Reprinted from the CPRCNI newsletter.
“For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe,” I Timothy 4:10.
This text, along with others of a similar kind, has often been quoted in support of the free and general offer of the gospel, which teaches that God desires the salvation of all men. The text says, so it is argued, that God is the Savior of all men.
Those who regularly receive our Newsletter know that the Protestant Reformed Churches firmly believe that God does not desire the salvation of all men, but that God wills the salvation of His elect only.
But how is this text of Scripture, part of the infallible Word of God, to be explained?
Two remarks of a more general kind ought to be made before we explain what the verse teaches.
The first remark is this: Surely, whatever else the text may teach, it does not teach that God desires to save all men. The text does not say that God desires the salvation of all men; it says rather: “God is the Savior of all men.” Those, therefore who want to make this text something of all universal text, must remember that then they must also conclude that all men are saved. Finally, at the end of time, every man who ever lived will be saved; no man will be lost; none will go to hell; all because God is the Savior of all men.
The second remark has to do with the text as a whole. We must remember that the clause in the text that causes so much dispute is not the main thought of the text. The main thought of the text is found in Paul’s statement to Timothy: “Therefore, we both labour and suffer reproach.” Paul is reminding Timothy of all that they endured on behalf of the gospel. They toiled with great weariness, spending themselves in the work of the ministry; they endured the reproach of those who hated the gospel and brought suffering upon them for their faithfulness to the gospel.
Why were they willing to do this?
They were willing to labor to the point of overwhelming weariness and they were willing to suffer in the cause of the gospel because their trust was in the living God—so the text emphatically states.
But how was their trust in the living God the incentive to labor and suffer reproach?
That question Paul answers in the statement: “Who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe.” So the text teaches that these men (and all faithful ministers) are willing to exhaust themselves in the cause of the gospel and are willing to endure every persecution because they know that God will save all men, especially those who believe.
Having put the statement at issue in its context, we are not in a position to ask: What does that statement mean?
If one studies the history of interpretation, one discovers that orthodox and Reformed commentators differ on their interpretation of the text. Basically these commentators take two different positions, both of which are plausible.
One group of commentators appeals to the fact that the word “Savior” can also mean “Preserver,” or, “Sustainer.” These men would then translate the clause: “…God, Who is the Preserver of all men, specially of those that believe.” Their idea is then to emphasize the truth of God’s providence: God Who creates every man, also sustains each man by the Word of His power. But He is especially the Sustainer or Preserver of believers.
Another group of commentators concentrates on the word “especially.” These men prefer to translate the word “especially” as “namely” or “that is.” Then the meaning of the text would be: “God is the Savior of all men, namely, of those who believe.” The text would then teach that the words “all men” are to be understood as “all kinds of men,” “men from every nation, class in society, tribe, and language.” These would take the word “Savior” as meaning “salvation from sin and death and the bestowal of blessedness in heaven.”
Both translations are possible and both interpretations seem plausible.
It is true that the word “Savior” can mean “Preserver.” Every lexicon of the Greek New Testament allows for the translation. Thayer, e.g., in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament translates the Greek word: “savior, deliverer, preserver.” He appeals to other texts where the meaning is, according to him, preserver:” II Peter 3:2: “…Lord and Savior (or, Preserver);” and Ephesians 5:23: “Christ… is the Savior (or, Preserver) of the body.” Whether Thayer is correct that these two texts mean Savior as Preserver is another question.
The problem with this interpretation is that this hardly seems to be a reason why Paul and Timothy toiled so laboriously and suffered reproach in the cause of the gospel. Why would the mere fact that God preserves the life of all men be incentive to do this? It is hard to say.
The other interpretation, namely that the word “especially” means “namely” is an interesting one. Although the Greek word is used in other places in the New Testament with the meaning “especially,” two passages almost certainly should be translated as “namely,” or “that is.”
The first passage is Acts 25:26. Festus is speaking to Agrippa about Paul, who was a prisoner about to be sent to Rome for trial. Festus says: “Of whom (Paul) I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write.” It would seem that, because Festus is speaking to Agrippa, that the text could just as well be translated: “Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, namely, before thee, O king Agrippa.”
The other passage is II Peter 2:9, 10: “The Lord knoweth how to… reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished: but chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness….” Surely the apostle means that “the unjust” are the same as “them that walk after the flesh.” Hence, the translation could very well be: “The Lord knoweth how to… reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished: namely them that walk after the flesh.”
This same interpretation can be applied to I Timothy 4:10. If this is the case then Paul is saying that God saves all men, namely believers. He saves all kinds of men: male and female, bond and free, Gentile and Jew, king and subject, master and servant, rich and poor, wise and foolish, Greek and Roman and Italian and Dutch and German and English—all kinds. But God saves all kinds who are believers. That is, not every man head for head is saved; only believers are saved. And only believers are saved not because they are believers, so that God looks around for whoever might be a believer, to save him; but believers are saved because all God’s salvation is by faith. Believers are elect, and their faith is a gift of God. These God saves. This meaning of the words “all men” is surely in harmony with the rest of Scripture. See, e g., I Timothy 2:4, Titus 2:11.
Because God saves all kinds of men, those who are busy in the ministry of the gospel (as Paul and Timothy were) are willing to exhaust themselves in the work and are ready to suffer every reproach. God is pleased to save through the foolishness of preaching. Preachers who preach trust in God to save His church from all men. To have a part in that work is a glorious privilege. No suffering is too great, no labor too exhausting when by the work the glorious church of God is saved. ❖