In my previous article I spoke of the fact that Christ laid down His life for His sheep. In answer to Daane’s question, What does a repentant sinner believe? the answer is: he believes in Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for His sheep. He embraces Christ as His personal Savior, and experiences His power to forgive sins, to feed his hungry soul with the Bread of life and to give him life eternal. In faith he surrenders himself to that Lord with his whole being for time and for eternity. And what does the unbeliever reject, if there is not a “God loves you, Christ died for you;” to reject? That is, what does he reject when he hears the gospel of a particular atonement? He rejects the Christ of the Scriptures. He wants nothing of Him, because he does not want to leave his sins, which he still cherishes in his heart. He hates God and he rejects God’s Christ. He joins the wicked throng to cry out, “Away with this One, crucify Him!” Isn’t that exactly what even modern theology is doing today?
That immediately raises the question, but what about those passages of Scripture that apparently speak of a universal atonement?
There are particularly three such passages that we should consider, since they all have this in common, that they speak of the atoning death of Christ for the whole world.
There is, first of all, that ever familiar and often quoted passage of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
And there is the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus in John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
And there is also the message of the apostle John concerning Him in I John 2:2, “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Ever since the Arminian controversy of the early seventeenth century, these verses have been used to prove a “Christus pro omnibus,” a Christ for all. John 3:16is taken to mean that God loves all men without exception. God’s love is so great that it excludes no one. Christ died for all. And now it is God’s desire that no one should perish, but that every individual upon the earth should accept Christ, believe the gospel and receive eternal life.
This interpretation is so commonly accepted, that it is considered inconceivable that there could be any other interpretation of this passage. It has been repeated so often, that no one even stops to consider that it might be wrong, in fact, that it might be very superficial and a gross corruption of the text. For that it is. John 3:16 is indeed a “Gospel in miniature”, but then it must also be a true miniature of the gospel of the Scriptures.
1. Notice, “God so loved.” God’s love can never be compared to human love, since, at best, our love is but a creaturely reflection of the divine. God loves as God. Therefore God’s love is holy, for God is holy. God’s love is righteous, for God is righteous. God’s love is sovereign and unchangeable, even efficacious, as God is sovereign and unchangeable.
2. “God so loved.” We so readily overlook the fact that Scripture itself teaches us that love is the bond of perfectness. Love unites two perfect objects. Sin always interferes and disrupts that bond of perfectness. How evident that becomes in the intimate relationship of husband and wife. How readily distrust, suspicion, bitterness, strife enter in to threaten that bond of love in marriage. How much more that must be true of the love of God. How can God love a sinful, foul, corrupt world? He must turn away from it in holy revulsion. He seeks, yearns after, and draws to Himself that which is in harmony with His own glorious perfection and shows forth His praises.
3. “God so loved.” This ‘so’ can and evidently does refer both to the extent as well as to the manner of God’s love. But then let us beware that we do not limit the extent of that love to mere man, who is but a speck of dust. Even if we were to include all humanity to stress the extent of God’s love, we would still be limiting it. It took an infinite love to bear the burden of God’s wrath in perfect obedience and merit for us eternal life. The debt of our sin against the Most High Majesty of God had to be paid! God’s justice had to be satisfied. Only an infinite love could atone. Nothing else could save us.
Such was therefore also the manner of God’s love, that He spared not, but gave His only begotten Son as a ransom for our sins. God’s blood was shed on Golgotha. (Acts 20:28). Nothing less would do.
4. In that light we can also understand the term ‘world’ in the assurance, “For God so loved the world.” The word ‘kosmos’ is used which always refers to a beautiful, harmonious whole, a complete unity. Sometimes Scripture speaks of the entire creation as the ‘worlds’ which were formed by God. Sometimes Scripture speaks of the ‘world’ of wickedness, which we as people of God must not love. How can we love that which God hates? In that case, Scripture refers to the organic unity of a sinful human race (the people of God excluded) which finds its beauty, its harmony and unity in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” That world is in the process of passing away under the righteous judgment of God. You certainly would not want to speak of that world as including every individual, nor is that possible.
But Scripture also speaks of the harmonious unity of God’s elect in Christ, including the entire creation as it is redeemed and will be glorified with Him. Eternally God sees His Son as the Firstborn among many brethren, Who is given the ends of the earth as His possession, and Who is Lord of lords forever. In that great Day of days we shall see that beautiful, harmonious unity of the new creation as centered in Christ and His Church, which is His Body. From that world the reprobate are excluded. The Vine is purged, the dead branches are broken off and burned. John 15:1, 2. That is the ‘world’ of John 3:16.
5. That love for the world motivated God in giving His only Begotten Son, for the very purpose that “whosoever believeth (all those who believe—as in the Greek) in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” That purpose is also realized. God’s love is never spurned. For faith is the gift of God. And God unites His beloved elect to Christ by the bond of living faith. He draws them from “this present, evil world” into living fellowship with Christ. They have everlasting life. No one can take that from them. No one can separate them from that unchanging love that He has spread abroad in their hearts.
The same truth is witnessed by John the Baptist in John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
1. John had been preaching in the wilderness for about a year. He, had told his listeners that the time was at hand that all prophecy would reach its fulfillment. The promised Christ was about to appear. Therefore John called the people to repentance, and as many as repented waited in eager anticipation for the promised Messiah.
2. And then the day arrived that Jesus stood among them. No one recognized Him in His lowly state of humiliation, but John knew Him, because God had declared it unto him. And so John spoke of the One Who stood among them, whom they did not know, but Who was so much greater than John, that John was not worthy to be His lowliest servant. The next day Jesus was approaching John, evidently walking alone, and then John pointed Him out to his audience declaring: “Behold, there He is.”
3. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit John described Him as “the Lamb of God,” the fulfillment of all the types and shadows of the old dispensation. He is God’s Lamb, slain from before the foundation of the world, and now sent to bring the great sacrifice for the sins of His people.
4. John even sees Him as the One Who fully accomplishes that work entrusted to Him by the Father. He does not attempt to take away sin. He does not hope to take away the sin of the world. He does not open the way that the sin of the world may be taken away. He very actually takes away the sin of the world. He takes that entire load of sin on His mighty shoulders, the entire burden of our guilt and wrath, and bears it in torments of hell, until the entire burden of sin has been borne away.
5. But again, no one has the right to interpret the term ‘world’ here as if it includes all mankind without exception. This again is the world of God’s elect, as it is eternally given to Christ, of which He is the representative Head, and for which He dies. It is that entire organism of the elect; only the reprobate are excluded.
6. Nor does anyone have the right to make a distinction here, as if Christ died redemptively for all, but that this is effectual only for some. Since Christ died redemptively for the sin of the world, the entire burden of guilt is borne away, the entire debt is paid, the right to eternal life is merited, and the world is saved. Let every one who seeks his salvation in that perfect Lamb of God rest assured that though his sins are as scarlet they have been made as white as snow through the atoning blood of Golgotha.
That leaves no problem as far as I John 2:2 is concerned. There the apostle writes, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous. And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
1. John speaks of a propitiation. Christ gave his life as a sacrifice for sin, in order to satisfy God’s justice and reconcile His people with God. He bore away the wrath of God to restore us into covenant fellowship with God. That is the idea of propitiation.
2. That same Christ is now in heaven as the Advocate, and High Priest of those same persons for whom He died. He intercedes for them on the basis of His meritorious death of the cross. And God also hears Him, so that God regards that people as holy and righteous in Christ, worthy of all the blessings ‘of salvation, even of eternal life. They are righteous forever in Jesus Christ, the Righteous. Therefore God bestows on them all the blessings that Christ has merited for them. Even as they are reconciled to God, they are also regenerated, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.
3. That applies to “us”, John says. He is writing to the early church shortly after Pentecost. Many members of that church were of Jewish origin, and therefore he may very well have been referring to the church as it emerged out of the old dispensation. In that case, the ‘world’ to which he refers is the church of the new dispensation as it is now being gathered out of all the nations of the earth in distinction from the Jews.
But “us” also has a personal application. John had written to them as “My little children”, urging them not to sin. But he had also added that very personal assurance, so necessary for all of us, that when we sin, we need not despair, nor continue in sin. We have forgiveness, which has been accomplished for us more than nineteen hundred years ago. We also have our Advocate in heaven, Who intercedes for us in the basis of His death on the cross. He has reconciled us to God, and not only us, but the whole church universal, the whole world that was given to Christ by the Father.
4. In that confidence we confess “an holy, catholic church,” gathered, defended and preserved by the Son of God Himself by His Word and Spirit. What is more, we believe, “that I am and forever shall remain a living member of that church.”
Let no man take that glorious and blessed assurance from you. For this is the gospel which through the Scriptures is preached to you.