Failed Attempts to Rescue Limited Atonement From 1 Timothy 4:10

I noted in a recent post that there is no verse that straightforwardly confirms limited atonement, the belief that Jesus died only for the elect.  On the flip side, there seems to be plenty of verses that flat out contradict it, which Calvinists have to deal with in order to preserve the L in TULIP.  In this post, I want to focus on 1 Timothy 4:10, another problematic text for the Calvinist position.

Here’s the verse: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (NASB).  It is the relative clause that gets the bulk of the attention here, and it is obvious why: On face value, it sounds like God is the Savior of everyone but is the Savior in a special way for believers.  This would flow quite nicely with unlimited atonement: Through Christ’s atoning death for everyone, God is the Savior of all, but this atonement is only applied to those who believe.

Such a reading, however, would contradict limited atonement, so Calvinists have proposed several ways of reading this verse.  I’ll summarize and evaluate the ones that I am familiar with, and it will be shown that these attempts fail to make a convincing exegetical case and often rely on dubious word studies, faulty reasoning, and de-contextualized readings in order to preserve a dogged allegiance to a system.

“Savior” Means “Preserver”

Some Calvinists have proposed that “Savior” should be translated as something like “preserver.”  The reason is because the word for “savior,” σωτὴρ (soter), does not always mean a savior from sins but can instead mean a physical deliverer or a preserver.  A doctor, for example, can be called a “savior” due to healing someone.  Thus, God is the preserver of all men, giving “common grace” like food, the sun, and rain to everyone, but he is the preserver especially of believers because we’ll be preserved unto eternal life. Proponents of this reading include The Village Church and John Calvin himself.

Now it is true that the word itself can mean these different things based upon context, just like any word will have different usages depending upon its context.  However, that’s the thing: Context matters, and advocates of this reading give absolutely no reason why we should read σωτὴρ this way.  Here is the passage:

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. 10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.

Given that the context concerns pursuing godliness, which is directly contrasted with physical nourishment and also holds promise for the life to come, it is highly unlikely that σωτὴρ means something like “preserver.”  It is also completely unjustified to think that Paul would use the same word in one way for “all men” (physical sense) but in an altogether distinct way for believers (spiritual salvation).  Add the fact that σωτὴρ is used almost exclusively in a spiritual sense, describing Jesus or God the Father, in the New Testament, and the case for this word study falls apart.

Some others have argued for this meaning based upon the usage of σωτὴρ outside of the Bible and the pagan context to which Paul was writing.  However, this is highly speculative at best, as there is little reason in the passage itself to suppose that Paul is making a quick polemical aside to address statues of Caesar or other supposed gods.

This option has been critiqued by other Calvinists who see no promise in it, though as we will see, the following word studies ultimately fare no better.

“All Nations” or “All Sorts of Men”

A common way for Calvinists to interpret “all” is as “all nations” or “all sorts of men,” such as in 1 Tim. 2:4-6 and 2 Peter 3:9.  Some have gone so far as to say that “all” never means “all” in Greek, though this is far-fetched.  More careful Calvinists will say that while the lexical definition of “all” is indeed “all,” what it refers to can be restricted by context.  And this is correct.  The question is if the context here should lead us to conclude that “all” means “all nations.”

Once again, there is not much offered in the context that would justify this reading.  There actually might be more reason to read “all” as a reference to nations in 1 Timothy 2:4-6 because there there is a mention of kings in verse 2:2 (though it is still a weak case there), but here in chapter 4, there is nothing that would even hint to the reader that “all” should be taken that way.  Calvinists are essentially arguing that the verse must say something like “God is the Savior of all the elect among the nations, especially those who believe now,” but this is obviously an example of reading into a verse their own theological convictions.  Charles Spurgeon realized this and rejected this interpretation of “all” even though he knew it would cause a lot of tension for his Calvinism.

“Especially” as “Namely”

Yet another word study concerns the word “especially,” μάλιστα (malista).  Since “especially,” the traditional translation, suggests that God is the Savior for everyone but in a more special way for believers, some have argued that instead the word should be translated as “namely” or “that is,” which would signal an apposition for “all men” rather than pointing to another class of people.  The clause would then read “who is the Savior of all men, namely, those who believe.”  This allegedly adheres to many usages of μάλιστα from outside of the Bible and in 2 Peter 2:10, 1 Timothy 5:17, and 2 Timothy 4:13.  This proposal comes from a man named T.C. Skeat in a 1979 article.

There is not space to go over all the different alleged examples, but I can say this: All of the examples given, both inside and outside of the Bible, are ambiguous at best.  For example, in 2 Tim. 4:13, Paul tells Timothy to bring the scrolls he left him, especially the parchments.  Calvinists have tried to argue that “especially” should be “namely,” otherwise we’d have to picture Timothy carrying a library with him of both parchment and non-parchment scrolls.  This, however, is silly; there is nothing there about the number of scrolls that Paul is referring to, and there is no reason to think that “especially” needs to be changed.

This contention that μάλιστα should be translated as “namely” has actually been critiqued by a Calvinist named Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary.  Though the advantages to Calvinism are obvious, he reiterates a good principle for lexicography: Do not multiply meanings beyond necessity.  Another Calvinist scholar who rejects this move is Thomas Schreiner.  The burden of proof lies on those who wish to add this usage to μάλιστα, and so far they have failed to give a case that isn’t based on ambiguity and their own need to find a different meaning.

God Gives a Genuine Offer of Salvation

This attempt does not rely on word studies but instead tries to explain that Jesus died for the reprobate in another manner.  Piper argues that Jesus died for everyone in this sense: It grounds the offer of salvation.  Here is the relevant quote:

We do not deny that Christ died to save all in some sense. Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:10 that in Christ God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” What we deny is that the death of Christ is for all men in the same sense. God sent Christ to save all in some sense. And he sent Christ to save those who believe in a more particular sense. God’s intention is different for each. That is a natural way to read 1 Timothy 4:10.

For “all men” the death of Christ is the foundation of the free offer of the gospel. This is the meaning of John 3:16, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The sending of the Son is for the whole world in the sense that Jesus makes plain: so that whoever believes in him should not perish. In that sense God sent Jesus for everyone. Or, to use the words of 1 Timothy 4:10, God is the “Savior of all people” in that Christ died to provide an absolutely reliable and valid offer of forgiveness to all, such that everyone, without exception, who trusts Christ would be saved.

Piper is trying to have his cake and eat it too: He thinks he can say that Christ died for everyone in order to ground Gospel invitations but also believe in limited atonement at the same time.  However, as I’ve pointed out before, this makes little sense because Piper believes that no payment or satisfaction was made for those who are not elect.  This “free offer” is not much of an offer when nothing in fact backs it for certain people.  This is why many in the Reformed tradition have held to the fact that Jesus’ death was actually sufficient for everyone’s sins (and not just hypothetically sufficient, as Owen and modern adherents of limited atonement believe), otherwise the invitation of the Gospel would not be genuine.

Furthermore, in Piper’s theology, not only was there no payment made for the reprobate’s sins, it is impossible for them to even respond to the Gospel message because God chooses to not give them irresistible grace to believe.  You might as well tell an unconscious man, without waking him up, that you will give him $5 million as long as he accepts, without even actually setting aside $5 million for him in the first place.  That is, apparently, a real “offer” in Piper’s view.

This move altogether fails to give any meaning to the idea that God is the “Savior” of everyone.  At best, one could say that he is the only available Savior of the world in an abstract sense, even if he is not, strictly speaking, available to everyone, but that would still stretch the meaning of “Savior” to its breaking point if Christ did not give payment to all people.

The “Inconsistent with Calvinism” Objection

Piper has also argued that 1 Timothy 4:10 cannot mean what it seems to mean because otherwise it would contradict other doctrines of Calvinism.  Perhaps he is right.  Then again, even if this is true, this would only carry force against a four-pointer, who accepts Calvinist soteriology minus limited atonement.  Non-Calvinists will just shrug their shoulders and think, “So much the worse for Calvinism.”

In fairness, everyone has prior convictions and it is natural to try to read difficult texts in a way that adheres to what you already think is true.  However, when a singular verse is so clearly against your system (especially if it is not alone), then it should be asked if the system is worth keeping.


Other Calvinists quibble that the atonement is not explicitly mentioned in this verse, which is true.  Then again, it seems Calvinists are well aware of the problems it poses for limited atonement, which is why they’ve spent so much effort trying to neutralize the most natural reading of the text.  Most of their attempts resort to unconvincing word studies, and interpretations such as Piper’s make no sense of God really being the savior of everyone.

This is yet another verse for which Calvinists have yet to give a satisfactory answer, making limited atonement a deeply problematic doctrine.


20 thoughts on “Failed Attempts to Rescue Limited Atonement From 1 Timothy 4:10

      • You need to read my post again where I address this argument. Merely asserting it is not very convincing. Why don’t you, for example, read the article that I linked and tell me where that author (who is a Calvinist, by the way) got it wrong?

      • No you haven’t. You have skirted the issue. It is due to your hatred of the gospel truth.

      • It is funny you want truth but you only come up with lies. How is that?

        Anyways, you also didn’t address 2 Peter 2:1 which actually says Christ bought his people alone.

        Anyone who really is interested in true gospel can go here:

        You won’t find it here. This guy is lost and is not ashamed either. I’d say he is not meek. For he has not yet been thirsty.

      • I’m having difficulty ascertaining if you’re being serious or if you’re being a troll based upon your senseless comments here.

        For example, in no way shape or form is Piper an Arminian. You can disagree with Piper–heck, you can even dislike him–but he’s obviously a five-point Calvinist.

        Secondly, your citation of 2 Peter 2:1 is entertaining, given the fact that it is actually a verse that grates against limited atonement and is universally seen as a text that proponents of limited atonement need to explain. The reason is because it clearly teaches that the Master “bought” the false teachers, so a lot of effort from Calvinists has been put into explaining what “bought” can mean without it meaning that Christ died for them. No responsible Calvinist would dare argue that that verse teaches limited atonement explicitly.

        If there’s anyone who doesn’t understand the gospel, it is you if you think that someone’s salvation hinges on this topic. I do not hate the gospel truth, as if that can be measured by allegiance to limited atonement. I simply disagree with fellow brothers on a doctrinal issue. If you cannot see that distinction, it is you who don’t know the gospel of Jesus Christ.

      • It is evident that you hate the gospel for rather than leaving the work of Christ alone glorifying his finish on the cross as the sole difference between lost and saved. You add to Christ work with your own.
        Your blindness leads you to not see the Scripture for what they teach. So you deny it with your throat.

        It is interesting you say no Calvinist would ever argue limited atonement from 2 Peter 2:1. Haha. I gave you what it says. Have you read Gary Longs text? You haven’t because you would not care for what “Calvinist” do teach.

        I cannot therefore say you are a brother. I can you are a demonizer who has infiltrated the church to teach a gospel that is no good news at all.

      • It is evident that you are a hyper-Calvinist if you think that salvation is based upon perfect doctrinal alignment with you and your favorite authors. If anything, that hints at the fact that you do not know the gospel because when Jesus, Peter, and Paul articulate the gospel, it boils down to repenting and believing, not perfect doctrinal precision of whatever preferred system you have. That’s unfortunate; it means that you’ve had bad teachers and/or you are very prideful, but such beliefs tend to breed pride rather easily.

        Your citation of Long is amusing. If you actually read his article on this, he absolutely does not argue that 2 Peter 2:1 (which wasn’t even the topic of this post, so you’re guilty of utilizing a red herring anyway) positively teaches limited atonement. His strategy confirms what I said; 2 Peter 2:1 is a difficult text for proponents of limited atonement who have to explain why it cannot mean Jesus “bought” everyone, so he attempts to argue for an interpretation that it means that God merely created everyone. I don’t find that interpretation convincing (he utilizes some extrabiblical arguments that I have dealt with before), but he at least tried to work with the text and never said anything as outlandish as stating that it explicitly teaches limited atonement. You might want to read that article more carefully.

        I’ll repeat this: If anyone is adding anything to the gospel, it is you because you’re now requiring salvation by doctrinal agreement. Even Calvinist brothers such as John Piper (yep, him, and you would know that if you actually knew anything about Calvinism), John McCarthur, Matt Chandler, Al Mohler, Thomas Schreiner, Timothy Keller, and even the more combative James White would never say anything like that. And that’s because they actually know what the gospel is.

      • It is evident by reading the first remark of your reply that you have not taken time (normal for people who hate the truth) to understand the issue. That you wish to now communicate with bits of red herring. This is bad. No where did I say we need perfect doctrine. But for a man to be saved he must know and assent to the gospel. For a man to even do this he must have first have had Christ die for him.

        You bring up words such as repenting and believing which do not carry wait in your argument. Repentance/believing is nothing than a change of mind about the truth.

        Actually it is telling that you obviously have never read Long at all. For he writes on 2 Peter 2:1. Though I do not interpret it the same as him. He is one such a person who is a Calvinist and deals with that passage.

        Those men you list as Calvinist brothers are not Calvinist. They are devils as you are too.

      • I did read Long; you are the one who amusingly stated that 2 Peter 2:1 actually teaches limited atonement and then cited his article, and then I pointed out that Long’s article doesn’t even state that. As well as he should not, because that would be a pretty blatant example of eisegesis. I never said that no Calvinist DEALS with the passage; of course they do, and specifically said that Calvinists have put forth effort to explain that verse in a way that avoids universal atonement. They simply do not say silly things that it positively helps their case. Your reading comprehension… leaves much to be desired.

        The more amused side of me wants to ask you why you think all of those Calvinists I listed are devils and not real Calvinists, but I think I know the answer. Ironically, while they are far more famous than Gary Long, I’m sure if you researched Long too, you’d learn he went to Dallas Theological Seminary and most likely would not say either that one has to believe in limited atonement in order to be saved (they certainly do not teach that at that school). Then I guess that puts him on the list of “fake” Calvinists.

        Hyper-Calvinists like you can be entertaining, but it is also sad because you have tied up all the particulars of your doctrine with the gospel. It goes to show that pride comes in many forms, even clothed in supposed care for theology.

      • You obviously have not read Long for what he says on 2 Peter 2:1.
        But I take the simple meaning of the verse that the them are the people and not the false prophet or the false teachers.

        I’m not talking about Longs article but rather his book.

      • It is quite funny your pride is found in that you call me prideful for tieing up all my doctrines in the gospel…. go figure Satanical you are.

      • Looks like I hit a soft spot. Also, Long is not going to argue something different in a book than what he did in an academic article.

        Your interpretation of 2 Peter 2:1 is exegetical gymnastics; you have to take “them” as the people but “themselves” as referring to the false teachers, only due to your prior doctrinal convictions. This is eisegesis, clear and clear.

        Again, goodbye. I let you say what you wanted, but you are saying nothing new and have clearly lost it. Hopefully the actual gospel breaks through to you someday.

  1. Well done article!!! For some reason young Calvinists think the world of Piper. But his statements, when examined in the light of Calvinism’s core proposition; Universal Divine Determinism, always manifest as obfuscating half-truths, easily recognized by the critical thinker. I’m surprised that characteristic of his language is not more publicly recognized.
    Thanks!! And blessings :-]

    • Hi br.d:

      I do want to say that I like John Piper, and there are many reasons to admire his zeal for the Gospel. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not above criticism, and in this case I don’t think his arguments hold water. (edit: removed “not”)

      • Thanks leesomniac,
        Yes I agree, but I’ve never found Piper of any real value as a ministry, since there are plenty of serious bible scholars. Unfortunately, Piper does function as a mentor to young Calvinists who follow his lead, using his evasive double-speak language techniques.
        I’ve seen a few Calvinist/Non-Calvinist debates in my day, but the debate rules never seem to prohibit people from operating in sophistry. I would love to see a debate based on a “witness stand” scenario, in which the debater must swear before God to speak “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, and may be required to provide “Yes/No” answers. :-]

  2. Pingback: A Primer on Calvinism | leesomniac

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