1 John 2:2 - Does Grace Extend to Everyone? (Part 1)



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.)


1 John Macarthur, “Limited Atonement: Explained – 1 John 2:2” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DepxyWF8euA.

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.”


4 John Piper, “John Piper on Limited Atonement” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZEIPPgMkFA.

5 R.C. Sproul, “Our Righteous Advocate,” Ligonier Ministries at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/our-­‐righteous-­‐advocate/.

6 R.C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 142.

7 R.C. Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Limited Atonement,” Ligonier Ministries, November 19, 2012 at http://www.ligonier.org/blog/tulip-and‐reformed‐theology‐limited-atonement/.

8 Sproul, The Truth of the Cross, 150.

9 9 John Piper, “John Piper on Limited Atonement” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZEIPPgMkFA.

10 Ibid.

11 Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Limited Atonement.”

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

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.

Christopher Cone 2015 Bio

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.


Jay, it appears that you have just proved my point. You are right. God cannot fail in anything He desires to accomplish. That is why He designed Christ’s atonement to accomplish the salvation of he elect. If He designed it to save the whole world, then His purpose has been thwarted by man’s unbelief, and that is impossible.

G. N. Barkman

G.N. -

No, we’re in disagreement on this, but at least I know where the issue lies. I can’t go down the road you do that the atonement was ‘designed…to accomplish the salvation of the elect’. I’m assuming that you mean the salvation of ‘only’ the elect when I say that. John’s Gospel, again, seems to indicate otherwise. I’m short for time so I can’t get into the greek, but that’s pretty clear that there is not a limit to the scope of Christ’s work.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:16-21 ESV)

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39-42 ESV)

And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (John 12:44-48 ESV)

I could continue but I’ll stop there. I really have no desire to get into another Calvinist/Arminian discussion on SI…I just want to point out that your theory seems to conflict with John.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells


I’m short for time so I can’t get into the greek, but that’s pretty clear that there is not a limit to the scope of Christ’s work.

The verses you quote do imply “a limit to the scope of Christ’s work.”

That limit restricts the scope to only those who believe, the phrase you have highlighted a few times in your quotes.

The John 4:42 reference to Christ being the Savior of the world can be understood to mean not just Jews but Samaritans and other Gentiles as well.

Rev. 7:9 speaks about “a great multitude that no one could number,from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”

That’s the whole world, but not every individual in the whole world. That verse gives great impetus for world missions, the knowledge that no ethnic group will be unrepresented in eternity, but that in a sense the whole world will be saved.

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Jay, it seems your reasoning is something like this:

Major Premise: Christ died savingly for everyone who has ever been born in all the world.

Minor Premise: God cannot fail.

Conclusion: Therefore, failing to save all the people for whom Christ savingly died cannot be considered failure.

My reasoning is different:

Major Premise: God cannot fail.

Minor Premise: If God failed to save people He purposed to save, He failed in HIs purpose.

Conclusion: God could not have purposed Christ’s death for the salvation of everyone who has ever lived.

G. N. Barkman

I concur with Aaron’s opening post here that this text, if not the whole question of the extent of the atonement, must be answered finally by comparing Scripture with Scripture, commonly called the analogy of faith. I.e., interpretation begins with the findings of exegesis of the text but must end with the consent of other Scriptures pertinent to those findings. Allow me to give a barebones outline with a few pertinent texts.

1. The extent/design of the atonement must be gleaned from Scriptures that reveal what atonement actually does in its application to creation (i.e., the universe, all that is not God).

2. Sufficiency: Universality. (“The living God is the savior of all men”)

a. Infinity, thus fully sufficient to address all the effects of sin everywhere.

b. The atonement entails both redemptive and non-redemptive benefits but not with equal ultimacy, i.e., not applied equally to every aspect/person of the universe.

c. The universal redemptive design of the atonement. Redemption is available to all humans and all are invited to partake. Seen in:

1 The unrestricted language of invitation. Jn 3:16; 7:37; 2 Cor 5:19

2 The universal love of God. Jn 3:16; Lk 6:36

3 The universal mandate to evangelize all. Mt 28:21; Lk 24:47

4 The universal gospel message. Acts 17:24-30; so-called “duty faith”

5 The universal objects of Christians’ prayers. 2 Tim 2:1-5

6 A universal sanctification. Heb 10:29; 6:4-6; 2 Pet 2:20-21; 1 Cor 7:14

7 A universal general call to be saved, to all who hear the gospel. John 12:23

8 A restraint of sin and many general blessings. 2 Thess 2:6-7; Mt 5:45; Acts 14:17

9 Benefits that extend even to the non-rational creation. Rom 8:19-22; Col 1:16-17, 20; Isa 11:6-9

3. Effeciency: Limitations. 1 Tim 4:10 “especially to believers”

a. An effectual to salvation, the “all things of Rom 8:28 ff, esp v. 32; 1 Cor 1;23-24

b. The gifts of repentance and faith. 1 Thes 1:4-5; 1 Cor 12:3; Acts 14:27; Heb 12:2

c. Certainty of final salvation. Rom 8:31-39; 1 Thes 5:10

d. Other.

1 Forgiveness of sin. Rev 1:5

2 Sanctification. Heb 10:10, 14; 1 Jn 1:9

3 Personal access to God’s very presence. Heb 10:19-21

All the benefits within the design and intent of the atonement are accomplished and applied by divine guaranty to each person and situation. Christ in a real sense is a substitute for all sin and sinners but the difference is in the benefits themselves. There are the blessings of common grace to all on the one hand, and there are the blessings of saving grace to personal eternal life that are restricted to some on the other. All are by divine design and intent. Jesus became “sin”; He did not become cancer, Dutch elms disease, headaches, etc. Sin and all its effects must have a remedy or resolution based on infinite and eternal ethics. If not, nothing and no one can be helped, saved or kept safe from relentless justice of the living God.

Rolland McCune

Hear, hear, Dr. McCune

to add my 2c, in Lev 16 we see the law of the Day of Atonement. That ceremony created access for the whole nation to God every year. Atonement made it possible for every Israelite individually to have access to God, whether the individual was believing or not and whether the individual took advantage of the possibility or not. Atonement propitiated God, making him willing to hear individual prayers and receive individual offerings.

in the same way, the atonement of the cross makes the way open for any individual to receive the benefits. Justification, the application of the benefit, depends on individual response (faith) in what God has done.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

[G. N. Barkman]

God cannot fail in anything He desires to accomplish. That is why He designed Christ’s atonement to accomplish the salvation of he elect.

This seems to me to be a non sequitur. Of course God cannot fail in anything he desires to accomplish, but that reality has no bearing on the nature of his purpose in the atonement. That must be explained and proved from Scripture itself. It cannot be simply assumed. If the Father designed Christ’s atonement to accomplish the salvation of the elect, then it must indeed do so, but you have to prove the antecedent before you can assume the consequent.



RE yours of 10-24, yes, I can see the distinctions you make about the Day of Atonement. In fact there is quite a bit of that phenomenon in Israel’s religion. Since Israel was a theocracy with a religious/political form, or union of church and state as it were, there was created a unique polity—a mandatory, scrupulous civil religion (Yahweh worship), supported and enforced by the state, that operated out of the nation’s central altar in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. There were many Levitical forms that were “national” in purpose, e.g., two daily burnt offerings, the weekly sabbath offerings (that doubled the daily sacrifices), and the monthly new moon offerings. In themselves they were non-salvatory but propitiated God who could and did respond positively as you note, probably as long as there was a believing, covenant-keeping remnant. When apostasy infested and overtook the people, the theocratic kingdom declined and eventually collapsed. My own view of the OT offerings is that, if offered in true faith in God and the Covenant, they granted real forgiveness and a “practical” but not a permanent expiation of sin. Moral finality came when God ratified the Levitical forms in the once-for-all expiation of sin at the cross.

I have noted for some time that there is strong resistance to the thought of non-salvific benefits in the biblical idea of atonement. The atonement is usually worked out within an either-or, limited-unlimited, universal-particular soteriological paradigm. I find that approach a little too simplistic and reductionist in determining the divine intent and design of the atonement. A multi-dimentional approach would on the surface seem to be more productive. Letting the Scriptures themselves (OT and NT) round out the contours, design, and divine intent of the atonement would appear to be a preferred method. A binary approach often ends in haggles and bizarre interpretations of particular verses that resist the two columns of pre-ordained options. E.g., the “sheep debate” over John 10 among others. They bring to mind the sign that hung over the old blacksmith shop: “All kinds of twisting and turning done here.” An appeal to an obscure, virtually never-used word possibility or verb form is usually not very convincing. Chasing a moveable nu throughout the Greek NT or an enclitic mem in the Hebrew OT always has the feel of special pleading. I once saw the supposed demolition of the judicial, federal headship view of the imputation of Adamic guilt of sin in favor of a version of the personal, seminal view based on the rarely-used gnomic aorist!

My ideas here are not an end-all to the difficulties of hermeneutics and theology. But I often wonder how productive the conclusions of tedious grammatical-syntactical studies really are. The same would go for the need to do an exhaustive historical study of a verse, clause, word, grammatical form, or an idea. Such may be helpful, certainly, but its status (for many) of a hermeneutical norm or directive is questionable. The interpretive principle of the fundamental perspicuity of Scripture sometimes seems to get lost


Rolland McCune