First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:1-6, ESV)
(For a better and a more recent defense of 1Tim 2:4 see here.)
This is one of the “Arminian Big Three” which you will get almost in every conversation about Calvinism in real life or online. Usually verses 3-4 are just quoted to make the case that God wants to save every single individual. The question is, does “all” in context really mean “every single individual in the world”? Or is this talking about God’s desire not His sovereign decree?
Will of Desire interpretation
There are some people who understand this passage and other passages like 2 Pet 3:9 to refer to God’s will of desire. God’s will of desire being, God’s desire that people should not murder, lie, steal, commit adultery or have other gods before Him (Ex 20), but He doesn’t decree that it should be done so. It is also called His will of precept.
So God’s will of desire refers to the things that God has not decreed in His sovereign plan before the foundation of the world, yet desires. In this interpretation, God would desire that all be saved, but He has not decreed that all should be saved, because He wants to show the full measure of His glory (Rom 9:22-24). I don’t find this interpretation compelling and I believe the following interpretation is more compelling.
The “all kinds of people” interpretation
The major Reformed interpretation takes the position that the word “all” in this context means “all kinds of people,” not every single individual, why do we say that? Because there are times in Scripture when “all” is used in the sense of “every single individual in the world”, but there are times which it isn’t used like that, but limited according to the context. Let’s look at a few verses, shall we? The portion we’re going to look at is in Titus 2. Here we see that Paul is telling Timothy to teach “sound doctrine.” Then we see him list types/groups of people:
2. Older men are to be sober-minded…
3. Older women likewise…
4. so train the young women to love their husbands and children
6. …urge the younger men
11. For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people,
12. training us to renounce ungodliness…
13. waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,
14. who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for him...