1 Timothy 2:4 is oftentimes used in partnership with 2 Peter 3:9 by some to deny a definite atonement, or as it is sometimes posited, particular redemption. The verses in question are also used to try and discredit unconditional election. Here are those two verses:
- “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I Tim. 2:4, ESV)
- “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9, ESV)
Usually the presupposition goes like this: “Man has a free will, and God won’t violate man’s free will; therefore, everyone has an equal opportunity to choose Jesus because God desires that every single person on the planet be saved because He isn’t willing that any of them should perish.” In other words, the Biblical plan of redemption is reduced to Jesus trying His darndest to save people, but He can’t quite do it all because of this pesky thing called “free-will,” and God doesn’t want anyone to perish, so He’s doing His best to make sure that happens.
But before we get into the exegetical and contextual work, I want to mention some things regarding God’s will. In a recent discussion on Facebook, someone I was dialoguing with tried to put me in a corner by saying that I don’t believe God loves everyone. According to his view, God loves everyone and is trying very hard to save people but many refuse to choose Him. Do I believe that God loves everyone? Like a good politician, I will answer yes. And no.
Perhaps an illustration will help. I love my wife very much. I love my kids very much. But my love for them is different. I love my church, my job as a pastor, I love to write, preach, pray, read, and mow my lawn. But “love” in each of these scenarios is different based upon the context. The same is true for God. He does love the world in the sense that He created it, and by His common grace, He causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust. But His love isn’t flaky. It’s ferocious. God is love (we should note that as D.A. Carson once pointed out, Scripture never once says “God is Wrath”). But love is not god. God also hates. (See, for example: Psalm 5:5, Psalm 11:5, Leviticus 20:23, Proverbs 6:16-19, and Hosea 9:15). God hates anything that violates His holiness (otherwise He wouldn’t be holy!). But His love and wrath are not at odds, nor is he schizophrenic. So for us to be consistent with Scripture, we have to believe that God is love, and holy, and that anything that violates this He hates.
This ties into God’s will. For many years, theologians have said that there are, in fact, different levels of God’s will in Scripture. They are “senses,” if you will (pun intended), of God’s will. I will try to be as brief as possible:
1) God’s Will of Decree. This is sometimes called God’s, “secret will.” It’s the whole, “My ways are not your ways” thing (Isaiah 55:8). This is the fullness of God’s sovereignty that ordains everything to come to pass, both directly (through first causes, like creation and regeneration), and indirectly (through second causes, like sin and the burrito you ate last week). It always comes to pass and cannot be thwarted (Isaiah 46:10, 11). Do we understand this will completely? No. (2 Peter 3:9 is related to this sense of God’s will).
2) God’s Will of Law. This is sometimes called God’s “preceptive will.” God’s creatures are under obligation to obey God’s laws, commands, and precepts. Though many of them do violate His Law, no one can ever violate God’s will of decree. His will of Law is the notion that God desires people to be holy as He is holy. He wants them to obey His Law because His Law is very good. Yet sinners do not always do so. In other words, it is not God’s will (of law) that you murder someone.
3) God’s Will of Disposition. As R.C. Sproul has written, “This will describes God’s attitude. It defines what is pleasing to Him. For example, God takes no delight in the death of the wicked, yet He most surely wills or decrees the death of the wicked. God’s ultimate delight is in His own holiness and righteousness. When He judges the world, He delights in the vindication of His own righteousness and justice, yet He is not gleeful in a vindictive sense toward those who receive His judgment. God is pleased when we find our pleasure in obedience. He is sorely displeased when we are disobedient.” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith)
Given this understanding of God’s will, we should ask the question, “Does God desire to save everyone?” Take Acts 2:23 for a moment: “…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Two things are happening in this verse. First, it was God’s Will (of decree) that Jesus be murdered by “lawless men.” Second, it was not God’s will (of law) that Jesus be murdered by these men (murder is wrong). As John Piper points out, and I’m paraphrasing, God sometimes wills that something not be His will in order to achieve His larger will, namely, the display of His glory and righteousness.* Stated another way, God desires (in one sense) and does not desire (in another sense) that this particular event (Jesus’ crucifixion) happen.
Back to the question. Yes, God desires salvation for people. He does not take [sadistic] pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23). But salvation is not given to all because God’s greater goal (see footnote below) is himself–namely, His glory, wisdom, power, righteousness, and holiness. (This takes the proverbial wings out of an anthropologically-centered view of Scripture that elevates man over God!)
So what is Paul getting at with Timothy? Simply put, the context of the passage starts just two verses above in 1 Tim. 2:1-2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Who are the people in view? Kings, leaders, rulers, and the like. Who are the people in view, then, in verse 4? Kings, leaders, rulers, and the like. In other words, God desires all these types of people to be saved. Don’t just pray for the low people (farmers, peasants, etc.), pray for the bigwigs, too. God wants to save them, too. The same Greek word we saw in John 3:16 (pas) is back here in 1 Tim. 2:4. It refers to “all” those in the group in view. (As John Samson once pointed out, it’s like a teacher who says to her classroom, “Is everyone here?” Surely she didn’t mean everyone in the world!)
Jesus didn’t save everyone in every tribe, tongue and nation, but people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9). Just as John 3:16, in context, was about the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s plans for salvation, so Paul points out to Timothy that Salvation is for all types of people. This is an astounding prayer given the volatile nature of the 1st Century. The rulers were pagans, and most of them lawless. But Paul says to pray for them, too.
We should pray for all people, for salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
*”Though He hates sin in itself, yet He may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times. So, though He has no inclination to a creature’s misery [He desires none perish], considered absolutely, yet He may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality.” [Concerning the Divine Decrees, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), pp. 527-28.]