A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 2:3-4. b). God’s desire concerns all people.
The reason the church should reach out and embrace all people in its prayers is that this is the compass of God’s desire. True, he is accurately named God *our Saviour* (3b), but we must not attempt to monopolize him, since he *wants* not only us but *all men to be saved* (4a). In affirming this, Paul may have had in mind those nationalistic Jews who believed themselves to be God’s privileged favourites and forgot God’s original purpose to bless all earth’s families through Abraham (Gn.12:1ff.). Alternatively, Paul may have been thinking of elitist Gnostics who reserved initiation into *gnosis* (knowledge) for a select few. In our day there are other versions of the monopoly spirit of which we need to repent, e.g. racism, nationalism, tribalism, classism and parochialism, together with the pride and prejudice which are the cause of these narrow horizons. The truth is that God loves the whole world, desires all people to be saved, and so commands us to preach the gospel to all the nations and to pray for their conversion.
Does this emphasis on ‘all people’ lead us out of elitism (only *some* will be saved) into its opposite extreme of universalism (*everybody* will be saved)? No. That Paul was not a universalist is evident, not only from his other letters but from this one too. If he was shown mercy because of his ignorant unbelief, presumably others who are defiant in their unbelief will not receive mercy (1:13). Some will ‘fall under the same judgment as the devil’ (3:6), and sooner or later all sin will be judged (5:24), while the covetous will fall into harmful desires ‘that plunge men into ruin and destruction’ (6:9).
How then can we avoid both opposite extremes of elitism and universalism? Besides, is not the doctrine of election itself a form of elitism? And is it not incompatible with Paul’s statement here that God wants all people to be saved? We begin our response by stating that Scripture indubitably teaches divine election both in the Old Testament (e.g. ‘he loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them’ – Dt.4::37; cf.7:6-7; 13:2), and in the New Testament (e.g. ‘you did not chose me, but I chose you’ – Jn.15:16), although different churches formulate the doctrine differently. Yet this truth must never be expressed in such a way as to deny the complementary truth that God wants all people to be saved. Election is usually introduced in Scripture to humble us (reminding us that the credit for our salvation belongs to God alone), or to reassure us (promising us that God’s love will never let us go), or to stir us to mission (recalling that God chose Abraham and his family in order through him to bless all the families of the earth). Election is never introduced in order to contradict the universal offer of the gospel or to provide us with an excuse for opting out of world evangelization. If some are excluded, it is because they exclude themselves by rejecting the gospel offer. As for God, he *wants all men to be saved*.
How then can we affirm simultaneously God’s desire that all people be saved and God’s election of some to salvation? Christians have struggled with his question in every generation, and have tried to reinterpret the three words which form the backbone of the sentence in verse 4 (namely ‘wants’, ‘all’ and ‘saved’) in such a way as to affirm election and avoid both elitism and universalism. Some have translated ‘wants’ (*thelei*) as either ‘desires’ (NRSV) or ‘wishes’, and have emphasized the distinction between a desire and a purpose, between wishing and willing. This seems consistent with the similar scriptural statement that God takes ‘no pleasure in the death of the wicked’ *Ezk.18:23; 33:11) and that he is patient, ‘not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ (2 Pet.3:9). These three texts all declare that God’s ‘desire’ or ‘pleasure’ for everybody is salvation, not judgment. The linguistic experts tell us, however, that there is no difference between the two verbs *thelo* and *boulomai*, since both can mean either to ‘wish’ or to ‘will’.So all we can say is that the statement ‘God wants all people to be saved’ cannot be pressed into meaning that it is his fixed purpose and intention that everybody will be. For alas! it is possible to resist his will (See e.g. Mt23:37; Lk.7:30; Jn.5:40; Acts 7:51).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.