An Exposition of 1 Timothy 2:3-4
by Mitch Cervinka

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,
who desires all men to be saved
and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

This passage is thought by many to say that God has a desire that all men without exception be saved. Even our beloved brother, John Piper1, an otherwise solid Calvinist, argues for this interpretation of the passage, teaching that God has two "wills"—a general, ineffectual will that all men should be saved, and a special, redemptive purpose to save his elect people...

... My aim in this appendix is to show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God's will for "all men to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4) and his will to elect unconditionally those who will actually be saved is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion. A corresponding aim is to show that unconditional election therefore does not contradict biblical expressions of God's compassion for all people and does not nullify sincere offers of salvation to everyone who is lost among all the peoples of the world.2

After stating the historic Calvinistic understanding of 1 Timothy 2:4, Piper demurs, conceding that the Arminians were right (i.e about 1 Timothy 2:4) all along...

Nevertheless, the case for this limitation on God's universal saving will has never been convincing to Arminians and likely will not become convincing, especially since Ezekiel 18:23, 18:32, and 33:11 are even less tolerant of restriction. Therefore, as a hearty believer in unconditional, individual election, I rejoice to affirm that God does not delight in the perishing of the impenitent and that he has compassion on all people. My aim is to show that this is not double talk.3

It is disappointing that Piper should adopt as his standard for Biblical interpretation the Arminian's opinion of it, as though Arminians should be the final judge of any given interpretation of a Scripture passage.

As a "hearty believer" in particular redemption, can he easily convince the Arminian that John 3:16 is speaking of Christ's sacrifice for the elect only? Or, can he convince the Arminian that, in 1 John 2:2, Christ is the propitiation for the elect only?

As a "hearty believer" in total depravity and unconditional election, can he convince the Arminian that God's foreknowledge in 1 Peter 1:1-2 is not merely God's prior knowledge that certain ones would, of their own free-will, believe in Christ? Can he convince the Arminian that "whosoever will" in Revelation 22:17 does not imply that man has a free will to come to Christ?

The Arminian's reluctance to accept the traditional Calvinistic understanding of 1 Timothy 2:4 has more to do with the Arminian's universalistic presuppositions than with a proper interpretation of the verse. On what basis should the Arminian be the arbiter of how to properly understand 1 Timothy 2:4? One might as well let the Pope decide the proper understanding of Matthew 16:18—" are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church..."!

The Use of "All" in the New Testament.

At the heart of the universalistic understanding of 1 Timothy 2:4 is a misconception concerning the meaning of the word "all" in the passage.  The Greek word is "pas", and, although its meaning is best approximated by the English word "all", we should never assume that these two words are fully synonymous, but should instead examine the usage of the Greek word in Scripture to determine its allowable range of meanings.

In common English usage, the word "all" often has the idea of universality of individuals. However this is not always its meaning.  Sometimes it has a more restricted or more vague meaning, as "all of a certain class", "all sorts of" or "a great variety".

If we should say "All the children left the classroom," we do not mean that every child in all the world had been in the classroom and then left it. Rather, we mean that every child that had just been in that particular classroom left the classroom. The context limits the scope of the word "all", and we are not justifed in presuming any greater extent than is warranted by the context.

A bookstore might advertise, "We sell every book in print."  Of course, they don't sell every individual book in print, since many such books are in the libraries of individuals who have already bought them. It is not their intent to suggest that they can sell you any particular individual book, but rather that they can obtain for you a copy of any particular book that is currently in print.  No thinking person would ever presume them to mean that they can sell you any individual book that has ever been printed, but only that they can sell you a book of any particular title that is currently available from the publishers. The word "every" or "all" can thus refer to every kind of things—where a universality of categories is intended, rather than a universality of individuals.

What is true of the English word "all" is just as true of the Greek word "pas". While "pas" can certainly denote a universality of individuals, it frequently does not have such a universalistic meaning, denoting instead either...

  1. qualified universality (i.e. all within a prescribed class),
  2. universality of kinds (i.e. some individuals of every kind, but not necessarily every individual of every kind),
  3. a multiplicity of kinds (i.e. some individuals of many kinds, but not necessarily every possible kind represented),
  4. many (a multiplicity of individuals, perhaps all of the same kind, without any thought of universality at all).

We substantiate these claims by offering some examples from Scripture.  Please note that the bold blue words below translate the Greek word "pas". Even when the English has "every kind of" or "all kinds of" or "all sorts of", there are no additional words in the Greek to supply the idea "kinds of" or "sorts of"—the Greek word "pas" alone conveys this meaning. This fact is so well established that the translators of our various English Bibles freely translate "pas" as "every kind of", "all kinds of" or "all sorts of", as the context dictates...

Matthew 4:23 - Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. Did Jesus heal every single case of disease in Galilee, or did he heal a great many people, afflicted with a great variety of illnesses? Does "every" here designate unrestricted universality, or simply multiplicity and variety?
Matthew 23:27 - Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.  This passage says that tombs contain all uncleanness.  Does that mean that there is no uncleanness outside of tombs?  Or, does it perhaps mean that tombs contain every single kind of uncleanness? Aren't there some kinds of uncleanness that cannot be found in tombs? All that the passage means is that there is much uncleanness in tombs.
Acts 2:5 - Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.  Did the Jews come from every single nation under heaven?  Verses 9-11 tell us the specific nations from which they came.  Achaia, Ethiopia, Carthage, Spain and Britain are not mentioned, although they were part of the known world at that time. Certainly China and the Americas are not in view here, even though some might suppose the phrase "every nation under heaven" should necessarily include them.
Acts 7:22 - Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.  Was Moses taught, exhaustively, every single bit of knowledge known to the Egyptians? Or, did he simply receive the sort of rigorous, comprehensive education that every Pharoah's son was expected to receive?
Acts 10:11-14 - and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, "Get up, Peter, kill and eat!" But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean."  If we translate "pas" as a simple "all", verse 12 would say "...there were in it all four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth..." Did every single individual animal appear in Peter's vision? Was every single kind of animal represented? It should be obvious that there were no cattle or sheep in the sheet, for Peter could find only unclean animals in his vision. Had he found any clean animals, he could readily have obeyed the injunction to "kill and eat" without concern for their uncleanness. One could even argue that there was only one kind of animals in the sheet—unclean animals, although there was evidently a great variety of unclean animals—representative of the various Gentile nations to whom God was now sending his salvation.
Acts 13:10 - and said, "You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? To say that "all" means "all individuals without exception" would mean that every instance of deceit and fraud was to be found in Elymas. However, we know that other men besides Elymas have been guilty of deceit and fraud. Therefore, "all" cannot denote "every single individual instance." Neither does it denote universality of kind, for there were undoubtedly kinds of deceit and fraud which Elymas had never yet imagined, or had never been given opportunity to commit. Clearly, "all" here denotes variety rather than exhaustive universality.
Romans 7:8 - But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.  In the same way, all instances of coveting were not to be found in Paul, for some instances are found in other persons besides Paul. Nor did Paul experience every possible kind of coveting. He surely did not know what it was to covet a shiny new automobile, or a high-speed computer. He surely did not experience the kind of covetousness that only a powerful, wealthy king or emperor, like Caesar, could know.  But he did experience a tremendous amount and diversity of coveting, which is the most that the word "all" can signify here.
1 Timothy 6:10 - For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. Does every instance of evil result from the love of money as its root cause? Does every case of adultery, jealousy, hatred, disobedience to parents always have the love of money as its cause?

So what can we conclude? When we initially read the statement "[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," in English, it superficially sounds as if a universal meaning is intended.

However, once we recognize that the verse could just as validly be translated: "[God] desires all kinds of men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," we find that we are not forced to the idea that God desires the salvation of all men without exception. And, if we are not forced to a universalistic interpretation of the verse, then we are not forced to try to explain how God can have two different wills respecting the salvation of men—that he simultaneously wants all men to be saved, and also wants his elect only to be saved.

Even if Piper can successfully manage to talk his way out of this mess, we can still ask whether the logical and hermeneutical contortions are really necessary. If you have to expend such effort to explain away an apparent contradiction resulting from your interpretation of a passage of Scripture, it greatly compromises the credibility of your position.  If you cannot give a simple explanation for your position, it is likely to seem contrived. Perhaps in this case the appearance is more than coincidental!

If Piper is concerned about what the Arminian will think of his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4, then he needs to seriously ponder what the Arminian will think of his elaborate attempts to rationalize an Arminian understanding of this passage with his Calvinism. It seems to me that Piper's explanation is likely to confirm the Arminian in his belief that Calvinism is based more upon clever rationalistic arguments than upon clear Scriptural testimony.

If 1 Timothy 2:4 does not require us to believe that God wants every single individual to be saved, then 1 Timothy 2:4 does not require us to concoct an elaborate explanation for how God can will two contrary things at the same time.

Is this a Forced Interpretation of the Verse?

We have demonstrated the feasibility of translating 1 Timothy 2:4 to speak of "all kinds of men" rather than "all men without exception". But how do we know which of the two interpretations is actually the correct one?

1. Consistency with other passages.

One consideration, of course, is its consistency with other clear passages of Scripture (e.g. Mark 13:20; Romans 9:15, 18; Romans 11:4, 7; Galatians 1:15-16; Ephesians 1:4-5, 11; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). If Scripture elsewhere teaches that God has willed the salvation of his elect only, then that consideration alone would seem to disqualify the "all men without exception" interpretation. However, there will always be those who, like Piper, would rather suggest that God has two contradictory purposes, and then attempt to settle the matter by means of elaborate explanations, so we must not suppose that we can rely upon the argument of consistency alone.

2. The Context: Classes of Men.

When we examine the context of 1 Timothy 2:4, we find that the apostle is discussing classes of men. This is true both immediately before and after the verse in question. In verses 1 and 2, he writes of earthly rulers...
1 Timothy 2:1-2 - First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

Notice that, just as in verse 4, he uses the phrase "all men", and that he qualifies it to include "kings and all who are in authority", which designates a particular class of men that we might well have neglected in our prayers if the scriptures had not expressly bid us to pray for them. In other words, he wants us to pray for men of all classes, and not simply those of our own station in life, or those who treat us kindly.

But surely by all men, is not meant every individual man, that has been, is, or shall be, in the world; millions of men are dead and gone, for whom prayer is not to he made; many in hell, to whom it would be of no service; and many in heaven, who stand in no need of it; nor should we pray for such who have sinned the sin unto death (1 John 5:16). ... the phrase is therefore to be taken in a limited and restrained sense, for some only, as appears from verse 2, for kings and for all in authority; that is, for men of the highest, as well as of the lowest rank and quality.4
When the apostle bids us pray for "all men", it is evident that he does not mean that we should pray "Heavenly Father, please save every single person in the whole world." Such a prayer would be manifestly contrary to God's revealed will, for he has plainly declared to us that many will be condemned to the flames of hell. Yet, what else could be meant by 1 Timothy 2:1-2 if "all men" must mean "all without exception"? It is utterly impossible that we should pray individually for every single person in the whole world. Even if we could somehow obtain a complete list of them all, a lifetime would be too short a time to pray through the entire list. Multitudes would die before we could get around to praying for them, and multitudes more would be born, who would never make it onto the list. Surely, this is not what Paul (or the passage's divine author) had in mind.

We conclude, therefore, that the phrase "all men" cannot signify all without exception in verse 1, and thus there is no compelling reason why it should have a universalistic meaning in verse 4.

The apostle's meaning is simply this: We should never assume that a particular man is necessarily reprobate just because he happens to be a king or a ruler. Nor should we presume that prayers for him are pointless or futile. God has chosen people from every station of lifeincluding rulersunto salvation. Prayers for those in authority are of multiplied benefit, since rulers exercise control over the lives and welfare of their subjects.

Then, in verse 7, he speaks of the Gentiles...

1 Timothy 2:7 - For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
Until after the resurrection, the grace of God was largely restricted to the Jewish people, but, by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy, it was being sent to the various Gentile nations as well. This is taught in many passages (Matthew 15:24; 28:19; Acts 10:45; 17:30; Ephesians 2:11-13).

Paul was commissioned to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13), and so he was well aware that God had his elect people among the various Gentile nations. God's grace is no longer confined to the Jewish nation alone, but has been extended to all nations of mankind.  "All men" therefore expresses a universality of nations, without implying a universality of individuals. God fully intends to save "all kinds of men"—that is, men from every nation of mankind—although assuredly, not every man from every nation.

So then, in verses 1-2, the apostle urges us to pray for a class of men that we are prone to overlook in our prayers, and, in verse 7, the apostle reminds us that he, though himself a Jew, was appointed to take the gospel to men of every nation, tribe and language.

Sandwiched between these two references to certain classes of men, the apostle writes that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Given that the word "all" often (in Greek) has the meaning "all kinds of" or "all sorts of", we conclude that Paul's true meaning, in this context, is that God has willed the salvation of men of every station and nation—even kings and Gentiles are included in his elective decrees.

3. A Parallel Passage.

If such a teaching were unique to this passage of Scripture, we might have reason to question whether this was a valid interpretation of the verse. However, the apostle teaches this very same thing in 1 Corinthians...
1 Corinthians 1:24-26 – but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. ... For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

Here, the apostle reminds us that God effectually calls both Jews and Greeks, and that he has called some wise, some mighty and some noble (though not many). Thus, it is profitable to pray for the salvation of all men, for God has chosen men from every nation and class unto salvation. Likewise, we ought diligently to take the gospel to all men, for God has chosen his elect from every country, language and station of life. We should not presume any man to be reprobate simply because he is a king or a nobleman or because he is from a country or class that is noted for its obstinacy and unresponsiveness to the gospel.

4. Calvin's Testimony.

Will some complain that this is merely some bizarre hyper-Calvinistic interpretation of the verse? No one's Calvinism deserves to be called "hyper-Calvinistic" if it agrees with Calvin's position. Here is what Calvin has to say about 1 Timothy 2:4 ...
... Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations. ...5

Calvin seemed to have been pretty confident that 1 Timothy 2:4 describes classes of men and not individual persons. Shouldn't Calvin's opinion of 1 Timothy 2:4 bear at least as much weight as the Arminian's?

5. A Ransom for "All".

Finally, we should note that a universalistic interpretation of verse 4 demands a universalistic understanding of verse 6...

1 Timothy 3:3b-6 - ... God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

If the "all men" whom God wishes to be saved are all men without exception, then what shall we say about the "all" for whom Christ gave himself as a ransom? What sort of exegetical sleight of hand will be employed to narrow the scope of "all" from one sentence to the next? If context means anything, it ought to mean that "all" in both verses has the same value and extent. The "all men" whom God wishes to be saved must be the "men" for whom Christ Jesus is Mediator, and must therefore be the "all" for whom he gave himself as a ransom.

We fully acknowledge that Christ Jesus gave himself a ransom for men of all nations and all stations of life, whereas we flatly deny that he is a ransom for any individual men who will not ultimately be saved. Scripture is quite clear that Christ died for the elect only...

John 10:11 - I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:15 - ... I lay down My life for the sheep.
John 10:26 - ... you are not of My sheep.

Ephesians 5:25 - Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Romans 8:32-33 - he who did not spare his own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will he not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies;

Isaiah 53:11 - he shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

If Christ did die for any non-elect person, then that would mean that his suffering for them was unacceptable to the Father—that, in spite of Christ's redemption of that person, the Father still had wrath left to pour out upon the person. Such a teaching nullifies the worth of the cross and destroys the gospel altogether.


In summary, then, it is most natural to understand "all men" in 1 Timothy 2:4 to mean "all classes of men" for the following reasons...
  1. The Greek word translated "all" commonly means "all kinds of" or "all sorts of".
  2. In context, the apostle speaks of particular classes of men:  kings and those in authority (vs. 2), and Gentiles (vs. 7).
  3. This teaching (that God has elect people among various classes and nations of men) is echoed in 1 Corinthians 1:24-26.
  4. The continuity with verse 6 demands that "all" refer only to those for whom Christ died.
  5. This is the only interpretation of the verse that is consistent with passages such as Romans 9:18, which says that God has mercy on whomever he desires to have mercy and hardens whomever he desires to harden—that it is not his desire that all men without exception should be saved.

We thus conclude that it is the "universal" interpretation that is strained and unsuitable to the context of the passage. 1 Timothy 2:4 stands as a support for the Arminian view only when it is divorced from its Biblical context and treated as an isolated "proof-text". When it is kept in its scriptural context, it simply teaches that God has chosen men and women from every class and nation of humanity, and provides no evidence whatever for the notion that God possesses a desire that "all men"—i.e. whether elect or not—be saved.

Does God have Two Wills?

Piper claims that God simultaneously wills the salvation of all men and also wills the salvation of his elect only. He attempts to reconcile this apparent contradiction by saying that God has two wills (or "two ways of willing")—a claim that he supports by appealing to theologians of former centuries...

This distinction in the way God wills has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. It is not a new contrivance.  For centuries, theologians have distinguished between God's sovereign will and moral will, his efficient will and permissive will, his secret will and revealed will, his will of decree and will of command, his decretive will and preceptive will, and his voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.6

Piper is certainly correct in saying that theologians have often distinguished two different "wills" in God. But Piper seems to misunderstand what the theologians intended by God's preceptive will. God's preceptive will is simply that "will" expressed in God's commands, which define man's duty. This is clearly what is intended by such terminology as "moral will", "revealed will", "will of command" and "preceptive will". (Note that a "precept" is simply a "command".)

God commands men "Thou shalt not murder", and yet men do commit murder. The command expresses God's revealed will, i.e. man's duty, teaching us that God forbids murder, and will punish those who commit murder. On the other hand, the fact that men nevertheless disobey this command demonstrates that it is God's sovereign will that men should wilfully disobey his revealed will and thereby incur his wrath.

Arthur Pink makes this point quite clear...

God's revealed will is the definer of our duty and the standard of our responsibility. The primary and basic reason why I should follow a certain course or do a certain thing is because it is God's will that I should, his will being clearly defined for me in his Word. That I should not follow a certain course, that I must refrain from doing certain things, is because they are contrary to God's revealed will.

But suppose I disobey God's Word, then do I not cross his will? And if so, how can it still be true that God's will is always done and his counsel accomplished at all times? Such questions should make evident the necessity for the distinction here advocated. God's revealed will is frequently crost, but his secret will is never thwarted.

That it is legitimate for us to make such a distinction concerning God's will is clear from Scripture. Take these two passages: "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification" (1 Thess. 4:3); "For who hath resisted his will?" (Rom. 9:19). Would any thoughtful reader declare that God's "will" has precisely the same meaning in both of these passages? We surely hope not. The first passage refers to God's revealed will, the latter to his secret will. The first passage concerns our duty, the latter declares that God's secret purpose is immutable and must come to pass notwithstanding the creature's insubordination. God's revealed will is never done perfectly or fully by any of us, but his secret will never fails of accomplishment even in the minutest particular.7

The statement "God will have all men without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" is not merely a statement of man's duty. Had it been expressed as a command: "God commands all men everywhere to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," we would have no problem with Piper's placing it in the category of God's preceptive will.

However, the statement "God wishes for all men without exception to be saved..." does not say merely what God commands men to do, but indicates in addition, a desire on his part that it should actually occur, and this puts it in direct contradiction to Romans 9:18 ...

Romans 9:18 - So then he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires.

It is one thing to say that God commands all men to exhibit evangelical faith and repentance. It is quite another to say that God wishes this for all men, as though, deep in his heart, he has some sort of unrequited yearning that all men should repent and believe. We do not, indeed, cannot believe that our sovereign God is beset by unsatisfied longings and disappointed desires. For Piper to appeal to God's preceptive will to say that God desires the salvation of all men, certainly is a "new contrivance", for none of the theologians of old intended by God's "preceptive will" anything more than God's declared statements of man's duty, or his express design that we should live before Him in holiness and loving submission.

In Desiring God, Piper does a great job of showing us how infinite happiness is to be found in God alone—that, because God is absolutely sovereign, he has the absolute freedom to pursue and achieve all his desires, and that he must, therefore, be the happiest being there is. For example, he writes:

God has the right and power and wisdom to do
whatever makes him happy.

None of his purposes can be frustrated.

Therefore, he is never deficient or needy.
he is never gloomy or discouraged.

He is always full and overflowingly energetic
for the sake of his people
who seek their happiness in him.8

However, to suggest that God possesses an actual desire for the salvation of non-elect people is to say that God desires something that will never come to pass, and that would mean that God is not infinitely happy. Instead, it would mean that God is a being of conflicting desires and contrary passions—as though there were raging within himself an eternal battle between his desire to show eternal mercy to all men versus his desire to display sovereign mercy to a select portion of mankind.

We should observe that 1 Timothy 2:4 and Romans 9:18 use the very same Greek word (thelo) to refer to God's "desire" or "purpose". The following quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, which translates the word thelo consistently (as "desires") in the two passages.

Romans 9:18So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

1 Timothy 2:3-4... God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

If Piper is correct about 1 Timothy 2:4, then these two passages teach that God has two contradictory desires concerning the non-elect: One desire is that they should not receive mercy but that they be hardened; the other desire is that they be saved and come to a full knowledge of truth.

A satisfactory explanation would be to say that, in 1 Timothy 2:4, the "desire" in view is God's command, whereas in Romans 9:18, it is God's decree. This is precisely the sort of distinction that the old theologians intended when they spoke of God's preceptive will and his decretive will.

However, Piper rejects the notion that "desires" in 1 Timothy 2:4 simply means "commands". Instead, he affirms that "his willing that none perish is a bona fide willing of love" and describes God as having "a complex emotional life" that pits one real, emotional desire against another real, emotional desire. It is difficult to see how this harmonizes with his description of the "infinitely happy God" who achieves all his desires. How can he achieve both of two desires if they are truly contradictory? Piper's answer is that the elective desire is greater than the desire to show mercy to all. Nevertheless, this still leaves God with unfulfilled desires and thus diminished happiness, and therefore appears to be an unsatisfactory answer.

The correct explanation, in my view, is to acknowledge that the "all men" whom God desires to be saved denotes all nations and ranks of men, and not all individuals. If this is the correct understanding of the passage, then there is no conflict in the "desire" intended here, versus the "desire" intended in Romans 9:18. Both passages say that it is God's sovereign "desire" and plan to save his elect people. 1 Timothy 2:4 simply elaborates by identifying that the elect are not chosen from merely a single nation or rank of men, but are drawn from all nations and all ranks.

Piper attempts to argue his case that God has two contrary wills by comparing them to the views one gets by looking through a close-up lens versus a wide-angle lens. If you look at a large Persian rug through a close-up lens, you will see individual fibers of different colors—some dark, others light in color. But if you step back and view the rug from a distance, you will see the intricate design and scintillating colors formed from the mutual contributions of those individual fibers.

Piper's analogy is valid when comparing God's decretive will with his preceptive will as historically understood (i.e. God's command, which defines man's duty). God has sovereignly decreed that men should violate his preceptive will, in order that he might achieve his ultimate goal of glorifying himself by redeeming his elect and condemning the rest. The "close up" view reveals the violence and injustice that results when men are left to their own sinful, rebellious will and choose to violate God's commands. The "wide angle" view reveals that God, in his sovereign design, works all things—including even the wickedness of man—together for our ultimate good and his ultimate glory.

The analogy falls apart, however, if we claim that God has "close up" purposes that contradict his "wide angle" purposes. To say that God simultaneously desires the salvation of all the non-elect, and also desires to leave them in their sin and unbelief that he might consign them to everlasting hell for their rebellious unbelief is to state a contradiction that cannot be resolved by the "close up / wide angle" analogy.

This analogy simply doesn't get Piper out of the jam he has created for himself, for this still means that God has conflicting desires (having "close-up" desires that conflict with his "wide-angle" desires), and thus that he has desires that remain unfulfilled. He cannot be the "infinitely happy" God Piper claims Him to be if he has unrequited desires that cannot be fulfilled due to his having greater desires that stand in their way.

If Piper wants to chalk this up to one of those "unsolvable mysteries" that is beyond human comprehension, I think I would have greater respect for his position. The better solution, however, is simply to admit that God does not have a desire for the salvation of the non-elect, even though he does, with great kindness and patience, command and invite them to repent and believe in Christ.

How, then, should we think of the two wills of God?

To properly understand the two wills of God, we need to think of them in this way:

(1) God's preceptive will is primarily his concern for righteousness—his love for his eternal Law, and his hatred of sin—and is only secondarily concerned with the benefit that comes to men who pursue righteousness. This is why he calls upon sinners to repent of their sins and threatens them with his wrath if they persist in their rebellion. God's preceptive will is not primarily a love for men, but a love for holiness and justice.

(2) God's decretive will encompasses all that will ever come to pass, but it includes in particular his desire to glorify himself by showing mercy and grace to those rebellious, hell-deserving sinners whom he has chosen to receive it. It is in God's decretive will (i.e. His sovereign will) that we find his great love displayed in the salvation of sinners.

It is in the sacrifice of Christ that these two wills are reconciled, so that God can thereby fulfill his decretive will, showing mercy to certain wretched sinners, without doing violence to his preceptive will, that demands justice and satisfaction.
Romans 3:24-26 - being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

We should further observe that there is a qualitative difference between these two "wills" of God. They differ not merely in degree, as if to say that both wills are comparable, and of the same type and character, but that God's sovereign will is simply a greater desire, and that it therefore overrules God's preceptive will. On the contrary, there is a very real sense in which God's sovereign will is always subject to his preceptive will, and is constantly at work to achieve the dictates of his preceptive will.

This may seem surprising, but consider this: God's preceptive will is nothing more than an expression of his righteousness and justice—that men ought to love and obey God, and that they deserve condemnation if they fail to do so. God's sovereign will is working toward that final day in which his justice and righteousness will be fully satisfied with regard to all men. Those who never bowed the knee to his sovereign authority will be cast into eternal hell-fire, to the praise of his glorious justice. Those whom he has elected, redeemed, called, justified, sanctified and glorified will be welcomed into eternal bliss, to the praise of his glorious justice (satisfied at Calvary), and to the praise of his wondrous compassion, mercy and grace!

On that momentous day, God's sovereign, decretive purpose will finally right all wrongs and will usher in eternal righteousness—fully satisfying his preceptive will. His desire that all men obey Him will be fully realized with respect to the entire creation—for his elect will render full and perfect obedience to God's commands—and all the reprobate will be fully receiving the reward that their sinful rebelliousness deserves.

We see then that there are no conflicting desires in God. There are no "greater desires" that trump the "lesser desires". When all is said and done, God will not be thinking to himself "Oh, if only there had been a way to save all men without exception." He will have no regrets. He will have no unrequited desires. He will be then (as he is now, and has always been) the infinitely happy God.

Does God take Pleasure in 'The Death of the Wicked'?

But what about the passages from Ezekiel? Piper feels that these three passages essentially prove that God desires the salvation of all men without exception...

Ezekiel 18:23 - "Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked," declares the Lord GOD, "rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?"

Ezekiel 18:32 - "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord GOD. "Therefore, repent and live."

Ezekiel 33:11 - "Say to them, 'As I live!' declares the Lord GOD, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?'

These passages cannot be speaking of God's sovereign, decretive will, since there are many sinners who never repent of their sin. Thus, these passages are clear examples of God's preceptive will—his will of command.

God's preceptive will desires that men should willingly glorify Him in their thoughts and actions, and that they should repent of sin and practice righteousness. It is analogous to the legal system of a country. A country's system of laws and punishments is designed to ensure a peaceful and orderly society. It threatens offenders with punishment, and delivers the punishment when necessary. However the main purpose of the legal system is not to inflict punishment on anyone, but rather to ensure a peaceful and orderly society. The legal system is satisfied either way: either by the willful obedience of its citizens, or by visiting punishment on offenders. However, the design and intent of this system is for the overall welfare of the country—as a place where men may safely live in obedience to its laws.

So it is with God's government. As far as God's preceptive will is concerned, God's justice is equally satisfied with our obedience, or with visiting judgment upon the wicked. Even so, given the choice between a man's obedience and disobedience, God's preceptive will would prefer to have the man obey, and to have judgment averted.  God's preceptive will does not seek to visit punishment without reason or provocation. Moreover, God is longsuffering toward sinners, inviting them to repent and live. But, once provoked to wrath, God's justice (and his preceptive will) is perfectly satisfied by the outpouring of that wrath upon them.

God, in his sovereign, decretive will, sometimes wills that sinners should, of their own will, violate his preceptive will and incur his wrath.  No violence is done to his justice, since the sinner receives the wrath he deserves, and thus no violence is done to his preceptive will, which is merely an expression of his justice and love for righteousness.

Does this Interpretation Kill Evangelistic Zeal?

Underlying all the quasi-Calvinistic objections to the Calvinistic interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4 is the fear that Christians will not be adequately motivated to evangelize the lost unless they believe that God, at heart, wants all men to be saved. Like it or not, this is an Arminian pardigm for evangelism, and it is as false as any of the other errors of Arminianism.

There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this fear:

First, everyone has heard of the dread "Hyper-Calvinist"— an arrogant monster who has no concern for the lost, and no great incentive for evangelism or missions. There is a certain fear of anything that looks remotely like it might lead to Hyper-Calvinism. There is probably also a fear of being branded a "Hyper-Calvinist", although there is no doubt that this epithet has been hurled against even the most moderate of Calvinists by various inflammatory Arminians who view every form of Calvinism as extremism.

It should be recognized that Hyper-Calvinism is more a spiritual problem than a purely doctrinal one. The true Hyper-Calvinist is one who confuses theological advancement with spirituality and sees no need for Christian service or personal sacrifice. It was for this reason that Spurgeon often associated Hyper-Calvinism with antinomianism. The true Hyper-Calvinist is a pride filled, ivory tower intellectual who has no time for mercy, kindness, compassion and true personal holiness—much less for witnessing and missions.

While we need to carefully avoid the errors of the Hyper-Calvinist, we also need to avoid swinging to the other extreme, needlessly embracing Arminian ideas about evangelism or universalistic interpretations that ultimately compromise our witness of the sovereignty of God. To avoid Hyper-Calvinism does not require that we make compromises with Arminianism.

Second, there is a glaring lack of insight as to what should constitute genuine Calvinistic evangelism. Most Calvinists learned their evangelism as Arminians, and wrongly suppose that the Arminian way is the Biblical way. Of course, there are certain gross Arminian errors that most Calvinists have learned to reject— for example, it is wrong to tell the unbeliever that "Christ died for your sins," since Scripture is clear that Christ died for the elect only, and we have no business telling an unsaved man (whom we don't know to be elect) that Christ died for his sins in particular.

For this reason, it is equally wrong to tell the unsaved that God loves them—unless we carefully qualify this to mean simply that God, in kindness, provides for their basic needs in this life, and is longsuffering to them, giving them opportunity to repent of their sins and come to Christ for salvation. We should never give the unsaved the idea that God loves them savingly or redemptively—for that would imply that he gave Christ to die in vain for the sins of the non-elect, or that he is powerless to save those he wishes to save.

How then should we think of evangelism, and what should be the motive that drives us to take the gospel to the lost?

  1. Our primary objective should be to make God's glory known to men. The gospel is first and foremost a declaration of the glory and majesty of God. Our motivation for this should not be a futile desire to see all men saved, but rather a great delight in the majesty of God, and a burning desire that his glory should be made known to all the world.
  2. Our second objective should be to see God's elect come to faith in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10). The gospel is clearly instrumental in bringing the elect to faith in Christ. This is the plain teaching of Romans 10:14-15 and other passages.
  3. Our third objective is to be exceedingly kind, compassionate and gracious in giving a clear, honest, complete presentation of the gospel so that the non-elect are left without excuse for rejecting it, while the elect are lovingly drawn to believe it. So also, our lives should adorn the gospel with great godliness, goodness and humility.
  4. In all our evangelism, we should have the absolute confidence that faithful evangelism is always successful—bringing about the very purpose which God has ordained for it in any circumstance. In some cases, he uses it to call his elect unto faith in Christ, and we rejoice to see them fall at the Savior's feet in loving contrition. In other cases, he demonstrates the hardness of the hearts of the reprobate—proving them all the more to be deserving of the judgment that awaits them.  Either way, evangelism glorifies our majestic God.

We should remember that we do not know what God has purposed for any particular unbeliever, and so we cannot presume any man to be non-elect. We have no business picking and choosing those whom we suppose are elect unbelievers. God does not tell us to preach to the elect only, but to all men indiscriminately. It is his business to distinguish the elect from the non-elect, giving faith to one and withholding it from the other. Our duty is simply, with great zeal, urgency, compassion and kindness, to warn all men of the judgment to come, and lovingly to invite those who are burdened by their sin to come to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing.

My article, A More Excellent Way, offers a more in-depth study of the Calvinistic approach to evangelism.


The Arminian position cites 1 Timothy 2:4 as a cliché—a proof-text divorced from its Biblical and linguistic context—that packs a lot of emotional appeal to those who love to think that God's sovereignty is a mere fiction, and that man's "free-will" is all-important. It is therefore extremely disappointing that a Calvinistic author of John Piper's stature should lend any credence or support to such a patently faulty interpretation of the passage.

Pastor John Piper is a brilliant, gifted exegete and theologian. However, on this passage, I honestly believe he is allowing his emotions to cloud his judgment, rather than applying the same careful exegesis and incisive reason that he demonstrates so consistently elsewhere. He has not given us an adequate defense of his thesis, he has not presented us with a careful, verse-by-verse exegesis of the passage, nor has he engaged meaningfully with the insights offered by Calvin, Augustine and Gill on the subject. He also appears to have a faulty understanding of the term "preceptive will".

In context, Paul writes of various classes of men—kings, and those in authority (verses 1-2), as well as those of various Gentile nations (verse 7)—to say that God desires that "all men"—that is, men of all classes and nations—should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. To this end, Christ is the sole Mediator between God and men, who gave himself a ransom for allnot for all individual men, but for men of all classes and nations.

This is the clear meaning of the passage, and there is therefore no reason to argue that God, in some sense, desires the salvation of all men without exception, nor to try to subsume such a desire under God's preceptive will. There is likewise no necessity to concoct elaborate, speculative explanations to attempt to reconcile this universalistic desire with God's plainly-revealed desire to save his elect only.

1 Timothy 2:4 teaches us that God has elect people in every station of mankind, and in every country of the globe. Even if he did not, we should still be obliged and eager to proclaim the gospel to all men without exception. But 1 Timothy 2:4 teaches us that we should never presume any class or nation of mankind to be excluded from salvation.  Even though God has not willed to save all without exception, still, he has not revealed to us which ones he will save, and so we proclaim the gospel to all alike—joyously proclaiming God's glories, fearfully warning of his impending wrath, and kindly inviting to Christ all those who sense the misery of their sin. 1 Timothy 2:4 gives us full confidence that God will bring forth his elect from every category of mankind.


  1. My criticisms of Piper's stand on 1 Timothy 2:4 should not be construed as a wholesale indictment of his minsitry in general. John Piper remains one of my favorite authors. I am deeply grateful for his ministry and for his profound, God-honoring insights, and I have no doubt that he sincerely believes the doctrines of God's sovereign grace. I can honestly say that I have benefited greatly over the years from reading his books and articles.

    However, I am concerned that Piper's position on 1 Timothy 2:4 is wholly indefensible and serves only to encourage Arminians in their error. He makes no attempt to exegete the passage in its scriptural context; he seems to come to the passage with a presumption that God wants all men to be saved, rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself;  he is unduly concerned with what Arminians will think of a given interpretation; and he carelessly dismisses the studied conclusions of such careful scholars as Calvin, Augustine and Gill, all of whom felt that "all men" here speaks of classes of men, rather than of all men without exception.  Piper's position serves to dilute the case for Calvinism—making it appear that Arminianism is the true teaching of Scripture, and that Calvinism is based upon rationalistic, philosophical arguments that seek to evade the plain teaching of passages like 1 Timothy 2:4. I wonder how many Arminians feel that their Arminianism has been vindicated by Piper's comments on 1 Timothy 2:4. | Return to text.

  2. John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Press, 2000), p. 313. | Return to text.
  3. Ibid, p. 315. | Return to text.
  4. John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth, Part 1, Section 45.   | Return to text.
  5. John Calvin, Commentaries, at 1 Timothy 2:4.   | Return to text.
  6. John Piper, The Pleasures of God, p. 315.   | Return to text.
  7. A. W. Pink, Appendix 1: "The Will of God", from The Sovereignty of God.  (Note: paragraph breaks added to enhance readability) | Return to text.
  8. John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Press, 1996), p. 34. | Return to text.

Other Voices.

Augustine (345-430), Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, chapter 27, section 103.
Posted online at

In any case, the word concerning God, "who will have all men to be saved," does not mean that there is no one whose salvation he doth not will—he who was unwilling to work miracles among those who, he said, would have repented if he had wrought them—but by "all men" we are to understand the whole of mankind, in every single group into which it can be divided: kings and subjects; nobility and plebeians; the high and the low; the learned and unlearned; the healthy and the sick; the bright, the dull, and the stupid; the rich, the poor, and the middle class; males, females, infants, children, the adolescent, young adults and middle-aged and very old; of every tongue and fashion, of all the arts, of all professions, with the countless variety of wills and minds and all the other things that differentiate people. For from which of these groups doth not God will that some men from every nation should be saved through his only begotten Son our Lord? Therefore, he doth save them since the Omnipotent cannot will in vain, whatsoever he willeth.

Now, the apostle had enjoined that prayers should be offered "for all men" and especially "for kings and all those of exalted station," whose worldly pomp and pride could be supposed to be a sufficient cause for them to despise the humility of the Christian faith. Then, continuing his argument, "for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour"—that is, to pray even for such as these [kings]—the apostle, to remove any warrant for despair, added, "Who willeth that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." Truly, then, God hath judged it good that through the prayers of the lowly he would deign to grant salvation to the exalted—a paradox we have already seen exemplified. Our Lord also useth the same manner of speech in the Gospel, where he saith to the Pharisees, "You tithe mint and rue and every herb." Obviously, the Pharisees did not tithe what belonged to others, nor all the herbs of all the people of other lands. Therefore, just as we should interpret "every herb" to mean "every kind of herb," so also we can interpret "all men" to mean "all kinds of men." We could interpret it in any other fashion, as long as we are not compelled to believe that the Omnipotent hath willed anything to be done which was not done. "He hath done all things in heaven and earth, whatsoever he willed," as Truth sings of him, and surely he hath not willed to do anything that he hath not done. There must be no equivocation on this point.

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