When we probe into a seemingly straightforward question like whether God truly wants all individuals to be saved, we might be tempted to respond somewhat instinctively with something like: “Of course God wants everyone to be saved. The Bible plainly says that God ‘desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’” (1 Tim. 2:4).
But if we simply leave the answer as an unqualified yes, we run into some practical problems. For instance, why did God only send prophets to the nation of Israel and not throughout the surrounding nations or around the world? Why did Jesus say he was speaking in parables lest some of the people understand his words and believe (Mark 4:12; see also Matt. 13:11)? Why are there still inhabitants in the world today who have never seen a missionary or heard the gospel message? More importantly, why then are not all people saved?
The truth is there is more that needs to be said in response to the question than initially one might think. Some careful nuance would be helpful here.
Theologians have historically pointed out that God has different “wills”—typically a secret will (also called a decretive will) and a revealed will (also called a preceptive will). A decretive or secret will refers simply to the decrees of God by his sovereign will. Ephesians 1:11 states “all things” have been ordained “according to the counsel of his will.” The revealed or preceptive will refers to those things God commands: love him with all our hearts and mind, honor our fathers and mothers, keep the sabbath, etc. (Some even include a third will called a dispositional will that refers to that which pleases or displeases God.)
Understanding this distinction in the “wills” of God will help us to understand how we can say God desires all to be saved, or that God does not want any to perish, and yet still affirm the biblical teaching on election in that some will be saved and others will be left in their own state of sin and wickedness.
Making this distinction is not that much different from our own understanding of wills on a human level. A parent, for instance, may not “desire” or “wish” to discipline his child, but he will do so anyway, because that is what a just parent does—knowing that it teaches the child an important lesson about life and God’s commands. So in one sense, the parent does not want to do something, while at the same time he actually does want to do it. Similarly, we can properly say God desires all people to saved, but can also affirm the reality God does not want all people to be saved, because not having all humanity saved from everlasting punishment will ultimately bring him glory and honor. That’s exactly what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:3-6, that God “chose us in him . . . to the praise of his glorious grace.”
The question of why God chooses some and not others according to his “purpose” (Eph. 1:11) will never satisfactorily be understood this side of heaven, but consider part of the answer is that if at least some people were not saved God could never display to us his mercy; and, if at least some people were not lost, God could never manifest his wrath. Only in an instance where some people are saved and some people are rightly punished for their choices can the full display of God’s attributes be seen. Having said that, let’s get back to the passage in 1 Timothy.
Beyond what I would argue is a proper distinction in the wills of God to explain a verse like 1 Timothy 2:4, there is, I contend, a better way to understand this passage than to conclude it teaches God wants every individual without exception to be saved. Let’s look at the full quotation, beginning at chapter 2:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
You will notice here that the apostle begins by exhorting Timothy to pray on behalf of “all people” (pantōn anthrōpōn). By making this statement, the apostle is not encouraging Timothy to break out the phone book and start praying by name for every city inhabitant. Nor is the apostle telling Timothy he should pray for every individual in the world, one by one. Rather, the apostle himself tells us what he means by “all people” by explaining who they are: “kings and all who are in high positions.” And just a few verses later the apostle speaks of Gentiles (v. 7). These are groups or classes of men. Paul is thus telling Timothy that in public worship he is not to exclude any group of individuals (even those very people who are actively persecuting them). The context for Paul is clear in that he mentions classes of men: kings (v. 2), those in authority (v. 2), Gentiles (v. 7). In other words, “all men” is here used by the apostle as a way of saying “all men without distinction of race, nationality, ethnicity, or social status.”
Having seen Paul himself define who “all people” are in verse two, we see him point out praying for the salvation of all sorts of people/kinds/classes in verse three leads to Paul pointing out God doesn’t want to just save a certain type or class of people, but “desires all people to be saved.” The apostle has already defined for us who “all people” are in the second verse, so it naturally follows he is speaking of the same group in verse four. That is, God wants all kinds/classes/types of people to be saved. Nowhere does Paul hint that he’s changing the meaning of his words or expanding the definition he gave in the prior sentence. The context has not changed, so there is no exegetical reason to suggest the “all people” has an altered meaning from its defined usage in verse two. In other words, the passage is connected and Paul is saying that it is God’s desire to save people from every walk of life, up and down the societal structures. Timothy then was even to pray for the salvation of those individuals persecuting him. Why? Because God’s grace is not limited to certain kinds of people, but transcends social and political boundaries. It would be wrong for us to read into this passage the horizontal idea of all individuals of the world when Paul is giving us a vertical perspective that God does not exclude particular social classes from his saving grace.
Sometimes it is important we take a step back and consider afresh texts we know intimately and reexamine our preconceived notions to see if they truly align with the text of Scripture and if they are philosophically compatible when carried to their logical conclusions.