Covenant Reformed News
November 2015 • Volume XV, Issue 19
The “Whole World” in I John 2:2
A reader asks if the Arminian and Amyraldian doctrine of universal atonement is taught in I John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Here are two simple arguments from the context which prove that I John 2:2’s reference to the “whole world” cannot refer to absolutely everybody, including the reprobate.
First, the word “propitiation” (2:2) refers to the turning away of God’s wrath by its being borne by Christ the substitute. If the Lord Jesus really bore God’s wrath for everybody, then nobody can go to hell, for their punishment has already been borne for them by Him. But the reprobate wicked do perish everlastingly, therefore Christ is not the propitiation for the sins of everyone.
Second, Christ is our “advocate with the Father” (2:1). But surely He is a perfect advocate who wins all His cases and never loses even one case! His intercession with the Father is completely successful and always attains its end! This is exactly what Scripture teaches (John 11:41-42; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). As Francis Turretin (1623-1687) puts it, “It is gratuitously supposed that a universal intercession can be granted. For as he is always heard by the Father (John 11:42), if he would intercede for all, all would be actually saved” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, p. 464)!
Note that I John 2:1-2 inextricably links Christ’s atonement and His intercession: “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins.” When Christ enters the presence of the Father to plead for His people, He does so on the basis of His accomplished redemption (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25-28; 9:24-26).
These two things (atonement and intercession) are the two aspects of His priestly office, for a priest offers a sacrifice to God and prays to Him on the basis of the sacrifice. But Christ does not intercede for everybody, as He Himself expressly declared, “I pray not for the world” (John 17:9). This is also evident for, if the Lord did, all would be saved, for God always answers His prayers, as Christ Himself averred, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always” (John 11:41-42). Since Christ does not pray for everybody, He is not the propitiation for everybody.
Listen to the argument of John Owen (1616-1683): “These two acts of his priesthood are not to be separated; it belongs to the same mediator for sin to sacrifice and pray. Our assurance that he is our advocate is grounded on his being a propitiation for our sins. He is an ‘advocate’ for every one for whose sins his blood was a ‘propitiation,’ I John ii. 1, 2. But Christ does not intercede and pray for all, as himself often witnesseth, John xvii.; he ‘maketh intercession’ only for them who ‘come unto God by him,’ Heb. vii. 25. He is not a mediator of them that perish, no more than an advocate of them that fail in their suits” (A Display of Arminianism, p. 91).
Also, what sense would it make for I John to tell its readers that Christ bore the wrath of God against everybody (2:2) and is an advocate to intercede for everybody (2:1), only to refer a few chapters later to the unpardonable sin (5:16-17). If we are not to pray for those who have committed the unpardonable sin, why would Christ pray for those who have committed it? He surely knows who they are! Moreover, as we have seen, Christ’s prayers are always answered (John 11:41-42), so clearly He does not pray for them.
In short, the “whole world”in I John 2:2 does not refer to everybody head for head (cf. Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:6; I John 5:19; Rev. 12:9). It refers here to the “whole world” especially of Jews and Gentiles (John 11:51-52), but also the world of every kindred, tribe, tongue, etc., of both young and old, rich and poor, male and female, etc.
John Calvin (1509-1564) said this in his commentary on I John 2:2: “Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretence extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation ... the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.”
Regarding Calvin’s understanding of I John 2:1-2, Jonathan Rainbow writes, “That settles it. So John’s words, ‘the whole world,’ mean ‘the whole church,’ ‘the faithful,’ and ‘the children of God.’ Like [Martin] Bucer [1491-1551], Calvin bypassed the subtleties of the scholastics and returned to the straightforward particularism of Augustine [354-430] and Gottschalk [c. 808-c. 867]” (The Will of God and the Cross, p. 134).
Likewise, A. W. Pink (1886-1952) states, “... when John added, ‘And not for ours only, but also for the whole world,’ he signified that Christ was the propitiation for the sins of Gentile believers too, for, as previously shown, ‘the world’ is a term contrasted from Israel. This interpretation is unequivocally established by a careful comparison of I John 2:2 with John 11:51, 52” (The Sovereignty of God, p. 259).
Thus the purpose of I John 2:1-2 is to comfort the penitent believer with the perfect sufficiency of the high priestly work of Jesus Christ, both as our “propitiation” and “advocate,” for each and every one of God’s children in the “whole world,” Jews and Gentiles, near and far, etc. Instead of denying that we sin (1:8, 10), we confess our sins to receive cleansing (1:9) through Christ our propitiation and advocate (2:1-2), so that we have communion with the Father through His Son (1:3), know His light (1:5), fellowship with one another (1:7) and receive God’s joy (1:4)!
Rev. Angus Stewart, Pastor of Covenant PRC, Ballymena, N.Ireland