Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?
Thanks for your question. The Reformed faith teaches that Jesus died only for the elect and not for every single person in the world. See "Calvinism and Titus 2:11?" and "Calvinism and 1 John 2:2?" below. This is called "limited atonement" (or particular redemption). The Bible teaches this to us from various texts. Here are some examples:
John 10:14-15 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
John 17:9-11 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
While many more verses could be cited, above we observe that Christ (1) laid down his life for the sheep, not the goats (cf. Matt 25:31-46), (2) that Christ prayed for a specific group of people out of the world - only the ones the Father has given to him (cf. John 6:37), and (3) that Christ only died for believers - those in the invisible church.
Christ died upon the Cross not simply to make salvation a possibility, but to actually save those he died for. He actually died to save them, not merely to make them savable. Christ literally became incarnate to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The Bible explicitly teaches that Christ would see his sacrifice and be satisfied knowing that it would actually save his people (Isa. 53:11). "Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for his own chosen people."  See Isaiah 53:8, 12; John 6:37-40; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 1:4; Colossians 2:13-14; Revelation 5:9. "It is finished" (John 19:30).
With this known truth, let's look at the texts in question:
1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
It is important to understand the "context" of any verse before attempting to interpret it. The greater context of 1 Timothy 2:4, 6 is 1 Timothy 2:1-8.
1 Timothy 2:1-8 form a chiastic structure (a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis) focusing upon the fact that there is one God, one mediator - AND ONLY ONE - between God and man:
- A. supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings (1 Tim 2:1-3)
- B. truth (1 Tim 2:4)
- C. one God (1 Tim 2:5)
- D. there is one mediator between God and men (1 Tim 2:5)
- C'. the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5-6)
- B'. truth (1 Tim 2:7)
- A'. pray (1 Tim 2:8)
The Holy Spirit's structure of these verses is beautiful isn't it (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:21). Note the bookends of the structure have to do with "prayer" (A and A' above, 1 Tim 2:1, 8). Paul begins with the encouragement that believers should offer various types of prayers for all kinds of people - especially for kings and those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2) for the sake of the gospel (D above, 1 Tim 2:5-6). Paul lists the various types of petitions (supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings, 1 Tim 2:1) that are to be made for all types of people (cf. 1 Tim. 2:2) because it is "good" and "pleasing" to God (1 Tim 2:3).
So, Paul, a teacher of the truth (B and B' above, 1 Tim 2:4, 7) addressed the issue of those for whom Christians should pray. As can be seen from the expression, "for kings and all those in authority," this does not mean for every human being without exception, but rather for different types of people, whatever their station in life.
So, the meaning of the texts in question is that God desires the salvation of all types sinners, because Jesus gave his life as a ransom for all sorts of people, no matter their station in life.
As we observe, the word "all" does not always necessitate understanding it to mean "each and every person without exception." Did each and every person in the entire human race regard John the Baptist as a prophet (Mark 11:32)? Of course not, many hadn't even been born yet! Did all humanity without exception wonder whether John was perhaps, the Christ (Luke 3:15)? No, in context the word "all" here means a great number. Did every member of the human race, without the exception of even one, search for Christ (Mark 1:37)? Did absolutely "everyone" - even those who later crucified him - flock to Jesus (John 3:26)? Clearly, as demonstrated above, the meaning of the word "all" (or "every", or even "world", etc.) does not always mean every member of the human race. We must fully examine the context of the verse in question to understand the meaning of a word. See Pink's illustration in "Is Strong's Concordance a good Bible dictionary?" below. See WCF 20.4; 21.4; 23.2; 23.4; 31.2; WLC 127, 183, 191; WSC 100; BC 36.
Christ, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), gave himself to be a ransom for all different types of people (cf. 1 Tim 4:9-10; 5:1-2, 3-6:2). By his death on the Cross, Christ paid the price necessary to free his people, those "from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev 5:9; 7:9), whether they be men, woman, children, or slaves (Eph. 5:22-6:9; cf. Acts 2:38-39), no matter their station in life (even kings and those in authority, 1 Tim 2:1-3), from their sins (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). Thus, Jesus is the "one mediator" (1 Tim. 2:5).
Salvation is not limited to a particular ethnic group or gender or to any other subsection of humanity. Moreover, that the word "all" is commonly used to mean "all types" can be seen clearly in 1 Timothy 6:10, where the same Greek word is translated "all kinds." Although the value of Christ's death is infinite, his sacrifice on the Cross was fully effective in winning the salvation of the elect only.
References J. I. Packer's Introduction to The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, by John Owen.
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Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).