“Jesus Christ the Propitiation for the Whole World” (2)
PMT 2021-082 by Benjamin B. Warfield
[Gentry note: This is part 2 of an excellent article by renowned postmillennial Princeton scholar, B. B. Warfield.]
“And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
(1 John 2:2)
The Problem of “the World”
The search for John’s meaning naturally begins with an attempt to ascertain what he intends by “the world.” He sets it in contrast with an “our” by which primarily his readers and himself are designated: “And he is himself a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the whole world.” John’s readers apparently are immediately certain Christian communities in Asia Minor; and it is possible to confine the “our” strictly to them. In that case it is not impossible to interpret “the whole world,” which is brought into contrast with the Christians specifically of Asia Minor, as referring to the whole body of Christians extended throughout the world.
A certain measure of support for such an interpretation may be derived from such a passage as Colossians 1:6, where “the word of the truth of the gospel” is spoken of as “in all the world,” or as Colossians 1:23, where the gospel is said to have been “preached in all creation under heaven.” In these passages the world-wide gospel seems to be contrasted with the heresies which were troubling the Colossian Christians and which are thus branded as a merely local phenomenon. In something of the same way, the world-wide extension of the people of God may be thought to be brought into contrast by John with the local churches he is addressing; and his purpose may be supposed to be to remind these local churches that they have no monopoly of the gospel. The propitiatory efficiency of Christ’s blood is not confined to the sins of the Asian Christians, but is broad enough to meet the needs of all in like case with them through-out the whole world. Christ is no local Savior, and all, everywhere, who confess their sins will find him their righteous advocate, whose expiatory blood cleanses them from every sin. On this interpretation we are brought to much the same point of view as that of Augustine and Bede, of Calvin and Beza, who understand by “the whole world” “the churches of the elect dispersed through the whole world”; and by the declaration that Jesus Christ is “a propitiation for the whole world,” that in his blood all the sins of all believers throughout the world are expiated.
When Shall These Things Be? A Reformed Response to Hyperpreterism
(ed. by Keith Mathison)
A reformed response to the aberrant HyperPreterist theolgy.
Gentry’s chapter critiques HyperPreterism from an historical and creedal perspective.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
When the assumptions on which this view of the passage is founded are scrutinized, however, they cannot be said particularly to commend themselves. John is certainly addressing a specific body of readers, and no doubt has them quite distinctively in mind when he speaks to them in the tender words, “My little children, I am writing this to you, that ye sin not.” But the affirmations he makes do not seem to be affirmations applicable only to them, or to be intended to be understood as spoken only of them. This is already apparent from his identifying himself with them in these affirmations. “We have an Advocate,” he says; “he is a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only.” If it is not impossible that he means only “you and I,” “for your and my,” with the strictest confinement of the “you” and “your” to those he was immediately addressing, it is nevertheless very unlikely that this is the case.
He appears, on the contrary, to be reminding them of universal Christian privileges, in which they and he shared precisely for the reason that they were universally Christian. In that case the “we” and “our” refer to the whole Christian community—“we Christians” have “our, namely Christians’” sins; and “the whole world” is brought in some way into contrast with the Christian body as a whole. The strength of the assertion of universality in the contrasted phrase—“but also for the whole world”—falls in with this appearance. Why should the Apostle with such emphasis— why should he at all— assure his readers that the privileges they enjoyed as Christians—in common with him because they were both Christians— were also enjoyed by all other Christians,—by all other Christians throughout the whole world? Would it not be a matter of course, scarcely calling for such explicit assertion, that other Christians like themselves enjoyed the benefits of the expiatory death of their Lord? That was precisely what it was to be a Christian.
It is not surprising accordingly that the greater number of the commentators agree that the “we” of our passage is the whole body of believers, with which “the whole world” is set in contrast. That carries with it, of course, that in some sense our Lord is declared to have made propitiation not only for the sins of believers, thought of by John as actually such, but also for mankind at large. If we do not attempt the impossible feat of emptying the conception of “propitiation” of its content, this means that in some sense what is called a “universal atonement” is taught in this passage. The expiatory efficiency of Christ’s blood extends to the entire race of mankind. It may seem, then, the simplest thing just to recognize that John here represents Christ as by his atoning death expiating all the sins of all mankind— all of them without exception. This is the line of exposition which is taken, for instance, by Bernhard Weiss. “Precisely this passage shows plainly,” he writes, “that the whole body of the world’s sin is covered in the sight of God, that is to say expiated, by the death of Christ.”
That this method of expounding the passage is not so simple, however, as it might at first sight appear, is already made clear enough by the remainder of the sentence in which Weiss gives expression to it. It runs: “What brings unbelievers to death is no longer their sin (expiated in the death of Christ), but their rejection of the divinely appointed mediator of salvation.” From this it appears that the expiation of the sins of the world does not save the world. There still remain those who perish: and those who perish, as John contemplated them looking out from the bosom of the little flock of the Church, constituted the immensely greater part of mankind spread out to his view, in one word just “the world” of which he is in the act of declaring that its sins are expiated in the blood of Christ. John speaks of this expiation as a great benefit brought to the world by Christ, or, to put it in its true light, as the great benefit, in comparison with which no other benefit deserves consideration.
Amillennialism v. Postmillennialism Debate
(DVD by Gentry and Gaffin)
Formal, public debate between Dr. Richard Gaffin (Westminster Theological Seminary)
and Kenneth Gentry at the Van Til Conference in Maryland.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
Yet it would puzzle us to point out of what benefit it is to the world. The world, to all appearance, remains precisely as it was before. It is very clear that the world was not conceived by John as a redeemed world. We are not to love it, nor the things in it. We are rather to renounce it, as an inimical power. Nay, John declares roundly that the whole world—this whole world which we are invited to think of as having had all its sins expiated by the blood of Christ—“lieth in the evil one.” It is difficult to understand how a world all whose sins have been, and are continually as they emerge being—for that is the force of the representation—washed away in the blood of Christ, can still be lying in the evil one; that is to say, as A. Plummer expounds this declaration, still “remains in the power” of the evil one, “has not passed over, as Christians have done, out of death into life; but abides in the evil one, who is its ruler, as the Christian abides in Christ.” What we are asked to believe is nothing less than that the John who places the world and Christian in directly contrary relations to Christ, nevertheless in our present passage places them in precisely the same relation in Christ.
Nor is it easy to understand what can be meant by saying that men, all whose sins, as they occasionally emerge (“and he is,” not was, “a propitiation”) are covered from the sight of God by the death of Christ, nevertheless perish; and that because of rejection of the divinely appointed mediator of salvation. Is not the rejection of Jesus as our propitiation a sin? And if it is a sin, is it not like other sins, covered by the death of Christ? If this great sin is excepted from the expiatory efficacy of Christ’s blood, why did not John tell us so, instead of declaring without qualification that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the whole world? And surely it would be very odd if the sin of rejection of the Redeemer were the only condemning sin, in a world the vast majority of the dwellers in which have never heard of this Redeemer, and nevertheless perish. On what ground do they perish, all their sins having been expiated?
(To be continued)