One of the biggest and most important questions we can ask is “Does God save everyone?” It’s a question Heidelberg Catechism #20 asks, and answers: “No; only those who are ingrafted into him [Christ], and, receive all his benefits, by a true faith.”

But is that a right and biblical answer? Not according to 1 Timothy 4:10 which says that God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”

So God saves everyone? Everyone is going to heaven, regardless of their response to the Gospel?

Not so fast. There are a number of reasons why that cannot be the right interpretation of this verse.

  • It’s inconsistent with the rest of Scripture (e.g. Matt. 7:14; Ezek. 33:11)
  • It’s inconsistent with Paul’s other letters (Rom. 11:5; 1 Cor. 16:22)
  • It’s inconsistent with the rest of this letter (1 Tim. 1:19; 2:5; 4:1)
  • It’s inconsistent with “especially of those who believe” – is everyone saved but some are especially saved?
  • It’s inconsistent with Paul’s missionary labors  – why put so much effort into evangelism if everyone is saved?

On that last point, even verse 10 itself speaks of Paul’s willingness to labor and suffer for the spread of the Gospel. What’s the point in that if God is going to save everyone? So, how do we understand this verse? There are four options:

1. “All men” means “all kinds of people”

There are times in the Bible when “all” does not mean “all.” It’s sometimes used to speak of “all kinds of people” (e.g. Mark 1:5). That would fit the cultural and theological context here because Timothy was facing Jewish and Gnostic heretics who had an extremely elitist and exclusive view of salvation.

However, when this interpretation comes up against “especially those who believe,” it results in two levels of salvation – salvation for all kinds of people, and a special salvation or a specially assured for those who believe.

2. “Is Savior” means “wants to be Savior”

God is able to save all, wants to save all, desires to save all, and offers salvation to all, but, frustrated by the unbelief of some, He only saves those who believe.

The main textual problem here is that is doesn’t say “able to save” or “offers to save” but “is Savior.” He is the Savior. This interpretation also runs into the theological problem of men and women ultimately frustrating and thwarting the divine will.

A variation of this view is that God is Savior of all in the sense of He is the only Savior in the world, the only savior for anyone who wants to be saved, the only one who can save anyone; but He is the actual Savior only for those who believe. This still runs into the problem of “is” meaning something less than “is” or “Savior” meaning something less than actual real saving.

3. “Savior” means “physical deliverer”

The Greek word for “save” (σωτήρ sōtēr) can mean preserve and deliver. It’s used in this way in the Greek version of the Old Testament (e.g. the Judges and Kings are described as sōtērs), and God Himself is also portrayed as the preserver and deliverer of all in a temporal sense (e.g. Deut. 32:15), a theme that continues into the New Testament (Mat. 5:45; Acts 17:25, 28). Greek and Roman culture also used sōtēr of political, military, and royal leaders.

The idea then is that God provides for, preserves, and delivers all people everywhere in a multitude of different ways, regardless of their faith, but that He does this in an extra special way for those who believe in Him. That’s certainly a truth of Scripture, but is it the truth of this Scripture?

I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. One problem is that “Savior” is generally (though not exclusively) used in in a spiritual sense in the pastorals. In other words, “Savior” is used in the ultimate and highest sense of salvation from sin, guilt, death, and hell. Another problem is that it’s difficult to figure out how God’s temporal deliverances of all would be such a motivator for Paul, inspiring him to serve so passionately and suffer so patiently.

4. “Especially” means “to be precise”

More recent linguistic studies have discovered that the Greek word translated “especially” (μάλιστα malista) can also be translated “that is,” or “to be precise,” or “in other words.”* So Paul makes what appears to be a universal statement (“God saves all”), but then immediately qualifies and limits it with “that is, those who believe.” So the truth of this verse is not that God saves everyone, nor that God saves in two different ways but that God saves lots and lots of different kinds of people through faith in Christ alone.

Such a translation of malista not only fits better with the usual meaning of “Savior” in the pastoral epistles, but is also consistent with the rest of Scripture, Paul’s other letters, and the rest of this letter. It also helps us understand Paul’s incredible missionary zeal and suffering-filled labors. And the more we too can grasp the realities of this verse, the more our evangelism multiplies.

If God saves such a great number of people, such a great diversity of people, with such a great salvation – from sin, guilt, death, and hell – but they must put their faith in Christ to experience this, that will get us out of bed in the morning, that will fuel evangelistic passion, and that will make us willing to endure suffering and hardship for the sake of getting that message out.

* If you want to read more on this translation of μάλιστα, see George Knight’s commentary on the pastoral epistles (pp. 203-4).