Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Does I Timothy 2:3-4 Teach a Desire of God
to Save All Men Whoever Lived?

Rev. Angus Stewart


"For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (I Tim. 2:3-6). 

God "will have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4). Many, including Iain Murray and J. I. Packer (who, sadly, has compromised justification by faith alone), reckon that this verse teaches a will or desire in God for the salvation of all men including the reprobate (the free offer or well-meant offer of the gospel). The argument is that "all" means everybody without exception (Esau as well as Jacob; Judas as well as Peter).

Two objections immediately arise against this view.

First, if God wills or desires or wishes or wants to save absolutely everybody, then His will has been thwarted with regard to millions, nay billions, of people. A thwarted divine will means (and must mean) frustration. God wanted something (the salvation of the reprobate), but His will (somehow) was defeated, therefore He must be frustrated. What then of God’s mighty power and perfect blessedness? Also this view posits a will of the omnipotent, unchangeable and eternal God which is not irresistible, unchangeable and eternal.

Second, if God really desires absolutely everybody "to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth," then why did He not see to it that the gospel was preached to them. In the Old Testament days, only Israel had God’s Word (Ps. 147:19-20), for God "suffered all nations to walk in their own [pagan] ways" (Acts 14:16). Even in the New Testament age, many never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could God really want all the reprobate to "come to the knowledge of the truth" (the end) but never see to it that many of them have the truth proclaimed to them (the necessary means to this end)?

Another problem for the free offer view of I Timothy 2:4 arises from the context. If "all" in verse 4 means absolutely everyone, then in verse 6 it must mean absolutely everyone as well. If God desires to save all without exception (v. 4)—the free offer view—then "the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" (v. 5) "gave himself a ransom for all" (v. 6) understood as absolutely everyone—the heresy of universal atonement!

Read I Timothy 2:4-6 (noting the "For" with which verse 5 begins) and you will see that the free offer view leads inescapably to Arminianism’s universal atonement (which hinges on the alleged free will of the sinner). 

Universal atonement is excluded by I Timothy 2:6 itself, which calls Christ’s death a "ransom." A ransom is a price that it is paid to deliver a captive. If Christ really paid the ransom for absolutely all men, then all are ransomed, i.e., delivered from the bondage of sin. Christ did not "potentially" ransom people (with the ransom depending on man’s supposed free will); He actually "ransomed" them.  In I Timothy 2:6, lutron (ransom) comes with the prefix anti (which means "instead of" or "corresponding"): a ransom instead of, or corresponding to, us. This makes the substitutionary character of Christ’s death particularly clear. He gave Himself a ransom for us "in our place" and "in our stead." "The Son of man," Jesus said, came "to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28), not everybody head for head.

What then is the true interpretation of the passage?

To answer this question, we must consider the context. The apostle is speaking about prayer and for whom it must be made: "I exhort ... that ... supplications, prayers, intercessions, giving of thanks, be made for all men" (v. 1). Paul continues by specifying: "For kings, and for all that are in authority." He then gives two reasons why we should pray for those in civil government.

First, we must pray for them "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" (v. 2). Thus we are to pray for magistrates that they will maintain law and order. Then Christians ("we") may "lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty," for we can worship God publicly on the Lord’s Day and serve Him at home, school, work and in the world without being attacked by mobs or hauled off to prison. Even this prayer is, of course, subject to God decree, for He wills civil unrest and/or state persecution of the saints at various times and in various places. Thus it is a lawful, good and commanded thing to pray (subject to God’s will) for the civil magistrates that God would use them to restrain wicked men so that we, His people, may individually and collectively serve him in our respective callings. This petition, Paul tells Timothy, must be brought before God in congregational prayer.

Second, we must pray for civil magistrates, "For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (vv. 3-4). Is there any point praying for the conversion of the prime minister or president or monarchs or rulers of this world? I Timothy 2 tells us that God can and will save "kings" and those "that are in authority," according to His eternal election. So we must pray for the conversion of earthly potentates and not only those of lowly station, as we might otherwise be inclined. For God wills to save (and will save, for His will is never defeated) all kinds of people.

Augustine (354-430) put it well: "Now the apostle had enjoined that prayers should be made for all men, and had especially added, ‘For kings, and for all that are in authority,’ who might be supposed, in the pride and pomp of worldly station, to shrink from the humility of the Christian faith. Then saying, ‘For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour,’ that is, that prayers should be made for such as these, he immediately adds, as if to remove any ground of despair, ‘Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth’ ... Our Lord ... says to the Pharisees: ‘Ye tithe mint, and rue, and every herb.’ For the Pharisees did not tithe what belonged to others, nor all the herbs of all the inhabitants of other lands. As ... in this place we must understand by ‘every herb,’ to mean every kind of herb, so in the former passage we may understand by ‘all men,’ every sort of men" (The Enchiridion, ciii). See "Quotes on I Timothy 2:4," for the faithful exegesis of this text from many worthies in the Christian church.