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John Calvin on 1 Timothy 2:4-6

September 16, 2007


1) Again, let us know that when the Gospel is preached unto us, it is to make us so much the more void of excuse. And why so? For the seeing that God had already showed us that he was ready to receive us to mercy, if we had come to him, our condemnation shall no doubt be increased, if we be so wicked as to draw back, when he calls so mildly and lovingly. Yet notwithstanding, (as we have here exhorted) let us not leave off, to pray for all men in general: For S. Paul shows us, that God will have all men be saved, that is to say all people & all nations. And therefore we must not settle ourselves in such sort upon the diversity which is seen amongst men, that we forget that God has made us all in his image and likeness, that we are his workmanship, that he may stretch forth his goodness over them which are at this day far from him, as we have a good proof of it. Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, Sermon 13, 2:3-5, p., 160.


1) Therefore Luke commendeth the rare efficacy and working of the Spirit of God, when he saith that these noblemen were no whit hindered by the dignity of the flesh, but that embracing the gospel, they prepared themselves to bear the cross, and preferred the reproach of Christ before the glory of the world. Secondly, Luke meant to make known the glory of the world. Secondly, Luke meant to make known unto us, that the grace of Christ stands open for all orders and degrees. In which sense Paul saith, that God would have all men saved, (1 Timothy 2:4;) lest he poor and those who are base do shut the gate against the rich, (though Christ did vouchsafe them the former place.) Therefore we see that noblemen, and those who are of the common sort, are gathered together, that those who are men of honor, and which are despised, grow together into one body of the Church, that all men, in general, may humble themselves, and extol the grace of God. Calvin, Acts 17:11.

2) Paul, however, does not say here, that there are none of the noble and mighty that have been called by God, but that there are few. He states the design of this—that the Lord might bring down the glory of the flesh, by preferring the contemptible before the great. God himself, however, by the mouth of David, exhorts kings to embrace Christ,  (Psalm 2:12,) and by the mouth of Paul, too, he declares, that he will have all men to be saved, and that his Christ is offered alike to small and great, alike to kings and their subjects, (1 Timothy 2:1-4.) He has himself furnished a token of this. Shepherds, in the first place, are called to Christ: then afterwards come philosophers: illiterate and despised fishermen hold the highest rank of honor; yet into their school there are received in process of time kings and their counselors, senators and orators. Calvin 1 Corinthians 1:26.

3) 4. “Who wishes that all men may be saved.” Here follows a confirmation of the second argument; and what is more reasonable than that all our prayers should be in conformity with this decree of God?

“And may come to the acknowledgment of the truth.” Lastly, he demonstrates that God has at heart the salvation of all, because he invites all to the acknowledgment of his truth. This belongs to that kind of argument in which the cause is: proved from the effect; for, if “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to every one that believeth,” (Romans 1:16,) it is certain that all those to whom the gospel is addressed are invited to the hope of eternal life. In short, as the calling is a proof of the secret election, so they whom God makes partakers of his gospel are admitted by him to possess salvation; because the gospel reveals to us the righteousness of God, which is a sure entrance into life. Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. “If God” say they, “wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition.” They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men; although even then we should not have wanted the means of replying to their argument; for, although the: will of God ought not to be judged from his secret decrees, when he reveals them to us by outward signs, yet it does not therefore follow that he has not determined with himself what he intends to do as to every individual man.

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations. That God wishes the doctrine of salvation to be enjoyed by them as well as others, is evident from the passages already quoted, and from other passages of a similar nature. Not without good reason was it said, “Now, kings, understand,” and again, in the same Psalm, “I will give thee the Gentiles for an inheritance, and the ends of the earth for a possession.” (Psalm 2:8-10.) In a word, Paul intended to shew that it is our duty to consider, not what kind of persons the princes at that time were, but what God wished them to be. Now the duty arising: out of that love which we owe to our neighbor is, to be solicitous and to do our endeavor for the salvation of all whom God includes in his calling, and to testify this by godly prayers. With the same view does he call God our Savior; for whence do we obtain salvation but from the undeserved kindness of God? Now the same God who has already made us partakers of salvation may sometime extend his grace to them also. He who hath already drawn us to him may draw them along with us. The Apostle takes for granted that God will do so, because it had been thus foretold by the predictions of the prophets, concerning all ranks and all nations. Calvin, 1 Timothy, 2:4.


1) Your hackneyed quotation from Paul, that God would have all men saved, I have, in my judgment, elsewhere sufficiently shown, lends no countenance to your error. For it is more certain than certainty itself, that Paul is not there speaking of individuals, but refers to orders and classes of employments. He had been enjoining prayers, in behalf of kings and other governors, and all who exercised the office of magistrate. But inasmuch as all who then bore the sword, were the professed enemies of the church, it might seem absurd that the church should pray for their salvation. To obviate the difficulty Paul extends the grace of God even to them. John Calvin, The Secret Providence of God, trans., by John Lillie (New York: Carter Brothers, 1840), 28-29.

2) The difficulty of another place (I Tim 2.4) is readily solved. Paul tells us that God wills all men to be saved, and also how He wills them to come to the knowledge of His truth. For he joins both together. Now I ask: Did the will of God remain the same from the beginning of the world? For if He willed that His truth be known to all, why did He not proclaim His law also to the Gentiles? Why did He confine the light of life within the narrow limits of Judaea? What does Moses mean when he says (Deut 4.8) : There is no nation which has statutes and laws by which to be ruled like this people, unless to praise the privilege of the race of Abraham? To this corresponds the enconium of David (Ps 147.20): He dealt so with no other people, nor manifested His judgments to them. Nor must we overlook the express reason: Because God loved the fathers, He chose their sons; not because they were more excellent, but because it seemed good to the Lord to choose them for His peculiar people (Deut 4.37, 7.8). What then? Did Paul not know that he was prohibited by the Spirit from preaching the word of Christ in Asia and from crossing over into Bithynia where he was proceeding? (Acts 16.6). But as a full treatment of this matter would be too prolix, I content myself with one word more. When He had lit the light of life for the Jews alone, God allowed the Gentiles to wander for many ages in darkness (Acts 14.16). Then this special gift was promised to the Church, that the Lord should rise upon it and His glory be conspicuous in it (Is 60.2). Now let Pighius asseverate that God wills all to be saved, when not even the external preaching of the doctrine, which is much inferior to the illumination of the Spirit is made common to all. That passage was long ago brought up by the Pelagians. What Augustine in many places replied, I refrain from stating at present, except one passage in which he shows clearly and briefly how unconcernedly he scorns the objection. When, he says,1 our Lord complains that, for all His willingness to gather the children of Jerusalem, they would not have it, was the will of God overpowered by weak men, so that the Almighty was unable to do what He willed? Where then will be that omnipotence by which He did whatsoever pleased Him in heaven and on earth? Who will be so impiously foolish as to say that God cannot convert to good the evil wills of men when and where and in whatever cases He will? But when He does so, He does it in mercy, and when not, in judgment. But the difficulty is, I admit, not yet solved. Yet I have extorted this from Pighius, that no one unless deprived of sense and judgment can believe that salvation is ordained in the secret counsel of God equally for all. For the rest, the meaning of Paul is quite simple and clear to anyone not bent on contention. He bids solemn prayers be made for kings and princes in authority. Because in that age there were so many dangerous enemies of the Church, to prevent despair from hindering application to prayer, Paul anticipates their difficulties, declaring that God wills all men to be saved. Who does not see that the reference is to orders of men rather than individual men? Nor indeed does the distinction lack substantial ground: what is meant is not individuals of nations but nations of individuals.2 At any rate, the context makes it clear that no other will of God is intended than that which appears in the external preaching of the Gospel. Thus Paul means that God wills the salvation of all whom He mercifully invites by preaching to Christ.3 John Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God, 108-109.


1Enchir. ad Laur., cap. 97 seq.
2The sentence is wanting in the French.
3French adds: If anyone retorts to the contrary, he must admit that God does not come to the end He desires or that all are saved without exception. To say that God wills what is in Himself, and at the same time leaves each man his freewill, is nonsense. For I ask once more why then He willed that the Gospel be preached from the beginning of the world to all nations. All amenable men will hold the exposition which I have given: God wills to make princes and magistrates participants of salvation as well as others.

[to be continued.]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. CalvinandCalvinism permalink*
    February 13, 2008 9:40 am

    I have updated this file. See the entries from his Tracts.

  2. CalvinandCalvinism permalink*
    February 13, 2008 9:43 am

    By way of note, the reader should be aware that the copy of Calvin’s Sermon on 1 Tim 2:4, found here, is an edited 19thC version of Calvin’s English facsimile sermon (now published by the Banner of Truth). This edited version is corrupted by interpolations not found in the original French. It should not be taken as a reliable source.

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