We’ve been studying the Doctrine of Singular Redemption here at the Center for Theological Studies for the last few days. I’ve covered John 3:16-18, 2 Corinthians 5 as well as 2 Peter 3:9.
I’m back to continue the current theological agenda. Today’s text will involve a controversial one: 1 John 2:2. The verse reads as follows:
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, English Standard Version).
Some weeks ago, I was reading a work called “‘That You May Know’: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John” by Christopher D. Bass,” and Bass tackled this verse in his work (since the book itself was all about 1 John). When Bass arrives at the verse in his work (on page 81), he presents the two views of what is 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. In other words, in 2:2b, John is making the point that Jesus’ death did not apply to Jewish believers only (i.e., ‘ours’) but also to the elect Gentiles (i.e., ‘the whole world’)” (“That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2008, page 82).
How does Bass interpret “the whole world” in 1 John 2:2?
“The ‘whole world’ would include all believers everywhere throughout the world. Therefore, Jesus was not only the propitiation for the sins of one little group of believers in Asia Minor but for the children of God all over the world” (Bass, “‘That You May Know,’ page 84).
For Christopher Bass, “the whole world” refers to believers only, Christians throughout the world.
This would work if it didn’t conflict with textual evidence within the Epistle of 1 John itself. Robert E. Picirilli gathers information within the letter surrounding “the whole world” to determine its meaning. Here is what Picirilli gathered:
2:2 (our text)--> its first appearance
2:15-17 (6 times)-->The Christian is not to be loving the world or the things in the world. The world, and its lust, IS PASSING AWAY.
3:1-->THE WORLD DOES NOT KNOW US, BECAUSE IT DID NOT KNOW HIM.
3:13--> Do not be annoyed if THE WORLD IS HATING YOU.
3:17--> Whoever has the means of life of the world and does not share with one in need is not demonstrating the love of God.
4:1-5 (6 times)-->Greater is the one in you than THE ONE IN THE WORLD. THEY, BEING OF THE WORLD, SPEAK OF THE WORLD AND THE WORLD HEARS THEM.
4:9--> God sent His Son into the world in order than[sic] we might live through Him
4:14-->The Father sent the Son to be SAVIOR OF THE WORLD.
4:17-->As He is, so are we IN THE WORLD.
5:4, 5 (3 times)-->THE BELIEVER OVERCOMES THE WORLD.
5:19-->We are of God, and THE WHOLE WORLD LIES IN THE EVIL ONE.
(Picirilli’s verses and textual evidence can be found in his work, “Grace, Faith, and Free Will; Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism.” Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2002, page 125).
If only one of the verses referenced above grabs you, it should be 1 John 5:19--- “We know that we are from God, and THE WHOLE WORLD LIES IN THE POWER OF THE EVIL ONE” (ESV).
What this tells us is that the whole world, controlled by “the evil one,” that is “Satan,” is the same world that Jesus is the propitiation for in 1 John 2:2! If this is the case, then Bass’s interpretation contradicts Scripture’s teaching on the meaning of the phrase. If the whole world refers to only the elect throughout the world, then this means that, to plug Bass’s meaning in 1 John 5:19, “the elect in the world lie in the power of the evil one.” This is a sad thought, indeed. After all, doesn’t this possibility of the elect being under Satan’s control contradict Jesus’ prayer to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (“I...ask...that you keep them from the evil one”, John 17:15)?
Picirilli noted it in his analysis above...but there is later evidence within 1 John 2 that tells us that the world is opposed to the recipients of John’s epistle:
15(Z) Do not love the world or the things in the world.(AA) If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For all that is in the world—(AB) the desires of the flesh and(AC) the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17And(AD) the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17, English Standard Version)
First, John tells the believers “do not love the world or the things in the world.” I don’t think he is telling the elect in the receiving congregation to not love the other elect brothers and sisters in the world---so we can rule out this portion as referring to “the elect throughout the world.” Next, he states that, “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” To love the world is to hate the Father. I don’t think the elect are against the Father---so this would refer to the unbelieving mass as well. In verse 16, John tells us what the world offers: lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eyes, and pride in possessions. Never in Scripture are believers told to lust after the flesh; in fact, Paul tells believers that “those in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Notice as well that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Life everlasting is found in the one who seeks to please the Lord, not drift along with the world. But not only will the material possessions of the world be destroyed and burnt up---so will “those of the world,” “the worldly,” the ungodly.
I’ve examined clues within the text of 1 John 2 itself as well as the meaning of “the world” throughout the First Epistle of John. As has been shown, there is simply no justifiable reason for Bass’s interpretation of “the whole world” as “believers throughout the world.” Such an interpretation stems from historical interpretive tradition...and a particular theological slant.