all men saved! It is His desire that each and every man, woman and child should know the truth about God’s love as He demonstrated it through His Son Jesus Christ. I am sorry to say that not all people believe that God desires that all should be saved. There are even some “Christian” groups who claim that God chooses who He wants to save from before the foundation of the world. This is a belief called predestination, specifically double predestination. Among those who believe this are the Presbyterians.

Needless to say, this sermon intrigued me, not least because I’ve been preaching through the 1st Epistle to Timothy myself for the last couple of months, and because of his handling of 1 Timothy 2:4, a verse that makes a regular appearance in debates between those of us who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation and those who disagree with us at this juncture.

Allow me to provide you with the verse in its immediate context:

Παρακαλῶ οὖν πρῶτον πάντων ποιεῖσθαι δεήσεις προσευχὰς ἐντεύξεις εὐχαριστίας ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων,ὑπὲρ βασιλέων καὶ πάντων τῶν ἐν ὑπεροχῇ ὄντων, ἵνα ἤρεμον καὶ ἡσύχιον βίον διάγωμεν ἐν πάσῃ εὐσεβείᾳ καὶ σεμνότητι. τοῦτο καλὸν καὶ ἀπόδεκτον ἐνώπιον τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν θεοῦ, ὃς πάντας ἀνθρώπους θέλει σωθῆναι καὶ εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας ἐλθεῖν.

Εἷς γὰρ θεός,
εἷς καὶ μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων,
ἄνθρωπος Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς,

ὁ δοὺς ἑαυτὸν ἀντίλυτρον ὑπὲρ πάντων,
τὸ μαρτύριον καιροῖς ἰδίοις.

εἰς ὃ ἐτέθην ἐγὼ κῆρυξ καὶ ἀπόστολος, ἀλήθειαν λέγω οὐ ψεύδομαι, διδάσκαλος ἐθνῶν ἐν πίστει καὶ ἀληθείᾳ.

“First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all men, for the sake of kings and of all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. Such prayer for all is good and acceptable before God our Savior, since he wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the appropriate time. For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle—I am telling the truth; I am not lying—and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (my translation)

The key to understanding this passage is its context. The first appearance of the phrase “all men” comes at the end of v. 1, and the meaning isn’t ambiguous.  Paul isn’t instructing Timothy to conduct an unending prayer meeting in which the Ephesian phone book is opened and every individual listed becomes the object of prayer. In fact, the very next verse continues the thought begun in v. 1, and further explains what Paul is driving at. This can be seen clearly in the Greek text which opens with the preposition ὑπὲρ (“for the sake of,” or “on behalf of.”) and then continues with an epexegetical genitive (or genitive of definition). So we might translate the text to read, “First of all I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions be offered on behalf of all men, namely, on behalf of kings and  all who are in authority.”

As Fr. Guirguis well knows, the early Christians were a hotly persecuted people, an this persecution ordinarily came from those with the authority to enforce it. It is, therefore, easy to understand why there is an apostolic command to pray for the very ones who were using their God-given power to persecute the Christian church.

But the question remains, “Who are kings and all who are in authority?” The answer is that they are classes, or kinds, of men. This is a normal Pauline usage of the phrase “all men.” An example is Titus 2, where Paul speakes of the grace of God which brings salvation appearing to “all men” (Titus 2:11). Paul clearly mens all kinds of men, since in the preceding verses Paul has addressed such groups as older men (v. 2), older women (v. 3), younger women (v. 4), younger men (v. 6), slaves (vv. 9-10), and just as in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, rulers and authorities are also mentioned (Titus 3:1). It is completely consistent with the immediate context of Paul’s writings, as well as the body of the Pauline corpus, to recognize that Paul often speaks of “all men” in a generic fashion, and then further explains that he is speaking of specific classes of individuals.

Returning to 1 Timothy 2, Paul goes on to state that such prayers for all types of men are good and acceptable “before God our Savior, since he wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” If we are consistent with the preceding context we will see the phrase “all men” in v. 4 in the same manner as “all men” in hte preceding verses: all kinds of men, whether rulers or kings.

I find it interesting that like almost every opponent of Calvinism who deals with this text, Fr. Guirguis isolates this verse from the two verses immediately following. If we allow this two verses to speak, they raise weighty questions that should be asked of our non-Reformed friends. V. 5 begins with the word “for” (the underlying particle in Greek, γὰρ, is post-positive), indicating that the connection between vv. 3-4 and vv. 5-6 is explanatory. Why should Christians pray that all men, including rulers and all of those in authority, should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? Because there is only one way of salvation, and without a knowledge of that truth, no man can be saved. Paul says, “there is one God and one intermediary between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” This immediately takes us into the meat of the discussion regarding the extent of the atonement, but I only intend to raise a few points.

First, if one takes “all men” in v. 4 to mean “all men individually,” then doesn’t it follow that Christ of necessity must be mediator for all men as well? If one says, “Yes, Christ mediates for every single human being,” does it not follow that Christ then fails as mediator every single time that a person negates His work by their all-powerful act of free will? I certainly hope that a pastor with the experience that Fr. Guirguis clearly has couldn’t ever promote such an idea, especially given the relationship between the atonement, mediation and intercession of Christ in the book of Hebrews knows quite well that to make such an assertion is to utterly destroy the argument of Hebrews 7-10.

My second point is related to the first: the ransom that Christ gives in His self-sacrifice is either a saving ransom or a non-saving one. Those are the only choices. If it is actual and really made on behalf of all men, then inevitably all men would be saved. But we should see that it is far more consistent to recognize that the same meaning for “all men” and “all” flows through the entire passage, and when we examine the clear statements of Scripture regarding the actual intention and result of Christ’s work on the cross, there is no other consistent way of interpreting these words in 1 Timothy.

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3 thoughts on “What About 1 Timothy 2:4?

  1. The fundamental problem I, and I think most non-Calvinists, have with Calvinist thought — where all of your arguments break down — is the inevitable consequences of giving absolute sovereignty over all events to God, in the sense that He actively ordains all things and allows no human free will or consequences. Because in that case there’s no reasonable way to avoid making God responsible for sin — for the first sin, or for every sin that followed; and ultimately making God responsible both for ordaining man to sin and for damning him to hell for that sin. Which is monstrous, unacceptable, and inconsistent with Scripture. And that probably opens a can of worms that we shouldn’t even get into, so forgive me for bringing it up, but I wanted to lead into this:

    The problem with denying free will is exactly the problem you’ve arrived at: If God is absolutely sovereign and man has no free will, then yes, Christ’s sacrifice must be either saving or non-saving. There is nothing else it can be. As you say, supposing that a man Christ died for could somehow choose not to be saved results in the situation that a man can foil His salvation and “negate His work by their all-powerful act of free will.” If you assume from the get-go that God is absolutely sovereign to the degree of allowing no free will, then yes, that is the only conclusion. But I see no reason why we should accept that preliminary assumption.

    Supposing that God actively chooses and actively damns His own Creation in my opinion negates the whole of the Gospel, the universal love of God for every man, and Christ’s teaching that we likewise should love every man as He does, with a total and self-emptying love. If we conclude that God doesn’t love every man, then that teaching is in the toilet. If we conclude, as I have heard some Calvinists try to argue, that God loves all people, but loves the elect more than the reprobate, then we’re likewise left with a problem: are we as Christians not supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves? Supposing, as I have also heard some Calvinists argue, that “God’s ways are not our ways” and that His election is a mystery we cannot comprehend, still leaves us with an essential problem: for we are made in the image of God, and we are gifted with His Law, His very Holy Spirit, His conscience and sense of right and wrong. And to actively, arbitrarily damn some of His creatures from the beginning of the world, for committing sins that He Himself will ordain, and for failing to be drawn to the Gospel, which He Himself also ordains, is utterly contrary to our whole sense of right and wrong.

    Anyway, I think 1 Timothy 4:10 is just as important as 1 TImothy 2:4: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men [ὅς ἐστιν σωτὴρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων], especially of those who believe.”

    • The fundamental problem I, and I think most non-Calvinists, have with Calvinist thought — where all of your arguments break down — is the inevitable consequences of giving absolute sovereignty over all events to God, in the sense that He actively ordains all things and allows no human free will or consequences. Because in that case there’s no reasonable way to avoid making God responsible for sin — for the first sin, or for every sin that followed; and ultimately making God responsible both for ordaining man to sin and for damning him to hell for that sin. Which is monstrous, unacceptable, and inconsistent with Scripture.

      Let’s assume for a moment that God doesn’t have absolute sovereignty over all events in the sense that He actively ordains all things. We would still confess (in fact, we must confess) that the God revealed by the Holy Scriptures is omniscient—that he infallibly knows whatsoever comes to pass. If God foresaw (but did not actively ordain) that sin would exist, and yet created the agent and placed him in the very circumstances under which he did foresee that sin would be committed, then how have we avoided the problem? In other words, Calvinists aren’t the only ones that have to struggle with this question.

      Supposing that God actively chooses and actively damns His own Creation in my opinion negates the whole of the Gospel, the universal love of God for every man, and Christ’s teaching that we likewise should love every man as He does, with a total and self-emptying love.

      I would ask, by way of response and clarification, if you see any differentiation in God’s love? Does he love the Canaanite in exactly the same way that He loves the seed of Israel?

      If we conclude, as I have heard some Calvinists try to argue, that God loves all people, but loves the elect more than the reprobate, then we’re likewise left with a problem: are we as Christians not supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves?

      I don’t know that I would say that God loves the elect more than the reprobate, but that the loves He has for His elect is different from the love He has for the reprobate.

      While I’d like to reply further, any attempted exegesis of 1 Timothy 4:10 would lengthen this comment thread unnecessarily. Perhaps, God willing, I’ll be able to post a positive exegesis of the passive in question in the near future.

      • Let’s assume for a moment that God doesn’t have absolute sovereignty over all events in the sense that He actively ordains all things. We would still confess (in fact, we must confess) that the God revealed by the Holy Scriptures is omniscient—that he infallibly knows whatsoever comes to pass. If God foresaw (but did not actively ordain) that sin would exist, and yet created the agent and placed him in the very circumstances under which he did foresee that sin would be committed, then how have we avoided the problem? In other words, Calvinists aren’t the only ones that have to struggle with this question.

        Omniscience is quite different from making God the effective agent of our first sin. If you leave a small child alone in a room full of candy, telling him sternly that he’d better not even touch any of that yummy, delicious candy, then you know full well, even if you’re not omniscient, that there’s a good chance that the kid will not be able to resist the temptation. Are you responsible, though, for the child’s action? Did you make him eat the candy? No, of course not. God did not invent automatons. He gave man free will, knowing that it would lead to sin, because a man who can’t choose sin also can’t choose to love God. One can’t obey unless one has the power to disobey, and the Bible all throughout is a call to obedience. Why call us to obedience, why give us a Law, why send One’s Son to die for our Redemption, if we have no choice in any of it — if we have no more power to obey than we have to disobey? If God is actively ordaining both our sin and our obedience, both Israel’s faithfulness and Israel’s infidelity, then it all becomes a brutal and meaningless stage-play, with us acting out a predetermined script for God’s cruel enjoyment, with no real rewards for our faithfulness or comforts for our suffering, only senseless punishment for those who weren’t chosen.

        I would ask, by way of response and clarification, if you see any differentiation in God’s love? Does he love the Canaanite in exactly the same way that He loves the seed of Israel?

        No, I don’t think there is a difference. Israel has a special place in God’s love and His plan and His kingdom, but God’s love and mercy are for all. I think, from the beginning of the world, He planned to redeem all humanity (cf. Psalm 86:9, 66:4; Isaiah 66:18, 23), but in His all-wise plan chose Israel to whom to reveal Himself progressively, to whom to give a Law and from whom to bring our Redeemer. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” — but yet it’s quite clear that God didn’t hate Esau — He blessed Esau quite abundantly, too (see Genesis 36); only, in the Hebrew idiom, to love one and hate another implies a choice or preference, and Jacob was the one who carried forward the covenant. The Canaanites of the Conquest were a threat to the faith of the Israelites, and had to be destroyed; but even in that day, God’s love and mercy for them was evident, using even a harlot in Jericho and a Moabite widow to carry out His plan. Jesus came first to the Jews, but gave His love even to Gentiles (e.g. Mark 7:24-30) and Samaritans (John 4), even choosing a Samaritan as the image of God’s mercy and love for neighbor (Luke 10:29-37). God does not change (Malachi 3:6) — He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8) — so if we believe that Jesus reveals to us the Father, then we have to believe that God’s love is the same for all.

        I don’t know that I would say that God loves the elect more than the reprobate, but that the loves He has for His elect is different from the love He has for the reprobate.

        If God loves the reprobate in any way, why doesn’t He save them? How can arbitrarily damning a beloved creation be termed love?

        I look forward to your exegesis. 🙂

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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