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1 John 2:2 (ESV)

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

Understanding the "ours" as referring to the universal church of believers, it would seem that John is saying that Christ "propitiated" for everyone's sins.

Calvinism, through the doctrine of limited, or definite, or particular, atonement, says that Christ died only for the elect.

How would a five-point Calvinist understand this passage?

  • The words 'for the sins of' are not in the original Greek [TR] and in the KJV they are in italics to make that clear. 'But also for that of the whole world' is closer to the original. 'That of the whole world' refers to sin, as such, the thing itself. Not the individual actions of specific persons. – Nigel J Jun 4 '18 at 7:34
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Calvinists see the "whole world" in this passage as referring to the elect throughout the world, particularly emphasizing that Christ died for Gentiles as well as Jews.

Examples

Examples of this approach abound. John Gill:

that is, not for the Jews only, for John was a Jew, and so were those he wrote unto, but for the Gentiles also (source)

Similarly, Matthew Poole writes:

i.e. for all that truly believe in him, all the world over. (source)

John MacArthur more thoroughly explains his view of John's intention here:

In the Jewish context, they understood Day of Atonement, they understood the language of propitiation. John is telling them that the sacrifice that Jesus offered is not just for the nation Israel, it's now for the world because the Lord is calling out a people for His name from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. (source; emphasis added)

Many other Reformed theologians take similar approaches, including John Frame (Systematic Theology, 907), the Reformed Study Bible, Louis Berkhof (3.3.6.B.4.a), and John Piper (source).

Exposition

We can dive a bit deeper into the analysis of one Reformed theologian to get a better understanding of the rationale for this view. Simon Kistemaker (Exposition, 253–255), referring to the oft-cited "sufficient for the whole world but efficient for the elect" language, agrees with Calvin that while this is true, it is not in view here (see Calvin's commentary). He argues:

The phrase the whole world relates not to every creature God has made, for then the fallen angels also would share in Christ's redemption. The word whole describes the world in its totality, not necessarily in its individuality.

In defense of this idea, Kistemaker points to 1 John 3:16, where he sees John, after making a distinction between the "children of God" and the "children of the devil," saying that "Jesus Christ laid down his life for us" (emphasis added). He also argues, citing A. T. Robertson, that a different Greek word could have been used if John meant to say that Christ died for every individual:

John chooses the adjective ολος (whole) instead of πας (every, all) to communicate the idea of universality. The word ολος has "an indefinite meaning which πας does not have."

  • So are Calvinists openly saying they believe everyone who lived in China in 34 AD didn't get saved? How does one become one of the Elect without hearing the word? How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them – Gregory Magarshak Mar 14 '16 at 3:14
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    All non-universalists have to deal with the question of those who never hear the gospel, not just Calvinists. Many Arminians and Calvinists alike conclude that, on the basis of the passage you quote, that those who do not hear are lost forever. – Nathaniel Mar 14 '16 at 3:40
  • I'm not a big fan of the hermeneutical contortionism you've summarised. That's not a comment on the quality of your answer, I'm just disappointed if this really is the response of Calvinism. I believe in election, double predestination even, but think there's a better solution to this verse. But there's no denying your quotes. I'll keep researching, hopefully these examples are not the only solution offered by Calvinists. – Joshua Mar 14 '16 at 10:35
  • @JoshuaBigbee Louis Berkhof, John Piper, and the Reformed Study Bible also take this approach. But I'll look more too. – Nathaniel Mar 14 '16 at 14:21
  • @Nathaniel, thanks for this summary -- while I don't agree with the conclusions, it shows that the Limited Atonement is at least defensible with regards to this verse. – JDM-GBG May 31 '18 at 22:24
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They would say that although Jesus died for everyone in the whole world, nevertheless to be saved, people have to "accept" him. Those who accept Jesus and follow him were predestined from the beginning of the world to do so -- and the others were not. Furthermore, they were not just predestined but in fact pulled by an irresistible grace to be saved.

In other words, they would say Jesus did "part 1" for everyone, but "part 2" is done by God only with the Elect, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

How the "acceptance" and "following" happens is understood differently in different denominations of Christianity:

  • For example, many Christians consider water baptism to be essential to salvation. Some Protestants rely on (a version of) the "baptism of desire" doctrine to say that it's not essential.

  • Also, some people say the Holy Spirit will work inside the saved person to make them sin less and less, and there will be unmistakable outward signs that someone is saved. Whereas other Christians say you can never really tell who is saved and who is not.

  • Some Christians believe "once saved, always saved" like Calvinists, and others believe that you can lose your salvation. Calvinists believe that if you fall away, it will only be for a time and then you'll come back, which logically implies a guarantee of immortality during those times when you fall away.

  • Finally, regarding "following Jesus", some Christians believe that one should literally do what Jesus said (i.e. keep the 10 commandments, follow those in the seat of Moses but don't do as they do, give away possessions) and other Christians believe like Paul said, that Jesus already paid for everyone's sins so the Law isn't relevant anymore, and we just have to follow our conscience. They say the Law is divided into "ritual law" and "moral law" and different Churches may have different opinions on whether a particular action is moral and immoral. Some Christians believe you should belong to an organized Church, and others believe all the Churches have become corrupt and Jesus taught against organized religion.

In short, while the words "accept Jesus" and "follow Jesus" can (and have) take on various meanings in various times and communities, but the idea of Calvinists is that anything that happens is up to God anyway, so at the end of the day, while Jesus paid the price, whoever "accepts Jesus" and "follows Jesus" is completely up to God the whole time. Grace, but not of ourselves.

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    I'd love to see an example of a five-point Calvinist who believes "Jesus died for everyone in the whole world," because that statement contradicts the third point: that Christ died for the elect only. – Nathaniel Mar 13 '16 at 21:52
  • The Calvinist position on Limited Atonement is: Jesus died only for the elect. Though Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for all, it was not efficacious for all. That is what I meant by doing part 1 and then part 2 -- the person being saved by the work of the Holy Spirit in them to accept Jesus' free gift and follow Jesus... and I was saying that the terms accept and follow have been understood differently throughout history but the overall idea is that, however it happens, it was already known in advance. – Gregory Magarshak Mar 14 '16 at 3:21
  • Again, any non-univeralist can accept the sufficient but not efficient language, including Arminians. There's nothing distinctively Calvinist about it. – Nathaniel Mar 14 '16 at 3:44
  • The core of this answer is a significant miss-representation of the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement that this question is scoped to. – Caleb Mar 14 '16 at 9:11
  • @GregoryMagarshak You are right about the sufficient vs efficacious part, but I'm not sure that's how your parts 1 & 2 play out in your answer. You might be better off sticking to the language of the former. Since it's what is used by theologians that you could quote. – Joshua Mar 14 '16 at 10:44

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