I have written a few articles now on the errors of logic and interpretation of proponents of limited atonement, particularly their interpretation of 1 John 2:2. There is another Johannine verse that I think they take out of context: John 17:9. The verse reads like this:
9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. (ESV)
Clearly, Calvinists say, Jesus was not concerned about the salvation of the world but only for his elect, which in turn is defined the way they see it. They often use this verse to counter interpretations of John 3:16 of God loving everyone in the world. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this verse used in support of limited atonement and sometimes unconditional election, ranging from Reformed websites, internet comments, personal conversations, and published works from Calvinist pastors and scholars. However, when looking at the larger context, this one-verse prooftext falls flat by simply reading on in the passage and understanding whom Jesus is talking about. The section in which John 17:9 appears is as follows:
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
I don’t see how that can be more clear: Jesus was clearly praying for his disciples here, the Eleven. That’s the only interpretation that makes sense of 7:12, which many Calvinist authors gloss over. The disciples were chosen for a role, and now Jesus, on his way out, is praying for them because he is sending them into the world. This not only makes the most sense of the passage itself, it flows readily with chapter 16, which is about Jesus encouraging his disciples in the face of his impending exit. It also fits quite nicely with chapter 15 as well, given Jesus warnings that the world will hate the disciples (corresponding to 17:14). Jesus is praying that the disciples will be kept by the Father from the evil one. Jesus does not stop there. He moves on to pray for future believers:
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
Even though verse 20 quite clearly detonates any interpretation of the preceding passage that does not restrict the meaning to the disciples (or else it makes no sense for Jesus to say, “I do not ask for these only“), perhaps a Calvinist could still say that Jesus is merely concerned about the particular elect who were chosen individually. Except the passage keeps reading:
21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
So here is what is going on:
1. Jesus prays for his disciples in anticipation of his death, which flows from chapter 16. He prays specifically for them, not the world, because their role is unique in God’s plan. Jesus prays that the Father will keep them and that they will sanctified.
2. Now Jesus moves on in his prayer to address future believers; more specifically, he prays for future believers who believe due to the preaching of the disciples. In other words, it’s preferable to also restrict the future believers here to mean those who are immediately touched by the ministry of the apostles. However, even if one does not think we should restrict the meaning here to that, there is no reason to view the future believers here as “mysterious and individual elect chosen unilaterally by God to have faith” unless one already presumes the Calvinist definition of election.
3. What does Jesus pray for in regards to these believers? Unity. He prays that they may be one, so that the world may believe that Jesus was sent by God. Quite contrary to how Calvinists try to construe 17:9, Jesus is still very much concerned about the world that God loves (John 3:16). He prays for unity among believers as a witness to the world. Tellingly, Calvinists will often try to switch from different definitions of world here in this very same passage without any contextual justification. In John 17:9, “world” has to mean the unbelieving non-elect, but in 17:21, it has to mean what they try to make it mean in 1 John 2:2 and John 3:16, “all nations,” maneuvers that smack of trying too hard to preserve doctrinal convictions than reading the text in context.
4. Some Calvinists may still try to point out that believers are “given” to Jesus, but that in no way contradicts this interpretation unless one presumes particular, individual election and that somehow being “given” nullifies Christ’s concern for the world. Not only can corporate election be easily reconciled to this passage, one does not even have to go there; I can simply point out that, given that all Christians believe that God is the initiator of salvation, that whosoever believes in Christ can still be seen as given to him by God.
5. Jesus closes by referring back to his disciples. This is clear because while he prays for future believers and their future ministry to the world, he finishes by stating that the world does not believe now (present tense) but that “these” here know that God sent Jesus.
This passage does not teach limited atonement, nor does it teach unconditional election. A truly contextual approach to the passage will identify whom he is speaking about and why, making John 17:9 one of the more dubious proof-texts used by Calvinists.