1 John 2:2: Thoughts on Definite Atonement

Here is another offering of a text typically used by those who defend an indefinite atonement. Once more, I am not trying to stir a theological boiler, but rather engage in edifying discussion. After all, in my estimation, what can be more edifying than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ – and let us type or read that lightly, – that Jesus is our (the sinners) Lord and Savior! His person and work are our exclusive glory and boast (Philippians 3:1-11).

The atonement itself is the crisis of Christ central to the ministry of God’s Church. It ought not to be a doctrine of divide, but of great rejoicing. And so I am grateful for the unity found in recent debates between Calvinists and Arminians. Every biblical Christian, by that title, must hold that Christ’s cross-work was and is and will always be a perfectly appeasing, penal, substitutionary sacrifice, that is sufficient for all of the sins of the entire history of mankind, in the sight of the Father in heaven. It was rendered in perfect humble obedience to the Father and is the basis from which Christ was super-exalted in His resurrection, ascension, and coronation to the right hand of Power, far above the heavens. And, the eschatalogical judgment will thus be a moral one based upon the sinless righteousness of God offered in Christ that depends on faith in Him – every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Yahweh (Lord) to the glory of God the Father! Oh, the rivers that flow from the service of Jesus Christ, and that to God and for sinners like me and you.

But how is this atonement applied? We looked briefly at 2 Peter 2:1 in order to deal with the term “bought” there and its meaning in relation to the “deniers”. Today, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on 1 John 2:2, – “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

1. This verse must be read with the entirety of John’s gospel. In his gospel, we find several statements which speak of an indefinite view of the atonement at face value (1:29; 3:16; 12:32, etc.); but we also find several which speak of a definitive view of the atonement (3:16?; 6:36-40 cf. 6:44, 65; 10:3, 11; 17:2, etc.). But there is not much reference to sin or of repentance (see Nathaniel, Nicodemus, the blind man healed, etc.) – John’s treatment of Christ’s dealing with them is quiet concerning their sin, although, the biblical witness verifies what we hold, namely, that they were in fact sinners, and needed to be reconciled to God. John’s gospel is quite silent and generic concerning the atonement landscape and its inherent sacrificial language. But when it is mentioned, it is mentioned broadly, to the world – but often restricted to those who believe out of the world. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life,” and thus, God loved the world – the gift of His Son was for the world in many ways – but it is quickly narrowed by the continuation of “whoever believes” – that it is those who believe in this Gift out of the world who will not perish but have eternal life. And not to be one-sided, faith is absolutely something that sinners must do. The work of God is for us to believe in the one whom He has sent (John 6:29). If they don’t do it, they will perish. They just won’t do it without God enabling them to do it. Faith is God’s gift in accordance with His will (Ephesians 1; 2:8).

2. I make that long point to show that when one arrives at 1 John they survey the scene from within the church and not the greater part of the ancient world. He writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,” 2:1. He then means to exhort us to holiness and solemn gratitude by the mention of Christ our Advocate with the Father – a picture of Christ’s intercessory conquest on behalf of the Church. And then we come to our verse:

“He is the propitiation for our sins…”

That is, Christ is the propitiation (and expiation) for the sins of the church in John’s address, as well as, universally. By His sacrifice, Jesus both reconciled sinners to God and satisfied God’s holy anger against our sin. Food for thought: did Jesus do this for every sinner in the history of the world? It puzzles me greatly! How can we say that He has actually done this for every sinner – reconciled them to God and given them the status of a child before His majesty in heaven? We can’t! If we continue in this interpretive path, then we either say that Christ actually did this for every sinner but that His atonement wasn’t powerful enough to sway the wills of men; or we recant such actuality, and settle for this – that Christ’s sacrifice didn’t actually do this for the whole world, but only possibly (He made this possible for the whole world); but if we hold to the actuality of His sacrifice, then what do we make of those who die in their unbelief, whom Christ actually died for, reconciled to God and gave a favorable status with the Father by appeasing His wrath against them? What sin will they be condemned for? This leaves us in a great quandry – one that I am unwilling to stay in with better interpretations and God-honoring solutions available.
“…and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
This reads very conclusively. There it is – not the church’s only but for the whole world! At this point I will not shift gears and turn to that often used argument that John is referring to Jewish believers in the first half of the text and Gentiles in the second half, although it carries some merit (and I also held on to it for a time).
But the attention in this verse is a carry over from what precedes it – Christ our Advocate with the Father when we, the church, sin. He, Christ our Advocate, is also “the propitiation for our sins.” Running parallel with this is 1 John 4:10 – “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Two things of note: first, we have God the Father specifically commissioning His Son to be the propitiation for our sins – God sent Jesus to propitiate the sins of the Church! Ah, but what of John 3:17 – “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” You might say, see there…! But what of John 3:18, where we have that remarkable narrowing again – “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned,” – so that it appears that in 1 John 4:10, the apostle simply shorthands the intention of John 3:17-18.
Secondly, there is no mention of “and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” in 1 John 4:10 as there is in 1 John 2:2. Why? Because when he mentioned it in 2:2, it was simply an afterthought for clarification, and he did not need to attend to it again. Why is this important? Because 2:2 is focused on the “propitiation for our sins,” – those sins that we commit after we have repented and believed in Christ and been baptized, etc. – and its continuation, therefore, is a statement made with regards to the way in which God forgives sin in general. In other words, there are not a half dozen ways in which God makes propitiation for sin, but only one way – by the Lord Jesus Christ – and that at all times towards all sinners in all places forever. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins and not only ours, but this is how he reconciles sinners to God in general, always and everywhere.
J. Ramsey Michaels writes:

“But having introduced an explicit theology of atonement to deal with the specific problem of ‘our’ sins now, after conversion and baptism, the author adds, almost as an afterthought, that of course this is God’s way of dealing with sin always and everywhere: ‘and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’ There is not one ‘propitiation’ for us and another for the rest of the world, but Jesus…is the only sacrifice, and the only way of salvation for all. The point is not the Jesus died for everyone indiscriminately so that everyone is the world is in principle forgiven, but that all those forgiven are forgiven on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice and in no other way.” (*1)

I think that this best reflects the meaning of the Bible, of the author, of the epistle itself, and of the text under consideration. Above all, I think it most glorifies our Lord Jesus Christ, and serves to encourage us in view of His sacrifice to advance that Gospel at all costs. Your comments are, as always, welcome…

*1. Michaels, J. Ramsey; Atonement in John’s Gospel and Epistles; an essay in The Glory of the Atonement; pg. 117.
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