|Was Jesus sacrificed for the world?
I AM REVEALED
Mar 14 2011
A second group of texts comprises passages of Scripture which seem to suggest that the Lord Jesus was crucified not
just for the church, but for the whole world. A careful examination of these passages shows that what the verses do in
fact say is that the Father gave his Son not just for those who belong to the Jewish race, but for people from across the
whole world without distinction. The Father gave his Son not for all without exception, but for Jew and Gentile alike, for
all nations without any distinction whatever.
The passages in question, however, are often quoted in isolation, without being considered as a whole. It will be useful
therefore to examine them in greater detail. We also include several passages which godly people who have been
influenced by this erroneous teaching tend to quote. Let me again state that they do so because they want to be faithful
to what they find in Scripture, and not in any way out of a desire to undermine other passages where divine election is
Before going further, it is both right and necessary to repeat that the Christian who has been influenced by this incorrect
teaching claims that while he believes that the Saviour died for every descendant of Adam, he also believes in divine
election. According to him, Christ accomplished the work of salvation for the whole world, for all men, for every sinner
without exception. Thus the Saviour is understood to have died for every single son of Adam. And yet only the elect
derive any benefit from Christ’s death. He provided general redemption, for all, but it applies only to the elect for they
alone desire it. So all who willingly reject and despise salvation are justly deprived of it.
That is how some Christians, who without doubt submit to the righteousness of God, express themselves. I must confess
that I am quite unable to understand their notion of a redemption which on the one hand has been accomplished, and
perfectly accomplished at that, and yet ends up as incomplete. The reasoning behind the position I have just presented
seems to me to resemble that of a child who without reflecting says the first thing that enters his head. And yet, however
much I consider it to be impossible to reconcile divine election and universal atonement, my desire is to respond
graciously and gently to those of my fellow Christians who make such peculiar statements. That being so, by comparing
according to the analogy of faith the various texts they advance in support of their doctrine,' I want to help them to come
to a deeper understanding of these texts so that they might see that the position they hold is both illogical and fanciful.
They claim that the Saviour was offered for the world, the whole world, without exception. They maintain that passages
such as the following explicitly state that the Father gave this Son Jesus for the whole human race.
In John 3:16, Jesus says quite clearly that ‘God so loved the world’, and not just certain individuals in the world. It is
clear, then, that he gave his Son for the whole world.
John 4:42 records the testimony of Samaritan believers that Jesus is ‘the Saviour of the world’, not just of one people.
In John 1:29, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, pointing to Jesus declared that he, the Lamb of God, would
‘[take] away the sin of the world’, not just the sin of a portion of humanity chosen by God.
In John 6:32, Jesus unequivocally establishes the fact that he alone is the living bread who ‘gives life to the world’ (verse
33), and that it is for the world, and not just for a certain class of people, that he will give himself.
Second Corinthians 5:19 informs us that in Christ God was reconciling ‘the world to himself’, not just certain families in
Finally, I John 2:2 declares that ‘[Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole
world’. John makes it abundantly clear that it was not just for some, but for the whole human race that he died.
These are the arguments and this is the evidence that my friend offers in support of his view on the atonement. Let me
state what I believe to be the true meaning of these passages. I leave it to him to decide which is correct.
What the texts do not say
First of all, we note that these passages do not say that through the death of his son, God made atonement for the sins
of the world in the sense that they have been cleansed, or taken away, so that sin no longer exists in the world. In fact
Scripture clearly states that the world, the whole world even, is at present ‘under the sway of the wicked one’ (I John 5:
Nor do the texts teach that Jesus, ‘the Saviour of the world ‘, has given life or eternal life to this world, for Scripture goes
on to make clear that ‘all that is in the world’ is perishing and will pass away (I John 2:15-17).
Lastly, these verses do not say that the world as such enjoys peace with God and the blessing of union with him through
the reconciling power of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, with regard to the Holy Spirit, Scripture affirms that the world
‘cannot receive [him], because it neither sees him nor knows him’ (John 14:17).
Now these passages do not in any way teach that Jesus actually, effectually, saved the world, the whole of mankind, and
that the whole human race is reconciled to him, and lives under his benign loving smile and good-pleasure. This is most
certainly not what they teach.
What the texts do say
Let us now see what the various passages actually do teach. In our attempt to understand the texts we will consider
them in the light of their particular contexts, and according to the analogy of faith – that is, in the light of the whole body
of Christian teaching.
In John 3:16, Jesus is in conversation with a Jew, a man accustomed to believing that the oracles of God belong, and will
always belong, to one nation alone, the Jews. All the other nations of the world apart from Israel were considered to be
neither the people of God nor the beloved of God, to the point indeed that God was believed to have abandoned them
under the darkness of the shadow of death. Nicodemus, a leading Jewish teacher, placed enormous importance on this
nationality and its privileged position. In particular, he believed that eternal salvation belonged to the Jews by right.
It is for this reason that the Saviour tells him straight away that the external privileges which the Jews enjoyed were not
only precarious, but were henceforth abolished. Far from possessing salvation on the sole grounds that he is a Jew, on
the contrary, a man must be recreated, he must be born again by the Holy Spirit, in order to obtain it. Jesus wants to
help this Jewish teacher to a better understanding of the fact that he has not come into the world for Israel alone, but for
all nations without exception. He tells Nicodemus therefore that just as the sight of the bronze snake in the desert
healed whoever looked at it, so God has now manifest his love to all the peoples of the world without distinction. God
gave his only Son not just for members of the Jewish race, as he did the law of Moses, but for people from around the
whole world, irrespective of their nationality. Well then, from now on, whoever believes in Jesus, whether he be
Samaritan, Greek, Roman, African or whatever, belongs to the people of God, and through Jesus possesses
That is why Christ declares directly to this Jewish doctor what the apostle Paul wrote subsequently to the Galatians and
the Ephesians. The blessing of Abraham now extends to the Gentiles (the world), since Christ has demolished the
barrier, ‘the dividing wall of hostility’, which separated them. Those who until then had been alienated were ‘brought near
by the blood of Christ' (Ephesians 2:13). So then, people in every nation of the world, irrespective of whether they are
Jews or Gentiles, great or small, cultured or uncultured, all may hear the gospel invitation and receive the right to
believe in Christ and have life through him.
In John 4:42 we see that this is what Samaritans came to understand and to rejoice in. Samaritans were despised,
rejected and hated by the Jews, even to the point where the name Samaritan was used as an expression of all that was
vile and cursed by God (John 8:48). Already a Samaritan woman scorned by the Jews had caught a glimpse of Jesus’
Messiahship and had published it abroad in her town. But now those who heard Jesus came to a much greater
understanding of these things. Illuminated by the light of truth in Christ, they came to understand not only that Christ is
the Saviour, but the Saviour of all nations, as much for the despised Samaritans as for the Jews. They rejoiced to see in
Jesus the Saviour of the whole world. This in effect is what they declare to the Samaritan woman, confessing that Jesus
is the true Messiah who has come for all peoples of the whole wide world, and not uniquely for the Jewish nation. If
Jerusalem now has a Saviour, it is equally true of Samaria!
It is for this reason that the man sent to prepare the way of the Lord, and to walk before God in the spirit and power of
Elijah (Malachi 3:1; Luke 1:17), John the Baptist, testified of the Messiah that he was truly God manifest in flesh (John 1:
29). Christ is this true Lamb of God who takes away sin, not just the sin of the Jews (who alone had the prefiguration or
type of Christ in the Passover lamb), but the sin of the whole world, to whom the true Lamb has been sent.
The universal reign of Christ was foretold over and over again by the prophets throughout the period of Old Testament
history. Jacob, when on his death-bed, spoke of the coming of the one bearing the scepter, to whom would belong
power to rule over the nations (Genesis 49:10). Moses cried out , ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with this people!’ (Deuteronomy
32:43). Balaam, David, Isaiah and all the men of God who followed them contemplated and pointed forward to the
coming of him whom they described as the star which would come out of Jacob, the scepter who would rise out of Israel,
who would enlighten and subdue the nations of the earth (Numbers 24:17). They had written, ‘All the ends of the world
shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you’ (Psalm 22:27). And
again, ‘It is too small a thing that you [Christ] should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the
preserved ones of Israel. I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be my salvation to the ends of the
earth’ (Isaiah 49:6). And so, through him, the living water coming out from under the threshold of the temple becomes a
great river with a large number of trees growing on either side. This torrent brings to life everything it encounters along
its path (Ezekiel 47:1-9). On the day when ‘the Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings’ (Malachi 4:2),
no place on earth, from east to west, will fail to have light (Psalm 19:6).
However, it was to John the Baptist, whom Christ described as the greatest among those ever to be born of woman, that
the great privilege was given of proclaiming openly this global and universal dimension to the Messiah’s mission. And
so, after declaring that his own mission was to baptize with water, not with the Holy Spirit, he described Jesus as truly the
Saviour whom a prophet had called ‘the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight’ (John 1:25,29; Malachi 3:1).
But did John the Baptist not declare that the Lamb of God would take away the sin of the world? Was it not for the whole
world that he became God’s Lamb – that is, a sacrificial offering? Indeed that is so!
I am reminded of the following anecdote which perhaps highlights a great truth:
In a town square stood a charlatan, a quack doctor, surrounded by a crowd of people. Standing on his trestle table, a
flask held high in his hand, he cried aloud, ‘Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, the very remedy you have long been
waiting for! Toothache gone for ever! Removed, destroyed, gone immediately and permanently! This potion, ladies
and gentlemen, has instantly removed toothache right around the world. That I know for I have used it in every possible
climate, in America, England, Paris, Stockholm, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, as far away as China. Yes, ladies and
gentlemen, I have used it as far away as the capital city of the heavenly empire. And let me tell you something.
Wherever I have gone, without a single exception, I have seen the most obstinate and stubborn toothache flee before
this marvelous potion. But of course, ladies and gentlemen, it only worked for those who took it! That is why I exhort
you, wise, intelligent and clever people that you are. Hurry and take some so that you too will be cured for ever!’ The
man’s words attracted me, and I listened to him right to the very end.
As I continued on my journey I reflected on what I had heard. My mind turned to John the Baptist, and I remembered
how, pointing to the Lord Jesus, he had similarly cried out to the crowds around him, ‘There he is, the true, sure,
infallible and eternal remedy for sin, for even the most obstinate sin! More than that, he is the remedy for the sin of the
world, the whole world, not just for his own native country. Before him the dark night of sin will flee, for he is light.
Everywhere, from among Gentile nations as from among Jews, by him, by him alone, uniquely by him, sin will be for ever
removed. From now on, then, let everyone, be he Gentile or Jew, across the whole world, come to this Lamb of God and
worship him! Then, through his precious blood, everyone who comes, whoever he may be and from wherever he may
come, will be cleansed through the precious blood, for ‘He who has the Son has life’ (I John 5:12).
Having contemplated this wonderful gift of Jesus for the world, in my heart I gave thanks to the Father ‘who has qualified
[me] to [partake in] the inheritance of the saints in the light’ (Colossians 1:12). This grace had been given to me, whose
forefathers were among those who were ‘without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers
from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12).
Our next text is John 6:32. It was appropriate that such a Saviour, when speaking of the fullness of his grace, should
declare himself to be ‘the true bread from heaven’. He went further, however, and indicated that he was offering himself
for more than that ‘small thing’ of whom Isaiah had spoken, the people of Israel alone. Rather, as Isaiah further
explained, he would also be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth, to the whole world (Isaiah
49:6). So this sacrifice (or ‘his flesh’, as Jesus puts it) is henceforth the bread from heaven which gives life to souls
around the whole world, without exception as far as race or nationality is concerned. Every soul to whom this food
comes, and who feeds on it, receives and comes into possession of that life which this bread alone contains and is
capable of giving. That is why Christ, when speaking to the citizens of Capernaum, whose understanding was
thoroughly carnal, declared that, through the Holy Spirit, eternal life is to be found in Jesus’ giving of himself in sacrifice
– that is, in his flesh which faith, throughout the world, receives and imbibes.
We consider now II Corinthians 5:19. It is also for this reason that when speaking of the work of Christ, the Holy Spirit
represents the Saviour as reconciling ‘the world’ (the Gentile nations) to God. The apostle Paul had already expressly
stated this to be so. Speaking before the Areopagus in Athens, he declared that while in the past God overlooked the
ignorance of the nations, he now commanded all men, whoever they were and wherever they were to be found, to
repent and believe in him who had been appointed to judge them all (Acts 17:30-31). He stated that the ‘reconciliation’
of these peoples who until then had been hated and rejected, had now been accomplished. For that very reason, he,
Paul the apostle of Jesus Christ, was then standing in the presence of that august assembly, who had never before
heard such a message from God.
That is what the apostle Paul declared to the Athenians around the year A.D. 54. He repeated it a few years later, when
he wrote to Christians in Ephesus. He told them then that the eternal Word, who is God, was in Christ, the Messiah,
specifically to destroy the barrier, the dividing wall which until then had separated the Gentile world from the people of
Israel. Through Christ, he explained, God performed the great work of eternal and immutable reconciliation for Jew and
Gentile idolater alike. He did so precisely for people of all the nations of the world, passing over their sins, and not
imputing their trespasses to them. Now, as Isaiah prophesied, the barren woman will experience pains of labour, indeed
‘more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman’. She will no longer suffer shame nor be
humiliated. She will be reconciled, and her husband, the Holy One of Israel, will be called ‘the God of the whole earth’
It is for that reason, adds Paul, because Emmanuel (God with us in Christ) has accomplished this reconciliation, that he
has committed to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation to be proclaimed to the whole world. God was reconciling the
world to himself. So, throughout the world, we say to every man and nation, ‘Be reconciled to God!’, just as Ezekiel
proclaimed to all the tribes of Israel, ‘Return to the LORD!’ (II Chronicles 30:6).
The final text that we must consider is I John 2:2. Paul is not alone in proclaiming the richness of the gospel message.
All the apostles, the objects of Christ’s high-priestly prayer in which he prayed that they might be one, are for ever
united in teaching the same truth. The apostle John shows us the richness of this truth when he declares the Saviour to
be the faithful, almighty Advocate with the Father on behalf of the church, the whole church. By his blood, Christ
accomplished reconciliation not just for the sins of the Jewish people (Paul refers to them as ‘our sins’), but ‘also for [the
sins of] the whole world’. Propitiation for sin is to be found in Jesus alone, not for one nation to the exclusion of others,
but for all nations. So, now, everywhere in the world, every needy sinner can find in Jesus his sure advocate before God.
The apostle takes great care lest any trifling unbelieving commentator should twist his words to make them say that the
blood of Christ was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In that case there would no longer be any sins in
the world, since the blood of the Saviour would have been shed for the remission of all the sins of the world. The
apostle wants to ensure that no such doctrine, totally opposed to the truth regarding the atonement accomplished by the
sacrifice of the Son of God, should creep into the minds of faithful disciples.
With this in view, he takes great care to employ a word which, while embracing the world in its entirety, indicates that the
propitiation made by Jesus was so that the whole world, and not just part of it, might have access to it.
This same apostle, commentating on the advice of Caiphas the high priest, has already declared that Jesus would not
die for the Jewish nation alone. ‘He prophesied that Jesus would die for the [Jewish] nation, and not for that nation only,
but also that he would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad’ (John 11:51-52). In Christ’
s relationship to the world the apostle applies to him the analogy of someone using a magnet to draw out from a heap of
sand small particles of iron which are mixed with it. So Christ reunites in one body the scattered children of God.
John expressly states that Christ’s death would not redeem the nations in their entirety; rather he declares that it would
redeem from among them the family of God. Here, in I John 2:2, John uses the same language to establish this truth.
Christ’s atonement does not relate just to our sins (the sins of the Jews), but to the totality of those from around the
world, the whole world, for whom the sacrifice of the Son of God is most certainly ‘a fountain opened…for sin and for
uncleanness’ (Zechariah 13:1).
We have seen that, just as in the first category of texts that we examined, so in this second group of passages, not one
verse sustains the idea of a universal atonement. Quite the opposite is true.
While establishing the truth that Christ’s sacrifice was for all nations in general, every verse also specifies that
atonement was made for those from among the peoples of the world who really constitute the people of God.
THE CHURCH IS MINE, by César Malan, Copyright 2001, EVANGELICAL PRESS.
|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES