This entry is part 42 of 44 in the series: Troublesome texts
- ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 6:1f – Who were ‘the sons of God’?
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”?
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east?’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5 – Son? Servant? Male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 25:40 – Who are ‘these brothers of mine’?
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’?
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – No room at the inn?
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’?
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’?
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – Saved through child-bearing?
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – the Saviour of all people?
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘…the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers.’
Obviously, Paul was no universalist. So what interpretative options are left?
1. All, potentially, and believers, actually? Some, including Fee, think that Paul means that salvation is available to all, but effective for those who believe. This would be consistent with 1 Tim 2:6. Understood in this way, the verse becomes a strong support for the doctrine of universal (as opposed to particular) atonement. ‘A…likely exegesis is to see “Savior of all people” as indicating a soteriological intention that applies to all persons in one sense but recognize that believers, precisely because they are believers, actually experience the salvation God has provided for all, and thus he is their Savior “especially,” indicating a deeper sense. (Hammett, in Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views (p. 154). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) However, Paul does not say that God is able to save, but rather that he saves.
2. Similarly, some take the view that Paul means that God is graciously disposed towards the salvation of all, but that he actually saves those who have faith. See 1 Tim 2:4. MHC: ‘[God] has a general good-will to the eternal salvation of all men thus far that he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. He desires not the death of sinners.’ (MHC also allows explanation 4, below).
3. All, without distinction; namely, all who believe? Others, including Stott, think that Paul’s intention here is to combat the false teachers who taught that salvation was only for a spiritual elite (incipient Gnosticism). The sense would be that ‘God is the Saviour of all, without distinction, that is to say, he is the Saviour of all who believe.’ This use of the connecting Gk. word (see also 2 Tim 4:13 and Titus 1:10) is supported in extra-biblical documents.
4. All, for preservation, and believers, for eternal life? Still others, such as Calvin, Hendriksen, and Guthrie, suggest that God is ‘the Saviour of all men’ in the sense that he preserves and guards the lives of all, and especially cares for and protects those who believe (most of all, in the gift of eternal life itself). ‘But saints are his peculiar care’ (Watts). These commentators stress that the verse does not refer to Christ, but to ‘the living God’ as Saviour. The reference, then, in other words, to God’s ‘common grace’ as applied to all, and his ‘special grace’, as applied to believers.
Grudem (Systematic Theology) inclines to the view that Paul uses the word ‘Saviour’ here ‘in the sense of “one who preserves people’s lives and rescues them from danger” rather than the sense of “one who forgives their sins,’. This usage is paralleled in certain inscriptions honouring dead emperors as ‘saviours’ because they cared for and protected people. Passages such as Mt 5:45; Lk 6:35; Acts 17:25,28; Acts 27:22, 31, 44; Rom 1:21 are cited in support of this view.
M.J. Harris writes similarly: ‘It may be that when God is described as ‘the Saviour of all people, especially (malista) of those who believe’ (1 Tim. 4:10), he is depicted as the gracious benefactor and preserver of all humans (*cf. Matt. 5:45) during this life (in which he dispenses what is often called ‘common grace’), and of believers in the life to come (*cf. W. Wagner, as cited by W. Foerster, in TDNT 7, p. 1017). However, it is possible that malista means ‘namely’ (thus T. C. Skeat), in which case ‘all people’ are ‘those who believe’.’
Other scholars, however, doubt that the NT ever actually uses the word ‘saviour’ in this nonsoteriological sense: Schulz, for example, points out that the expression ‘God our Saviour’ is used six times in the Pastoral Epistles, and every other time it is clearly with a soteriological meaning.
Both man and beast Thy bounty share;
The whole creation is Thy charge,
But saints are Thy peculiar care.
(Isaac Watts, ‘High in the heav’ns’)
On balance, the 4th and last option seems the best. We can certainly agree with Mounce, that ‘there is no exclusivism in Paul’s gospel, contrary to the opponents’ teachings (cf. 1 Tim 2:1–7).’ He adds: ‘This carries special weight if the heresy was primarily Jewish and was excluding Gentiles, the specific audience of Paul’s calling (cf. 1 Tim 2:7).’
We are, perhaps, too ready to imagine that God is ‘for’ us believers, but ‘against’ unbelievers; that he regards us with favour, and them with disfavour. But God is ‘more inclinable to mercy than wrath’ (Thomas Watson); just as he sustains every living thing with providential care, so he does not delight in the death of any one, but desires all to enter life.