“The precise meaning of John’s statement that Jesus was the propitiation ‘not for our [sins] alone, but also for the whole world (2:2b; cp. 4:14) is difficult to understand and hotly debated...it is, however, much more difficult when the discussion moves to what John actually meant by ‘the whole world.’ Some contend that this passage speaks of God’s redemption with a universal scope in its POTENTIAL. IN THIS INTERPRETATION THE ‘WHOLE WORLD’ SHOULD BE UNDERSTOOD AS ‘ALL INCLUSIVE,’ THUS JESUS IS THE PROPITIATION FOR ALL MEN WITHOUT EXCEPTION...others argue that when John speaks of the ‘whole world,’ HE IS REFERRING TO ALL THE ELECT OF BOTH JEWS AND GENTILES...While both of the above positions are possible interpretations of 1 John 2:2, NEITHER IS WITHOUT PROBLEMS. In the first instance, to assert that Jesus’ death was sufficient to deal with the sins of all people but only becomes effective if one believes is ACTUALLY DIFFICULT TO SUPPORT THEOLOGICALLY” (Christopher D. Bass, “That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2008, pages 81-82).
Today, I spent time reading through some of the book “That You May Know,” which is part of the NAC series (a supplement to the New American Commentary series). The purpose of the work is to trace exegetically John’s intention to provide assurance for the congregation, despite the departure of some false teachers, who deny Christ came in the flesh (those John labels as “antichrists” who have already gone out into the world). John wants the congregation to know that they have a true anointing from God and know the truth. Because of their anointing, they can trust God’s promises to them and His presence in them. Since they have the Son, they have life (1 John 5:12).
In the above quote, I quote Christopher Bass providing two different interpretations on the meaning of the phrase “the whole world” in 1 John 2:2. It is the first that I will deal with in this post.
Bass states that he finds problems with the view. The view is that while Christ’s death CAN save every person, His death will only save those who believe. In other words, everyone has an opportunity (despite the fact that many will choose to not be saved).
What are some of the problems with the above view? One of those problems seems to be that it cannot get around the logic of John Owen, whom he quotes at length:
“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God enter into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight...if the second, that is it which we affirm, that CHRIST IN THEIR STEAD AND ROOM SUFFERED FOR ALL THE SINS OF ALL THE ELECT IN THE WORLD. If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, ‘Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.’ BUT THIS UNBELIEF, IS IT A SIN, OR NOT? IF NOT, WHY SHOULD THEY BE PUNISHED FOR IT? IF SO, THEN WHY MUST THAT HINDER THEM MORE THAN THEIR OTHER SINS FOR WHICH HE DIED...? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will” (John Owen, “The Death of Death In the Death of Christ,” pages 61-62; quoted by Christopher D. Bass, “That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2008, page 83).
In the words of Christopher Bass, “To my knowledge no one has ADEQUATELY REFUTED John Owen’s definitive statement on this issue...” (83)
I will go ahead and admit my bias: I believe that Jesus died for all men, but that they do not receive salvation because of unbelief. Now, before I get into why I believe John Owen is simply wrong on this one, let’s affirm that unbelief is the scriptural reason as to why some men are not saved (though Jesus died for them):
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES...” (Romans 1:16, NKJV)
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, THROUGH FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST, TO ALL AND ON ALL WHO BELIEVE” (Rom. 3:22)
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham BELIEVED God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (Rom. 4:3).
“but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? BECAUSE THEY DID NOT SEEK IT BY FAITH BUT...BY THE WORKS OF THE LAW” (Rom. 9:31-32).
“You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. BECAUSE OF UNBELIEF THEY WERE BROKEN OFF, AND YOU STAND BY FAITH” (Rom. 11:19-20).
As Scripture demonstrates, then, faith is required for salvation, and those who are not saved are unsaved because they refuse to believe (as in the case of national Israel in Romans).
The next thing we need to do is answer John Owen’s question: “But this unbelief, is it a sin or not?...if it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died? If he did not, then did not die for all their sins” (“That You May Know,” page 83).
Is unbelief a sin? Yes it is! So, did Christ die for all sins? The answer is yes. But why, then, are not all men saved? Why does unbelief hinder individuals from coming to Christ? A simple answer I will provide: because those who come to Christ must “receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” from the Lord (Romans 5:17, NKJV). Put in another way, we can only please God if we come to Him in faith (Heb. 11:6); and those who do not believed are condemned already (John 3:18). The Lord has established “the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27), and those who disobey God’s “Law of faith” will not be saved.
I will deal more with the issue of Limited Atonement in the coming days.