Does “All” Ever Mean “All” in Scripture?

Eric Hankins
Eric Hankins

Eric Hankins preached a sermon on September 26, 2013 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in which he said, “All means all and that’s all all means.” Jump to 17:23 in the linked video to hear this claim. But is Hankins’ statement true? Does the Greek word “pas” (each, every, any, all, the whole, etc.) ever mean “all” categorically and apart from any limitation? There are over 1,200 occurrences of the word “pas;” so, it’s not practical to list them all here, but an examination of a concordance will show that the term “all” is almost always limited to some category. The meaning of “all” in Scripture is always determined by the context, and rarely, if ever, means “all without any kind of limitation.” Consider the first ten occurrences of the term “pas” in the Greek New Testament.

  • Matt 1:17 – “There were fourteen generations in all”
  • Matt 2:3 – “All Jerusalem
  • Matt 2:4 – “All the people’s chief priests
  • Matt 2:16 – “All the boys in Bethlehem
  • Matt 2:16 – “All that region
  • Matt 3:5 – “All Judea
  • Matt 3:5 – “All the region of the Jordan
  • Matt 3:10 – “Every tree that does not produce good fruit
  • Matt 3:15 – “Fulfill all righteousness
  • Matt 4:4 – “Every word that comes from the mouth of God

In each of these occurrences of the word “pas,” there’s some kind of categorical limitation. In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, who has never been accused of having a Calvinistic agenda, outlines a number of uses of the Greek word “pas.”  He states, “In particular, one may speak of a summative, implicative and distributive signification of pas as the term embraces either a totality or sum as an independent entity (summative), an inclusion of all individual parts or representatives of a concept (implicative), or extension to relatively independent particulars (distributive).  If the reference is to the attainment of the supreme height or breadth of a concept, we have an elative or (amplificative) significance” (Volume 5, 887).  Since the biblical writers used the word “pas” in a variety of different ways, interpreting the word requires careful attention to context.  It is, therefore, inaccurate to say as Eric Hankins does that “all means all and that’s all all means.”

There’s only one way to use the word “all” such that it means “all” without qualification, and it isn’t very useful because it’s so comprehensive. “All” only means “all without any kind of limitation” if it refers to all things and no things, created and uncreated, existent and non-existent, abstract and concrete, actual and potential, true and false, rational and irrational, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, etc. Scripture, however, very rarely, if ever, uses the word “all” in that kind of comprehensive way.

What About “All” in Romans 3:23?
Some may suggest that the word “all” in Romans 3:23 is a place where “all means all without any limitation.”  Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  But I submit that the meaning of the word “all”  is limited here too.  Romans 3:23 doesn’t mean that all of the angels sinned, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Jesus sinned.

If we look at the wider context of Romans 1-3, we’ll see that Paul uses the word “all” in Romans 3:23 to speak of all humanity since creation, both Jews and Greeks.  But in Romans 3, Paul goes even further to show that the word “all” in Romans 3:23 doesn’t just mean “all ethnic groups have sinned,” “all in general have sinned,” or that “every kind of person has sinned.” Rather Paul shows that each and every individual of fallen humanity has sinned.  In Romans 3:10-11, Paul makes this crystal clear: “None is righteous, no, not oneno one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  The fact that Paul denies the goodness of any fallen individual in Romans 3:10-11 clarifies his meaning of “all” in Romans 3:23.  There would be little reason for Paul to deny that any individual is good, not even one, if “all” always meant “all” without any qualification.  Thus we see that the word “all” in Romans 3:23 alone isn’t sufficient to prove that each and every individual descended from Adam has sinned.  But the context of Romans 3 demonstrates that that’s exactly what Paul means.

What About “All” in Romans 11:32?
When Eric Hankins said that “all means all and that’s all all means,” he was referring to Romans 11:32, among other passages (16:53 in the video).  Romans 11:32 says that God has “mercy on all.” But in Romans 11:32, does “all” mean “all” and is that really “all all means?” Is Romans 11:32 saying that God has mercy on Satan and his angels? I assume Eric Hankins would want to limit the meaning of “all” to human beings and exclude the devil and his demons. What about human beings who have already died and are under punishment at this very moment? Does God have “mercy on all” human beings, including those currently under punishment?  I suspect that Eric Hankins would want to limit the meaning of “all” even further to something like “all fallen human beings while they are alive” in order to avoid serious theological error.

But does Romans 11:32 teach that Christ has “mercy on all” human beings while they are alive?  Is that the category of Romans 11 itself?

Romans 11 is dealing with elect Israelites and elect Gentiles.  In Romans 11:5-7, Paul writes, “So too at the present time, there is a remnant chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.”  These verses tell us that God’s saving grace and mercy extends to the “elect,” while “the rest,” the non-elect, are “hardened.”

The phrase “mercy on all” in Romans 11:32 is limited to Jews and Gentiles (Rom 11:25-26) who are part of the “remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5) and “the elect” (Rom 11:7). In Romans 11:30-32 Paul is saying that the elect Gentile believers in Rome had all once been disobedient but that they were shown mercy.  So also, Paul says, elect Israelites have been consigned to disobedience that God might have mercy on them.

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34 Responses to “Does “All” Ever Mean “All” in Scripture?”

  1. Rick Mang

    I would think that the “all means all” idea would also present tremendous problems for the interpretation of 1 Tim. 2.4. It either leads to openness, or universalism, or a seriously confused God! Certainly none of these options is tenable.


  2. Rick Mang

    As far as does “all” ever mean “all”, I would venture to put forward Romans 1.18.


    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Hey Rick, Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

      I would say that the term “all” is even limited here. It’s strictly limited to the category of “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Though God’s wrath will also be poured out on the ungodliness and unrighteousness of fallen angels, I would say that this particular verse doesn’t teach that. Thanks for your comment brother!

  3. Tom,
    Utterly SUPERB!

    I suggest that a helpful ‘next step’ is to invite Eric Hankins to respond EXEGETICALLY to the subtance and specific points in this article.

    THANKS for the irenic, gracious and substantive exegetical scholarship.

    Tom Fillinger
    IgniteUS, Inc.
    Cullman AL 803 413 3509

  4. Excellent. This very topic, including the statement, came up in my SS class recently. A mom of a child who’d heard it from a children’s camp speaker asked me about it. I was able to demonstrate that it was incorrect with a couple of examples, but the research you’ve done here will greatly support why it’s a wrong statement.

    Thanks for the legwork!

  5. ScScott ShaveroStt Shaver

    The article basicly refutes that “all” means “all” which contradicts also the biblical point clearly and concisely stated by Dr. Hankins.

    “All” means all and that’s all “All” means.

    Why not move from a single emphasis on TULIP soteriology to other shared aspects of the greater “reformed” tradition?

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Scott, thanks for your comment. If you’ll scroll down the recent articles published at the Founders Blog, you’ll see that we have primarily written about the shared aspects of the confessional Reformed tradition. Our posts have addressed Christ centered preaching, expository preaching, covenant theology, law/gospel theology, the regulative principle of worship, the Christian Sabbath, and Reformation and Baptist history. Rarely have we written about TULIP soteriology, though we certainly believe that is important too.

  6. Thanks for this. “All means all…” was a favorite expression of a the late Dr. Paul Fink, a longtime professor of Biblical studies at Liberty University. Though I never took one of his classes, I remember several of his students reciting this in conversations. I also remember at least two professors who used it ironically when discussing an “all” passage which, in context, obviously did not mean “ALL.” My eyes were opened when my beloved friend, Dr. Donald Fowler, used the phrase ironically concerning a certain “all” text, with a good-natured jab at his colleague, Dr. Fink. I recognized that the phrase, amongst many others, was used as a rhetorical device in place of good exegesis. You’ve done a tremendous job in confronting that particular ill-conceived and rather lazy phrase with solid evidence to the contrary. Thanks!

  7. Joseph Spell

    In the famous words of Forrest Gump, ” …and that’s all I have to say about that.”

  8. My question is this: Practically speaking, is it wrong for me to assume that all people are valuable to God and worth pursuing with the gospel? In other words, should I not be worried about pursuing my neighbors with the gospel? Right now, the biggest conviction and burden in my life is that I have 20-30 neighbors who don’t know Christ. However, if Calvinism is true, and “all” doesn’t mean “all” I can sleep well at night knowing that I don’t have a responsibility to tell my neighbors about Jesus and the gospel. This is not a passive-aggressive question. This is a real-life, bloody, stay-up-at night kind of question!

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Brad, thank you for your comment. Certainly all people are valuable and worth pursuing with the gospel. Scripture teaches that all men are made in the image of God. In the Canons of Dort, the original “five points of Calvinism,” we read: “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”

      The Bible (and true Calvinism) teaches that we are responsible to preach the gospel to every creature. Acts 17:30 says, “He commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Of course, even in this text, “all” is limited to human “people.” Rocks, animals, and demons, for example, aren’t commanded to repent.)

      Historically speaking, true Calvinism was the cause of every major missions movement. Far from killing missions, Calvinism produces missions and encourages it. Check out this great post by Jason Helopoulos:

      • Thanks Tom!

        I think about this often. With my neighbors and non-Christian friends I default to the “all means all” position. Practically, it seems more right to me to declare to people the offer of salvation and that God loves them and sent His Son to die for them.

        From a Calvinist perspective, it seems like I would have to be pretty vague and impersonal about the work of Christ, i.e. I would have to say something like, “Jesus died for people, but I can’t be sure that He died for you.”

        Do you have any gospel presentations from a Calvinist position? The only evangelists that I can think of today are people like Billy Graham, Greg Laurie, and Mark Driscoll. And all of them seem to present the gospel in a very personal and non-Calvinistic way.

  9. Hi Dr. Hicks,

    Thanks for your explanation of how “all” does have limitations. I wonder, could similar limitations be applied to “none” or “no one” of Romans 3 or elsewhere?

    Also, are the Gentiles referred to as the elect in Romans chapter 11? Or does elect in chapter 11 refer to Messianic Israelites only (Paul, etc)? v28 seems to suggest the election as referring to Israel in general. Perhaps I am reading v28 with a wrong understanding? “In regard to the gospel [of Jesus] they [Israel] are enemies [hardened] for your sake [believing Gentiles who have been benefited by being grafted in], but in regard to election [promises] they are dearly loved [will be grafted back in] for the sake of the [patriarchal] fathers [to whom those promises were made].”

    I would appreciate your thoughts if you have the time.



  10. Tom Hicks
    Tom Hicks

    Hi Dozier, thanks for your comment! You ask whether “none” or “no one” could have similar limitations. Certainly it can and does! Context determines which “ones” are intended. In Romans 3, the context is fallen humanity.

    You ask “Are the Gentiles referred to as the elect in Romans 11?” I would say there are three categories of election in Romans 11.

    1. National election of ethnic Israel (Rom 11:28).
    2. Individual election of ethnic Israelites to salvation (Rom 11:5-7).
    3. Individual election of ethnic Gentiles to salvation (Rom 11:25).

    By the time we get to Romans 11:32, Paul is summing up his larger argument in Rom 9-11 that what matters for salvation is individual election, not national election. He says that the believing Gentiles (who are elect – Rom 11:25) were once disobedient, but now have been shown mercy. Likewise, elect ethnic Israelites will also be shown mercy. When Paul says “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), I believe he means that all the individually elect of national Israel will be saved, since “all Israel” is parallel to the “fulness of the Gentiles,” which I take to mean the full number of the Gentiles, or elect Gentiles (Rom 11:25-26).

    Hope that helps some!

    • Hi Dr. Hicks,

      I understand what you mean: “the fullness of the Gentiles” = elect Gentiles.

      Thank you for your thoughts on this.

  11. Good article. I run into this continually when working with Universalists. My rule: “All means all, except when it doesn’t.” (LOL!) My point, of course, is that a blanket rule (such as “all means all”) is a much easier – and simplistic – approach than a careful exegesis of the author’s meaning and context. Good theology always requires hard work.

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Hey Maurice, good word brother. Good theology always requires hard work, indeed!

  12. Hank Walker

    Thank you for this well written piece. It’s terrifying to consider what is passed off – enthusiastically and with great authority – as biblical exegesis. Hankins has the credentials to suggest that
    he should know better. Nevertheless, he seems to have a habit of saying and writing things that are thinly documented, biased and irresponsible. It is of great concern that he and his ilk are fighting so hard to extinguish the Reformed Resurgence within the Convention that they are willing to preach such sloppy sermons and write things that are either badly misguided or patently false. Forgive me for not being as irenic in my comments as one might wish, but if I am wrong, I will gladly retract.

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Thanks for the comment Hank! I share your desire for solid exegesis and sound doctrine.


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