This is the sixth of a series of articles by Dr. Cox, with a Biblical critique of Calvinism drawn in part from his book Not One Little Child.
Doctrines referencing a “limited” atonement simply do not harmonize with the overall teaching of Scripture. Man is ordered to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37). This is a statement no one would deny. Therefore, since all are commanded to do so, it is necessary that all be capable of doing so. One does not issue commands to unconscious entities, nor does one hold them responsible.1 Man is conscious, and those who reach the stage of accountability are held responsible. Jesus said that God loves the entire world (John 3:16). Our Lord also declared that God desires for all of mankind to be saved, and this is recorded in the writings of several Apostles. Matthew recorded the words of Jesus when He disclosed that it is not the will of the Father that even one little child perish (Matt. 18:14), and every person begins as a little child. Likewise, John recorded the Gethsemane prayer of Jesus, which plainly published His desire that the whole world would believe in Him (John 17:21). Paul said the same thing when he wrote to Timothy and said that God desires that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4).
The context of 1 Tim. 2:1-7 has to do with instructions concerning prayer. The passage declares that there is one God, one Christ, who is the one mediator, and one target group: mankind. It further expresses that God cares for all; all should care for God; and all should care for one another enough to pray for all others. These instructions given by Paul to Timothy are intended to guide the church in its prayer life and conduct, for the measure of one’s religion is reflected in the scope of his or her praying, and true Christian prayer must embrace the needs of all classes and conditions of men, beginning with everyone’s need for salvation. Prayer is addressed first in Paul’s discussion of worship because of its importance. Prayer for all (1 Tim. 2:1) is urged from every facet: entreaties, a word which intimates supplications for definite needs and suggests man’s helplessness without God’s aid; prayers, a general word suggesting reverence and worship; petitions, a word indicating freedom of access to God and reminding of the privilege of making requests for others; thanksgivings, a word instructing one to pray in steady, sustained ways, not just in times of crisis, to show gratefulness to God for the privilege of having access to Him at all times, and to thank Him for mercies already received. Paul told Timothy to pray on behalf of all others. Pray for those who may not pray for themselves, which includes sinners and saints. The fact of the matter is that there is nobody who is “not” worth praying for (double negative for emphasis). Moreover, these instructions to pray for all people remind that God wants all to walk in His light. Why would God instruct believers to pray for all people if He is not interested in redeeming and helping all? The answer is that He would not.
Next in order, Paul urged that prayer be made for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:2). He implied that this is to be done in order to help share their burdens. Paul said to pray for the leader, like Nero, not to him, because those in authority need to be saved too. He admonished Timothy and his Christian readers to pray for good rulers and bad ones as well. He would say to pray for the President, governors, and senators. He would agree that heavier responsibilities bring heavier needs and that we are less compelled to criticize those for whom we are earnestly praying and we will be more likely to recognize the heavy burdens resting upon their shoulders. He would say to pray that God will direct their decisions, which He will, and that they will follow His directions, which they often do not. Then, Paul listed the fruits of prayer for authorities: in order to live a quiet and peaceable life, because ungodly leaders make for disturbing days and restless nights; to live a godly life, because the better the leadership, the easier it should be to live in godliness; and to live an honest life, because the better the leadership, the easier it should be to be virtuous in all dealings.
Praying for those in authority pleases the Lord (1 Tim. 2:3). Praying for the salvation and the good of all people in general and authorities in particular pleases God. The Savior’s nature is to rescue, not to condemn, so praying for the salvation and good of all is implied by the word savior. Christians must pray for the arch persecutors of the faith. As believers, we must pray for the salvation of all people and put feet to our prayers by modeling Christianity and by aggressively evangelizing the world. Clearly, this passage is a rallying cry for missions.
Next, we come to the heart of the message under consideration in this passage: God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). The Greek text actually says that God wills (thelei) that all be saved. This is not teaching Universalism! On the contrary, the fact that all are not being saved suggests that God’s will is being violated by man’s will in the matter of individual salvation. But an active response of faith and repentance to God’s grace is necessary. And, this wording is in the present tense. God is still willing all people to be saved. We, too, should be actively willing the same.
God does not desire the death or destruction of any human (Ezek. 33:11). Our prayers ought to seek to include all just as God’s grace seeks to include all: inclusive prayer and inclusive salvation are clearly in context. We see that Christ died to save all people. This obviously expresses the theology of an unlimited (general) atonement. Also, understand that Jesus Christ died to save people, not pets or even angels, and that God has one divine purpose for all of mankind: to know Him personally and have fellowship with Him for eternity. God wants all people to have full knowledge of spiritual truth. Additionally, “to come” necessitates man’s response to God’s truth: people come freely and actively, not forcibly and passively. This stresses the necessity of evangelism and the fact that truth is found in Jesus Christ. Those who do not know truth cannot be ruled by it. Therefore, Christians must model, preach, teach, and write truth.
Further, Paul argued that there is only one God and only one mediator (1 Tim. 2:5-6). By teaching that there is only one God and one mediator the Bible is stating that the gospel of Jesus Christ is exclusive (1 Tim. 2:5). By stating that there is only one God the Bible implies that God intends good will to all, suggests the solidarity of the human race in terms of its common ancestry, teaches that the one God is common to all people, infers that the one God can reach all of mankind, asserts that only one God rules the universe, and takes for granted that salvation is available to all but originates from one source - the biblical triune God. Look carefully at this paragraph in the Bible and you will see the universality of prayer (for all people), the universality of God (one God for all people), the universality of God as the one mediator (one mediator for all people) who was enfleshed (the man) in the one Christ (Jesus), and the universality of God in Christ Jesus as Savior (one savior for all people). Thus, the universality of grace, meaning that it is available to all, is rooted in the universality of God, who is accessible to all. This is not teaching Universalism! This is teaching the universal accessibility of God, His grace, and His redemptive activity. The insistence that there is only one mediator means that believers can mediate regarding prayers to God for others, but only one can mediate as the Savior. And, “mediator” presupposes that a controversy exists, that two sides are at odds. An intermediary must be able to identify with both groups. Only the God-man, Christ Jesus, can do this. There are no angelic mediators of redemption between God and man. There is no need for a priest, patriarchal saint, or a virgin mother. As Moses was the mediator of the old covenant, Jesus Christ is the mediator of the new covenant. Thus, the finite can enter into relationship with the Infinite by grace through faith and repentance.
As if the point had not yet been driven home, Paul proceeded to explain that this one Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6), which echoes the very words of Jesus spoken in Mark 10:45. This indubitably teaches the doctrine of a general (unlimited) and substitutionary atonement, in that Christ Jesus gave Himself in exchange for all sinners. No other substitute would have been accepted. He paid the debt for all. He paid the penalty for mankind to gain freedom from sin and its wages and His entrance into the world and His exit therefrom were right on time.
Paul viewed himself as appointed (ordained) by God to be a herald of the gospel (good news), a special itinerant ambassador for Christ, and as a teacher who would labor in the word and in doctrine. He was called and commissioned by God, entrusted with interpreting the meaning of the Christian faith, had a personal faith in what he taught and preached, promised that he rendered a truthful representation of the Christian faith as he understood it, and even argued that he really was sent to preach and teach to Gentiles. No lie! People routinely ridiculed and challenged Paul’s calling, ministry, methods, and authority. Today, people twist his words to say what he never would have said: that Jesus Christ died as a ransom only for the elect and that God does not will the salvation of all.
There is plenty of scriptural testimony that Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all of mankind, not for a limited few. Isaiah said that the iniquity of us all fell upon the Messiah (Isa. 53:6). Peter even dared to proclaim that Jesus died for false prophets and heretics (2 Pet. 2:1)! This means that the ungodly were bought by the blood of Christ, regardless of the “degree” of ungodliness, for we are all miserable wretches in need of the Savior. I believe that these Scriptures sink the ship of a limited atonement theory. If Jesus died for false teachers, the implication is that He died for those who deny Him as Lord, meaning unbelievers who remain in their unbelief. The biblical fact that Jesus died for one who denies Him as Lord presents an insurmountable obstacle for belief in election and limited atonement as propounded by Calvinism because it says Jesus died only for the elect; yet, here are real people for whom Christ died. Jesus bought them with His blood. Since Christ died for false teachers and the teachers died unsaved, swift destruction having been brought upon themselves, the blood of Jesus was not shed only for the so-called “elect” but for all people. The doctrine (teaching) of a limited atonement is therefore scripturally indefensible. Unconditional election is therefore scripturally untenable.
Peter, like Paul, declared that God wants all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). Therefore, He is the potential Savior of all of mankind, but the actual Savior of believers only. John the Baptist announced that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Lest you, or anyone else, slide down the slippery slope toward Universalism, Paul reminded in 1 Tim. 4:10 that Jesus was the [potential] Savior of all, but especially of believers. Good servants labor and strive to spread this trustworthy statement, and the work of the servant is arduous. He explained that good servants fix their hope on the living God and announce the scope of God’s saving plan. Jesus is the potential Savior of all but the actual Savior only of believers in Christ. His grace is adequate for all who will believe but effective only for all who do believe. He stands ready to deliver all. None are outside the scope of God’s saving plan; His way is inclusive, not exclusive; He is the only hope people have; He is the source of all blessings and kind providence. The only barrier to salvation lies in each unbeliever’s refusal to repent of sin and receive Christ as Savior.
In Titus 2:11 Paul wrote that salvation had been brought to all of mankind. He said that God’s grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all. Grace is undeserved love, unmerited favor, and is absolutely free, for it cannot be earned. It, grace, has appeared at a definite time. This epiphany was a historical occurrence. Once hidden, now God’s grace is revealed, and the best explanation for this revelation is that it is a reference to the incarnation (first coming) of Jesus Christ. The human situation was very bleak until God’s grace appeared. God’s grace arrived bringing salvation to all, not to a select few. But notice carefully that salvation was brought, not applied. The purpose of God’s grace is to bring salvation to all. Redemption, then, is universal in its scope, since the Bible teaches that Jesus gave Himself as the ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:4). Clearly, Paul’s words teach a general atonement (Jesus died for the sins of the world), not a limited atonement (Jesus died only for the sins of the elect). All are invited to partake, even those who hated and crucified Jesus. God’s grace was disclosed for all to see (2 Tim. 1:10) and is available for all to receive, but God’s grace is not automatically applied. It is set before every person like a Christmas present and left there waiting to be opened by way of personal faith and repentance. Salvation has been brought to all, not applied to all, for God violates no one’s conscience.
The writer of Hebrews declared that Jesus tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). This means that Jesus is the factor that makes all the difference. The writer said that Jesus was made, for a little while, lower than angels. But why? Because the suffering of death allowed Him to be crowned with glory and honor, because the suffering emphasized His humanity, and because the Savior must identify with the people He intends to save. He had to be a sufferer. Use of the word “death” in the verse emphasizes the fact that His experience went well beyond suffering, it concluded in crucifixion. Death defeated man but not the Son of Man. In the Son of Man’s victory over death He made a mockery of it and opened its door. Thus, He is rightly crowned or rewarded with glory and honor. Note carefully the paradoxes: He was made lower than angels but given authority over all things; He was crowned with glory and honor in reward for sacrificial humiliation; and in Jesus, God stepped from eternity into time, and he did so for all sinners, including me. In some mysterious way, the grace of God allowed Jesus Christ to taste death for everyone. This was part of God’s plan for redemption. Christ tasted death, He experienced it, for all. None are excluded except those who exclude themselves. Jesus died on your behalf. His sacrificial death is sufficient for all but only efficient for all those who repent and place faith in Him.
The writer of Hebrews also explained that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Heb. 5:9). He was made perfect. He was tried severely and proven to be without blemish. This perfection advanced Him to the final completeness of the goal fixed by God. He had reached the end of the fleshly road and His obedience extended even unto death on a cruel cross. He graduated from the University of Physical Life with honors. And through His perfection, suffering, death, and resurrection He became the source of eternal salvation. Not a source but the source, to all those who obey Him. Notice the condition. No universalism allowed. Salvation is conditioned upon the loyalty of faith in Christ alone. And observe that the salvation He offers is eternal. Calvinism has an insurmountable restrictive weakness.
The next article in this series will explore the revelatory weakness of Calvinism.
1John Wild, “The Present Relevance of Catholic Theology,” in Christianity and Reason (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1951), 28.