Did Jesus Die For the Whole World?

Some Christians would argue that Jesus Christ only died for the “elect” – that God chose, or elected, certain people that would be saved (the Elect), and chose to send the rest (the Reprobate) to Hell.  Human beings have no choice in the matter; if God picks you, you will believe and be saved, but if He doesn’t pick you, you have no chance to be saved.  This belief is fundamental to Calvinism.

There are several verses in the Bible that contradict this belief.  One of these is 1 John 2:2:

 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

First, what does “propitiation” mean?  Propitiation can be defined as the act of appeasing one offended and gaining his favor.  When John says that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins, he means that only the blood of Jesus Christ can appease God’s wrath against human sin, and can put sinners into God’s favor.  Only through Jesus Christ can our sins be paid for; only through Jesus can we be reconciled to God.

The problem for Calvinists is the second part of the verse:  “…and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”  Taken in a straight-forward manner, this verse says that the propitiation for sin is available not only to John’s audience, but to everyone.  Who was John’s audience?  Most scholars believe John was primarily writing to Jewish Christians – first century people who were born and brought up as Jews, but who became Christian believers after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

John Samson, a reformed pastor, writes on reformationtheology.com:

… we approach the First Epistle of John, and remember that it is a letter written to a primarily Jewish audience. So in 1 John 2:2, as in the rest of the letter, we have the Apostle John, a Jew, writing primarily to fellow Jewish believers in the Messiah. He writes of Jesus Christ being “the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” It is possible that the word “world” here refers to every person on planet earth, but in my estimation, not very likely, because of the fact that we have a Jew, writing to fellow Jews. I think it is far more likely that John is here declaring that Christ died not only for our sins (the sins of Jewish people), but for also for those of the whole world (the sins of Gentiles throughout the world).

Samson is arguing that the phrase, “the whole world,” doesn’t mean the whole world, but the elect gentiles.  This is an example of coming to the text with a preconceived idea, and forcing one’s understanding into the text.  Samson presupposes Calvinism, but when the text contradicts his presupposition, he simply forces his presupposition into the text to make it say what he wants it to say.  He even acknowledges that a plain reading of the text doesn’t support his view –  “It is possible that the word “world” here refers to every person on planet earth” – but he then explains why he thinks the text means exactly the opposite of what it says.

What did John Calvin have to say about this verse?  Quoted on calvinandcalvinism.com, he writes:

Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? 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. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.

Calvin is arguing that “the whole world” actually means “the whole church,” which would exclude the reprobate, and only include the elect.  Again, the problem is that John didn’t write, “the whole church.”  He wrote “the whole world.”  Again, this is an example of trying to fit one’s personal beliefs into the Scriptures, despite the fact that they don’t fit.  In effect, Calvinists must claim that John didn’t write what he meant to write; he didn’t phrase his statement clearly.  And, since God Himself inspired John to write 1 John, God must have gotten it wrong, too.  It is ironic that Calvinists, who focus so much on God’s sovereignty, must in effect deny His sovereignty, and argue that God goofed, because  1 John 2:2 doesn’t mean what it says.

What does 1 John 2:2 mean?  Does it mean, as others would argue, that everyone is saved?  1 John 2:2 states that Jesus is the propitiation for the whole world.  This means that in Christ is found everything that is necessary to appease God’s wrath, and gain His favor.   What is doesn’t state is whether the propitiation is actually applied to the whole world.  Other verses, such as John 3:16 and Romans 10:9-10, make this clearer:

John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Romans 10:9-10 – if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.   For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

These verses, as well as many others, indicate that a person must believe in order to be saved.  Neither the one extreme of Calvinism, nor the other extreme of Universalism, is correct.  What is correct?  I think Calvin himself stated it well, although he didn’t believe it to be true: Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were sufficient to cover the sins of every person in the whole world, but are only applied to those who God elected, based on His foreknowledge of who would choose to receive the gift of salvation.  1 John 2:2 makes it very clear that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world; John3:16 makes it clear that one must choose to believe in order to receive the benefits of Jesus’ propitiation for sin.

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