Our readers will recall that one of our Canadian readers sent in a series of questions, of which we have thus far answered only the first. We are now up to the second question, which was put as follows: “In view of I Tim. 4:10, can we not say that there is common grace, or a favor from God for all men, believer and unbeliever alike?”
First of all, let us get the text before us: “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.”
Perhaps we should point out immediately that the Dutch rendering is slightly different: “Want hiertoe arbeiden wij ook en worden gesmaad, omdat wij gehoopt hebben op den levenden God, die een Behouder is aller menschen, maar allermeest der geloovigen.” The chief differences are: 1) The wordBehouder (Preserver) instead of Savior. 2) The insertion of the word maar (but) in the last clause: “but especially of those that believe.”
This difference in translation also serves to focus our attention on the various possibilities as far as the meaning of the text is concerned.
Among those who choose the translation “Preserver” there are two groups of interpreters. One group simply refers the text to the preservation of God’s providence. In this present time and this present life God preserves all men. He upholds them, keeps them in existence, provides for them with respect to the things of this present life and with respect to all their earthly way, day by day and step by step. He does this by His almighty and omnipresent power. But, so the explanation runs, God cares for His children in a special sense. He protects them and delivers them out of trouble and provides for them in all their needs, also as far as the things of this present earthly life are concerned, in a special sense of the word. In this sense, God is “a Preserver of all men, but specially of them that believe.” There is another group of interpreters who explain the first part of the text (God is a Preserver of all men) to the general preserving power of God’s providence, and then explain the last part as referring to the grace whereby God preserves His people in Christ Jesus unto everlasting salvation, so that they persevere unto the end. In other words, the last part of the text refers to preservation and perseverance as the Canons of Dordrecht speak of it in Chapter V.
As far as either of these interpretations is concerned, we may point out that they do not lend support to the theory of common grace, that is, to the idea of an attitude of favor on the part of God toward mankind in general, including the reprobate. The mere fact that God providentially upholds and preserves men in this present, earthly existence is not grace. To be sure, when God preserves men, He displays His own goodness, also before the eyes of the ungodly. His work is always good; and He always makes Himself known in all His works as the good God. There is no question about that! But when you talk about “grace,” you are talking about the attitude of God, about His will to bless, to show favor. And then we must remember that there is no such thing as bare providence, a naked power to uphold and preserve and govern. The motive of God’s providence is either love or hatred; the operation of God’s providence is either in grace or in wrath. When God providentially preserves the ungodly, gives him earthly existence, gives him a house, gives him food and drink, even gives him prosperity and wealth and abundance, then it always remains true that “The curse of Jehovah is in the house of the wicked,”Prov. 3:33. And when God providentially preserves the righteous in the same sense, then it always remains true that “He blesseth the habitation of the just.” His grace is never common.
However, for various reasons neither of the above interpretations appears to me to be the idea of the text. In the fast place, the text uses the usual word here for “Savior.” And while it is possible to use the term as above, there ought to be good reason for such an interpretation—good reason which I believe is lacking. For one thing, the term “Savior” is not used elsewhere in I Timothy in the sense of “Preserver.” For another, the context seems to me to point to the fact that the apostle has in mind salvation. Notice that in verse 6 the apostle speaks of being “a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine.” Notice, too, that in verse 8 he speaks of “godliness” as having “promise of life that now is, and of that which is to come.” It would be very strange, I believe: if in such a context the apostle would use the word “Savior” (Soter) in the general sense of God’s providence. In the second place, the word “but” must really be inserted in the text by these interpretations in larder to make a contrast between God’s preserving of men in general and His preserving of believers. And, in the third place, I do not believe that under these interpretations the text furnishes a sufficient reason why the apostle and others “both labour and suffer reproach.” About this last point later.
Hence, we prefer the English translation: “who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.”
But this must not be misinterpreted, then, in the Semi-Pelagian and Arminian sense, as though the text teaches that God, is the Savior of all men, head for head, but that this is realized only in believers. This is a very common perversion of the text. And I say intentionally “perversion.” I refuse to call this aninterpretation. And there is one very obvious reason why the above cannot possibly be true. One does not have to go outside of the text itself to see this. If God is said to be the Savior of all men, head for head and soul for soul, but only the believers are actually saved, then it is perfectly obvious that the text lies: for if only believers are I actually saved (and they are), then God is only the Savior of them, not of all men. One can change the text and say: God is the possible Savior of all men, or, God is willing to be the Savior of all men. But this is not what the text states. And you must come to the conclusion that God is not the Savior of anyone: even for believers, then, He is only a possible Savior; and it is up to them whether they want to be saved or do not want to be saved. I say again: this is a perversion of Scripture, and no Reformed man will ever accept this view. Nor is it anywhere supported in our Reformed creeds; in fact, it is pointedly contradicted by the creeds.
How, then, must we understand the text? Let me briefly draw the following lines.
In the first place, God is the Savior, the One Whosaves. To save means to deliver from the greatest misery (sin, death, damnation) and to make partaker of the greatest possible glory and blessedness. It implies that we are dead in trespasses and sins, that we are lost in ourselves, that we are hopelessly guilty, that we are chained by nature in the bondage of sin and corruption—incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil. But God is the Savior! He saves! He provides the atonement for all our sins, and thus provides the right to be delivered from the bondage of sin, the right to be called sons of God, the right to eternal glory—all through the perfect righteousness of Christ His Son. And He also actually delivers us, by irresistible grace, by His Spirit and Word, regenerating, calling, bestowing faith, justifying, sanctifying, preserving, and glorifying us. And all this He does sovereignly and for reasons which He has taken out of Himself! His work of salvation is grounded in and proceeds from the fountain of eternal and sovereign election.
Notice: God is the Savior. Not: He wants to be. Not: He offers to be. Not: He is partly the Savior. But: He is. He actually saves! And He saves to the uttermost! As such He has revealed Himself in our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the second place, it is the “living God” Who is the Savior. The text makes a point of this: “. . . we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men. . .” God is the living God. He is the life in Himself. He is the source of all life, and He is the only source of life. As such He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ our Lord, “the way, the truth, and the life.” It is this living God Who is the Savior. He is able to bestow life on dead sinners; and He does indeed bestow life upon dead sinners when He saves them. When He does so, then they become partakers of His life, become godly, and have “promise of life.” (vs. 8)
In the third place, the living God is the Savior of all men, according to the text. We have already shown that this cannot mean every individual man. This is simply not true; and thus to misinterpret the text would require that we change God from Savior to would-be Savior. God does not save all men, head for head, nor is He their Savior. He is the Savior of His people, and of them alone. But He is indeed the Savior of all kinds, or classes, of men. He is the Savior of rich and poor, bound and free, male and female, kings and subjects, masters and servants, Jews and Gentiles. But from among all kinds and classes of men, He is specifically the Savior of believers. And this is the teaching of the text. Paraphrased, the text then is as follows: “. . . Who is the Savior of all (kinds of) men, more closely specified, (or: namely) of believers from among all (kinds of) men.” Thus understood, the text is in harmony with the current teaching of Scripture concerning particular salvation. Thus understood, the text presents a thought which is familiar in this epistle to Timothy (cf. I Tim. 2:1-4). And thus understood, the text indeed maintains that God is the Savior, Who actually does save His people.
Finally, if we understand the text in this way, we can also understand why the apostle connects this with the fact that “we both labour and suffer reproach,” and connects it as a reason, “therefore.” Why does he labor—and who labored as the apostle Paul did in the cause of the gospel? Why does he suffer reproach—and who suffered more than he in the cause of the gospel? Why did the apostle (and his fellows) not simply give up, rather than labor strenuously and suffer reproach? The answer is: our labor is never in vain in the Lord! We trust not in a dead God, not in one whose work is doubtful, not in one of whom we must stand in doubt whether he can save anyone. No, we trust in the living God! And the living God is the Savior. Moreover, He is the Savior of all men, that is, of believers from among all kinds of men. God surely saves His own! Nothing can hinder that! And therefore we labor confidently, not hopelessly. We labor and suffer reproach in the confidence that God will surely grant fruit upon that labor.
(Note: My Canadian questioner has more questions; but these must wait until the next issue. HCH)