A Commentary by John Stott

1 Timothy. 2:3-4.  b). God’s desire concerns all people (continued).

Secondly, others suggest that the verb to ‘be saved’ means here to ‘be preserved physically’ rather than ‘rescued spiritually and morally’, since some think it has this meaning elsewhere (e.g. 2:11 and 4:10), and since the immediate context is that of governments protecting and preserving their citizens. This proposal has not found wide acceptance, however, since Paul goes on to write about the death of Christ for our sins, and since the vocabulary of salvation in the Pastorals usually refers to a deliverance from sin (e.g. 1 Tim.1:15; 2 Tim.1:9; 3:15; Tit.2:11; 3:5).

Thirdly, a number of commentators insist that ‘all men’ cannot be taken in an absolute sense as signifying every single individual. Instead, ‘the apostle’s meaning here’, writes Calvin, following Augustine, ‘is simply that no nation of the earth and no rank of society is excluded from salvation, since God wills to offer the gospel to all without exception’. Paul is speaking rather of classes and not of individuals. Hendriksen argues similarly that the ‘all’ means ‘all men regardless of social, national and racial distinctions’ and not ‘one by one every member of the entire human race, past, present and future, including Judas and the antichrist’. G.W.Knight points out in addition that this is the natural interpretation of verse 1, for it is possible to pray for ‘all kinds of people’ (e.g. the rulers as well as the ruled), but not possible to pray for absolutely everybody. And in many other passages of Scripture ‘all’ is not absolute, but limited by context. For example, when Jesus commissioned Paul to be his witness ‘to all men’, he meant not ‘absolutely everybody in the world’ but ‘Gentiles as well as Jews’ (Acts 22:15, 21; 26:16-17).

This is an important insight which needs to be affirmed. Nevertheless, it does not altogether solve the problem. However we interpret the words ‘want’, ‘saved’ and ‘all’ in verse 4, we are still left with an antinomy (A paradox is an apparent contradiction which can be resolved; an antinomy is a logical contradiction which cannot.) between the universal offer of gospel and God’s purpose of election, between the ‘all’ and the ‘some’. Moreover, it is not a purely Pauline problem; we find it clearly within the teaching of Jesus himself. On the one-hand he invited all to come to him (E.g. Mt.11:28; Jn.12:32); on the other he said that his ministry was limited to those whom the Father had given him out of the world (E.g. Jn.17:6, 9). Again, on one occasion he said, ‘You refuse to come to me’, on another ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father…draws him’ (Jn.5:40; 6:44). So why is it that some people do not come to Christ? Is it that they will not or that they cannot? Jesus taught both.

Wherever we look in Scripture we see this antinomy: divine sovereignty and human responsibility, universal offer and electing purpose, the all and the some, the cannot and the will not. The right response to this phenomenon is neither to seek a superficial harmonization (by manipulating some part of the evidence), nor to declare that Jesus and Paul contradict themselves, but to affirm both parts of the antinomy as true, while humbly confessing that at present our little minds are unable to resolve it.

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.