Recently, I listened to a 2008 lecture by John Piper on the nature of the atonement. As a five-point Calvinist, Piper adheres to limited atonement, the belief that Jesus died only for the elect. Out of all the five points, it is probably the most heavily disputed, so much so that even people who wish to be full five-pointers cannot bring themselves to accept it due to the extremely difficult texts they must face. In his hour-long lecture, Piper introduces the topic and also tries to give both logical and biblical justifications for the third letter of TULIP. While I disagree with many things he said during the lecture, I will focus here on his interpretation of 1 John 2:2, which reads:
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (ESV)
This verse is considered one of the strongest verses, if not the strongest verse, against limited atonement, and it’s not hard to see why on face value. One of my professors in seminary said that he would like to be a five point Calvinist, but he simply could not get past this singular verse and accept limited atonement. Clearly, Calvinists have to give a persuasive interpretation of 1 John 2:2, among other things, if limited atonement can be considered good biblical doctrine.
Parallelism with John 11:51-52
The most common argument from Calvinists, and it is repeated in Piper’s lecture, is that John the Apostle is referring back to his Gospel. In John 11:51-52, he says of the high priest Caiaphas:
He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (ESV)
According to Calvinists, the parallel sentence structure here with 1 John 2:2 shows that the latter verse is not talking about the “world” as in “everybody else,” but rather it is talking about it in the sense of “all nations.” More specifically, John is referring to the “children of God who are scattered abroad” throughout the nations. Piper claims that upon closer examination, 1 John 2:2 is actually a strong verse for limited atonement, not against. It is common to find a chart like this to show the parallel structure:
(source) (edit: source updated when previous image stopped working)
This seems to be impressive evidence that John did not intend for “world” to mean more than the elect scattered across the nations. Calvinists generally think that this is enough to close the case on 1 John 2:2.
Questionable Assumptions and an Overemphasis on Sentence Structure Without Context
Unfortunately for Calvinists, this bare focus on sentence structure ignores context, which is just bad exegesis. First, it is important to see a critical assumption that many Calvinists seem to be bringing to John’s first epistle: They are assuming that his audience is comprised exclusively, or at least primarily, of Jewish Christians (edit: I address a strategy that does not make this assumption in an additional post). It is worth noting that it is debatable to argue that Caiaphas even would have thought of the “children of God” as being Gentile believers; it seems more likely for him to think, even in a prophecy, of all the Jews scattered in the Diaspora. This fits the context better because the Jews are afraid that, because of Jesus, the Romans may come and take away their nation (11:48), meaning political Israel. If so, John 11:51-52 is not even saying what Calvinists want; John isn’t recording that Jesus died for the elect, including Gentiles, across the nations, but instead the prophecy is about how Jesus came not only to die for the nation but to gather dispersed Jews as well.
However, even if one were to grant the interpretation that John 11:51-52 is teaching that Jesus came not only for ethnic Israel but for Gentile believers scattered abroad, on what basis do Calvinists think that John’s epistle is to Jewish believers? In fact, the majority of conservative scholars believe that the provenance of the epistle was in Asia Minor and its date is late in the first century; to think that the church he is writing to is exclusively or primarily Jewish has precious little historical support. Furthermore, nothing in the epistle itself would tell us that he is writing with only Jewish Christians in mind. What he does tell us is this:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13, emphasis mine)
John tells us who his audience is, and they are simply believers. Thus, the only interpretation of “world” that makes sense is to contrast the “us,” believers, with unbelievers, “the world,” or at least take it to mean “everyone.” John uses “world” in several ways in his writings, but such a use of the word is in keeping with other usages such as 1 John 2:15 and John 3:16.
This is not to say that parallelism shouldn’t be noted in Scripture and that it cannot be an aid in interpretation, but divorcing parallelism from context, especially when the two passages being compared come from two different books (even with the same author), is hardly useful. It is not difficult to notice that very similar sentence structure can be used to say very different things, whether in writing or in normal speech. Context still provides the backdrop in which parallelism can be properly understood, and in that regard, the Calvinist analysis fails.
The Double Jeopardy Argument
While the double jeopardy argument applies more broadly than just to 1 John 2:2, I will discuss it here because it has a significant influence on how Calvinists interpret the verse. The argument goes like this: If Jesus was really the “atoning sacrifice” or the “propitiation” for the sins of everyone, then it would be unjust for God to punish people for disbelieving Christ because then their sins would be punished twice. It is therefore impossible for Jesus to have died for everyone and makes the non-Calvinistic interpretation implausible.
To begin, it is worth noticing this: This is not a scriptural argument but a philosophical one. That doesn’t make it wrong at all, but it is quite ironic considering that Calvinists often dismiss criticisms of their position as “philosophical” rather than “scriptural,” such as when people point out their difficulties with the problem of evil. Good to know that philosophy is fair game. At any rate, to address this argument in full would make this post probably a tad too long, but I will say two things about it: One, this argument, if it is a problem, would also be a problem for Calvinists, and two, this argument takes the analogy of penal-substitution too far to the point that it nearly eliminates faith as the instrument of salvation.
The two points are related because of how limited atonement adherents describe the sacrifice. Piper contends that the main difference between five point Calvinists and others on this issue is that the former see Jesus’ sacrifice as actually accomplishing or purchasing faith and salvation for the elect, not just making it a possibility. However, formulating the atonement in this manner leads to the mistaken idea of eternal justification, that the elect were always justified before any profession of faith. Any good Calvinist would want to avoid this clearly unscriptural idea, but if they affirm, as Scripture does, that even the elect are under God’s wrath up until the point they are regenerated, then we still have an issue of God’s wrath being on people for whom Jesus not only died for but purchased by simple virtue of his death on the cross. Why is God’s wrath still on them? If Calvinists answer that Jesus’ sacrifice only applies when someone has faith, then they would be right but then are in the same boat as non-Calvinists.
Furthermore, if Piper’s description of limited atonement is true, why is faith even necessary? Piper’s and other Calvinists’ concern is to uphold penal-substitutionary atonement: If Jesus was really the substitute for everyone, then it makes no sense to say that some people are under wrath because he should have paid their penalty. However, this takes the analogy of penal-substitution, as important as it is, a bit too far because it locates the means of salvation solely on substitution for penalty and ignores faith, which Scripture never does. This is why other analogies to describe Jesus’ death are helpful, such as the ransom view, which focuses more on the idea of payment of debt or price. In that view, it is easier to see that while Jesus’ blood paid for all sins, the “payment” needs to be received in order to be applied to the individual’s account. Scripture uniformly affirms that faith is needed for salvation, and a view that discounts this, even if it is concerned with something so central as the cross, has to be rejected. In addition, there is nothing contradictory about saying that a gift or payment has been given but that it needs to be accepted to be efficacious. The double jeopardy argument is thus neither convincing nor a good reason to reject the more context-driven interpretation of 1 John 2:2 for unlimited atonement.
To recap, adherents of limited atonement have used parallelism without historical or textual context for a dubious interpretation of 1 John 2:2, and the questionable double jeopardy argument does not help their cause. Therefore, the view that this verse teaches that Jesus died not only for believers but for everyone else should stand. The strength of just this one verse is enough reason to reject limited atonement altogether, though I would argue that it is hardly alone. The Calvinist interpretation here, I think, is overly colored by their allegiance to their system rather than contextual analysis of the verse.