With a strong belief in God’s sovereignty and man’s hopelessness without Him, I was somewhat surprised when I came across 1 John 2:2. The verse states that Jesus accomplished propitiation for not only believers but for the whole world. The plain understanding of this verse is that Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished propitiation for the sins of all people. This brings up several questions.
How does 1 John 2:2 affect the doctrine of limited atonement?
According to various 5-point Calvinists, 1 John 2:2 teaches limited atonement, if understood in its proper context. But before we look at that, what exactly is limited atonement.
What does limited atonement teach?
“It maintains that God's design and intent in sending Christ to die on the cross was to pay for the sins and secure the redemption of those whom God has predetermined to save, namely the elect. Therefore, the primary benefits of his death (especially as an atonement) were designed for and accrue only to believers.”1
In other words, Jesus only died for the elect. His death accomplished nothing for the sins of the world. This makes perfect sense when coupled with the other four points of Calvinism. If God’s plan of redemption is all about the elect, then how could Jesus’ death have anything to do with those who are lost?
What verses support this teaching?
Mathew 1:21 -- When explaining Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph, the angel clearly stated the purpose of the baby’s life: “He will save His people from their sins.” At this point, salvation was limited to the Jewish people. Only they would be saved.
John 10:15 -- Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He also prophesied that other sheep (Gentile believers) would be added to the flock under His care. He was not referring to the whole Jewish nation nor to all Gentiles as is evidenced by the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. In this context, He died specifically for the sheep.
Ephesians 5:25 -- In his admonition to Christian husbands, Paul said that Christ “loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Both his love and death were exclusively directed toward those who make up the church. His goal was to sanctify, cleanse, and present the church to Himself as holy and blameless. In this context, his love and death are exclusive to the church.
How does limited atonement explain 1 John 2:2?
“It also appears as if he [John] 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.”2
If this is the context (and not all agree about this), then John was differentiating between Jewish and Gentile believers. For the 5-point Calvinist, this interpretation removes the possibility of universal atonement. For, if Christ died for the sins of the whole world, what further need would they have to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:19)? This is a good question but there is another viewpoint to consider.
“Those who believe in limited atonement insist that if one believes in the other four essential points of Calvinism—total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints—he should also believe in limited atonement. It is true that many who reject limited atonement also reject the other four points. However, there are many who find scriptural support for the four points named above but believe support is lacking for the doctrine of limited atonement. These might be called four-point Calvinists or moderate Calvinists.”3
How does 1 John 2:2 affect the doctrine of unlimited atonement?
What does unlimited atonement teach?
“This point of view … teaches that the intention of Christ's death was to provide redemption for everyone in the same way without exception; but the efficacy of his redemptive act is limited in its power to ensure everyone's final salvation. Christ's death, in other words, provided everything necessary for anyone's salvation besides the one conditional element of faith; but this faith was not provided by his death for anyone at all.”4
According to a 4-point Calvinist, Jesus died for the whole world. However, without God-given faith, his death does not provide salvation for unbelievers. As someone has said, Christ’s death is sufficient for all but only efficient for the elect. In other words, Jesus died for all but not all will be saved. This is different from universalism which teaches that all will eventually be saved.
What verses support this teaching?
John 1:29 -- John, who preached to common Jews, Pharisees, and Roman soldiers, announced that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Although his audience was mostly Jewish, he was not limiting the atonement to just the Jewish people. It was for the entire world.
2 Corinthians 5:19 -- Paul states clearly that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” Christ’s death on the cross was God’s means of reconciling the whole sinful world to Himself. This reconciliation has been accomplished but is not procured by man until received by faith as seen in verse 20 where Paul begs his readers to be reconciled to God through what Christ accomplished on our behalf.
“By the death of Christ on its behalf, the whole world is thoroughly changed in its relation to God. But God is never said to be reconciled to man. The world is so altered in its position respecting the holy judgments of God through the cross of Christ that God is not now imputing their sin unto them. The world is thus rendered savable.”5
1 John 4:14 -- The goal of Jesus being sent to this earth was that He might be the Savior of the world. This is seen not only here but also in Matthew 1:21. It does not imply that he would save the entire earth but that His purpose was to be the world’s Savior. As he mentions in the next verse, only those who confess Him as the Son of God will abide with God (1 John 1:15).
How does unlimited atonement explain 1 John 2:2?
While writing to believers about confession and cleansing from sin, John showed them that Jesus is their Advocate with the Father. He is the propitiation for their sins and for those of the whole world. Propitiation “is a sacrificial term and denotes the means whereby sins are covered or remitted and the offense removed.”6 This contrast between believers and the rest of the world serves to show the extent of Christ’s work on the cross.
“So adequate is Jesus Christ as God’s atoning Sacrifice that the efficacy of His work extends not merely to the sins of Christians themselves, but also to the sins of the whole world. … The Cross has indeed propitiated (satisfied) God and has met His righteous demands so thoroughly that His grace and mercy are abundantly available to both saved and unsaved alike.”7
It was not John’s intent to offer universal salvation to all, but to show the extent of God’s love for sinful people. If God loved the world enough to send Jesus to die for even those who would reject Him, how could He not forgive those of His children who sin after their new birth. Because of the extent of His mercy, believers can find forgiveness and cleansing through Jesus, who died for the sins of the world.
Since the fall, every man has shown his sinful nature by willfully rebelling against God. Because the penalty for sin is death, each individual deserves eternal torment in the lake of fire. But God loved the whole world and gave His Son Jesus to die on the cross to pay for their sins. As wonderful as that is, the Bible also reveals that man is spiritually dead because of his sins and has no desire or ability to be reconciled to God on his own. There would be no hope for humanity except for the fact that God lovingly chose to rescue certain individuals (the elect) from destruction. He did this not because they deserved it, or because He knew they would love Him in the future, but simply to show His great love toward undeserving humanity.
The Scriptures teach clearly that Jesus died for the sins of the world. The Bible does not say that all will be saved, but that Christ’s atonement is ultimately only applied to those who believe. This doctrine does not fit logically into the five points of Calvinism, and so attempts have been made to reinterpret the “problem passages” we have discussed above. But is this appropriate?
“When we are dealing with passages that could be interpreted in multiple ways, we are not free to choose whatever interpretation appeals to us. We are free only to choose those interpretations that do not contradict other Scriptures. When a text could mean either A or B, but a second text allows only B, we must not use the first text to justify a continuing belief in A.”8
I conclude that the general ideas of both A (limited atonement) and B (unlimited atonement) are found in the Bible when properly understood. Jesus made atonement for all the world; therefore, reconciliation with God is possible for all. However, not all will repent of their sins and believe what has been accomplished for them. While the atonement has been made for all, it is limited to only the elect whom God has chosen to give new life, repentance, and faith. Only when understood in this way, can both limited and unlimited atonement be true.
1 “Definite atonement” as viewed at www.theopedia.com/limited-atonement on 1/9/2016.
2 “1 John 2:2 and Limited Atonement” as viewed at http://covenant-theology.blogspot.com/2008/01/1-john-22-and-limited-atonement.html on 1/9/2016.
3 Lightner, Robert P., Sin, the Savior, and Salvation, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 123.
4 “What does the term ‘limited atonement’ mean, and does the Bible teach it?” as viewed at www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/qna/limitedatonement.html on 1/9/2016.
5 Chafer, Lewis Sperry, Systematic Theology Volume VII: Doctrinal Summarization, (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 262.
6 Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Epistles of John, (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1991), 75.
7 Hodges, Zane C., “1 John” in Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, (USA: SP Publications, 1983), 887.
8 Bauder, Kevin, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, (Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 15.