|Do the words ‘we’ and ‘all’ indicate the whole of humanity?
I AM REVEALED
Mar 14 2011
The Christian who embraces universal atonement fully recognizes that the word ‘all’ is used in a relative sense on more
than one occasion. We read, for example, that ‘all’ Jerusalem was troubled by the arrival in the city of the wise men from
the east. Again, in John 4, the Samaritan woman is said to have declared that Jesus told her ‘everything’ she had done.
It is argued, however, that in the case of many statements in Scripture, the context clearly and unequivocally shows that
the word ’all’ is used in an absolute sense. The main passages in question are as follows:
Ezekiel declares that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Rather he is pleased when they turn from their
wicked ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23-32; 33:11). Again, I Timothy 2:4 states that God wants 'all' men to be saved and to
come to the knowledge of the truth. Does that not indicate that Christ was offered for them all? After all, there is no
other possible way for them to be saved.
John the Baptist testified concerning Christ 'that all through him might believe' (John 1:7). This is because 'God is
longsuffering towards us [mankind], not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance' (II Peter 3:
Our Saviour, when speaking of his death, made the same positive statement about himself when he said, 'And I, if I am
lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself' (John 12:32).
The apostle Paul was apparently referring to these words of Christ when he wrote to Timothy declaring that the living
God is 'the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe' (I Timothy 4:10). He similarly seems to have had these
words in mind when he told Titus, 'When the kindness and the love of God our Saviour towards man appeared...he
saved us' (Titus 3:4-5).
In Romans 5:18, in the course of his argument, Paul asserts that 'through one man's righteous act the free gift came to
all men'. Hebrews 2:9 likewise declares that Christ '[suffered] death, [so] that by the grace of God, [he] might taste
death for everyone'. Through his death, it is argued, he redeemed those who were under the law, which in effect means
all of us (Galatians 4:5). So, through the cross of Christ, the Father was pleased 'to reconcile all things to himself'
(Colossians 1:20), once again affirming that 'the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost' (Luke 19:
Now, concludes the person who believes in a universal atonement, it would be impossible to find words to express more
clearly and positively the fact that Jesus was delivered to death not just for the elect, but in an absolute sense
for all the children of Adam.
In reply, I will set against this conclusion my exposition of the above passages quoted by my friend, and ask him to pay
close attention to what the texts actually say.
What the texts do not say
While Ezekiel 18:23-32 and 33:11 declare that God takes no pleasure in making his anger known to the wicked, these
verses do not say that God, in his justice, does not chastise the sinner who merits it.
Similarly, I Timothy 2:4 does not say God in no way desires to see any person excluded from heaven, nor that
consequently hell has no real existence. In fact it is the will of God that certain people, such as Cain and Pharaoh, for
example, should remain in their sin.
In the same way John 1:7 does not state that John the Baptist was sent to every individual human being in order that
every one of them without exception might believe in his testimony. In reality, when compared with the vast numbers of
people who constitute the whole of humanity, it is clear that only a very limited number heard his witness to Christ.
Second Peter 3:9 does not say that God is patient towards humanity; rather it is towards those he terms 'us', which, as
we shall see later, gives a totally different meaning to the statement.
Neither does John 12:32 declare that in an absolute sense every human being has been, or is now being, drawn by the
crucified Saviour to himself. That is not what the verse says. In reality, no one can believe in Jesus without first having
heard of him (Romans 10:14). Yet multitudes have never even heard that God sent his Son from heaven.
Moreover, I Timothy 4:10 does not state that God saves some people up to a certain point (he is the Saviour of 'all
men'), while the salvation obtained by others ('those who believe') is somehow more complete. The word Saviour,
especially when used of God, cannot possibly carry the idea of incompletion or degree of salvation.
Titus 3:4 does not say that God, in his love and kindness towards mankind, saved 'them'. The text in fact states
something quite different, that he saved 'us'.
Nor does Romans 5:18 tell us that in giving us his Son Jesus, God justified, or is in process of justifying, 'all' the children
of Adam. Clearly large numbers of souls have never been justified.
Hebrews 2:9 most certainly does not say that Christ suffered for everyone in the world. The text states that it was 'by the
grace of God' that he tasted death for everyone. Now that grace was not given to all. Similarly, all who were under the
law (Galatians 4:5) were not all mankind in an absolute sense, for it is stated that the Gentiles were not so (Romans 2:
14). Besides, Colossians 1:20 does not say that the Father reconciled to himself all things without exception. The fallen
angels have not been reconciled, nor has the whole of humanity, as the case of Judas Iscariot and that of all those who
were destroyed by the Flood, clearly show.
Finally Luke 19:10 does not say that the Saviour came to seek everyone who was lost - that is, all humanity.
What the texts do say
Let us see what the various passages we have referred to do in fact say, and what truths they declare.
Ezekiel 18:23-32 and 33:11 state that a man's righteous behaviour shelters him from manifestations of divine judgement
while he is upon the earth. (Ezekiel calls them 'the righteousness which he has done'.) Far from the Lord inflicting such
judgements on sinners out of sheer personal pleasure, Ezekiel declares quite the contrary, that if the wicked turns from
his sin and changes his behaviour, he will escape such judgements. On the other hand, if the righteous man (as judged
by human standards of behaviour) ceases to walk uprightly , and turns from his righteousness, then he will be chastised
for his sins. These verses clearly state that whoever commits evil will bear its penalty. But this divine punishment is
experienced not because God is cruel, but because of his inflexible justice. It is exactly as Paul writes to the Romans,
that through the 'righteous judgement of God', every sinner, whoever he be, is storing up for himself wrath when God's
righteous judgment is revealed from heaven (Romans 2:1-8).
In I Timothy 2:4 Paul answers the question, 'Is there more than one God, and more than one mediator between God
and man?' (verse 5). 'There is one only,' the apostle replies, 'the God of Jew and Greek alike (Compare Romans 3:28-
29), who has appointed one Mediator between him and the whole human race. There is no category of man excluded
from this mediation. That is why I, Paul, was appointed to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. I was not sent to the Jews
alone, as if salvation was only for them. There are two things, then, that I long to see. Firstly, I want to see the church
praying for all sorts of people, including Gentiles who have been put in positions of authority over us. Then I want to see
people everywhere (in Rome, Corinth, and Samaria as much as in Jerusalem), irrespective of their nationality, lifting up
holy hands in prayer to God, hands, that is, that reflect hearts purified by faith. That is what God commands. His desire
is that all men, from every nation, tongue or tribe, should through the gospel come to know and to possess salvation in
To take this passage otherwise fails to explain why the apostle Paul points to Christ as witness of the fact that he was
appointed to be preacher, apostle and teacher of the Gentiles. Furthermore, it makes a nonsense of what he says. If
when Paul speaks of the 'all' whom God wants to save we take that to mean every single one of them, then, when he
speaks of men everywhere praying, we must logically understand him to mean in every single place, which would be
While John 1:7 records that John the Baptist was sent solely to minister at the heart of the Jewish nation, his ministry was
addressed to every member of that race without distinction. As a man, and particularly as one separated from the sinful
cravings of his contemporary world, he belonged to the whole of that society in which his ministry was exercised. More
than that, John was above all the precursor of the One who would come to dispel the dim shadows of the law by bringing
salvation not just to the Jews, but to the whole world. John therefore did not specially single out the Scribes and
Pharisees, but addressed all men without exception. In the desert he preached to crowds of people from all sections of
society, including even Roman soldiers. He spoke to all men without distinction, so that all, great or small, might through
him come to believe in Christ.
Second Peter 3:9 reads, '[God is] not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.' What ever
do we make an inspired apostle say if we quote him as if he said that 'God is patient with us, every human being, not
only unwilling to see anyone perish, but rather wanting everyone to come to repentance'? To understand the verse in
this way makes the will of God subordinate to man's will. This is so, for while God did not want a certain sinner to perish,
that sinner having himself chosen the path that leads to destruction, destruction is what results. In addition, God is
unable to do what he said he would. In reality, far from being patient towards men (and particularly towards evil men
who especially need such patience), 'God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly they shall be wounded' (Psalm 64:
How does this misunderstanding arise? It is caused by thoughtlessly applying the word 'we' in Scripture to the whole of
humanity rather than limiting it to the church when the context requires it. Such an imprudent and rash approach
understands the men of God, prophets and apostles, as having unbelieving men of the world in mind rather than us,
their fellow Christians, when they declare, for example, 'All we like sheep have gone astray... and the LORD has laid on
him [the Saviour] the iniquity of us all' (Isaiah 53:6), or, 'Christ has entered...into heaven itself, now to appear in the
presence of God for us!' (Hebrews 9:24).
When they read II Peter 3:9 Christians who hold to universal atonement disregard the fact that the apostle Peter is
addressing the church in his letter - that is, his fellow Christians. They fail to see that what the apostle is really saying to
them is 'God is patient towards all his children, not wanting any of them to perish, but every one of them to come to
repentance.' He is expressly addressing 'those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of
our God and Saviour Jesus Christ (1:1). He calls them 'beloved' (3:8), and tells them that God, who wants all of us to
come to repentance and to receive eternal life (compare I John 2:25), awaits us. My friends must surely recognize that
they have been mistaken in their understanding of this text.
In John 12:32 Jesus declares that by the cross he will draw all men to himself. He thus gives his support to all the
societies which distribute the Bible around the world, missionary societies, religious tract associations, prayer fellowships
and the like. He declares that the gospel message can and must be heard by every family of mankind. Until then, the
good news had been heard only in Israel, and even then in a way that was far from clear. This prophecy and most
wonderful promise of Christ has been fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled right up to the present time. In our day [that
is, the nineteenth century] we are seeing regions of the world opening to the gospel, and through the labours of Christ's
disciples and missionary societies, the Lord is breaking down gates of bronze and cutting through bars of iron erected
by the enemy (Psalm 107:16). If Jesus was promising that by the cross he would draw every son of Adam to himself,
and that clearly has not come to pass, then his promise was empty and his work futile. But how can we fail to see that,
far from this being the case, his promise when properly understood was firm and true? Can we point to a single country
in the world where the voice of his messengers has not been heard or is not about to be heard? Is there a far-flung
corner of the earth that has not been claimed by the Anointed of the Lord, the Eternal Son of God, as his inherited
possession? (Psalm 2:8).
First Timothy 4:10 should not be understood as stating that 'the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe' is
the Saviour of every single individual. In that case there is not one soul in all of humanity deprived of salvation. The
fact is that this passage states something quite different. Let us listen attentively and without prejudice to what it actually
The apostle Paul is here warning young Timothy, a servant of the gospel, against the beguiling seductiveness of
superstitious asceticism. He is putting him on his guard against the lure of a religious devotion composed of debilitating
observances and practices such as fasts, abstinences, maceration of the body and many other similar austere
practices. These, he insists, are nothing but godless myths and old wives' tales, acts of mortification which are vain and
devoid of any true value. They represent a piety which is both false and carnal, which fails to take into account the fact
that God is the 'Saviour' (or preserver) of all men. On all, without exception, he causes the sun to shine and the rain to
fall, testifying to the nations by wisely dispensing the seasons, providing food and filling their hearts with joy (Matthew 5:
45; Acts 14:17).
If God does all that for the wicked and the unjust, continues Paul, how much more will he do it for his own dear children
whom he protects and cares for as the apple of his eye! 'What right have you, O Timothy, to forbid the enjoyment of
such blessings? What true godliness is served by prohibiting the blessings and joys that God in his goodness provides,
both to sustain the body and to sanctify the soul? That is how we apostles view these things. We, of course, encounter
many difficulties, and suffer many privations and distresses. Physically we are often exhausted by overwork and
hunger. But in such extreme circumstances we cast ourselves with confidence upon our God. His eye is upon us, he
sustains us, knows all our needs, and will keep us alive so long as that is to his own great glory.'
Titus 3:4 also speaks of 'the kindness and the love of God our Saviour towards man' - that is, for mankind, for the whole
world and no longer just for the people of Israel. However, here the kindness of God bears a spiritual and heavenly
meaning . It highlights God's goodness in the salvation of his church. According to this passage, once God had put an
end to his rejection of the gentiles and had begun to demonstrate his compassion towards all the peoples of the world
without distinction, he grants salvation to his children, to those who are in Christ, without any consideration of their
merits, but solely according to his pure free grace towards them. And it is to us (and not to them!), says the apostle,
that our God has granted this eternal grace. His mercy addressed those who were forsaken with gracious words of
entreaty, 'Here I am! Here I am!' Those who had never before heard the call of God now heard it. Thus light from
heaven has begun to shine upon the whole earth, so that the goodness of God might open our eyes, the eyes of those
whom he 'chose...in [Christ] before the foundation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4), whom God 'separated from [our]
mother's womb and called [us] through his grace' to newness of life (Galatians 1:15-16). In this passage as in those
above, we find no trace of a bogus salvation, of men who are 'saved' and yet do not effectively possess eternal
salvation. The salvation of which Paul speaks is effectual and real.
Romans 5:18 states the same great truth. It declares that just as by the Fall of one man (Adam) all men without
exception were brought under condemnation, so also by the one act of righteousness of the second Adam (Christ) all
are justified. Now this passage like the others we have looked at does not state something which in reality does not
come to pass. It establishes a comparison between the first and the second Adam, and declares that in each case an
imputation took place for the whole race with which each was identified. The earthly Adam transmitted his fall, with all its
consequences, to all his descendants. The heavenly Adam, likewise, by his power, causes all his descendants to share
in life from heaven. According to this passage, then, the first Adam having of necessity introduced all the human race
(who were then in him) into his fall, in the same way the second Adam brought all those who were in him into his life and
his salvation. Thus all whom Christ redeemed had to be gathered from among all the human race. It is in this sense
that the righteousness of Christ extends to all men, as the text puts it, just as since the time of Adam condemnation
hangs over all men without exception.
Hebrews 2:9 declares that Jesus '[suffered] death...that he, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.' What
has the author of the epistle just been saying that led him to express himself in this way, and what is he trying to say in
making such a statement? He has declared that it was human nature that the Saviour took, not that of angels. That is
why the prophet called him the 'Son of Man'. The author then goes on to say that, through this Saviour, God would
bring many sons to glory. In order to do so, God made the Pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. 'It was
necessary then,' he says, 'that by the grace of God this man should be brought low, even to the cross, for each one of
"his children". It was thus by tasting death for every man that he suffered, in order that subsequently he might be
crowned with honour, for the glory of all these "his children."'
We do not see here any suggestion of a work which would finally prove to be futile. Jesus did not in any way taste death
for those who will not with him be crowned with glory. On the contrary, all those for whom the Son of Man suffered the
pain of death will be led with him to glory. Jesus did not forget a single one of them in his sacrifice on the cross, nor will
the Father forget one of them in the triumph of the Saviour.
Colossians 1:19-20 reads, 'For it pleased the Father that in [Christ] all the fulness should dwell and by him to reconcile
all things to himself...whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross.' In
this way the Father, who reconciled all things to himself, will reign by him in whom all fulness dwells. Let us notice, and
let those who believe otherwise consider well, that this reconciliation is effected not from man to God, as if God had
some favour to ask from man first of all. The origin of reconciliation was not in the will or inclination of man. Man did not
give to God that God should repay him (Romans 11:35). On the contrary, the reconciliation spoken of comes entirely
from God and from his grace. It has its source in him and flows to man, who was under his wrath (James 1:17).
The one whom God has made to be 'the head of the body, the church' as Colossians 1:18 states, (not the body, the
world), is also the one in and through whom God has reconciled all things to himself - that is, all that God intended to be
reconciled. The text explains that this comprises what is still on earth as well as what is already in heaven. The 'all'
which is said to have been reconciled to God is taken into account and embraced by the cross. Through this cross
the enmity has for ever been destroyed, and the whole human race has been confronted with a
reconciliation which had been previously unknown.
This passage, then, does not contain any pretence or exaggeration. All that God reconciled to himself through the
cross of Christ has truly been reconciled, and that for all eternity. All that was not reconciled (or will not finally be so)
was not part of what God reconciled (or will not finally be so) was not part of what God reconciled to himself on the day
the blood of Christ was shed on the cross.
Finally, all that Luke 19:10 says is that the Son of Man came to save what was lost, in the same way as a doctor goes to
the sick or a liberator to a captive (Matthew 9:12).
It was not all the sons of Adam without exception that God determined to redeem by the precious blood of the Lamb, or
whose names the divine High Priest took upon his lips (Psalm 16:4). On the contrary, this redemption was perfectly
accomplished for all those of us who were loved by God in Christ and who through the Holy Spirit have received (not
accepted!) the blessing of reconciliation. The gift of God in Jesus Christ belongs to all of us (from every country,
language and nation of the earth). We are sure therefore that all those for whom the Lamb was chosen 'before the
foundation of the world ' (I Peter 1:20) shall share in the 'heavenly calling' and shall be sealed by the Spirit of adoption.
Those of whom Peter speaks here, are known to God alone (II Timothy 2:19), and come indeed from every kind, class,
rank and occupation of human society. It is for this reason that when Peter refers to them he speaks of 'each one' (I
Peter 1:17), using a different word from that used by Jesus when he states that the Flood destroyed 'all' the wicked
(Luke 17:27). There the word used does indeed mean absolutely everyone. But when the Lord speaks of the extent
and efficacy of his death he uses a totally different word. Our friends who believe differently should pay careful attention
to what the text actually says.
THE CHURCH IS MINE, by César Malan, Copyright 2001, EVANGELICAL PRESS.
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