This post is an excerpt from the book review of John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
I plan on 1) presenting the passages that teach Christ died for the world, 2) presenting my argument for unlimited atonement, 3) explaining 1 John 2:1-2, 4) going into some detail on the word “world”, and 5) addressing John Owen’s counter definition.
The New Testament has 10 passages which teach Christ died for the world. 1 John 2:1-2 is one of them.
1My 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:2And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
My argument is relatively simple.
P1: Christ died for the whole world
P2: The whole world in 1 John 2:2 means everyone
C1: therefore, Christ died for everyone
The controversy is in what the “whole world” means.
Explanation of the Passage
Forgiveness and Cleansing are Conditional
In 1 John 1, John had just finished explaining that the Father is the one that forgives sin, but He does so based on Christ’s cleansing sacrifice. 1 John 1:7-9 is one of the plainest statements in scripture that the cleansing provided by Christ’s blood is conditional:
7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
To be cleansed (propitiated) by Christ’s blood, we must walk in the light and confess our sins. Walking in the light is a reference to following Christ by believing in Him (John 8:12 & 12:35:36) and confession of sin is saying the same thing about our sins that God does. The word for confession of sins is homologomen (literally one word or the same word). Thus repentance and faith are necessary for cleansing from sin. Christ advocates for the repentant sinner, who is a believer, by requesting the Father to forgive him based on His being the atoning sacrifice for sins. Then and only then does the Father forgive him and Christ’s blood actually cleanses him. In 1 John 2:1-2 we are about to find out a bit more about how this works.
Christ is our Advocate in heaven, because Christ is the Mediator between the sinner and the Father. Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand interceding for us (also see Romans 8:34). Our sins separate us from God and the only way to the Father is through the Son. Christ’s advocacy and His being the propitiation for our sins are related. He is able to advocate, because He is the propitiation for sins.
Propitiation is a clear reference back to the Old Testament atonement system. The Levitical priests would kill a spotless lamb and offer its blood to God in order to atone for the sins of the people. This process, especially the offering to cover sins, is called the atonement.The book of Hebrews makes it clear that the Old Testament process itself couldn’t take away sins, but rather shadowed what Christ actually accomplished. Christ’s death and offering propitiates. But notice the passage does not say Christ has propitiated for our sins, but rather He is the propitiation for our sins. It’s in noun form, not verb form. So the reference is not to the action of covering brought about through the offering, but rather the offering made to cover sins. Thus Christ’s offering can cover the sins of the world, if the condition is met, but doesn’t actually cover the sins of the world.
Not for Our Sins Only
The “our” in the phrase “not for our sins only” is a reference to true believers. Throughout the book John is careful not to include pretenders within “us”. In chapter 2 verse 3 & 4, he says “we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He that saith, I know Him and keepeth not His commandments is a liar…” Notice how John contrasts “we” with he that says. This same care to distinguish between us (true believers) and others (even pretenders) in 1 John 2:19
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
The “our” then, is clearly only true believers.
The term whole world is talking about the sins committed by people throughout the world. The passage is not talking about just part of the world. This is plain by the adjective “whole”. It’s not talking about the planet itself, which does not sin. Rather it’s talking about the people who sin. This is plain in Greek, because the term world is genitive, meaning it possesses something. Thus the passage is not speaking of geographic regions or the planet, but rather sinners in the planet.
What in the World does World Mean?
Generally the world means one of three things: 1) the planet we live on or 2) the people living on the planet (i.e. mankind) or 3) or that which is at odds with God (i.e. worldliness). By process of elimination we can demonstrate that world refers to mankind.As we already discovered, world in 1 John 2 cannot refer to the planet, because the passage is talking about the sins of the world and Christ dying for the world. People sin, Christ died for people, not the planet itself. The definition of that which is at odds with God (namely sinners) might be relevant. But that definition would not help the Calvinist position. If Christ died for sinners in contrast to the elect, then of course He died for the non-elect. So by process of elimination we are left with world meaning mankind.
Contextual limitations limit the scope of a broad definition like mankind. This is in contrast to cases in which the definition itself (not the context) limits the extent. There are three different contextual limitations to examine, “all else”, “rule”, and “hyperbole”.
“All else” is a contextual limitation in which one person or group is contrasted with the rest of mankind. The limitation “all else” doesn’t apply in passages talking about Christ dying for the world, because we are not talking about a contrast between 2 different groups of people like 1 Cor 6:2 “the saints shall judge the world”. Nor are we talking about a situation where the speaker is distinguishing himself from everyone else like John 14:22 “how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?” The passages saying Christ died for the world don’t have any of the telltale signs that an “all else” limitation is being applied.
“Rule” is a general principle that works in each and every case. The limitation “rule” doesn’t apply, but even if it did it would not help the Calvinist. If the rule was Christ died for a person applied to everyone, then Christ died for everyone.
The limitation “hyperbole” doesn’t apply, because these passages are not using exaggeration for dramatic effect. There are 10 passages saying Christ died for the world. Someone might say those passages are exaggerating and don’t believe the hype. But hyperboles are rare in biblical usage. There are only 6 hyperboles using the word world, which represents 3.2% of the uses of kosmos. Hyperboles should be used sparingly, so that the effect remains. Otherwise the author is discredited as being overdramatic. Further, the 10 passages related to Christ dying for the world are not emotional outbursts or intended to persuade someone through dramatic effect.
Owen’s Counter Definition
Here’s how Owen defined world:
By the “world,” we understand the elect of God only, though not considered in this place as such, but under such a notion as, being true of them, serves for the farther exaltation of God’s love towards them, which is the end here designed; and this is, as they are poor, miserable, lost creatures in the world, of the world, scattered abroad in all places of the world, not tied to Jews or Greeks, but dispersed in any nation, kindred, and language under heaven. (link)
We have several immediate problems with this definition. First, it’s not in the list of normal definitions provided above. Owen’s sense for world is never used. If it’s the correct sense for the 10 passages teaching Christ died for the world, those 10 passages alone utilize that definition. Never do the scriptures say the world is justified or the world is adopted or any other blessing which is particular to believers. The sense Owen urges is a “special pleading” existing only to get Owen off the hook.
Second, it appears a hybrid between the two distinct definitions mankind and planet. Owen urges us to understand the passages as the group of elect men throughout the planet. Thus world is collective with respect to the elect among mankind and distributive with respect to their location. What a mess. But world is never used in a double sense like this. Here again, we have a second “special pleading” by Owen.
Third, to get the passage from including everyone, Owen has to shift the focus to every place. But the passages saying Christ died for the world, world is not about location, but about people. Christ died for people, not places.
Owen’s definition doesn’t stand and we are left with 10 clear statements from the bible that Christ died for mankind. For please see this study on the word world, which analyzes and classifies each instance of kosmos in the New Testament: (link).