This article is a part of an extended series of articles. If a particular statement seems to be lacking sufficient support or clarification, we encourage you to go back and read the previous articles, as well as commit to reading the following articles as they are published. Thank you for your patience.
1 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. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 John 2:1-2
The Apostle John is combating the false teachers of his day who were saying that they had no sin. John says that they are deceiving themselves and making God out to be a liar because no person will ever reach sinless perfection in this life. However, John does not want his readers to conclude that the Christian life should be characterized by sin. So before he writes, “If anyone sins…” in the second half of verse 1 of our text, he clarifies by writing, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” in the first half of verse 1 of our text. Every genuine Christian will experience an ongoing battle with sin, but every genuine Christian will also possess an earnest desire to live a life that is pleasing to Jesus by continually striving to resist sin.
“Every genuine Christian will experience an ongoing battle with sin, but every genuine Christian will also possess an earnest desire to live a life that is pleasing to Jesus by continually striving to resist sin.”
In the first two verses of our text, John uses two terms to describe the person and work of Jesus Christ in the gospel: 1) Jesus is our “advocate,” and 2) Jesus is the “propitiation” for our sins. The word “advocate” refers to one who is called alongside to help, especially in a court of law. John says that Jesus is our advocate in heaven, “with the Father.” John is saying that Jesus is always before the Father. When we sin, Satan, the great accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10), charges us as guilty sinners before the holy God. When this happens, Jesus Christ, our advocate, approaches the bench to make our defense. Christ does not enter a plea of “not guilty” on our behalf. That would not be true. Although Satan is the father of lies, his accusations against us are not false accusations. So instead of arguing for our innocence , Jesus enters a plea of “guilty” on our behalf. However, Christ then proceeds to argue for our full pardon on the basis of his finished sacrifice because he has already paid the penalty for our sin in full by his substitutionary death on the cross. Therefore, although all Christians are truly guilty of sin, they are not liable to receive the ultimate penalty for their sins.
The word “propitiation” was used in ancient pagan writings to refer to the appeasing of an angry god, usually by the use of a sacrifice or offering. If a person did something to offend one of the gods, they would be required to do something to satiate this god's wrath. Certainly, we should reject any idea of God being angry in a fickle human sense, but we cannot do away with the biblical concept of God's wrath. The Scripture clearly reveals that God possesses a righteous hatred and holy opposition to all sin. The difference between the pagan concept of a propitiation and the biblical concept is that in the gospel, it is not man who takes the initiative to satiate God's wrath toward sin. Rather, God takes the initiative to satisfy his own wrath.
“Certainly, we should reject any idea of God being angry in a fickle human sense, but we cannot do away with the biblical concept of God's wrath.”
Many fear that if all of our sins are completely covered by God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice, people might be tempted to take advantage of this grace by licentious sinning. These people then sprinkle in the need for good works as a hedge for God’s grace, in order to protect it from being abused. This is one of the many errors of Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism teaches that “If anyone says that after he has sinned, he may recover right standing with God by faith alone, without the sacrament of penance, he is anathema [eternally cursed]” (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 29). However, this doctrine is a great offense to the God of mercy. It is an enemy of the true gospel of salvation which is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone.
“Roman Catholic doctrine is a great offense to the God of mercy.”
In the second half of verse 2 of our text, John says that Jesus is the propitiation “not for our [sins] only, but also for those of the whole world.” This little phrase has sparked quite the theological controversy. Those who oppose the Reformed (Calvinistic) view of salvation say that this verse refutes the doctrine of “limited atonement” (that Christ died only for the elect). However, Calvinists rightly respond by pointing out that this verse cannot mean that Christ actually satisfied God’s wrath on behalf of each and every person, or else everyone would be saved. Scripture is clear that the wrath of God abides (remains) on those who do not obey Jesus (John 3:36). Thus, in this particular context, the “whole world” refers to God’s elect children from among every tribe, tongue, and nation.
“And they sang 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 (Revelation 5:9).”
One final note worth mentioning is this: Notice that John does not say, “If we confess our sins, we have an advocate.” Instead, John says, “If anyone sins, we have an advocate.” If we truly belong to Jesus, he is there before the Father, pleading for our pardon on the basis of his shed blood, before we ever confess our sins. And this is incredibly good news.
1) Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross in order to purchase the possibility of salvation for all, or to guarantee salvation for some? Which Scriptures would you reference to support your view?
2) Do you understand why Jesus had to be put forward as a propitiation? Do you see God's wrath toward sin as just and good? How would you explain this to someone who objects to the wrath of God?
3) What is the motivation behind your obedience to God? Are you attempting to make up for your past sins? Or, are you simply motivated by gratitude because you believe the sacrifice of Christ is sufficient for all your sins?
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