Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4

CalvinsimI just finished reading, For Calvinism, by Michael Horton, in which he conducts a fine survey of the Calvinist worldview. He does a great job of showing how Reformed Theology stands for much more than just the 5 points of TULIP. Horton is to be commended for explaining Calvinism (often juxtaposing it with Arminianism) in such an irenic manner.

The more I read on Calvinism, though, the more it exacerbates a nagging question of mine regarding God’s universal love for all people.

Here’s the crux of my problem:

  • If God determined who will be saved, He also determined who would not be.
  • And if God determined who would not be saved, He must not desire their salvation.
  • But that seems contrary to Scripture, for we know God desires all people to be saved.

Paul describes God as One “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:4

“All people.” I can’t get over that. And Horton never addresses this passage directly in his book. I was waiting, but it never came.

Let me take the crux a bit deeper:

I can’t seem to buy the argument that although God may desire people’s salvation, He does not will it. If people’s salvation is only dependent upon God, and Scripture says He desires it, then why doesn’t He determine it? If He has determined anyone’s destiny to be hell (by passing over them), then why would he even allow them to be born? And we know that babies and small children die everyday, and not all of them would be considered elect. Were they simply born for reprobation?

This is my conundrum with determinism.

Now I understand that Calvinists want to view salvation as the pure gift of God. No one determines it but the Lord.

I don’t have a problem with that. But, this is how I would state it:

God desires all people’s salvation; And He wills their cooperation. 

So if someone cooperates, can he or she take credit? (That’s a big reservation for a Horton.) I don’t think so, because God willed it, and not only that – He empowered it. He empowers our cooperation. We can’t take credit for that. He makes it possible by His grace. Salvation is by grace, and it’s received by grace.

But I believe we can still resist. Check out Luke 13:34:

Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

In these words you can see Jesus’ desire was frustrated. He didn’t come in and determine a response. It would appear that he empowered a response, yet people still denied it. He made it possible, yet their cooperation (or lack of it) made it actual. Cooperation is something He grants His creatures. An open door and the ability to walk through it, He provides through the work of His Son and of His Spirit.

So until Calvinism answers the question of 1 Timothy 2:4 – I remain Arminian in my understanding of salvation.  There’s a lot to admire in the Reformed tradition – a rigorous intellectual life and a high view of preaching (just to name a couple!), but soteriologically speaking, I just can’t seem to accept the notion that sovereignty must be reduced to determinism, or is at variance with the universal love of God.



  1. Hi brother,

    A couple questions:

    (1) what’s your basis for saying, “It would appear that he empowered a response” when referring to Jesus weeping over Jerusalem?

    (2) as an Arminian, did God create people who He knew would reject Him and be sent to hell?

    (3) Your very last line: Donyou realize that “soteriolocially speaking” there is a whole stream of historic Calvinism that views Christ’s death as expiating the sins of all men? John Davenant, the Puritan wrote a substantive treatise on The Death of Christ advocating both a universal atonement and a particular redemption – the only ones who savingly benefit from the atonement are those who believe – but, emphatically not Arminianism, even of the evangelical Weslyan variety.

    Particularly interested in your answers to (1) and (2) – from your brother who loves your engagement in these things.

  2. Not sure if my first response went through: two questions for you:

    (1) what is your basis for saying “It appeared he empowered a response” when referring to Jesus weeping over Jerusalem?

    (2) As an Arminian, did God create humans whom He knew would reject the Gospel and thus spend eternity in Hell?

    A starting point if you want to engage this a bit.

  3. Hey, hey Bob!

    Good to hear from you! One of my favorite people. 🙂

    Well, number 1 for me is pretty simple. In Luke 13 it seems like Jesus is expressing the same desire He’s expressed in other places – and that’s that all people would know and love God (1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 2:11; John 12:32). And we know that a response – because of our fallen condition – needs to be empowered.

    And good point on number 2. I guess Arminians are ultimately stuck with the same problem. But, I guess for me, God’s foreknowledge is not fused with the idea of determinism. Just b/c He knows it does not mean He determined it. I think a knowing God still endeavors to save, whereas a determining God does not – and to me that doesn’t square with Scripture. He desires all people to be saved.

    “Universal atonement and particular redemption” – Hey, I’m right on with that! 🙂

  4. Ken Garrett · · Reply

    Hey Brother! Appreciate you, and the constant example of intellectual rigor along with a humble heart! Have you explored the doctrinal position of Molinism? I sense you might appreciate it when compared to both Calvinism and Aminianism, and are perhaps challenging the notion that there are only the two possibilities available to us! Ken

  5. Ken! I have some of my favorite folks showing up for this discussion. And thanks for your kinds words. I really appreciate it. Yes, I’ve read a little on Middle Knowledge. It is a fascinating proposal that protects both libertarian free-will and deterministic sovereignty. Thanks for the links, that second one looks interesting.

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