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I’ve been a Civil War buff for years, and a Lincoln buff. I’ve never read anything that would indicate what my evangelical brothers would call “saving faith” in Lincoln’s life. A few who knew Lincoln claimed him to have such faith. Some of Lincoln’s own words are laced with religious language. His mission in life was certainly, on balance, a moral mission. But as the above article documents (though with evident bias), Lincoln could not find in orthodoxy a creed that he could subscribe to without reservation. For example, the above article (lifted directly from a 1936 book by Franklin Steiner called Religious Beliefs of our Presidents, quotes Curtis:

“Abraham Lincoln’s belief was clear and fixed so far as it went, but he rejected important dogmas which are essential to salvation by some of the evangelical denominations. ‘Whenever any Church will inscribe over its altar as a qualification for membership the Saviour’s statement of the substance of the law and the gospel, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,” that Church will I join with all my heart and soul.'” (Abraham Lincoln, p. 375.) 

Like me, Lincoln was troubled by the inability of orthodoxy to provide a reasonable explanation for all the misery in the world, or for the redress of wrongs that are obvious on all sides in human history. It troubled Lincoln that, on the one hand, orthodoxy teaches that a man can escape all consequences of a lifetime of debauchery or exploitation, simply by saying a few words on his deathbed. Steiner documents that Lincoln was equally troubled by the orthodox concept that a person who, like Lincoln himself, finds the traditional church’s formula for salvation inconsistent, or unconvincing, will be remanded to an eternity of torment as a result.

For example, Steiner quotes William Seward’s recollection of a time when Lincoln read a newspaper clipping to make a joke in one of their meetings:

“I recall President Lincoln’s story of the intrusion of the Universalists into the town of Springfield.
“The several orthodox Churches agreed that their pastors should preach down the heresy. One of them began his discourse with these emphatic words: ‘My brethren, there is a dangerous doctrine creeping in among us. There are those who are teaching that all men will be saved; but, my dear brethren, we hope for better things.” (Travels Around the World, p. 545.) 

No question about it, there just seems to be an aversion to any success on God’s part in doing what God has stated to be his will: the salvation of all people. (1 Timothy 2:4)

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry argues on this text that God only wishes or desires men to be saved, but that man’s choices will trump God’s preferences; and they present the idea that the only opportunity to avail oneself of the sacrifice of Christ is in this life. According to them, once you die, it’s too late.

They say:

Does this verse prove that God will save all people? No, it simply states that God “will have all men to be saved.” The word “will” in Greek is “thelo.” It means “will” (1 Cor. 7:36), or “desire” (Mark 9:35; Phil. 4:16). God desires that all people be saved. But, not all people will be saved. 

I need to respectifully disagree here. Let’s talk about “thelo” first. This is what the Blue Letter Bible lexicon says (Strong’s #2309):

1) to will, have in mind, intend

a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose

b) to desire, to wish

c) to love

1) to like to do a thing, be fond of doing

d) to take delight in, have pleasure

The word count in the KJV for the use of thelo is as follows: will/would 159, will/would have 16, desire 13, desirous 3, list 3, to will 2, misc 4; 210

So, out of 210 occurrences of this word, the vast majority are translated “will”, meaning, most commonly, to will, have in mind, intend; to be resolved or determined, to purpose.

Now, if this were a man we were talking about, I don’t suppose it would make much difference whether we said “will” or “wish”, “desire” or “intend”. But this is God we are talking about. This verse is saying that God purposes, or intends, or if you prefer, takes delight in, the idea that “all men be saved.”

Those who ascribe to God greatness, sovereignty, all power, etc. can’t have it both ways. Either he has the power to do what he wills or purposes to do, or he does not. To those who read the Bible and take it as God’s word, there is a real challenge here. God states that he will accomplish all he says (Isaiah 55:11); that he will do all he intends, indeed, all he pleases.

In fact, an excellent source for just how much God claims the power to accomplish what he intends, is the Calvinist listing of God’s sovereignty at mslick.com

I readily concede that many verses also indicate that in the end, there will be unrepentant sinners who will not be saved eternally, that is, will not gain everlasting life. But I think there is a much better way to understand the 1 Tim 2:4-6 verse and many others. The key is in looking more closely at what is meant most often by the term “saved” or “salvation”.

In mainstream Christian teaching, when it says “saved”, it is assumed to mean “given eternal life irrevocably”. I don’t agree that this is what is meant by most scriptures on the topic. For example, the 1 Tim. 2:4-6 verse introduces an apositive phrase that restates the meaning in different words. It says, “to come to an accurate knowledge of the truth.”

I believe that is the solution to the problem. God has willed or intended, purposed since the beginning of time, that mankind will be saved and come to an accurate personal knowledge of the truth. Salvation is not, in this limited sense, a guarantee of eternal life, but rather a guarantee of release from “the fall” and “original sin” as a Calvinist would put it. In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. In Christ, we are restored all. All. A-L-L. Jesus Christ tasted death for every man. All people will experience this “good tidings of great joy.” The Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces. The ransomed of the Lord will return, the stumbling blocks will be removed, the highway will be a wide, easy road of holiness, which the unclean shall not pass over, but it is FOR the UNCLEAN. The wayfaring, man, though a fool, (though an unbeliever or atheist or backslid Christian or worldly Christian or unregenerate Christian or violent, nasty quasi-Christian, or Nazi or Moslem or Buddhist or Satanist in previous times) will not err therein.

Now, once the people learn God’s ways, learn to speak the language of God’s grace, come to bow their knee to Christ and acknowledge God’s glory, then there will still be a test, as Jesus describes in Matthew 25 and Revelation 20. It is not a foregone conclusion that all those who know the truth, and have the ability to obey the truth, will indeed pursue and love the truth. Some will choose to forget God, and they will be returned to sheol — oblivion. (The Psalm 9:17 text just cited clearly refers to people who come to an accurate knowledge of the truth, and then turn away from that knowledge. You can’t forget unless you have already known.) Only this time, the 2nd death, will be permanent. No resurrection.

There is so much more. Another day to explore it some more.

But in summary, I am happy, and I believe God is happy, because there is a plan in place that is sensitive and generous in spirit, as Lincoln was. It is a plan that includes the likes of Lincoln, who did not apparently arrive at a conviction that Jesus was his savior, but who did hope that God is good. As Steiner put it:

An old edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica says: “His [Lincoln’s] nature was deeply religious, but he belonged to no denomination; he had faith in the eternal justice and boundless mercy of Providence; and made the Golden Rule of Christ his practical creed.” The 14th edition of this great Encyclopædia speaks more precisely: “The measure of his difference from most of the men who surrounded him is best gauged by his attitude toward the fundamentals of religion. For all his devotion to his cause he did not allow himself to believe that he knew the mind of God with regard to it. He was never so much the mystic as in his later days and never so far removed from the dogmatist. Here was the final flowering of that mood which appears to have lain at the back of his mind from the beginning — his complete conviction of a reality of a supernatural world joined with a belief that it was too deep for man to fathom. His refusal to accept the ‘complicated’ statement of doctrines which he rejected, carried with it a refusal to predicate the purpose of the Almighty.