Title: Unlimited Atonement
Text: I John 2:2 and many others
FCF: We often struggle with what God clearly says to be true
[Slide 1] Turn in your bible to I John 1. As your shepherd, primary teacher, leader, family member, and friend – I understand that I have asked much from you over the last few years. I have challenged you in ways that you may never have anticipated being challenged. I have called into question teachings you have counted as truth for many years. I have no doubt caused many debates to surface at your dinner tables. Before we begin this sermon in earnest, I need you to know two things.
1.) I am a slave to scripture. I take absolutely NO pleasure in preaching doctrines that challenge your understanding. I have NO desire to push any agenda of any movement, systematized theological position or group, or any man. I am following what the bible says – considering every aspect prayerfully – and delivering to you what I think God is saying. I am a slave to scripture. That doesn’t mean I’m always right, but it does mean I never want to disagree with God.
2.) Secondly, I think it is important that you know that EVERY WEEK God drags me kicking and screaming to the teachings you receive on Sunday. Every week He shoves my nose in it and the more I fight the harder he presses me into His word to look.
Why am I speaking this way? It seems like an odd way to begin a sermon. Friends, I have been very anxious about this sermon for quite some time. Since before Thanksgiving, this sermon has been mostly written. Why am I so anxious? Because as your Shepherd, I know, that this will probably be one of the most challenging sermons you have received from me. I began the sermon the way I did, because I want you to know that for all the wrestling you will have ahead of you, it is a product of about a year of wrestling on my part. Ever since I knew that I was moving to I John after Matthew, which was fairly early in 2019, I knew that I would have to deal with I John 2:2.
I want you to know that I don’t expect you to take everything I say without pause or consideration. I actually see this sermon as the beginning of a greater conversation we can have. I know you will have questions. And I know you will have objections. I won’t be able to answer it all today, but know that my office is always open to discuss these things.
With an introduction like that – I’m sure I’ve made you all very uneasy. Let me pray now, prior to reading our text and ask the Lord to calm us all, and speak through His word.
So for us to understand any passage of scripture, we need to understand it first in the context in which it resides. Therefore, let’s begin at I John 1:1 and read through to I John 2:2. I’m reading from the NET which you can follow in the pew bible on page 1372.
[Slide 2A] Culturally we understand the backdrop of this book is to confront a very troubled church. False teachers have come into their midst and sewn confusion with their false teachings. So John responds.
[Slide 2B] 1-4 – In the opening of the epistle, John desires to set the foundation of all that he is about to say. That foundation is, that the apostles were the ones who heard the gospel from Christ Himself. They saw Him, touched Him, heard Him, walked with Him. The test of any teaching is does it match what they have taught? If not, then it is false. It is only through agreement with the apostle’s doctrines that a person has fellowship with them and they with Christ. John seeks to unify this church in doctrine.
[Slide 2C] 1:5-2:2 – It is no surprise then that John sets out straight away to put clearly what the gospel is. What is that message? God is light without darkness. Holy without sin. Wise without folly. Truth without lie. What does that mean? It means that if we walk in the ways of God than we are partnered to Him. But if we do not, we are not. This basic message is explained in three particular ways.
[Slide 2D] 1:6-7 – John says that a person who claims to be of God but lives a lifestyle of sin- is a liar. However, a person who lives a lifestyle of righteousness proves that they are part of the gospel community and that Jesus is currently cleansing them.
[Slide 2E] 1:8-9 – John says that a person who says they are not capable of sin is lying to themselves. However, a person who agrees with God about their own sin, proves that God is faithful and just to that person, resulting in them being forgiven and cleansed.
[Slide 2F] 1:10-2:2 – Finally, John says that a person who says they have never sinned, makes God a liar and shows they don’t have the truth. However, a genuine believer though not desiring to sin, should they fall into sin, can rest on the promise that they have an intercessor pleading to God on their behalf for favor while simultaneously presenting Himself as their complete satisfaction for their sin problem.
[Slide 3A] And so the gospel message is this.
[Slide 3B (in two parts)] God is light and the children He makes are children of Light.
[Slide 3C (in two parts)] Mankind though, is naturally of the darkness. And they love the darkness.
[Slide 3D] God doesn’t half change anyone.
[Slide 3E (in two parts)] Those whom He is saving, He will continue to save.
[Slide 3F] He will perfect them.
[Slide 4] But at the end of all this – John has this perplexing phrase. After saying that Christ is the believer’s intercessor and atonement for their sins, he continues “And not only for our sins but also for the whole world.”
Although we are in I John, this sermon is very much like a topical sermon – so I will structure it in that way – asking questions.
I.) [Slide 5] Who is the “we, our, us” of this passage?
a. In verses 1-5 of chapter 1, John clearly uses “we” to refer to the collected apostles and their testimony of Christ and His gospel message. He establishes that they are the ones to turn to for the true gospel message.
b. Moving into verses 6 – 2:2, it is not extremely clear, but there appears to be a shift in the usage of “we”. Although it could be “we” the apostles, or it could be referring to John and his readers, the principles listed are clearly intended to be universal. Meaning any person. John is setting up hypothetical situations based on the teaching of the false teachers. And so, any person who says what they say proves themselves to be false. But any person who does what John says, proves themselves to be of God.
c. Where this gets tricky is right at chapter 2. John deviates from his pattern.
d. First, John includes a little note that he is writing so that his readers would never sin. This is a personal note. A note of particularity. He is not making this a universal statement to any – but rather a particular group.
e. Then John seems to pick his pattern back up again in verse 1 of chapter two but instead of saying But if we sin we have an advocate – he says but if anyone sins we have an advocate. Last time we saw how John intends this as any one of us.
f. So John had been saying – if anyone says something or does something then it proves something else. But here John says my desire is that you all, my little children in the faith, never sin, but if any one of us individually does sin.
g. And so when we get to the “we” in verse 1 where he says “we have an advocate”, what makes the most sense is not the universal anyone but rather John and his readers. Therefore, until John widens that context on who he is referring, we must assume that he is still talking about himself and his readers when he comes to the “our” in verse 2 when he says our sins and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
h. Why is this important?
i. The intent of John is to say, not to all Christians everywhere, but specifically to this church which John is writing to, that when they sin, they have an advocate and atonement in Christ for their sins, and not for their sins only but for the whole world.
j. But didn’t we apply that to us when we looked at it last? Yes we did.
k. When we broaden a text to apply to us, we cannot always take that broadness and put it back into the text. Although the certainty of Christ being our intercessor and advocate can be taken from John’s personal words to his little children, we cannot force John to be speaking to all Christians everywhere when he says this. It doesn’t work that way.
l. As a silly example of this – Jesus told his disciples to carry a sword. We are His disciples so our application is that we should protect ourselves. But is Jesus actually telling every single disciple of His from all time to carry a sword? If so – where is yours? Put down your bible! HAHA.
m. Bottom line – although the intercessory and atonement work of Christ is for all believers, we have to remember that John isn’t talking to all believers in this context.
II.) [Slide 6] What does atonement mean again?
a. We looked at this last time in detail. But let me remind you.
b. Christ’s atoning work is both the putting away of sin and the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin.
c. It has both a mercy and grace element. Both not giving us what we have earned and giving us abundant favor and power of God to be who He wants us to be.
d. John is telling his readers that they have a perfect, complete, and unlimited atonement.
So now comes the tricky part.
III.) [Slide 7] What could “the whole world” mean?
a. It is clear that John’s wish is not to limit the scope of that atonement to himself and his readers… but to broaden that out significantly. But how broad are we talking?
b. Depending on how broad we make this phrase it has significant theological impact.
c. [Slide 8] So the first interpretation of “the whole world” is that it is referring to every single person who has ever existed and ever will exist. Every human, ever. With this understanding it produces these doctrines.
1. This cannot be true because internally John clearly speaks of those who have no fellowship with God.
2. Externally the bible often includes eternal judgment for those who are not in Christ
3. This would make it necessary that all men, even the anti-Christ, and perhaps even Satan himself would be forgiven. When the bible clearly says otherwise.
ii. Potential Universalism – Jesus satisfies fully the sins of the whole world, therefore it is up to men to choose to repent and believe.
1. [Slide 9] This is an attractive option. And in fact, perhaps, this is what you believe. However, and I want to be gentle here, this cannot be what John means by this text for several reasons.
a. [Slide 10] We have already talked about election and how God foreordained those whom He would predestine to be conformed to the image of His Son. And those whom God predestined he called, those whom He called He Justified, those whom He Justified, He also Glorified. (Romans 8:28-29)
i. Notice how certain Paul is to the point that he puts it all in the past tense. As if God has already decreed this will happen. Not potential for it to happen, but certainty.
ii. Notice also that God foreordained whom He would glorify. The path is unbroken. It won’t be stopped. If God has foreordained someone – they will be glorified.
iii. And at the end of that, before glorification, the atonement or satisfaction for sin takes place in justification.
iv. So how is it that God is responsible to foreordain, predestine, call and justify, but it is up to man’s choice to determine if he continues on to God glorifying him?
v. The doctrines of election and the teaching that Christ has satisfied every single man, woman, child’s sin that has ever lived and only waits for that man to choose Him, are only compatible if all men are saved… which we covered already.
b. [Slide 11] A second problem with this view is its inherent limits on Christ’s atonement.
i. If we conclude that Christ’s payment reached back and forward and took care of the sin of all men for all time in all places and lands, and that God only waits for them to choose Him… there is a very large problem… Why would God choose 1 family? 1 nation? Wait 5000 years to send His Messiah? Why would God send His Son to a backwater county in the armpit of the Roman Empire? When Christ died, do you think anyone outside of Judea knew what happened? How long did it take the church to spread the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth? It is still happening. So, 2000 years and counting.
ii. [Slide 12] So the natural conclusion is this – if God supplied all mankind’s satisfaction of their sin in Christ, and merely wants them to repent and believe to be saved, if that is all that is standing in their way, is their choice, Then God chose the most ineffective way possible to spread that message.
iii. The only logical conclusion, is that God doesn’t actually want to save very many people. He has chosen a very slow and ineffective way to get that message to people. What at first appears to be an unlimited atonement, meaning it is given for everyone, in application, it becomes overwhelmingly limited. Meaning that what Christ accomplished in extent, will ultimately be extremely limited in effect.
c. [Slide 13] We have seen that there are serious scriptural and logical problems with this conclusion, that Jesus Satisfied God for the sins all of mankind and merely waits for them to choose Him. But this final argument was one espoused by Puritan John Owen, and one that tipped the scales for me. I hope it helps you as much as it did me.
i. [Slide 14A] If Christ satisfied the sin debt for all mankind and God commands all mankind to repent and believe to be saved. What if they don’t?
ii. You say, they are sent to hell. But why? Isn’t that double jeopardy? God condemns someone to hell after being fully satisfied with Christ’s payment for their sin?
iii. [Slide 14B] You say, God sends someone to hell for not repenting and believing.
1. Firstly, is this consistent with scripture? No. The New Testament writers agree, that it is for the practice of sins, that someone will not inherit the kingdom of God. Not for the failure to obey only this specific command of God.
2. Secondly, does God command repentance and belief of all men? Yes! Yes He does. So since God has commanded it that presents us with two very uncomfortable conclusions.
a. [Slide 14C] What do we call it when we disobey God’s commands?
ii. So if Christ satisfied the sins of all men, why would God hold them accountable for the sin of not repenting and not believing?
iii. [Slide 14D] Did Christ satisfy all the sin of men except for 1?
iv. [Slide 14E] You say, This is the unpardonable sin! Is it?
v. We don’t have time to re-go over what the unpardonable sin is, but the cliff notes is that it is not a refusal to repent and believe rather it is belief and opposition.
vi. If you’d like to look into that further you can listen to the sermon from February 18th 2018. The title of the message is “The Unforgiveable Sin – Fighting for the Wrong Team”
b. [Slide 15A] The second uncomfortable conclusion is, what do we call it when we obey God’s command?
i. [Slide 15B] Is it not a work? Is it not a work of righteousness?
ii. [Slide 15C] But how can man be saved by obeying God? How is this by grace through faith?
iii. If God commands something, you obey it, and by this you are saved… it is no longer grace but merit that saves you.
iv. [Slide 15D] Furthermore, if the only difference between those in hell and those in heaven is that those in heaven chose to repent and believe, then all glory goes to the believer for believing.
v. Christ, then, is no longer the all sufficient answer for man’s sin because they must add their choice to His sacrifice for it to take effect.
2. Therefore, both scripturally, and logically, this passage cannot mean that Christ fully satisfied the sins of every man, woman and child from all time from all eras from all nations who has ever lived and simply waits for them to repent and believe to apply that to them.
iii. [Slide 16] Sufficient for Universalism but not Effective to Universalism
1. Taking what we have seen above, there are some who see Christ’s work as being the atonement, not only that satisfies God for the sins of the elect, but was also sufficient to satisfy God for the sins of the reprobate.
2. Although Christ’s payment was infinite, and therefore has infinite value, it is only applied to the elect.
3. This would be very encouraging for John’s readers to hear… that Christ’s sacrifice was not only sufficient for them but was enough to cover the sins of the whole world. They need not fear that His intercession or atonement runs dry. It can’t.
4. I believe that this is a valid way to understand this passage, but I still have some minor problems with it.
a. If Christ’s atonement was sufficient to satisfy God for the sins of all mankind, we have to wonder why God doesn’t apply it to all mankind? This is an easily defended critique because, we could say, who are you to question. God will show mercy to whom He will show mercy. Still – it is odd that the payment is available but not applied.
b. Finally, it comes down to God’s purposes. (Isaiah 46:10) God has decreed the end from the beginning. He has determined all that will be before the world began. What then is the point of Christ providing satisfaction for all men, if God’s purpose is to apply it only to some? Again, this may be easily defended by saying – Perhaps for John’s purpose right here… to encourage the elect to know that the payment was more than sufficient for them.
5. Still in the end, I think there are better explanations that coincide better with the whole of scripture.
iv. [Slide 17] Universal benefit but not universal atonement
1. When John says that Christ is the satisfaction for our sins and not for our sins only but for the sin of the whole world, some may say that John is not using atonement in the same sense to each group.
2. To the elect, to those who are God’s children, His satisfaction is complete and eternal.
3. However, to the rest, to those who are in the whole world across all time who are not God’s elect, to those Christ also has provided a satisfaction to God. Although it is temporary.
4. This seems to be what Paul has in view in I Timothy 4:10 when God is called the savior of all people, especially believers. That God delivers and preserves all people, but in a special way He does this for the elect.
5. God was satisfied with the elect through Christ and therefore His longsuffering was extended to all men in that they have been allowed to continue to experience the mercy of God on earth, because God was satisfied with Christ’s payment for the elect.
6. My problem with this view is that it doesn’t really fit in the context of what John is saying. John is saying that if any one of them sins they all (he included) have an intercessor and atonement for their sins which also has provided continued mercy to those who are unbelievers. If you were in this church, hounded by false teachers, how would this be encouraging? So these false teachers are here, not being judged because of what Christ did?
d. [Slide 18(blank)] So far, all we’ve seen is from the understanding that “the whole world” means every single person ever. But what if “the whole world” doesn’t mean that? What if by “the whole world” John is not expanding to all humans but rather all kinds of humans? A group not limited by space, time, language, culture or nation. That is where the next theological position comes in.
i. [Slide 19] Definite or Particular Satisfaction – Jesus Christ is the atonement for His elect.
1. [Slide 20] In various writings of 1st Century Jews outside the scriptures this phrase is used to mean a large group. A group of great number. Or even, a group that is not limited by what would normally limit them. As an example, one Rabbi writes that when a certain person entered the synagogue “The whole world stood up for him.” Obviously, this means a great number, not every single person who ever lived.
2. And you might be saying – this is complicating the plain text of scripture. After all – the bible says the whole world. That means the whole world. That is interesting. Go to I John 5:19.
a. [Slide 21] Here we – the elect ones – are from God.
b. But the whole world lies in the power of Satan.
c. In this context, the whole world means, the whole of those who are not from God. Obviously, it doesn’t mean every man, woman, child who has ever lived, lies (present tense) in the power of the evil one. We understand contextually from that, that this is not meaning everyone.
d. [Slide 22] In fact, when the bible uses this expression “The whole world” it can mean many different things. In general, the whole world means a collective of some kind.
i. [Slide 23] The created universe – so the collective of created things (Job 34:13; Jn 21:25)
ii. The earth – so the collective of the physical realm (Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36; Lk 9:25; Jn 21:25)
iii. In an innumerable number of or many places (Jer 50:23; 51:17; Ez 34:6; Romans 1:8)
iv. The whole Roman world (Lk 2:1)
v. The whole of the human race – so the collective of mankind (Rom 3:19; Rev 12:9)
vi. Humanity minus believers (as we saw in I John 5:19) – so the collective of non-elect ones (also in Rev 3:10; 13:3 16:14)
vii. Gentiles in addition to Jews – all people groups or nations – (Is 27:6; Mt 24:14; Rom 10:18; Col 1:6)
3. [Slide 24] And so with this understanding of how “the whole world” can be used, the primary thoughts diverge in two directions.
a. John, being an apostle commissioned to the Jews, is explaining to Jewish Christians that it is not them alone who will experience the satisfaction of their sin in Christ but also the whole world. Meaning the full scope of humanity in the sense that all races and tribes.
i. I have one major problem with this view. It is simply the fact that John in NO WAY seems to be talking to Jews.
ii. In fact, if this was written from Ephesus in the late 80s to early 90s, it seems as though John’s “Jewish Ministry” after the fall of Jerusalem would be very much over.
b. Another way to see this “whole world” is to understand the context of I John. Remember the Gnostics said that only a select group of people would be picked for this special knowledge. Only those of a spiritual lineage would inherit that knowledge.
c. So what a comfort and encouragement to John’s readers to know, that not only is it true that when any one of them sins, they all, John included, have an advocate and an atonement for their sins… but that they are not alone. That Christ’s satisfaction is not done.
d. It reaches back to save God’s people from Eden and will continue to grow and extend, not just in Ephesus, but throughout the whole world, throughout all time. God’s satisfaction is sufficient to save those whom He has foreordained. Not simply those of a certain lineage – but all who God has predestined, will be called, will be justified, and will be glorified.
e. Which means us. 😊
e. [Slide 25 (blank)] And so there are really only three conclusions that I feel comfortable with.
i. Either John is talking about an atonement that is sufficient for the whole world – yet not applied to the whole world.
ii. Or, John is saying that mankind benefits broadly and the elect specifically.
iii. Or, more likely, John is encouraging his readers to understand that all of the sins of God’s elect from all time and in all places has been satisfied by Christ. And God will not leave them and will continue to be their advocate, and not theirs only, but beyond the first century, until Jesus returns. This is truly an unlimited atonement provisioned for and applied to God’s elect.
Unfortunately, I have spent most of our time laying this out for you, so I really only have time to tackle 2 major objections to the teaching of definite atonement.
[Slide 26] OBJECTION 1: One challenge received often by those who hold to a definite or particular atonement is that this stifles evangelism. If Jesus died only for the ones that God has foreordained and predestined, then there is no reason to give the gospel to all people.
To this I cite two things. 1 from scripture and 1 from history.
From scripture in Luke 15, Jesus gives 3 parables of things that are lost. A sheep, a coin, and 2 young men. In each of these, it is clear that Jesus is talking about sharing the gospel. Has it ever occurred to you how in each of these examples, the relationship to the owner is already established? Jesus does not say find any old sheep, or any old coin, or any replacement son. In fact, the Father is the one who has lost something. The sheep wasn’t the shepherds because he found it… rather it was always his. The coin wasn’t the woman’s because she found it- rather it was always hers. The 2 sons were not the father’s because they came back to him – rather – they were always his sons.
From History, I’d simply like to read a list of names. Ready?
You no doubt recognized many of those names. Some of them are still living. While they have many things in common – the two that matter here today is that they all are involved in ministries characterized by evangelism and disciples and they all believed or believe in a Definite Atonement of Christ for His elect.
[Slide 27] Objection 2: What about all the passages of scripture where Jesus is said to have died for all.
The Greek word for all can mean all, but it can also mean every kind. All not in number, but all kinds without distinction. I Timothy 6:10 says that the love of money is the root of all evil. We understand this principle to be true for this verse too. Paul doesn’t mean every single evil has the love of money at its core. However, it does mean all kinds of evil. Meaning that every kind of evil conceivable can come from the root of the love of money.
So if you bring me a passage that says Jesus died for all, I’d love to show you from the context how it means that he died for all kinds. I think I can say confidently that I have looked at every such passage over the course of the last year.
[Slide 28(end)] Again I remind you that this has been something that I have newly come to. If you want proof of that – go back and listen to my sermon from Nov 4, 2018. In that sermon I hold to a Sufficient for all but effective for some position. I have changed. I say that so that you know that if you are wrestling with this teaching or have questions – you are not coming to a staunch holder of this view for my whole life… Rather one who is a student always ready to learn. I’d love to chat with you on this topic.