God's Desire for All to be Saved in 1 Timothy 2:4 & Ezekiel 18:23
The question of whether God desires all to be saved is a subject of ongoing debate in Christian theology. The question of whether God desires all to be saved is a subject of ongoing debate in Christian theology. On one hand, several biblical passages seem to indicate that God desires the salvation of all people (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23; Matthew 23:37). On the other hand, other biblical texts assert that God unconditionally chose a particular people, the elect, for salvation, and only they will genuinely respond to the gospel (Matthew 22:14; John 6:37, 44, 65; 8:47; 10:26–29; Romans 8:29–30; 9:6–23; 11:5–10; 1 Corinthians 1:26–30; Ephesians 1:4–5; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; James 2:5). The challenge is how to reconcile these apparently contradictory views. What are we to make of this?
Today we will take two frequently used examples: 1 Timothy 2:4 & Ezekiel 18:23
To elaborate on the argument of God's desire for all to be saved, it is important to consider the biblical context of each passage that speaks to this issue. When 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God desires all to be saved, it is crucial to note that the word "all" refers to all kinds or all classes of people, not necessarily every individual. This is clear from the immediate context of the passage, where Paul urges Timothy to pray for kings and those in high positions, that they may come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. Context indicates that God desires all types of people, including those in positions of authority, to be saved.
Elsewhere, when the Bible speaks in universal terms about people being saved, it often refers to all types of people, not every person without exception. For instance, in Revelation 5:9, we see that in His atoning work, Christ ransomed people FROM every tribe, language, people, and nation. This does not mean all people without exception but all people without distinction. This means that Christ's sacrifice was not only for a select group of people such as the Jews, but for people from all backgrounds and social classes, Jews and Gentiles, Chinese and Bulgarian. This is consistent with God's unconditional election of some people for salvation. God chooses some individuals out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue. This also lines up with many passages in the rest of the Bible, which shows that God desires all types of people to be saved. The Church is, therefore, called to pray for all people everywhere, including those in positions of authority who make decisions that affect society at large.
God's Preceptive Will in Ezekiel 18:23
There are also certain passages in the Bible which express God's desire for all to be saved that reflect God's preceptive will, which is the expression of God's moral and ethical desires for humanity.
For example, in Ezekiel 18:23, God declares, "Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked," and in 2 Peter 3:9, Peter writes that God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." These passages express God's desire for humanity to turn from their sins and come to repentance, but they do not necessarily mean that every individual will respond to this summons. Repentance means turn to Christ in faith, whie turning away from one's sin and self-righteousness. It is not merely an invitation, but a divine imperative. However, it is important to note that while repentance is something that men ought to do, it is not necessarily something that they are able to do on their own, nor is it something that they will do apart from divine intervention.
In Ezekiel 18:23, the prophet declares, "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" Here, we see God's desire for the wicked to turn from their ways and live. Some attempt to argue that if Calvinists are to be consistent then this desire must refer to God's secret will or decree for them to be saved, but a closer examination of the text reveals that God's desire for repentance does not reflect God's decree, but His command - His preceptive will. The word "repent" is an imperative, indicating a command or requirement, and it is used throughout the Old and New Testaments as a call to turn from sin and turn to God. In other words, when God desires the wicked to repent, he is not expressing His eternal will but giving a command that they must obey. This understanding of repentance as a divine imperative aligns with the biblical emphasis on God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
In the same way, when God commands us to avoid sexual immorality or to love our neighbors, these commands reflect God's preceptive will for humanity. Just because God commands us to do something does not necessarily mean that we will obey. Likewise, God desires that all people obey His summons to trust in Christ in the gospel, but this desire does not negate the reality of God's unconditional election of some people to salvation.
In addition to the passages previously discussed, we find in 1 John 3:23 a verse that emphasizes that believing in Jesus is a divine command. The verse reads, "And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." Here, we see that believing in Jesus is not merely an invitation, but a divine summons. It is a commandment from God, and obedience to this commandment is necessary for salvation.
While the command in 1 John 3:23 to believe in Jesus Christ and love one another is clear, it is not a guarantee that everyone will obey it. The reality is that humanity is fallen and naturally rebellious against God. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, no one can come to Jesus (John 6:44). As we have already discussed, the human heart is naturally resistant to God's commands and cannot come to faith on its own. Therefore, while God desires all people to obey this command and come to faith in Christ, we cannot assume that this desire expresses His eternal will or decree to save everyone. Rather, it expresses His preceptive will, which shows us what is right and good for us to do. We must remember that salvation ultimately depends on God's sovereign choice, and it is only through His grace and mercy that anyone comes to faith in Christ.
Therefore, it is important to understand that when Ezekiel 18:23 says that God has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" it is not expressing the idea that God's secret will or intent is to save every individual. Rather, it is reflecting God's preceptive will for humanity. There is a distinction to be made between God's preceptive will and His eternal decree and how it relates to the desire for all people to be saved. By recognizing the fact that the call to repentance and faith is a divine imperative, it becomes clear that God's desire for all to be saved reflects His moral will and should motivate Christians to share the gospel with everyone, while also recognizing that salvation ultimately depends on God's sovereign choice.
Understanding 1 Timothy 2:4 by John Samson
An Exegetical Study of 1 Timothy 2:4 by Gary D Long
Understanding 2 Peter 3:9 by John Samson
On 2 Peter 3:9 by Thomas Schreiner
On Ezekiel 18:23, 32; and 33:11 by John Murray
Does God Desire All to be Saved by John Piper