“And He (Jesus) is propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only; but also for the whole world.” I John 2:2
Here we have a text that has often been used by non-Biblical (i.e. — non-Reformed) people to teach the essentially Arminian idea of a hypothetical universal atonement. Now, clearly if the passage is to used as the basis of any wrong teaching it would have to be the wrong teaching of ‘Universal Atonement’ since a non-contextual reading (context being the book of I John, The epistles of John, The writings of John, The New Testament and finally the whole of revelation) would lead one to conclude that Jesus provided propitiation in a universal sense. Still, non-Reformed people have forever appealed to this passage as a bulwark to support hypothetical universal atonement which teaches that Jesus died for each and every person who ever lived and the reality that each and every person who has ever lived isn’t saved is due to individuals refusing Jesus propitiatory death.
B. B. Warfield following John Owen lanced this kind of reasoning,
“Is not the rejection of Jesus as our propitiation a sin? And if it is a sin, is it not like other sins, covered by the death of Christ? If this great sin is excepted from the expiatory [effectual covering] of Christ’s blood, why did not John tell us so, instead of declaring without qualification that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the whole world? And surely it would be very odd if the sin of rejection of the Redeemer were the only condemning sin, in a world the vast majority of the dwellers in which have never heard of this Redeemer, and nevertheless perish. On what ground do they perish, all their sins having been expiated?12(Never mind that such a refusal shouldn’t matter as it relates to individual salvation since in this understanding Jesus’ death propitiated for the sin of any individual’s refusal to individually accept that propitiation.)”
John Owen who wrote exhaustively on this issue of “world” and wrote sarcastically about his opponents,
The world, the whole world, all, all men! � who can oppose it? Call them [the modified Calvinists] to the context in the several places where the words are; appeal to rules of interpretation; mind them of the circumstances and scope of the place, the sense of the same words in other places; . . . [and] they. . . cry out, the bare word, the letter is theirs: “Away with the gloss and interpretation; give us [the modified Calvinists] leave to believe what the word expressly saith.”
Now historically there have been different ways to handle I John 2:2 with its ascription of universality to the propitiatory work of Christ and most of these different approaches have focused on how to understand the phrase ‘The Whole World.’ Some have handled this passage in such a way as to say that the propitiatory work of Christ affected something like the benefits of common grace that all men receive, while still holding out that the propitiation of Christ still has unique reference to the elect in terms of turning away the Father’s personal wrath from them and them alone. Now, while we might admit that the benefits of common grace that the unbeliever receives is in some way related to the Cross work of our benevolent Savior, we would have to insist that such a teaching can’t be found in I John 2:2, without a great deal of extrapolation.
Another approach is to suggest that the phrase ‘The Whole World’ is a comparative statement where the inspired Apostle is saying, “Jesus is propitiation not only for the sins of us Christians in Asia Minor but also the propitiation for the sins of Christians everywhere in the world.” Certainly the thought that the ‘whole world’ does not have to have reference to each and every individual who has ever lived has support in the New Testament. One has only to think of Colossian 1:6 where the Apostle, speaking of the word, can say it ‘has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit….” Quite obviously the Apostle isn’t saying that the word has come to each and every individual but rather is speaking in a metaphorical sense regarding how the word has proliferated. In Colossians 1:23 we see a situation where the Apostle can say that the gospel was ‘preached to every creature under heaven’ and yet quite obviously the Apostle does not mean here that people outside the Roman Empire had heard the Gospel. Indeed the meaning in Colossians 1:23 is that the Gospel had been made known indiscriminately and profusely. Now, given what we have seen from Colossians clearly the phrase ‘The Whole World’ found in I John 2:2 does not have to mean ‘each and every individual who has ever lived,’ and any interpretation of I John 2:2 that agrees with Augustine, Bede, Calvin, and Beza that what John is communicating is that the propitiation of Jesus is not limited to the saints in Asia Minor but extends to the elect in ‘The Whole World’ is to be preferred over non-Reformed interpretations if only because it provides a cogency and logical consistency that all other non-Reformed interpretations are lacking.
(And on this point of logical cogency keep in mind that many people you discuss this point with, like a person I discussed this with in their home last week, may end up telling you that it doesn’t matter if their position is a contradiction and that it is a mystery we have to accept.)
Still, the interpretation that teaches that what John is doing is making a statement comparing “Jesus’ propitiation as not only for the sins of those Christians in Asia Minor but also the propitiation for the sins of Christians everywhere in the world” is to be preferred over non-Reformed interpretations where Christ dies for each and every individual. Yet I would contend that there remain problems with that interpretation and that perhaps a better way to read this text might be found.
First, there is nothing in the book of I John that suggests that whatever John has to say is uniquely applicable to the Christians in Asia Minor. In other words, the assumption that in 2:2 John is emphasizing that the extent of the propitiatory work of Christ reaches beyond the Christians he is writing to doesn’t fit the general context of I John where we find nothing that would require the Apostle to go out of the way to make the point that Christ’s propitiation is broader than Asia Minor Christians. Indeed the contrast that the Apostle seems to be making is not between Christians in Asia Minor as well as Christians throughout the world but rather Christians as a whole as well as ‘the whole world.’ Besides, it would have hardly been considered ‘news’ to these believers in Asia Minor that Jesus’ propitiation also applies to Christians in other Christian faith communities. More on that in a moment.
Another interpretation that we have already rubbed up against is the idea that I John 2:2 does teach that every creature under heaven creature has been provided a propitiation for and so does indeed teach a Universal propitiation in a hypothetical sense. The problems with such a reading are legion.
First, such a teaching would expose the propitiatory death of Christ as largely ineffectual. Christ dies to provide universal propitiation and yet John can say of this, “propitiated for world,” that it ‘lies in the evil one.’ In such an interpretation one can only conclude that the propitiation of Christ isn’t worth the papyrus on which John wrote the words.
Second, such a teaching requires us to conclude that the propitiatory death of Jesus is not that which saves us. If Christ propitiated for the whole world and if the whole world (each and every individual) isn’t saved then that which differentiates a saved person from a non-saved person can not be the propitiatory death of Christ but rather some other differentiating dynamic. Such a teaching would make the death of Christ secondary to whatever primary dynamic is the reasons that causes people to differ in reference to salvation, and this in turn, would require honesty to say that the death of Christ in itself most definitely doesn’t save.
Third, the Apostle speaks of this propitiatory death as being a monumental benefit both to the Church and also to the World and yet if Christ’s death is so ineffectual as to the salvation of so many, wherein can be found that which is monumental in that which is said to be a benefit? Quite obviously hypothetical universal propitiation will never do.
Another way out of this labyrinth that some have offered is to divide Christ’s work of Advocacy from His work of propitiation (cmp. 2:1). This argument is construed so as to teach that while Christ is indeed the propitiation of the whole world (each and every individual who has ever lived) He is not the Advocate for the whole world. Thus Christ dies effectually for everybody but He does not pray that all that He died for will come and so some whom He died for never come and they die in their sins. In this view it is the advocacy of Christ that turns the potentiality of the propitiation into actuality. Again the problems here are burdensome. First, as has already been mentioned what such a view does is to divide the Priestly work of Christ introducing contradiction into the office of Jesus as great high priest. On one hand the High priest, in His death, provides propitiation for the sins of each and every individual while on the other hand this same great High Priest refuses to advocate for those for whom He propitiated. Can you say multiple personality disorder? Second, were such an arrangement true we would have to say that what saves us is not the Cross work of Christ but rather the Advocacy work of Christ. This view makes the effectual power of the propitiation of Christ to rest on the work of Christ’s Advocacy as opposed seeing His Advocacy as resting on the basis of the effectual power of His reconciling death. Such an interpretation must be forsworn.
So what do we make of I John 2:2? Well we could start by stating the obvious. The inspired Apostle says that Christ IS (not was) the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. It is the whole world that is propitiated for and which has an advocate before the Father. Here we are forced to embrace some kind of Universalism that is exclusive of the idea that all individual men will be saved. What kind of Universalism will serve that kind of function?
The overall answer I believe lies in embracing the idea that the reconciling work of Christ accomplished on the cross was designed so that in the outworking of history what would eventually come to pass was the salvation of the whole cosmos (“all things”). In Christ’s death all things were reconciled in principle and definitively but that reconciliation was to take place progressively in history and culminate in all things being reconciled finally in the consummation of all things. The redemptive effects of Christ’s death was accomplished at the cross and those same redemptive effects continue to extend out into the future so that the all things that were reconciled in principle and definitively in the death of Christ are progressively reconciled as the future unfolds. The final end of Christ’s work is the reconciliation of all things that was accomplished in principle and definitively in the work of our Lord Christ in his Cross work.
So, when the Apostle speaks here of Christ being the propitiation for the sins of the whole world what he has before him is the kind of Universalism that sees the end result of the work of Christ. The teleology (goal) of Christ’s propitiatory work is a universally saved world. The idea of ‘Whole World’ in I John 2:2 should not be read as Christ making propitiation for the sins of each and every individual. Neither should I John 2:2 be read as Christ providing a propitiation for each and every individual that is activated only by His particular Advocacy. Rather I John 2:2 should be read as the Apostle speaking in much the same way that Isaiah wrote in Chapter 49 in reference to the coming Messiah,
5 And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—
6he says:”It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
And so I John 2:2 while not teaching a absolute universalism is teaching that there is a universalistic quality to what Christ has done. That is to say, that because Christ has died for the sins of the whole world we can anticipate that a time is coming where the whole world will be saved. This has been called “eschatological univeralism”
That the whole world didn’t yet give evidence in John’s day or doesn’t yet give evidence in our day that Jesus has propitiated for its sins is no proof against the reality that the propitiatory work of Christ wouldn’t one day yield a whole word that would one day give evidence of Christ propitiating for the sins of the whole world.
In saying that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world John is, I believe, also speaking proleptically about what is as good as accomplished in light of the effectual power of Christ’s propitiating death. Christ propitiated for the sins of the whole world and it is only a matter of time before the whole world, like the little community that John writes to, will be saved.
Now that word proleptically.
a. Proleptic is the assignment of something, such as an event or name, to a time that precedes it, as in If you tell the cops, you’re a dead man.
So John is writing to this early church that is a small and fledgling organization, and the Apostle, understanding the impact of what Christ has done, by speaking of Christ’s propitiation for the sins of the whole world speaks of the future certain effect of what His propitiation accomplished. Sure, the whole world isn’t yet revealing the fruit of Christ’s propitiatory death but that doesn’t mean that Christ death wasn’t a propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
B. B. Warfield puts it this way,
“(Jesus) came into the world because of love of the world, in order that he might save the world, and He actually saves the world. Where the expositors have gone astray is in not perceiving that this salvation of the world was not conceived by John – any more than the salvation of the individual – accomplishing itself all at once. Jesus came to save the world, and world will through Him be saved; at the end of the day he will have a saved world to present to His father.”
Because of the propitiatory death of Christ the world in its totality will be saved. Because of the propitiatory death of Christ the New World Order of His eschatological Kingdom that He inaugurated will push back and overcome this present evil age. The Lord Jesus Christ, because of His propitiatory death, has saved the World from the destruction that was visited upon it by the work of Adam.
All of this fits wonderfully with what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8;
“because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
The present evil age World order will be delivered from the bondage of corruption precisely because it was delivered from the bondage of corruption in the propitiatory death of Christ. The mustard seed will become the huge tree. The leaven will work its way through the whole loaf. The great stone cut out of the side of the Mountain will crush pretenders to the throne. Christ will be all in all.
In this reading the contrast that is implied by the Apostle in I John 2:2 is not the contrast of the flock in Asia Minor contrasted with the flock in other portions of the world. Nor is the contrast to be found in the propitiation of all the Christians of all time with the propitiation of each and every individual that lived during John’s time. Rather the contrast that the Apostle has in mind is the contrast between the ‘little flock’ in Asia Minor that is saved with the Whole World that will be saved as a result of the work of Christ.
The salvation that Christ wrought is Cosmic in its nature. The death of Christ does not merely save individuals out of the World but has the effect of saving individuals along with the World. The Universalism, thus of the Apostle John, is not an ‘all men will be saved’ universalism. Rather the Apostle’s Universalism is an eschatological Universalism.
Ken Gentry puts it this way,
Though these passages do not teach an ‘each and every universalism’ as in liberal thought, they do set forth the certain, divinely assured prospect of a coming day in which the world as a system (a Kosmos) of men and things, and their relationships, will be redeemed. A day in which the world will operate systematically upon a Christian ethico-redemptive basis. Christ’s redemptive labors will have gradually brought in the era of universal worship, peace and prosperity looked for by the prophets of the Old Testament…. There is a coming day in which Christ will have sought and have found that which was lost: the world. Hence the Great Commission command to baptize ‘all nations.’
So when we read these types of passages we read them understanding that “all things” refers to the expansive nature of Christ’s reconciling work. The created order has been reconciled in Christ. Though all men are not reconciled, humanity as a whole is reconciled.
I John 2:2 thus is a passage that is a post-millennial affirmation that the Kingdoms of this World will be the Kingdoms of our Lord and that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Now, in light of this believers can continue, as they so commonly currently do expect defeat in this world or in submission to King Jesus they can get to work seeking to extend the crown rights of King Jesus, who has provided the propitiation of the sins of the whole world.