Puritan Gems

Friday, January 04, 2008

1 John 2:2 and Limited Atonement

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

The preceding passage is often cited as a case against Limited Atonement, and has caused much confusion for the Calvinist. What does this passage mean?

The heart of John’s Epistles concerns the Judaist heresy. Over and over again, he warns that “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23). It also appears as if he was writing to Jewish Christians in particular, those who had been “anointed by the Holy One” (1 John 2:20) and knew the truth (1 John 2:21). John was writing to those who had the “old commandment … from the beginning” (1 John 2:7), most likely referring to Jewish converts (the Gentiles did not have the old commandment from the beginning).

So when John tells us that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only”, he is using the pronoun “ours” to refer to Jewish Christians. Those who push this passage to favor unlimited atonement must assume that “ours” and “the whole world” consists of a dividing line between Christians and non-Christians, and that is a huge assumption. John Gill comments:

1Jn 2:2 - And he is the propitiation for our sins,.... For the sins of us who now believe, and are Jews:

and not for ours only; but for the sins of Old Testament saints, and of those who shall hereafter believe in Christ, and of the Gentiles also, signified in the next clause:

but also for the sins of the whole world; the Syriac version renders it, "not for us only, but also for the whole world"; that is, not for the Jews only, for John was a Jew, and so were those he wrote unto, but for the Gentiles also. Nothing is more common in Jewish writings than to call the Gentiles עלמא, "the world"; and כל העולם, "the whole world"; and אומות העולם, "the nations of the world"”.

We have, on many occasions, examined the phrase “the world” in it’s limited sense. For example, if “the world” in 2 Corinthians 5:19 were meant to refer to every single individual on planet earth, we are stuck with universal salvation.

John, in his gospel, was a little clearer in his belief concerning the atonement.

“He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (John 11:51-52)

It is quite clear that John did not hold that Christ died for every single individual, but for “ours” (the nation – Israel), and not only for “ours” (this nation only), but for the “whole world”, (the children of God who are scattered abroad.) 1 John 2:2, when taken in context, is no threat to the Biblical doctrine of Particular Redemption, but instead is a powerful passage supporting Unconditional Election. Christ's death on the cross has secured eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12), and His work saves all that He intended to save.