It wouldn’t be a series on misunderstood verses without looking at 1 John 2:2. The Apostle John writes, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (ESV).
This verse is typically ripped out of its context to mean that the atonement of Christ is universal. To say that Christ died only for His people is so, well, limited. It sounds way more noble to say that Christ died for everybody, right? Again, in an attempt to come to the rescue of Scripture’s (alleged) shortcomings, some interpreters like to proof-text this verse. To say that Christ’s redemption was for the elect only (i.e., those who believe), sounds incredibly restricted. Did Christ die for just some people? Or did He die for everyone? What is the scope and extent of the atonement of Christ?
Before jumping in too far, we need too look at some context. The letter of 1 John was written by the Apostle/Disciple John, the Disciple whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). This is the same writer of the Gospel of John, the Letters of 1, 2, and 3 John, as well as the apocalyptic letter/covenant lawsuit of Revelation (“Revelation,” not “Revelations“). He was the youngest disciple and lived longer than the rest. Also important to note: John was Jewish. What many seemingly fail to realize is that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant was no small matter. The entire New Testament sits within this newfound context. In fact, the first church council happened in Jerusalem to discuss these issues not long after Christ ascended to the throne (see Acts 15). It was here where the early Jewish Church debated the role of the Law vis-a-vis the Gentile converts. So to say that John is a Jewish man writing to both Jews and Gentiles is not unimportant. It is deeply important, especially with regard to this verse.
In chapter one of 1 John, the apostle opens with Jesus, the word of life, and His manifestation to His people (1 John 1:1-4). John says that he is writing for their joy–so it may be complete (1:4). He goes on to finish out the chapter by describing the differences between people who walk in the light and people who do not. God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all (1:5). If someone claims to have fellowship with God but lives in darkness (in other words, a lifestyle of un-repentance), then it proves that the person doesn’t practice the truth (1:6). However, the sign of being cleansed by Jesus is walking in the light sharing with one another the light that is in Christ (1:7). Anyone that says he is without sin is deceived (1:8), and our confession leads to forgiveness and cleansing because God is faithful to do it (1:9). Again, John says, if we say we are without sin, we not only prove the darkness in which we walk, we make God a liar, giving evidence that the truth is far from us (1:10).
John then goes on to say in chapter two verse one, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The question one within the covenant community could have after reading chapter one is, “Okay, I’m not going to deny I have sin because I want to walk in truth. But what happens if I do sin? What happens then?” John replies with the doctrine of Christ’s Advocation. Jesus is righteous, he cleanses from righteousness, gives righteousness, and extends forgiveness. What’s the reason for doing so?
Our verse in question: Jesus is the propitiation for our sins.
Here’s the Greek text* with the words in question:
καὶ / αὐτὸς / ἱλασμός / ἐστιν / περὶ
kai / autos / hilasmos / estin / peri
and / himself / expiation / is / about
τῶν / ἁμαρτιῶν / ἡμῶν / οὐ / περὶ / τῶν
tōn / hamartiōn / hēmōn / ou / peri / tōn
the / sins / of us / not / about / the
ἡμετέρων / δὲ / μόνον / ἀλλὰ / καὶ / περὶ
hēmeterōn / de / monon / alla / kai / peri
ours / but / alone / but / also / about
ὅλου / τοῦ / κόσμου.
holou / tou / kosmos.
whole / the / world.
There’s a lot surrounding this verse, and a lot that I could say, but I want to keep this short and sweet. One of the hallmark principles of the Reformation was sola scriptura. In short, “Scripture alone” is perspicuous (clear), it’s own interpreter (scriptura scripturam interpretatur), and is sufficient in and of itself to be the final authority for life and doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16). Whenever we approach the text, we must remember the author, the context, the background, the language, the audience and what the rest of Scripture teaches.
As I pointed out elsewhere, kosmos, doesn’t mean “every person on planet earth.” The context determines its meaning. The word hilasmos simply means “propitiation,” which is the Christian doctrine that teaches about both God’s holiness and wrath. God’s holiness, having been violated because of our sin against Him and His Law now requires wrath and atonement. Propitiation is when His wrath is “removed” from us and instead placed upon Christ at the cross. (Propitiation = the removal of wrath). The question becomes: has God removed His wrath from “every single person on planet earth?” Those who affirm a universal atonement are making the passage say too much. If God’s wrath is removed for everybody, then there is no eternal punishment in hell–a doctrine that most evangelicals reject. So what’s the proper, contextual interpretation?
Look at John 11:51-52 which reads, “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.” The very same author helps us understand what he wrote in 1 John 2:2, and no doubt his audience would have known this. 1 John 2:2 reads this way: “He is the propitiation for our (the Hebrews/Jews), and no for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (Gentiles).” “The whole world” means people of all kinds, from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 5:9). Phil Johnson (as far as I know) made this chart:
The elect of God is gathered throughout the world into one unique people of God. This is the point of what John is saying in both accounts. Christ’s atoning work of propitiation isn’t just for one people group, it is for all types of people groups (the same point Paul makes in 1 Tim. 2:4).
If ever we find ourselves stuck on the interpretation of a word, phrase, sentence or passage, we would do well to consult the rest of Scripture. There are no discrepancies, contradictions, or problems. Is it hard? Yes, sometimes. But if ever we find a difficult passage, we must remember that the problem is usually us.
*Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 616.