Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Propitiation for Sinners

I went before my ordination council today—an event which has to rank as one of the more stressful events of my many years of ministry. One of the men asked me about whether I was a Calvinist and what my position is on the issue of limited atonement, also known as particular redemption. I have addressed this issue in a previous post (see 11/22/07), so I will not rehash my answer to that issue. Suffice it to say, I am a Calvinist and I do hold to the position of particular redemption.

As a follow up question to my response, another man asked me about 1 John 2:2—“and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” This is, undoubtedly, the most difficult verse for those who hold to particular redemption to explain, and while I gave my answer, as I thought about it later, I do not believe I answered it sufficiently. In fact, I know I did not, probably because the stress of the situation caused me to go blank regarding the details of my argument. So I would like to take this opportunity to more fully explain my answer.

My initial response is that John was writing in a Jewish context. In Galatians 2:9, we see that John was, along with Peter and James, pillars of the church in Jerusalem who agreed that Paul was to go as an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul wrote, “and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” So John was generally regarded as an apostle to the Jews, and it would be reasonable to assume that most of his readers would have been Jewish.

Consequently, he is using language that would have been particularly meaningful to a Jewish reader. The concept of a propitiatory sacrifice of atonement was a strongly Jewish concept, as the Jews had seen such sacrifices every year in the Temple on the Day of Atonement. So what John wrote would have been understood in a Jewish context. Thus, he was saying, “Jesus was the propitiation for our sins, but not just the sins of us Jews, but also for the sins of all the peoples of the world. He is the universal Savior.”

In a seminar a few years ago at the Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church in California, Phil Johnson pointed out that a perfect parallel to 1 John 2:2 is found in John 11:51-52. There, the Jewish leaders are meeting together to figure out how to stop Jesus because they fear that the nation will begin following Him and Rome will come and destroy all they have built for themselves. And in verses 49-50 it says, “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people and that the whole nation not perish.”

And then John, who also wrote 1 John 2:2, comments on this statement by Caiaphas with these words: Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 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” (vs. 51-52).

The parallel language between John 11:51-52 and 1 John 2:2 is unmistakable.

John 11:51-52

1 John 2:2

“Jesus was going to die for the nation”

“He Himself is the propitiation for our sins”

“and not for the nation only”

“and not for ours only”

“but in order”

“but also”

“that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”

“for those of the whole world”

Both the phrasing and the sense of these two passages are exactly parallel. So I believe that the best interpretation of what John is saying in 1 John 2:2 is, “Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for us Jews only, but also for the sins of Gentiles, from every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout the whole world.” The phrase “the whole world” refers to people of all kinds, including Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans, and so forth, as opposed to “ours only,” meaning the Jewish nation. This would have been understood by John’s Jewish readers.

Admittedly, there are many good Bible expositors who do not hold this view, but see 1 John 2:2 as referring to the universal provision of the atonement. In their interpretation, they say that while the atonement is provided for all men, God did not intend to apply it to all men nor did He actually provide it to every man, but the provision is there for all. Those who hold this interpretation believe that John’s use of the exact same term, “the whole world,” in 5:19 where he says that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” defines how the term should be understood in 2:2. Thus, since it refers to all unbelievers in 5:19, it would mean the same thing in 2:2. Such an understanding would require that 2:2 refers to the provision of the atonement rather than to a contrast between elect Jews and elect Gentiles.

However, I personally believe that understanding that John was an apostle to the Jews, who would have been writing primarily to a Jewish audience, and coupling that with the parallelism between John 11:51-52 and 1 John 2:2, the stronger argument is for my interpretation.

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