Saturday, January 15, 2011

What of I Tim. 2:4 & I Tim. 4:10? (51)

Dear forum members,

In the last installment I referred to two passages of Scripture that are quoted in support of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer, which comes to all men as an expression of God’s love for all men and his desire to save all men. The first is I Timothy 2:4: Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” The second is I Timothy 4:10: “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.”

What do these texts teach?

I Timothy 2:4. Almost all serious commentators, including Calvin, take this passage in the light of the context in which Paul admonishes Timothy to pray for all men. This “all men” is defined in verse 2 as “kings, and all that are in authority.” The reason to pray especially for all in authority over us is “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty;” that is, we must pray for those in authority for the sake of the well-being of the church.

To do this is pleasing to God, because it is his will that all be saved. God saves all kinds of people, including those in authority. Timothy needs to know this, for those in authority were persecuting the church, and he would have wondered why he had to pray for obvious enemies of the gospel. But this was surely in keeping with our Lord’s own instructions to citizens of the kingdom in Matthew 5:44.

It all seems clear enough and one cannot help but wonder how this text can be quoted to support the idea of a universal love of God and a desire of God to save all men.

I Timothy 4:10. If one takes this passage in the context in which it is written, the meaning is not all that hard to ascertain. Paul says that it is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation that Timothy exercise himself unto godliness, for physical exercise is of little profit, while godliness “has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (verse 8). That is a great incentive to practice godliness! Such a great incentive is this for the apostle (and he wants his own life to be an example to Timothy) that he is willing both “to labour and suffer reproach” at the hands of the enemies of the gospel for the sake of the exercise of godliness. The reproach of the wicked does not mean very much and has little significance for him because he trusts in God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially the elect.

To set aside for a moment the true meaning of the passage, it is worth our while to note that should this be used in support of a universal desire of God to save all men, the text proves more than supporters of a well-meant gospel would themselves want.

After all, the text does not say that God desires to save all men, but that Christ is actually the Saviour of all men. That is more than the most dedicated Arminian wants to say.
There is another meaning to the Greek word soter (Savior) that is the meaning here. That meaning is “Preserver.” Christ preserves all men, especially the elect. Paul calls attention to this fact as the reason why he is not troubled by reproach for the godliness in which he exercises himself. The reason, apparently, is that God has his own purpose in preserving every man.

Whether he be elect or reprobate, he is created by God to serve God’s sovereign purpose in history. By his providence, God preserves righteous and wicked alike. The wicked too exist by the word of God, the same word that sustains the entire creation. (See for this use, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 612. Thayer, in fact, claims that “preserver” is its original meaning. Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1895) 534).

Part of that purpose God has in preserving wicked men is that they persecute the righteous. Persecution also comes through wicked men by the will of God. And persecution is the means God uses to sanctify his people. Peter reminds us that persecution is a fiery trial in which the faith of God’s people is tried as gold is tried in the fire, that it might be to the praise and glory of God (I Peter 1:7).

It may very well be that Paul, in this general statement, has a broader purpose in mind that God has for the reprobate; but he particularly calls attention to the preservation of the reprobate, for it stands in direct relation to God’s purpose in preserving the elect. God’s purpose is “especially” revealed in them in their salvation; but the reprobate are also preserved “especially” for the elect.

Surely, there is no universal love and grace of God in the text.
The text I consider next is found in Romans 2:4: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” The argument that is made from this text is that God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering are shown to all men and express God’s desire to save them; yet they despise these manifestations of God’s love and grace towards them. The point of the defenders of a well-meant gospel offer is that the text speaks of God’s attributes, particularly his goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, as indicative of God’s love for all men, his grace towards them and his desire to save them. Louis Berkhof argues this very point in his book written in defense of common grace.

There are two things wrong with this interpretation. The first is that it clearly places the final decision for man’s salvation in man’s hands. I have objected to this implication of the defense of common grace repeatedly, but the use of this text as proof that God desires to save all and thus to throw the final decision in man’s hands is blatantly argued here. There is absolutely no way one can hold to such a position without becoming Arminian in the fullest sense of the word.

The second thing wrong with this interpretation is that it changes the reading of the text. No man has a right to do this. The interpretation offered by the defenders of a well-meant offer deliberately change the text to read something which it does not say. These defenders say the text reads: “. . . not knowing the goodness of God desires to lead thee to repentance” – but does not succeed in its desire. While the text says, “. . . not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” – and actually does so.

This alteration in the words of the text is inexcusable to a sincere student of Scripture, and shows a willingness to twist Scripture’s clear words in the interests of making a case for one’s own notions.

I am assuming, of course, that no one who uses this text as proof that God wants all men to be saved, actually believes that all men are saved, and that no one goes to hell. A universalist who believes that no one ever goes to hell is some other creature whose arguments are not relevant to the subject of the well-meant offer. A defender of the well-meant offer believes that many go to hell, even though God loves them and wants desperately their salvation.

One can, therefore, appeal to this text in support of a well-meant gospel and give it the meaning which the defenders of the well-meant offer give it only if one is a universalist, believing that all men will eventually be saved.

But no argument over a wrong interpretation of a text in Scripture is successfully refuted without a statement as to its true meaning.

The apostle is paving the way for his great teaching of justification by faith alone, without the works of the law. He is demonstrating that justification on the basis of the works of the law is an absolute impossibility. The keeping of the law cannot justify a man; it cannot justify any man. It cannot justify the Gentile; it cannot justify the Jew. The reason is that all are sinners under the just condemnation of God. Thus the whole human race is referred to in chapters 1 and 2, and in chapter 2, Paul directly addresses all men with this condemnation by using the general term “man” (verses 1, 3).

All men despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering. They even despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering when they know that these attributes lead to repentance, and thus salvation.

This fact that God’s goodness leads to repentance does not mean that God wants all men to be saved; nor does it mean that in fact God’s goodness always does lead every man to repentance and salvation. But it does mean that in fact, in the case of some, it is God’s goodness that leads to repentance, a truth that is evident on every page of Holy Writ. When the gospel is preached, the elect are brought to repentance. The wicked are witnesses of this great goodness of God that does save. But even though they see this, they still despise this goodness of God.

And, of course, we also despise God’s goodness, for we are included under the dire things Paul says about men. Thus behind the text stands the truth that God’s attributes, goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, are revealed in all his works, but men despise them. They are particularly revealed in his salvation of some. When some are led to repentance, it is the goodness of God that leads them to repentance, and not their works. Hence, the direct address is used here: “. . . the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” But they are nevertheless universally despised.

The text becomes very important, therefore, for the doctrine of total depravity; and this truth in turn prepares the way for the great truth of sovereign grace, namely that God justifies the elect through faith in Christ, apart from any works which man performs.

With warmest regards,

Prof. Hanko

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