"and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."- 1 John 2:2.
There have been many interpretations of this text throughout church history. Some see this text as a basis for universalism, the idea that all men without exception will be saved. Others see the "ours" in the "propitiation for our sins" as a reference to the Christians John was writing to, and the "those of the whole world" to refer to all of humanity. This then is the basis for what is called universal atonement. An interpretation strongly clutched by my Arminian/synergistic brethren. Universal atonement says that the Cross of Christ did not secure the salvation for anyone in particular, and that it only made salvation possible for all men. The Reformed see "those of the whole world" as a reference to Christians throughout the entire earth. It is the position of this author that the Reformed stance is the most consistent. In giving an apologetic for this interpretation it will be vital to define the word "propitiation", and to look at similar texts by the pen of John that are similar in context.
In 1 John 1, John is writing about the Word of life which is Jesus, and that walking in the Light cleanses us from sin. Then in 1 John 2:1-2"1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." In V.1 we are told that "we" have an advocate (gk. paracletos) with the Father. Advocate means to come alongside in an intercessory manner. "My little children" and "we" are references to Christians. Only they have an advocate with the Father, that is what it means to be Christian. Non-Christians don't have this privilege. The propitiation is only for the ones that have an advocate with the Father. This is what is meant by propitiation for "our" sins, the "our" refers to Christians, and "those of the whole world" refers to those who have an advocate with the Father throughout the entire earth. Paul confirms that Christ's intercession and atonement is only for God's elect in Romans 8:33-34, V.33 "Who will bring a charge against God's elect?...V.34 "Christ Jesus is He who died...who also intercedes for us." The "us" is God's elect.
"Propitiation: A sacrifice that bears God's wrath to the end and in doing so changes God's wrath towards us into favor" (Grudem Systematic Theology, 1252).
A great many when reading 1 John 2:2 overlook the meaning of "propitiation" (gk. hilasmos). If the "world"(gk. kosmos) is universal here, then it means that God's wrath has been satisfied on behalf of the elect and non-elect. Then the question must be asked: on what basis are the non-elect condemned? The proponents of the universal atonement position will say "Well it is on the basis of their unbelief." But such a response is unconvincing since God's wrath has been satisfied on their behalf, and their unbelief would be part of that satisfaction. "For the wages of sin is death," Romans 6:23. People are condemned ultimately based on their sin. To say that people are condemned because of their unbelief misses the point, this is like saying a gunshot victim died because he didn't go the the hospital. Although the victim might have survived if he went to the hospital, that isn't the cause of his death. It was the gunshot, not his lack of hospital care. If we take the universal position on 1 John 2:2 than we are left with the grim prospect of God demanding double payment for the sins of the non-elect. After having the non-elect's sins payed for, they are then left in eternal condemnation to "repay", so to speak, for their sins again. A grim prospect indeed, John must be using "world" in a different way than the universal atonement position assumes.
Scholars have identified about 14 different uses of the word "world" throughout John's writings. A brief analysis reveals how John uses "world" in various ways. It cannot be just assumed that "world" is universal, and that it always means the same thing whenever ever it is used. In the same chapter as 1 John 2:2, 1 John 2:15 says, "Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." If we take "world" to mean all of humanity here, this means that were not supposed to love them. This is certainly not the case. In context John is referring here to the "world" as a present evil system and not to all of fallen humanity. John 17:9, In the glorious high priestly prayer of our Lord, Jesus says, ... I do not ask on behalf of the world..." Why? because Christians are not of the "world"! Words like "world" and "all" are often used in the New Testament to emphasize the fact that salvation has been brought to Jews and Gentiles. They were used to correct the Jewish mindset that the Messiah would only come to save the Jewish nation. To get a better insight into what is meant in 1 John 2:2 we must look at other texts that have been revealed by God through John. The following two texts are significant because they both discuss the atonement and the objects of that atonement:
"And they sang a new song, saying,"Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth."-Revelation 5:9-10.
Notice that the scope of Christ's atonement here is specific, it is has purchased "men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." It doesn't say that Jesus purchased by His blood every man "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." The specific objects of His atonement are then made "to be a kingdom and priests to our God," "You have made them," "them" refers to the ones He purchased by his blood "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." The Reformed see "them" as a parallel concept to the "world" in 1 John 2:2.
"'But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all,
nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish. Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."-John 11:49-52.
Here we have Jesus' death bringing about a particular end. The end being that He gathers the "children of God who are scattered abroad." These are ones that have been given to the Son by the Father (John 6:37-44). John 10:11, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." Here Jesus' life is laid down for a specific people, His sheep. The shepherd chooses the sheep, not the other way around. Here again we find a parallel concept to the "world" found in 1 John 2:2, that is the "children of God who are scattered abroad."
This is why the Reformed position is the Biblical position, it is because the Bible presents the atonement as definite and not potential. It is personal and not general. Does God really only love those who love Him? Is His love conditional? No, He loves whom He chooses to love (Romans 9:11-13). Can we really say that the precious Blood of Christ comes to no avail for some? Could He really be the propitiation and not the advocate. No, He is the advocate for those whom propitiation is made. Is it even possible that the wrath of God being poured out on His beloved Son would somehow, in any way not be effectual? From all of eternity, the perfect unity in the One Triune God being broken in some sense at the Cross, only to be rendered non-redemptive by the sinner is absurd. Will their be any condemned sinner in hell yelling "I have rendered Christs' Blood ineffective, He tried to save me but I wouldn't let Him."? Certainly not. The incalculable cost of the Cross should make us all meditate about this doctrine deeply. Our redemption is costly, may we never say that Christs' Blood is ineffective in any way.