- Kenneth Gentry Note: Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was perhaps the leading Reformed scholar of his era. He was Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (1887-1921). He was a strong proponent of postmillenialism. This is an edited form of his article by the same name.
“And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only,
but also for the whole world.”
(1 John 2:2)
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 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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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 washed away in the blood of Christ, can still be lying in the evil one. Is John asking us to believe nothing less than that he 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?
The propitiation of which John speaks 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.