A Brief Exploration of Paul’s Use of “All”

The Apostle Paul

There are some things in Paul’s writing that can be hard to understand, as Peter said (2 Pet. 3:16). Here we’re looking at how Paul’s use of “all” can be hard to understand (esp. when it seems like Scripture teaches particular atonement see e.g. Jn. 6:37-39; 10:11, 15; 17:9, 20; Acts 20:28; Rom. 5:8, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13; Eph. 1: 3-5, 7; 5:25). Does Paul’s use of “all” have universal implications?[1]

A.A. Hodge’s words are instructive,

“Particular and definite expressions must limit the interpretation of the general ones, rather than the reverse. It is plainly far easier to assign plausible reasons why, if Christ died particularly for his elect, they being as yet scattered among all nations and generations, and indistinguishable by us from the mass of fallen humanity to whom the gospel is indiscriminately offered, he should be said in certain connections to have died for the world or for all, than it can be to assign any plausible reason why, if he died to make the salvation of all possible, he should nevertheless be said in any connection to have died for the purpose of certainly saving the elect.”[2]

It’s important to understand that to Jews all the rest of the world, the whole world, were basically just Gentiles. There were two sets up people in their mind, God’s people and everyone else. So as we think of the use of the words “all” and “world” we must be conscious of how Jews thought about the world and other people groups. Remember, the Jews are the people of promise. No other people in the whole world were. So Thomas R. Schreiner says, “We are apt to forget how shocking the inclusion of the Gentiles was to many in the first century because of our historical distance from the text.”[3]

Notice that Galatians 3:8 says that the OT Scriptures foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles (τα εϑνη). When Paul uses Gentiles here he means not all Gentiles without exception but rather all Gentiles without distinction. That is, Paul is saying that it’s not just Jews that can be justified. It’s not just one other group that can be justified. It’s not just Samaritans and Romans that can be justified but Babylonians, Egyptians, and everyone (i.e. “all,” “world”) can be justified. So, all people (παντα τα εϑνη), that is, all types of people can be justified. That is how Paul is using “all” (παντα).

Also, notice that Greek does not function the same way as English. Greek, for instance, has a different grammatical case system as well as word order. There is also different ways to say “all.” However, I am not saying that Paul did not say all in the passages in question. He did, in fact, say “all.” I only mean that for Paul to say “all” meaning one group in one place and “all” to mean another group in another place (even in very close proximity) may have been completely normal.

“Interpreters commonly assume that a word must have the same meaning it is used within the same context… However, this is not always true. A work in ancient Greek (as well as in modern languages) may very well have different meaning whether uttered in one breath or not.”[4]

Context is king in any language, but especially when written in all-caps with no punctuation.

So although Universalists frequently appeal to “Paul’s use of the word ‘all’ (e.g. in Rom. 5 and 11, and in 2 Cor. 5),” N.T. Wright points out that there is apparently no “realization of the different shades of meaning that must be understood in the particular contexts… The word ‘all’ has several clearly distinct biblical uses (e.g. ‘all of some sorts,’ ‘some of all sorts,’ etc.), and to ignore this frequently-noted fact is no aid to clear thinking.”[5] The word must be understood in context.[6] We must understand not only the immediate context at the sentence level but also how the word is being used at the next level of context (e.g. paragraph, chapter, book, etc.). That is, we need to understand what is being communicated or the argument that is being made (see Figure 1 below).


Figure 1: Understanding Words in Context

In reference to Romans 5:15-19, Schreiner says,

“Paul deliberately used the word all to describe the work of Christ as the second Adam. Our task as readers is to ferret out the significance of this decision. Two reasons for the terminology are possible. First, Paul did not want to use a less-inclusive term because he wanted to emphasize that Christ was as great as Adam. The use of the word all reminds the reader that the grace of Christ is so powerful that it supersedes what Adam did.

Second, one of the prominent themes of Paul’s theology, and of Romans in particular, is the inclusion of the Gentiles. We have seen that the folding of the Gentiles into God’s saving purposes was the distinctive element in Paul’s call to the apostleship. He often emphasizes in Romans that God has called the Gentiles, not just the Jews, to be his people (Rom 1:5, 7, 13-14, 16; 2:11, 26-29; 3:23, 29-30; 4:9-12, 16-17; 9:24-26, 30; 10:11-13, 20; 11:12, 15, 17, 19-20, 30; 15:9-12; 16:26). Recognizing this assists us in comprehending Romans 11:32, “God has enclosed all under disobedience, so that he should show mercy to all.” The first all must include all people without exception, for Paul leaves no room for the idea that some people are obedient and hence need no room for the idea that some people are obedient and hence need no mercy from God! But if the second all is of the same breadth as the first, then Paul is a universalist, teaching that God’s saving mercy will be poured out on every single human being. The interpretation is doubtless attractive, but the context reveals its improbability. Romans 9-11 often speaks of the future punishment of those who are unsaved (Rom 9:3, 6-7, 13, 18, 21-22, 31-33; 10:2-4; 11:7-10, 20-23, 28). These chapters oscillate between the salvation promised for the Gentiles and the salvation pledged to the Jews. Any attentive reader of Romans 11 is aware that it features God’s saving plan relative to both Gentiles and Jews. When Paul says, therefore, that God shows mercy on ‘all,’ the idea is that God’s mercy extends to both Jews and Gentiles, Thus, we need not conclude that ‘all’ refers to all people without exception. More likely, when Paul considers Christ’s work, the referent is all people without distinction. Both Jews and Gentiles are recipients of Christ’s gracious work.”[7]

Schreiner goes on to say,

“Such an interpretation is also a sensible reading of 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. The love of Christ controls Paul, and he concludes that ‘one died for all, therefore, all died’ (2 Cor 5:14). The ‘all’ for whom Christ died are not all without exception but all without distinction, including both Jews and Gentiles… All those for whom Christ died ‘actually’ died—they died in the death of Christ to the power of sin… those living refers to those who are spiritually alive. Those who are spiritually alive are the ‘all’ for whom Christ died in 2 Corinthians 5:14”[8] (cf. Rom. 6).

John Piper helpfully adds to our conversation,

“It would be an incorrect, superficial reading of this text [i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:21-23], as well as Romans 5:17-19, to assume that it is teaching universalism in the sense that all human beings will be saved. The ‘all’ who are acquitted in Romans 5 are defined in Romans 5:17 as ‘those who received the abundance of grace.’ And the ‘all’ who are made alive in 1 Corinthians 15:22 are defined as ‘those who belong to Christ.’ Moreover the other texts cited in this chapter [here are some of them: Dan. 12:2; Matt. 3:12; 18:8; 25:41, 46; Mk. 9:43-48; Rev. 14:11; 19:3; 20:10] make it highly unlikely that Paul means to teach here that all humans are saved.”[9]

Mark Rapinchuk demonstrates

“It seems reasonable to conclude that a major emphasis of Paul’s through­ out Romans is the universal nature of sin and salvation. But this universal nature is defined as without ethnic distinction rather than without excep­tion. When Paul speaks of “all men” he speaks in the sense of both Jews and Gentiles, not in the sense of every individual. This understanding of “all men” is not only consistent with the use of πάς and άνθρωπος in Biblical Greek, it is entirely consistent with the flow of Paul’s argument and emphasis in Romans.”[10]

We can also look at other examples where it doesn’t make sense to use “all” with the sense of “all without exception.” For instance, did Paul really preach to “all creation” and to the “whole world” (see Col. 1:6, 23)? No. We know that he did not. So “all” does not always mean all without exception. Also when Paul in Acts 22:15 “speaks of being a witness to all people” (πρὸς πάντας ἀνθρὼους), he clearly does not mean all people with exception; ‘all’ refers to the inclusion of the Gentiles in his mission (Acts 22:21).”[11]

Ephesians 5:20 says we are to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Does “always” (παντων) here mean all times without exception? It doesn’t seem like it. For instance, when Lazarus died we see “Jesus wept,” not “Jesus gave thanks.”

Klyne Snodgrass says this in his commentary on Ephesians,

“When the Bible uses “all” or “every,” we must ask whether it is meant with or without qualification. Paul’s intent is not that we are to be thankful for evil or tragedy. John Stott is correct in saying “everything” in verse 20 is hyperbole. We are not asked to thank God for evil. Rather, we are asked to live out our awareness that all of life, even the “bad,” is lived out under his control and in relation to him.”[12]

Thus we see that “all” does not always (or very often) mean all without exception. The extent of what “all” is meant to convey must be understood through an understanding of the context and the intention of the author.

Thus, Schreiner looking at the context concludes that “the reason Paul can speak of the Christ’s death in expansive, all-inclusive terms in 1 Timothy 2:6 is because he sees his ministry as worldwide (2:7; cf. Acts 22:15), his soteriology is universal in the right sense (2:5; cf. Rom. 3:28-30), and he is confronting an elitist heresy that was excluding certain kinds of people from God’s salvation (1 Tim. 1:4). Paul wants to make it clear: Christ died for all kinds of people, not just some elite group.”[13]

Titus 2:11 says “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (᾿Επεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτηριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρπὼοις). Some believe that “all people” (πᾶσιν ἀνθρπὼοις) refers to all people without exception, however, it more likely refers to all people without distinction.[14] Schreiner goes on to explain that “a good case can be made for such a judgment, because Paul refers to people from various groups earlier in chapter 2: older men (v. 2), older women (vv. 3-4), younger women, younger men (v. 6), and slaves (vv. 9-10).”[15] We also see in verse 12 and 14 that it talks about “us” and not all without exception. It says Jesus “gave Himself for us [not all without exception] to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works” (v. 14). This verse reminds us of 1 Peter 2:8-9 where it talks about two different groups of people. The first group stumbles and disobeys the word because that is what they were destined to do (v.8). The second group is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession (v. 9).

What about Romans 11? Some people use Romans 11 to support their views on universalism. However, as has been said and as John Piper demonstrates, context is king.

“In [Romans] 11:30–31 the two groups in view (Israel and Gentiles) do not have reference to every individual Jew and Gentile that exist. The same corporate groups are in view that have been in view since 11:7. The stumbling (11:11), failure (11:12), rejection (11:15), hardening (11:7, 25), and disobedience (11:30–31) of corporate ethnic Israel lead to the mercy (11:31), salvation (11:11), riches (11:12), reconciliation (11:15), and coming in (11:25) of a “full number” of Gentiles. This in turn leads to the mercy (11:31), acceptance (11:15), and salvation (11:26) of “all Israel,” the same corporate entity that had to be temporarily hardened (11:7, 25) and rejected (11:15)… There is no exegetical warrant for construing the two “all’s” of 11:32 to refer to anything other than the complete number of Jews and Gentiles in the corporate entities referred to throughout the chapter. A universalistic reading of Romans 11:32 is not exegetically defensible.”[16]

Romans 9 should also be looked at. Paul anticipates that God’s righteousness will be called into question. He asks, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” Paul answers, “By no means!” (v.14). God elects and has mercy on whoever He choses (9:11, 15-16). Who are we to tell God what He can and cannot do?! (v. 20). “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (v. 21 cf. 22-23).

Also, remember the way the Jewish community would have understood “all.” For example, let’s briefly look at the last part of Isaiah 66. I would argue that Isaiah has the most eschatology in it of the OT books. Isaiah 66:22:23 says,

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
that I make
shall remain before me, says the LORD,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the LORD.”

It says, “all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.” And it says they shall “remain before me.” Wow! It seems these verses teach universalism! However, remember our phrase: Context is king!

Look at verse 24: “And they [referring to ‘all flesh’ v. 23] shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” It’s clear here that “all,” even “all flesh,” does not mean all without exception. The Jews reading Romans would have been familiar with this passage and the theology behind it. Also, notice how emphatic verse 24 is and notice how the NT authors picked up on this same language.

On the topic of universal salvation 2 Peter 3:9 is often a favorite verse. It says God does not wish that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. Yet, we must note the context. The immediate context tells us what God does in response to His desire. It does not say that because He desires that all should reach repentance He will one day mysteriously (and against all the Bible seems to say) pull people out of the hell (into which He cast them) so that they won’t finally perish. Instead, we see, in light of God’s desire, He is patient and does not bring judgment right away (cf. v. 15; Rom. 2:4-11). Yet nevertheless, heaven and earth are waiting for the “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 3:7).

So this text is saying God is patient and does not wish that any should perish so God has refrained His judgment for a time so that all types of people can repent. However, it also reminds people to repent while they still can. It says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…” (v. 10) when it will be too late to repent. “Therefore,” it says, “since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and a peace” (v. 14).

The second thing to consider with this verse is the two different senses in God’s will. Theologians helpfully and accurately discuss the two different senses in God’s will as the decretive will of God and the permissive (or perceptive) will of God. I suggest John Frame’s treatment in The Doctrine of God.[17]

It seems true in one sense that God desires that none should perish but that all should come to repentance but it is also true that God desires to pour out His wrath on the wicked. See 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12:

“And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. [9] The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, [10] and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. [11] Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, [12] in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Notice also that Romans 9 tells us that God is glorified through vessels of wrath (ὀργή[18]) prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). God has set His affections on some and not on others. And that is His prerogative alone and He is just in all His judgments.[19]


[1] While the “all” texts do need to be explained “the onus lies with proponents of a universal atonement to explain why Paul would employ limited or definite language, if there really was no limitation in the intended object of the atonement” (Jonathan Gibson, “For Whom Did Christ Die?: Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles” 293 in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective [Wheaton: Crossway, 2013). Further, “Paul has the linguistic arsenal to state unambiguously that there was no one for whom Christ did not die, he chose not to use it. The terms ‘many,’ ‘all,’ and ‘world’ remain undefined and ambiguous, dependent on context for their meaning” (Ibid., 329).

[2] A.A Hodge, The Atonement (1867; repr., London: Evangelical Press, 1974), 425.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory: A Pauline Theology, 185. Hedrick explains Paul’s use of “all” in Romans 5:18 by saying that “among other things Paul is combating the ever-present tendency of Jews to regard themselves as being better than Gentiles” (Romans, 183).

[4] S. M. Baugh, A First John Reader: Intermediate Greek Reading Notes and Grammar, 19.

[5] N.T. Wright, “Universalism and the World-Wide Community,” Churchman 89 (July-September 1975), 200.

[6] In understanding the context it is important to understand the Pauline context; that “in the whole of Paul’s preaching it is unthinkable to refer to justification to all men without distinction” (Ridderbos, Paul, 341n32).

[7] Schreiner, Pau l, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 184. See also Schreiner, Romans, 292.

[8] Ibid., 186.

[9] John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 129n20.

[10] Mark Rapinchuk, “Universal Sin and Salvation in Romans 5:12-21” 441 in JETS 42/3 (September 1999) 427-41.

[11] Thomas R. Schreiner, “’Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles.”

[12] Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 311.

[13] Schreiner, “’Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement.”

[14] Ibid., 8.

[15] Ibid.

[16] John Piper, “Universalism in Romans 9-11?” (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/universalism-in-romans-9-11).

[17] See 528-42; he even has a section titled “Does God Desire the Salvation of All?”

[18] See William V. Crockett, “Wrath that Endures Forever” in JETS 34/2 (June 1991) 195-202. E.g. “When we examine orgê in Paul we find no reason to assume that it has reformative elements” (198). And on page 199 he says, “orgê in Paul excludes any notion of divine love” (199).

[19] See John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993).


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