“Jesus did not want to save all men!” Recently I had a discussion with a person who said that Jesus did not intend to save all men. The person used John 17:20 to support his statement. I was taken off guard, for a brief moment, because I knew the statement was not true. The context of the passage is the Lord’s high priestly prayer of John 17. Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and left the disciples to pray alone to the Father. In the prayer He said,
15 “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. 18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. 20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: (John 17:15-22 NKJ)
Jesus was praying for His disciples (minus Judas) and those who would believe in His name (John 17:20). The person’s point was that Jesus only prayed for the elect and not for the “non-elect.” Jesus is certainly referring to the elect of God in John 17:20. He asked the Father not to take them out, but to protect them from the evil one (Satan).
The follower of Jesus is not of the world (John 17:16). Only the believer in Jesus can be sanctified by the truth, because the unbeliever rejects the truth (John 17:17). Jesus does not send the unbeliever into the world; He sends the believer to be His witnesses (John 17:18; cf. Acts 1:8).
So when Jesus makes the prayer for those who will believe Him (John 17:20), does that mean Jesus does not want to save all men?! When you thrust theology onto Scripture, you force a meaning that is not there and it is called eisegesis – reading the meaning into Scripture.
There are many passages that describe how Jesus died for all men. Paul wrote, “For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:10 NKJ) Jesus is the Savior of all, but only those who trust in Him by faith receive salvation and we find out who the elect are. Paul also wrote, “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died.” (2 Cor. 5:14 NKJ) Paul transitions from the love that Jesus demonstrated to our thankful love in response to His work on the cross, which compels us to live for the sake of others, because He died, not just for us, but for all. If He died only for the elect, then Paul would have said, “…that if One died for us, then we elect all died.” John wrote, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2 NKJ) Jesus died for the elect, “not for ours only,” and Jesus was the propitiation for the “whole world,” those who would not believe in Jesus.
When Jesus prayed in John 17:20, He was in fact praying for those who would believe in Him. However, it is an argument of silence to say that Jesus did not pray for all men and desire all men to be saved. Peter said it best, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9 NKJ)
The problem is not confusion in the Scriptures. The problem is forcing the Scriptures to say something based on a particular theology rather than the natural reading of the text. The problem is forcing the text to mean what a person wants it to mean to rationalize a particular theology. Jesus came to seek the lost, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10 NKJ)