This short question hits on a mighty important issue:
Thank you for your ministry. I have a question: when the Bible says that Jesus died for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), does that mean that Jesus died for everyone’s sin? Or does it mean that you need to believe that Jesus died for your sins for it to be applicable to you?
Shawn (see here) and I (see here) have touched on this before, but the question is so significant that it deserves more attention. I will not discuss the issue of positional forgiveness, which people get when they believe in Jesus, or fellowship forgiveness, which believers get as they walk in the light and confess their sins (1 John 1:7, 9). See here for a discussion of those issues. In this blog, I will simply discuss the question of the extent of the atonement which the reader raises.
The verse the reader cites, 1 John 2:2, says, “And He Himself is the propitiation [satisfaction] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Calvinists who believe in limited atonement, that Christ’s death was never intended for the whole world, are forced to interpret 1 John 2:2 in a strange way. Our sins, they argue, must refer to the sins of the elect in Asia Minor. The sins of the whole world refer to the sins of the elect in the rest of the world.
Nowhere else in 1 John does the first-person plural refer only to the believers to which John is writing. In the rest of the letter, the first-person plural refers to the readers and John and the apostolic circle. When he wants to refer to the readers, he uses the second-person plural, you (e.g., 1:2, 3, 4, 5; 2:1, 7; 3:13; 4:4; 5:13). In 1 John 3:13 the readers are reminded that “the world hates you.”
The obvious point of 1 John 2:2 is that Christ is the propitiation for the sins not only of all believers, but also the sins of every human being.
In John 1:29, John the Baptist testifies, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
In John 3:16, God the Father showed how much He loves the world by sending His Son to die on the cross for their sins (cf. John 3:14-15).
In John 4:42, new believers in Samaria testify that Jesus is “the Savior of the world.”
The world in all those verses refers to all of mankind. We never find the expression personal Savior in the Bible. Since the Lord Jesus made everyone savable by His death on the cross, He is the Savior of the world. When we believe in Him, then we get the salvation which the Savior of the world makes available to all (compare John 4:10 and John 4:42).
Note that dramatic difference this makes in evangelism.
If I believe that Jesus’ death was sufficient for all, but only efficient for those who believe that He died on the cross for the sins of the world, then I tell people that. I say something like this:
You are a sinner and your sins separate you from God. You will go to the lake of fire forever because of your sins, even though Jesus died on the cross for your sins, unless you come to believe that by His death on the cross Jesus took your sins upon Himself. You have a sin problem that will not go away until you believe that Jesus died for you.
Of course, that discussion still has not come around to the promise of salvation that can never be lost. So, after that discussion comes the promise of everlasting life to all who believe in Jesus for it.
And notice that I cannot identify with the person I am speaking with. I can’t say, “You and I are sinners, and our sins separate us from God.” Since I’ve come to believe in substitutionary atonement, my sins no longer separate me from God. But his do.
If I believe that Christ’s death was for all, then I evangelize in this way:
Though you and I and everyone in the world is a sinner, our sins do not separate us from God. Do you know why? The reason is because Jesus took away the sins of the world when He died on the cross (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). Sin is no longer the issue in terms of getting right with God. Isn’t that good news? But we have a life problem. We lack everlasting life, God’s life. Jesus Christ promised that whoever believes in Him will not perish but has everlasting life (John 3:16; 5:24). So, if you believe in the Son of God, then you have everlasting life that can never be lost. The New Testament calls that the promise of life.
The second way of evangelizing takes the focus off of the person we are talking with and puts it on Jesus Christ. We tell the person what Jesus did for him or her and what He promises if the person believes in Him. And we are in the same boat as he or she is in terms of our sins. We too are sinners, and we too are not separated from God because Christ died on the cross for the sins of everyone.
For years I shared that first message with hundreds of people. I found that most people found my message condescending.
Since I have shared the message of unlimited atonement, I’ve found people do not feel I am talking down to them. They do not think I’m saying that I’m better than they are.
I’m just another beggar telling a hungry man where I found free bread (bread of life).
The founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lewis Sperry Chafer, said that because of the cross of Christ, people no longer have a sin problem. Instead, they have a Son problem. If they do not believe in the Son of God, then they will spend eternity apart from God and His kingdom, even though Jesus already removed the sin barrier.