22 August 2018

1 Timothy 2
Psalm 93

1 Timothy 2 – Is the God of the Bible a universalist? Will God save everyone? Will salvation be universal? Many people would like to believe this, after all, who doesn’t like a ‘happily ever after’ ending for everyone? Paul, in this first letter to Timothy, makes a statement that can be understood as teaching universal salvation. In the context, Paul is writing about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of public worship, and then, almost as an aside, he writes: ‘…God our Saviour…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:3b-4). We know that God, being God, gets what He wants, and if He wants all people to be saved, all people will be saved, so the reasoning goes. Moreover, in the very next verse, Paul describes Jesus as ‘the one mediator between God and mankind…who gave himself as a ransom for all people…’ (I Timothy 2:5-6a). There’s that reference to “all people” again. So Jesus died for all people, therefore, all people will be saved, they reason.

How do we respond to this universalist interpretation of these verses? This view isolates these verses from the rest of the letter and so runs the risk of misinterpretation. Does Paul not list the requirement of faith as a prerequisite for salvation earlier in this letter (cf. 1 Timothy1:14, 16)? Surely we do not want to accuse the apostle of confusion or contradiction? So how then do we understand these verses? Typically good commentators have understood them in one of two ways: The first is to point out that the Bible refers to God’s ‘will’ in a variety of different ways: “Sometimes God’s ‘will’ cannot be distinguished from his decree: what he wills to happen, happens. At other times God’s ‘will’ is his command …. At still others, it refers to his stance. The God who cries, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of anyone … Repent and live!’ (Ezekiel 18:32) is also the one of whom it is said that he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth..” [NBC]. So we glimpse God’s stance or desire here, not what will happen. A second option is to understand ‘all people’ as all kinds of people, viewed ethnically or socio-economically, etc. In that sense, God wants all kinds of people to be saved. So, no, God is not a universalist!