I say that as a preemptive strike, because today I am bringing my strong persuasion of the doctrine of unconditional election (predestination) to a discussion of a "problem" verse for that viewpoint. The verse is 1 Timothy 2:4, but since I will want to discuss it in context here are the first four verses of 1 Timothy 2:
1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,In isolation, verse 4 appears to be in violent opposition to the doctrine of predestination. Of course, "in isolation" is a dangerous way to argue, especially against predestination, because if it is rhetorically acceptable to use verses purely in isolation, then in a tit-for-tat between Calvinists and Arminians, the deck is stacked in favor of the Calvinists. For example, we can counter 1 Tim. 2:4 with the words of Jesus:
2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.
3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,
4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
"For many are called, but few are chosen." (Mat. 22:14, NASB)This more than "trumps" 1 Tim. 2:4, given the accepted-by-most hermeneutic that what is implied is subordinate to what is explicit. 1 Tim 2:4 states that God desires all men to be saved, from which it is inferred that He gives opportunity to all men. Matthew 22:14 states explicitly that few are chosen.
However, this is not the way to reason scripture. Since I believe in predestination, for my own comfort I want to reconcile 1 Tim. 2:4 to that view. If you believe Paul is teaching the Arminian viewpoint, then you can take delight in the most straightforward interpretation of this verse, but you have your work cut out for you with a great deal of other scripture.
God’s Preceptive WillWhen we talk about God’s desires, we are referring not to His sovereign will, but to His preceptive will. This involve things that God will not do Himself, but that He desires of man, such as to obey His commandments. Man can and does disobey. This does not thwart His will or violate His sovereignty. He has not decreed that we obey, but He does desire our obedience. We can see this in another, similar Calvinistic "snare"
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9, NKJV)God does not decree that nobody should perish. (He could, but he doesn't. Why? I don't know.) He does decree that some should not perish (the elect). Apparently, according to this verse, He desires that all should repent. But alas, we don’t.
Perhaps 1 Tim. 2:4 is explained similarly: it is talking about Gods desire that all be saved, knowing full well that all men are not going to be saved, in fact no man is saved apart from God choosing him. God does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, yet for His mysterious pleasure he does not save everyone.
All men?Another way to look at 1 Tim. 2:4 is that all men does not refer to all mankind. Some argue that it refers to the elect, but that, in my view, does too much violence to that passage. Although it is manifest that God desires the elect to be saved, it seems both overly redundant and out of context to make that point at this place in scripture.
So we look at context. It would appear to be remarkably similar to our present national crisis, where we are being asked to pray for world leaders. Here Paul instructs Timothy to teach the Ephesians to pray for those who are oppressing Christians: ...on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority… If Paul, at this place, wanted to solicit prayer for all men generically (all mankind), why did he go on to specify "kings and all who are in authority"? Is it not reasonable that he is exhorting prayer specifically for those in power (who were oppressing Christianity)?
So the "all men" phrase beginning at the end of verse 1 might easily be interpreted, to include the context, as "all men, [including those that oppress you:] kings and all who are in authority".
This meaning for "all men" would then carry over into verse 4. In this light, one can view 1 Tim. 2:4 as teaching that we pray for all men, because God's elect includes all types of men, from all nations, with all manner of depravities. Perhaps even Saddam Hussein.
ConclusionIf the first time I opened scripture I turned to 1 Tim. 2:4 I would have been immediately persuaded of the Arminian position. Over time (I would like to think), the dissonance with the bulk of scripture would have converted me to the Reformed view. So, as I admitted, I am looking to find a way to reconcile 1 Tim. 2:4 with predestination.
In closing I note that interpreting this verse at face value with the inference that God gives opportunity for all to be saved carries with it a host of attendant problems. If God desires all men to be saved then it must mean He desires at least one thing even more: that man's free will is never violated by an regenerating act of divine will. And if that is the case, then unregenerate man cannot be as corrupt as scripture teaches, for in the depraved state it describes, man cannot choose God. And if man can choose God, in spite of scripture teaching otherwise, we are left with the nagging question of why some choose while others don't, especially if we desire, as also clearly taught, to avoid a works-based salvation.