Addressing Objections: The Context Question Continued
Because this accusation of taking verses out of context is so central to any objections to the biblical truth that all people will be saved through Christ, we will examine some more verses to see if it has merit. If the suspense is killing you though, let me assure you now that it does not. Now let’s proceed to see why it does not.
You may recall that one of the verses that we have discussed so far is 1 Timothy 4:10. Here it is again:
1 Timothy 4:10
That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
It seems pretty clear that this verse is saying that God saves all people but that those who believe experience something special. We’ve already elaborated on some of these benefits (reigning with Christ for one thousand years after the first resurrection, receiving the Holy Spirit, freedom from slavery to sin, and so on).
It is also noteworthy that this verse clarifies our motivation for laboring to serve the Lord. Paul tells us that he and Timothy "labor and strive" because they have hope in God, "the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe." In other words, they are motivated to serve God diligently because they recognize His great love and plan for all of humanity, not in spite of it. As we have discussed already, hell theorists like to claim that an understanding of universal reconciliation of mankind would prevent the sharing of the gospel by Christians. Paul, who was certainly one of the greatest and most tireless evangelists in the Bible, tells us that this understanding, to the contrary, was his motivation.
Now, the question is whether we are taking this verse out of context, as some would like to insinuate. Let’s look at the entire chapter of 1 Timothy 4 to see if this accusation is justified.
1 Timothy 4
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Now, determine for yourself if there is anything in the context of this entire chapter that suggests that we should not interpret the statement that God “is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe” as meaning what it clearly says. Why not? Where is the smoking gun that makes hellfire advocates say that this verse does not mean that God will save all people?
If anything, the context further supports the claim that God is “the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” We see some aspects of the special nature of salvation for believers in the passage. For example, we see that Timothy has spiritual gifts that he is called to exercise. We see that he is presently being sanctified so that he can “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” We see that he is being trained in godliness which “has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” He is experiencing the special nature of salvation that is described for believers, salvation in the present that enables him to serve God in powerful ways that would not be possible without his belief in Christ. And we see that if he perseveres, he will continue to be used by God to save himself and others from lives of sin and destruction. Since both Timothy and his hearers will experience this salvation presently, they are experiencing a special aspect of salvation that others will miss out on.
We also see that Timothy is told to "command and teach these things." This exhortation comes immediately after the statement that God is “the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” In other words, this doctrine of universal salvation was a central doctrine of the early church that Timothy was supposed to command and teach. In context, this is the obvious meaning. Saying otherwise is either deceptive or demonstrates a lack of reading comprehension.
Now, back to the clear statement that God is the “Savior of all people.” Some would like to re-interpret this statement. They would like to say that he is the “potential” Savior. Or that He offers salvation, but we have to do our part and take it. But none of these statements do justice to the text. The text says none of those things! It simply states that He is the Savior of all people!
By definition, a Savior has to save! That is what the word “Savior” means! The Bible could not rightfully say that God is “the Savior of all people” unless he actually saves all people. A fireman can’t rightfully claim to be the savior of an infant trapped in a burning building if the infant dies, and the fireman merely extended a ladder to the window. Just like the helpless child in the illustration, all people are unable to come to God on our own. As Jesus tells us in John 6:44-45: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”
Shortly after this statement, Jesus clarifies further who the Father will eventually draw to Himself. Speaking of His atoning sacrifice, he says "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Yet again, we see the broad purpose of Jesus' mission.
So, God is responsible for drawing us to Himself. He is the only one with the power to do this. Since His Word tells us that He is the Savior of all, we can be sure that He won’t simply extend a ladder and hope that we can muster up the strength to grab it and climb down. He will climb the ladder, break the window, scoop us up, and bring us to safety. Even if it involves the punishment of the lake of fire, He will be true to His word and pull us out of it to make us His.
He isn’t the “potential Savior” of all people who can’t get His job done unless people do their part. It does not say that! If we insist, as hellfire advocates do, that Jesus tried to save all people, but people prevented Him from accomplishing his task by their unbelief, we are saying that Jesus failed to be the Savior of all people. We are saying that He doesn’t have the power to overcome our lack of faith, that He tried and we thwarted Him. The Bible makes no such claims. Instead, it shows Christ victorious as “ the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”
There is absolutely nothing in the context of 1 Timothy 4 to suggest otherwise.
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