This statement in 1 John 2:2 has been thrown back and fore in the debate concerning the extent of the atonement of Jesus. Which view of this verse is correct? Is it the case that this verse indicates that Jesus died for all? After all, John says that Jesus is the propitiation for the whole world.
Right away we should be able to see what the words cannot mean. Since propitiation means the turning away of divine wrath, we should ask this straightforward and basic question: did Jesus take away the wrath of God which was against every individual who has ever lived? The obvious answer is that he did not. There are millions of people in a lost eternity who will suffer the wrath of God against their sins. It is clear that Jesus has not taken away the wrath of God against them.
Since John could not have been referring to every individual, what did he mean by the whole world? It may help us is answering this question to ask another one: of what is the world compose in addition to individuals? Several answers can be given. One is that biblically the world is composed of two groups – Jews and Gentiles. John could be reminding his readers that Jesus has turned away God’s wrath from Gentiles as well as from Jews.
A second answer is that the world ethnically is composed of many racial groups. John could be reminding his readers that, at the close of human history, the redeemed people of God will have come from every people group. This is the wonderful picture that is given to us of heaven in Revelation 5:9-10: ‘And they sung a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth.”’
A third answer is that the term kosmos means the world in its rebellion against God. It is not the bigness of the world, but its badness, that is stressed in this term. John is saying that Jesus was the propitiation for the worst of sinners, that there will never be a person whose sins are so great that the sacrifice of Jesus cannot deal with them effectively.
A further suggestion can also be made concerning John’s use of the whole world. He is reminding his readers that Jesus is exclusive way of avoiding the wrath of God. The recipients of this letter lived in a multi-faith society in which all kinds of ideas were promoted as ways to God. John here tells his readers that all alternative ways are useless, that only Jesus can help sinners throughout the whole world.
We may imagine that to say that Jesus did not die for every person is discouraging. In fact, the opposite is the case. If Jesus did die for each person, then he has not achieved his purpose in coming into the world. But since he did die for a specific, definite number of people, the gospel declares a Saviour who never fails.
Its message for us is that Jesus will save numerous Gentiles from every race who have been guilty of countless sins. He comes to us in the gospel and offers himself to us as the Saviour we need, and as the only Saviour that is available for us. Our response should be to turn to him in repentance and avail ourselves of his mercy.
When we do, we discover that we have in heaven One who is the propitiation for our sins and who will represent us as our Advocate as long as we are in this world, and who will then be our Companion for ever in the world to come.