Universalists, Arminians, Amyraldians, and the followers of Fullerism have several proof texts that they misuse to support their idea of an unlimited atonement. I was recently reminded that in my writings I have shown the flaws in the way they abuse many of these Scriptures, but I have never addressed 1 Timothy 4:10, which explicitly describes the living God as “the Savior of all men.” The fact that I haven’t published anything about this surprised me, so I’ll do it now. Why does 1 Timothy 4:10 say that God is the Savior of all men?
For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we have set our trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.1 Timothy 4:10
Without doubt, Paul clearly identifies the living God as “the Savior of all men.” But it’s one thing for those who espouse unlimited atonement to lift “the Savior of all men” out of the text to support their claim, and it’s something else altogether for them to explain how “the Savior of all men” fits with “especially of those who believe.”
If God is “the Savior of all men,” how can He especially be the Savior of “those who believe?” Are there two levels of salvation, wherein some are merely saved and others are especially saved? Nothing else in the Bible supports such a weird idea of different degrees of salvation. That can’t be what Paul meant.
But what about the assertion that Jesus died as Savior for everyone, but only believers are saved? That idea is nonsense. If Jesus died as Savior for everyone, then everyone would be saved. If only those who believe are saved, then Jesus died only for those who believe. You can’t have it both ways unless, like Andrew Fuller, you introduce an unbiblical synergism in which God and man each contribute something to salvation. This, of course, turns belief into a work that helps to earn salvation, and it makes man at least partly his own savior. But the Word of God never points to anyone as our Savior but Jesus (e.g. “There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!” [Acts 4:12]). To add anything else to Christ’s entirely efficient atonement for only His people denies the full work of Jesus Christ.
But what about Acts 2:40? This verse quotes Peter as telling his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!” Yes, many English translations make Peter sound as if he is telling people to take an active part in their own salvation. But those translations are wrong. They are translating “save yourselves” from sōthēte, which is in the aorist passive imperative voice. Sōthēte should be translated “be saved.” Peter told those listening to him, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” We are entirely passive in our salvation. It is a gift from God.
Savior Used Two Different Ways?
Many teach that 1 Timothy 4:10 means that God is the physical Savior of all people by providing life, breath, water, food, and so forth, for everyone. And, He is especially the Savior of those who believe by giving them eternal life.
This view requires Paul to have used the word “Savior” in two entirely different ways right next to each other in the same sentence. That alone makes this interpretation highly unlikely. But it is made nearly inconceivable by the fact that Paul used the word “Savior” only once. Are we to believe that Paul’s one use of the word “Savior” refers to God as the physical Savior and then, with that same use of the word, are we to understand it to identify God as the spiritual Savior? No. The Bible uses its words carefully. Paul purposely used the word “Savior” only once. There is a better way to understand what Paul is saying.
We mustn’t forget that a Bible passage must be understood in its historical context. Paul wrote at a time when the Jews believed they were the one and only people of God. Paul was himself a Jew who became a believer. Unbelieving Jews held that salvation was only for the Jews. Even some Jews who professed belief held that the only way for Gentiles to be saved was for them to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5).
In this epistle, Paul was writing to Timothy. Timothy’s father was a Gentile, and his mother and grandmother were Jewish. Both Paul and Timothy ministered largely in the Gentile world, but, as the book of Acts shows, many Jews also lived in those areas. The Gospel they preached said that salvation was not only for the Jews. People of all nations of the world could be saved if they believed on Jesus.
This, then, begins to answer why Paul said God is “the Savior of all men.” He didn’t mean that God saves every individual, but that He is the Savior of believing individuals from all races and nationalities of people, not just the Jews.
I believe that Paul, being the apostle to the Gentiles, was stating something that was at the very heart of his ministry and which he so often had to defend. Paul was saying that he set his trust in the living God who is the Savior, not only of Jews, but of Jews and Gentiles alike.
The Living God
Keep in mind that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, and Timothy was also evangelizing Gentiles. These were people who worshipped idols—dead gods. So, writing to Timothy, Paul says, “we both labor and suffer reproach, because we have set our trust in the living God.” In other words, Paul is setting the living God in opposition to the dead idols. He continues that thought in the rest of the sentence by speaking of the living God, “who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” “Especially” is translated from malista.
Malista is a flexible word. This Greek word can mean “especially,” “precisely,” or “specifically.”
If malista is taken to mean “especially,” as it is in most translations, the verse becomes confusing. God has either saved us, or He has not saved us. There aren’t two classes of salvation: saved and especially saved. The sense of the verse demands that malista mean something other than “especially.”
In other words, malista can be used two ways. 1) It can refer to a smaller group within a larger group. In this verse, that would mean that God is the Savior of a larger group of Jews and Gentiles, and He is especially the Savior of believers. I reject this meaning of malista in this verse because it suggests that some are saved who are not believers. 2) Malista can also be used to further specify the precise group referred to within the larger group. I believe the second meaning is the correct usage here.
Paul is saying that, in contrast to the idols the Gentiles worship, the living God is the only real Savior, mankind’s only Savior, and He is the Savior specifically of those who believe.
Paul is saying essentially the same thing that Peter said as recorded in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!” If people are going to be saved, they are going to be saved by the living God, and they are going to be saved only if they believe in Him.
So, in 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that the living God, and not the dead idols of the Gentiles, is the only possible Savior of both Jews and Gentiles but He is the Savior precisely of those who believe.
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