In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul writes that “[God]…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God wants everyone to glorify and enjoy him forever. This is why we pray for people. However, our prayers are rooted in God’s desire for people to be saved, not our faith or our fervency in prayer. We must say at this point that not everyone is in fact saved. Because of this, we have three possibilities to consider about God:
- We have a God who has actually has two wills in that he desires all to be saved at one level, and that he causes only some to be saved on another.
- We have a God who desires that all are saved, yet doesn’t have the power to actually make it happen.
- We have a God who allows people can actually chose to do whatever they want despite God’s will, and therefore they have the ultimate power in determining their eternity over God.
The Bible does not allow for the second two options. The Bible is clear that God has enough power in salvation, from beginning to end (Phil. 1:6). The Bible is also clear that salvation does not depend on man’s will but on God’s mercy (Rom. 9:16). We must lay 1 Timothy 2:4 beside 1 Timothy 4:10, which says, “For to this end [the end of teaching and modeling good doctrine] we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” So in one sense, Jesus is the Savior of the entire world. But his atonement, or we can say saving power, is only effective to those who confess him as Lord and Savior and believe in him for eternal life. People who do not believe in Jesus receive no forgiveness and no redemption. Unbelievers will spend a conscious eternity in hell experience the wrath of God.
This issue of the atonement’s extent is hotly debated, as you could guess. Arminian theologians believe that God’s greatest desire is to preserve genuine human freedom and therefore individuals must chose or reject God’s salvation. This would seem to make God very man-centered. Calvinist theologians believe that God’s greatest desire is to preserve the full range of his glory (Rom. 9:22-23). This makes God very God-centered, yet still loving toward his people. I would say the Calvinist perspective is the correct biblical teaching.
You’ve all heard the arguments for both sides, so it’d be good to conclude with a statement all Christians can agree on. Whatever a person believes concerning the extent of atonement, the phrase, “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved,” shows that a genuine offer of the gospel should be extended to every person. In order for someone to live a gospel-shaped life, they must be told the good news of Jesus. For faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).