Over twenty years ago, my childhood pastor gave me a biography on William Carey by Timothy George. This book remains one of my favorites and I reread it every few years or so. I am both challenged and encouraged by Carey's life and witness. Carey is the celebrated father of modern missions. He became the first Baptist missionary to foreign fields, and spent about 40 years in India for the purpose of preaching the gospel and establishing the Christian church in a land that previously had no appreciable Christian witness.
It was not easy. Carey endured tremendous difficulties in planting the seed of the gospel in India. But these difficulties didn’t start in India – they started in England among the Baptists with whom he associated. At that time, the Baptists were mired in a hyper-calvinistic perspective that saw no need to take the gospel to other lands. They had become very sectarian and exclusivist. Carey struggled to reverse this attitude. His efforts culminated at the Northampton Baptist Association in 1792, at which Carey preached on Isaiah 54 from the text, “Enlarge the place of thy tent” (ver. 2) and exhorted the ministers gathered there to expect great things from God and then attempt great thing for God. The meeting was about to adjourn without anything being done for missions when Carey shouted to Andrew Fuller, “Is nothing to be done again, sir?” Moved by his passionate plea, the ministers decided to do something about it, and passed the following resolution:
“Resolved, that a plan be prepared against the next ministers’ meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathens.”
A little under a year later, Carey was on a boat for India.
What moved Carey to press through such insurmountable obstacles was an incredible burden for the lost in places unreached by the gospel. It is said that while still a cobbler-preacher in England, he made a map of the world and would weep over it as he pointed to the places of the earth without a gospel witness. You see, Carey had really entered into the spirit of Paul which he expresses in 1 Tim. 2:1-8. He really believed that God “will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and that the only way for this to happen was for such people to know the “one God, and [the] one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (ver. 4-6).
The exclusivism that Carey fought against was not unique to his day, however. It was already rampant in Paul’s day. That is what Paul is dealing with in this text: a theological sectarianism that led to excluding prayer for those outside their own group. To untangle such a wrong view of those outside the church, Paul encourages the believers to pray for all men to be saved, because this is God’s desire. The passage hinges on the use of the word “all”: we are to pray for all because God wills for all to be saved, a fact shown in Christ giving up his life a ransom for all. The universal scope of the gospel makes an exclusivist attitude impossible. We are to pray for all to be saved; we are to live in a way that hinders no one from believing the gospel, because God is bringing his salvation, his gospel, to all.
Paul’s words to Timothy need to be heard in every generation. We need to beware of becoming insipient exclusivists. There are a lot of ways for this to happen – it can happen theologically, so that like the English Baptists of the eighteenth century we don’t see the need to share the gospel to the lost, or it can happen just through selfishness and being introverted so that all we care about is ourselves. In that case, we exclude others, not because we mean to, but simply because we are so full of our own “needs” that we have no place in our heart for others.
We will never be a church which finds its heritage in Vintage Christianity unless with Paul we are able to grasp a vision for the gospel as belonging to all, so that we are praying for all, and praying for them that they might be saved. With Paul, we need to see the scope of Vintage Christianity. The gospel is for all, it is for the chief of sinners. We ought to pray that our church reflects that reality.
Praying for Salvation for Others – Not Softness for Ourselves (verses 1-2)
It’s important to see what this passage is about, and it’s not primarily about prayer. This is seen in that Paul drops all reference to prayer in verses 4-7, in which the point is the universal extent of the gospel and salvation. Prayer functions in verse 1-3 to emphasize this. Paul is not just saying that we should pray – he is saying that we should pray for all. In other words, it’s not prayer per se that is under consideration, but the extent of our prayers in the sense of those for whom we pray.
The fact that verses 1-3 are tied to verses 4-7 shows also what the content of these prayers should be: salvation for all people. If we are to pray for all because God wills for all to be saved and Christ died for all so that they might be saved, then it follows that our prayers are to be for the salvation of all. Paul himself is one of the best examples of this. In Romans 10:1, he writes, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.”
I think this is important because it helps us to see how verse 2 should be interpreted. Paul tells us that the reason we should offer prayers for all people is “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” Often, this is interpreted to mean – especially in light of the rulers mentioned at the beginning of verse 2 – that we should pray for them so that we as believers are left alone and not persecuted by the authorities.
However, there are two big problems with that interpretation. First, it doesn’t fit the context. The context is the universal extent of the gospel and salvation. It seems odd, doesn’t it, that Paul would say that we should pray for all (including our rulers) so that we might be comfortable, because God wills for all to be saved? Those two propositions just don’t fit together.
Second, it doesn’t fit with what Paul says elsewhere. In 2 Tim. 3:12, Paul says that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” The word for “godly” in this verse is eusebos; the word for “godliness” in 1 Tim. 2:2 is eusebeia – they carry the same meaning. Paul therefore cannot be saying we should pray so that we can practice our godliness without persecution, when he says later that godliness leads to persecution! In Acts 14:22, Paul exhorted the believers that “we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God.” No, Paul is not saying that the purpose of prayer is our comfort.
What then is the point of prayer? Let’s look at the words Paul uses here: the reason Paul wants them to pray for all is so that their lives will be characterized by four virtues: quietness, peace, godliness, and honesty. We normally tend to associate quiet and peace with our external circumstances; however, that is not what Paul is talking about here. Mounce, in his commentary on this verse, argues that the two words “quietness” and “peaceable” are to be understood “as denoting not silence of speech but quietness, calmness of demeanor, serenity.” In other words, the words are descriptions of the believer, not his/her external circumstances. The same can be said for “godliness” and “honesty [dignity].”
How does this relate to praying for all as its effect? I think Paul is probably thinking along these lines: if you believe that God intends the gospel for all and not just your own “group,” then you are much more likely to love the lost and pray for them and to live in a way that would not alienate the lost and drive them from the gospel – i.e. it would lead you to live a life characterized by quietness, peace, godliness, and dignity. In fact, Paul’s words to the Thessalonians confirm this. There, he writes that they should “study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without [i.e. may command the respect of those outside the church]” (4:11-12).
Paul expresses this sentiment elsewhere. In 2 Cor. 6, he expresses his desire that he should give “no offense in anything, that the ministry be not blamed” (v.3). The point is that he did not want the gospel to be hindered, and this required a lifestyle that would not put stumbling blocks in people’s way (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-22). That does not mean that such a life will not be characterized by troubles and trials (as the passage in 2 Corinthians shows!). The gospel is offensive to the lost, and you cannot change that. But if people are offended, we need to make sure that the gospel and not we are the reason.
The bottom line is this: Paul wants us to pray for all (including our leaders) so that they might be saved. We are to pray for the salvation of others, not softness for ourselves. So when I pray for the President and Congress and the Governor, and state representatives, and city counselors, I don’t just pray that they pass and enforce laws that will respect our religious freedom, but I pray especially that they might be saved and come to know Jesus Christ as Lord.
And I don’t stop there; I keep praying for my friends and co-workers and family members and all who are in my sphere of influence that God would use me to be a witness to them and that they might be saved. We need to pray for the lost; one of the reasons we are not more intentional when it comes to being a gospel witness in our daily life is because we don’t pray that way. If we were to pray daily for specific people that we know, I’m sure it would affect all our life. It would make us more careful to live the kind of life before the lost that Paul describes here.
Pray for the lost and don’t give up! You don’t know how your prayers will be answered, or how long it will be before God hears your prayer and acts. It is said that George Mueller prayed for decades for a friend to be saved and never saw the Lord answer his prayer. However, not long after Muller died, this man was saved. God heard his prayer. Remember Zacharias: when he was a young man, he must have prayed often that he and his wife could have a child. But the years went by and they remained childless and eventually this prayer was forgotten. Then one day, when Zacharias and his wife were old and “now well stricken in years” (Luke 1:7), an angel showed up and told him, “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and they wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son” (v.13). I don’t know how many years went by since Zacharias prayed that prayer, but God had not forgotten even though evidently Zacharias had given up hope. So don’t give up hope; remember to whom you pray. He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that you ask or think (Eph. 3:20).
Four Reasons We Should Pray for the Salvation of All (verses 2-7)
1. First, as we have already noted, we should pray for the salvation of all people and all whom we know, because the right perspective in prayer will lead to the appropriate behavior in life. Paul says that we are to pray for all “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (v.2). We need to constantly remind ourselves that our lives are a living gospel to the unbelievers who know us, and that if they read us in a way that diminishes the gospel, they might not be willing to listen to it because of us. Paul exhorts servants in his letter to Titus, to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Tit. 2:10). Make it attractive! That is what Paul is saying here. But you are probably not going to be thinking day to day of living in such a way as to make the gospel attractive to unbelievers if you are not praying for them day to day. So let’s pray for the lost so that our lives will fit the gospel better and make us better witnesses.
2. Second, Paul says that we should pray for all, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (v. 3-4). If there were no other reason to pray for all men, this alone would be sufficient. To pray for all pleases God, and the reason why it pleases God is because it is a reflection of his own desire for all to be saved.
Unfortunately, a false implication is often made from this passage. It is that the universal language of the passage implies that every human being will be saved. After all, if God wants them to be saved, will they not be? Scripture tells us over and over again; that what God wills shall be (Isa. 46:10). However, this cannot be what Paul means in this verse. In this very letter, Paul speaks of those who “fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (6:9) – language Paul reserves elsewhere for eternal destruction. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Paul describes in graphic language the “everlasting punishment” that awaits those who persecute God’s people and says in the next chapter that those who receive not the love of the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness will perish and be condemned (2:8-12). So Paul was not a universalist in that sense. He believed in hell, just as Jesus did.
What then do we do with the universal language, coupled with the fact of God’s will for all to be saved? As with any piece of literature, context is key. Remember that the false-teachers were probably Jewish (cf. 1:7). The sectarian spirit that had pervaded the false-teachers most likely arose from a Jewish rejection of Gentile believers in the church. Paul’s point here, I think, is to underline the fact that the gospel is not just for the Jew exclusively, but for Gentile as well. This is underlined in verse 7, where Paul draws attention to his role as “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.” God didn’t just send him to the Jews, he sent him to the Gentile. God wills for all to be saved in this sense – “all” in the sense of Jew and Gentile.
In other words, Paul is using the word “all” here in 2:4 in a sense similar to his use of “all” in 6:10, where he tells us that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Greed is most certainly not the root of every evil that has ever been perpetrated in human history. If Paul meant “all” in its most universal sense, this verse would not be true. However, it would be true that greed is the cause of every kind of evil. In the same way, I think Paul is using the word “all” in chapter 2 in the same way: he doesn’t intend us to understand him to say that God wills all without exception to be saved, but all without distinction. God has not promised to save every human being, but every kind of human being: he has promised to save some “out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Thus, if we take the universal language of Paul in this sense, it is neither contradictory to his sovereign will, nor to the reality of hell. All whom God wills to be saved shall be saved. But this “all” is not an all without exception; it is an all without distinction.
However, in the wake of such theological controversy, it is easy to fail to hear these words as we ought. God is not just interested in saving the kind of person you want to be saved. He saves all sorts of people, self-righteous Pharisees and adulterous women. He saves murderers like Paul, and fearful saints like Joseph. The point is, we need to be careful that we don’t “profile” those we think should be saved, and avoid everyone else. God wills for all to be saved, including the kind of person you think would not make a good candidate for heaven!
I mentioned George Mueller earlier. If you had known Mueller before he was a Christian, you would never have guessed he would be known as one of the greatest prayer-warriors this world has ever seen. John Piper describes the pre-conversion Mueller:
His father was an unbeliever and George grew up a liar and a thief, by his own testimony. His mother died when he was 14, and he records no impact that this loss had on him except that while she was dying he was roving the streets with his friends “half intoxicated.” He went on living a bawdy life, and then found himself in prison for stealing when he was 16 years old. His father paid to get him out, beat him, and took him to live in another town (Schoenbeck). . . . Finally his father sent him to the University of Halle to study divinity and prepare for the ministry because that would be a good living. Neither he nor George had any spiritual aspirations. Of the 900 divinity students in Halle, Mueller later estimated that maybe nine feared the Lord.
Nevertheless, when Mueller was 20, he was invited to a Bible study, and that evening a work of grace began to dawn in his soul. The rest is history! We pray for all because God is in the business of gathering his sheep from every corner of society and the world. And he will be successful.
3. Third, we ought to pray for all to be saved through Christ because he is the only way to heaven: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (v. 5-6). In 1:15, Paul tells us that Christ came to save the chief of sinners; here, he tells us how he has done so. He did it by becoming a ransom for men. Our sins are like a debt, and we are liable to pay it. However, none of us can. We can’t pay back the debt we owe and we are constantly racking up more debt on top of it. There is nothing for such miserable, moral thieves as us but eternal destruction. How can we be saved? Christ has done what we could not: he has discharged the debt by paying the dreadful price in our place.
There is no other way to be saved. That is why we pray for the lost to know Christ: “This is eternal life, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3). People cannot be saved apart from Christ, and as long as they remain apart from him they are exposed to eternal danger.
We pray for all because Christ died for all. Though Paul is not interested in particular redemption here, neither do his words contradict it. Paul is using the word “all” in the same way he has used it throughout this paragraph: “all without distinction.” Christ is the redeemer of God’s elect, yes; but his elect come from every people group in the earth. Christ is no racist; he has spilt his blood for people of all races. He is no tribal deity; he belongs to no one group, for he is the King of the earth.
4. Finally, we ought to pray for all, because the gospel is meant for all. Paul says that he was “ordained a preacher, and an apostle (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not); a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity” (v.7). The scope of Paul’s ministry was as universal as God’s intention to save and Christ’s ransom for all. He was not just sent to the Jew but to the Gentile. And Paul is in a sense passing the baton on to Timothy, and from Timothy to us. We cannot say we are the heirs of the apostles if we tie the gospel up and hide it and sit on it instead of letting it shine in our words and works.
Do we really have a burden for the lost? How can we say we are like Christ if we do not? He went to the cross for lost people like you can me. He prayed for their forgiveness; we ought to do the same. This passage is meant to make us into people who pray not for themselves only but for the lost as well, and to pray for them that they might be saved. If you are not daily praying for the lost around you, then I challenge you to start doing it today. There is nothing more Christ-like than to pray for the lost!
Finally, if you are lost, hear this text! You need a mediator between you and God; Christ is that mediator. He is man, and he is God. He is the ransom in the place of all who believe on him. Those who do so will have all their debt cancelled. Believe on Christ; commit your life to him as your Lord and Savior. My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that you might be saved.