Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Calvin and Luther on Universal Salvation: 1 Timothy 2:4 (Part 1)

One of the most difficult questions that Christianity has faced throughout its history is the inevitable, “Why are some saved and not others?” Some have sought to answer this question by positing the free will of mankind to choose or reject salvation. Yet this apparently simple solution contradicts several Biblical teachings, including predestination or election. But once a person admits that the Bible does not teach a free will for man, but rather that God has predestined believers to belong to Him (Eph. 1:4-5), then the question becomes all the more pointed. If man cannot freely choose salvation, and God must grant it, then why are some people damned if they cannot avoid it? In order to see how Calvin and Luther addressed this vexing question, a crucial passage for this debate will be examined: 1 Timothy 2:3-5 (ESV)

[3] This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. [5] For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

In their interpretation of this passage the two reformers faced the question of universal salvation (Was the Gospel given to all men?). While Luther and Calvin dealt with 1 Timothy 2:4 in significantly different ways, their end conclusions, though by no means identical, have more in common than might be expected.

John Calvin’s sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3-5 reveals the essentials of his theology concerning universal salvation. In this sermon Calvin exposes several of the issues at stake for him in interpreting this passage, and how he handles the interpretation will be critiqued here. First of the issues that Calvin faces in this passage is the fact that not all people are saved. Although he recognized that this passage teaches “that God will have all the world to be saved,” he must reconcile this with the fact that all people are not saved (Calvin 1). Thus he states that when Paul wrote “all men,” he “speaketh not of every particular man, but of all sorts of men, and of all people” (Calvin 1). This is a very slippery way of speaking, suggesting that God does not want all individuals to be saved—which negates the universal “all.” The sentence then becomes contorted, to explain how God wants all groups of people to be saved without desiring the salvation of all particular individuals. Why not just say God desires “some men” or “certain men” to be saved? Despite frequent statements to the effect that salvation is for all, it must be kept in mind that for Calvin “all” does not mean “all.” In fact he contradicts himself when he first says that God’s grace is only for His chosen, but soon after says that “His grace is poured out upon all the world” (Calvin 5). Unless “world” is redefined to mean only the chosen, he has just stated that grace is poured out on the non-elect also.

Calvin expounds further about what “all men” means. According to him it shows that while in the past (Old Testament era) God chose Israel, now He has expanded His promises to all races of men (Calvin 1). Calvin considered this a new thing, that the Gospel was to be spread to the whole earth. For proof of this, he cites Acts 14(:16), which says that “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways (or ‘ignorance’ as Calvin puts it)” (Calvin 3). This verse seems to support his statement that God’s will is consistent and that God did not want everyone to be saved in the Old Testament. However, the following verse in Acts shows this is simply false: “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven,” etc (Acts 14:17). This together with Romans 1:19-21 shows that the Gentiles unbelievers were without excuse, for they knew God but did not honor Him.

Thus, while the New Testament definitely does witness a broadening of the Gospel call to all nations, it does not fit with the Biblical data to claim that God did not will salvation for Gentiles. He did leave them a witness, and so they are without excuse. Fortunately, though, Calvin does not allow this belief to restrict his understanding of missions. He repeatedly emphasizes that
"God will have His grace made known to all the world, and His Gospel preached to all creatures. Therefore we must endeavor, as much as possible, to persuade those who are strangers to the faith, and seem to be utterly deprived of the goodness of God, to accept of salvation (Calvin 6)."

The felicitous inconsistency in his theology is that although he does not believe God actually desires every person to be saved by the Gospel, he does believe that the Gospel should be preached to them all, especially those who seem “banished from the kingdom of God”(Calvin1).

Related to this mission concern is another pertinent hermeneutical issue for Calvin in 1 Timothy 2:4. His interpretation separates an undefined group of people whom God does not actually will to be saved, out of the phrase “all men to be saved,” thus creating the appearance of two wills in God. Calvin acknowledges that this seems to be so, yet he maintains that in fact God does not have two wills, but Scripture only speaks that way to accommodate to “our grossness and want of understanding” (Calvin 3). However, the enigma that Calvin runs into is not necessary. Although Calvin rightly notes that 1 Timothy 2 does not teach about God’s election (Calvin 3), one might also add that neither does it speak of God’s foreknowledge. It simply shows that it is His will that all be saved. Thus there are not contradicting wills in God—He wills that all be saved; yet according to His foreknowledge He knows that some will not be saved. But to this Calvin adds that if God knew they would not be saved, then He must will to damn them.
Two other closely-related issues for Calvin are that the doctrine of election be maintained, and that it be asserted that our depraved sinful nature does not have a free will (Calvin 2). These are both teachings that Luther also desired to maintain. Calvin correctly states that “We are so contrary in our nature, and such enemies to God, that we cannot but resist Him,” and that we cannot come to salvation in the Gospel “unless God draw us to it by His Holy Spirit” (Calvin 2). Luther would heartily agree, and assert that man has no free will in matters of salvation. Calvin is also right to state that God does not draw everyone, but only those whom He pleases (Calvin 2). When Calvin notes that God offers His Gospel to all, he then queries if it therefore profits all men—to which he answers no (Calvin 5). Here again Calvin and Luther agree—the Bible does not teach universalism. However, when Calvin concludes that those who are not saved must have been predestined by God to that fate, the critical difference arises.


Stuart Floyd said...


I am enjoying your explanation of the differences between Calvin and Luther on universal grace. I certainly don't disagree with your arguments or I would be at the wrong seminary. How would you respond to a devil's advocate argument such as this:

Calvin was a Lutheran Pastor for 3 years. He learned from the best to mix 'all' and 'many'.

You said, "Thus he states that when Paul wrote “all men,” he “speaketh not of every particular man, but of all sorts of men, and of all people” (Calvin 1). This is a very slippery way of speaking, suggesting that God does not want all individuals to be saved—which negates the universal “all.”"

There are numerous references within Luther's writings of turning the opposite direction as does Calvin, turning 'many' into 'all'. I will just list one.

"The most important proof, and to me, a fully cogent one is that Christ said, 'This is my body, shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.' Here you may see very plainly that the blood was given to all, and that is was shed for the sins of all. Martin Luther, Pagan Servitude of the Church, p. 260, Dillenberger

Josh Schneider said...

Stuart, that's an excellent question, and one that I've been meaning to research for some time. Unfortunately I don't have the resources available here to study the question. The question hinges on what 'many' means in passages such as Mark 10:45, "the Son of Man came...to give His life as a ransom for many." I've actually heard it said on more than one occasion (and this is what I need to research) that the Hebraic concept of 'many' wasn't like we use it today, where it means (more or less) a significant part of a greater whole. Rather, in their usage, 'many' was an indefinite number representing a great or limitless amount. I believe that Scaer's Christology makes a passing reference to this, and I believe it is also the reason why Luther interpreted passages as such. Needless to say, if this is correct, then Luther's interpretation of 'many' as universal would be correct also. I have to get to a couple of Greek and Hebrew theological dictionaries to check that out.

Stuart Floyd said...


Thanks for your response. I distinctly remember Dr. Scaer in his Christology class running into such a verse. While the specific words he used are lost on me, the impression that I remember was this:

Dr. Scaer gave his tradmark smirk and said, "You know that you Lutherans believe "many" means "all", right? You can buy that can't you? I don't need to go in to that, right? " and then continued on with the lecture talking about Iowa farm boys and some nuance of another Matthean passage.

Micah said...

When God says in Isaiah, "I will accomplish all My good pleasure..." and then in 1 Tim. 2:4 "...it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth..."

How, why, does God not to accomplish what He desires?

CPA said...

Really interesting stuff here. I think it's important for us Lutherans to be honest that while Luther was not a "five-point Calvinist" he also was not exactly in line with what the Formula of Concord decided on this issue, even though the Formula recommends his Bondage of the Will as a key resource. For myself, I see both the Formula and Luther's views (explored in a post here as alternative, equally Lutheran, solutions to a problem which is ultimately insoluble.

Eric Phillips said...

"Many" doesn't necessitate "all," but it certainly doesn't rule it out.

"All," on the other hand, definitely does rule out "Not all."

Josh Schneider said...

there is never any question whether God will accomplish His purpose. If there were, salvation would constantly be in doubt. And the Isaiah 46:10 passage clearly states that God will accomplish His purpose. What precisely is that purpose in all things is not entirely revealed to us. We have only been given revelation of what we need to know. And as the 1 Tim. 2:4 passage reveals God's desire for all men to be saved, we must also affirm the truth of that passage. The solution is not to choose one passage and *absolutize* it over the other. Rather they must remain in the Scriptural tension in which they are given to us. God desires all men to be saved: this is true. But why is it not part of His purpose that all ARE saved? That is ultimately just a restatement of the unanswerable question.

Josh Schneider said...

Well said Eric. At some point I do intend to find out the answer to the exegetical question of how the Hebrews understood 'many.' Until then...