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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Monday, November 03, 2008
Scripture Interprets Scripture.
The Apostle John wrote in 1 John 2:2, "2He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

Most of us understand that when the bible uses the word "world" it doesn't necessarily mean every last person that was ever born.

We typically recognize the broad semantic range of the word in the original language (and even in our own) and how it was commonly used (and is commonly used), and for this reason (and also because we would be hard pressed to find -any- verse in the whole of scripture where the word "world" means every last person), I say: for this reason we want to be careful as we examine the phrase in this text. We must note therefore, in the course of our examination, how often we see this word used as hyperbole; is it not easier for Caiaphas to say that the whole world has gone after Christ, than to say (more accurately) that some percentage of the population was being (and coming to be) influenced by Christ? Of course it is easier. That's why we have hyperbole - to say in a fewer words what ought to be obvious by our usage.

When we read 1 John 2:2, we see the adjective "whole" is modifying the noun "world" and some of us are emboldened to conclude because of this that the adjective modifying the noun must be indicating an all inclusiveness state. When we say "whole world" some conclude therefore that it must mean every last person.

However, that conclusion loses a great deal of luster if we actually do a word search in scripture to see how the phrase "whole world" is used. More often than not, the NT used the phrase just like any five year old would, that is, to describe an unspecific but large number, that is, the word is used in hyperbole.

Furthermore, the word is often speaking more about geography than people. In fact, it is interesting to note that while the word "kosmos" can be extended to mean "humankind" - it typically speaks of the globe itself as a source of population - and often, if we translated kosmos as "earth" we would not lose any meaning in doing so - for God so (i.e. in this way) loved the earth (i.e. people on the earth) that... etc. When we see this word used to describe people, we must be on guard against inflating the meaning to match a predetermined interpretation.

That's the grammar of it, but in the same way we want our interpretation to be rational; I mean, at least I do.

I have a presupposition that I take with me to scripture - I am convinced that truth is not self defeating, that is, I am convicted that a right understanding of scripture will not contradict reason nor will it contradict any other truth whether in or out of scripture. My firm conviction is that scripture is going to support both reason and truth, and will contradict neither.

I am likewise persuaded that truth is objective and knowable, for we shall know the truth, says the Son, and the truth shall set us free. Yes, Christ also said that He was the Truth - and we can mesh those verses together so that we understand that it is also saying that we shall know the Son and the Son shall make us free - but that juxtaposition does not replace the original meaning (you shall know the truth), it adds more meaning to it (when you know the truth, you know Christ).

Thus if Jesus is the propitiation for every last person - that makes Jesus the propitiation for everyone in hell also - which would renders propitiation pretty much "worthless" in every practical sense - since if Christ "covered" the sins of all men (the word translated as propitiate means to "cover over"), and yet some of these people still go to hell, then the propitiation doesn't do what it says it is doing.

I want to drill down here a bit. Propitiation is something that happens between Christ and God. Christ covers our sin, it isn't that he gives us the ability to cover our own sin in Him, so that we (ourselves) can uncover it someday by something we do or fail to do... propitiation is done on our behalf and once it is done it cannot be undone for it is an eternal thing.

I want to be clear as glass here - propitiation is not merely a possibility that our sins may be covered, nor is it merely a provision that if we do such and such our sins will be covered nor is it some offer that our sins can be covered etc. etc. It is the actual covering of our sins - and it is the means by which God declares a guilty sinner to be righteous. Make no mistake, if propitiation is made, it means, and can only mean - justification for the one who is propitiated (covered).

Think this through: the transaction is a heavenly, spiritual one, not a worldly carnal one. -Christ- appeases -God's- wrath. That is what propitiation means - it isn't satisfying a parking ticket.

I want to explain why we shouldn't think of our sin debt in terms of a monetary debt. First monetary debts are impersonal. The creditor is owed some currency from the debtor, and so long as the creditor receives the required currency, the debt is legally canceled. That's because monetary debt can be satisfied by money, anyone's money. The debt isn't personal.

The convicted murderer cannot appeal to someone else to serve his sentence because the sentence is not like a monetary debt - it must be satisfied by the offender - the debt is personal, in that only the offender can rightly satisfy justice in being punished for his crime.

Propitiation is not required for a parking ticket - all that is required for the parking ticket is that the debt be satisfied by someone paying it. Thus when we talk of propitiation, we are immediately speaking, not in terms of some debt that anyone can pay - as though Christ by his death, provided enough "divine currency" to souse all of sin's debt - rather we are talking about Christ's death "covering over" the sin - not satisfying a debt, but satisfying wrath.

When we reduce Christ's sacrifice to the notion that the giving over of his life produced some kind of impersonal, but glorious currency by which God was paid off, we demonstrate that we haven't understood what propitiation is all about.

Christ "covered" our sin by placing us within Himself so that God could pour out His wrath upon us. That union with Christ is the foundation of our propitiation - the foundation of our atonement. We who are in Christ, died with Christ - in fact, that is why we were put into Christ in the first place - so that God could reward our sin with death - and we =did= die, in Christ, so that God's wrath was rightly satisfied. It was this union that allowed God to kill His Son Jesus - because our sin demanded the just wrath it received on Calvary - and Christ was made to partake of it because He voluntarily united Himself to us, so that when we were dead on account of our sin, He could raise us up on account of how unrighteous it would have been to allow Christ who never sinned to remain in the grave. The same strong, union by which His life was forfeit - this union was the bond that caused us to be raised with Christ and in Christ when God raised Him from the dead.

God poured His wrath out on the sin of those who were in Christ on Calvary, and only those who were in Christ on Calvary. Only those who were in Christ on Calvary were "covered by the blood" if you will, that is, Christ only covered those who were in Him on Calvary -- said in theological language, Christ made propitiation only for the elect.

Just in case someone is missing the point...

Propitiation is -NOT- Jesus dying for every last person's sin, and taking all the sins committed by everyone for all time into Himself to provide the "means by which" those who come to God can be saved. That idea misrepresents propitiation because it is theologically charged (beforehand) with the notion that in order for God to give everyone a "chance" at salvation, He must provide the means beforehand for everyone to be saved.

There are so many wrong-headed notions in that thought, I doubt I can untangle the knots all at once, but let me address a few major points.

Problem One: God isn't trying to save anyone; that is, God is not involved in some attempt to save people as though the outcome were uncertain. God -is- relentlessly, and without fail, saving those whom He has chosen beforehand to "cover" (i.e. make propitiation for). The notion that God is trying to save everyone, but only succeeding in saving some suggests that God is not sovereign when it comes to salvation, but that man (in fact) is sovereign.

Problem Two: The idea that God must make propitiation for everyone or else he is "not fair" is not divine wisdom, but carnal corruption. When my siblings receive a gift from my father the carnal part of me demands that I too receive a like gift. Shouldn't I? I mean, they didn't deserve the gift, and neither do I, so shouldn't it be split up between us? Wouldn't that be the most fair? You see how the carnal heart works. It doesn't deserve a gift, but the moment someone else receives one, the greed within demands that we receive the same gift as a matter of obligation from the giver - that they would be unjust unless their act of grace attends to all equally. It is not justice that demands we be compensated the moment another receives something they do not deserve - it is greed. We don't deserve things just because others receive them freely. Until a person can grasp that truth, they will never understand that God doesn't have to make propitiation for everyone.

Problem Three: Is an inescapable conclusion we draw from Problem One - if God has to provide the means by which all men can be saved, and all men are not saved, that means that God is either [1] failing to save everyone (God is not omnipotent) or [2]God does not actually save anyone, but men save themselves through God's provision.

If God is trying (and therefore failing) to save all people, then God is not in complete control, and if not in complete control. In reality, either God is in complete control, or He is not in control at all. He either ordains all things, or He lets things run wild. If we say that God "allows" this or that and by that we mean God relinquishes control of reality - we are saying that God either cannot exercise perfect stewardship, or we are saying that perfect stewardship requires the perfect God to keep his nose out of it. Either way, we are painting God in colors that are less than true. God is either perfect or not. There is no way that a perfect God could "allow" corrupt men any sovereignty in any act for to do so would either be imperfect, or prove that something was more perfect that God.

If God doesn't save people, but merely provides the means by which men save themselves - then God is just a tool by which men bring their own will about. Those who desire to be saved exercise their will, and will be able to boast on that last day against those who failed to exercise their will - in choosing the right religion, and choosing to believe etc. God and Christ are reduced in this scenario to holy tools by which these men bring their own will about, and anyone who doesn't will to save themselves, only has themselves to blame!

There is a part of us that harmonizes with the thought that whatever we think of propitiation, we want this as our end result: we want those who reject God to not only get what they deserve, but we want to be convinced that they have only themselves to blame for their punishment.

Yet one needn't do injury to their understanding of propitiation, or maintain a blind eye to the truth in order to continue to grasp that final just thought. One need only understand propitiation right, and one will conclude that those who receive God's wrath have only themselves to blame for it.

But the main problem with the notion that propitiation is a provision God makes for everyone, is that it depends upon man and not God as the author of faith. If propitiation is simply a provision, what of the people who die every year who have never heard the name of Christ? What of the peoples in North and South America prior to Columbus? What of the ancient Orient? etc. If God made provision for all these people and yet failed to give them the gospel, or some instruction - what does that say about God? He provided the means but failed to provide the opportunity?

Do you see the problem with that? If propitiation means that God has made provision for every man, then that same principle ought to apply to opportunity - or God's provision is flawed.

When we understand propitiation as being inescapably linked to justification; as being the means by which God justifies a sinner; as being the very person of Christ covering the sinner who is united to Him by faith not only on Calvary, but in the grave, and again at the right hand of the Power on high - when we see that propitiation is not a possibility, but a certainty - that only those who are in Christ are covered, and that no one else is covered - it straightens out the whole mess.

What of the people who do not have the opportunity to hear the gospel? Is it fair that they should receive wrath? The answer is, "Only if they are sinners." Did you catch that. Sinners deserve wrath. Why do all those people who haven't heard about Jesus receive wrath? Because they deserve wrath. Anyone who doesn't really believe that he or she deserves God's wrath, is going to have a hard time swallowing that. They will squirm under it because they believe that God is obligated to save everyone - that is, they believe that everyone deserves to be saved - Do you not see it?

They believe that God is unjust in condemning everyone, so that in order for God to be "good" he must trying to save everyone, because His "justice" is so unjust even He is trying to help men escape from it.

No, a right understanding of propitiation leaves no room for the idea of a universal covering. Only those who are in Christ are in Christ, the rest are not. Only those who are in Christ are atoned for - the word atonement is just another word for covering - only those who were in Christ on Calvary are atoned for. Period. If anyone is in Christ, there is no longer any condemnation for them, because every last ounce of it was poured out on them already when they were in Christ on Calvary; there is no more condemnation for that person - it was -all- spent there.

For this reason I say, (i.e. for the reason of maintaining a consistent and rational understanding of the atonement) we ought to outright reject the notion that Jesus made propitiation for every last person - if that were the case, there could be no such thing as election, or even sovereignty - in fact, much of scripture would have to be held together in the sort of vague mists of "I don't know how it works together, but I believe it does".

We see that from time to time, even in well meaning men - they hide behind these kinds of phrases because they don't know their own hearts as they ought. If they could articulate what was true of themselves they might say something like, "I know that it is utterly inconsistent to hold contrary 'truths' as both being true - and yet, because I am unwilling to let go of either, I will regard my hedging theology as a most pious act of faith - since I can write off my inconsistencies as humility"

Don't laugh. People do that. They consider there to be something humble about celebrating their decision to remain in ignorance. It is not humble but arrogant and prideful to reason that because we lack wisdom we are excused from pursuing a rational faith. If we find something irrational about what we believe, we cannot imagine it a humble thing to allow it to continue. Lazy, sloppy, indifferent - sure, but not humble.

Likewise, confusing a willful ignorance with pious faith is intellectually dishonest in the least, and simply confused at best. There really is no room in a right faith for holding mutually exclusive 'truths', or excusing the practice as humble or pious. If we don't "get it", there is nothing pious about that.

I want to add a final note to that string of thought - this is not to say that an enlarged intellectual capacity is more godly than a diminished one. God forbid! I am not talking about one's ability to understand the truth, for the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God -- they are spiritually discerned, and if spiritually discerned then we conclude that we are not the ones who open our understanding, but that God does so. What I am on about is not ignorance, but rather the heart that is satisfied in holding contrary thoughts as both being true - and imagines there to be something pious about doing so. There is nothing pious about a sloppy theology. Truth exalts God, and sloppy theology benefits no one, and can hinder many. Do the math.

I know that some consider it inappropriate to mix religion with reason - as they have some figment in their thinking that causes them to imagine that the one must by necessity be pitted against the other. Some conclude therefore, with holy zeal, that irrational faith is therefore of a superior cut if they can maintain in spite of their God given ability to reason.

So, carrying on; even if the grammar in 1 John 2:2 doesn't actually say that Jesus is the propitiation for every last person who was ever born - Some conclude that it is (more or less) linguistically "okay" to read that inference into the phrase "whole world". We therefore have the duty to answer the question: Is this a fair inference?

I personally think the inference is not a fair one, I would consider it a strained one given just the grammar, and I would consider it quite strained given the grammar coupled with reason; but we have more to consider than just the grammar and reason.

Our best tool is, by far, scripture itself. We should always check scripture when a verse is in dispute. Is the thought echoed elsewhere in scripture? How clear is it stated there? In this case, we want to look and see if scripture elsewhere speaks of Christ making propitiation using the same "not just for X... but for Y" formula, so that we can understand if the "but for Y" means "but for every last person who was ever born".

Thankfully, and fittingly, the same apostle (John) also wrote in John 11:51-52 the prophesy spoken by Caiaphas, "51He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."

This is the same thought.

I mean read it a few times if you don't see it, but I see that the same thought in both passages being expressed by the same author (John). That suggests to me that either [1] John was schizophrenic, or [2] that John changed his doctrine at some point in life, or [3] that John isn't talking about the same thing, and we are comparing apples and oranges, or [4] that John means the same thing in both passages.

I outright dismiss the idea that John was schizophrenic or flip-flopping doctrinally, which leaves only that I am mistaken in equating the two passages, or that John is discussing the same thoughts in both passages. Examining both passages I see John explaining how Christ is dying not only for one group, but for another. That Christ (at the very least) is doing something for one group, and to be more precise, for some other group of which the first group is obviously a subset.

In the latter the high priest Caiaphas, even while seeking to unjustly put Christ to death, spoke prophetically of who Christ would die for: [1] the nation (of Israel), and more poignantly, [2] the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Remember John is commenting on what Caiaphas said - explaining how what Caiaphas said was prophetic. John shows that it was prophetic because (according to John's doctrine) that Jesus was not only going to die for the nation of Israel, but also for those children of God scattered abroad. John could have rightly said that Christ was going to die "for the nation and for the whole world" - but had he said that, we would have nothing more illuminating than we have in 1 John 2:2, that is, we would still be wondering whether Christ died for everyone inclusive or not. But here in this verse (Thank God) we have some light to shine back on 1 John 2:2. John is more precise here (John 11:51-52) than he was there (1 John 2:2) - Jesus died not only for Israel, but also for His people who were scattered abroad. John is not all inclusive here, and he is not schizophrenic or changing his doctrine - and he -is- discussing the same matter - which leaves us to conclude that in 1 John 2:2, when John writes that Christ is the propitiation for "our sins" he is referring to some group, and when he says, "and not only ours but for the sins of the whole world" he means to emphasize that the propitiation is not limited to this group, and is using hyperbole to stress that.

This agrees with what Matthew said of Christ (Matthew 1:21) - He will save His people from their sin, not He will save "all people" from their sin.

We want to remember also that Christ's death atoned for sin. That is, His death covered over sin. When we say that Christ atoned for someone, we are saying that Christ died for someone. One cannot divest the one thought from the other. Christ cannot, for instance, die for someone he is not making atonement for. The atonement is either in the death, or it is not - it is not a possibility, it is a transaction that either happens or it does not happen - it is not a pending operation. Either Christ makes atonement or he does not - his death cannot be divided into the atoning and non-atoning parts, nor can be applied after the fact as though it simply a well from which atonement could be drawn - such a picture, I reiterate - misrepresents and misunderstand what atonement is. The covering over of sin. Either one's sin is covered or it is not covered - and the cover is the death of Christ - so that when we speak of Christ making propitiation or Christ "dying for" someone we are speaking of the exact same thing.

Thus, we conclude that if the grammar in 1 John 2:2 allows suggests hyperbole, and if reason demands hyperbole, and if clearer passages in scripture demonstrate that the "whole world" reference in 1 John 2:2 must be hyperbole - we are not straining when we conclude that 1 John 2:2 does not teach universal atonement.

When we read 1 John 2:2, we are not reading that Jesus died for everyone in the whole world, what we are seeing is the author use hyperbole to stress the notion that Jesus didn't just die for this one little group. That is the point of the hyperbole in the verse. We are not reading something that contradicts John 11:51-52 - as though Jesus died for everyone that ever lived in the one verse, but only died for the elect in another. We understand that Jesus died for people from all over the whole world, and not just from the group being addressed in 1 John 2:2. This is a perfectly reasonable way of interpreting the grammar - that is, we are not putting a strain on the interpretation of 1 John 2:2 by [1] recognizing hyperbole when we see it, and [2] interpreting the force of the verse ("not just us") through the lens of the hyperbole, rather than squeezing a universal inclusiveness by ignoring the hyperbole and stressing an inference that can be derived from the text by ignoring all else.

It is important to me that my interpretation of scripture begins and remains reasonable, I want my understanding to make sense grammatically, and I want it to do no injury to the remainder of scripture. If 1 John 2:2 is teaching us that Jesus atoned for everyone that ever lived, but John 11:51-52 tells us that Jesus died only for those who were His - I either conclude that my understanding of one of these verses is incorrect, or that scripture has real and deep contradictions.

I personally am inclined to the former: these texts describe the same thing, and as such I am convinced that in spite of the apparent ambiguity of 1 John 2:2, it is not teaching that Jesus made propitiation for everyone. It -is- merely stressing that the propitiation Christ achieved was by no means restricted to the group John was writing to.

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posted by Daniel @ 6:49 AM  
  • At 10:24 AM, November 03, 2008, Blogger mark pierson said…

    Good stuff.

    I wish I could type like that. Oh well.

  • At 1:13 PM, November 04, 2008, Blogger Daniel said…

    The post wasn't long enough, so I added about a dozen paragraphs. ;)

  • At 7:04 PM, November 05, 2008, Blogger beller said…

    Dan, I wonder what you think of Eric Svendsen’s brief discussion. He writes:

    [Begin] This propitiation is not for our sins only, but also for the sins of “the whole world.” In context “our sins” must refer to the sins of believers (i.e., the elect of God), and cannot refer to some distinction between various “kinds” of peoples (e.g., “our” = Jews, while the “world” = Gentiles). There is some evidence that the Gnostics taught their own version of “limited atonement,” according to which their “gospel” should be delivered only to the illuminated ones. Paul hints at this when countering the Gnostics in Colosse by insisting that the true gospel has gone out into “all the world” (Col 1:6), and has been proclaimed “in all creation under heaven” (1:23), and that, by this gospel, we must admonish and teach “every man” (1:28). There is therefore no basis for viewing the word “world” in 1 John 2:2 in the sense demanded by those who hold to limited (or particular) atonement, according to which Jesus’ death atoned only for the sins of the elect. John denies that view when he insists that Jesus’ death atoned not only for our sins, but also the sins of the whole world . The world, in John’s view, consists only of those who have not overcome antichrist’s philosophies, such as covetousness, materialism, pride and false religious teachings (2:15-17; 5:4-5); only of those who misunderstand and even hate true Christians (3:1, 13); only of those who have embraced false prophets (4:1, 3); only of those who are controlled by the evil one (4:4; 5:19) and have embraced the spirit of error (4:5-6). The comparison, therefore, is between believers and the rest of unbelieving mankind. John’s point is that Jesus’ death is of such infinitely great value that it is sufficient to atone for—and in fact has atoned for—the sins of the whole world. This does not imply that the whole world is thereby saved. The final basis upon which someone receives eternal life is not whether his sin has been atoned for (although that is certainly a necessary prerequisite for eternal life), but rather whether he believes in Jesus, and has accepted (applied) His atonement by faith. True believers meet that requirement (though only because faith itself has been granted to them; Eph 2:8-9); the rest of the world does not. [End]

  • At 11:35 PM, November 05, 2008, Blogger Daniel said…


    I think Erik misses the mark entirely, but does so in a very attractive way.

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