General Atonement in 1 John 2:1-2

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does 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.”[1]1 John 2:1-2

John’s[2]first epistle was written to a church or group of churches that were facing a crisis. False teaching was prevalent in the first century. So much so, that John wrote this letter in pastoral rhetoric to steer his readers as far away as he possibly could from Christological error. John wanted his readers to understand the importance of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The reason God sent Jesus Christ into the world was so we could have fellowship with him (1:7). The false teachers were meddling along the lines of denying the humanity of Christ – saying he did not actually “become flesh” as John 1:1 exclaims. However, John’s message was that Christ did come down to earth as a human being to purify us from sin and to make atonement for our sins.

John’s use of words in his first epistle is very much an intentional act of rhetoric from the apostle. The specific words John uses are used with a deliberate manner to explain, specifically in 2:1-2, the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Nonetheless, there is still much debate over the overarching question: for whom did Christ die? John, then, uses these words – Advocate, propitiation, and world – to show his readers that Christ’s death leads to an atoning work for all who will believe in him through faith.

Advocate

For the entire first chapter of his letter, John has written to his readers that there is no darkness in God at all, only light (1:5). He also conveys the idea that we cannot claim to have fellowship with God and walk in darkness (1:6). But more importantly, John tells his readers that if they claim they have no sin, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them (1:8), meaning that all humanity is affected by a sinful nature that is inclined to immoral acts and deeds. Constantine Campbell notes that “…sin exists and is a problem requiring a solution.”[3]This sinful nature is within all of humanity, and John is writing to his audience to communicate the idea that you cannot live according to sin and claim to have fellowship with God. These two attitudes are not mutually exclusive. A believer can either be for the Lord or against Him, according to John’s first epistle.

In 2:1, John speaks of writing these things so his audience “may not sin.” This notion of sinning is not to imply that his readers can achieve a state of sinless perfection. The attitude (aorist tense) of this verb is actually communicating the idea that the Christian will still struggle with the problem of a sinful nature even though they are now sharing in Christ’s glory as believers. According to John’s writing so far, this type of language (that of sinless perfection) does not comply with his oratory throughout all of chapter one. There is ample evidence of the temptation to sin within the first chapter of John in the form of the attraction of living in accordance with the world. Therefore, John is writing these things as to warn his readers to live a holy life, a godly life, for the glory of God.

However, John says, “If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (2:1).” John here points to Jesus Christ as the one who is the sinner’s advocate to the Father when they do sin. This possibility of sinning is a given within the text. However, John says, if we do sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. Literally, this word paraklēton is used nowhere else in Scripture and is used here to denote that “Jesus is qualified to plead our case and to enter the Father’s presence (Heb. 2:18).”[4]This is the turning point to enter into the atonement conversation within the epistle.

Primarily, John writes a few things about Christ as our Advocate. First, John seems to convey to his readers that he wants them to grow in holiness, but there is a possibility of them not sinning. John knows his readers will find it challenging to live a life that is rid of all sinful deeds. Therefore, John writes, “if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate.” Some scholars, like Campbell, Akin, Lenski, and others, would agree that a better translation of these words would be: “when anyone does sin, we have an Advocate.” The issue here is not “if,” but “when” one does sin.

Second, John shows his readers how Christ is our representative toward God the Father. This is an important distinction to note in this passage. While this paper will argue for atonement for all people, the way John is showing his readers about Christ’s advocacy is, most definitely, a particular word only for believers. Christ cannot advocate for one he does not know. Therefore, John is declaring that Christ only advocates for those whom he knows.

Third, John shows his readers that Christ’s advocacy is for our righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is an essential qualification for dealing with the sins of fallen humanity.[5]The only way sin can be purified is to have one who is sinless intercede for those who are sinful. Not only does Christ’s righteousness play an essential role in the advocacy for believers, but his righteousness also plays an integral part in the salvation of the world.

Propitiation

Christ’s righteousness is the vitality for the propitiation of all sins. Leroy Forlines declares that the word propitiation is the most general term in the New Testament that denotes atonement.[6]This word – in the Greek, hilasmos– is defined as “God’s view of satisfaction or favorable disposing.”[7]John’s epistle is the only book contained within the canon of Scripture that uses this word, propitiation, more than once. There are four places where propitiation is used. Once in Romans, once in Hebrews, and twice in 1 John.

The word propitiation is often defined as expiation. Expiation is simply defined as the removal of guilt so that the offense of humanity’s guilt is purged. We find this view in scholars like Gerhard von Rad and Dodd.[8]Those in favor of the expiation view of atonement will often minimize the effect the crucifixion because of its gory and brutal nature. However, Forlines observes that if we were to omit propitiation – the aversion of God’s wrath toward the sinner – within the atonement, we end up compromising the justice of God.[9]If God is indeed holy, and his character is true without sin or evil, he must judge all sin accordingly. Campbell writes, “Passages that can be read in an expiatory way can also be understood in a propitiatory way, but passages that require propitiation cannot be reduced to expiation.”[10]Therefore, the only true way 1 John 2:2 should be read is through the lens of propitiation. In no fashion should there be an expiation only interpreted within this verse? John uses a word that is significantly descriptive of God’s wrath being subverted from the sinner to Jesus Christ. Even Calvin explains the heavy weight this word carries: “…God, at the very time when he loved us, was hostile to us until reconciled in Christ.[11]

John continues in verse two by writing, “He is the propitiation for our sins (2:2a).” This phrase within verse two essentially summarizes the substitutionary aspect of the atonement. The way John Stott denotes his view of atonement is constructive. He would instead believers say they view the atonement as “satisfaction through substitution” because you must have both the satisfaction of God’s wrath and the substitution of Christ for the world to have a sufficient atonement.[12]Without satisfaction and substitution, there is no atonement at all.

World

John concludes verse two with these words: “…and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (2:2b).” Although there is much debate over how the atonement is acted out in Christ’s death, there is much more debate regarding the question of its efficacy in salvation. Theologians have debated this for centuries, for this is a hallmark of debates among evangelicals. Therefore, to truly understand the correct implications and interpretation of the atoning sacrifice of Christ and, specifically, for whom it was offered, we must understand two things: the definition of “world,” and the effectiveness of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

First, a definition of what John means when he writes the word world is needed.  The Greek word, kosmos, is defined literally as all people in general considered as a whole. Robert E. Picirilli proffers that this word “world” is used in the personal sense in 2:2, a view on which Calvinists and Arminians will agree. There is a particular sense here in which the world is being used. Picirilli notes, “Whether personal or impersonal, ‘the world’ is being used very consistently by John in a sense antipathetic to the church or Christians.”[13]Essentially, John communicates this word that is to mean the entire world as it is inhabited by humanity.

Second, the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement must be described in full. Christ’s atonement needs to be examined without any theological presuppositions being brought forth in interpretation. Of course, this is a highly tricky task when interpreting the Bible. However, the job is not impossible. Therefore, a simple, analytical look is demanded.

An Analytical Perspective of the Atonement of Christ

First, we should look at what the atonement truly is. The atonement is the “expiatory and propitiatory act of Christ on the cross whereby satisfaction for sin was accomplished.”[14]This act of Christ on the cross is the only way one can obtain salvation. It is the sole way God’s wrath toward sinful humanity is averted, which is genuinely the problem in humanity that the atonement remedies. This is the reason for the atonement. God’s holiness demands that all sin must be punished. If there is no responsibility for God to punish sin and no accountability on the human being, there would be no need for the atonement at all. Forlines declares, “Sinful man is in a predicament for which he has no remedy of his own. He is under the condemnation of eternal death. The justice of God requires that the penalty be paid. Nothing less will be accepted.”[15]

Second, the extent of the atonement must be analyzed through the author’s original intent. This will be looked at a bit later on in the paper, but it must be mentioned now. Whatever John is writing within his letter, this specific passage regarding the atonement must be looked at within its context. Since the beginning of the letter, John has communicated the idea that Christians cannot be associated with the world and claim to have fellowship with God (1:5-6; 1:8; 2:5-6; 2:9-10; 2:15-16; 3:4-7; 3:9; 3:17; 3:19-20; 4:5-6; 4:17; 5:4-5; 5:10). Therefore, the world here refers not to a specific group of people. Instead, it refers to, as Danny Akin notes, an “evil organized earthly system controlled by the power of the evil one that has aligned itself against God and his Kingdom.”[16]It seems that John’s consistent use of the word “world” is defined as Akin describes here. Therefore, the best interpretation of the word “world” is to understand it as Akin has defined it. It is not, necessarily, a particular group of people of which John, instead it is the entire universe that is under the curse to which Christ’s atoning sacrifice can reach.


[1]Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages are referenced in the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[2]According to modern scholarship, it is technically unknown who is the author of this epistle. Throughout church history, it has been attributed to John, the beloved disciple. Therefore, many scholars will accept him as the author – a view with which I agree.

[3]Constantine R. Campbell. The Story of God Commentary: 1,2, and 3 John(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 39.

[4]Archibald Thomas Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933), 209.

[5]Campbell, The Story of God Commentary, 49.

[6]F. Leroy Forlines. Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 209.

[7]James A. Swanson. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament)(Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[8]Campbell, The Story of God Commentary, 50.

[9]Forlines, Classical Arminianism, 203.

[10]Campbell, The Story of God Commentary, 51.

[11]Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 340.

[12]John R.W. Stott. The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 113.

[13]Robert E. Picirilli. Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 125.

[14]David L. Allen. The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), xxi.

[15]F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest for Truth: Theology for Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 187.

[16]Daniel L. Akin. The New American Commentary: 1,2, and 3 John(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2001), 108.