A Question I Was Asked:

'How Do "Limited Atonement People" View 1 John 2:2?'

The Question:

'I am much strengthened in my scriptural understanding by things you have written and I have been forced to re-evaluate some old understandings. I especially agree that 4 point Calvinism is a biblically-healthy position but that "limited atonement" is not what the Bible teaches at all, therefore 5-point Calvinism is erroneous. 1 John 2:2 has greatly strengthened me here. But how do "limited atonement people" view 1 John 2:2?'

My Reply:

Okay, first of all for any who are re-evaluating the teaching of 'limited atonement,' I strongly recommend Norman F. Douty's 'Did Christ Die Only for the Elect?' (which was originally called 'The Death of Christ'). Amazon should be able to obtain copies for any who are interested. It is, by the way, a book of only 180 pages and is inexpensive but well worth reading. Over the years on so many occasions I have found that comparatively small and inexpensive books often seem to contain some great spiritual jewels.

Now, with regard to 1 John 2:1-2:

'1. My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous.

2. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.' (NKJV).

Limited Atonement Exclusivists have a real problem with any concept that the work of Christ has any efficacy or application beyond a very small 'called and chosen' group and they have tried to find all sorts of ways to twist John's clear words, but they have frankly lost all the arguments on linguistic, logical and, of course, just plain Scriptural grounds. Owen and Pink especially angrily tried to turn this Scripture around. Owen claimed that 'the propitiation for our sins' was a reference to the sins of Jewish Christians, and 'the whole world' simply referred to Gentile Christians. Undoubtedly following Owen, Arthur Pink taught exactly the same thing. But most modern Bible scholars consider that First John was originally sent to the churches of western Asia and Asia Minor, indeed the same sort of congregations as the 'letters to the churches' of Revelation 2 and 3 (the same writer, of course). These were strongly Gentile congregations with few, if any, Jews within the congregations. Since John would have been well-aware of his audience in those congregations, it seems unlikely that his "little children" and "we" referred to Jewish believers - it is far and away more likely that the "little children" and "we" and "our" are a simple and obvious reference to fellow believers - fellow Christians (Gentile or Jewish)! The Owen/Pink argument here is very weak.

Secondly, the expression "world" always refers to the unbelieving world in John's writings as Arthur Pink must have well known, and yet - just in this particular case - he insisted that 'the whole world' was a reference to Gentile believers. Again, weak. Moreover, in 1 John 5:19, the expression 'the whole world' occurs again when John writes, "...the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one." Here John clearly shows how he chooses to use that particular expression - it is not a reference to Gentile believers but to the ungodly world. Just about every Greek lexicon one may find shows the 'whole world' of 1 John 2:2 to be a reference to mankind in general (see the Kittel, Robinson and Arndt-Gingrich for example).

As well as Owen and Pink, John Murray and B.B. Warfield made great attempts to twist the clear meaning of 1 John 2:2 because they had accepted a theological brand which taught that it is preposterous that Jesus could be the "propitiation" for the sins of the entire world. But the Bible is clear that God cuts nobody off and the personal decision and choice of men and women as to whether they will follow Jesus is absolutely meaningful. God has never made a decision to cut off around 90% of humanity from any hope of receiving His grace: this would be the 'Fatalism' of paganism, and would surely be a victory for Satan, moreover, not a single Scripture teaches such a monstrous thing.

The Bible is actually careful to avoid the conclusion that some are 'reprobates,' doomed to destruction. We may note Matthew 25:34, for example. Here, the King, in addressing those on His right hand, says, "...Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." But contrast this with His address to those on his left hand in verse 41: "...Depart from me, you who are cursed [He does not say 'of my Father'] into the eternal fire, prepared [not for you, but] for the devil and his angels." Predestination is about the saved, not about the lost - please note the King's positivity that the kingdom is specially prepared for His people, but His refusal to make a 'logical leap' that damnation is equally 'prepared' for the rebellious! According to biblical teaching, those finally lost will bring this upon themselves, with hell only being 'prepared' for the devil and his demons.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:16-17, NIV).

An Objection to the Above View (which I received in 2014):

"Just read what you wrote on 1 John 2:2. Interesting, but is it not possible that John intended to mean that the "...but also for the whole world" (end of verse 2) simply referred to all future Christians? So, his "we" and "ours" referred to believers of his own day and "the whole world" was a reference to Christians of the future? How about it? Maybe this was a little logically careless by John, but is it not possible?"


Okay this might be a valid point and it is stronger than the arguments used by Pink and the hard-line Calvinists but there remain problems with this. If we accept that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible would such sloppy logic have ever got through? That is, that John did not really mean "the whole world" (as he wrote), but simply Christians of the future. If we compare that to what John 3:16-17 plainly says, it falls short. John clearly wrote therein that "...For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." We must remember that both come from the same writer and Apostle!

Robin A. Brace, 2007. Slight updated: 2018.