Bible Answer

Did Paul teach that God wants all people to be saved?

In 1 Timothy 2 Paul tells Timothy that the Lord wishes all people to be saved. Doesn't this statement contradict the idea of election and predestination, which teaches that God has chosen some people for salvation while not choosing others?

The opening verses of 1Timothy 2 are often cited as evidence against the doctrine of predestination and election. The verse most commonly quoted is 1Tim 2:4, but we will include a longer passage to provide context:

1Tim. 2:1  First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,
1Tim. 2:2  for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.
1Tim. 2:3  This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,
1Tim. 2:4  who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1Tim. 2:5  For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
1Tim. 2:6  who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. 

The key to interpreting this passage properly (and all scripture, for that matter) is understanding its meaning in the context where it is found. In this case, the context clearly indicates that Paul had a different topic in mind than the one often attributed to this passage.

First, notice that Paul begins in v.2 by telling Timothy that the church should pray on behalf of "all men." Then in the next verse, Paul defines what he means by "all men." In v.2 Paul defines "all men" as "kings and all who are in authority." So by the context, we see Paul didn't say "all men" to mean all human beings. Rather, Paul referred to "all men" as in all types of people, whether poor or powerful.

Paul wanted the church to pray for the benefit of all kinds of men. Paul knew that Timothy would instruct the church to pray for the persecuted saints, but Paul also wanted the church to pray for those who were persecuting the church, including kings and all men in authority.

In v.2 Paul explains why he wanted the church to pray in this way. If the church prays for men in authority, it will lead to a more tranquil and quiet life for the saints. In v.4 Paul reminds the church that even these powerful men were not outside the Lord's reach, because the Lord will bring salvation even to powerful men who persecute the church when it suits His purpose.

There is great irony in this passage coming from Paul. Timothy and the entire church remembered that Paul himself was once a powerful man who persecuted the church. So when Paul tells the church to pray for powerful men who persecute them, he is speaking from experience, and his request would have carried additional credibility with the church for this reason.

Clearly, Paul was not teaching Timothy that God was prepared to bring salvation to all human beings, as your question suggested. First, if the sovereign God of the Universe wishes to save all men, He will most certainly do so, since nothing can frustrate the will of God. Yet we can clearly see that not "all men" are coming to faith, so are we to conclude that God has "wishes" that are not coming true? This is a false vew of God, one that is contrary to scripture and made possible by a wrong interpretation of 1Tim 2.

According to the context of 1Tim 2, the Lord "wishes" to bring salvation to His elect, regardless of their station in life. While scripture teaches the elect will be called primarily from among the poor and weak of the world (1Corinthians 1), this passage teaches us that the elect are not exclusively found among the poor. Rather, the Lord may occasionally bring faith to a powerful man in authority.

Furthermore, we can see why Paul would ask the church to pray for the salvation of authority figures, since the salvation of a king might become a means to end persecution over the church (as happened with Paul). This is the sense of Paul's words in 1Tim 2 when he says the Lord wishes to bring "all men" to salvation.

Finally, when we leave Paul's words in their proper context, we are led to a proper interpretation and avoid mistaken interpretations that create apparent contraditions with other Biblical doctrines (like election).

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, we encourage you to read the following additional articles:

Does Peter teach that God is waiting for all men to believe?
Wrestling With God