by George Sidney Hurd
The following is an excerpt from the book The Triumph of Mercy.
“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” (1Timothy 2:3-6)
This passage clearly tells us that God desires the salvation of all men, and also that, with that end in mind, Christ Jesus gave Himself a ransom for all. This harmonizes perfectly with Universalism which affirms that God will indeed save all in due time. But with the traditionalists who believe that the majority will never be saved, it is necessary to change the obvious sense of this passage. The Arminians and the Calvinists have two very distinct ways of explaining why this text doesn’t mean what it appears to mean.
Two Traditional Opinions
The Arminians are in agreement with the text in the sense that Christ Jesus paid the ransom for the whole human race – that He gave Himself a ransom for all. Nevertheless, according to them, the majority will never be saved, due to their belief that the will of God for man is frustrated by man’s own free-will. In order to maintain some semblance of sovereignty for God, they must argue that the word “desire” (thelo), in this instance, does not mean something that He will achieve, but rather it is merely a wish or aspiration. Barnes, in his commentary on 1Timothy 2:4 is representative of the explanation given by the Arminians:
“[Who will have all men to be saved] That is, it is in accordance with his nature, his feelings, his desires. The word ‘will’ cannot be taken here in the absolute sense, denoting a decree like that by which he willed the creation of the world, for if that were so then all men would be saved. But the word is often used to denote a desire, wish, or what is in accordance with the nature of anyone. Thus it may be said of God that he ‘wills’ that his creatures may be happy because it is in accordance with his nature, and because he has made abundant provision for their happiness though it is not true that he wills it in the sense that he exerts his absolute power to make them happy. God wills that sickness should be relieved, and sorrow mitigated, and that the oppressed should go free, because it is agreeable to his nature; though it is not true that he wills it in the sense that he exerts his absolute power to produce it. A parent wills the welfare of his child. It is in accordance with his nature, his feelings, his desires; and he makes every needful arrangement for it. If the child is not virtuous and happy, it is his own fault. So God wills that all people should be saved. It would be in accordance with his benevolent nature. He has made ample provision for it. He uses all proper means to secure their salvation. He uses no positive means to prevent it, and if they are not saved it will be their own fault. For places in the New Testament where the word here translated ‘will’ thelo, means to desire or wish, see Luke 8:20; 23:8; John 16:19; Gal.4:20; Mark 17:24; 1Cor. 7:7; 11:3; 14:5; Matt. 15:28.” [i]
It is not without importance to note that none of the passages he cites here to show that thelo at times expresses a simple desire or wish have reference to the will of God. The will of man can be frustrated by circumstances beyond his control. That’s why James said that our determinations should be conditioned by, “if God wills (thelo)…we will do this or that” (James 4:13-15). We can make a determination to do something and not be able to do it because it ultimately depends upon the determinative will of God. James continues saying, “all such boasting is evil” (v. 16). Nevertheless, according to Arminianism, what God desires for us is subordinate to the “free-will” of man to such a degree that they, in essence, invert the words of James to say, “if man wills God will do,” instead of saying “if God wills man will do.” Such boasting is not good, according to James. It is the essence of humanism, putting the will of man above the will of God.
There is an abundance of Scriptures that clearly indicate that the will of God, when all is said and done, cannot be frustrated by the will of man:
“Whatever the Lord pleases (thelo) he does, in heaven and on earth.” (Ps 135:6)
In this passage the same Greek word thelo, is used in the LXX. Some say that the other words expressing “desire” (boule, bouléo, boúlomai) express more strongly the idea of deliberation than thelo. [ii] Thelo is said to express determination in contrast with boule. Marvin Vincent, commenting on thelo as used in 1Timothy 2:4 says: “He desires the salvation of all. Thelo (to desire) indicates a determined purpose.” [iii] Be that as it may, we find that both words are used to express the will of God concerning our salvation. Peter uses the word boúlomai to express that God is not willing (boúlomai) that any of us should perish.
“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing (boúlomai) that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) [iv]
Even taking into account whatever distinction of meaning between thelo and boule, we see in the Scriptures that neither His thelo nor His boule can ultimately be frustrated by man:
“The Lord of hosts has sworn, saying, ‘surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, and as I have purposed (bouléo), so it shall stand.” (Isa 14:24)
“Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure (bouléo),’ 11 Calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.” (Isa 46:10-11)
But if there should still remain doubt as to whether or not He exercises His will in a determinative way for the salvation of all mankind, let us look again at what He declares in Isaiah 45:
“Tell and bring forth your case; yes, let them take counsel together. Who has declared this from ancient time? Who has told it from that time? Have not I, the Lord? And there is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior; there is none besides Me. 22 Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. 23 I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. 24 He shall say, ‘Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength.’ To Him men shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against Him.” (Isa 45:21-24)
Here we see that it is not simply a passive desire or an aspiration of God that all be saved, but rather that He himself has sworn that all shall be saved – that every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall take an oath of loyalty to Him.
This contradicts what Barnes and other Arminians affirm when he says: “The word ‘will’, cannot be taken here in the absolute sense, denoting a decree….” And why do they insist so much that it cannot be understood in an absolute sense? Barnes explains their reasoning: “for if that were so then all men would be saved. However, the salvation of all is precisely what Paul affirms in 1Timothy. After saying in 2:4 that God desires all men to be saved and that Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all; in 4:10 he goes on to say that He is “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” According to Paul, Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all and His mission will not be frustrated by the free-will of man. Even those who have not yet believed will believe in His due time. Those who believe in universal salvation can take these passages in their plain and obvious sense. But when these texts are approached with the presupposition of eternal punishment, combined with the exaltation of the free-will of man, against the free-will of God to save, it then becomes necessary for them to change the obvious meaning of Scripture in order to maintain their traditions.
That is not to say that God never lets men make decisions independently on their own. God allows us to make our own decisions in order that we may learn from our mistakes and mature. What these texts do say is that God has the last word. What God desires He does, in heaven and on earth, and what he desires is the ultimate salvation of all mankind, and in His own time it shall be accomplished.
God, as Creator and Father of all, permits us to exercise our will within certain parameters the same as any father who wants his son to mature and learn to make wise decisions. But what would we say of a father who never intervenes even when his son’s decisions could cause irreparable harm or death? Love promotes the exercise of free-will decisions in our children for the development of their personalities. However, at the same time, we exercise influence to guide them, and if necessary, deny the free expression of their will in certain circumstances until they learn to make more mature decisions. No good father would give his son’s will free reign without parental intervention when necessary. That would be parental negligence and indifference – not love. And much less would one of us let our son commit suicide without restraining intervention. How can we attribute to our Father God something infinitely worse?
Barnes, as cited above, unwittingly presents God as if He were the worst, most indifferent and negligent Father of all. He said, referring to man’s salvation: “(God) has made ample provision for it. He uses all proper means to secure their salvation. He uses no positive means to prevent it, and if they are not saved it will be their own fault.” [v] This is an example of how much the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment can harden our hearts. The attitude of God that Barnes presents here is as if a father were to say concerning his son: “Well, I provided for my son all that he needs to live a happy life. I’m not going to tie him to the railroad tracks, but if he decides to take his life it will be his own fault.” However, what they attribute to God is much worse than this illustration depicts. They sing hymns affirming that the mercy of God endures forever, but at the same time teach that if one does not accept His provision of salvation on time, God himself will cast them into an eternal lake of fire without any hope of ever being saved for all eternity.
According to them, God has so much respect for man’s free-will that He wouldn’t even intervene to prevent His children from going to an eternal hell, even knowing that they are headed there because they are blinded by inherited sin. Nevertheless, at the judgment, when they finally come to themselves and bow the knee to Him, confessing Him as Lord, they will be cast into the lake of fire, without mercy and against their free-will that He is said to honor so much, forever and ever.
Continuing with the example of the father and son, it would be as if the father; seeing that his wayward son did not gratefully receive his provision promptly, were to tie his son on his knees to the train rails, without showing mercy to his son’s confession that he had acted shamefully, and turning a deaf ear to his promises to be an obedient son, given another opportunity, until finally the train runs over him. Of course, this illustration falls short because the train passes, but according to them, hell never ends.
This parable is very different from the one Jesus used to illustrate Father God’s heart toward his prodigal son, but it is nevertheless descriptive of the father of the Arminians towards a wayward, ungrateful son in the far country. They would allow that the Father is as presented in Jesus’ parable as long as the son’s heart continues beating, but does the Father’s love and mercy end in a heartbeat or are His love and mercy eternal even as the Bible declares?
The Calvinists, in contrast to the Arminians, believe that, according to the Scriptures, God is absolutely sovereign and cannot be frustrated by the free-will of man. A Calvinist, John Gill, says the following concerning the same passage in 1Timothy 2:4:
“The salvation which God wills that all men should enjoy, is not a mere possibility of salvation, or a mere putting them into a salvable state; or an offer of salvation to them; or a proposal of sufficient means of it to all in his word; but a real, certain, and actual salvation, which he has determined they shall have... wherefore the will of God, that all men should be saved, is not a conditional will, or what depends on the will of man, or on anything to be performed by him... but it is an absolute and unconditional will respecting their salvation, and which infallibly secures it...but the will of God concerning man’s salvation is entirely one, invariable, unalterable, and unchangeable ... but it is his ordaining, purposing, and determining will, which is never resisted, so as to be frustrated, but is always accomplished: the will of God, the sovereign and unfrustratable will of God, has the governing sway and influence in the salvation of men.” [vi]
So far Gill gives us the impression that he is eloquently arguing in favor of Universalism - that God wills all men to be saved and nothing nor anyone can frustrate His desire. However, since Calvinists do not believe that God wills to save all, they must argue that all here does not mean “all.” After declaring that all men will be saved, he “clarifies” that all men does not mean “all men”:
“nor are any saved, but whom he wills they should be saved: hence by all men…cannot be meant every individual of mankind, since it is not his will that all men, in this large sense, should be saved, unless there are two contrary wills in God; for there are some who were before ordained by him unto condemnation, and are vessels of wrath fitted for destruction; and it is his will concerning some, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned; nor is it fact that all are saved, as they would be, if it was his will they should; for who hath resisted his will? But there is a world of ungodly men that will be condemned, and who will go into everlasting punishment.” [vii]
Here we see a representation of the Calvinistic position that says that God always gets what He wants but He simply doesn’t want to save all. On the contrary, some (the majority according to them) were predestined by God to an eternal hell and He wants them to believe the lie, in order that they might be damned. That doesn’t resonate with me as being the good news for all people that the angel announced to the shepherds (Luke 2:10).
Based on this position, they must argue that “all men” does not refer to all without exception but rather to all without distinction. In other words, a few, representative of every nation, race, social rank, age and sex. Nevertheless, they say that “all men” refers to everyone without exception when Paul says that “all have sinned” (Rom 5:12). But how can we possibly say that Christ’s victory was much greater than Adam’s defeat if in Adam all without exception are lost but in Christ only “all without distinction” are saved? (cf. Rom 5:15-17).
To illustrate how illogical this explanation is to limit “all” - saying it doesn’t mean all without exception but only “all without distinction,” let us imagine that an embassy with 3,000 people inside is taken by terrorists and all 3,000 are held as hostages. Then the Special Forces storm the embassy in an attempt to save them. After a great conflict, only 30 of the 3,000 are saved alive. The rest are killed by the terrorists. What would be the reaction of the families of the victims and the rest of the public if they were informed that the rescue operation was a total success – the Special Forces were able to save “all without distinction”? Would it be possible to consider that a total victory just because the survivors were composed of representatives of every nation, sex and age group? Such distinctions cause us to attribute to God that which is absurd and unacceptable even on a human level.
The Common Denominator between Arminians and Calvinists
There is a common denominator that the Arminians and Calvinists hold in common against the Universalists. The common denominator is not the Gospel. Christian Universalists also believe the same gospel that salvation only comes through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Biblical Universalists also believe in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. So, what is the presupposition that they hold in common against the Universalists? The common denominator is that both camps assume that not all will be saved. Gill the Calvinist says that all cannot mean “all,” “since it is not his will that all men, in this large sense, should be saved.” Barnes, as an Arminian, on the other hand argues that it is his will that all men be saved but it is not a determinative will, “for if that were so then all men would be saved.” The point of reference for both sides is the presupposition that not all will be saved. Both sides, because of their traditional doctrine of eternal punishment for the majority of mankind, must argue that the text doesn’t mean what it seems to mean; namely that God has made provision for the salvation of all and has determined that all will be saved. The Arminians get around having to say that God will save all by subordinating God’s sovereignty to the “free-will” of man, and the Calvinist gets around saying God will save all by saying that all doesn’t mean “all.” In contrast, the Universalist can say that God is sovereign and will indeed save all without violating man’s free-will. God in His sovereignty has sworn that every knee will bow before Him, and every tongue will confess Him as Lord under oath. And that includes all in heaven, on the earth and under the earth (Is 45:21-22; Phil 2:10-11).
While the tendency among the Arminians is to limit the sovereignty of God to protect the free-will of man, the Calvinist tends to minimize or even deny the free-will of man in order to protect the sovereignty of God. It is true that there are many limitations to what we call “free-will.” None of us were able to choose the environment in which we were born. We didn’t choose to be born with a bent to sin. We didn’t choose our parents. We couldn’t choose whether to be born in a Christian home or an atheist or Muslim home. We couldn’t choose between being born in the United States or Iran, and for the majority, their free-will is of little or no avail for changing their social status or nationality. All these things and many more, limit or influence our “free-will.” It is more likely that one born into a loving Christian home in a time of spiritual revival will exercise their “free-will” to accept Christ than an Indian in the heart of the jungle who has never seen civilization; much less heard the gospel. Certainly, at best our “free-will” is limited by the hand of cards that life has dealt to us. If the eternal destiny of every person were to depend upon a decision for Christ with the limitations of their “free-will” during the brief span of their lifetime, then there would be much inequity in the world which would be very difficult to reconcile with the love and justice of God. But if we understand that Christ is the Savior of all mankind without exception, including those who have not believed as of yet (1Ti 4:10), then it becomes possible to trust that God, in His time, will bring justice, grace and mercy to all.
I believe that what we find in the Scriptures is that God’s sovereignty is always absolute. His council will stand and all that He desires will be done (Is 46:10), and what He desires is the salvation of all. Also, the victory of Christ on the cross reconciled the whole world to Himself and obtained the salvation of all. But at the same time, no one benefits from that salvation against their own will. God has reconciled the world to Himself in Christ, but we do not enjoy that reconciliation until we have been reconciled to God in our hearts and minds (2Cor. 5:19-20; Col. 1:21). Christ is the Savior of the whole World, but we do not experience this salvation until we put our faith in the Savior. The problem with the traditional position is their insistence that the only opportunity that God gives us is in this life, and obviously not all are reconciled to God, accepting His salvation in this life. In fact, the vast majority never even heard the good news of salvation in their lifetime.
The disparity between the sovereignty of God and the free-will of man does not exist with the Universalist. The debate between Arminianism and Calvinism is rooted in the presupposition of the traditionalists that say that it is necessary to be saved within the nanosecond of our earthly existence. As it is obvious that not all are saved in this life, they must justify this reality. The Calvinists put the blame on God, saying that He doesn’t want to save all. The Arminians put the blame on man’s free-will, saying that man doesn’t want to be saved. The Universalist, however, can say with the Scriptures that God wants all to turn to Him and be saved, and He has sworn that, sooner or later, every knee shall indeed bow, and every tongue shall confess Jesus as Lord of their own free-will (Isa 45:21-24; Phil 2:10-11).
God does not have to violate one’s free-will in order to cause them to turn to Him. His patience and His power of influence are infinite, and He is capable of bringing them voluntarily to their knees, confessing Him as Lord, instead of sending them to an eternal hell against their “free-will” as soon as their heart stops beating. God, working in us to desire and to do His good will, is what will finally result in all voluntarily submitting themselves to Him.
“That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father… 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:10,11,13)
It was God working in the life and circumstances of Jonah in the storm and the great fish, and in the life of Paul on the road to Damascus, that caused them to will and to do His good pleasure. God changed their “free-will” to align it with His and didn’t wait for them to choose His will on their own – something they would have never done. They would have never chosen the good will of God by their independent free-will until God produced the desire in them, and the same is true of you and me and everyone else who has ever bowed the knee and confessed Jesus Christ as Lord (Rom. 3:11-12). “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1Cor 12:3). God accomplishes what He desires, and what He desires is that all be saved, and so shall it be done according to His predetermined will.
[i] Barnes Notes, Commentary on 1Timothy 2.
[ii] Vines Expository Dictionary of the New Testament on boúlomai.
[iii] Marvin Vincent, Vincent´s Word Studies of the New Testament on 1Timoteo 2:4.
[iv] In this passage we see God’s determinative will exercised in the salvation of all His elect, the Church of the firstfruits, before the day of the Lord commences at the Second Coming. The limiting expressions “beloved” and “toward us” show clearly that he is here specifically referring to the elect and not the rest of the world who will believe through us in the coming times of the restoration of all. The Lord will not return until the “fullness of the Gentiles” has come into the Church and all of us as His “firstfruits” have been harvested.
[v] Barnes Notes, Commentary on 1Timothy 2.
[vi] John Gill, New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible. Commentary on 1Timothy 2:4
[vii] John Gill, New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible. Commentary on 1Timothy 2:4