A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


An Analysis Of Key Scripture Passages

1 John 2:2

Read this verse to a child and he will tell you that Christ died for all men. He would assume that "the whole world" means just that. Read this verse to an extreme Calvinist and he will tell you that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the elect Jews, and not for the sins of the elect Jews only, but also for the sins of the elect Gentiles. We are reminded of Matthew 11:25.

John Murray, who denies that Christ died for all, says this about 1 John 2:2--"No text in Scripture presents more plausible support to the doctrine of universal atonement....It must be said that the language John uses here would fit in perfectly with the doctrine of universal atonement if Scripture elsewhere demonstrated that to be the biblical doctrine" (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, page 72). Because 1 John 2:2 does not fit in with Murray’s theological system, he tries to make the passage mean something other than what it so obviously says.

To determine the meaning of the pronoun "our" in 1 John 2:2 we must ask who John was writing to. John Owen, strong defender of a limited atonement, believed that 1 John was written about 46 AD and was sent to Jewish Christians. However, most Bible scholars today agree that the letter was probably written towards the end of John’s life and was intended for believers living in Asia Minor, which is where John ministered toward the close of his life. Obviously the churches in Asia Minor toward the close of the first century were composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers, with the Gentiles being in the majority.

Actually John tells us who he is writing to. In 1 John 5:13 he says, "These things have I written UNTO YOU THAT BELIEVE ON THE NAME OF THE SON OF GOD." He wrote this letter to BELIEVERS. Thus, in 1 John 2:2 Christ is the propitiation for our sins (that is, believers), and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world (that is, unbelievers). That the term "world" is used elsewhere to refer to unbelievers (in contrast to believers) is clear from John 14:22; 16:8-9; 17:9,21.

When John uses the word "our" he is referring to all Christian believers, not just Jewish believers. See 1 John 1:9 – "our sins" (it was not just the Jewish believers who were to confess their sins). See also 1 John 1:10 – "we," "us," (it was not just the Jewish believers that were in danger of saying that they had not sinned). See 1 John 2:1 – "we have an advocate" (it was not just the Jewish Christians who had an Advocate, but all believers). There is no reason to say that John wrote this epistle strictly to Jewish believers. The terms "our" and "the whole world" are definitely contrasts between believers and those who are not.

If there is any question about this, let the Bible define its own terms. One should consider the usage of the term "world" in the book of 1 John (see 1 John 3:1; 3:13; 4:5; 4:9; 4:14; and especially 5:19). This word is certainly not used when referring to elect Gentiles. Especially significant is the usage of this term in 1 John 5:19. John used the expression "the whole world" in only two places: in 1 John 2:2 and 5:19. In 1 John 5:19 we read this: "And we [Christians] know that we [Christians] are of God, and THE WHOLE WORLD [non-Christians] lieth in wickedness [in the wicked one]." This is the same meaning that the expression has in 1 John 2:2, though certain Calvinists are forced to deny this because of their theology which tells them that Christ could not have paid the death penalty for any of the non-elect.

To summarize this point, in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 5:19 the terms that are used both mean the same thing:

"our"   "we"

refers to Christians, those to whom John was writing (including both Jewish and Gentile believers)

"whole world"

refers to all the unbelievers who are part of Satan’s world system (this would include both the non-elect and those unsaved who would at some later time respond to the gospel, believe on Christ and be delivered from Satan’s world system).

Thus, 1 John 2:2 teaches that Christ by His death on the cross satisfied the demands of divine justice not only for the sins of believers but for the sins of all the unbelievers who were part of Satan’s kingdom of darkness (the majority of which were non-elect). Thus, saved people are not a part of "the whole world." Some who are included in "the whole world" could eventually believe the gospel and be saved. The term "world" here in 1 John 2:2 does not mean "all humanity" as in John 3:16. Rather, it means "all humanity" in contrast to "saved humanity." This is a common usage of the word "world" (see John 17:9,21 – Christ prayed for believers, not for the world; however, some who are in the world will believe through the Church’s testimony).

Those who deny the fact that Christ died for all (believers and unbelievers) sometimes try to argue on the basis of a comparison between 1 John 2:2 and John 11:51-52 (see the argument in Gary Long’s book, Definite Atonement, p.95). However, John 11:51-52 is actually a strong argument that Christ died for all men and not just for the elect! In verse 50, the high priest Caiaphas (himself unregenerate) made mention of one dying for the people (the Jewish people), so that the WHOLE NATION perish not! Certainly he was thinking of all the Jewish people without exception! If the Romans were to invade Palestine they would seek to destroy all the Jews without exception! Without knowing it, the high priest actually gave a prophecy that Jesus should die for that nation (verse 51). In other words, Jesus died for the whole Jewish nation! Not only did He die for all Jews, but the death of Christ was for the sins of the whole world with the result that God would be able to gather children from the uttermost parts of the earth. John 11:51-52 teaches that Christ died for the whole Jewish nation and 1 John 2:2 teaches that Christ died for the whole world!

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