Does 1 Timothy 2:4 mean God wants every single person who ever lived to be saved? A closer look at verses 1-7 and the context helps us to get at the answer.

Paul urges Timothy to lead the church to pray “first of all” — Paul wishes to give this exhortation first because of its great importance.

The word “then” simply means “therefore” and resumes the thought begun in 1:18: “Because I am entrusting you with the pastoral duty to oppose false teachers (1 Tim. 1:18), you therefore need to pray (1 Tim. 2:1).” Thus Paul views prayer as one of the ways in which the church combats false teaching.

Four different types of prayer

Paul mentions four different types of prayers: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. He probably does not intend to give a precise delineation of different types of prayer but rather means simply to say that the church needs to offer all kinds of prayers for all people, and the type of prayer required will often be dictated by the need of the moment.

Paul tells Timothy not only that the congregation needs to pray; he also tells him for whom they should pray: “for all people.” Included in the “all people” would be those spreading error within the church. For them, the church ought to pray that God might grant them repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). But they must also pray for “all people,” which probably means all kinds of people, in light of the delineation that follows in 1 Tim. 2:2.

Paul specifies one type of people for whom he wants Timothy and his congregation to pray: “kings and all who are in high positions.” This phrase refers to the governing authorities in their Roman imperial context. “Kings” can include the emperors but may also refer to Roman client kings. Paul directs Christians to pray for these rulers because kings and governors are empowered to enact laws and policies that either protect Christians or make them a target for unjust treatment. We must pray so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

The term translated “peaceful” means quiet and tranquil, “untroubled from without.” Thus such prayer would ask for governing authorities to conduct themselves in a way that keeps Christian churches safe from mistreatment — the kind of suffering and persecution that tempts believers to be unfaithful to Christ. This peace and quiet is not an ultimate end but a penultimate one. The ultimate end is that the church might live “godly and dignified in every way.” Godliness describes the “awesome respect” that every person owes to God. Dignity “connotes moral earnestness, affecting outward demeanor as well as interior intention.”

Thus, godliness may indicate the Godward, reverential perspective while dignity represents the manward, ethical perspective. The former has in view the duty to honor God, while the latter focuses on the duty to honor God before one’s neighbor.

Prayer that pleads with God for a peaceful and quiet life is “good” and “pleasing” to God. The term translated “good” indicates that such prayer is morally praiseworthy. God commends such prayer in part because it is a prayer for God’s moral standards to be upheld—that is, for his people not to be mistreated but to be allowed to carry out obedience to him without interference. Likewise, such prayer is “pleasing” in the sense that it is “welcome”. God welcomes prayers for his people to be treated with equity and justice.

Pray for salvation

First Tim. 2:1–3 says that prayers for “all people” were good and pleasing in the sight of “God our Savior.” That last phrase is the connection to verse 1 Tim. 2:4. God is a Savior “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God’s people are not merely praying for God to give them a peaceful and quiet life.

They are not merely praying for their own personal piety. They are praying that all people might experience salvation through Christ.

Universalism teaches that God saves everyone, and here is a verse that says in no uncertain terms that God’s will is for “all” to be saved. So, is this text stating that everyone is saved, whether they want to be or not?

The short answer is no. Neither this verse nor any other teaches that all people will be saved regardless of whether they have faith in Christ. What does it mean, then, for God to desire, or will, that all people be saved? And what does this verse mean in light of the fact that, in the end, not all will be saved?

Some interpreters hold that even though God wants something to happen, he does not necessarily make it happen. He gives people free will to decide whether to pursue his will for them. So there is contingency in God’s plan for the world. His will is contingent on the free will of sinners. Even though this is a widely held view, it is most likely not what Paul means to say in this text.

The key to understanding this text is to see that the Bible speaks of God’s will/desire in two different ways. On the one hand, God has a providential will that cannot be violated. On the other hand, he has a moral will that can be violated.

God’s providential will refers to his sovereign plan for the world and for all of our lives. When Paul says that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11), he is referring to God’s providential will that cannot be broken. This is also what Paul is referring to in Romans 8:28: “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” In this sense, we cannot know what God wills until it happens. It is not revealed in the Bible; it unfolds in history. His providential will is largely a secret to us. We can know it only in retrospect.

God’s moral will refers to his holiness and goodness. His moral will is reflected in his commands: “You shall not murder.” “You shall not steal.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These commands express God’s moral will, and human beings can defy God’s moral will. In fact, this is what sin is: defiance of God’s will as revealed in Scripture. When Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, your sanctification,” he is referring to God’s moral will. And people break that all the time.

Thus Scripture can refer to God’s will in one of two ways, depending on the context. This is why Isaiah is able to prophesy about Jesus’ death, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). Does this mean that it pleased God for Roman soldiers to kill Jesus? No, of course not. In doing so, they were sinning. They were defying God’s moral will. So, in what sense was it “God’s will” that Jesus should be killed? It was God’s providential will and plan that his Son should die for sinners.

So, when Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “desires” or wills for all people to be saved, to what is he referring: God’s providential will, or his moral will? He is referring to God’s moral purpose that all men everywhere should repent and be saved. Yes, it is God’s moral will that all be saved, but it is not his providential will that all be saved. Salvation will come only to “all people” who believe.

So, then, what is Paul’s point in saying that it is God’s will for “all” to be saved? God has given his people the gospel to take to all nations. God’s will for every person on the planet is for him or her to repent and believe in the gospel. Some, by grace, will respond. And some will not respond. God’s people cannot know in advance who is going to respond to this message and who is not. God’s people are to pray and to preach to everyone concerning God’s will for them — that they should repent, believe, and be saved. The results of that witness are left to God.

Only one way

God desires all people to be saved, and these verses explain that there is only one way for them to be saved. There is only one God, and this means there is only one plan of salvation: his plan. God has appointed his Son, Jesus, to be a “mediator” between himself and sinners. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to heal the breach between a holy God and sinful man. In this way, “the man Christ Jesus” effects reconciliation between God and mankind.

“Who gave himself” means that no one took Jesus’ life away from him (John 10:18). On the contrary, Jesus offered himself freely on the cross as a “ransom”— meaning that he died in the place of sinners to pay the price owed by them for their sins. This statement is likely a variation on Jesus’ own words concerning his death as a ransom (Mark 10:45; cf. Matt. 20:28). The ransom price was the penalty of death (cf. Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23).

Sin deserves judgment, and Jesus took that judgment upon himself when he died on the cross. By his death, he provides forgiveness of sins. By his resurrection, he offers eternal life. He is a ransom “for all.” This ransom, however, is effective only for those who believe in Christ. Nevertheless, the giving of himself “for all” is a “testimony given at the proper time.” The “testimony” in view here most likely refers to testimony that serves as proof, such as in a court of law. No doubt God is the one giving this testimony; in some sense Christ’s ransoming work is God’s proof that Christ has given himself on behalf of sinners.

Paul’s calling to preach the gospel (outlined in 1 Tim. 2:5–6) is by divine appointment: “For this I was appointed.” God appointed Paul to be a “preacher” (a herald of the gospel message) and an “apostle” (one specifically commissioned by the risen Christ for the work). Paul says that Christ made him a “teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” This is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words concerning Paul’s ministry (Acts 9:15). He preaches “in faith and truth,” which indicates fidelity to the gospel and its truthfulness as God’s revelation.

Editors’ note: This article is an adapted excerpt from the ESV Expository Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians-Philemon and was originally published on the Crossway blog.