A literal translation of 1 John 2:2 reads as follows: “And He a propitiation He is for the sins of us, not for those of us only, but also for those of the whole world.” At first glance the verse seems simple enough, but there has historically been startling disagreement regarding its intended meaning.
John MacArthur concludes that the passage cannot mean that Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, insisting that, “Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of Judas … or Adolf Hitler.”1 MacArthur supports his view with an appeal to John 11:52,2 which he says indicates that Jesus died only for the children of God. The passage reads, “… and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”3 John Piper’s explanation of the passage is similar, as he, like MacArthur, supports his 1 John 2:2 interpretation from an appeal to John 11:52.4 R.C. Sproul explains 1 John 2:2 as follows: “He is the “propitiation” for us, the one who endured the wrath we deserve so that divine justice is fulfilled, not set aside. Christ is the propitiation for “the whole world,” not because He made atonement for every sinner, but because He redeemed not only Jews but people from all parts of the world” [emphasis mine].5
How can a verse so seemingly simple be construed to say almost the opposite of what it seems intended to say? To put it simply, there is theological turf at stake. If the literal translation (that Christ is the propitiation for the whole world) reflects the intended meaning, then the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement collapses, and with it, the other four points of Calvinism as understood by contemporary Reformed thinkers. Note Sproul’s recognition that, “if a person really understands the other four points and is thinking at all clearly, he must believe in limited atonement because of what Martin Luther called a resistless logic.”6 But what if limited atonement is debunked by 1 John 2:2 (or other passages)? Sproul makes a telling admission: “I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death.”7 I don’t think we want to believe…
The Reformed Doctrine of Limited Atonement
In order to understand why Sproul might make such a statement, let’s examine some basics of the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement. The essential premise of the doctrine is that the atonement is sufficient for all men, but efficient only for the elect. On its face that doesn’t sound too problematic, but the problem becomes evident when we consider what is meant by the term efficient. Sproul explains it this way: “It wasn’t just a hypothetical atonement, it was an actual atonement. He didn’t offer a hypothetical expiation for the sins of His people; their sins were expiated.”8 Piper’s conclusion is similar. He asserts, “When Jesus died on the cross, paying the price for us…He decisively accomplished that for His own. His sheep. His elect…He didn’t just make it accomplishable. He accomplished it.”9 From this understanding, Piper considers the term triumphantly effective atonement as preferable to the more traditional limited atonement.10 Sproul likewise re-‐labels the term. He says, “I prefer not to use the term limited atonement because it is misleading. I rather speak of definite redemption or definite atonement, which communicates that God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Christ died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him.”11 This redefinition helps explain why the Reformed view demands that regeneration precedes faith – because in this perspective salvation for the elect was accomplished at the cross, and not when the elect actually believed.
Further, notice the distinction Sproul suggests between meritorious and full value of the atonement: “…its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement.”12 The full value is conditioned upon trust or belief. But Sproul adds another subtle yet important condition: “…the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents.
Obviously the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins” [emphasis mine].13
It is noteworthy that Sproul views the merit of the atonement as conditional based on repentance of sins, because never in the Bible is there such a condition identified. Fifty-‐six times in the NT repentance is mentioned. In eight instances the NT refers to repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins.14 There are five instances in Revelation, one referring to “Jezebel,”15 and the others to unbelievers who have not repented of similar deeds.16 The only other context connecting repentance and sin is 2 Corinthians 12:21, in which Paul describes mourning for believers who have not repented of their impurity, immorality, and sensuality. Repentance from sins is simply not a Biblical condition for salvation. But what about 1 John 2:2? Does that passage refute or support the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement? We cannot dismiss the passage by referring to a distant and unconnected context, nor by quoting a catechism or creed, nor by repeating a theological supposition. We can only answer the question by exegeting the passage itself.
(Presented to the 2015 Free Grace Alliance National Conference 10/13/15. Tomorrow: An Exegesis of 1 John 2:2.)
2 “ … And not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
6 R.C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 142.
8 Sproul, The Truth of the Cross, 150.
11 Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Limited Atonement.”
14 Mk 1:4, Lk 3:3, 17:3,4, 24:47, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 2 Cor 12:21.
15 Rev 2:21.
16 Rev 2:22, 9:20,21, 16:11.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.