1 John 2:2 and the atonement of Christ

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?

17 responses to this post.

  1. Caleb,

    Good post.

    Since John is the author, do you see any parallels between 1 John 2:2 and John 11:51-52?

  2. Paul,

    I don’t think i would say in 1 John 2:2 that the same author (John) is thinking back to his gospel in John 11:51-52.

    I do see parallels between the theology of the atonement that both teach and support. They obv. do not contradict each other. They may be focusing in on different aspects of the atonement though.

    I would have to do more research in the text of John 11 before i could really comment more.


  3. Caleb and Paul:

    I think those in the “unlimited” camp would say that “our sins” refers to those who were currently believers and that “those of the whole world” refers to those who were currently unbelievers, in keeping with John’s use of “the whole world” later in the same epistle (5:19).

    In contrast, those in the “limited” camp would point to the meaning of the word “propitiation” as the strength of their view. In addition, they would point to the immediate context in which John’s readers are being assured and comforted that, even though they do sin, they have an Advocate with the Father who is the propitiation for their sins. As John Owen pointed out in The Death of Death, how would this truth provide any consolation to believers, “for what comfort can arise from hence to them, by telling them that Christ died for innumerable that shall be damned?” (p. 221)

    When MacArthur preached on 1 John 2:2 a few years ago at GCC, I thought it was the most compelling treatment I had ever heard of this verse from a “limited” perspective. A cornerstone of the argument (which is also set forth by Owen) seems to be that John was an apostle to the Jews and that he was writing to a Jewish audience in 1 John. The idea is that “the whole world” refers to Gentiles who are among the elect. (Do I have that right? It’s been a while since I heard the sermon, and I don’t have MacArthur’s commentary on 1 John.) If you can get a copy of that sermon, it really was excellent. I believe the weakness of this argument is that it is difficult to picture an exclusively Jewish church so late in the first century. But it’s definitely something to look into.

  4. Matt,

    That is why we gave you the big signing bonus…Great thoughts.

    What i think many scholars have tried to say is that perhaps their is a more biblical position that still affirms the intent of the atonement was clearly limited but that in some regards the extent was universal.

    I have never preached through the entire book of 1 John but i don’t see a Jewish audience (or church) in mind. This book does not read to me like a Hebrews or a Matthew.

    MacArthur believes this book was written from Ephesus and that he was confronting an incipient form of Gnosticism. MacArthur sees this book being composed around 90-95 AD. MacArthur believes it was written to a group of churches in/around Asia Minor, near John’s home church at Ephesus.

    His commentary notes, “Little is known for certain about the recipients of 1 John. Most likely, they were primarily Gentiles, as the absence of the OT quotes and references (apart from 3:12) and the concluding warning against idolatry (5:21) suggest.”

  5. So much for my claim that MacArthur saw an exclusively Jewish audience in 1 John!

  6. He may have changed his mind since he writes his commentaries after he preaches his sermons.

    Perhaps my letters to him are making a difference?!? :)

  7. It is seemingly odd to me that most discussions of this verse center around the word “world” (as I think one of you pointed out). However I think the majority of the theological capital should be spent on the word “propitiation” since that seems to be the focal point of the sentence as a description of who Christ is.

    Also, maybe this is one of those things that is too obvious but, nothing is mentioned in this verse about potentialities or the like. It says “Jesus is the propitiation” and it says this with great certainty. Theologically, this seems to be a problem for the SFA camp. I’m not sure that I have ever read anyone tackle how the question of Jesus’ death is propitious for those who will never believe (potentially or not). Any insights?

  8. Paul,

    You are correct the word propitiation is probably the KEY theological word in that sentence. Many of the commentaries agree.

    I have read some answers regarding your 2nd question but have not found any great answers.

    This is one of the problems i have. All the major views have problems or unexplainable tensions attached to them. This makes having an absolute conviction rather difficult. :)

  9. Brethren:

    The doctrine of propitiation: is this:”that God loved the objects of His wrath. so much that He gave His own Son to the end that he by His blood (death) should make provision for the removal of this
    wrath. It was Christ’s to deal with the wrath so that those loved would no lover be the objects of wrath, and love would achieve its aim of making the children of God’s good pleasure.”

    So the work of Christ in our salvation was to provide the atonement, the redemption, the payment required by God to lifted His wrath against the ones whom He loved. So does the work of Christ
    lifted the wrath of God to all mankind in the world? Are all sins of all mankind make amends by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross? Did Christ make infallibly secure the salvation of all those who believe? John 3:16 “For whosoever believe.”

    Is the thought in 1 John 2:2 the idea that those who sin have Christ as their advocate, one who will stand in for before the Father? So who is Christ going to stand in for with the Father? Those whom Christ died for on the cross?

    And doesn’t the work of Christ on the Cross secures the salvation of those for whom it was intended? And herein becomes the debate. Whom was the sacrifice of Christ on the cross intened for. Some would say “the whole world.” They meaning the whole world could be saved by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Many believe that its possible that all mankind could be saved, if they heard the gospel and believed. Because of the term in 1 John 2:2 “whole world.”

    So did God the Father lay upon His own Son Jesus Christ the iniquities of all the world? And God made Jesus Christ to be sin for all. God in Christ appeasing the world to Himself. Thus the issue become to so many, God made it possible that those so who ever believe can and will be saved from the wrath of God.


  10. I wonder why John did not say, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those children who are scattered throughout the world”? The prophecy in John 11 is very clear. Had he said that very thing here this discussion would be over as far as I’m concerned. I guess you could say that text is clearer than this one…

    One day we’ll all know the answer to these questions won’t we! Of course we might not care so much when we’re in His awesome and holy presence. Great discussion here gents!

  11. Caleb

    There has to be a translation somewhere with that verse you mention. If we could put several verses together we would come up with that understanding.

    The statement “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.” A powerful statement.

    I listen to John MacArthur’s sermons on I John and on Lordship Salvation and I am so convicted of my on sinfulness. How short I come in reflecting the glory and holiness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    I liked the statement you also made. “We by God’s grace come back to our spiritual senses we need to quickly run to our Advocate. Thank goodness that verse is in the Bible.

    I am thankful and humbled that Christ’s intercession is the continual application of His death to our salvation.” Our salvation doesn’t stop at the time we were regenerated but a continued process of Christ loving hand in our lives.

    What is so amazing is Jesus Christ still calls us His on of His own. Don’t he know us!!

    Thank you brothers in Christ It seems there is a sweet spirit in this blog Expository Thoughs


  12. Posted by Juan Z on April 22, 2007 at 1:39 am

    One of the things I have been looking into at school is “what were the limits of the authors who are writing letters, books etc. The reference of limit refers to the doctrinal, historical and scientific limits of the author who was writing. I have to ask myself what was in John’s view the “world”
    Caleb, I love this sentece:
    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.

    We should all post this someplace and look at it every time we try to fit Scripture into our ideas.

  13. […] Caleb Kolstad (https://expositorythoughts.wordpress.com) continues his series on the atonement with a look at 1 John 2:2. […]

  14. […] A look at 1 John 2:2. […]

  15. Posted by Walt Wise on October 14, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Hello all…Caleb, I really enjoyed your article and all the responses. Everyone is very courteous and respectful of other opinions which unfortunately is not always the case when discussing these issues. I really enjoyed the John Stott quote! That seems most in line with my own position. Ravi Zacharias is fond of saying “When you throw mud at others your hands are going to get dirty and your going to lose a lot of ground.” and I really appreciate the respectful tones from everyone here. This discussion thread really uplifted my spirit tonight as I have been debating some of these issues with a rather extreme Calvinist and the debate has been rather contentious…how nice to read this page, even though I know it’s from 2 years ago!

  16. Walt- Yes, 2 years ago… I would have to re-read my posts to see if any modications have been made with regards to my theology of the atonement. I do believe Jesus died to purchase a covenant people for the Father (Rev 5). It was an actual atonement. I also think that in “non-redemptive” terms the atonement purchased universal blessings (but obv. not salvation for all). More on that later.

    In the Lord,

  17. Posted by Nancy on April 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Does Jesus say in John 10:11 “I am the good Shepherd: the good Shepherd
    gives His Life for the GOATS???” NO! He gives His Life for His sheep.
    In Matthew 13:29-30 Jesus said the wheat and the tares would always grow together UNTIL the harvest. The tares will be burned. The wheat will be gathered unto the Lord. Jesus said in John 6:37 “ALL that the Father gives Me SHALL come to Me.” In John 6:39 “I WILL LOSE NONE!” His precious Blood was sufficient to pay the penalty for SIN, period.
    He tasted death for every man. It is the Potter that has sovereign power over the clay. Deut. 29:29 Some things will be kept only to God, but we have 66 wonderful Books to study and ponder and keep in
    our hearts. I believe the crosswork was complete and total atonement,
    but only God came draw a sinner to Himself! TO GOD ALONE BE ALL GLORY!

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