Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:10, “For to this we labor and struggle, since we have hoped upon the living God, who is savior of all people, especially of believers.”1 In what sense is God “savior of all people”? What is meant by the qualifying phrase, “especially of believers”? Are there two different ways or degrees or senses in which both unbelievers and believers are saved? Does this passage support universalism?
Contextual Usage of “All”
Contextually the statement in question follows (and must therefore be understood in light of) what Paul has already affirmed in 2:3-6, “This is good and acceptable before our savior God, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of truth. For [there is] one God and one mediator between God and humankind, a man Christ Jesus, who gave himself [as] a ransom for all, the testimony in their own times.”
Obviously, according to Paul, God wants “all people” to be saved and has thus made provision via Christ’s atoning sacrifice for “all.”2 Therefore God is “savior of all people” prospectively in that he has provided redemption to everyone through “knowledge of truth.” Moreover, this follows Paul’s affirmation in 1:15, “Faithful is the saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.” In this sense salvation is made available to “all kinds of” people,3 even reprehensible sinners like Paul, but not without a faith response (1:16; 2:7) and enduring faith (1:19; 2:15; 3:9, 13; 4:1, 6, 8, 12-16; 5:4-15; 6:10-21).4
In 1 Timothy the adjective “all” is consistently applied, not universally but in a more limited, qualified sense (4:15; 5:20; 6:10, 13, 17). It is repeatedly employed emphatically when a certain point is being emphasized (1:15, 16; 2:2b, 11; 3:4, 11; 4:8; 5:2; 6:1, 10, 17).
Contextual Usage of “Especially”
But what is meant by the phrase, “especially [málista] of believers”? Some have interpreted this to mean salvation is granted to those who are not believers, which contradicts other clear passages of scripture (e.g. Mark 16:16; Heb. 11:6). If we keep reading, however, Paul himself reveals his intended usage of this phraseology. The superlative adverb “especially” can be interpreted to indicate a contrast between two different things, but this is not how Paul employs the Greek word málista in 1 Timothy.
In 5:8 the apostle says, “but if anyone does not provide for [his] own, and especially [málista] [his] household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Here Paul is not making a distinction between one’s “own” and one’s “household” but is placing special emphasis on a particular obligation. Then in 5:17 he writes, “Let the well-ruling elders be considered worthy of double honor, especially [málista] the ones laboring in word and teaching.” Again Paul is not contrasting “well-ruling elders” with those “laboring in word and teaching” but is emphasizing with greater specificity what it means to be well-ruling elders.
In 1 Timothy the adverb málista (rendered “especially” in our English Bibles) seems to be employed emphatically rather than contrastingly. It narrows the focus and conveys particularity, thus comparable to “namely” or “in particular.”5 Whatever else might be inferred, the terminology in no way supports sweeping universalism.
If 1 Timothy 4:10 is isolated from its immediate context and the overall context of scripture, it can be misconstrued to convey any number of things. But when we carefully follow Paul’s train of thought, and interpret the verse in its much broader context of meaning, the statement is clear. The spiritual salvation God provides through Jesus Christ is universal in purpose and scope but conditional and thus limited in appropriation.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 John 3:16-17; Rom. 5:18; 8:32; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Tit. 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2; 4:14. See K. L. Moore, “Did Jesus die for many or for all?” Moore Perspective (13 Feb. 2015), <Link>.
3 The Greek adj. pas can idiomatically signify “a totality of kinds or sorts—every kind of, all sorts of” (J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT [NY: UBS, 1988]: 589); cf. 1 Tim. 6:10, 13, 17. In Romans the adj. “all” is consistently applied with particular reference to ethnic groups, not the unqualified totality of all individual persons. The overarching theme of Romans is that Jews and Gentiles stand before God on the same footing. Gentiles sin and are thus condemned (1:18-32), but they are not the only ones; Jews are also guilty before God (2:1-5). Whether Jew or Gentile, the obedient receive divine favor and the disobedient face God’s wrath (2:6-16); there is no partiality with God (2:11). All have sinned (3:10-12, 23; 5:12) = both Jews and Gentiles (3:9, 19), not just the one to the exclusion of the other. Moreover, “all” (both Jews and Gentiles) have equal access to God through Christ and are accepted by him on the same terms (3:29-30; 4:16, 24; 5:18; etc.).
4 For what it means to be a “believer” in the biblical sense, see K. L. Moore, “NT Believers,” Moore Perspective (26 July 2013), <Link>.
5 Idiomatically rendered “that is” (ISV); “particularly” (Mounce, NLT, Phillips, TLB).
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