Tuesday, December 17, 2019

1 Timothy 4:10 vs. the Christian Doctrine of Salvation (Part One)


For most of “church history,” the majority of Christians have believed that most people will never be saved by God. However, if there are some people who will never be saved by God, then logic dictates that it was because God was either unable or unwilling to save them. That is, God’s failure to save certain people could only be due to his inability or his unwillingness to save them. There are no other possible options.

Now, Christian thinkers have, over the centuries, debated which of these two options should be understood as providing the best and ultimate explanation for why most people will never be saved. But regardless of which side of the fence a Christian lands on in this ongoing debate (or whether they choose a side at all), the fact remains that a “God” who is either unable or unwilling to save certain people cannot be legitimately described as the “Savior” of those whom he was either unable or unwilling to save. If I fail to rescue someone from imminent, mortal danger, I cannot be legitimately referred to as that person’s “savior” (and this would be the case irrespective of whether my failure to save them was due to my inability or my unwillingness to save them).

With these considerations in mind, let’s now consider the following words that Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy:

“Faithful is the saying and worthy of all welcome (for for this are we toiling and being reproached), that we rely on the living God, Who is the Saviour of all mankind, especially of believers. These things be charging and teaching.” I Timothy 4:9-11

By virtue of what was Paul able to refer to God as “the Saviour of all mankind, especially of believers?” Well, we know why God can be called the Savior of believers. It’s because believers will be saved by God. Paul would not (and could not) have referred to God as the “Saviour” of believers if he didn’t think that believers either had been, or would be, saved by God. Neither God nor Christ can be considered the “Saviour” of anyone whom they will never, in fact, save. Thus, the fact that God is “the Saviour of all mankind” means that all mankind shall be saved by God.

This outcome is in accord with the fact that, in 1 Tim. 2:4-6, we read that God “wills that all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth,” and that Christ “gave himself a correspondent ransom for all.” The word translated “wills” in verse 4 (thelo) means just that – i.e., to form a decision, choice or purpose. Since nothing can prevent God from accomplishing what he wills (Job 42:2; Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10; 55:11; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 9:15-20; Eph. 1:11), it logically follows that God will accomplish the salvation of all mankind. The will of the Creator will always prevail over, and could never be thwarted by, the will of the creature. 1 Timothy 2:4 thus implies that dying in unbelief is no obstacle whatsoever to anyone’s being ultimately saved by God.

Moreover, since everyone for whom Christ gave himself a “correspondent ransom” will be ransomed as a result, it follows that God’s will that all mankind be saved will be accomplished. Consider the following logical argument:

1. Anyone for whom Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom” will be ransomed as a result.
2. Anyone ransomed as a result of Christ’s death will be saved.
3. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6 will be saved.
4. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom includes all mankind (1 Tim. 2:4-5).
5. All mankind will be saved.

[Note: For a fuller defense of this argument, see my three-part series on Christ’s ransoming work (click here for the study)]

In accord with the fact that Christ gave himself “a correspondent ransom for all,” Paul previously wrote in his first letter to Timothy that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Since all mankind are sinful (Rom. 3:23; 5:18-19), this verse implies that Christ came into the world to save all mankind. And we know that Christ will accomplish what we’re told he came into the world to do, for we’re told elsewhere that Christ not only came to do the will of God (John 6:38; Heb. 10:7), but that God’s will “shall prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:10). Christ is the chosen agent through whom God will accomplish the salvation of all mankind.

Contrary to what most Christians believe, God is not giving those for whom Christ died the mere opportunity (or “chance”) to be saved. Nor did Christ’s death merely make everyone’s salvation a possibility. God is not merely the “possible” Savior of all mankind, or the “potential” Savior of all mankind. Rather, because of Christ’s death for all, the sins of everyone for whom he died will ultimately be taken away, and will ultimately cease to be a source of condemnation for them. For when Christ “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3-4), he died as a “sin offering” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Eph. 5:1-2) – i.e., a sacrifice offered to God which has, as its purpose, the taking away (or elimination) of the sins of those for whom it is offered (in fact, the very expression “Christ died for our sins” communicates this truth). And insofar as a sin offering is a sacrifice offered to God that results in God’s ceasing to reckon the sins of those for whom the sacrifice is offered to them, it follows that the sins of everyone for whom Christ died will eventually be taken away and no longer reckoned to them by God. Everyone for whom Christ died shall, therefore, be saved (which, again, is the very outcome that we’re told God “wills” in 1 Tim. 2:4).

Eonian life: How God is the Savior “especially of believers”

It should come as no surprise that most Christians have tried to make 1 Tim. 4:10 mean anything but what the most natural and straightforward reading of Paul’s words communicate. “Surely,” some Christians will argue, “Paul didn’t really mean that God is actually the Savior of all mankind.” And yet, that’s exactly what Paul wrote. And not only that, but this fundamental truth is among the things that Paul told Timothy to be “charging and teaching.” Paul considered this truth to be that important.

But if God is “the Savior of all mankind” (and, according to Paul, he is), then what did Paul mean when he called him the Savior “especially of believers?” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the English adverb “especially” is “used to emphasize the importance of one thing among others of its type or to point to one thing among others,” and can be defined as meaning “very” or “particularly” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/especially). The Greek term Paul used is “mal’ista.” To better understand what Paul had in mind by his use of this term in 1 Tim. 4:10, it would be helpful to consider other examples in which Paul used this term in his letters.

In Galatians 6:10 we read, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (see also 1 Cor. 14:1; Phil 4:22; 1 Tim 5:8, 17; Titus 1:10 and Philemon 16). Is Paul saying that we are to “do good” to those who are of “the household of faith” to the exclusion of all others? Are we to do good to other believers only? No. Paul was saying that we are to do good to all people, but that those who are of “the household of faith” should come first. Although those who are of “the household of faith” ought to be our first priority, we should make the best of the opportunities God gives us to help everyone whom God places within the “sphere of our influence.”

With this understanding of the term “especially” in place, it’s evident that Paul was not saying that God is the Saviour of believers only, or exclusively. That’s not what the term “especially” means (whether in Greek or English). For God to be the Savior “especially of believers” simply means that saving believers is God’s first priority. But all mankind remain within the sphere of God’s influence (which is unlimited in scope, embracing all people and all events), and if God were to fail to save unbelievers (and save believers only), then he would not be their Savior. But how, exactly, is the salvation of believers to be understood as distinct from the salvation of unbelievers (such that God can be considered the Savior “especially of believers”)? In order to better understand this important subject, let’s consider what Paul wrote concerning the salvation of believers elsewhere in his first letter to Timothy.

In the Concordant Literal New Testament (CLNT) translation of I Timothy 1:15-16, we read the following:

“Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all welcome, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, foremost of whom am I. But therefore was I shown mercy, that in me, the foremost, Jesus Christ should be displaying all His patience, for a pattern of those who are about to be believing on Him for life eonian.

Similarly, in Titus 1:1-3 we read:

“Paul, a slave of God, yet an apostle of Jesus Christ, in accord with the faith of God's chosen, and a realization of the truth, which accords with devoutness, in expectation of life eonian, which God, Who does not lie, promises before times eonian, yet manifests His word in its own eras by heralding, with which I was entrusted, according to the injunction of God, our Saviour…”

For other references to “life eonian” in Paul’s letters, see Rom. 5:21; 6:22-23; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 6:12; Titus 3:7. The expression translated “life eonian” in these and other verses is translated “eternal life” in the majority of Bibles (which, in comparison with the CLNT and a few other versions, are less literal translations). To better understand what Paul meant by “life eonian” here (and why this is a more accurate translation than “eternal life”), let’s consider Christ’s words in Luke 18:24-30. In the CLNT translation of this passage, we read the following:

Now Jesus, perceiving him becoming sorrow-stricken, said, "How squeamishly shall those having money be entering into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to be entering through the eye of a bodkin than for a rich man to be entering into the kingdom of God." Now those hearing it said, "And who can be saved?" Yet He said, "What is impossible with men is possible with God." Now Peter said, "Lo! we, leaving our own, follow Thee." Now He said to them, "Verily, I am saying to you that there is no one who leaves house, or wife, or brothers, or parents, or children on account of the kingdom of God, who may not by all means be getting back manyfold in this era, and in the coming eon, life eonian."

The “kingdom of God” referred to in these verses is the kingdom which, according to Hebrew prophecy, God will set up on the earth, and over which the Messiah (as well as “the saints of the Most High”) shall be reigning. See, for example, the prophecies concerning this kingdom found in Dan. 2:34-35, 44; 7:13-14, 27. That the “kingdom of God” of which Christ so frequently spoke during his earthly ministry refers to the kingdom that will be given to him by God (and over which he will be reigning after he has returned to earth) is further evident from Matthew 16:28, 20:21 and 25:31 (cf. Luke 21:27-31). 

Now, the Greek word translated “eonian” in v. 30 is the adjective αἰώνιον (aiónion). It’s the same term that Paul used in I Timothy 1:16 and Titus 1:2. Although (as noted earlier) this term is typically translated “eternal” in most English Bibles, it is the adjectival form of the Greek noun αἰών (aión). The noun aión simply means “age” or “eon,” and denotes a relatively long but temporary measure of time of undefined/unspecified duration. We read, for example, of past eons (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 10:11; Ephesians 3:9; Col 1:26, Hebrews 9:26), of a present eon (Matthew 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8; Galatians 1:4), and of future eons that will follow the present eon (Mark 10:30; Matthew 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; Luke 18:30; Ephesians 1:21; 2:7; Jude 1:25). It’s also clear from what is said concerning the past eons that they are limited in number, for we read that there was a time before the eons began (1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). And given that we also read of the consummation of the eons (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26), it’s reasonable to conclude that the succession of eons revealed in Scripture has an end. Thus, just as time was not always measured by eons in the past, it’s evident that, at some point in the future, time will once again cease to be measured by eons.

As the adjectival form of the noun aión, the term aiónios should be understood to mean “lasting for (or belonging to) an eon, or eons.” See, for example, the definition of aiónios provided on the Perseus Greek Word Study Tool (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ai)w%2Fnios&la=greek). This being the case, the term aiónios would be better translated as “age-lasting” or “eonian” (as it is in the CLNT and other, more literal translations of scripture). And this means that the “life eonian” that Christ had in view in Luke 18:30 is life that will be enjoyed during the “coming eon” of Christ’s reign that is being referred to here (i.e., the age, or eon, that will commence when Christ returns to earth and begins to reign). Paul had this future eon in view in Eph. 1:21, when he wrote that God had seated Christ “…among the celestials, up over every sovereignty and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this eon, but also in that which is impending…”

Significantly, there are a number of contemporary, evangelical Christian scholars who’ve acknowledged that the expression translated as “life eonian” in Luke 18:30 and elsewhere (ζωὴν αἰώνιον, or zōēn aiónion) should be understood as denoting “the life of the age to come” (with the “age to come” being the age that will, at Christ’s return to earth, succeed the present age).[1] This is an important concession on the part of these Christian scholars. If they’re correct (or even close to being correct) concerning the meaning of the expression zōēn aiónion, then it would follow that the English words “eternal” and “everlasting” are not, in fact, accurate translations of the Greek adjective aiónios. The adjective “eternal” corresponds to the noun “eternity” rather than the nouns “age” or “eon” (and eternal or everlasting duration is not an idea that is inherent in the word “age” or “eon”).

Why, then, do so many Christian scholars still maintain that “eternal” is a valid translation of aiónios in Matthew 19:29 and elsewhere? Well, most Christians have simply assumed that the “coming eon” or “age to come” referred to by Christ in Luke 18:30 and elsewhere is a span of time that will be endless in duration. And because they assume that the coming eon will be “eternal” or “everlasting” in duration, they conclude that Christ was referring to a blessing that pertains to “eternity.” This assumption concerning the duration of the coming eon, however, is inconsistent with the facts. We know from other verses that there is more than one future eon that’s to come, and that Christ’s reign will not be limited to the coming eon that’s in view in Luke 18:30 and Eph. 1:21. Rather, Christ’s reign will continue beyond the next eon, and thus span more than one eon.

In support of this fact, let’s consider the words of the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:32-33. In the CLNT translation of these verses we read: “And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for the eons. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Most translations of this verse use the expression “forever” here. However, the Greek expression translated as “for the eons” in the above translation (“eis tous aiónas”) includes the plural form of the noun aión (aiónas) – hence the use of the plural “eons” in the CLNT. The plural form of the noun aión is also found in Ephesians 2:6-7, where Paul wrote that God “…rouses us together and seats us together among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Earlier we quoted Paul as referring the eon “which is impending” (Eph. 2:21). Here, however, we find Paul referring to “the oncoming eons.” It should also be noted that every other English translation that I’ve checked correctly translates the plural form of the noun aión as “ages” in Eph. 2:7. However, the majority of these translations inconsistently (and inaccurately) translate the plural form of aión as “forever” in Luke 1:33 and elsewhere. This inconsistency should raise a red flag for the reader. It suggests that, when it comes to certain terms that have far-reaching doctrinal implications, something other than a commitment to translational accuracy and consistency is guiding the translators of the more popular and “mainstream” Bibles.

Now, if another eon is going to succeed the eon that is to come (i.e., the eon which Christ referred to as “the coming eon” in Luke 18:30), then the commonly-held assumption among Christians that the “age to come” is going to be endless in duration is erroneous. An endless eon cannot be succeeded by yet another eon. Thus, the “coming eon” (or “age to come”) referred to by Christ in Luke 18:30 will – like the eons preceding it – have both a beginning and an end. And based on the fact that we read of the conclusion, or consummation, of the eons elsewhere (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26), we can reasonably infer that the final eon of Christ’s reign will also eventually end. This means that the “life eonian” referred to by Christ in Luke 18:30 does not refer to a state of affairs that will be occurring in “eternity.” Instead, the blessing that Christ had in view pertains specifically to the eon to come – i.e., the first eon of Christ’s reign over the kingdom of God.

“For he must be reigning until…”

In addition to being inferred from what we find revealed in Scripture concerning the eons, the truth that Christ’s reign will not continue endlessly is also clearly affirmed by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:22-28 (which, not coincidentally, is also a key passage in which we find the truth of universal salvation affirmed). In this remarkable prophecy, we read the following:

“For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation, whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power. For He must be reigning until He should be placing all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy is being abolished: death. For He subjects all under His feet. Now whenever He may be saying that all is subject, it is evident that it is outside of Him Who subjects all to Him. Now, whenever all may be subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him, that God may be All in all.”

According to what we read in this passage, there is coming a time (which Paul referred to as “the consummation” or “the end”) when the kingdom over which Christ shall be reigning “for the eons” is going to be given up to God. In other words, the kingdom that is in view in verse 24 will be under Christ’s authority only up to a certain point. When the kingdom is given up to the Father, it will cease to be Christ’s, and will belong solely to the One from whom Christ originally received it. It can also be reasonably inferred from this passage that, after the kingdom has been given up to God, the kingdom will then continue, without end, under the rule of God (hence we’re told in Luke 1:33 that “there shall be no end” of this kingdom). It’s further evident from verses 27-28 that, when the kingdom is finally given up to God, it will at this point be universal in scope. It will embrace not only the “all” which had previously been subjected to Christ, but also Christ himself (who, we’re told, will “be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him”).  

That the kingdom will not always be under Christ’s reign is further confirmed from verse 25, where we read that Christ is going to reign “until” he places all of his enemies under his feet (with the last enemy being death). The word translated “until” here (ach’ri) means, “to a given limit.” Paul’s use of this word not only confirms that Christ’s reign is temporary (which verse 24 also makes clear), but it reveals that the placing of Christ’s enemies under his feet is the goal of his reign. When this goal is reached, there will no longer be any need for Christ to continue reigning, and his reign will, consequently, end (hence the use of the word “until”). Since, according to Paul, death is “the last enemy” to be abolished by Christ during his reign, it follows that the end of Christ’s reign – referred to in v. 24 – comes after death has been abolished (which is to occur through the vivification of every last member of humanity). After the destruction of death, Christ then “gives up the kingdom to his God and Father,” thereby subjecting himself to God so that “God may be All in all.”

In light of everything said above, consider the following argument:

1. In Luke 18:30, the Greek adjective aiónios (“eonian”) does not refer to a span of time that goes beyond the eons during which Christ shall be reigning over the kingdom of God.
2. According to what is revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, Christ is not going to be reigning over the kingdom for an endless duration of time (his reign is only “until” a certain point, at which time he will give up the kingdom to his God and Father so that God may be “All in all”).
3. Thus, the span of time expressed by the term aiónios in Luke 18:30 cannot be endless in duration.

It should be emphasized that the argument above is logically valid; if all the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true as well. Thus, in order to avoid the conclusion, it must be shown that one of the premises is faulty. However, if the argument is sound (and I’m convinced that it is), then it follows that any translation of the term aiónios that conveys the idea of endless duration is inaccurate, and should be rejected in favor of a translation that is consistent with the truth of the limited duration of Christ’s reign over the kingdom of God (i.e., “eonian,” “age-abiding” or “age-lasting”).

So how is God the Savior “especially of believers?” Answer: We who believe are going to be saved by God before everyone else. We’re going to be vivified in Christ to enjoy life (immortality) during the future ages, or eons, of Christ’s reign (i.e., “the oncoming eons” referred to in Eph. 2:7). It is this that Christ and Paul had in mind when they referred to the salvation of believers as “life eonian.” But this earlier, special salvation of believers does not in any way diminish or subtract from the salvation that the rest of mankind is certain to receive from God at a later time (i.e., at the consummation of Christ’s reign, when death is abolished, all are subjected to Christ, and God becomes “All in all”). For an examination of more passages in which the truth of universal salvation is clearly affirmed by Paul, see the very first article I posted on my blog.

Some have mistakenly believed that the expression “life eonian” places a limit on how long believers will be alive in the future. However, that’s not at all the case. In the expression ”life eonian,” the term “eonian” simply puts the emphasis and focus on the fact that believers will get to live during the coming eons of Christ’s reign. It doesn’t imply that believers will cease to live after these eons have ended (for when the eons of Christ’s reign have ended, death will have been abolished, and all people will be immortal). Since the adjective aiónios pertains to one or more of the eons, it follows that anything that continues to exist or occur after the eons have ended will simply cease to be “eonian.” When time is no longer measured by eons, the adjective “eonian” will cease to be an accurate way to describe anything. For example, we know that God will always exist. However, when the eons through which God is operating and over which he is ruling have ended, he will cease to be the “eonian God” (Rom. 16:26) and the “king of the eons” (1 Tim. 1:17). The same can be said for the “life eonian” that will be enjoyed by believers. Our life will cease to be an “eonian” blessing after the eons of Christ’s reign have ended, but it will in no way be limited to these eons. Rather, our life (as with the kingdom after it has been given up to God) will continue beyond the eons of Christ’s reign, without end.

[1] See, for example, C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the First Gospel, pp. 144-50; George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 290-292; J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23; "Evangelical Annihilationism in Review," Reformation & Revival, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997; John Painter, 1, 2 and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), p. 195; Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.73-74; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. "Jesus Christ," The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 151; N.T. Wright, Romans, p. 530.

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