Arminians and God's Desires

Question

I believe that the Bible has to be taken at face value, and if 1 Timothy 2:3-4 (a favorite example of us Arminians!) says that God "desires everyone to be saved" (NRSV), then that means that God really wants everyone to be saved and will do what he can to bring that about. How can Calvinists remain committed to the plain meaning of Scripture and not join our side when they read 1 Timothy 2?

Answer

We Calvinists believe that a great leap is required to get from "wants everybody to be saved" to "will do what he can to bring that about." At face value, the text does not say that God will do what he can to save everyone. In fact, there is no evidence in Scripture whatsoever for this conclusion. On the contrary, Scripture tells us that God can do anything (e.g. Jer. 32:17). If it were true that he would do what he could, then we'd all be saved. But 1 Timothy 2:3-4 doesn't imply that everyone will be saved. The application there is that we are to pray for rulers in order that believers may live quiet lives--the application is designed to benefit believers, not to benefit everyone in the world.

There are two good potential ways to demonstrate that this verse agrees with Reformed thought. First, in 1 Timothy 4:10 Paul clarifies whom he means by the phrase "desires everyone to be saved." Contrary to initial appearances, that phrase is actually ambiguous! In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that God is the savior of "all men" (the same phrase translated "everyone" in the earlier passage). Now, I'm sure we both agree that not every last person in the world is saved. So, in what sense is God the savior of all men? Paul tells us when he says "especially of believers." Actually, that's not necessarily a great translation. The word translated "especially" is malista. That's the superlative form of a word we usually see in the comparative form (in case those terms are unfamiliar, let me provide an example: "better" is the comparative form of "good," and "best" is the superlative form). The comparative form of malista is mallon, which everyone agrees means "rather" (e.g. Gal. 4:9). Malista intensifies the meaning of mallon, just as "best" intensifies the meaning of "better." It is as if Paul had said, "Savior of all men, or RATHER, of believers." In other words, by "all men," he may well have meant "believers." This makes good sense of 1 Timothy 2:1-4, which encourages benefits only for believers.

Another way to make good sense of 1 Timothy 2:3-4 is by recognizing that the Greek word for "all" (pas) frequently means "all kinds," as in 1 Timothy 6:10. Literally, 1 Timothy 6:10 says that the love of money is the root of "all evil," but what it means is that the love of money is the root of "all sorts of evil." It is very easy to point to evil that does not originate from greed, so pretty much everyone admits that "all" means "all sorts of" in this verse. In the same way, God desires the salvation of all kinds of people, such as rulers and those who are in authority--types of people that are listed immediately after the instruction to pray for "all men." By this reading, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 points out that God saves even rulers, and this is yet another reason that Christians must pray for them.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.