“Especially of Believers”
First Published: September 14, 2004
On this past Sunday morning, we tackled a glorious text in 1Timothy 4:10b “we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” One phrase that we didn’t have time to fully unpack and address is Paul’s suggestive assertion that the living God on whom our hope is fixed “is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.”
This verse has been disputed territory in theological discussion. Universalists (those who believe that all humankind will be saved) point to this as a proof-text for their view. See, they say, it says that God is “the Savior of all men” and that means that Paul is teaching that all are or will be saved. This interpretation, however, would not only put Paul in conflict with the teaching of the rest of Scripture which makes it amply clear that not all are or will be saved (think of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:41) but would also put Paul in contradiction with Paul! After all, he has just warned us of those who are led astray by demons and deceiving spirits (see 1 Timothy 4:1) No, clearly this is not the point Paul was trying to make when he said that God is “the Savior of all men.” Universalists “over-read” the text and fail to interpret Scripture according to Scripture. They also can’t do justice to the phrase “especially of believers” (however translated) – a phrase in which Paul clearly shows the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.
A second interpretation of these words is that of our Arminian friends (though they often don’t know who Arminius was or even that their view is called “Arminian”!). They claim that this verse means that God offers salvation to all humanity, and that Christ atoned for all humanity, but that only believers receive salvation and the benefits of Christ’s atonement, because of their faith. This however is to “under-read” the main assertion of the text (as well as to read other things into it that aren’t there). Paul doesn’t say that God is potentially the Savior of all men, or that he desires to be the Savior of all men, but that he “is the Savior of all men.” No, this interpretation just won’t do.
There have been two ways that wise interpreters have tried to explain this text. Since they understand that not all men are saved, some interpreters will take the assertion here that “God is Savior of all” to mean that his providential care extends to all. That is, they take “savior” in a less than fully salvific sense. This is how John Calvin, for instance, explains Paul’s assertion. On the other hand other good interpreters have noted that Paul often uses “all” to mean “all kinds” rather than “every last person on the planet” or every person who has ever lived.” They rightly point out that he uses “all men” to mean “all kinds or types of people” on at least three occasions in 1 Timothy (see 2:1,4, and 6). This reading would suggest that Paul’s meaning is the God is savior of all kinds of people. This seems closer to the mark.
But let me suggest that Paul’s meaning is just not that difficult to grasp here. In fact, I would suggest that everywhere in the New Testament that we find the emphasis on God as savior of “all men” or Christ as savior “of the world” the inspired biblical writers are pressing home and reveling in three grand realities simultaneously: (1) that there is only one Savior God and one way of salvation for all mankind – our savior God is the only saving hope for the whole of humanity; (2) that our Savior God is not only the savior of the Jews but also of the Gentiles; and (3) that our savior God is not merely the savior of some tiny remnant of Israel or the savior of some exclusive Judaizing or Gnostic few, but rather that he is the savior of a multitude that none can number. We won’t get into a debate over particular redemption here! But suffice it to say, this verse says nothing to undermine the glorious truth that Christ died for his own sheep, and that all those and only those who are chosen of his Father believe on him