It was a bit of an eyebrow raiser – mostly due to the nonchalance of the entire affair – (albeit unsurprising, given prior statements he has made) to read Piper simply handing over 1 Tim. 2:4 to Arminianism. What’s also quite interesting is that the handoff is done with practically no exegetical attention paid to the surrounding verses, or seemingly, even an attempt to interact with the historic Reformed commentators on the subject.
Put two texts together, and see what you see.
“God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (eis epignōsin alētheias)” (1 Timothy 2:4).
“God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth (eis epignōsin alētheias)” (2 Timothy 2:25).
Now, do you see any treatment of the surrounding verses in the following discussion? I don’t. Essentially, it’s conceding the Arminian conception of the first verse – and there is no reason whatsoever to do so.
Here’s what I see:
1. Though God desires all people to be saved, he “may perhaps grant repentance.” Which I think means that God’s desire for all to be saved does not lead him to save all. God has desires that do not reach the level of volition. They are restrained by other considerations — like his wisdom, which guides him to display his glory in the fullest way. He has his reasons for why he “may perhaps grant repentance” to some sinners, and not to others.
First, what is meant by “all”? He doesn’t address the subject. In “The Potter’s Freedom”, there is an extensive treatment of this section of Scripture. Who do I want to bring to your consideration on this verse, however? Why, John Gill, of course! His commentary is amazingly thorough. I’ll post the rest of Piper’s comments, and then follow with Gill.
2. The “knowledge of the truth” is a gift of God. God “grants [i.e., gives] repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” Without the gift of repentance, we would not know the truth. This is evidently what 1 Timothy 2:4 means also: We must be “saved and [in that way] come to a knowledge of the truth.” Saved from our blindness to the truth.
3. Therefore the truth Paul has in mind is not truth that the natural man can see. But the natural man can see a lot of truth. Tens of thousands of truths are open to the natural mind. What truth can the natural man not see? The natural man cannot see the glory of Christ in the gospel. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
4. This is why God must “grant” what it takes to see the truth of the gospel. We are blind to it. And Satan keeps us that way. Until God “grants” repentance (metanoia) — the change of mind that can see and receive the truth of the gospel.
5. Therefore, our prayers for the unbelievers we love, and our evangelism, should be driven by this one and only hope for their salvation: “God may perhaps grant them repentance.” Since he alone has the power to overcome spiritual deadness and Satanic blindness, we lay hold in prayer and witness on the truth: “God may grant repentance.” That is our only hope.
So let us follow Paul: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). And: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Now, although this looks, superficially, to be a complete answer – it isn’t. It’s a superficial answer. I appreciate the comments in the following points – 2-5 – but his comments on the first point are quite simply lacking, in a variety of respects. Compare Gill, starting at verse 1:
I exhort therefore, that first of all
The two principal parts of public worship, being the ministry of the word and prayer; and the apostle having insisted on the former, in the preceding chapter, in which he orders Timothy to charge some that they teach no other doctrine than that of the Gospel, gives an account of his own ministry, and call to it, and of the glorious Gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to his trust, and stirs up Timothy to the faithful and diligent discharge of his work and office; now proceeds to the latter, to prayer, and exhorts unto it; either Timothy in particular, for so read the Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions, “I exhort thee”, or “desire thee”; or else the church in general; unless it should rather be thought to be a charge to Timothy to exhort, and so Beza’s Claromontane copy reads, “exhort thou therefore”: but it is commonly considered as an exhortation of the apostle’s, which he was very urgent in: it was what lay much upon his mind, and he was greatly desirous that it should be attended unto; for so the words may be read, “I exhort first of all”, or before all things; of all things he had to say, this was the chief, or it was what he would have principally and chiefly done by others: for this does not so much regard the order of time, that prayer should be made early in the morning, in the first place, before anything else is done, and particularly before preaching, which seems to have been the custom of the primitive saints, ( Acts 4:31 ) but the pre-eminence and superior excellency of it; though the words may be rendered, “I exhort, that first, the supplications of all be made”: and so may regard public prayer, the prayer of the whole church, in distinction from private prayer, or the prayer of a single person; which is expressed by different words,
supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks:
the first of these, “supplications”, signifies such petitions for things that are wanted by men, either by themselves or others; and that either for their bodies or souls, as food and raiment for the one, and discoveries of pardoning love, supplies of grace, spiritual peace, comfort for the other: and the second word, “prayers”, signifies good wishes and desires, directed and expressed to God for things that are in themselves to be wished for, and desired of God, either for ourselves or others: and the next word, “intercessions”, intends either complaints exhibited in prayer against others that have done injuries; or prayers put up for others, either for the averting of evil from them, or for the bestowing some good thing on them: and the last word, “thanksgivings”, with which requests should always be made known to God, designs that branch of prayer in which thanks are given to God for mercies received, whether temporal or spiritual: and these are to
be made for all men;
not only for all the saints, for all the churches of Christ, and, ministers of the Gospel; nor only for near relations and friends, according to the flesh; but for all the inhabitants of the country and city in which men dwell, the peace and prosperity of which are to be prayed for; yea, for enemies, and such as reproach, persecute, and despitefully use the saints, even for all sorts of men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, high and low, bond and free, good men and bad men: for it cannot be understood of every individual that has been, is, or shall be in the world; millions of men are dead and gone, for whom prayer is not to be made; many in hell, to whom it would be of no service; and many in heaven, who stand in no need of it; nor is prayer to be made for such who have sinned the sin unto death, ( 1 John 5:16 ) besides, giving of thanks, as well as prayers, are to be made for all men; but certainly the meaning is not, that thanks should be given for wicked men, for persecutors, and particularly for a persecuting Nero, or for heretics, and false teachers, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom the apostle had delivered to Satan. But the words must be understood of men of all sorts, of every rank and quality, as the following verse shows.
For kings, and for all that are in authority
For supreme governors, as the emperor of Rome, and kings of particular nations; and for all sub-governors, or inferior magistrates, as procurators or governors of provinces, and proconsuls, and the like; all that were in high places, and acted under the authority of those that were supreme; these are particularly mentioned, the then governors, whether supreme or subordinate, who were avowed enemies, and violent persecutors of the saints; and it might be a scruple with some of them, whether they should pray for them, and therefore the apostle enjoins it; and this in opposition to the notions and practices of the Jews, who used to curse the Heathens, and pray for none but for themselves, and those of their own nation:
that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty;
which does not merely design the end of civil government by kings and magistrates, which is to preserve the peace and quiet of the commonwealth; to protect the persons and properties of men, that they may possess their own undisturbed; and to secure to them their civil and religious rights and liberties, that they may have the free use and exercise of religion, signified by “all godliness”; and to encourage morality and virtue, expressed by “honesty”; and so is an argument for prayer, taken from the advantage of civil government: nor does this clause only point out the duty of saints to live peaceably under the government they are, and not disturb it; to mind only their religious exercises among themselves, and behave honestly and morally among men, as they generally speaking are, the quiet in the land; but also expresses the thing to be prayed for; and the sense is, that since the hearts of kings are in the hands of the Lord, and he can turn them as he pleases, prayer should be made to him for them, that he would either convert them, and bring them to the knowledge of the truth, they now persecuted; or at least so dispose their hearts and minds, that they might stop the persecution, and so saints might live peaceably under them, enjoy their religious liberty, and be encouraged in their moral conversation. The Arabic version renders it, “that they may be preserved”: that is, kings, and all in authority. It is a saying of R. Hananiah, or Ananias, the sagan of the priests,
“pray for the peace or safety of the kingdom (one of their commentators on it adds, even of the nations of the world, which is remarkable, and agrees with the exhortation of the apostle); for if there was no fear of that, men would devour one another alive.”
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.
Not only to live peaceably and quietly under the government men are, since that is the ordination of God, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, which his grace teaches; but to pray for all sorts of men, and for those who are set in the highest place of government, even though enemies and persecutors: this is good in itself, and in the sight of an omniscient God, who sees not as man seeth; and it is acceptable unto him through Jesus Christ, by whom every sacrifice of prayer or praise is so; for by God our Saviour is meant God the Father, who is the Saviour of all men, in a way of providence, and the Saviour of all the elect in a way of special grace;
Who will have all men to be saved,…
The salvation which God wills that all men should enjoy, is not a mere possibility of salvation, or a mere putting them into a salvable state; or an offer of salvation to them; or a proposal of sufficient means of it to all in his word; but a real, certain, and actual salvation, which he has determined they shall have; and is sure from his own appointment, from the provision of Christ as a Saviour for them, from the covenant of grace, in which everything is secured necessary for it, and from the mission of Christ to effect it, and from its being effected by him: wherefore the will of God, that all men should be saved, is not a conditional will, or what depends on the will of man, or on anything to be performed by him, for then none might be saved; and if any should, it would be of him that willeth, contrary to the express words of Scripture; but it is an absolute and unconditional will respecting their salvation, and which infallibly secures it: nor is it such a will as is distinguishable into antecedent and consequent; with the former of which it is said, God wills the salvation of all men, as they are his creatures, and the work of his hands; and with the latter he wills, or not wills it, according to their future conduct and behaviour; but the will of God concerning man’s salvation is entirely one, invariable, unalterable, and unchangeable: nor is it merely his will of approbation or complacency, which expresses only what would be grateful and well pleasing, should it be, and which is not always fulfilled; but it is his ordaining, purposing, and determining will, which is never resisted, so as to be frustrated, but is always accomplished: the will of God, the sovereign and unfrustrable will of God, has the governing sway and influence in the salvation of men; it rises from it, and is according to it; and all who are saved God wills they should be saved; nor are any saved, but whom he wills they should be saved: hence by all men, whom God would have saved, cannot be meant every individual of mankind, since it is not his will that all men, in this large sense, should be saved, unless there are two contrary wills in God; for there are some who were before ordained by him unto condemnation, and are vessels of wrath fitted for destruction; and it is his will concerning some, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned; nor is it fact that all are saved, as they would be, if it was his will they should; for who hath resisted his will? but there is a world of ungodly men that will be condemned, and who will go into everlasting punishment: rather therefore all sorts of men, agreeably to the use of the phrase in 1Ti 2:1 are here intended, kings and peasants, rich and poor, bond and free, male and female, young and old, greater and lesser sinners; and therefore all are to be prayed for, even all sorts of men, because God will have all men, or all sorts of men, saved; and particularly the Gentiles may be designed, who are sometimes called the world, the whole world, and every creature; whom God would have saved, as well as the Jews, and therefore Heathens, and Heathen magistrates, were to be prayed for as well as Jewish ones. Moreover, the same persons God would have saved, he would have also
come to the knowledge of the truth:
of Christ, who is the truth, and to faith in him, and of all the truth of the Gospel, as it is in Jesus; not merely to a notional knowledge of it, which persons may arrive unto, and not be saved, but a spiritual and experimental knowledge of it; and all that are saved are brought to such a knowledge, which is owing to the sovereign will and good pleasure of God, who hides the knowledge of Gospel truths from the wise and prudent, and reveals them to babes: whence it appears, that it is not his will with respect to every individual of mankind; that they should thus come to the knowledge of the truth; for was it his will they should, he would, no doubt, give to every man the means of it, which he has not, nor does he; he suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, and overlooked their times of ignorance, and sent no message nor messenger to inform them of his will; he gave his word to Jacob, and his statutes unto Israel only; and the Gospel is now sent into one part of the world, and not another; and where it does come, it is hid to the most; many are given up to strong delusions to believe a lie, and few are savingly and experimentally acquainted with the truths of the Gospel; though all that are saved are brought to the knowledge of such truths as are necessary to salvation; for they are chosen to it through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth.
The difference is stunning. The “quick” answer – the “put two verses together and see what you get” approach – just doesn’t work. It’s not sound, and it gets you into trouble – even if you’re John Piper. If you want to get the real answer, you have to really dig into theology proper – dig deeply into systematic and biblical theology. Otherwise, the “combination” you try to make just isn’t going to be sound. I’d also recommend to you Gill’s comments on 2 Tim. 2:25, as well. In the end, the whole difference between these two solutions is exegetical. Piper doesn’t give an exegesis of the text – Gill does. Dr. White gives an exegesis in his book, too – and comes out with the same conclusion as Gill. This should be instructive to us.
One further point to make. Job 23:13 says this: “But He is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does.” God, of course, is the referent of this verse. vs. 3-12 in this same chapter all refer to God Himself. What does it say? God accomplishes all that He desires. The Hebrew word for “does” is עָשָׂה – the primary semantic domain of the term is “to do, fashion, accomplish, make” – and this is not the only place where this is said, of course. Isa 46:10 says ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.’ The word for “good pleasure” is חֵפֶץ – delight, pleasure, with the further connotation of “desire”. Thus, it can be established that that which God desires, is that which is accomplished. It is no solution to assert that there is a “desire” which does not rise to the level of “volition” – as God is eternal, and thence is to be seen as eternally frustrated in His desire. This is no fitting view of God. While I appreciate the work that John Piper has done for the kingdom, and his faithfulness as a shepherd – he is simply wrong on this issue of God and desire.