1 Timothy 2:4 states that God “desires all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But what does it mean that God “desires” all people to be saved when Scripture plainly teaches that not all people will be saved?
Toward an answer to this question, we must distinguish between God’s “desire” (i.e., what God would like to see happen) and God’s “plan” (i.e., what God makes happen). The reason we must distinguish between God’s desire and God’s plan is because if God’s desire means the same thing as God’s plan, then God’s plan has failed because not all people will be saved.
God, however, can desire something that He does not plan. For example, God desires that you “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But you may not pray without ceasing. The failure to pray without ceasing is not on God. The failure to pray without ceasing is on you.
But this leaves the nagging question: why would God desire something He does not plan? In this instance, why would God desire all people to be saved but not plan for all people to be saved? I think the answer to this question is that, at least in 1 Timothy 2:4, God does desire what He plans. It has to do with the meaning of the words “all men.”
When Paul says that God “desires all men to be saved,” the context tells us the meaning of “all men.” According to 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “all men” is all kinds (or groups) of people. Here is what Paul states: “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority.” Certainly, Paul does not expect Christians to pray for every single human being in the world. Paul qualifies “all men” by saying that he wants Christians to pray for all kinds (or groups) of people, specifically, in this passage, “for kings and all who are in authority.”
Thus, when Paul states in v. 4 that God desires all men to be saved, contextually he is speaking about all kinds (or groups) of people. On this reading, then, we say that God desires all kinds of people to be saved. And God’s desire that all kinds of people be saved is consistent with His plan, for we know that all kinds (or groups) of people will be saved (e.g., Revelation 7:9).
What this means is that despite humankind’s rebellion, transgression, and sin, God’s heart is generous and gracious to all kinds of people not to select kinds of people. He has planned the way, not only for an exclusive group of people (e.g., Israel), but for all groups of people to be saved. In this understanding, then, the answer to the question is “Yes!”: God desires all people to be saved!