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A View from the Altar / Does it mean this or not?
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Does it mean this or not?

One of the central controversies involved in the doctrine of the limited atonement is whether the relevant plain-language texts actually mean what they appear to say.  The question is valid since what’s supposedly plain didn’t originate in English.  Either we all have to learn Greek, or else some fundamental rules of comprehending the basic textual elements will have to apply.

In analyzing the extent of the atonement, we’re fortunate that there are so many texts which involve only the most basic textual elements.  That is, we have few (or, no) complex words, simple phrases, short sentences, and nothing about the translation or its surrounding context makes it particularly difficult to grasp.

For example, 1 John 2:2 reads, “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Here we have only one term not familiar to modern readers, the word “propitiation.”  Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says a propitiation is a means whereby sin is covered and remitted.  This is of course exactly what we’d expect from the context of First John where sin, righteousness, and reconciliation with God are being discussed.  Jesus died for us to save us from our sins.  That’s what a propitiation is all about.

John says that this propitiation was given for “our” sins, and not ours only “but also for the sins of the whole world.”  What is the referent for “our”?  Who’s he talking about?  In my opinion, John is speaking in the fatherly sort of third-person plural, like an old man does when he’s being kindly and familiar toward grandchildren.  He includes himself and his readers in “we” or “our.”  It’s logically possible that “our” refers to the specific churches to which he was writing.  If you wanted to stretch things, “our” could refer to the apostles or perhaps even to John and his amanuensis.

John then enlarges the scope to say that Christ is the propotiation “not for ours (i.e., our sins) only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Now we have only to consider what “the whole world” refers to.  Is there any legitimate construction to be placed on this language where “the whole world” would actually mean, “a subset of the world and not really the whole thing”?  If that were the case, we’d have to ask why John used the phrase since it would be so blatantly misleading.  You could argue that John was speaking ironically or perhaps even sarcastically, but there’s no reason for this, and I don’t see that in John’s language anyway.  Everything about the passage and its context says he’s setting forth in plain language what Christ has provided (propitiation) and whom he’s provided it for (us and the whole world).

The standard argument from advocates of the limited atonement is that “the whole world” refers in a general sense to the assortment of nations.  It thus means Christ died for a chosen number, some of which would come from each nation.

There are several reasons why this construction won’t work.  First, the phrase “whole world” isn’t the same basic notion as “the elect of every nation.”  They’re different ideas.  The phrasing of the “elect of every nation” appears in certain Christian hymns — just not here in First John.

Second, the exact same phrase appears in 1 John 5:19 where he says the whole world lies in wickedness or the wicked one.  In that usage, John has the realm of lost humanity in view and says Satan’s got all of them.  The context there certainly means there are no exceptions.  That is, there are no lost people whom Satan does not have.  To be consistent and rational in our exegesis of the phrasing, you have to treat “the whole world” similarly in both occurrences.  Either exceptions are admitted or they’re not.  The only interpretative stance that makes sense is that both phrases admit no exceptions.  Satan’s got all the realm of lost humanity, but Jesus died for them all.

The third reason the standard limited atonement argument fails is that the force of the language runs the other way.  The phraseology is “not only this but all of that.”  It’s structured to sweep away any thought of limitations.  If there were ever any doubt in the readers’ minds about whether Christ died for the people surrounding them, the text was fashioned to dispel it.  What about those persecutors tormenting the early Christians?  And what about the ones who banished John to Patmos?  Christ died for them as well as for us.  And what about people in future generations, or people from nations we’ve never explored, or folks with the most savage customs?  Are there any of those we can scratch off the list? No, John’s intent is clear from the diction of the sentence as well as from the whole context, Christ died for the whole world — all the people alive in his day and the entire six billion souls alive on Earth today.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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