Author Greg Koukl
Published on 01/29/2018

Does God Literally Desire All to Be Saved?

Greg unpacks the definition of “desire” in light of 1 Timothy 2:3–4.


Okay, so here’s a challenging question: Does God literally desire all to be saved? Now of course, the emphasis of that question, with the word “literally,” is on the “all,” but the operative word there is not “all.” The operative word is “desire,” okay? Because there are different ways that God could want something.

We read in 1 Timothy, for example, that God desires all men to be saved and so this is in Chapter 2, I believe. And so what are we to make of that when all are not saved, for one. And also, there are other questions about election that kind of enter into the discussion. So in some way, this is going to be, my answer is going to be influenced by my own theology on this, but it’s principally by way of removing a kind of challenge or objection to the concept of sovereign grace, whatever your own personal views happen to be on this. And I mentioned that the operative word is “desire,” so this is talking about the will of God.

It seems to me very clear in Scripture that God can have a will in two different senses. One sense, David says, and in other places in the Psalms, and other places in Scripture, that God does His will in Heaven and on Earth. Who can stand against His will? Who can oppose His will? So there’s a sense in which we all understand that when God desires to do something, and He puts His effort into doing it, it gets done. That’s God’s will. We might call that God’s sovereign will.

There are other times when God uses the word “will” in the text, or a writer does, and says, “it’s God’s will that,” and it’s clear that it’s not always done. 1 Thessalonians 4, for example, says, “And this is God’s will for your life,” okay, so for those who’ve been looking for God’s will, here it is, or at least part of it, “even your sanctification that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Okay? No duh. A lot of people don’t get this one nowadays, but it’s really clear—1 Thess. 4. It’s God’s will that we don’t sin sexually. Do people sin sexually? Yes. So there is a sense in which God’s will cannot be thwarted, and there is another sense of God’s will in which it can be thwarted. The first time God says, “I want this done, and I’m going to do it.” The second time God says, “I want this done, and you’re supposed to do it.” Alright? First can’t be thwarted, the second can.

So the question now is: How do we apply that concept to the issue of salvation? Does God want all to be saved? And according to 1 Timothy, the answer is “yes,” in one sense. Now, He doesn’t want all to be saved sovereignly, or else everyone would be saved. Common sense. He desires all to bend the knee and turn to Him. That’s what He wants. Now, this is not going to happen. It’s obvious, okay? So there is a sense, in a certain degree, morally, that God wants all to be saved. I think that’s the 1 Timothy sense. But then there’s another sense where God, at least according to some, exercises a sovereign will to rescue some and not others. And those that He sovereignly decides to rescue, which are called the elect, He does so.

Now, you don’t have to buy the theology, the Reformed Theology. The point I’m making here is if you do buy the Reformed Theology, you are not vulnerable to some kind of contradiction with regards to the question of all people being saved, okay? Because God could want all people to be saved in one sense but not want all people to be saved in another. And unless we have a distinction like that—God’s sovereign will and God’s moral will—then we have a contradiction in Scripture, and this is not good. No, God’s will is used, the notion of God’s will is used in two different ways and one in the sovereign sense and one in the moral sense, and I think both ways are used with regards to the question of people’s salvation.