Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Did Christ die for everyone or only a select few? (Calvinism & 1 John 2:2)

Since Reformed Protestants (Calvinists) do not believe that Jesus died on the Cross for the sake of all mankind, but rather only a select few (a doctrine called Limited Atonement), one passage often used to refute this error is 1 John 2:1-2,
Jesus is the propitiation for our sins,
and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Taking this plainly, Jesus die for all men, meaning Limited Atonement is refuted and thus so is Calvinism. But since Calvinists can't go down without a fight, they must somehow explain this text. The best they've come up with is saying that the term "world" here does not mean all mankind, but rather "only the select few" or "only the elect Gentiles". But they have no good reason to assume the term "world" here is to be restricted like that. In fact, there's a strong case to be made that John was clearly not speaking of "world" in a restricted sense (hat tip to this Catholic for showing me this), and that can be shown by how Saint John repeatedly uses the Greek word for "world" (Kosmos) in his First Epistle. Consider the 22 other occurrences in the Epistle: 
Chapter 2: 15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 

Chapter 3: 1 The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. ... 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. ... 17 But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?

Chapter 4: 1 Beloved, test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. ... 3 This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. ... 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. ... 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. ... 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.

Chapter 5: 4 Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? ... 19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
It's great that John used the term Kosmos so many times since it gives us a better idea of what he possibly could have meant, including a possible meaning of "select few". But using a simple substitution, try inserting "select few" or "select Gentiles" into these texts. The only text that would remain coherent is 1 John 4:14, but that doesn't prove an alternative definition. Thus, the Calvinist attempt to restrict the term "world" fails. While Kosmos is not used the exact same way in each verse, these acceptable definitions completely permit a universal atonement reading of 1 John 2:2.


Monica said...

Hi Nick,

many of the "Calvinists" I know would be hesitant to hold to limited atonement. Whenever I try to say "why do you accept Calvin on these other points but not this one" (or various other points of TULIP, it varies), they invariably respond that Calvin didn't really mean that, and anyone who says otherwise hasn't understood Calvin.

How does one respond to this? Do I have to go and read Calvin? Should I just say that they need to read him? I guess the latter would have more force if I can say I have read him myself. Not too keen on wading through tomes of heresy though.

It's so hard to ever get anywhere when every Calvinist (or Protestant for that matter) has their own unique set of beliefs. Welcome to Sola Scriptura I guess.

PS. Your blog is AWESOME.

Anonymous said...


With all due respect, this is far from a presentation of "the best that they have come up with."

Perhaps you have never seen the 2nd mass debate between Dr. White and Dr. Sungenis, but during the cross examination White gives his interpretation of that text. That is, the word world does not refer directly to "the elect" but rather "men from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation" which is a quote from Revelation chapter 5, also written by John.

I am not saying I agree with Dr. White's exegesis, but you have knocked down a weaker opponent by saying the best they have come up with is "world" means literally "the elect."

John D.

Nick said...

Hello Monica,

Thank you for your comments. I have heard that Calvin and earlier Calvinists were hesitant to come out explicitly in favor of Limited Atonement. But what I think is more important is that Limited Atonement is the only way TULIP works, and TULIP is the most logical 'version' of Calvinism. If there is a Calvinist that denies Limited Atonement, then I usually try to show them that this means everyone will be saved, which is obviously wrong.

Nick said...

Hello Anonymous,

I have not heard of the alternative interpretation you gave, but I would like to hear more.

That said, I don't think that interpretation works for the simple fact that it's special pleading. The term Kosmos is used numerous times and is never defined like that, and Kosmos does not appear in that Revelation 5:9 verse. What it comes off as is a variation of the Elect Jews (us) and Elect Gentiles (world) argument that I did mention.

Look at it this way, using that substitution:
Jesus is a propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but for those of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
Taken plainly, this doesn't contradict anything I said. Injecting "elect" into this forces one to (a) assume "Ours" refers to the Jews only and (b) that this is what Kosmos can mean.

Anonymous said...

Nick, reading the verse with the Rev. 5:9 substitution:

Jesus is a propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but for those of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

How does that force us to say "ours" refers to Jews only? Couldn't John simply mean "ours" in the sense of the people or church that he is writing to?

And I believer you can find the cross-ex on youtube of the 2nd Mass Debate. Idk if this is how Dr. White and others read the "world" in John 3:16 but perhaps it is as well.

Nick said...

I could mean the people or church he is writing to, but that comes off pretty weird, "and not only for the sins of the members of your church, but of every nation".

It seems that if he is saying "not your church only" he would add "but all the churches of the world". I doubt there was a question on whether Jesus only died for a few believers at a local congregation.

I agree that this view of Kosmos likely works on John 3:16 as well.

Monica said...

Hi Nick,
Thanks, that's a sensible way to go about it!

Rodolfo V said...


Look at Calvin's commentary on the 1 John 2: 1 - 2.

"Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world."

Interestingly he also says this earlier:

"The intercession of Christ is a continual application of his death for our salvation."

Just wanted to get your thoughts about whether you think Calvin's intercession statement is oddly compatible with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

Does John ever use the word world to many everyone on earth? If so why would it make sense to go to the passage in Revelations for the definition of world.

Thank Nick

Rodolfo V.

Nick said...

There is some debate on whether John Calvin held to Limited Atonement. I've seen quotes from Calvinists on both sides (some deny LA). I've not done sufficient research to come to a definitive conclusion, but LA is the more logically consistent within a Calvinistic framework.

As for the the meaning of Kosmos (world), I don't see anywhere where John has used this term as synonymous with the elect. It wouldn't really make much sense to use it like that anyway. To say Jesus is a propitiation not only for us (elect) but also the rest of the elect throughout the world is a bit redundant.

Michael Taylor said...


You speak sometimes as if you're an expert on word meanings when you're not. The word "world" in the Johannine corups has a rather broad range of meanings. Real experts identify anywhere between seven and fifteen separate nuances.

In the case of 1 John 2:2, just like John 3:16-17, "world" means the unbelieving world. It is not a *quantitative* term (i.e., "everyone in the world without exception"); rather it is a qualitative term (i.e., the sinful world). So when John say he died for "our sins," he has in mind those who have already been separated out of the sinful world to which they once belonged. But the "world" is still out there and there are still souls within it that need saving. So by saying, "and not ours only," John is including even those in the world for whom Christ's sacrifice will save at some point in time.

This seems to be exactly what Jesus prayed in John 17. He prayed for "not for the world" but for his disciples, through whom, others in the world would come to believe.

I find the language "not our sins only" remarkably parallel to John 11:52: "and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."

Notice that there really aren't two groups here, but one group made up of two parts: There is the nation of Israel living in the land, and there are the Diaspora Jews living around the world.

In a like manner, John seems to be saying in 1 John 2:2, that there is one group (the elect) that is comprised of two parts: Those who already believe ("our sins") and those who have yet to believe, but surely will ("sins of the world").

These, of course, will come from every race, tribe and tongue. Or as Revelation 14:4 puts it: "These have been redeemed *from mankind* as firstfruits for God and the Lamb."

Notice that it isn't mankind as a whole that is redeemed, but particular individuals taken "from mankind."

Jesus is the Savior of the world, but he doesn't save everyone in the world; rather he takes a multitude (not a "select few") greater than any of us can count and he saves them. These will be people from every race, tribe and tongue.

That's why I don't like the language of "limited atonement," but rather prefer "particular redemption." "Limited atonement" is misleading, and in fact is a better description of Rome's position: i.e., an atonement that is for everyone in general, but no one in particular--an atonement that doesn't actually save anyone until certain other conditions are met.

Nick said...

I'm not trying to pass myself off as a word-expert, but rather am simply challenging arguments that I don't think have merit. One of the more disturbing trends I've found among Protestants is to treat Greek scholars as Popes of sorts, and basically trusting whatever the word-expert says. This is particularly true with the term Logizomai.

As for the term "world," I agree that it means something akin to "sinful world" in this context. That's what I've been saying from the start. The 'definition' I'm objecting to is that which reduces "world" to "the elect," which I've not seen any good case for. Your definition is actually committing that error since you appear to be reading it as "and not our sins only, but all those elect in the sinful world".

What I have found very effective about the Lexical Apologetic approach is that when I examine certain Greek words and how they're used in the NT, I'm often pleasantly surprised to find they strongly support Catholic claims. In the case of Kosmos, I showed how John's heavy usage of the term allows us to make a good case for world as a whole and not "the elect".