Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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All Means All, and That Is All It Means!

Martyn McGeown


I. All

How often have we heard that when we try to explain the Reformed faith to Arminians? It is a very common objection and a gross misunderstanding of Scripture. It is even a misunderstanding of language itself.

What do words such as "all," "every man," "the world," "whosoever" mean in Scripture? The easiest and most reliable way is to start with the axiom, "Scripture interprets Scripture" and allow the Bible to explain itself. Much of this article consists of New Testament passages interspersed with comments to bring out the meaning, or rather what is not meant. Many of the passages speak for themselves.

"When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). Is it true that the entire population of Jerusalem knew about the message brought by the Magi, or that they were "troubled" by it. Of course not! It refers to the leaders of Jerusalem, and could very well be the same "Jerusalem" mentioned in Matthew 23:37 which did not want Christ to gather her children.

"Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region about Jordan, and were baptized of him" (Matt. 3:5). Are we to imagine that Jesus baptized everybody? Were there no exceptions? Surely we can reasonably assume that it would have been impossible for the entire population of Judea to be baptized. See also Mark 1:5.

"And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake" (Matt. 10:22). Were the disciples hated by the people who lived in Africa, by people who had never heard of them? Obviously, "all men" means many men here.

"And all the people were amazed and said, Is not this the son of David?" (Matt. 12:23). Was this universal. Forgetting even about other nations, what about the scribes and Pharisees? Were they amazed, did they believe that Jesus was the Son of David? Not at all!

"And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?" (Matt. 21:10). Were the tiniest infants in Jerusalem moved?

"All hold John as a prophet" (Matt. 21:26). The Pharisees did not hold John as a prophet, the Romans and Greeks did not either, so obviously the "all" here is not universal.

"Then answered all the people and said, His blood be on us and on our children" (Matt. 27:25). Was the entire population of Jerusalem, never mind the Roman empire, crowded into one courtyard to utter these terrible words? No! But everybody of a strictly limited group is meant.

"And all the city was gathered together at the door" (Mark 1:33). Not every man, woman and child are meant.

"And when they had found him, they said unto him, all men seek for thee" (Mark 1:37). This cannot be taken universally, since there were people in China who were not seeking Him.

"And all men did marvel" (Mark 5:20). The Greeks, the Ethiopians, the people in North and South America were not marvelling at this time.

"And when he had called all the people unto him" (Mark 7:14). Not everybody is meant.

"All men mused in their hearts of John whether he were the Christ or not" (Luke 3:15). "All men" here certainly cannot mean the entire human race. The Portuguese were not musing.

"All the people will stone us for they be persuaded that John was a prophet" (Luke 20:6). The Pharisees were concerned about a riot in the population, not one which would involve every man, woman and child of the nation, never mind a riot which would spread to all people of the earth!

"Behold the same baptizeth, and all men come unto him" (John 3:26). If all men absolutely really were coming to Him, there would have been well nigh universal salvation. We know, of course, that relatively few were coming to Christ, certainly not all men head-for-head. It was enough to worry the Pharisees.

"All the people came unto him, and he sat down and taught them" (John 8:2). Not absolutely everybody is meant.

"If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and our nation" (John 11:48). If all men believed on Christ that would also include the Romans, and the Pharisees themselves. Rather "all men" means a significant number of converts, enough to attract the attention of the Romans, something the Pharisees feared.

"Praising God and having favour with all men" (Acts 2:47). The early church was hated by many, and certainly did not have the favour of absolutely all.

"Many of them which used curious arts brought their books and burned them before all men" (Acts 19:19). "Before all men" means in public, it was a public display of repentance, not a gathering of the population of the entire world to witness a book burning!

"Diana, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth" (Acts 19:27). Not everybody on planet earth at that time worshipped Diana; there were a multitude of idols worshipped all around the planet.

"This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people" (Acts 21:28). Paul had not even reached every human being. What is meant is that everywhere Paul travelled he taught the people the gospel.

"For you shall be his witness unto all men of what you have seen and heard" (Acts 22:15). There will never be a time when every person head-for-head will have heard the gospel. All men will hear, but not all men head-for-head.

"For your obedience is come abroad unto all men" (Rom. 16:19). Did the people in Tibet know about the obedience of the church in Rome? Of course not!

We have seen, by allowing Scripture to speak for itself, that the term "all men" does not mean "every individual on planet earth from Adam until the end of time." Rather it means, all of a specific group or a majority of a specific group or all kinds of people without distinction. Some examples from everyday speech illustrate this. If a family is preparing to go to the beach and the father (standing in the garden, within earshot of the neighbours) shouts out, "Right, everybody into the car!" do all the children in the neighbourhood jump into the car and think they are included? No, everybody knows that the father means only his family. Imagine that a teacher takes her class to the museum. She tells her class, "OK, the bus is leaving at 5PM. I want everybody on the bus at 5PM sharp. We don’t want anybody left behind." Nobody interprets the teacher to mean, "I want the entire human race on this bus, and I don’t want any of the entire human race to be left behind." Such would be absurd! Yet that is the way Arminians wrest the Scriptures, when they insist that all means the entire human race.


II. World

The other word misused by Arminians is "world." Again, the term is taken (when it refers to the extent of God’s love or the extent of Christ’s atonement) to mean the entire human race without exception. But is that really what the Bible means?

"That all the world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1). The Emperor was not planning to tax all men, women and children on planet earth. He meant to tax all adults with taxable assets in the Roman empire.

"If thou do these things, show thyself to the world" (John 7:4). Christ’s brethren were not asking Him to reveal Himself to the Celts or the Africans, but to the general populace of Jerusalem.

"Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? Behold, the world is gone after him" (John 12:19). The Pharisees themselves had not gone after Him, nor indeed had the Russians, the Australians and people of many other places.

"These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also" (Acts 17:6). The Apostles’ labours had not caused the slightest stir in Peru! They had caused a stir among Jews and Gentiles alike, wherever they went, but not in "the world" in an absolute sense.

"That we should not be condemned with the world" (I Cor 11:32). The world cannot mean "the entire population of mankind" as obviously believers are not included.

"And all the world wondered after the beast and they worshipped the dragon" (Rev. 13:3). Not every man head-for-head will do so for the saints won't (v. 7).

If the term "world" does not mean "every individual person in the world" what does the term mean, and why does the Holy Spirit use it?

The New Testament was written to people who believed that God was the God of the Jews only and that the Gentiles were accursed. John 3:16 was spoken to a Pharisee who held that opinion. To correct this error, the apostles and Christ used words such as "the world" and "all men." In some texts the term is obviously "all of us" or all believers or all the elect. That is especially true of II Peter 3:9 where the qualifying phrase "longsuffering to us-ward" is deliberately emphasized (cf. 1:1; 3:1, 8).

The New Testament is mainly a collection of letters written to believers. The Bible is not written to unbelievers, so when we see words such as "us," "we," "beloved," we should consider that believers are being addressed, not the world at large.

"For I say through the grace of God given to me, to every man THAT IS AMONG YOU, not to think more highly than he ought to think but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to every man [among you] the measure of faith" (Rom. 12:3). It should not be necessary to point out to Arminians, who claim this means that all men in the world have faith, and that it is up to each individual to use his "portion" aright, that this is not what Paul is saying. He is addressing and talking about the church.

Again, "Whom [i.e., Jesus] we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:28). The "every man" phrases are not universal here either. To say so is absurd. Paul certainly never met "every man" in the world, and could not teach and warn every man.

Arminians criticize Calvinists for "interpreting" the terms "world" and "all men" for their own purposes. But what do the words "propitiation" (I John 2:2), "taketh away sins" (John 1:29), "tasted death" (Heb. 2:9) and "Saviour" (John 4:42) mean?

Propitiation means to turn away the wrath of God by means of a sacrifice. Jesus has propitiated the wrath of God and nobody for whom Christ was propitiation can suffer the wrath of God. By latching on to "the whole world" in I John 2:2 the Arminian fails to understand the meaning of propitiation. The Arminian believes that Christ can be the propitiation for a sinner, and that God still retains His wrath and sends the objects of that propitiatory sacrifice to hell!

A saviour is somebody who actually saves, not somebody who tries to save, wants to save, makes people saveable if they will accept it. A Saviour actually saves. The Arminian believes that Jesus is the "Saviour of the world" (John 4:42) yet not all that world are saved!

Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every man. Yet, the Arminian believes, that some sinners for whom Christ tasted death, must drink the dregs of God’s wrath to all eternity. That is the portion of the cup of the wicked (Ps. 11:6), not of the elect!

Christ is "the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), yet many of those sinners, says the Arminian, go to hell. Evidently, then, Christ did not take away their sins, nor can it be said that "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them" (II Cor. 5:19), if all men head for head (the Arminian understanding of the "world") are meant. Many in the world will have their trespasses imputed to them, and will perish in hell.

Words in Scripture have definite meanings, and it is evident that the Arminians wrest the Scriptures in a vain attempt to make salvation available to all. Let us contend for the truth of sovereign, particular, efficacious grace!