Tuesday, January 26, 2010

1 John 2:2 and limited atonement

1 John 2:2 is one of the foundational texts which speaks against a Calvinistic understanding of the atonement. "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." The reformed position is that Christ's death was only for the elect, with the possible exception of common grace being bought through the cross.

So how does the Calvinist respond to a text like this? It is not as though reformed commentators have ignored this verse, but they attempt to fit it into their theology. First they ask, "what does world mean?" One discovers that "world" can have multiple meanings. We do this today even. For example we talk about "the world, the flesh and the devil." We also talk about the world as all ethnicities. We could speak of the world as the planet earth itself. In the same way, the Biblical writers used kosmos in several different ways.

I do agree with reformed commentators in this. Words certainly can have multiple meanings. However, we must look at the context of the passage, how the author uses this word himself, and take the most obvious meaning of the text unless there is substantial evidence to interpret it differently from the plain meaning. So what could the author here mean when he says that Christ died for the sins of the whole world? Reformed will take this text, as well as several others and state that "the whole world" refers to people of all nations, though only the elect of all nations, rather than simply Jews. They go to a similar instance in John's gospel. In John 3:16, Jesus is talking to a Jew explaining that salvation is for the whole world, not simply for the Jews. Regardless of whether or not I agree with this interpretation of John 3:16, it is an understandable interpretation in context. However, John 2:2 is a different text, spoken to a different audience and does not have the same meaning.
Yes, Jesus when speaking to ethnocentric Jews talked about the universality of salvation its' primary implication is that salvation is for all nations (though this certainly does not preclude the possibility that this universality refers to every individual in these nations as there is no implication in the context that he only means the elect of these nations).

However, there is no reason to believe that 1 John is written to ethnocentric Jews. This epistle is among the last to be written in the New Testament. At the end of the first century, surely the problem of Jew-Gentile relations had been dealt with. After all, the council of Jerusalem was 40 years before this and Paul's epistles had been widely circulated for some time now. Thus, one is hard pressed to find this meaning in the text. The only other meaning of the text must be that he died for all men. The other meanings of kosmos would make no sense in this passage. John is certainly not saying that he died for the sins of the earth or the soil.

In this same chapter, John uses the word kosmos several times. "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." (1 John 1:15-17) John uses the term "world" in this epistle to refer to sinful humanity and the corruption of the present age. Thus, what John seems to be saying in the beginning of this epistle is "Christ died not only for our sins (the sins of believers) but also for the sins of the world (unbelieving mankind)." Who is the "our" being spoken of here? This is a catholic epistle, not written to specifically Jewish believers or even one specific church, thus the "our" must refer to Christians in general. Therefor, the "world" is someone other than the "us" being referred to. Thus, if the "us" is the church, the "world" must be those outside of the church.

If one is to take the most obvious meaning of this text, he must admit that Christ died for every man. We must not force our preconceived theological views upon God's word. Let God speak for himself.


sirdude108 said...

I'm going to have to disagree with your interpretation here Jordan. Your equating of the term "world" in 1 Jn. 2:2, with the term "world" in 2:15-17 cannot be maintained.

The "world" referred to in 2:15-17 is that of the overarching system of rebellion which exerts itself against the dominion of God. Such a corrupt world is passing away (v. 17). John reminds his readers who they are in verses 12-14, and then tells them how to live in 15-17. This is much like Paul's admonition in Romans 12:2.
The term "world" in 1 Jn. 2:15-17 does not refer to "sinful humanity" for whom Christ died, as you have inferred from 2:2; for if that were the case, why then would John exhort us NOT to love the world (v. 15).
I appreciate your desire to compare the usages of the word "world" by John. This is certainly a proper rule of exegesis, yet in this instance, it seems evident that he is using the two terms in different ways.
It would seem better to equate John's usage of "world" with another text of his which deals with a similar subject (i.e. the work of Christ), which is what Rev. 5:9 discusses. Both letters were written by John, both were composed around the same time, and the texts in question both reflect the same theme. Reading 1 Jn. 2:2 in light of Rev. 5:9, yields a good interpretation of the text, that Jesus was the propitiation for the sins of men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and not for every man in every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

Jordan Cooper said...

So then who is the "our" and who is the "world"? If this means Jew and Gentile relations, show me how it is at all in the context.

sirdude108 said...

I do not see a reason why this text must be speaking of a Jew/Gentile distinction. John is writing pastorally (i.e. little children, children; e.g. 1 Jn. 2:1, 12-14, 18, 28; 3:7; etc) to a particular group of people. There does not seem to be any reason to exclude the possibility that he is making a statement about the forgiveness ‘he and they’ have received through their advocate Jesus Christ, and not only them (he and this group of believers), but those throughout the whole world (Rev. 5:9). Though John is pastorally focused, he is still kingdom focused. Living as long as he did, he saw the advance of the Gospel marching throughout the whole world as Christ promised (Acts 1:8).

Jordan Cooper said...

Calvinists I have talked to usually try to argue that this verse is about a Jew/Gentile distinction. A.W. Pink argues at length for the idea that this epistle is written to Jews to defend this interpretation. In my view, 1 John, being a Catholic epistle is not written to one specific congregation, thus he cannot be saying "not only this congregation, but also the elect around the world". He is writing to Christians in general, thus the "whole world" must be someone other than the church.

Jordan Cooper said...

I also don't think you can use that one text in Revelation to interpret every universal text. Revelation is dealing with the eschaton; who is ultimately saved at the end. It doesn't really deal with the issue I am discussing.

Anonymous said...

Tom Wells' "A Price For A People - The Meaning of Christ's Death" (Banner of Truth) is the kindest, fairest and most convincing modern explanation and argument in favor of definite atonement for the average reader that I have read. Here's a sampling of Wells' writing: http://theresurgence.com/user/122.

For the more studious reader, Gary Long's "Definite Atonement" (New Covenant Media) provides more meat. Dr. Long presents four interpretations typically offered for this passage: http://www.the-highway.com/1Jh2.2.html.

Tom Wells allows for the ethnic (Jew/Gentile) view in explaining "our sins" and "the sins of the whole world" in 1 John 2:2, but favors another view: Christ is the exclusive propitiation, not only for the sins of we who now believe, but also for the sins of the whole world (for whomever else might ever believe).

Keep in mind John also writes in 1 John 5:19, "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one." The "whole world" here obviously does not include those who were believers when John wrote this (hence, it does not include all people without exception), only unbelievers, some of whom undoubtedly would believe in the future but, nevertheless, until they believed, were under the power of the devil.

Hope this helps.