In the previous paragraph, Paul has summarized the gospel that had transformed the lives of both himself and his younger associate, Timothy, and which both of them were appointed to proclaim. That good news is “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Paul’s “first of all” should not be taken to mark the beginning of a list of exhortations, for there will be no “second” and “third,” though Paul does sometimes forget himself that way; he has a “first” in Romans 2 but no “second” or “third.” Here “first of all” probably is intended to convey the sense that what is done in the public worship of the church is of the first importance. But the emphasis in the next few verses is not going to fall on instructions about precisely how that worship should be conducted. Rather the key points seems to be that, since, as Paul already said, the gospel is for all men, the church’s prayers should be for all men as well. Apparently the church wasn’t praying for all people under the influence of the partisanship and the separatism and exclusivism that was being communicated and encouraged by the false teachers in Ephesus. Take note of three details: 1) the “therefore” with which this new paragraph begins, the ESV’s rather weak “then,” connects this paragraph to what has gone before; 2) the “first” or “above all else” in v. 1 tells us that key to Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus will be the point being made in these verses; and 3) the words “all people” are effectively repeated three times in these few verses.
Taking those observations together it appears that Paul is here contradicting the partisan, sectarian emphasis on the false teachers, who were narrowing the scope of salvation, limiting it to only some rather than all. Like so many since, they thought they knew who the true blue people were, undoubtedly the ones who thought and lived like they did! They were contradicting the gospel of God’s free grace for the service of which Paul had been appointed an apostle of Jesus Christ. We are to pray for all men and that was apparently not something recommended by those who were troubling the Ephesian church at this time. We are to pray for all, not just for the select few.
While it may be possible to distinguish between the four kinds of prayers listed here, supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings, the point is rather simply to emphasize that all the church’s prayer is to be made for all people.
The command is the more striking when we remember that Nero was the emperor when Paul wrote these words! But that may be precisely the point of mentioning rulers here: Paul is not telling us that among all the things we need to do in our worship service we need to pray for our rulers. Christians were inclined to leave men like Nero them out of their prayers precisely because they were hostile and made life difficult for Christians, because they were so far away from anything remotely connected to the Christian conviction and a Christian spirit. Taking vv. 1 and 2 together, it appears that Paul isn’t simply telling the believers that among other things they should pray for their rulers, but that there should be nothing sectarian or limited in their attitude. They should pray for everyone, even those who are actually their enemies, and, if they do, that will lead to a good reputation among outsiders in general which in turn will lead to Christians being left alone to live their lives and get on with gospel work without a lot of opposition. Tranquil, devout, and godly people who wish for the best for others are, at least ordinarily, appreciated, not persecuted.
Here is the first reason why the church should pray for the salvation of all people (even secular rulers hostile to the Christian faith such as Nero): such prayer is consistent with God’s will that all be saved. If some practice pleases God, then, obviously, it should have the enthusiastic support of all Christians!
The statement of vv. 5 and 6 is significant in the context because of the “gave himself as a ransom for all,” indicating again that Christian attitude and practice toward the outside world is to conform to the purpose of God in Christ’s death on the cross. This is the second reason why Christian should pray for all men. Christ died for all men. By praying for the salvation of all we align ourselves with the heart and purpose of our Redeemer. The one God and the one Mediator further indicates that all men must find salvation in Christ because beside him there is no possibility of salvation. Paul reasons from the universality of God to the universalism of the church’s mission and from the atonement of Christ to the impossibility of sinners being reconciled to God in any other way but through faith in the Lord Jesus.
A mediator is one who serves the relationship between two parties, usually a troubled relationship. The two parties in this case are God and man, hence the emphasis on “the man Christ Jesus.”
The preposition “for” here is one that specifically suggests substitution: the Lord gave himself a ransom on behalf of or in the stead of all. Christ’s death was the price that had to be paid for the deliverance of those in bondage.
It is not easy to know what Paul meant by the last phrase of v. 6; perhaps that Christ’s atonement bears witness to the universality of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, a witness the Ephesians should heed.
Obviously the false teachers are in Paul’s view. Paul is laying emphasis on his divine authority as a teacher of this universal gospel to the Gentiles, further proof that the false teachers were Jews and that their teaching in some way diminished the place of Gentiles in the church, at least their place as Gentiles. His strong statement — “I am telling the truth, I am not lying” — makes less sense being written to Timothy, who would never doubt that Paul was telling the truth and serves to remind us of the at least semi-public nature of these letters. The church was expected to hear what Paul had written to Timothy.
While we don’t know the details, we can gather from what Paul says in reply that it was Jewish in character and, sectarian and separatist, and probably morally and spiritually elitist, like much of Jewish religious thinking in that day. At the root of the problem was a deficient understanding of salvation, almost invariably at the root of all problems of thinking in the Christian church. This was reflected in the practice of praying only for those whose thinking lined up with this new teaching or, perhaps, for those who were more likely to embrace it.
Paul has already said, in effect, that if God thought about people the way these men did, he would never have been saved himself because he was certainly hostile to the church and an enemy of God up to the very point of his conversion. But there are deeper reasons why Christians should seek the salvation of all men, both by prayer and by witness. And Paul gives two powerful ones: such universal interest lines up with God’s desire to see all men saved and, as well, with Christ’s work, providing as he did a ransom for all people. There is only one God and only one savior, so every human being needs what Christians have. For that reason Christians must seek the salvation of everyone.
All of that is well and good, or so it may seem to you. But there is a problem here that, if you haven’t encountered it by now in your Christian life, you will soon enough. The problem is that while we read here that God desires the salvation of all men and that Christ Jesus gave his life as a ransom for all men, there are other places in the Bible which say very clearly that God has chosen only some for salvation and by his express will and purpose chose not to save the rest and that Christ came to give his life for his sheep, for his people, for the church, or for his chosen ones. The fact is “salvation is of the Lord” [Jonah 2:9] it is the Lord’s work, but everyone is not saved! Christ promised to give eternal life to those whom the Father had given him, but he didn’t save everyone!
You are aware, or most of you are, of the gulf that separates Arminians from Calvinists, the champions of universal grace from the champions of particular grace. By the way, the term is Arminian, not Armenian. Armenians are people who live in or hail from Armenia. Arminians are followers of the Dutch theologian Jacob or James Arminius (a Latinized patrynomic for Jacob’s last name, which was Hermanson. Roman Catholic theology at the time of the Reformation was Arminian, though, of course, it is an anachronism to call it that, as Arminus himself hadn’t been born when the Reformation began, but Luther and the other magisterial reformers, Calvin included, were sovereign or particular grace men. Melanchthon, Luther’s assistant was first a Calvinist but later became an Arminian, though he remained friends with Calvin, despite their disagreement over whether God’s grace was universal or particular. Calvin even provided a preface for a later edition of Melanchthon’s systematic theology, entitled Loci Communes.
Later on, as you know, during the Great Awakening, John and Charles Wesley were outspoken Arminians but George Whitefield, Augustus Toplady, and Jonathan Edwards were outspoken Calvinists and the dispute on that point between them threatened on a number of occasions to divide and genuinely to harm the revival. In the 19th century, one of the most influential American preachers was Charles Finney, an out and out Arminian, but the greatest preacher of the English speaking Christian church in the 19th century was Charles Spurgeon, the London Baptist, who was an unrepentant Calvinist. From the later 19th century onwards, most American believers have been Arminians, but there has always been a considerable number of Calvinists in our land. C.S. Lewis was an Arminian, but Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Francis Schaeffer were Calvinists. Billy Graham is an Arminian, but R.C. Sproul and John Piper are Calvinists. And on and on it goes. Baptists and Methodists are mostly Arminians, though there is a sizeable and growing number of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention and their seminary in Louisville is a veritable hotbed of Calvinist theology. Episcopalians and Presbyterians are supposed to be Calvinists but only some actually are. I’m speaking, of course, only of Episcopalians and Presbyterians who actually remain Christians in the historic sense of the term and are loyal to the Bible in a meaningful way. Lutherans are a mixed lot, mostly Arminian, but with some sovereign grace men among them who are followers, in that respect, of Luther himself. Most Pentecostals, at least in America, are Arminians, but by no means all. Wayne Grudem is a Pentecostal of a kind and he defends a Calvinistic doctrine of grace in his popular Systematic Theology.
What is the difference? Well it is just this: the Arminians believe that God, loving everyone equally and infinitely as he does, sent his son with the purpose of saving everyone from his or her sins. It was God’s intention in sending his son to bring everyone to salvation and eternal life. But, in his respect for the freedom he granted human beings, he left the issue to us. The salvation is there for the taking, that is what Christ has provided, but you must take it. God and Christ made salvation a possibility; you must make it an actuality. If you do not, what Christ has obtained for you will go to waste. He did everything for the one who is not saved that he did for the one who is saved. The difference doesn’t lie in God, or in the will of God or the power of God or the grace of God. It does not lie in God’s provision of salvation through the cross. The difference lies in the person himself: one believes the other doesn’t and that and that only is the reason why one person is saved and another is not. Some Arminian theologians would cringe, but Arminian pastors have often explained this understanding of salvation by saying: God cast one vote for you; the Devil cast one vote against you; and it’s up to you to break the tie. The man decides, the woman decides who will be saved, not God.
A Calvinist on the other hand argues that the Arminian has vastly understated and underestimated the human condition. Man in sin is in a far more desperate situation than the Arminian allows. He would not and, in fact, could not choose for God. He is by nature an intractable rebel against God, a hater of God. God’s grace does not merely offer to save him; if it did it would prove no help. God’s grace must not only offer salvation it must place it in the man’s hand and in the man’s heart. It must even close the man’s fist around it. God’s grace must help a person in every way he or she must be helped to get from this world to the next and to heaven. What good would it be for a man with broken arms and legs, bloodied and unconscious, lying in the road, for the ambulance to skid to a stop right by him, for the EMTs to jump out, set the stretcher next to him on the pavement, and then cross their arms and tell him to hop on board so that they might carry him to the hospital. An ambulance and a stretcher and a waiting hospital are of no help if the incapacitated and unconscious man must himself act to take advantage of these provisions. No, says the Calvinist, God’s grace is more than the offer of the possibility of salvation; it is salvation itself from beginning to end: in the plan and in the execution, in the accomplishment and the application. It is the cross, to be sure, but it is also the new birth and the gift of faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God’s grace not only provides atonement for our guilt, it overcomes our bondage to sin, and leads us and then keeps us in the faith of Jesus Christ. It is God who decides who will be saved, not man, because God must do the saving, if salvation there will be, all of it from beginning to end.
Now if you ask either an Arminian or a Calvinist why he believes as he does, he will certainly say that it is because his or her view of God’s grace is what is found in the Bible. I am a Calvinist and I certainly am a Calvinist precisely because I believe that sovereign and particular grace is the teaching of the Word of God.
After all the Scripture does say such things as these:
- “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” A statement the Apostle Paul quotes to explain why it is that so many Jews did not in fact believe in the Messiah when he came among them.
- “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” Again a statement quoted by the Apostle Paul in a discussion of why one person is saved and another person is not.
- “You will call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”
- “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
- “…as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” That was Luke’s summary explanation of Paul’s missionary success.
- “The Lord opened her [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
- “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
- “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
- “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
- “Many are called, few are chosen.”
- “For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
- “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
- “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…”
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And literally hundreds if not thousands of texts like those, teaching us relentlessly and unapologetically that our salvation from beginning to end and in all the links of the chain was accomplished for us and given to us as a free gift, that it is not in any way, shape, or form our accomplishment, not even the faith by which we embrace the Lord Jesus Christ and his saving work. It is the plain-speaking of the Bible that sovereign grace makes men and women believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” There is a reason why you meet so many people who used to be Arminians but are now Calvinists, but you hardly ever meet anyone who used to be a Calvinist but is now an Arminian. Once a person sees sovereign and free grace in the Bible, he or she sees it everywhere!
This is also the explanation for the fact that John Wesley is perhaps the only figure in church history who can legitimately be described as a “doctor” of the Christian church — a man whom all Christians respect and regard as an authoritative Christian teacher — who was an Arminian. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Bunyan, Rutherford, Owen, Edwards, Karl Barth, J.I. Packer and hosts of others among the theologians, were Calvinists. There is no great theologian, not one recognized by the church generally as speaking for her, who was an Arminian. And John Wesley is a doctor because of his preaching, not because of his written theology. Charles Simeon, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, Robert McCheyne, Alexander Whyte, Lloyd Jones, John Stott, and hosts of others likewise among the preachers were Calvinists. William Carey, Henry Martyn, John Paton, David Livingstone, Robert Morrison, Adoniram Judson, William Burns, Jim Elliot, and Francis Schaeffer among many other missionaries were all convinced Calvinists.
Oh, we are rightly confident of our convictions and have every right to be sovereign grace men and women. But the Arminian reads our text this evening and says to us, “Where is your Calvinism now, my friend?” Does it not say and say plainly that God wants all men to be saved and that Jesus Christ gave himself a ransom for all? Absolutely it does; that is precisely what it says and the best Calvinists have never been unwilling to admit that.
And sadly we must admit that there have been too many Calvinists through the ages who have preferred their neat system to the plain speaking of the Bible and have thought maintaining systematic consistency more important than doing full justice to what the Bible actually says. So, we are told by some Calvinists that here in 1 Tim. 2 “all” must mean all kinds of men, all sorts of men, people from every tribe and tongue and nation on the earth, as if the Holy Spirit couldn’t have plainly said that. Or, they suggest that we should take Paul to mean that the gospel is offered to all men even if all men do not receive the grace to accept it.
This is just the sort of thing Arminians do when they face our Calvinist texts. They talk on at length about why and how the Bible cannot mean what it seems so plainly to say. We resent it when they do it, but we think it only sensible when we do the same. No. I’m quite sure Paul meant to say — all the more as he was confronting a sectarian or partisan theology — that God wants everyone to be saved and that Christ gave himself a ransom for all. But what then about our Calvinism, about God’s discriminating love toward his chosen people, an emphasis of so many texts of Holy Scripture? What about Christ’s explicitly saying that he gave his life for his sheep and then, turning to the Pharisees, said, “You are not my sheep”? What about God’s election; what about Christ’s actual substitution which after all was not a theoretical atonement; he actually died. If he died in the place of everyone, if he substituted himself to bear the punishment of everyone, then everyone’s sins have already been punished. Full atonement has been made for everyone. How can anyone remain unsaved? And what about the sovereign unpredictable, powerful, life changing work of the Holy Spirit of which the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in John 3? Well, what about all those things?
Here is Charles Spurgeon, so far as his influence on the greatest number of people is concerned, perhaps the greatest preacher in the history of the Christian church.
“My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God. I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem to be inconsistent with myself, for who am I that I should everlastingly be consistent? But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture. God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression. So runs the text, and so we must read it, ‘God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” [MTP 26:49-52; cited in I. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, 151]
The fact is, there is a great deal in Holy Scripture that teaches what we read here in 1 Timothy 2. Think, for example, of the Lord’s broken heart — that is how it is put: “it grieved him to his heart” — because of the world’s sin in Genesis 6:6. Had God not planned the course of world history? Did he not know precisely what sin would make of human beings by the time Noah entered the world? Yet we read that man’s sin in Noah’s day grieved him to the heart. Or think of the Lord’s frequent laments over the unbelief of Israel.
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.” [Isa. 30:18]
He knew Israel in those days was a lost cause, yet he wished she were not! And he continued to plead with her to repent and believe. Think of our Lord Jesus’ sorrow over the unbelief of his countrymen, or the unbelief of one of them, the rich young ruler. Or think of his lament over Jerusalem’s intransigent unbelief.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings and you would not!” [Matt. 23:37]
Was he powerless to change the hearts of the Jews in his days? Not at all; he changed many hearts. But he mourned over those he did not change and wished they would be changed. And this the God who knows the end from the beginning and whose divine will is the plot of world history down to its most minute details.
And, in regard to his wishing all men to be saved, how is Paul’s statement here different from what we read in Ezekiel 18 and 33?
“For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God, so turn, and live.” [vv. 23, 32]
Still more, how is it different from what Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:9:
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
We are talking, after all, about the mind and heart of the living God, the great Majesty on high. Did any of us really think that we could reduce his mind and his heart to a simple man-made system of thought that was going to comprehend everything he knows and everything he feels and everything he desires and everything he has planned? As Calvin put it in his comment on Ezekiel 18:23:
“It is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction.”
What one scholar wisely said regarding the theology of John Calvin, we might all say regarding all the teaching of the Word of God. He said that while Calvin very clearly thought that the individual doctrines of Scripture were capable of clear, consistent expression, he was much less sure that he could harmonize all of those separate doctrines into a single, obviously consistent whole. The truth is simply too high for us, beyond our ability to comprehend. Too much of it has to do with the mind and will and ways of God which are and must remain far above us. All is consistent and harmonious in the divine mind to be sure, but we can see only a tiny portion of the truth at any one time. And so we must say that God wants all men to be saved even if he has not, in his perfect wisdom and goodness, ordered that all men be saved. John Kennedy, the great Scottish preacher of the 19th century, explained the faithful preacher’s situation in this way:
“He cannot reconcile the good will of God declared to all, with the saving love confined to the elect; but he takes the revealed will of God as it is given to him. [God] would have others, he would have all, to come in.” [In I. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage, 147]
And so it is with Christ having given himself a ransom for all. How this is to be reconciled with his dying for his sheep and with his praying for the church and not for the world, as he says he does in his high priestly prayer in John 17, is very hard to know. As high a Calvinist as Jonathan Edwards held it
“past all contradiction ‘that Christ died to give all an opportunity to be saved’ and he urged his hearers to ‘accept the offered love of him who is the only-begotten of God.’” [I. Murray, “The Cross: The Pulpit of God’s Love,” BOT 494-495 (Nov/Dec 2004) 3]
There is a sense in which Christ died for all and a sense in which he did not. That is all we can say. After all, we are talking about God’s intention, what was in his mind when he did what he did as God the Son on the cross. Can you read God’s mind? I am sure I cannot. Remember, no reformed theologian, so far as I know no Christian theologian, has ever held that the cross would have been any different had Jesus saved ten more or ten million more. It was infinite sorrow and infinite suffering and infinite punishment as it was! There is so much about God and about God’s works that we do not and cannot understand and should not imagine that we could understand. It is very important for us to realize again and again and again as we read the Word of God that there is more here than we can easily understand. He has an infinite love and good-will that is not in every case worked out in the salvation of all men by his infinite power. Who can explain the ways of the Lord? He does not see to the accomplishment of things he longs for. But he is God and all his ways are true and righteous altogether.
Let the great Calvinist preacher of the 19th century, at least one of the greatest Christian preachers of all history, Charles Spurgeon, a man who suffered some severe criticism in his day on account of his unabashed Calvinism, have the last word.
“There stands the text, and I believe that it is my Father’s wish that ‘all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.’ But know, also, that he does not will it, so that he will save any one of them, unless they believe in his dear Son; for he has told us over and over that he will not. He will not save any man except he forsakes his sins, and turns to him with full purpose of heart: that I also know. And I know, also, that he has a people whom he will save, whom by his eternal love he has chosen, and whom by his eternal power he will deliver. I do not know how that squares with this; that is another of the things I do not know. If I go on telling you of all that I do not know, and of all the things that I do know, I will warrant you that the things that I do not know will be a hundred to one of the things that I do know. And so we will say no more about the matter, but just go on to the more practical part of the text. God’s wish about man’s salvation is this, — that men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”