I. Howard Marshall: Universal Grace and Atonement

The following is the Introduction to I. Howard Marshall's article, "Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles," taken and edited from the book, The Grace of God and the Will of Man, edited by the late Clark Pinnock. This post is part one of four parts, in which Dr. Marshall introduces the nature of the topic, including the proper method for addressing the issue consistently and exegetically. Marshall writes the following.



The problem was highlighted for me shortly before I commenced to write this paper at a conference on "Modern Universalism and the Universality of the Gospel." One of my friends, for whose theological integrity and acumen I have the highest regard, said that, while he could honestly say to any sinner or group of sinners, "God loves you" (John 3:16), he could not say to them, "Christ died for you," since on his view Christ died only for the [unconditionally] elect and he could not be sure that his audience belonged to the group of the [unconditionally] elect. I think that my friend may have felt that there was something of a tension in his position, since it is precisely because God gave his Son to die that we know the nature of divine love (1 John 4:9). Was he justified in his reservation?

At the same conference it also emerged that one of the reasons why many theologians of a Calvinist persuasion adopt the doctrine of limited atonement is that they are convinced that it is the only real alternative to the "modern universalism" that teaches that all people without exception will ultimately be saved. The theoretical possibility that Christ died for all but that not all will respond to the gospel is thought to be excluded, principally because the efficaciousness of the death of Christ is thought to include the actual redemption of [and, hence, application of atonement for] those for whom he died, and also because any other view would suggest that God exacts judgment twice for the same sin, once from Christ and once from those who refuse to accept him as their Savior. Neither of these points is in my view compelling.

At the outset it should be emphasized that in raising the issue I am not concerned to take sides in the Calvinist-Arminian controversy but rather to interpret Scripture correctly. It is sometimes thought that the only alternative to Calvinism is Arminianism, and Calvinists do not find it too difficult to point to problems in Arminianism that make it a less attractive system of thought [most likely with regard to the doctrine of apostasy]. But one does not need to be an Arminian to recognize the exegetical difficulties raised by Calvinism and to offer an alternative approach. . . .

The danger in fact is that we proceed to interpret Scripture in the light of a system of doctrine. Calvin himself, of course, was too wise not to recognize that his system must be continually amended in the light of Scripture; the question is whether he and some of his followers let this insight have sufficient influence on their theology. 

[ ... ]

The problem is that the Calvinist type of theology and exegesis may suffer from the same kind of approach [i.e., forcing Scripture through the interpretive means of a system]. There are a number of biblical texts that suggest that Christ died for all mankind, and an unprejudiced exegesis would take these texts at their face value. 

But there is also teaching in Scripture that could suggest that God's purpose was to choose a limited number of people to be saved and then to carry out an efficacious plan, including the death of his Son, that would lead inevitably to the fulfillment of this purpose. This theory of election then becomes a sort of key for understanding the Scriptures, and the exegete who is persuaded of the harmony and consistency of Scripture must show that texts that apparently run counter to the theory, such as the statements of universal atonement, can in fact be interpreted in harmony with it. This can be done by claiming, for example, that "all" is not to be taken literally but means "all kinds of people," or that the word "save" does not mean "grant spiritual, eternal salvation" [both notions are refuted in the following posts].

It seems to me, therefore, that we need to ask such questions as these: Are there grounds for believing that, were it not for the prior acceptance of the theory of [unconditional] election (in the form given above), we should interpret the statements of universal atonement literally? Are there reasons for believing that any given biblical author holds to the limited [unconditional] election theory and that therefore his other statements should be interpreted consistently in the light of it? Is it possible to interpret the election statements in such a way as to be consistent with the universal statements without twisting the meaning of either?

Or -- another possibility -- are there grounds for claiming that both sets of statements must be taken as they stand and that consequently we must reckon with a tension or paradox in Scripture that we must respect rather than try forcibly to remove it?

Naturally as evangelical exegetes and theologians we do assume the harmony of Scripture. That is to say, we reject the idea that it contains doctrinal contradictions, although we recognize that it may contain tensions alongside its fundamental harmony.

But this does raise a question of method. Suppose we find that a given New Testament writer appears to hold to the theory of limited atonement; are we then entitled to assume that this theory is the key to understanding all the other New Testament authors even though there is no evidence in their own writings that they did so? Must we not also ask whether our interpretation of the original author is correct? But in any case must we not examine each author individually, recognizing that there may be individual ways of testifying to the same basic saving truths? ...

That the Pastoral Epistles form an identifiable homogeneous group of writings within the New Testament is not disputed. In language, style, and theology they stand together. It is therefore appropriate to regard the contents of any one of the three pastoral letters as throwing light on the others, so that each statement in any given letter can and must be interpreted in the context of the whole corpus.

[ ... ]

[Assuming the apostle Paul as being the author of the Pastorals, whom Dr. Howard refers to as "the Pastor," for the sake of and respect for the debate, the primary question for the scholar is whether or not Paul] held to any of the theories already referred to [i.e., unconditional election and limited atonement]. Must the universal statements in the Pastorals be interpreted sharply against the background of Romans 9-11, for example? Few would deny that, even if the Pastorals are not directly from Paul, they do come from an author or "school" standing strongly under his influence. We cannot, therefore, exclude the Pauline corpus of letters from consideration, though limitations of space will require us to concentrate our attention almost exclusively on the Pastorals themselves.
Our procedure in this paper will be to look first at those passages in the Pastorals that appear to teach universal grace and atonement, and then to consider the passages that appear to teach particular election.

There are four specific texts that appear to be universalist in their teaching, and our principal task will be to examine them in their contexts. They are:

  • 1 Timothy 2:3-4: ... God our Savior [who] wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
  • 1 Timothy 2:5-6: ... Christ Jesus [who] gave himself as a ransom for all.
  • 1 Timothy 4:10: ... the living God who is the Savior of all men, namely of [those who] believe.
  • Titus 2:11: ... For there has appeared God's saving grace for all men.

These verses appear to teach that God wishes the salvation of all mankind. But is this how they are to be interpreted? I offer eight propositions as to how they are to be understood:

The Word "Save" and Its Cognates Are Used Here in Their Normal Spiritual Sense

There is no reason to take the words "savior," "save," and "saving" in anything other than their full sense. This is clear for 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which is immediately followed in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 by a description of how Jesus acted as a mediator and gave himself as a ransom. The context in Titus 2:11-14 is the same.

Doubts, however have been raised about 1 Timothy 4:10, where it has sometimes been thought that "save" is used in a broader, nontheological sense. The difficulty has arisen because according to the usual interpretation God is spoken of as "the Savior of all men, especially of believers," and commentators have tried to find a meaning for the verb that would fit both "all men" and "believers."

However, the context does not favor a broader meaning, such as "preserve alive"; verses 9-10 are a comment on verse 8 where the need for godliness is expressed, and the point is made that it has the promise of life, both the present and future life. This can refer only to spiritual life; nothing suggests that the writer was thinking of length of physical life as the result of godliness. Then verse 10 speaks of the need for spiritual effort and justifies this by saying that the reason why we are prepared for a hard struggle in this world is precisely that we have put our hope in God who saves us.

Further, and this is decisive, the usual translation of the verse is misleading. The possibility exists that we can translate malista, not by "especially," but by "namely." The Pastor makes a statement of the character of God as the Savior of all men, and then he makes a necessary qualification: "I mean, of those [among them] who believe." Since this translation gives an excellent sense here, it should be adopted.

The Force of Theló Should Not Be Weakened

Some [Calvinistic] scholars have drawn attention to the use of the verb theló in 1 Timothy 2:4 and have argued that this verb is weaker than the verb boulomai [cf. 2 Peter 3:9] and that it may simply express "the Biblical notion that God does not take pleasure in the death of a sinner (Ezek. 18:23)." These two conclusions do not stand up to scrutiny, as the following three arguments indicate.

1. To avoid all misconceptions it should be made clear at the outset that the fact that God wishes or wills that all people should be saved does not necessarily imply that all will respond to the gospel and be saved. We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and both of these things can be spoken of as God's will. The question at issue is not whether all will be saved but whether God has made provision in Christ for the salvation of all, provided that they believe, and without limiting the potential scope of the death of Christ merely to those whom God knows will believe.

2. It is an unreasonable weakening of the wording to make it mean simply that God does not take pleasure in the death of the sinner. The Old Testament verse that is cited in favor of this meaning in fact goes on to say that, rather, God is pleased when sinners turn from their ways and live. It is arbitrary to interpret this verse by only the negative half of the Old Testament saying and not to take the positive half into consideration as well.

3. So far as the linguistic problem is concerned, it is true that theló normally expresses a mere wish or desire, but this does not necessarily mean that it expresses a mere wish as opposed to a real purpose. The range of meaning of the less-commonly used verb boulomai is also wide. It can express both an intention and a determination. The closeness of the meanings of the two verbs can be seen by a glance at the associated nouns; both can express the will or purpose of God. For example, Paul says that he is an apostle by the thélēma of God. In fact he does not use the noun boulē except in 1 Corinthians 4:5 (where it refers to human plans) and in Ephesians 1:11 where it means the plan that issues from God's will (thélēma). It appears that the noun thélēma can cover the meanings of both verbs, and this suggests that the verbs are close in meaning.

Paul undoubtedly uses theló to express the purposes that God actually carries into effect (Rom. 9:18; 1 Cor. 4:19; 12:18; 15:38; Col. 1:27); it is significant that in 1 Corinthians 12:18 he uses theló in exactly the same way as he uses boulomai [at 1 Cor. 12:11]. Surprising as it may seem, Paul never uses boulomai of God except in this verse, and the only other New Testament uses are Matthew 11:27 (Luke 10:22); Luke 22:42 (where the use is identical with that of theló in James 4:15); Heb. 6:17; James 1:18; and 2 Peter 3:9.

The last of these texts is especially instructive for our purpose because it declares that God does not will that any should perish but rather that all should come to repentance. Here, in effect, we have a precise parallel in thought to 1 Timothy 2:4 using the stronger word. He, therefore, who contends that it is a weaker verb that is used here [at 1 Tim. 2:4] must explain why the [allegedly] stronger verb is used to the same effect [at 2 Pet. 3:9]. The fact is that, while theló has the wider range of meaning, so that it can on occasion refer to desires and perhaps expresses more the element of personal desire that lies behind the expression of the will, the two verbs are essentially synonymous, and nothing can be built on the fact that one is used rather than the other. Had boulomai rather than theló been used in 1 Timothy 2:4, it is difficult to see how the meaning would have been essentially different.

From all this it follows that we cannot weaken the sense of 1 Timothy 2:4 by claiming that the verb has a weak sense. What is expressed is what God genuinely desires to see happen. There is obviously no possibility of weakening the sense in the case of 1 Timothy 4:10, which asserts that God is the savior of all men, or of Titus 2:11, which says that the saving grace of God for all men has appeared.

The Scope of "All" is Not Confined to Men

We must now consider the meaning of the phrase "all men." Although the texts refer to "men," the Greek word used is the one that includes women unless there is specific reason to exclude them (and there is, of course, no such reason here).

The Scope of "All" is Not Confined to Believers

From 1 Timothy 4:10 we have seen that salvation becomes a reality only for believers. There is no indication of a universalism in the Pastorals in the sense that everybody will be saved regardless of faith or that everybody will be brought to faith. But should the limitation in this verse be carried over to the other verses in the sense that, when they say "all men," they really mean "all believers"?

Certainly this interpretation would make nonsense of 1 Timothy 2:4. Here it is said that God's desire is that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. It is clear that the two phrases form a pair, so that being saved and coming to know the truth represent the same experience from two different aspects, the one expressing the divine action and the other the corresponding human experience of knowing the truth. But knowing the truth in a context such as this means believing in the truth when it is revealed to us.

If now we take "all men" to mean "all believers," we get a statement that would be odd in two ways. First, it would produce a tautology [communicating the same notion by using different words or phrases, expressions]: "God wants 'all believers' to be saved and to believe/come to know the truth." Second, the verse would not fit into its context, which is not concerned with believers but with those who need both a mediator who will offer himself as a ransom on their behalf and an apostle to proclaim the gospel to them.

These difficulties would be surmounted if for "believers" we could substitute "potential believers" or "the elect" (in the sense of the limited group of people whom God has previously destined for salvation). We would then have to take the quite specific term "all men" to mean "all the elect." But absolutely nothing in the context suggests that the phrase should be given this limited meaning. Defenders of a Calvinistic position, therefore, have not adopted this interpretation but have attempted to deal with this text in other ways.

There is equally no reason for saying that 1 Timothy 2:6 must be interpreted to mean that Christ gave himself for all the elect or for all potential believers. Similarly, there is no reason to take "all men" in Titus 2:11 in this kind of [unwarranted and restrictive] way.

The Alternative Between "All" and "Us" Does Not Contradict Universality

In numerous places in the Pastorals, as elsewhere in the New Testament, God is described as our Savior or the benefits of Christ's work as said to be for us or for the church. Thus in Titus 2:11-14 the universal statement about God's saving grace for all is followed by the injunction that this grace teaches us to live in a godly manner, and it is backed up by the statement that Christ gave himself for us that he might redeem us to become God's people. In 1 Timothy 2:3 God is spoken of as our Savior. But these and similar statements do not restrict the scope of God's grace shown in Christ.

It is natural and inevitable that the Christian Pastor writing as one member of a group of Christians to another representative group of them dwells on their own state of salvation, and from statements that "Christ died for all" he very quickly moves to the logical consequence "Christ died for us." It is difficult for believers to talk about salvation without thinking of what God has done for them personally. When we as believers praise God, we thank him not just for the provision of salvation for all but also for the actual experience that we ourselves enjoy.

Likewise, confessional language talks of salvation in terms of personal experience. Such language is not in any way exclusive, so far as the scope of God's mercy is concerned, although it recognizes that not all have come to faith and that many still need to be saved. So equally it is natural to move from the thought of "God our Savior" to the fact that this God does in fact wish others, indeed all men, to be saved as well.
The Term "All" Should Not Be Narrowed to Refer Only to "the Many"

Scholars agree that 1 Timothy 2:6 is a rewording of the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45, with "all" replacing the "many" found in that text. Titus 2:14 is a paraphrase of the same text (with some influence from Ps. 130:8 and Exod. 19:5). A saying of Jesus that tells how the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for "many" has been reexpressed using more idiomatic Greek forms of expression. The "many," of course, is an intentional echo of Isaiah 53:11-12. The phrase "for many" used in the versions of the saying over the cup in Mark 14:24 and Matthew 26:28 comes from the same Old Testament source.

But in the parallel saying in Luke 22:17 (and in the Lucan and Pauline forms of the saying over the bread) the phrase "for you" is used. It is generally agreed that the actual words of Jesus at the Last Supper have been paraphrased in the course of transmission. And the most probable view is that in the church the change from "many" to "you" was made in order to remind the partakers of the Lord's Supper that they personally were included in the "many"; it was a piece of personal application. The narrowing down in Luke and Paul does not of course restrict the force of the saying to the disciples present at the Last Supper or the partakers of the Lord's Supper; the thought that Christ's death avails for "many" is not lost.

So in Titus 2:14 we have the same change made in a form of words that is a Christian confession of what the Lord has done for us. This is an example of the tendency we traced in the preceding section. But in 1 Timothy 2:6 the change is in the opposite direction from "many" to "all." Is this an illegitimate extension of meaning? Or does it mean that "all" really means "many" and must be given a restricted meaning?

It appears to be firmly established that in Hebrew the word for "many" often has the sense of "a great many as opposed to a few," rather than "only some as opposed to all." Thus "all" is the appropriate paraphrase. It is the natural word to use in moving from a crassly literal rendering of the Hebrew to more idiomatic Greek.

We may compare how the words "many" (literally "the many") and "all" alternate in Romans 5. The usage here is instructive:

  • v. 12 ALL die
  •         because ALL sinned
  • v. 15 MANY died,
  •         grace abounded for MANY
  • v. 16 MANY transgressions
  • v. 18 judgment for ALL
  •         justification for ALL
  • v. 19 MANY were declared sinners
  •         MANY will be declared righteous

This chart makes it quite clear that throughout this chapter where Paul is contrasting what the one man Adam did with what the one person Jesus Christ did, he uses both "many" and "all," each in contrast with "one" to refer to the totality of mankind in sin. Thus "many" is identical with "all" in the sin and death statements. Similarly, both "many" and "all" are synonymous when used with reference to the effects of Christ's righteous act.

One might endeavor to avoid this conclusion by arguing that when Paul uses "all" he simply means "both Jews and Gentiles" as in Romans 3:9. But Romans 3:10-20 shows that, while Paul is arguing that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners, he is also arguing that all people without exception are sinners. There is no reason to suppose that he means his statements in any other sense in Romans 5.

One might also try to show that [at Romans 5:15] the "many" who died are specifically the same limited group of "many" for whom God's gift came so abundantly. But it is more natural to take the "many" who died to be identical with the "all" of verse 12. And in any case this objection does nothing to blunt the force of verse 18.

What is happening is that in verse 12 Paul establishes the universal effects of Adam's fall -- death came upon all men, and surely nobody will deny that this means "all without exception." But then in verse 15 (cf. 16-17) the contrast is made between "only one" sinner (Adam) and "only one" redeemer (Christ) and the vast number affected by their respective deeds; here the word "all" would be inappropriate for the contrast being made. But then in verse 18 Paul picks up the initial thought of verse 12 and repeats the point about the universality of the effects of Adam's action and (he now adds) of Christ's action.

Finally, in verse 19 he recapitulates the contrast between the one and the many again. Thus we see that the rationale of Paul's oscillation in terminology in this section of Romans is the fact that he is emphasizing two points: (1) the universal effects of Adams' sin (and of Christ's righteous act); and (2) the contrast between the one who sinned and the many who were affected by his action (and similarly with the One who acted righteously and the many who were affected by his action). Thus "all" and "many" refer to the same groups of people.

There is, of course, a difference. The universality of sin as the actual situation of all people is affirmed: death is known to be a universal fact, and all have sinned (v. 12). But the universality of actual redemption is another matter. The grace of God has been poured out lavishly on all mankind (v. 15), but, as verse 15 indicates, it is those who receive the gift -- by faith [cf. Rom. 3:25] -- who will reign in life, and we may be sure that this condition is in Paul's mind throughout the chapter.

This discussion would appear to demonstrate that Paul uses the terms with the same meaning. We may remind ourselves that Calvin came to the same conclusion. Commenting on Matthew 20:28, he observed: "'Many' is put, not for a definite number, but for a large number, in that He sets Himself over against all others. And this is its meaning also in Romans verse 15, where Paul is not talking [about] a part of mankind but of the whole human race."

Finally, it should be observed that in Romans 3:24 Paul writes quite literally: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace. . . ." Here Paul is capable of declaring that all people are justified, but we can state without any doubt that Paul knew that people are justified only by faith and that not all have faith [cf. 2 Thess. 3:2]. He is surely suggesting that, where justification takes place, it is through Christ (and not through the law); the same principle applies for all. So too in Romans 5 the thought must be that justification is by faith and by reception of the gift (5:17). Thus in Romans 5 the language of "many" and "all" indicates a divine provision of salvation that is as universal as the human state of condemnation because of sin.

"All" Does Not Simply Mean "All Kinds of"

The next point that must be considered is whether there is reason to give "all" a different sense from "all without exception." It is obvious that there are many cases in the New Testament where "all" is used not in the context of the universal set but in the context of a limited set that is either explicitly stated or implicit. For example, when his companions tell Jesus that everybody is seeking him (Mark 1:37), clearly it means "everybody" in the village or neighborhood where he was. This example also reminds us that often we use "everybody" hyperbolically to mean "many" or "a large number" rather than every individual without exception. Further, the word "all" can on occasion mean "all kinds of" rather than "every individual." So much can readily be granted.

But is there any reason to suppose that any such restrictions are implicit in our texts? There is really nothing in the immediate context of any of the texts to suggest that a limited set of people is intended.

It is true that the pastor begins 1 Timothy 2:1 by asking for prayers to be made for all men, and then specifies kings and rulers. The "everyone" of verse 1 clearly cannot be restricted by taking verse 2 to mean "namely, kings and rulers."

There is more to be said for the view that he means "all kinds of people, including (for example) kings and rulers (whom you might have overlooked)." But this [perspective] leads to a problem. The purpose of the prayer for rulers in verse 2 is "that we might live a peaceable life." It is not a prayer for their salvation (although that is not necessarily excluded), but rather a prayer that non-Christian rulers may live in such a way that Christians will not be molested but be free to live a godly life. But then we have a problem with verses 3-6, which offer a very strange reinforcement for a command to pray so that Christians may lead a quiet life.

It is better to assume that the pastor began to write in verse 1 of prayer for the salvation of all men and then was diverted to mention the particular need to pray for rulers so that Christians might have peace to live a godly life. Admittedly it is strange that the purpose actually expressed for the prayer is not a desire for peace to proclaim the gospel (in the manner of Rom. 15:31-32; 2 Thess. 3:2) but for peace to live godly lives. It seems that the pastor is saying that prayers of all kinds should be made for all people. He mentions in passing the need to include prayers for rulers so that Christians may live in peace, but his main thought is that prayers should be offered for the salvation of all people. The thought in verse 1 is thus taken up in verse 3, and verse 2 is parenthetical. If so, there is no reason to suppose that "all men" means anything other than "all people in the world."

But might the expression in verse 1 still simply mean "all kinds of people," such as kings, rulers, and other categories? Obviously, if the reference is literally to "all men," then "all kinds of men" are [already] implicitly included and intended. But if the reference is to "all kinds of people" -- for whom prayer is to be made and whom God desires to be saved -- then the pastor is declaring that, since God's saving purpose includes people of all kinds, we must pray for all kinds.

But how does this help the defender of the doctrine of limited atonement [or unconditional election, for that matter]? He then has to say that prayer must be offered for "the [unconditionally] elect groups within all groups in society" -- for example, for [unconditionally] elect kings within the group of kings. He [would hypothetically] at least [know] that there will [allegedly] be [unconditionally] elect people in every social group, but he is going to have to frame his prayer "for those (limited) numbers of people within each and every group whom God [intended to unconditionally elect unto salvation]."

There is, of course, no point in praying for the salvation of the [alleged] nonelect, who are not going to be saved; although one might pray that they will not molest Christians (v. 2). And there is the difficulty that one does not know whether particular individuals belong to the [alleged unconditionally] elect or not. Presumably one simply prays that God's will to save those who are [unconditionally elected] in any and every social group will be accomplished. But this is not in fact what the pastor tells his readers to do; he commands prayer for "all kinds of people" (on this interpretation), not that we should pray that God's will concerning his [alleged unconditionally] elect, who will be found among all kinds of people, will be fulfilled. Thus the limited-atonement [and unconditional election] interpretation has to resort to what looks like twisting the text, and there is in any case nothing in the text to suggest this interpretation rather than the literal one.

A similar interpretation has been offered for Titus 2:11. Here, it is argued, the "all" refers to "all social classes"; the evidence adduced in favor of this suggestion is the references to various social groups earlier in the chapter (older men, older women, younger women, younger men, slaves). Then [Titus 2:11] reinforces the fact that commands are given to these various groups by reminding the readers that God's saving purpose applies to all kinds of people and involves living godly lives in the appropriate ways. The difficulty is that it is impossible to see the need for a motivation of this kind. Why should it be necessary to say in effect to some social class in the church, "Of course you must live a godly life in your station because God's saving plan is for people of all stations including your own"? This interpretation simply does not make sense.

But why does the pastor use the word "all" in this context? There are two possibilities that need to be raised. First, there is the possibility that the pastor was dealing with a Gnostic-type heresy that claimed that only certain people possessed the spark of divinity hidden within them and could be saved, the rest of mankind being merely earthly and destined for destruction. The pastor could then be emphasizing that Christian salvation is open to all and not restricted to a predetermined group. But, if this interpretation is correct, it is surely inconceivable that the pastor really meant that in fact salvation was limited to a specific group (the [unconditionally] "elect" ), the only difference being that this is a different group from the group defined in Gnostic theology. [emphasis added]

The second possibility is preferable. Part of the reason undoubtedly is that the word came to him from Christian tradition. As we saw earlier, the pastor knew a tradition containing the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45, and here the word "all" had replaced the word "many." The alternation of "all" and "many" in Romans 5 may also have been in his mind. But probably his stress on "all" arose out of controversy regarding the place of the Gentiles in the church. The pastor is emphasizing that salvation is for everybody, both Jews and Gentiles. In view of the Jewish character of the heresy that is opposed in the Pastorals, this interpretation has a good deal of plausibility.

The Grace of God is Identified with His Saving Act in Christ

It is important to observe next that the expression of God's saving will is inextricably bound up with his action in Christ. The reason why the Pastor can declare in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God wishes all men to be saved is the fact that there is one Mediator, who has given himself as a ransom for all people [1 Tim. 2:6]. The saving will finds expression in the sacrifice of Christ; both are concerned with "all men." How does the pastor know this? Probably he reasons from the wording of Mark 10:45 in which Jesus expresses the saving purpose of his death for "the many," and concludes (rightly) that behind the deed lies the will of God for all mankind.

Similarly, in Titus 2:11-14 the close proximity of verse 11 and verse 14 to each other suggests the same conclusion. But in fact the conclusion emerges from verse 11 on its own. For what the pastor describes from verse 11 is the appearing of God's grace. However we understand grace, the sense can only be that God's gracious purpose found realization and expression in a concrete manifestation -- namely, in the appearance of Christ, who is the "epiphany" of the saving purpose of God. Thus the grace is incarnated or incorporated in Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for us.

Thus the grace cannot be separated from the actual coming and the dying of Jesus. Hence it is difficult to see how one might say "God loves you" without at the same time being able to say "Christ died for you," unless the love is understood to be a nonsaving kind of love [which is an inept redefining of love -- in Arminianism, God has provided salvation for all; in Calvinism, God has provided salvation for some, those whom He unconditionally and arbitrarily pre-selected for salvation]. It is therefore possible and indeed necessary to affirm both of the two statements with full theological integrity.


The effect of my argument is to suggest that, taken by themselves in their immediate contexts, the "all" sayings in the Pastorals should be understood to teach that the grace of God truly appeared in Christ for all mankind and that behind this manifestation lay the will of God that all mankind should be saved. The offer of salvation is genuinely made to all in the gospel. [emphases added]

The question is now whether there are other statements in the Pastorals that may suggest limited atonement and [unconditional] election, and, if so, we should attempt to see how these are to be understood. We will consider in this connection, first, the use of the term "elect," and, second, the possible presence of the concept of a limited [or unconditional] election.

The Use of the Word "Elect"

The adjective "elect" is found in the Pastorals only three times: in 1 Timothy 5:21, 2 Timothy 2:10, and Titus 1:1. The first text contains a reference to "elect angels" and can be ignored for our present purpose.

In Titus 1:1 Paul is said to be an apostle in accordance with the faith of God's elect or to promote the faith of God's elect (ones). Either way, the faith is that shown by the elect. C. Spicq offers in effect two understandings of the word "elect": (1) It refers to "men chosen by God as hearers of his word and beneficiaries of salvation": (2) the term "elect" was a privileged title for members of the Christian communities in Asia Minor (Eph. 1:4; Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 1:2; cf. John 15:16). These two definitions appear to stand in some tension with each other. The second is weakly based. The term does appear in New Testament material associated with Asia Minor (Col.; 2 Tim.; 1 Peter) but this is a rather narrow basis for the conclusion that it was especially an Asian title for Christians.

The important point that emerges when we examine the word usage is that the term is used throughout the New Testament for Christians, for those who belong to the community consisting of people otherwise called "the saints," the "brothers," the "people of God," etc. They are the group of people whom God has [conditionally] chosen [to gloriously save by grace through faith in Christ: the elect are believers in Arminian and, we believe, biblical theology]; they have responded to his call and actually belong to the group.

But can the word be used, as Spicq suggests, to refer to those who have been [unconditionally] chosen by God before and apart from their response, i.e., to mean "potential believers"? With the possible exception of 2 Timothy 2:10 this use is never found in the New Testament. Moreover, when the verb is used in the New Testament, it is always used with reference to people who have responded to the choice with faith and become members of the church.

But what of 2 Timothy 2:10? This verse states that Paul endures everything for the sake of the elect that they may obtain salvation. Spicq takes this phrase to refer to "the Christians who are already justified and sanctified and need to make their calling sure ... but also the sinners whom God has loved from all eternity (2 Thess. 2:13; Eph. 1:3-5) and whom he calls to salvation (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15f.); the qualification 'which is in Christ' indicates that these people must be converted and enter the church." But this interpretation cannot be upheld.

The "salvation" referred to is surely future salvation, since it is coupled with "eternal glory" and since the verse is immediately followed by a "faithful saying," which refers to the attainment of future life and rule with Jesus. Hence the saying can refer only to those who are already Christians and refers to Paul's efforts as a pastor to help them persevere in their salvation. There is nothing in the verse to require us to adopt a meaning for the word other than that found elsewhere in the New Testament.

This conclusion is reinforced by a study of the history of the use of the word. When we inquire whether there is anything in the Old Testament of Judaism to suggest that the word "elect" can refer to "potential members of the people of God," the answer is completely negative. Wherever the term "elect" is used in the LXX [the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures] with reference to Israel, it is always used of people as God's people, as part of the holy nation. The very fact that the Old Testament does not envisage other people becoming part of Israel naturally leads to this usage. That is to say, the use of the term "the elect" to refer to a group secretly [and unconditionally] chosen and destined by God for a salvation to which they have not yet responded simply does not exist in biblical thinking. The use of "elect" in this sense is a modern development and it does not correspond to biblical usage.

The Use of the Concept "Elect"

Although the word "elect" is not used to refer to "potential believers already [unconditionally] chosen by God," it remains possible that the concept existed and that in these two verses (and possibly elsewhere in the New Testament) the noun could have taken on this meaning. Are there any indications in the Pastorals that the writer thinks in this way?

  1. It is arguable that faith and repentance are the gifts of God, who gives them only to the previously [unconditionally] chosen group of the elect. Thus Paul was shown mercy and he received grace "along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 1:14).
  2. It is God who saved and called us because of his own purpose and grace (2 Tim. 1:9). This grace was given us in Christ before the beginning of time (v. 9). This verse is the strongest statement of a premundane plan of salvation that affects "us." It rightly emphasizes that salvation is entirely of God and does not depend on our works, merit or acceptability but purely on grace. Could this teaching give a basis for the Calvinist view of the [unconditionally] "elect" in 2 Timothy 2:10?
  3. Similar teaching is found in Titus 1:2-3, where we read that God promised eternal life before the beginning of time and then brought it to light through the preaching of the gospel. And this is in a context referring to the elect!
  4. Titus 3:5 might be taken to mean that God gave us the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Spirit and that this then led to our justification and faith.

Two of these passages follow a scheme of thought found elsewhere in the New Testament where the making of God's plan of salvation in the past is placed in contrast with the revelation of his saving action now.

The scheme has been discussed by N.A. Dahl, who notes that in Paul it is a contrast between what once was hidden and what has now been revealed (Rom. 16:25-26; 1 Cor. 2:7010; Eph. 3:4-11; Col. 1:26-27). In the Pastorals and elsewhere the words "mystery" and "hidden" do not appear, and the contrast is between what God gave or promised before the creation of the world and what has now been revealed (2 Tim. 1:9-11; Titus 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:18-21 (cf. vv. 10-12); 1 John 1:1-3; Ign. Mag. 6:1; Herm. s. 9:12; cf. John 1:1-18). Thus the concept that God planned the work of salvation before creation in eternity is a widespread theological concept in the New Testament.

In Titus 1:2-3 we are told that God promised eternal life before "eternal ages" and that he revealed his word in the gospel. Nothing is said as to whom God made this promise or who were the envisaged objects of it. The point is rather to assert the faithfulness of God in keeping to his eternal purpose. The mention of the "elect" in the context may suggest that they are the implied indirect object or dative of interest with the verb "promised."

In 2 Timothy 1:9-10 God is said to have saved us in accordance with his own purpose and grace [cf. James 1:18], which he gave to us in Christ before eternal ages and which has now been revealed by the epiphany of Christ. The thought of "giving" grace is a familiar one (Rom. 12:3, 6; 15:15; 1 Cor. 3:10; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:8; 4:7; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5; cf. 2 Cor. 6:1) and means that a person not only is the object of divine love and favor but also receives some kind of spiritual gift or power from God.

The problems are (1) In what sense can grace be "given" in eternity past? and (2) Who are the recipients? With regard to the first question, two main types of explanation have been offered: W. Lock argues that the grace was given to us in our ideal, namely Christ, long before we were born; it was contained in the preexistent Christ before the world was created.

According to Cajetan, however, the effect of the gift is in time, but the actual giving was in eternity before all times; the reference is not to a material gift but to the loving will of God. Thus the gift was given in the divine predestination, though in effect it is given to us in time. Somewhat similar is the view of J.H. Bernard: "That which is unfalteringly purposed is described as actually given." To the same effect is R. St. J. Parry: "The thought is wholly of the original purpose of God as actualized, so to speak, in ... the Son contemplated as already incarnate. The grace ... is described, by a bold hyperbole, as already given to us, though there can be no question of our then existence."

We thus have to decide between two interpretations, the view that the gift was actually given to Christ (in whom we were in effect contained), and the view that the gift was decided in God's purpose and is described hyperbolically as already actually given, though the effect is not seen until Christ comes. The former of these two views seems to be preferable. It links up well with the thought in Ephesians 1:4 that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world. In the act of determining to send his Son, God intended our salvation and in a sense the decisive gift of grace lay in that purpose that had then to be brought to fulfillment in the concrete reality of the incarnation and atonement. The giving is thus equivalent to the promise of a gift he has in effect already made the gift.

The "us" to whom the gift is made clearly refers to believers. As in the other verses that speak of election, the viewpoint is that of the members of the saved community. But must we go further and claim that this implies that God had a limited group of "the [unconditionally] elect" in mind when he made the gift and the promise? To say this would be to read into the text something that is not there.

A purpose of God to create a people consisting of saved sinners, saved entirely by his grace and not by their own efforts, and a purpose to save specified individuals are separable entities, and nothing here compels the view that the second concept must be linked to the first. The gift is given to Christ [cf. John 5:21] and to us insofar as we believe in Christ. It is not said that God [unconditionally] foreordained specific individuals to salvation. Rather, the emphasis here, as so often elsewhere, is on the fact that salvation is always and entirely due to God's initiative, which stretches back to eternity, and is not dependent on any works of ours. We cannot save ourselves; we can only receive the gift offered to us.

The statements in Titus 3:4-7 agree with this. Again the emphasis is on God's action as opposed to our works. Commentators may have been misled into thinking that salvation by washing and renewal, justification, and becoming heirs are three temporal stages in the process. But the fact that a purpose clause commences in verse 7 precludes our placing the three processes in a temporal sequence, and the "being justified" in verse 7 can be taken as a recapitulation of verse 6. Faith is not mentioned here, but it is so inseparable from justification elsewhere that it must be assumed. To find here, therefore, a divine regeneration that is prior to and indeed causes our faith is to read more into the text than is permissible. To draw a similar conclusion from 1 Timothy 1:14 would be equally unpermissible.

Against this conclusion it could be argued that the [unconditional] predestination of specific individuals to salvation is found elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in Paul (Rom. 8-11; Eph. 1). The scope of this essay obviously prevents detailed study of these passages. This much must be said: I do not find grounds in these passages for the view that God has purposed to save only a limited number of the [alleged unconditionally] elect, and I find nothing to suggest that, if the author of Romans and Ephesians wrote the Pastorals, then the Pastorals should be interpreted in a different way from that which I have attempted here.


We have found nothing in the Pastorals that requires that we assume the existence of a "hidden agenda," a secret plan of God to save only the [alleged unconditionally] elect, in the light of which the statements of universal grace and unlimited atonement must be given something other than their obvious meaning. We have found that here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, there is a premundane gracious will of God directed to the salvation of a people who will inherit eternal life, and God wills the means to that end. But we are left in the dark as to how that will is worked out in the lives of individuals.

What is not obscure, however, is that God has provided in Christ a Savior who is the incarnation of his saving will and purpose for all mankind, and that we can proclaim the offer of salvation to all mankind; those who believe will be saved, and those who do not believe will be lost. But if we ask why some believe and others do not, we can say no more than that this is part of the mystery of evil to which the Pastorals, like the rest of Scripture, can offer no [definitive and, hence, explicit] answer.


I. Howard Marshall, "Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 51-69.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.