On Spurgeon’s Understanding of “All”

In the comment thread of a recent post, someone noted that none other than “the Prince of Preachers,” Charles H. Spurgeon, disagreed with my understanding of the text (I Timothy 2:3-6). I am glad that this was brought up. I have an intense admiration for Charles Spurgeon. I generally view his preaching as a model for doctrinal fidelity and evangelistic zeal. If the SBC had more preachers committed to preaching more like Spurgeon, then there wouldn’t be the “downgrade” we see in the Convention today.

But there are 3 notes I must make concerning Spurgeon’s comments on the text in view (comments he made in his sermon “Salvation by Knowing the Truth“):


1. Though we admire Spurgeon, we do not believe in an infallible Spurgeon. And it is plain from reading the text of his sermon that Spurgeon misunderstood the explanation of I Tim. 2:3-6 that I am advocating, the explanation that Spurgeon described as the “older Calvinistic” way of explaining the text. See, Spurgeon felt that the Calvinists before his time were trying to “explain away” the force of the word “all” in this passage, and thereby limit the number of people for whom God desires salvation. But Spurgeon only comes to this conclusion by looking at the word “all” from a perspective that was influenced by the General redemptionist or Arminian understanding of the word- (Spurgeon, in his “Defense of Calvinism” admitted that he was previously an Arminian)- in other words, if one takes the Generalist usage of the word “all” to make the word mean “each and every individual who has lived or will ever live on the planet,” then the Particular assertion that “all” means “all kinds of people” seems to limit the meaning of the text. But if one looks at the way the word “all” is used in I Tim. 2:3-4 from the perspective of the author, then it is understood that the intent of the word “all” is to expand our understanding of who God desires to save, though not in the way the Generalist, or Arminian, suspects. As our own Gene “the sharpest knife in the drawer” Bridges explained, pointing to more historical contextual information: “The text of 1 Timothy refers to Jewish myths and endless genealogies. These were the heresies of the Elkesaites, an offshoot of the Judaizers. We must therefore, understand the content of those myths in order to understand what Paul is saying. These myths were probably from the Midrash and anti-Gentile in tenor and were specifically designed to exclude some from salvation. They would form the basis of Jewish Gnosticism, which was designed to create a special class of persons who possessed the “gnosis.” Thus, to counter this, Paul’s usage focuses on the universal offer of the gospel, not to Jews only, not to a specific class of Jews, but to all classes of men, and all ethnicities.”

2. As Gene also pointed out, “In that sermon, Spurgeon is simply delineating the difference between the decretive and moral wills of God.” This is similar to how John Piper handles this text. In his sermon, Spurgeon raises the question, “If God be infinitely good and powerful, why does not his power carry out to the full all his beneficence?” He then asserts, “[God] has an infinite benevolence which, nevertheless, is not in all points worked out by his infinite omnipotence; and if anybody asked me why it is not, I cannot tell.” Piper goes further, actually answering the question Spurgeon raises as follows, “The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value [indicating that which God desires even more than the salvation of each and every person throughout history] is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29).” See, there are at least 2 ways in which we must understand God ‘willing’ something. There is the moral will of God, by which He reveals His holy character. We see this moral will expressed in His commands, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” and in historical instances such as Numbers 14, in which God expresses His desire to utterly annihilate the nation of Israel due to their sin. Now, it is obvious that God’s moral will is not always effectual in the sense that though God has the moral will that there is to be no murder, we still see murders every day on the news, and though God [in a very real sense] desired to decimate Israel totally, we see Israelis every day on the news as well. So we note that the world does not always work in strict accordance with God’s moral will. But God’s decretive will is different. By His decretive will, God actually structures the course of history according to His purposes (see Ephesians 1:11 and also Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:17, 25, 32, 35; Romans 9:18-19). When we speak of God’s decretive will, we say that whatsoever God wills- whether the Creation, the Flood, the coming of the Messiah from the line of David, His betrayal, the salvation of the elect, the Day of Judgment, or whatever else- these things, fully thought of in the mind of God before they occurred, did certainly or will certainly come to pass. Now, we all acknowledge the difference between God’s moral will and His decretive will in regards to the salvation of each and every individual human throughout history. God does not will that any should perish and yet He does not will Universalism to be true either. That is to say, God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. Texts such as Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:11 prove this point, and both Spurgeon and Piper understand 1 Timothy 2:4 to make this point as well- I simply disagree with their exegesis of this passage for the reasons that Gene and I have previously mentioned. According to His moral will, God is not pleased that people dishonor Him as Creator, defy Him as Sovereign, defile His name as Holy, disobey His commands as Lawgiver, distrust Him as Merciful, and disrespect Him as Redeemer. God’s moral will in this regard is summed up in His universal command of repentance (Acts 17:30). Yet it is obvious that not everyone repents, so there must be a reason that God allows His moral will to be defied. The question of why God allows His moral will to be defied is what both Particular and General redemptionists must answer- Particularists usually giving the Calvistic answer as described in the Piper quote above, and Generalists asserting that it was God’s desire to give everyone a potential atonement, which will only be realized according to some kind of exercise of the human will.

3. Which brings in my main point, namely, that Spurgeon does NOT use his exegesis of I Timothy 2:4 to argue for General redemption. Spurgeon was certainly a Particular redemptionist, having preached an entire sermon titled “Particular Redemption,” with his main text as Matthew 20:28. Based on his exegesis of this text, we can be certain that though Spurgeon may have disagreed with my understanding of I Timothy 2:4, he still would not take I Timothy 2:6- “[Christ] gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (ESV)- to mean that Jesus was a potential ransom for each and every individual ever to live. Spurgeon abhored any idea of a General redemption, or Universal atonement as he made clear in his “Defense of Calvinism.” So, regardless of any exegetical differences I may have with the Prince of Preachers over a particular Bible verse, the main point of my previous post still stands. God does not will for “all” to be saved in terms His decretive will- in the sense of having Jesus die as a potential ransom, or redemption, or atonement, for each person to ever live. This idea is not found in Spurgeon, and is certainly not found anywhere in Scripture. Instead, we praise God that Jesus died as a true ransom, redemption, and atonement for all of His many people- from every tongue, tribe and nation.

-Hallelujah.

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5 Comments on “On Spurgeon’s Understanding of “All””

  1. Gene Says:

    As I posted also, and it seemed to be ignored. This text is actually quite clear. To read “all without exception” into this text divorces it from the context. This text is written to refute the Elkeasites in the church. 1 Timothy refers to Jewish myths and endless genealogies. We must therefore, understand the content of those myths in order to understand what Paul is saying. These myths were probably from the Midrash and anti-Gentile in tenor and were specifically designed to exclude some from salvation. They would form the basis of Jewish Gnosticism, which was designed to create a special class of persons who possessed the “gnosis.” Thus, to counter this, Paul’s usage focuses on the universal offer of the gospel, not to Jews only, not to a specific class of Jews, but to all classes of men, and all ethnicities.

  2. Peter Says:

    I have no problem with this historical context. In fact, I acknowledge these facts when I wrote “as Gene explained” in one of my posts.
    However, the conclusion drawn from this historical context is NOT what is being debated–namely, the conclusion that Paul wants to point out that it is not for Jews only or certain kinds of Jews. That is obvious to both Calvinists and Non-Calvinists. However, the statement that this historical context is evidence for it to mean ALL KINDS OF MEN versus ALL MEN cannot be drawn from giving this historical context. It is a non-sequitur for the specificity that you desire.
    Another confusion is that you use this historical context to imply that Paul meant to say “some of all kinds”. If so, then what is the need to categorize this as a moral will of God? And what are the implications there?
    You interpretation then equals:
    “It is the moral will of God that some (not every) of all kinds of men be saved”
    I would think that the Calvinist would make such a statement as decretive rather than moral.
    We can bring this discussion back to the previous blog post where both our arguments are fully laid out.

    *this was not ignored, I mentioned this throughout in the posts I made in the previous blog*


  3. You misunderstand. My position is NOT that I Timothy 2:3-4 is indicative of God’s moral will in the salvation of each and every human being ever to walk the planet. Spurgeon and Piper DO hold this view concerning the text in question, but I disagree with their understanding of this particular passage for the reasons Gene and I have previously given. That God does have a moral will for each and every person ever thoughout history to be obedient to His will and come to repentance IS a Scriptural concept, but it is one that is taken from OTHER passages, such as Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:11.
    You are also still making the mistake of trying to make the conversation “ALL KINDS OF MEN versus ALL MEN,” implying that the Particularists are adding to the words of Scripture. Instead, we are understanding the meaning of the word “all” from the context in which it is given, whereas you are adding a concept not found in the Scripture by statically thinking of the word “all” in the Universalist sense. The conversation, then, is “ALL KINDS OF MEN versus ALL MEN UNIVERSALLY AND WITHOUT EXCEPTION.”
    And my interpretation of I Timothy 2:3-4 is NOT:
    “It is the moral will of God that some (not every) of all kinds of men be saved”
    Rather,
    “It is the DECRETIVE will of God that all kinds of men be saved.”
    Speaking of God’s moral will, I again affirm that it would be pleasing to God for every person to come to repentance in Him at the individual level, but because God is also pleased to fully manifest His glory in both the merciful salvation and the just damnation of sinners, He does not, in every instance, overide men’s sinful wills so that they come to see Him as desirable rather than repulsive. Not “all” men, in the Generalist sense, are treated as Paul on the road to Damascus.

  4. Peter Says:

    “You misunderstand. My position is NOT that I Timothy 2:3-4 is indicative of God’s moral will in the salvation of each and every human being ever to walk the planet.”

    Okay my mistake. Sorry for misinterpreting your position.

    “You are also still making the mistake of trying to make the conversation “ALL KINDS OF MEN versus ALL MEN,” implying that the Particularists are adding to the words of Scripture.”

    My focus was not on a mere argument adding in the words “KINDS”. I was representing your CONCLUSION with those four words. Just as I was representing my position by ALL MEN (as in “ALL STUDENTS”, “all students please report to the courtyard”). My point clearly focused on the analysis Gene made about using context and this passage’s context in particular. So really, I was making the conversation about the handling of context and the justification found in realizing our conclusions from that context.

    In any case, thanks for your clarification. And I am glad that you and Gene took the position that Spurgeon is not infallible and him saying something does not necessarily justify it because of who he is. Unlike other commentors who would rather manipulate Spurgeon’s position to be the conventional Calvinistic one, rooted in some need that all Calvinistic texts must be wholly in sync with each other in order to be perceived as fit as a “chinese puzzle” (as Spurgeon would say about individual theology).


  5. Peter,

    Perhaps Gene may wish to more fully engage this issue, but for right now I’ve written all I can concerning it.
    I just want to add that I greatly appreciate the tone of your last comment and I’m glad that though we seem to disagree on this issue rather sharply, that we can discuss it in a civil way (which is all-too-rare in the blogosphere).

    -Andrew


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