The Blog of Jack Holloway

Monday, August 26, 2013

Limited Atonement for the Whole World: Calvinist Interpretations of 1 John 2:2

"[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world." 1 John 2:2

The Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement states that Jesus did not die for the salvation of the whole world, but only for a chosen few, the elect. Thus, this verse presents a significant problem for them. I have asked several Calvinist friends of mine to send me their interpretations of this verse and how they reconcile it with their belief in limited atonement. These are their contributions:

Argument 1. The English-speaking reader may be tempted to use 1 John 2:2 as a proof-text against Reformed theology. The original Greek confutes this interpretation. In Greek, the word for "world" is κοσμος (kosmos); and its meaning is narrower in Greek than in English. My Greek dictionary notes that the word κοσμος is often used "[h]yperbolically," to mean "the multitude," or "metaphorically, that is openly." Let's consider another context in which the Apostle John uses this word. In John 7:4, Jesus' brothers tell him to go to the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem and "show thyself to the world [κοσμος]." Or consider John 12:19: "So the Pharisees said to one another, '. . . Look, the world [κοσμος] has gone after him [Jesus]" (John 12:19). So if we know a little bit of Greek, it will show that 1 John 2:2 can't be used as a proof text for either side of the predestination debate. When John says that Christ's blood is the propitiation for the sins of the κοσμος, he could mean "all mankind"; or he could mean "many others," or "even the Gentiles," or "even Christians outside our church," or "the multitudes for many generations to come."
There are two giant problems with his assessment of this verse. First, he is correct in saying that κοσμος does not necessarily have to refer to the universe or world as it does for the English word 'cosmos'. However, the word often does refer to the universe (Matt. 13:35).(1) Just because it doesn't have to refer to the universe does not mean that we shouldn't interpret it that way. The word must be defined by its context. In this case, there is another word that Eric completely ignores that helps define for us what κοσμος is supposed to mean here, which leads me to my second point:

He pays no attention to the Greek word ὅλου (holos), which means 'whole', 'all', or 'entire'. This serves to strengthen κοσμο, making it holos kosmos, the entire world, all of creation, the whole cosmos. Thus, we can't just say that this could be referring to "many others" or "even the Gentiles" (which John most certainly would have said if that is what he meant) or "even Christians outside the church" or "the multitudes for many generations to come." We have to take it to mean what it is clearly telling us: Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for the whole world.

Argument 2. I see any attempt to interpret "the whole world" as "every human being that ever lived" as endorsing universalism; how could those whose sins are paid for (including the sin of unbelief) and have Christ praying for them still perish? And what of those biblical groups of people that certainly seem damned (the many "ites" God had Israel slaughter in the OT, the Pharaohs, etc.); has Christ propitiated God’s wrath towards them and does He now pray for them?

That aside, I will say the text does not explicitly refer to the elect, as many Calvinists say. However, it also does not explicitly refer to a conditional group of people who accept God’s free gift of salvation through faith either, which many Arminians would offer. The term must be more generic then, "referring not to every single individual, but to mankind in general."(2)
I respect that he is honest about what this verse appears to be saying. However, his reason for interpreting it to be referring to "mankind in general" is quite weak. If it is referring to the whole world, he says, this implies universalism; thus, John is probably speaking generically. This is the problem with approaching the text with a preconceived theology: the text can no longer speak for itself, but has to fit in with the doctrinal framework through which it is being read.

That being said, he is mistaken in saying that the verse implies universalism. We just need to recognize the objective vs. subjective nature that characterizes salvation in the New Testament. That is, salvation is described as something that has already been accomplished objectively, but must be received subjectively in order for it to be manifested in one's life. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to make a comprehensive case for this. I have made a case for this in an article I am currently trying to get published, and in a research paper that I plan to post here. For a brief treatment of it, see my blog "Concerning the Nature of Faith and Works" (here). Suffice it to say, this verse does not have to imply universalism. Rather than dismiss this verse because it seems to, one has to re-work their doctrinal framework to include the claim of this verse. Limited atonement simply does not fit. There is nothing limited about an atonement that is for the holos kosmos.

Argument 3. 1 John 2:2 is a beautiful and comforting passage dedicated to the assurance we have in Christ Jesus. While some have attempted to twist this passage in favor of an Arminian soteriology, it is crucial to note that John is not explaining the process of the atonement, but rather he is reaffirming basic Christian truths for the comfort of the doubting believer. Anticipating the slant of this blog post, however, it would seem less appropriate to expound upon the unwavering promises of God, and more fitting to address the heretical view that leads some to believe in unlimited atonement. The cold, hard truth is that the verse never says that every individual can or will be saved by their own will. Instead, we are told that Christ's death transcends the Israelites, God's former people. It also deserves to be said that a generally sound rule of hermaneutics is not to build a doctrine upon one verse. Sole use of 1 John 2:2 to establish unlimited atonement flies in the face of myriad other passages such as John 10:11, Mathew 25:31-46, Ephesians 5:25, and Acts 20:28 - all of which plainly depict Christ as dying for the elect or His church. My hope is that we will be able to reclaim this beautiful promise of our Lord for the assurance that it will have in our lives - that God's people are not restricted to one nationality, but are literally of the whole world.
There are a number of things to be said about this approach. 1) Whether John is "explaining the process of the atonement" or "reaffirming basic Christian truths," the message of the verse remains the same: salvation is not just for us, but the entire world. 2) I find it baffling that he calls it a "cold, hard truth" that the verse does not point to unlimited atonement, yet he can't justify this exegetically at all. This leads me to 3) his conclusion is a very weak interpretation of the verse. He reduces the all-inclusiveness of this verse to saying that "Christ's death transcends the Israelites." Israelite-Gentile inclusion in the gospel is not the issue here. Nor is John talking solely to jews. He is addressing a church. Furthermore, John is not thinking in limited terms at all. If there is a cold hard truth here, it is that Jesus died for the whole world. This overrules any notion of limited atonement.
[Side note: I am not, as he accuses, forming a doctrine off of this one verse. I have made a case for inclusivism here and universal reconciliation here and here. The point of focusing on this verse now is because I think it makes belief in limited atonement impossible. There are others, but this is the strongest one, the one I still think cannot be reconciled with the L in TULIP.]
Finally, 4) The verses he cites as supporting the doctrine of limited atonement/election don't even come close to doing so:

John 10:11: Talk about not explaining the process of the atonement, this verse doesn't deal with it at all! Jesus says that he lays down his life for his sheep. Does that mean he was the atoning sacrifice for only his sheep? No, it means he sacrifices himself for his sheep, whether that is on the cross, or in their daily lives (like he did for his disciples). Are his sheep a select group of people chosen before the foundations of the world to be saved? Nowhere is that implied, and it cannot be deduced from this verse.

Matt. 25:31-46: Separating the sheep from the goats does not even begin to imply that Christ only died for a few people that he chose from eternity. This simply implies that there will come a day when he will separate those that chose to follow him, and those who rejected him.

Ephesians 5:25: So Christ gave himself up for the church...and? The verse doesn't imply that it was solely for the church, nor does it imply that the church is made up of people that were elected for salvation before time began. And again, for someone who criticizes use of a verse that doesn't explain the atonement to form atonement doctrine, he doesn't seem too concerned about not doing so himself. This verse has very little to do with the atonement.

Acts 20:28: Again, why does Christ dying for the church imply that he only died for a select group of people and not for the whole world? This verse does not rule out unlimited atonement at all. If I save 10 people from a burning house, and 2 of them go back to their families and say "John Daniel saved us from the burning fire," it would be ridiculous to conclude from that that they were the only ones I saved. What makes this more ridiculous is that 1 John 2:2 explicitly says that it wasn't just for the church, but for the whole world!

Think you can do better than these guys? Send me your approach to this verse at

(1) See Hermann Sasse's contribution on kosmos to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 3, 867-898.
(2) John MacArthur, The Macarthur Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1952. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post.
    5pt Calvinists can be very creative
    explaining scripture.

    The atonement is universal.
    And there's no denying it.