In relation to the “extent of the atonement” (that is, the question of those for whom Christ died), Simon asked what I make of 1Timothy 4:10 —
For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.
First, let’s consider what this verse cannot and does not mean. It does not mean that “all people” will be saved by the living Saviour. Tragically, there will be millions who suffer eternal separation from God’s love (Matt.25:46). But there will not be a single person in hell for whom Christ died. This much is clear from many places in the Bible that speak of the extent of Christ’s atoning work, but not least from the Gospel of John. For example,
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37)
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:39-40)
There will be none in hell for whom Christ died.
So what do we make of 1Tim.4:10?
The Greek word translated “Saviour” is σωτὴρ (sôtèr). (It’s the root of our theological word, “soteriology,” the doctrine of salvation.) However, in this place Paul is using it in its general sense of “one who defends and preserves” (Calvin). One of the titles assumed by Roman Emperors was “Soter,” and it’s possible that here Paul was having dig at the cult of Emperor-worship. As Calvin comments, “He means that the kindness of God extends to all men. And if there is no man who does not feel the goodness of God towards him, and who is not a partaker of it, how much more shall it be experienced by the godly, who hope in him? Will he not take peculiar care in them? Will he not more freely pour out his bounty on them? In a word, will he not, in every respect, keep them safe to the end?” (Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (p. 112). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)
Note that Paul does not call Christ, “Saviour” here: he ascribes this title to God. And who can deny that God does good to all people? See Psa.145:9; Matt.5:45-46. And see Paul’s use of this concept in his conversation with the Athenian philosophers:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28)
God’s goodness as “Saviour” of all people leaves every one of us without excuse (Romans 1).
Those “who believe” should especially be thankful for God’s providential goodness to all mankind since it makes the world ‘liveable,’ and creates the environment where we may proclaim that Jesus is Lord. And how much more should believers celebrate God’s goodness revealed in the gospel!