“Jesus Christ the Propitiation for the Whole World” (3)
PMW 2021-083 by Benjamin B. Warfield
[Gentry note: This is part 3 of an excellent article by renowned postmillennial Princeton scholar, B. B. Warfield.]
The Meaning of “Propitiation”
The expedient made use of by many commentators in their endeavor to escape from this maze of contradictions is to distinguish between Christ as our “Advocate” and Christ as our “Propitiation,” and to connect actual salvation with him only in the former function. Thus Richard Rothe tells us that “the propitiation in Christ concerns the whole world,” but “only those in Christ have an advocate in Christ,” with the intimation that it is Christ’s advocacy which “makes the efficacy of his propitiation effective before God.” In this view the propitiation is conceived as merely laying a basis for actual forgiveness of sins, and is spoken of therefore rather as “sufficient” than efficacious—becoming efficacious only through the act of faith on the part of the believer by which he secures Christ as his Advocate. This is the view presented by B. F. Westcott also, according to whom Christ is advocate exclusively for Christians, while he is a propitiation for the whole world. His propitiatory death on earth was for all men; his advocacy in heaven is for those only who believe in him. Here, there is a universal atonement taught, with a limited application, contingent on actual faith: “the efficacy of his work for the individual depends upon fellowship with him.”
It is obvious that such a view can be held only at the cost of emptying the conception of propitiation of its properly expiatory content, and shifting the really saving operation of Christ from his “atoning” death on earth to his “intercession” in heaven. Westcott carries out this whole program fully, and by a special doctrine of “sacrifice,” of “blood” and its efficacy, and of “the heavenly High Priesthood of Christ” systematizes this point of view into a definite scheme of doctrine. No support is given this elaborate construction by John; and our present passage is enough to shatter the foundation on which it is built, in common with many other constructions sharing with it the general notion that the atonement is to be conceived as universal while its application is particular, and that we may therefore speak of the sins of the whole world as expiated while believers only enjoy the benefits of this expiation.
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The “advocacy” of our Lord is indeed based on his propitiation. But it is based on it not as if it bore merely an accidental relation to it, and might or might not, at will, follow on it; but as its natural and indeed necessary issue. John introduces the declaration that Christ is—not “was,” the propitiation is as continuous in its effect as the advocacy—our propitiation, in order to support his reference of sinning Christians to Christ as their Advocate with the Father, and give them confidence in the efficacy of his advocacy. The efficacy of the advocacy rests on that of the propitiation not the efficacy of the propitiation on that of the advocacy. It was in the propitiatory death of Christ that John finds Christ’s saving work: the advocacy is only its continuation—its unceasing presentation in heaven.
The propitiation accordingly not merely lays a foundation for a saving operation, to follow or not follow as circumstances may determine. It itself saves. And this saving work is common to Christians and “the whole world.” By it the sins of the one as of the other are expiated, that is to say, as Weiss wishes to express it in Old Testament forms of speech, are “covered in the sight of God.” They no longer exist for God—and are not they blessed whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered, to whom the Lord will not reckon sin? It is idle to talk of expounding this passage until we are ready to recognize that according to its express assertion the “whole world” is saved. Its fundamental assumption is that all those for whose sins he is—is, not “was”—the propitiation have in him an Advocate with the Father, prevailingly presenting his “righteousness” to the Father and thereby securing their salvation.
The Question of Universalism
This is, of course, universalism. And it is in determining the precise nature of the universalism that it is, that we arrive at last at John’s real meaning. In declaring that Jesus Christ is a propitiation for the whole world, John certainly does not mean to assert that Christ has made expiation for all the sins of every individual man who has come or will come into being, from the beginning of the race in Adam to its end at the last day.
Baumgarten-Crusius seems to stand almost alone in expressly emphasizing the protensive aspect of the “world”; and he does it in order to avoid admitting that John means to present Christ as the Savior of the whole world extensively considered. John means only, he says, that Christ is a Savior with abiding power for the whole human era; all through the ages he is mighty to save, though he saves only his own. It is much more common silently to assume that by “the whole world” John has in mind the whole race of mankind throughout the entire range of its existence in time: few have the hardihood openly to assert it. It is ordinarily taken for granted (Huther is one of the few who give it explicit expression) that “John was thinking directly of the ‘world’ as it existed in his time.” Huther indeed adds the words: “without however limiting the idea to it,” and thus suggests that John was thinking of the “world” protensively as well as extensively, without explicitly saying so. Clearly in any event it would be impossible to attribute to John teaching to the effect that Christ’s expiatory work concerned only those who happened to be living in his own—or John’s —generation. This would yield a conception of the range of the propitiatory efficacy of our Lord’s death which can be looked upon only as grotesque.
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Yet there is nothing in John’s language to justify the attribution to him of a protensive conception of “the whole world” in the sense of the universalists. It seems quite clear that, by “the whole world,” he means primarily the world extensively conceived. It is equally clear, however, that he means neither to confine the efficacy of Christ’s blood to his own generation, nor to maintain that the entirety of contemporary humanity was saved. He knew of those not of his own time who were saved; he knew of children of the devil in his own day. There is a protensive element in his conception of the word. It is however of its protension in the future rather than in the past that he is thinking. He sees the world not only lying on every side of him in space, but very especially as stretching out before him in time. The contrast between it and the little flock of Christians includes thus a contrast of times.
The interpretation of our passage has suffered seriously from a mechanical treatment of its language. We must permit to John the flexibility customary among men in the handling of human speech. When be speaks of Christ as a propitiation “for the whole world,” we cannot either confine his language rigidly to the world of his own day, or expand it with equal rigidity to the extremest limit of the possible connotation of the phrase. He is certainly intending to present Christ as a world-wide Savior by whom nothing less than the world is saved; but it does not follow that he means to affirm that therefore no single man of all who ever live in the world is omitted. He is obviously thinking in the terms of the great phrase he is himself a little later to use, when he declares that the Father has sent the Son “as Savior of the world.” To him Jesus Christ is very expressly the Savior of the whole world: he had come into the world to save not individuals merely, out of the world, but the world itself. It belongs therefore distinctly to his mission that he should take away the sin of the world. It is this great conception which John is reflecting in the phrase, “he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the whole world.”
This must not be diluted into the notion that he came to offer salvation to the world, or to do his part toward the salvation of the world, or to lay such a basis for salvation that it is the world’s fault if it is not saved. John’s thinking does not run on such lines; and what he actually says is something very different, namely that Jesus Christ is a propitiation for the whole world, that he has expiated the whole world’s sins. He came into the world because of love of the world, in order that he might save the world, and he actually saves the world. Where the expositors have gone astray is in not perceiving that this salvation of the world was not conceived by John—any more than the salvation of the individual—accomplishing itself all at once. Jesus came to save the world, and the world will through him be saved; at the end of the day he will have a saved world to present to his father. John’s mind is running forward to the completion of his saving work; and he is speaking of his Lord from the point of view of this completed work. From that point of view he is the Savior of the world.
Conceptions like those embodied in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven lay at the back of John’s mind. He perfectly understood that the Church as it was phenomenally present to his observation was but “a little flock.” He as perfectly understood that it was after a while to cover the whole world. And therefore he proclaims Jesus the Savior of the world and declares him a propitiation for the whole world. He is a universalist; he teaches the salvation of the whole world. But he is not an “each and every” universalist he is an eschatological” universalist. He teaches the salvation of the world through a process; it may be— it has proved to be— a long process; but it is a process which shall reach its goal. It is not then “our” sins only which Jesus has expiated—the sins of the “little flock,” now living within the range almost of John’s physical vision. He has expiated also the sins of “the whole world”; and at the end, therefore we shall be nothing less than a world saved by him. The contrast between the “our” and “the world” in John’s mind, therefore, is at bottom the contrast between the smallness of the beginnings and the greatness of the end of the Christian development.
And what his declaration is, at its core, is thus only another of those numerous —prophecies, shall we say? or assertions?—which meet us throughout the apostolic teaching, of the ultimate conquest of the world by Christ. Christ, he tells his “little flock,” is the “propitiation for our sins”; in him “we” have found a full salvation. But he is not willing to stop there. His glad eyes look out on a saved world. “And not for ours only,” he adds, “but also for the whole world.” We are a “little flock” now: tomorrow we shall be the world. We are but the beginnings: the salvation of the world is the end. And it is not this only, but that, that Christ has purchased with his precious blood. The light that is perceptible now only within the narrow limits of the “little flock” has in it a potency of illumination which no bounds can confine: it, “the real light,” is “already shining”—and before it John sees “the darkness” already “passing away.”
It is not merely a world-wide gospel with which he knows himself entrusted: it is a world-wide salvation which he is called to proclaim. For Jesus Christ is the Savior not of a little flock merely, but of the world itself: and the end to which all things are working together is nothing other than a saved world. At the end of the day there will stand out in the sight of all a whole world, for the sins of which Christ’s blood has made effective expiation, and for which he stands as Advocate before the Father.