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:
6 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. 7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 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. 9 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.