Calvinism and 1 John 2:2?


Doesn't 1 John 2:2 disprove limited atonement?


Thanks for our question. Since, I briefly discuss the definition of the biblical doctrine of limited atonement under "Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?" and "Calvinism and Titus 2:11?" (see below), I'm not going to repeat it again here. I will simply defer to John Owen's brief argument in, For Who Did Christ Die?:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:

  • 1. All the sins of all men.
  • 2. All the sins of some men, or
  • 3. Some of the sins of all men.

In which case it may be said:

  • 1. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
  • 2. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
  • 3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?

You answer, "Because of unbelief."

"I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!"

Of course unbelief is a sin for which Christ died! If he didn't, none could be saved. Limited atonement is a biblical doctrine.

The text is question is:

1 John 2:1-2 My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Seeing that limited atonement is a biblical doctrine what is John actually saying? After all, the Bible does not contradict itself. All Scripture is God breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), so what remains is for us to "rightly divide" it (2 Tim. 2:15). As we know, in rightly dividing any text, we need to look at not only at the immediate and the book's overall context, but the author, audience, word meanings, historical setting, grammar, syntax, textual issues, the type of literature, the author's and the over all biblical context. When this is not properly done we may end up with error, division, and even different denominations, etc.

So, what is John talking about? John is the author. He was a Jew, a Hebrew. "Jews" (Ioudaioi) is used 71 times in his Gospel, as compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which only mention the word 16 times. So, comparably where was John's emphasis? Who was his primary audience? The Jews, or the Hebrews.

So, John is simply saying in 1 John 2:2, that Jesus Christ is the "the propitiation for our [the Hebrews] sins; and not for ours [the Hebrews] only, but also for the whole world [the Gentiles]. This is consistent with what John wrote in his gospel in John 11:51-52. Let's briefly compare them:

1 John 2:1-2
John 11:51-52
these things write I unto you
he prophesied
Jesus Christ the righteous
he is the propitiation for
would die for
our sins
the nation
and not for ours only
and not for the nation only
but also
but also
for the whole world
the children of God who are scattered abroad

It is clear that John is speaking of the same idea in each set of verses. "The whole world" (1 John 2:2) refers to only the children of God scattered throughout the whole world (John 11:52; 17:6, 9, 19; Rev. 5:9; 7:9), the "many" of Hebrews 9:28, but not each person in the human race (John 5:29). Logic also must dictate here. If God desires all men to be saved without exception, then why are any lost? Was Judas lost? Yes, he was (John 17:12; cf. Matt 26:24). It is impossible to give the words ransom, substitute, reconcile, and propitiate their biblical meaning and still hold to universal atonement without also accepting universal salvation. If these terms hold to their rightful meanings, then Christ died only for the elect.

As George Smeaton in his book, The Apostles' Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 1991) so eloquently put it:

The words plainly allude to the atonement as offered and applied - that is, to the actual expiation, which does not go beyond the number of believing recipients. It is a perversion of the language when this is made to teach the dogma of universal propitiation; or that atonement was equally offered for all, whether they receive it or not, whether they acknowledge its adaptation to their case or not. The passage does not teach that Christ's propitiation has removed the divine anger in such a sense from all and every man. Nothing betokens that the apostle had others in his eye than believers out of every tribe and nation.

So, 1 John 2:2 does not disprove limited atonement, rather it affirms it.

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Limited Atonement

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).