One of the primary ways the church advances the kingdom of God is through corporate prayer. And when God’s people gather at the throne of grace, they shouldn’t limit their prayers to the elect. They should pray for all people. Why? Because there’s a wideness in God’s mercy. While his special grace secures the repentance of some, his common grace solicits the repentance of many.1 Thus, there’s a real sense in which our heavenly Father desires, provides for, and pursues the salvation of all people. Such a big-hearted God calls for big-hearted prayers.
The Danger of a Narrow Gospel
Paul begins his first letter to Timothy by issuing a warning against false teachers (1:3-7). While scholars debate the precise identity and nature of the heresy, it seems that it bore some relation to Judaism. In particular, the teachers appear to have pushed the notion that the “law” or torah was only for a particular class of people, i.e., “the just” (1:8-9). Hence, they taught a kind of “Judaizing exclusivism.” The gospel isn’t for all; it’s only for some.2
Against this false notion, Paul emphasizes that the torah is actually for “the lawless and disobedient” (1:9-11). Paul’s point is not to engage in another form of exclusivism. Rather, he’s employing a bit of sarcasm to make the point that the law is for everyone since everyone is a sinner—including Paul himself!3 In fact, Paul goes on to use himself as an example of the kind of sinner whom Jesus came to save (1:12-17). Paul concludes this first part of the letter by exhorting Timothy to remain faithful to the truth and to wage warfare against the false teaching (1:18-20).
That brings us to chapter two and the second main section of Paul’s letter.
Wide Mercy, Wide Prayers
Paul opens this section with an exhortation to pray (2:1-2), and then he explains the rationale for that exhortation (2:3-7).
Offer Wide Prayers
In verses 1 and 2 we have the essence of Paul’s exhortation:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1–2).
The phrase “first of all” is not designating the first item on a list. Rather, Paul is using the phrase to highlight the importance of this injunction. We might paraphrase it, “Most importantly.” If Timothy is to protect the church from veering into a false gospel and to keep her focus on the true gospel, he must instill within the congregation the absolute importance of prayer.
There are three features about this prayer we should note:
1. The Full Range of Big-hearted Prayer
Paul calls for the full range of prayer: “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving.” Paul doesn’t want the church’s prayer meeting to devolve into a “petitions-only” kind of prayer meeting. Not just “supplications” but “prayers.” Not just “prayers” but “intercessions.” Not just intercessions” but “thanksgivings.” The list is not exhaustive. But representative. He might also have included “praise” and “confessions of sin.”
2. The Universal Scope of Big-hearted Prayer
Paul universalizes the scope of prayer by calling for prayer on behalf of “all people, even for kings and all who are in high positions.” To appreciate the significance of this point we need to remind ourselves that “kings” and people in “high positions” were not normally friends to the church. In Paul’s day, they were often enemies of the church and actively persecuted believers. Moreover, it is possible that the false teachers were discouraging the church from praying for certain kinds of people: “Don’t pray for the drunkards, they’re bad people.” “Don’t pray for the homosexuals, they’re bad people.” “Don’t pray for the politicians, they’re bad people.”
But Paul says, “Narrow-hearted prayer has no place in the church!” Praying only for people we like or people who like us does not serve the gospel of Christ. “Therefore,” Paul says, “I urge that the full range of prayer be offered for all people—including politicians.”
3. The Practical Aim of Big-hearted Prayer
Paul addresses the aim of corporate prayer in verse 2b: “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I used to think Paul was spelling out the content of their corporate prayer. They were to pray for kings and rulers in order that those in positions of authority would enact and enforce laws that would protect their freedoms so that they could lead peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and dignity.
However, there’s another way to interpret Paul’s words which I believe better fits the context and goal of Paul’s instruction. Paul is not telling them in verse 2b what they should pray for. Rather, Paul is telling them why he wants them to pray for rulers. Paul wants the church to pray for all people, including rulers because in doing so the church will “lead a peaceful and quiet, godly and dignified in every way.” Such a life adorns the gospel and makes Christianity attractive!4
This leads to the bigger rationale for a big-hearted congregational prayer.
Behold Wide Mercy
Why should the church offer up the full range of prayers for all people—including people that are difficult to pray for? Paul answers that question in verses 3 through 7:
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Tim 2:3–7).
When the people of God pray for the well-being of “all people,” even those in authority, they engage in what is “pleasing in the sight God our Savior” (2:3). God is not a cosmic scrooge, and he doesn’t want his people to be scrooges. Thus, God’s big heart is the primary reason for big-hearted prayer.
“But,” someone says to Paul, “How can we be sure that such big-hearted prayers are pleasing to God?”
1. God’s Sincere Desire
Such prayers reflect God’s big heart toward the lost: “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). In essence, Paul says, “Pray big-hearted prayers because such prayers reflect God’s big heart toward the lost.” God doesn’t take pleasure in the death of the wicked. God wants the wicked to turn from his way and live (Ezek 33:11).5 And since God’s disposition or propensity is toward the salvation all living men, then the church ought to reflect that disposition in her prayer meetings.
2. Christ’s Sufficient-for-all Atonement
God’s big-hearted disposition is demonstrated in Christ’s mediatorial work on behalf of the whole world: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (2:5-6). In the words of John 3:16-17 …
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16–17).6
Although Christ’s atoning sacrifice is only efficient for those who believe, it is certainly sufficient for the entire human race.7 Hence, later in this epistle, Paul can refer to God as “the Savior of all people, especially those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10).
3. Paul’s Great Commission
God’s big-hearted disposition is seen in the apostle Paul’s commission: “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (2:7). Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles was evidence that God wanted the gospel to be preached to every tribe and language and people and nation (see Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; Rev 5:9-10).
This passage tells us that we should desire and pray for the saving good of all people because God himself in some real sense desires the salvation of all people. God demonstrates this big-hearted desire by sending his Son into the world in order that the world might be saved through him. He also demonstrates his desire by commissioning the apostles to take the gospel not only to the Jewish nation but ultimately to the very ends of the earth. Hence, we can say to each and every person we evangelize, “God has provided a way of salvation through his Son, and God sincerely wants you to repent of your sins, receive Christ, and be saved.”
Some think we’ve opened the door of God’s mercy too wide. God cannot desire the saving good of those whose salvation he hasn’t decreed, and Christ cannot die for anyone save the elect. Thus, they insist, “all people” in this context refers to “some of all sorts of people.”8
We will address this objection in a followup post.
1 See my “The Saving Design of God’s Common Grace,” The Founders Journal (Spring 2019): 28–40, accessed November 15, 2021: https://founders.org/2019/07/02/the-saving-design-of-gods-common-grace/.
2 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Word, Incorporated, 2000), lxx, 75-76; J. N. D. Kelly, The Pastoral Epistles, Black’s New Testament Commentary (Continuum, 1963), 60.
3 When Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32), he’s not suggesting that some people are not sinners. Rather, he’s employing a bit of sarcasm directed at the self-righteous who assumed they had no sin for which to repent. See William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles, vol. 4, New Testament Commentary (Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 65–66; George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans; Paternoster, 1992), 83.
4 Donald Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity Press, 1990), 84; Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, 82.
5 For a full exposition of Ezekiel 33:11 and its ramifications for God’s sincere offer, see my “The Well-Meant Offer: God Implores the Wicked to Repent (Ezekiel 33:11)” (Oct 29, 2019), It Is Written: https://bobgonzal.es/index.php/2019/10/29/the-well-meant-offer-god-begs-….
6 See my article “Look and Live! John 3:16 as a Universal Gospel Invitation” (April 26, 2017), It Is Written: https://bobgonzal.es/index.php/2017/04/26/look-and-live-john-316-as-a-un….
7 That sufficiency is not only hypothetical but actual. See Jeffrey Johnson, He Died for Me: Limited Atonement and Universal Gospel (Free Grace Press, 2018), 17-32. 121-31.
8 See John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (T&T Clark, n.d.), 381–382; John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth: A New Edition (Thomas Tegg and Son, 1838), 91–95.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.