Understanding 1 John 2:2
From the archives on this blog (from October 2005) by Rev. John Samson
Many of you know something of my struggle in coming to understand and appreciate the doctrines of grace. One of the biggest hurdles I encountered was my traditional understanding of 1 John 2:2. For a long time, it acted much like a roadblock in my thinking, preventing me from believing what I now consider to be the clear and consistent teaching of scripture.
How are we to understand the verse then?
Let me start by affirming that scripture is explicit in saying that Jesus died:
for God's people ("He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of My people" - Isaiah 53:8; "He shall save His people from their sins" - Matt. 1:21);
for His sheep ("I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." - John 10:11 - note that Jesus categorically states that some are not His sheep - "but you do not believe because you are not My sheep." - John 10:26)
for His friends ("Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you." - John 15:13-14;
for the Church ("... the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood." - Acts 20:28; "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her..." - Eph. 5:25, 26).
Indeed, as God allows us to gain a glimpse into the future, Revelation 5:9 reveals the song of the throngs of heaven as they sing to the Lamb upon His throne, "And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation." Notice that it does not say that He ransomed everybody in every tribe, etc., but that He ransomed people for God from every tribe, tongue, people and nation.
Yet at least at first glance, 1 John 2:2 seems to strongly deny this idea that Jesus' death was designed for a particular people. The verse states, "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
I don't believe that scripture contradicts itself. That is in fact why we are told to study the word of God in order that we might rightly divide it (2 Tim. 2:15) rather than simply throw up our hands saying a particular verse contradicts others on the same subject. "All Scripture is God breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16) and because there is one Divine Author of Scripture who does not contradict Himself, I am convinced that hard work and careful study will eliminate apparent contradictions.
I have written elsewhere about the principles of correct interpretation of scripture. In my article entitled "Playing Marbles with Diamonds" (here) I refer to a number of principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). We start by affirming that there is only one correct interpretation of scripture. Though there may be many applications of a verse, it only means what it was intended to mean when it was written. With this as a foundation, two more principles would apply here:
1. Authorship - who wrote the book? What was his background, language, culture, vocation, concerns, education, circumstance, what stage of life?
2. Consider the Audience (why was the book written? who was the audience? what would these words have meant to its original recipients?)
I quote again Dr. James White, when he wrote, “Remember when you were in school and you had to take a test on a book you were assigned to read? You studied and invested time in learning the background of the author, the context in which he lived and wrote, his purposes in writing, his audience, and the specifics of the text. You did not simply come to class, pop open the book, read a few sentences, and say, “Well, I feel the author here means this.” Yet, for some odd reason, this attitude is prevalent in Christian circles. Whether that feeling results in an interpretation that has anything at all to do with what the original author intended to convey is really not considered an important aspect. Everyone, seemingly, has the right to express their “feelings” about what they “think” the Bible is saying, as if those thoughts actually reflect what God inspired in His Word. While we would never let anyone get away with treating our writings like this, we seem to think God is not bothered, and what is worse, that our conclusions are somehow authoritative in their representation of His Word.”
A third principle I mentioned in the article relates to the concept of considering the author’s context. This refers to looking at all of a person’s writings – John’s writings, Paul’s writings, Luke’s writings, etc..
When we look elsewhere in John’s writings we see how he views the redemptive work of Christ. We read in Revelation (written by the same John) that by means of His substitutionary death, Jesus actually “redeemed people for God out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation and made them a kingdom of priests…” (Rev 5:9, 10) Here John tells us of no mere potential atonement for everyone, but a specific atonement where Jesus actually redeemed certain people – not all without exception, but all without distinction.
We also notice in his Gospel an exact parallel in John’s use of words, which give us a great deal of insight as to what he (John) was referring to.
In his Gospel, chapter 11, verses 51-52, John wrote these words, “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.”
In chart form, the parallel with 1 John 2:2 becomes clear:
Dr. Phil Johnson (who provided this helpful chart) writes, "There is little doubt that this is how John's initial audience would have understood this expression. "The whole world" means "people of all kinds, including Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans, and whatnot" as opposed to "ours only" i.e., the Jewish nation. What the apostle John is saying in the John 11 passage is particularly significant: Christ died so that he might gather "the children of God" the elect, from the whole world."
Another very important insight is gained when we see the many uses of the word “world” found in John’s writing. There are at least ten different uses of the word found in John’s Gospel alone.
In Hebrew culture, it is the father who chooses a bride for his son. In the same way, the bride of Christ was chosen by the Father, then given to the Son, and all in this number are without fail raised up to eternal life (John 6:37-39). The Son loses none of those given to Him by the Father.
Finally, 1 John 2:2 tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins as well as that of the whole world. If Jesus actually did propitiate (removed wrath by means of His sacrifice) everybody’s sins on planet earth, past, present and future, why would anyone ever be punished for their sins? That would mean double jeopardy with Jesus punished for the sin and then the sinner also bearing the punishment again in eternal judgment in hell. Such a thought is unthinkable.
Instead, Jesus provided an actual rather than a merely hypothetical universal propitiation. He actually removed the wrath of God for His people throughout the whole world. In contrast, the wrath of God still remains (present tense) on the unbeliever. John makes it clear that, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)
All who are particularists (who believe that not everyone will be saved – that some people will in fact spend eternity in hell) believe in some type of limitation to the atonement of Christ. The Arminian limits its power, for it only becomes effectual through man’s cooperation; the Reformed person limits its extent.
Here’s a rather lengthy quote from C. H. Spurgeon on this theme:
“The doctrine of Redemption is one of the most important doctrines of the system of faith. A mistake on this point will inevitably lead to a mistake through the entire system of our belief.
Now, you are aware that there are different theories of Redemption. All Christians hold that Christ died to redeem, but all Christians do not teach the same redemption. We differ as to the nature of atonement, and as to the design of redemption. For instance, the Arminian holds that Christ, when he died, did not die with an intent to save any particular person; and they teach that Christ’s death does not in itself secure, beyond doubt, the salvation of any one man living. They believe that Christ died to make the salvation of all men possible, or that by the doing of something else, any man who pleases may attain unto eternal life; consequently, they are obliged to hold that if man’s will would not give way and voluntarily surrender to grace, then Christ’s atonement would be unavailing. They hold that there was no particularity and speciality in the death of Christ. Christ died, according to them, as much for Judas in hell as for Peter who mounted to heaven. They believe that for those who are consigned to eternal fire, there was as true and real a redemption made as for those who now stand before the throne of the Most High.
Now, we believe no such thing. We hold that Christ, when he died, had an object in view, and that object will most assuredly, and beyond a doubt, be accomplished. We measure the design of Christ’s death by the effect of it. If any one asks us, “What did Christ design to do by his death?” we answer that question by asking him another — “What has Christ done, or what will Christ do by his death?” For we declare that the measure of the effect of Christ’s love, is the measure of the design of it. We cannot so belie our reason as to think that the intention of Almighty God could be frustrated, or that the design of so great a thing as the atonement, can by any way whatever, be missed of. We hold — we are not afraid to say what we believe — that Christ came into this world with the intention of saving “a multitude which no man can number;” and we believe that as the result of this, every person for whom he died must, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be cleansed from sin, and stand, washed in blood, before the Father’s throne. We do not believe that Christ made any effectual atonement for those who are for ever damned, we dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew never could be saved, and some of whom were even in hell when Christ, according to some men’s account, died to save them.” C. H. Spurgeon – Particular Redemption, 2/28/1858: Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 4
Elsewhere he said, “The doctrine of Holy Scripture is this, that inasmuch as man could not keep God’s law, having fallen in Adam, Christ came and fulfilled the law on the behalf of his people; and that inasmuch as man had already broken the divine law and incurred the penalty of the wrath of God, Christ came and suffered in the room, place, and stead of his elect ones, that so by his enduring the full vials of wrath, they might be emptied out and not a drop might ever fall upon the heads of his blood-bought people.” (Sermon 310 – “Christ our Substitute – New Park Street, Southwark)
“I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than an universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be joined with it.” (Sermon number 173 – Metropolitan Pulpit 4:121)
In another sermon, Spurgeon said, “Once again, if it were Christ’s intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own evidence that there is a lake that burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit must be cast some of the very persons, who according to that theory, were bought with His blood. That seems to me a thousand times more frightful than any of those horrors, which are said to be associated with the Calvinistic and Christian doctrine of particular redemption.” (C. H. Spurgeon – Sermon 204 – New Park Street Pulpit 4:553)
I believe Spurgeon’s words are accurate. I also believe that rather than undermining the case for Christ’s death for His elect sheep, 1 John 2:2 actually affirms it. When we understand the verse in its Johannine context (the writings of the Apostle John) then the correct interpretation becomes very clear.