Who will have all men to be saved
(Sermon on I Tim. 2:4: "Who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth," in Conference Sermons, pp. 18-19)
There are two principles which must control the interpretation of the Scriptures. That is, when a passage admits of two interpretations, the choice between them is to be determined, first, by the analogy of Scripture. If one interpretation contradicts what the Bible elsewhere teaches and another accords with it, then we are bound to accept the latter. Or, secondly, the interpretation must be decided by established facts. That is, if one interpretation agrees with such facts and another contradicts them, then the former must be true.
This passage admits of two interpretations so far as the signification of the words are concerned. First, that God wills, in the sense of purposing or intending, the salvation of all men. This cannot be true, first, because it contradicts the Scriptures. The Scriptures teach 1st, that the purposes of God are immutable, and that they cannot fail of their accomplishment. 2d. That all men are not to be saved. It is clearly taught that multitudes of the human race have perished, are now perishing, and will hereafter perish. That God intends and purposes what he knows is not to happen, is a contradiction. It contradicts the very idea of God, and is an impossibility. Secondly, this interpretation contradicts admitted facts as well as the explicit statements of the Bible.
1. It is a fact that God does not give saving grace to all men. 2. It is a fact that he does not and never has brought all men to the knowledge of the truth. Multitudes of men are destitute of that knowledge, and ever have been. By truth it is clear the apostle means saving truth, the truth as revealed in the gospel, and not merely the truth as revealed by things that are made. This interpretation therefore cannot be correct.
The second interpretation is that God desires the salvation of all men. This means 1st, just what is said when the Scriptures declare that God is good; that he is merciful and gracious, and ready to forgive; that he is good to all, and his tender mercies over all his works. He is kind to the unthankful and to the evil. This goodness or benevolence of God is not only declared but revealed in his works, in his providence, and in the work of redemption. 2d. It means what is said in Ezek. 33:11, "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked," and in Ezek. 18:23, "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways and live?" Also Lam. 3:33, "For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men." It means what Christ taught in the parable of the prodigal son, and of the lost sheep and the lost piece of money; and is taught by his lament over Jerusalem.
All these passages teach that God delights in the happiness of his creatures, and that when he permits them to perish, or inflicts evil upon them, it is from some inexorable necessity; that is, because it would be unwise and wrong to do otherwise. His relation is that of a benevolent sovereign in punishing crime, or of a tender judge in passing sentence on offenders, or, what is the familiar representation of Scripture, that of a father who deals with his children with tenderness, yet with wisdom and according to the dictates of right.
This is the meaning of the passage. That it is the correct one is plain,
1. Because it is agreeable to the meaning of the word thelein. In innumerable cases it means to love, delight in, to regard with satisfaction as a thing desirable. "Sacrifice and offerings thou wouldst not," "neither hadst pleasure therein." "Ye cannot do the things that ye would." "For what I would, that do I not, but what I hate, that I do." "We would see a sign from thee." "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt." "If he delight in him" is ei thelei auton. 2. This passage thus interpreted teaches just what the Scriptures elsewhere teach of the goodness of God. 3. It does not contradict the Scriptures as the other does, or make God mutable or impotent. 4. It is accordant with all known facts. It agrees with the fact, that God is benevolent, as shown in his works, and yet that he permits many to perish.
This truth is of great importance, 1. Because all religion is founded on the knowledge of God and on the proper apprehensions of his character. We should err fatally if we conceived of God as malevolent.
2. The conviction that God is love, that he is a kind Father, is necessary to encourage sinners to repent. The prodigal hesitated because he doubted his father's love. It was his hope that encouraged him to return.
3. This truth is necessary to our confidence in God. It is the source of gratitude and love.
4. It is to be held fast to under all circumstances. We are to believe though so much sin and misery are allowed to prevail. We are not to resort to false solutions of this difficulty, to assume that God cannot prevent sin, or that he wills it as a means to happiness. He allows it because it seems good in his sight to do so, and this is the highest and the last solution of the problem of evil.