John writes: “He Himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only for ours but the sins of all the world” (1 John 2.2 NLT). In order to better grasp this verse, let’s consider a brief background of the Elder’s first little letter.
Undoubtedly written by an eye witness of Jesus (1.1-4), most scholars seemingly attest to a date for it in the mid to late nineties A.D. And, though some have questioned whether John the Apostle penned it, Guthrie is surely right to insist “ it must be admitted that these alternative theories [questioning John the Apostle as author] do not provide as adequate an explanation of the high regard in which the epistle was held as the traditional testimony” (p.864; cp. also Bruce, p.31 and Stott, p.11). Thus we assume the Apostle John is the author who also wrote the Gospel which bears his name.
In addition, while Barker thinks establishing a background for the Johannine literature is at best, “speculative” (p.294), John nevertheless seems to be dealing with what may be called “incipient Gnosticism.”— one branch of which was known as “Docetism” (Guthrie, Bruce, Burge, Thompson). Docetists claimed that Jesus may have “seemed” to appear in human flesh, but such was not the case. Rather, only an illusion (cp. 1.1-2; 4.2).
Moreover, an additional breed of Gnostic existed—Cerinthians (Thompson, Stott)—who argued that Jesus the person was other than the Eternal Christ, who, after Jesus’ baptism, descended upon him (cp. 5.6).
There is one other consideration to mention before looking specifically at 2.2. Not only were the problems John faced from the Gnostics “belief” oriented, they were also “behavior” oriented. Burge (p.31) well sums up John’s pastoral challenge from his adversaries who evidently split off and formed a new congregation (2.18-19). The heretics believed they were: without sin (1.8-10), in fellowship with God while walking in darkness (1.6); knew God while living in blatant disregard for God’s commands (2.4) and love God while hating their brothers & sisters (4.20). Thus, Hobbs concludes John faced full-blown ethical antinomianism (p.14).
With this background in place, it seems natural to read John’s opening verses (1-4) as the first shot toward his target— those who insisted that Jesus’ birth in human flesh was illusionary. To the contrary, John argues, we “saw” Him, we “touched” Him, and we “handled” Him. No mere apparition offers such empirical evidence, we hear John say.
He then speaks of the message they heard from Jesus with their own ears and that, through apostolic authority, they were declaring that message to others (3-6). Consequently, no light or fellowship is possible apart from Him (7).
While earlier alluding to “practicing the truth” (6), the Apostle now scalds his opponents for their preposterous claim of being sinless—a claim John rightly identifies as self-delusion (8, 10)— moving further to state exactly what the sinning person needs to do through which to gain cleansing once again (9). To retain the claim to sinlessness, for them, is to demonstrate their lives void of God’s word (10). Indeed they appeared to even deny the requirement for a Savior (4.14). We now are in a more stable position to examine 2.2.
John interestingly admits he is writing his pastoral cyclical to assist believers to avoid sin (2.1). And, if believers do sin, Christ Himself serves as an “advocate who pleads our case before the Father”. He is the believer’s possession. Hobbs points out that “We have” is a present tense, thus the meaning is “We keep on having” an advocate–a present possession every child of God has by virtue of being in Christ.
What’s more interesting, the term translated “advocate” is the very word Jesus used of “Comforter” in John’s Gospel (14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7, KJV, p. 39). The term was legal in nature and thus the NIV translates the phrase “one who speaks to the Father in our defense”. Know, however, the Son of God is not attempting to persuade a reluctant Father to forgive His children. Instead, the image of advocate or “intercessor” gives confidence to the penitent believer that since our advocate is “truly righteous” and possesses intimate access to the Father, we rest assured of full acceptance as well (Thompson, p.49).
A further reason—perhaps more foundational than the prior one—that believers rest confident is because Christ is the “sacrifice that atones for our sins” (2.2 NLT). Or, the older term that has gained theological credence is “propitiation” for our sins. Though considerable debate has surfaced over this particular word “propitiation”, perhaps Professor Leon Morris offers the final word for us about John’s use: “John is saying that there is that terrible thing, the wrath of God, exercised toward sinners, and that Christ’s death was the means of turning that wrath from us. So too Christ was manifested ‘that He might take away sins’” (p.289). Thus, the believer stands confident for the actual possession she has in Christ.
If John had not penned another word, every believer of every stripe would rejoice! Just look what we possess in Christ before the Father as we live in the world! However, John adds a phrase that, unfortunately, has made this little gem a rock of contention between strict Calvinists—or Particular Redemptionists—on the one hand and General Redemptionists on the other. For the former, the verse stands, for the most part, as a hurdle to jump in order to keep in tact their theological conviction of Limited Atonement. And, for the latter, the verse becomes a guided missile to prove General Redemption against their theological adversaries. Little doubt exists that surely this was not John’s purpose in adding the further phrase “and not only for our sins but the sins of all the world” (NLT).
I have no reservations where my own sympathies lie: I see absolutely no reason, given the context we’ve been considering, why we cannot take the phrase at face value. That is, Christ was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all the world. This surely is in keeping with 4.14: “…the Father sent His Son to be Savior of the world”.
And, further, it is perfectly consistent with John’s broader writings. For example, John’s recording of The Baptist’s cry is instructive: “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). Also, the only other place in Scripture where “Savior of the world” (4.14, cited above) is recorded is John’s account of the Samaritans’ confession that Jesus was indeed “Savior of the world” (John 4.42). Surely, it interested the hated Samaritans whether this “Jewish Messiah” was the world’s messiah.
Some do attempt to place restrictions on universality that this verse seems to suggest. For example, Berkhof piles this verse along with others he deems similar to it into a category he calls “Objections to the Doctrine of a Limited Atonement” (p.395-396). His basic reasoning is that “it is perfectly evident from Scripture that the term ‘world’ has a variety of meanings…” (cp. also, Gill, Pink, and not a few others, virtually all of which are strict Calvinists). But surely no one denies this.
However, the context must rule what sense a word possesses and virtually no lexicon limits the world to the “world of the elect” as some would suggest. The interesting thing in John is, when he uses the term “world”, he uses it consistently with the broader reading. Thus, even Stott concludes that while “this cannot be pressed into meaning that all sins are automatically pardoned though the propitiation of Christ, but that a universal pardon is offered for (the sins of) the whole world and is enjoyed by those who embrace it…” (p.84).
In addition, the term “whole” or “all the” (NLT) which modifies “world” is significant here as well. John uses it to describe “world” one other time in this letter. At the end, when John is summing up thoughts, he writes: “We know that we are children of God and that the world around us is under the control of the evil one.” (5.19). It seems evident that the Apostle means to convey that the entire, complete world stands in stark contrast to His Kingdom. That is, it is the entire world. Similarly, this usage adds considerable advantage to those who interpret “and not only for our sins but the sins of all the world” as John’s clear assertion that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people.
References: The Epistles of John, John R.W. Stott; 1-3 John, Marianne Meye Thompson: Letters of John, Gary M. Burge: The Epistles of John, Hershel Hobbs; The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1 John, Glenn W. Barker; The Epistles of John, I. Howard Marshall; Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof ; New Testament Theology, Leon Morris; New Testament Introduction, Donald Guthrie