“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)
With these verses, we wade into the depths of theological debate. What does it mean that Jesus is an atoning sacrifice for our sins and the also the sins of the whole world? It is in a passage like this that one can begin to see how someone might argue in favour of some sort of universal salvation. Yet, is that the only option? Considering the context of the passage and the churches historical understanding of the text helps to see that there is a better option out there.
Context of the Passage:
In 1 John 1, John begins by proclaiming to those whom he is writing to about what he has seen (the incarnate Christ, who was before the beginning [1 John 1:1-4]) and what he has heard [1 John 1:5-10]. John has heard that God is light and as such those who follow Him ought to walk in the light. This light-ward walking is described as living out the truth and confessing our sins, for which Christ died and from which He purifies us.
All that John has written to this point is for a purpose, that those who receive his word might not sin (1 John 2:1) or, if they do sin, might remember that Christ is our advocate is sitting at the Father’s right hand actively interceding for us.
Moving on to the verse at question, again, John writes, Christ did for our sins “and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Now, even if we were to leave it at this, we could come to the conclusion that there is more going on in this passage than some would like to suggest because there is still a dichotomy of those in light and those in darkness. However, John then continues to describe those who can be assured of their truly coming to know Jesus. What is the mark? Obedience to His commands—and those who lack true obedience, lack the True Light. “Whoever does the will of God lives forever,” writes John in 2:17, yet no such promise is made for the world, rather the exact opposite. The way the world is spoken of in a later passage, within the same letter, in a different manner (rather than being atoned for, it will pass away) suggests that the usage of the term world is different in these two places.
It seems up to this point, John has only been referring to the church, writing about the church, and encouraging those within the church. As such, is it possible that when John writes that Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, he is referring to the church, across the world?
This is where the historical interpretations help to give some extra clarity.
There are many people who have commented on this passage, yet we will only take a look at a few:
Hilary of Arles, who was a semi-Pelagian, writes, “When John says that Christ died for the sins of the ‘whole world,’ what he means is that he died for the whole church.”1
The Venerable Bede writes, “[Christ] has not done this only for those who were alive at the time of his death, but also for the whole church which is scattered over the full compass of the world, and it will be valid for everyone, from the very first among the elect until the last one who will be born at the end of time.”2
Finally, John Calvin writes on this passage, “And not for ours only He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.” As for those who suggest this passage requires belief in universal salvation, Calvin continues, “I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation.”3
John, according to Calvin and the rest, is here not referring to anyone but those who do or will believe, the world over, according to God’s decree. For all of these folks, the purpose of this statement is not that Christ’s atonement was made for all sins of all people across all time regardless of location or belief (which is to say, universal salvation), but that Christ died for the sins of all people across all time who are part of the church, the elect. Or, as Paul puts it, Christ laid down His life for the church (Eph 5).
For whom, then, did Christ die and offer atonement? With John, we proclaim that Christ made atonement for the sins of the world, that is, for all those who have been born and will be born across all times and places who believe and live in obedience to His commands.
In other words, for the church.
- Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 177.
- Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 178.
- “John Calvin: Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles – Christian Classics Ethereal Library.” Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45/calcom45.v.iii.i.html.