I have often pondered over 1 John 2:2. In context it says the following:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:1-6, ESV)
What is the historical and cultural context for 1 John? Although the authorship of the three epistles of John are debated, believing the author was the apostle John is quite defensible, and in my view most probable. John is writing to the church in Ephesus in the late first century (A.D. 90s) in an attempt to combat a variety of heresies and the influence of false teachers: a form of early Gnosticism, docetism (belief that Jesus only appeared to be human but wasn’t fully human, therefore making his sufferings only apparent), and Cerinthianism (based on the teachings of Cerinthus, a proto-Gnostic teacher who said that the Holy Spirit left Jesus before his crucifixion). These teachers were promoting pursuit of spiritual perfection and sinlessness, denying the full humanity of Christ, and even encouraging a form of antinomianism (moral lawlessness). Therefore, John stresses three core ideas as a test of life in his first epistle: sin verse obedience, love for one another, and correct Christology .
In 1 John 1:5-2:6 John focuses on sin and obedience in an attempt to refute the sinless perfectionism that was being preached in Ephesus. This is the context for 1 John 2:2. This verse seems to indicate that Jesus’ death has satisfied God’s wrath against all the sin of all the world for all humanity throughout all time. Wow, what a statement! Could this possibly be true? If so, it would seem to cast doubt on the “limited atonement” idea found in Calvinism (the “L” in TULIP). The word behind “propitiation” in the Greek is ἱλασμός (hilasmos), which means “expiation, sacrifice, propitiation.” It’s related to ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion), a cognate noun found only in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. In Hebrews, hilasterion is translated “mercy seat” and is specifically referring to the part of the ark of the covenant where blood was poured out once a year on the Day of Atonement to atone for the sins of the nation of Israel (Lev. 16; 23:26-33). However, the exact definition of the word in Romans is debated: some argue for expiation, or the removal and cancellation of sin (forgiveness only) (C.H. Dodd), while others think it represents the idea of propitiation more, which is the appeasement of God’s wrath (Leon Morris). Still others think that both concepts can be embodied by the word: God’s wrath was appeased, which had the effect of removing sin and granting forgiveness (the idea behind NIV translation) .
In 1 John 2:2, hilasmos (a cognate noun of hilasterion) is used to explain the relationship between Jesus and sin. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. I don’t think it’s impossible to see this both as Jesus’ death turning aside God’s wrath while also bringing forgiveness for sins. However, because 1 John 1:9 occurs two verses before and outlines confession as a condition for forgiveness, it might be better to see hilasmos here as only referring to propitiation (appeasing God’s wrath) . Therefore, God is no longer angry with the world for the sins of humanity, yet forgiveness and cleansing comes with acknowledgment and confession of sin.
If it is truly the case that God’s wrath against all sin has been appeased (and possibly even forgiven), on what basis will Jesus judge the world? We are often brought up in the church with the idea that God is keeping a ticker of both our sins and our good actions. Certain verses taken out of context and divorced from biblical theology such as Romans 2:6-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:10, lead us to believe that God will weigh our good and bad deeds on some sort of celestial scale on judgment day to determine where we will spend eternity. Even if this is not preached explicitly, it is often communicated implicitly in our actions (and abusive pastors use such concepts to coerce congregations into obedience). However, this is thoroughly a pagan idea and anathema to a Christological understanding of salvation. It is more reminiscent of Islam than anything found in Scripture. Jesus is the way to life and to the Father, not our goodness. On judgment day, I believe that Jesus will be less concerned about our sins – whether we did right or wrong each day of our lives – and more concerned with how we stand in relation to him. Did we believe the good news of the gospel and confess the name of Jesus (Romans 10:9-10)? Were our lives transformed from the inside out as we refocused our eyes, thoughts, hearts, service, passions, and desires to revolve around Christ and reach a lost world with the redemptive and marvelous message of the gospel? We will be judged not for what we did or didn’t do (merit-based salvation), but on whether we knew Jesus. Judgment will be thoroughly relational; those who rejected Jesus will be those who are condemned. Such rejection of the God who sacrificed himself to save those who were in enmity against him will be the ultimate act of selfishness, pride, and rebellion against that God and thus quite worthy of condemnation.
Such an understanding of judgment makes good sense of 1 John 2:2. If all the sins of the world have been atoned for and God’s wrath satisfied, then Jesus can’t judge us based on our sins. Instead, he judges us on whether we knew him and were his disciples. He judges us on whether we loved him and obeyed him out of that love. He judges us on whether we loved others and proclaimed the gospel to a needy and watching world. If this is the case, it is not so important that we define every possible way we can sin and try to avoid it in order to gain spiritual perfection, but instead we should ask, “What does it mean to accept Jesus,” and “What does it mean to reject Jesus?”
I won’t focus on the first question of what it means to accept Jesus at the moment, but I believe it is far less complicated than some have made it out to be (see Romans 10:9-10). I want to focus the rest of this blog post on what it means to reject Jesus. The typical idea that comes to the mind of Christians when asked this question is one of the following: to reject that Jesus even existed at all; to reject he was fully human or fully divine (not 100% human and 100% divine, mind you, which is a philosophical and mathematical impossibility); to reject that Jesus died and was raised to life three days later because miracles can’t happen (based on philosophical naturalistic presuppositions); or to deny that his death was sufficient to atone for man’s sins and reconcile man to God. These are the normal concepts of what it means to reject Jesus. But what if it’s possible to reject Jesus in another way? What if it’s possible for those who have believed and who consider themselves Christians to also reject Jesus?
Recently my good friend John was in Denver briefly and I was able to reconnect with him. As good friends often do, we book-swapped (especially since we are both voracious readers). I gave him N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, and he gave me The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel by C.F.W. Walther, a nineteenth century German Lutheran theologian. I started reading it this past weekend and not a dozen pages in I was struck by something Walther says. Walther is in the middle of making some important distinctions between Law and Gospel, saying that the Law promises salvation based on conditions of keeping the Law, which is of course impossible, and thus ultimately condemning (see Lev. 18:5; Lk. 10:25-28). Yet the Gospel promises grace and salvation unconditionally (Rom. 3:22-24; Eph. 2:8-9). Then Walther says this:
A person entering fully into the meaning of this fact [of the promises of the Gospel] must be moved to leap for very joy that these glad tidings have been brought to him. A person who in spite of this message continues to be despondent and muses: “I am an abominable man; there is no forgiveness for me,” does nothing less than reject the Gospel – reject Christ. Though I had committed the grossest sins and had to say with Paul, “I am the chief of sinners”; though I had committed the sin of Judas or the sin of Cain, nevertheless I am to accept the Gospel because it demands nothing of us .
When was the last time you leaped for joy because of the life-giving good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I know that I haven’t for a long time, and I stand convicted. In addition, although I have believed in Christ from the time I was a five year old kiddo, my spiritual journey has traversed valleys of hellish depth and darkness, as well as a few peaks. If anything is true, then it is that I have come to see how deeply sinful, wicked, and even evil I am (or could be). I have a keen sense of my sin and a sensitive conscience, so much so that at times I condemn myself for things outside my control and I continually fall under the power of false guilt. But when I do sin, I find it hard to let go of it. I so easily hate and condemn myself, and I find it hard to experience forgiveness, cleansing, or release from guilt in any tangible way. In my life I can trace to growing up in an abusive church that continually beat me over the head with my sins for twenty years. Breaking free from this kind of discouraging and downcast living has been difficult. I have often felt like a 21st century version of Martin Luther before his conversion, spiritually flogging myself for every misstep or transgression of the Law. However, this past weekend I realized that by beating myself up over my sin and believing that Jesus’ death was insufficient for the me – the chiefest of all chief of sinners – I was in fact rejecting the Gospel itself. I was arrested in my seat as I read. I starred that paragraph in the book and have been ruminating on it ever since.
It seems to me that Satan has numerous ways of tripping Christians up. First, he’ll try to cast doubt over the very fact of Jesus’ existence or the historicity of his death and resurrection. Failing at that, he’ll lie to us and tell us we are too sinful for Christ’s death to accomplish atonement for us. Failing this, he’ll then try to discourage us when we sin by telling us we have to achieve perfect holiness and sinlessness in order to be acceptable to God. Such attacks often leave us verbalizing the gospel accurately, but unable to live it out. This is what Walther was getting at, and is something I have struggled with most of my life.
Does all this mean that obedience isn’t important? Of course not. John states in the very next verse (1 John 2:3) that obedience is an indication that we know Jesus. However, the key thing to understand from this is not that we must obey in order to know Christ, but that knowing him precedes and is the source of our obedience. Indeed, Jesus himself makes it clear that it is those who love him and abide in him who will obey him (John 15:4-5, 9-11). And you only love someone if you know and trust them. And that can only happen if you have a relationship with them. In addition, Jesus says that eternal life itself is to know him and the Father (John 17:3). Therefore, accepting Christ as your savior, friend, and Lord, and having a relationship with him is a necessary precondition to obedience and living less in sin and more as the person God made you to be.
The problem is that we focus so much on sin and obedience (or disobedience) that we are in essence living under Law, continually seeking to meet its every condition while we know that we cannot. So our hearts, our minds, and our consciences continually condemns us. Even as Christians we can despair and believe the Jesus’ death didn’t work for us, or there is no forgiveness left on our behalf (especially if we struggle with habitual sins, areas of bondage, addictions, or feelings of worthlessness). And even if we voice these truths, we certainly don’t always live like it as we wander around defeated and with our heads down. This is rubbish and a lie from the pit of hell. And if we believe and act on it, we are in fact rejecting the very essence of the Gospel and Jesus Christ himself.
I want you to stop thinking about your sins, your shortcomings, your failures, and your worthless feelings and start focusing on Jesus. He has not only defeated sin and mended our alienation from God, but he has conquered death and Hades itself! Have you ever heard of someone defeating death? Jesus did. So sin is nothing to him, and it is nothing to God. It does not stand between you and your Creator for Jesus has crossed that chasm and fixed an unshakable bridge between sinful man and a holy God. If we would spend half the time we do in our churches and in our personal lives focusing on sin and instead invest the time in cultivating a knowledge and relationship with Jesus, we would be well on our way to more fully living, embracing, and reflecting the Gospel.
Here’s another reason why I don’t think God wants you to spend a long time downcast and discouraged over your sin. In the previous paragraph of 1 John, John say that If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (v. 9). This is a familiar verse, but it’s amazing! In order to be forgiven all we have to do is confess our sins? What? No sacrifice, no prostrating worship, no giving a year’s income or something? This is a free gift and is unknown among world religions, past and present. What’s also amazing about this verse is that it is just for God to forgive us, primarily because Jesus’ death was a just sacrifice to atone for our sins. If Jesus had died, but we could not now confess and be forgiven, that would be silly. It is a good and just thing that our sins be forgiven because Jesus died for them in order to purchase you back from death and condemnation. And what does God require in order for us to be forgiven? Only that we confess! How long does it take to confess sin? Five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes if we stretch it out. But it can’t possibly consume that much of our time. Of course, it shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the point is that if we are faithful to confess our sins, forgiveness and cleansing from those sins is readily available and it doesn’t take months or years of hard work.
Finally, I would say that in order to have a balanced perspective between the soberness of sin on the one hand and freedom from its condemnation and burden on the other, we must remember that it is our sin that sent Jesus to the cross. It is sobering to think that he died for you and your transgressions, which stirred God’s wrath, which demanded a just payment. Yet we can now rejoice that Jesus actually did it, and he purchased our freedom, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God so that we no longer have to live in the darkness of our sin, either by committing it or being downcast over it when we stumble.
Disclaimer: Granted this is only a blog post and not a formal paper or dissertation on this topic (although that would be fun to do!). Plus, I know that this is quite a debated issue (limited atonement and 1 John 2:2 in particular). I haven’t done a biblical theological study on this, nor have I read many extrabibilcal scholarly resources (just a couple). But I thought I’d put my thoughts and beliefs down on paper at this point and perhaps it will not only clarify things for me, but also promote discussion. I don’t have the last word on this issue, and I know I still have much to learn.
 I am indebted to Dr. Craig Blomberg for most of this information which is taken from his book From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts Through Revelation (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 485-489.
 Again, see Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos, 243. Also, Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 98-104.
 The distinction between expiation and propitiation in 1 John 2:2 and the relationship with 1 John 1:9 is still shaky in my mind. Can the appeasement of God’s wrath be distinguished from forgiveness of sins, or must they go together? Is forgiveness a latent force until we confess, only then being applied? Is confession for our benefit only (experiencing forgiveness and cleansing), or does it release God to forgive us (before confession God being unwilling to forgive). Or has everyone already been forgive and confession simply makes that reality a tangible experience? Also, 1 John 1:9 is an interesting conundrum of a verse in and of itself because it almost seems to place conditions on God’s faithfulness, which clearly is not dependent on us at all. Many questions surround these issues that need to be explored in depth.