“For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:10).
In 1 Timothy 4, Paul is exhorting Timothy that sound doctrine and persistent godliness should be the thrust of our life because of the hope of the living God — in this age and the one to come. We should be confident in our creeds and ethics because of the certainty of salvation. Paul introduces verse 10 with the inferential indicator eis touto gar (For to this end), followed by the grounding conjunction hoti (because), which highlights his main point: “we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” His main point is corroborated by his use of the perfect tense ēlpikamen (we have our hope set), which marks out this action. Interestingly, the only other instance of a perfect tense in this immediate section is found in verse 6:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed (parēkolouthēkas)” (1 Tim 4:5—6).
This is an uncommon term in the New Testament, only used four times (Mark 16:17; Luke 1:3; 1 Tim 4:6; 2 Tim 3:10). In the context of following a belief or practice, this term means “paying special attention, follow faithfully.” In other words, for Paul, following sound doctrine is not about a static affirmation of creedal statements on paper — it is an active, conscious, engaged conforming. (Paul would not have anything to do with an ambiguous Church “Statement of Faith”!)
Back to verse 10. In the next statement, and our focus of this article, what is meant by, “who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe”?
Many modern believers read this with the assumption that Christ came to earth with the intention to die for every single individual who has ever lived; hence, “who is the Savior of all people.” But only those who believe will have his atonement applied to their sin; hence, “especially of those who believe.” Therefore, many modern readers, particularly Arminians, believe this verse undercuts any notion of particular redemption and election, which is affirmed in Reformed theology.
However, we should probe more than a prima facie reading of this verse and ask ourselves certain questions. Is there a theological connection between “the living God” and its qualifier “who is the Savior of all people”? What does “all people” mean here for Paul? Does it mean all people without exception or distinction? And most importantly, how can God be the Savior of those who do not believe? Or is there some other element that has escaped our notice?
A universalist reading should be ruled out since that would contradict Paul’s unambiguous teaching in his corpus that many will indeed perish eternally.
Next, the Arminian interpretation reads too much into the statement, “Savior of all people,” with two assumptions: (1) that the term “Savior” here must mean “possible Savior” and (2) it denotes “every single person.”
But if Christ died for all sins, then there is no legal basis for him to punish or condemn any sinner to perdition; thereby making the Arminian an inconsistent universalist. What basis is there to punish the same sin twice: on the cross and on the sinner. There is none.
In addition, the context here does not state what Paul means by “all people.” He could refer to every single person, or he could refer to all kinds of people. Earlier in this same epistle, in the similar context of salvation and all people, Paul makes it clear that he is referring to “all sorts of people,” not every single person who has ever lived on planet earth. (See my exegesis on 1 Timothy 2:4 here).
Some interpreters have suggested that God is “Savior of all people” in a physical-preserving sense — if you will, a “common grace Savior.” And then he is a spiritual Savior, especially of those who believe.
This is an unlikely interpretation since there is nothing in this context where Paul defines “Savior” in these two different ways. Further, v. 8b provides a soteriological context, “the present life and also for the life to come.” And in v. 10, the natural reading is that Paul uses the same meaning for “Savior” for humanity in general, and believers in particular.
The most plausible interpretation of this verse is what I call the Monotheistic-Exclusivism Interpretation. What Paul is saying is that God (and by extension Christ as Redeemer) is the only true Savior in the world, therefore humanity cannot find any other competing Savior outside of the living God. They have no other Savior to turn to.
It is not by mistake that the phrase “living God,” a term that suggests monotheism, is connected with this verse. This phrase is often found in the context of polytheism (e.g. Acts 14:15; 1 Thess 1:9; Josh 3:10; 1 Sam 17:26, 36; 2 Kgs 19:4). Since there is only one God who is alive, there is only one Savior for humanity to embrace.
Also, earlier in this same epistle Paul makes a similar exclusive statement that there is one medium of salvation for humanity: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Tim 2:5). Here Paul connects this with the truth of “one God” with only one mediator, anticipating what he says two chapters later.
In addition, this is similar to Jesus’ exclusive statement:
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
And in the same vein, Peter proclaims:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
For all humanity, there is only one way, truth, life, Father, name, mediator, and Savior — especially of those who believe.
Finally, I want to conclude with another interpretation that is compelling. The term for “especially” is malista. George W. Knight III argues that this term here should be rendered, “that is,” thereby functioning as an explanation or further clarification of the preceding statement. The translation would be as follows: “who is the Savior of all people, that is, of those who believe.” So this interpretation does not view “those who believe” as a subset of “all people”; instead, “those who believe” identifies who the “all people” are. He writes:
The phrase [malista pistōn, “especially of believers”] contains the one qualification that Paul and NT always posit for receiving God’s salvation, i.e., “trust” in God as the only Savior. Absolute [pistōn], as used here and elsewhere in the NT, refers to those who believe in Christ, i.e., Christian believers…[malista] has usually been rendered “especially” and regarded as in some way distinguishing that which follows it from that which goes before it. Skeat (“Especially the Parchments”) argues persuasively that [malista] in some cases (2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10, 11; and here) should be understood as providing a further definition or identification of that which precedes it and thus renders it by such words as “that is.” He cites several examples from papyrus letters that would seem to require this sense and that would in their particular cases rule out the otherwise legitimate alternative sense. If his proposal is correct here, which seems most likely, then the phrase [malista pistōn] should be rendered “that is, believers.” This understanding is also in line with Paul’s assertion that all sorts and conditions of people are in Christ (even at times using [pantes] ) and with his insistence in those contexts that all such are in Christ and have salvation by faith (cf., e.g., Gal. 3:26—28). NIGTC, The Pastoral Epistles, 203—4.