If God desires all people to be saved, why aren’t they?

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

What are we to make of this verse? God apparently desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. But we are aware that all people are not saved and do not come to the knowledge of the truth. So, what are we to make of this?

Here are some possible answers:

  1. God does not have the power to enact his will i.e. human will to reject him can defeat his divine will that they be saved
  2. God has two wills – a secret one and an expressed one – and this is simply speaking to God’s expressed desire but not his secret will
  3. God has a number of desires but they are ordered by priority, making this something that God wills, but ultimately lower priority than a higher commitment to which God holds

The Bible clearly rules out option 1. Nothing the Lord ultimately wills to happen fails to come about. No Christian wants to affirm the first option because it makes God out to be powerless and thus less than God.

The second option carries some rhetorical value, but ultimately fails on a number of grounds. Most significantly, the problem with appealing to God’s secret will is that it assumes we know, with clarity, what God’ secret will happens to be. If we know God’s secret will, it’s not a secret! Whilst we may well acknowledge there is a secret will of God, in that he has not revealed everything about his will, it remains secret because we specifically don’t know what it is. It is secret because it remains just that.

But this line of reasoning also fails on two other grounds. First, it assumes that there isn’t enough Biblical data to adduce the answer when others would argue that we have enough to go on. Second, it fails because it doesn’t do anything to address how, if God has competing wills, he meaningfully wills the thing that is superseded. If God wills that all men everywhere be saved, but they ultimately aren’t saved, in what way does he meaningfully will their salvation? This suggestion doesn’t take us anywhere close to an answer. That isn’t to say there isn’t one, but this answer doesn’t take us there.

This takes us to the third option. This is the view that I find most credible. God does, indeed, will that all people everywhere are saved but it is superseded by other priorities to which God holds. God’s commitment to his own glory supersedes his desire to see all people everywhere saved.

Perhaps an analogy would be helpful. I have a genuine and real desire to put large amounts of money into savings every month. However, I also have a genuine and real desire to feed my family. I have another real desire to see them clothed. I have another desire still that wants to ensure we have a home to live in. I can genuinely will all those things and I am in a position to make any of them happen. However, my commitment to any one of those things necessarily impacts my ability to do any of the others. The more money I put in savings, the less money I have for food and other necessities for my families. I have the power to make any of these decisions, and I can do any of them if I so wish, but the decisions I take necessarily impact what I can do in the other areas. And so, there must be a level of prioritisation in deciding what to do. What is my highest priority?

In a similar way, God has an ordered set of priorities. We can have some fun trying to guess what some of those happen to be, but the Bible leaves us in no doubt what his highest priority is. God’s highest commitment is to his own glory. It is also the case that in God’s glory lies our highest good too. The one who himself is goodness calls us to glorify him because, in so doing, our own good is served, So, God’s commitment to his own glory is not a self-serving highest priority but one that serves the good of his creatures.

As such, God does really, as the Bible clearly says, desire all people everywhere to be saved. And there can be no doubt that he has the power to achieve that very thing. But if it is the case that in saving all people everywhere his glory would be diminished, this would have a negative impact on his highest priority. God’s commitment to his own glory does not stop him wanting all people everywhere to be saved. All things being equal, he would maximise his glory and see all people saved because he wants all these things (and many others). But his commitment to a higher priority means that he prioritises the one thing over another.

If this is true, we can say that God desires all men to be saved. But we can also explain why all men everywhere are not saved. It isn’t that God doesn’t desire it and it isn’t that he can’t achieve it. It is that he has a higher commitment to something else. The Lord has determined that to save all people everywhere would impinge upon the maximal expression of his glory. If the world has been created and ordered to bring maximal glory to God, we can conclude that saving everyone – though on one level that may be desirable – would ultimately impinge on his higher priority. And to impinge on that higher priority would no doubt have other undesirable knock-on effects in the world.