Whole Counsel Theology

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sermon Review Part the Last: The term "World" and the Atonement

I've decided that there will be but one last post in this series, and then perhaps I'll go on to posting other things, hoping to bring glory to God in them as well as this, and that the people of God would be encouraged by them.

You can find the first post in the series here. Sadly, the .mp3 file for the message I've been reviewing is no longer available because my free file server has bitten the dust it would seem, but you can run through the posts in the series if you look at my archives over the past few months.

In any case, there are two statements and a lot of Scriptures that I'd like to address in this final post, so expect it to be long. You might want to grab a Coke and some popcorn. :) I'll quote one statement, address it, and then the other and spend some time there. So, on I go, and may God be glorified!

Statement #1:
There are books out there, there are teachers out there, that say "world" doesn't mean everybody. In the Greek it does!

I find this to be a very interesting statement, and if taken at face value it seems to be misleading. I'll explain.

Surely, the word "world" (Greek: kosmos) can in fact mean "everybody." What the statement I quoted from my former pastor could be saying is that the people he referred to are saying that it never means everybody. I hope that wasn't his intention, because it wouldn't be accurate. Reformed people such as myself readily agree that the word "world" can and does mean every single person at times, though if we are honest with the Bible and the contexts in which that word is found, we'll readily discover that this is not the only meaning of the word. Good Greek dictionaries also tell us this. Strong's Greek Dictionary, for example, defines kosmos this way (emphasis mine):
[an] orderly arrangement, that is, decoration; by implication the world (in a wide or narrow sense, including its inhabitants, literally or figuratively [morally]): - adorning, world.

Strong makes it clear; the word can be used in a wide OR narrow sense, referring to the inhabitants of the world in such a way. It can also be used in a figurative sense.

Thayer's Greek Dictionary tells us similar things, but is more thorough:
1) an apt and harmonious arrangement or constitution, order, government
2) ornament, decoration, adornment, i.e. the arrangement of the stars, ‘the heavenly hosts’, as the ornament of the heavens. 1Pe_3:3
3) the world, the universe
4) the circle of the earth, the earth
5) the inhabitants of the earth, men, the human family
6) the ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ
7) world affairs, the aggregate of things earthly
7a) the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments riches, advantages, pleasures, etc, which although hollow and frail and fleeting, stir desire, seduce from God and are obstacles to the cause of Christ
8) any aggregate or general collection of particulars of any sort
8a) the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (Rom_11:12 etc)
8b) of believers only, Joh_1:29; Joh_3:16; Joh_3:17; Joh_6:33; Joh_12:47 1Co_4:9; 2Co_5:19

As you can see, Thayer includes a lot of definitions for the term, many of which have nothing to do with people. Interestingly, he also makes reference to several passages in his eighth definition which limit the use of the word to believers only. I'm not convinced of all of his examples, but my main point seems to be proven: The word "world" (kosmos) is NOT always used to refer to "every single individual on the planet," and it would appear that, more often than not, it is used in a more narrow sense. There are a few examples from Scripture that I wanted to look at specifically[1]:
Romans 11:12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

In the context here, it would seem that the term is being used to contrast Jews to Gentiles to some extent. In fact, this is a common use of the word, and I would argue that John does so frequently in his writings (yes, I'll address 1 John 2:2 in a bit). One example of John's clear use of the term meaning something other than "every person" is found in chapter twelve:
John 12:19 So the Pharisees said to one another, "You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him."

Here the Pharisees have noticed that a lot of people were following Jesus, and many were telling of the wonders He was performing. The Pharisees were irritated about this, and then made the above quoted statement. Now, they used the term "world" in what they said -- do they mean "every single person?" Of course not! For one, they themselves were not following after him, so they were excluded. Secondly, not everyone else in the world other than the Pharisees were following Him -- there were parts of the world that hadn't even heard of Jesus at that time! Thirdly, not even everyone in the city was following Him there, as the reference for world is the large crowd, and not every city resident (from which, again, the Pharisees would be excluded). So, here we see the term "world" being applied to people, but in a narrow sense, meaning a group of people less than the whole of the world's population.
1 John 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (16) For all that is in the world--the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions--is not from the Father but is from the world.

Wow, John really used the word a lot here. He tells us not to love the world -- but this cannot mean "every single person" here. The reason is a command from Jesus over in Matthew 5. We are commanded to love our enemies, and of course elsewhere are admonished to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Given those two biblical mandates, John cannot be meaning world in the sense of everyone in those verses in 1 John 2. Rather, he is meaning Thayer's definition #7 that I mentioned above; John is telling us to avoid things in the world that will seduce us from devotion to the One True God, and not to love them. Very clearly we have an example then of the term "world" (kosmos) that does NOT mean "all people everywhere." One more example (though there are many others) before I continue on:
Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

Here we must understand that the term is being used figuratively or we have errors in our Bible. The decree didn't reach the Americas, for example. Nor did the people of China register to pay taxes to Caesar. Rather, what Luke was trying to tell us is that the entire Roman world should be registered. So here, we have a use of the term that means a collection of people, and not every single person.

I have to conclude then that my former pastor omitted important information about the term "world" from the message he preached that I've been reviewing now for some time. Far too much confusion can result from what he said if more information about the term is not presented.

Statement #2
There are words out there, folks, that say "not for everybody." There are words out there that say "select." If Jesus meant to die only for the select and the elect, then why didn't He say so?

First, it is important to note that the fact that other words exist that can communicate those meanings is largely irrelevant. For example, other commonly employed terms in our modern vernacular are readily available to assist readers to ascertain my meanings in this post....than the ones I used in this sentence. :) Just because other words exist does NOT mean that the biblical writers had to use them. The Holy Spirit inspired them to use those particular terms, and it behooves us to know the full range of meaning for said terms, both literal and figurative, so that we can determine the correct understanding for any word in its given context.

Second, Jesus DID in fact say that He died for only a select group of people, and they were in fact the elect. In John 10 we read the following:
John 10:14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, (15) just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (16) And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Here we clearly see that Jesus said that He lays His life down for the sheep. These are the same who know Him, the same who will listen to His voice. The ones who will listen to His voice are the elect; no one else will do so. So then, the sheep are equated with the elect, and those who are not the sheep do not receive salvific benefit[2] from Jesus laying down His life.

Of course, I would immediately have an objector who would say something along the lines of, "Wait! This passage says that Jesus lays His life down for the sheep. Sure, those are the elect, but it doesn't say that He didn't do it for someone else. Just because one is included does not immediately mean that another is excluded." Such a person would also be correct; I have not supported my premise with only that passage. However, context is a beautiful thing, and in using it, we do indeed establish the exclusivity of Christ's death for His chosen sheep. Let's read on a bit later in the chapter:
John 10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." (25) Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, (26) but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. (27) My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (28) I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (29) My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. (30) I and the Father are one."

Ah... now we get to the heart of the matter. This is a LOT like what Jesus said back in John 6 about the people who didn't follow him; ultimately, the reason that they did not was because they were not of those given to Him by the Father.

Further, who are those who will hear His voice? The sheep. Who are they who will follow Him and get eternal life and never perish? The only answer is that the sheep, and the sheep only get this eternal life. Does anyone else get eternal life? I don't know of any Christian who would say so. Yet, when we use this same passage where it teaches that Jesus lays down His life for the sheep, we try to say that some who are not sheep get the benefit of that! The laying down of His life that Jesus speaks of here culminates in eternal life for those for whom His life was given. That requires us, if we are to be consistent with this biblical passage, to believe that Jesus only gave His life salvifically for the sheep, the elect, all of whom will come to Him and be saved. For this to happen, His life had to be a propitiation for them as well, a satisfaction and substitute for the wrath of God against sinners, so that all for whom Christ died no longer have God's wrath on them eternally. Jesus took it upon Himself. This is why Substitutionary Atonement is such an important doctrine.

Yet, I do know that there is one further objection to such a statement[3], and I will address it here briefly.
1 John 2:2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Someone might say, "Ah hah! There is that word "propitiation" and it is being applied to the world! What you say then cannot be true!"
This fails to take into account the multiple meanings of the term "world" as I mentioned above in this article, first of all. Second, it fails to take into account the Double Jeopardy argument that I think was introduced nicely by John Owen[4] over 300 years ago. The Elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis have restated it in modern language in one of their theological documents. I've quoted the relevant part here:
One of the most crucial texts on this issue is Romans 8:32. It is one of the most precious promises for God's people in all the Bible. Paul says, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?"

The crucial thing to see here is how Paul bases the certainty of our inheritance on the death of Christ. He says, "God will most certainly give you all things because he did not spare his own Son but gave him up for you." What becomes of this precious argument if Christ is given for those who do not in fact receive all things but instead are lost? The argument vanishes.

If God gave his own Son for unbelievers who in the end are lost, then he cannot say that the giving of the Son guarantees "all things" for the those for whom he died. But this is what he does say! If God gave his Son for you, then he most certainly will give you all things. The structure of Paul's thought here is simply destroyed by introducing the idea that Christ died for all men in the same way.

We can conclude this section with the following summary argument. Which of these statements is true?

1. Christ died for some of the sins of all men.

2. Christ died for all the sins of some men.

3. Christ died for all the sins of all men.

No one says that the first is true, for then all would be lost because of the sins that Christ did not die for. The only way to be saved from sin is for Christ to cover it with his blood.

The third statement is what the Arminians would say. Christ died for all the sins of all men. But then why are not all saved? They answer, Because some do not believe. But is this unbelief not one of the sins for which Christ died? If they say yes, then why is it not covered by the blood of Jesus and all unbelievers saved? If they say no (unbelief is not a sin that Christ has died for) then they must say that men can be saved without having all their sins atoned for by Jesus, or they must join us in affirming statement number two: Christ died for all the sins of some men. That is, he died for the unbelief of the elect so that God's punitive wrath is appeased toward them and his grace is free to draw them irresistibly out of darkness into his marvelous light.

To that I say, AMEN! However, it doesn't completely address the issue of who the "world" is in 1 John 2:2. Simply saying it is contrasting Jews and Gentiles here doesn't quite cut it. Surely the thoughts of the two groups of people are included in John's meaning, but there is more than that.

The answer comes when we compare this verse to another passage in John's writings, John 11:51-52.
John 11:51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, (52) and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Evan May of the TriaBlogue team wrote this article a while back and includes a wonderful discussion of the relation between the two texts. I have included the relevant part:
Notice the parallel:

1 John 2:2
He Himself
is the propitiation for
our sins
and not for ours only
but also
the world

John 11:51-52
he prophesied that
would die for
the nation
and not for the nation only
but also
that He would gather together in one
the children of God scattered abroad

Who, then, is the world? The children of God scattered abroad. Jesus didn’t just die for Jews but Gentiles as well (ethical distinction), not just for those in Asia Minor but from every nation (geographical distinction), not just for those who lived in the 1st century but for all ages to come (time-age-related distinction). In short, with his blood he redeemed a church “from every tongue and tribe and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).

There it is for all who wish to see. THAT is the proper understanding of the word "world" in 1 John 2:2. Truly, the more important word is "propitiation," and if there wasn't so much emotional baggage attached to the word "world" in modern evangelicalism, there would likely be better exegesis of this verse.

Anyway, so ends my sermon review series. May God use it to honor His Name and build up His church.

1. Once again, all Scripture I cite in this and every post on my blog will come from the ESV Bible version unless otherwise noted.

2. I am fully aware of (and agree with) the theological statements that there were many things that God intended in the death of Christ, such as providing common grace. However, the Atonement itself was limited to the elect, which this passage teaches.

3. OK, there are likely many further objections, but the most common one appears to be 1 John 2:2, so that is what I'll address here.

4. There have been those who have said Dr. John Owen's argument is lacking. I've read some of those objections, but have not been swayed by them. If you are curious as to what some of them are, please feel free either to comment here in this post about them or email me. :)

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  • DH,

    Well done Sir. I may just have to link to this Blog.


    I have sent this post to my pastor. Hopefully we'll hear an opinion. I sent him an email dealing with 1John 2:2. Though I mainly dealt the text itself (I like to try to demonstrate from a specific text first its own meaning). You, however, give a much broader view and this post is very helpful. Wish I was skilled enough to have written it.

    God Bless

    By Anonymous Howard, at Friday, February 16, 2007 10:14:00 AM  

  • Nothing original, brother. Just wanting to show the proper understanding of the Word of God where He has given me a small measure of understanding.


    By Blogger David B. Hewitt, at Friday, February 16, 2007 5:40:00 PM  

  • My dear friend,

    Good post. You covered a lot ground, but if I may, I can give you another argument related to what you've been saying.

    I may have missed it, or you may have addressed it in another post, but another good point to make is that reformed soteriology does not even require that the word "World" in John 3:16 be taken in the restricted sense. The limitation on those who are saved is not emphasized in the word world, but in the limiting phrase "whoever believes." I believe that Tom Schreiner holds that in John 3:16 "world" does mean everyone. And the reason is what I've just stated.

    By Blogger jfile, at Saturday, February 17, 2007 11:37:00 PM  

  • Hey, Jerad:

    As far as the term is concerned in John 3:16, it may well be that it is an a restricted sense rather than the restricted sense. My impression is that it is used there by John to refer to what some call "all without distinction" or the "peoples" of the world, Jews and Gentiles you might say.

    James White's open letter response to Dave Hunt, located here, explains it quite nicely.


    By Blogger David B. Hewitt, at Sunday, February 18, 2007 10:33:00 PM  

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