The book of 1 John is an immensely practical book and one that every Christian should be very familiar with. This Epistle was written so that professing Believers could have full assurance concerning their salvation in Christ. In the words of John himself, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
According to F.F. Bruce the expression “by this we know” (or something similar) occurs frequently whenever a practical test of verbal profession is laid down (note 2:3, 2:5; 3:10, 16, 19, 20; 4:2, 13; 5:2). 1 John is a lot like the book of James in that it forces us to consider whether or not our profession of faith matches our every day practices (and vice versa).
Today we are going to briefly scratch the surface of 1 John 2:2 in hopes that it may shed some light on our current discussion regarding the atonement. Obviously this is one of those controversial passages that often comes up during limited atonement discussions. John’s purpose in including verse 2 was not to answer any direct questions regarding limited atonement per say which is why we need to briefly examine the context surrounding this text.
In verses 6, 8, and 10 of Chapter 1 we find the repeated phrase “if we say.” In other words if one professes they are a Christian but don’t walk a certain way (v. 6), or repent a certain way (vv. 8, 10), then they’re spiritual phonies. Obviously there is nothing more important in all of life than to be certain about our salvation in Christ (2 Cor 13:5, 2 Peter 1:10). Sadly many people today (and many in John’s time) have a false sense of security in regards to their relationship with Jesus Christ. In verse 8 and in verse 10 of Chapter 1 a professing believer claimed to “have no sin”. A lot could and should be said about these verses but suffice to say one needs to admit that they are guilty and totally depraved before God will ever forgive him or her (v. 9) of their sins (Luke 18:13). One also needs to acknowledge this before Christ will serve as their Advocate (2:1).
John’s desire was that as we reflect on the wonder of Jesus Christ and the glory of the cross that it would motivate us to pursue holiness (“I am writing these things that you may not sin”), but John knew because of our sinful outer man (to borrow Paul’s language in Rom 6-7) that even blood bought Christians would fall short. I believe John is reminding us that when we do sin (after we by God’s grace come back to our spiritual senses) we need to quickly run to our Advocate. As broken vessels we should humbly confess our sins to God and then believe with full assurance that He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We have this assurance because Jesus Christ is pleading His merits before the Father on our behalf. “Christ’s intercession is the continual application of His death to our salvation” (Calvin). In the words of one scholar, 1 John 2:1-2 describes the basis on which Christians enjoy a restored relationship with God after we sin. What a heartening portion of Scripture this really is.
So why in the middle of this encouraging discussion does John say Jesus Christ (Himself) is the propitiation not only for our sins but also for those of the whole world?
Jesus Christ as the sinless substitute (see Romans 5, Isaiah 53, 2 Cor. 5:21) bore the full wrath and fury of holy God. Thus God’s wrath was wholly satisfied in the death of this God-man. This is the most wonderful example of love the world has ever and will ever witness (note 1 John 4:10-11); In that while we were yet sinners Christ died for US, the just for the unjust. Even in writing these familiar truths my hearth wells up with emotion and gratitude. The old gospel truths never get old or become boring to the beloved of God. We must never lose sight of this even in the midst of a academic dialogue regarding the extent and the intent of the atonement.
Ok so back to the discussion at hand. What does the Greek word holos (translated “whole”) really mean? In context does it really imply that Christ suffered in some way on behalf of the entire world? If you believe contextually this is the best interpretation then you probably will hold some variation of universal atonement or at the very least the SFA position. With that said, one could also argue that the whole world here simply means men from every tongue, tribe, and nation (peoples throughout the whole world or something similar). If that’s your understanding of this text (and the emphasis you place on it) then you probably hold to John Owen’s interpretation of the atonement or the SFA view. Over the years, much ink has been spilled over this discussion so I am not going to even try and solve this debate for you today. Whatever you do, don’t allow your theological system to drive your exegesis (in this or in any portion of Scripture). Let the Scripture passages speak for themselves and then and only then try and harmonize or systematize your theology. Too often Reformed Christians and Arminian Christians have been guilty of this hermeneutical error.
Is it possible that Christ did suffer on the Cross for the non-elect but in that suffering only purchased non-redemptive benefits for them? C. H. Spurgeon taught that, “Christ bought some good things for all men and all good things for some men.” What role does the atonement play in this discussion?
John Stott taught that “this cannot be pressed into meaning that all sins are automatically pardoned through the propitiation of Christ, but that a universal pardon is offered for (the sins of) the whole world and is enjoyed by those who embrace it (1 John 4:19, 14; John 3:16).”
Does this passage support the concept that the atonement is unlimited in its worth, value, and scope? In the words of Steele and Thomas, “but it (the atonement) was not limited in value for it was of infinite worth and would have secured salvation for everyone if this had been God’s intention.”
In my humble opinion, some pastors spend too much time focusing in on the word “world” (which can obviously mean in some contexts the earthly realm of mankind but not necessarily every individual) and not enough time on the Greek word holos (whole or entire). Smalley notes that the Greek adjective “whole”, is intensive. How than does this adjective effect our understanding of Christ’s propitiation? Finally, would the Gentile and Jewish believers that John addresses in this epistle truly believe the atonement was limited to their church family alone (or families in a specific geographic location)? I can’t imagine this was the case, but it is a possible answer. MacArthur seems to be attracted to this option in his commentary when he references the words of Caiaphas in John 11:45-52. In other words, John is saying the propitiation was not only for you (the original recipients of this letter) but was also for all those who ever would believe throughout the whole world.
MY CONCLUSION: Christ’s death on the cross did in fact secure eternal salvation for God’s elect (i.e. every person who ever will believe). God’s election was unconditional and his grace is undeserved (Eph 1-2). Many portions of Scripture, including this one, make these points crystal clear. With that said, I am still not fully convinced that the atonement of Christ was limited in extent or to put it another way that it wasn’t sufficient for the non-elect. It appears to me that the indirect implications of 1 John 2:2 do more to support a SFA view of the atonement than any other position. Good Christian men disagree on this and I by no means have all the answers. What say you? Am I missing something really obvious here?