That “All” Is Always Defined By Context
“ ‘All’ means ALL!”
This phrase is often heard from preachers who teach against the doctrine of Limited atonement (or, as I shall refer to it in the remainder of this post, Particular redemption). Particular redemption is the doctrine concerning Christ’s work on the Cross indicating that Jesus died to actually secure salvation, which is certainly applied to a particular people, in contradiction of the view of Unlimited atonement or General redemption, which indicates that Jesus died to make salvation possible for each and every person ever to live. Preachers who teach the unlimited or general view believe that their position is drawn from verses such as the following:
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (I Timothy 2:3-6 NASB)
This is where the statement at the beginning of this blogpost comes in. As soon as the Particular redemptionist begins explaining the context of the passage above, the Generalist protests that “ ‘all means ALL!” By this, we are supposed to understand that “all” must mean “each and every person ever to live.” But this is a huge concept to pack into a little word, and though most would easily accept the Generalist meaning for “all”– as the tradition of Unlimited atonement is, by far, the most prevalent in contemporary Christianity– we must question whether there is truly warrant for defining “all” in this way.
It is the assumption of the “ ‘all’ means ALL!” crowd that “all” is regularly defined according to Generalist usage. But if we observe how this word is actually employed in our day-to-day speech, we see that this is not the case. For if we hear an announcement at work that “all are to be present” at a certain meeting, it is unlikely that our boss expects every person who will ever live on the planet to attend. Likewise, if there is an announcement at church that “all are invited” to the wedding of one of the church members, then the bride’s parents would certainly be appalled if the entire world’s population from all time came to the reception.
You see, “all” is always defined by context. Both the audience to whom the term “all” is applied and the subject-matter of the phrase in which “all” is used are what give this word its meaning. It is only on rare occasions that the word “all” is used to mean, “each and every person ever to live,” and when “all” is used for this meaning, it is usually accompanied by qualifying phrases such as “absolutely” or “without exception,” lest this particular use of the word be misunderstood.
And the above observations on our normal use of the word “all” apply to the biblical use of the word as well– God has communicated to us in common language that we can understand. Like our everyday use of the word “all,” the biblical employment of this term is to be understood in the context it was given: To whom was the author speaking when he used the word? What subject-matter was being addressed to which the term was applied?
Again, there are rare occasions in which the word “all” is used in the Bible to indicate “each and every person ever to live,” but we know that the word carries this meaning in these cases by the context in which it is found. For example, we are taught in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “All” here carries the universal connotation. And how do we know this? Because of context. The Apostle here predicates his use of the word “all” upon a section of Scripture containing phrases such as:
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become useless; there is no one who does good, there is not even one. (Romans 3:10b-12 HCSB emphases added)
These phrases– “no one” and “not even one”– repeated for emphasis, qualify and contextualize the word “all” so that we know that this is truly to be applied to all people everywhere for all time.
But in other occurrences, the word “all” is defined by its context in such a way so as to preclude the universal sense of the word. As the Apostle writes in the same letter:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19 ESV emphases added)
When the passage above speaks of “justification and life for all men,” we cannot understand this to apply to every individual ever to walk the planet unless we abandon the Faith and become Universalists, denying what the Bible teaches about those who will be thrown into the lake of fire at the final judgment in passages such as Revelation 20:15 and 21:8. But we do not even need to go to any other book of the Bible in order to ascertain that “all” here does not mean “all people everywhere for all time without exception,” for the Apostle informs us in the same passage that the “all” men who are lead to “justification and life” are identified with the “many” who “will be made righteous.” So, as loud as someone may shout, “ ‘All’ means ALL!” we have at least one clear-cut passage in which Scripture certainly teaches us that “all” means “many.”
And so how are we to understand the use of the word “all” in that favorite passage of the General redemptionists, I Timothy 2:3-6, quoted above? As noted before, in thinking about this verse, we must note the following:
Context is key! The verses surrounding the above passage make it clear that Paul’s main thrust in writing these words was to break down racial and class distinctions that were prejudicing members of the early church against proclaiming the Gospel to everyone. So before the passage cited above, Paul makes mention of offering prayers for “all men” (I Tim. 2:1), specifically indicating “kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:2)- the same class of men from whom so few of the early Christians came (cf. I Cor. 1:26-27), and the same class of men who so often persecuted the early church (cf. James 2:6). And after the passage cited above Paul immediately explains that he was appointed as an apostle to the Gentiles (I Tim. 2:7). So the primary thrust of this passage is that God desires all kinds of men to be saved and that Christ died as a ransom for all kinds of men.
Christ died as a real ransom for all kinds of men. Not as a potential ransom for each and every individual who would ever walk the face of the earth, many of whom were already in Hell when Christ paid the ransom for His people. To impose a universal meaning on the word “all” in texts such as I Timothy 2:3-6, is to belittle the completed work of our Lord.