In the present culture, the question of why Christ died is often raised in respect to the popular (or unpopular -- depending upon one's perspective!) question of what is definitively called limited atonement. The issues are many, but the one that creates the most havoc in most people's minds is the question of whether Christ died for the sins of the whole world as opposed to the sins of the elect. The issue that is involved here is the question of whether an evangelist can tell any given individual that "Christ died for you".
This is not the same issue as the question of whether there is any definitive election. By definitive, I mean specific, individual election in contrast to a non-specific, collective election. This is another, but different, hot-button issue. In this article, I am not going to address this issue simply because it would take too much time and space and would distract us from the point of this article, to wit: did Christ die only for the elect?
There is a very pointed statement in 1 John 2:2 that says, "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for [the sins of] the whole world." [All quotes are from the public domain King James Version unless otherwise noted]. There are two questions raised by this text: first, what does it mean for Christ to be the propitiation for sins?; and, second, what does it mean for Christ to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world?
Let's take these questions in reverse order. Who constitutes the whole world in 1 John 2:2? How shall we decide?
There are those who have already made up their minds that Christ is not the propitiation for the sins of all men, so they automatically decide that John could not have meant that in this text. But this approach is filled with deadly poison [I am not saying by this that their conclusion is filled with deadly poison; I am only saying that the approach is full of deadly poison]. It is deadly because it is an approach that disallows the Word of God to be the Word of God. At any time that I, or anyone else, attempts to compel the Word of God to mean what I have already determined it must mean, I have supplanted God with myself and, in effect, told Him what He must mean rather than taking my rightful place at His feet and asked Him to tell me what He meant by what He said. The approach of exalting theology over the texts of the Word of God is self-serving and anyone who does it is, as E. D. Hirsch has already said, simply meeting himself, not the author, in the text. This approach refuses to allow God to correct our thinking and simply makes us ever more confident that our understanding of theology is correct just as we thought before we ever went into the text!
On the other hand, there are those who have already made up their minds that Christ's death was for the whole world of humanity, so they read glibly over our text and are glad that it says (or, more accurately, seems to say) what they have already decided must be the case. This approach is also filled with deadly poison. [Again, I am not saying that the conclusion is filled with deadly poison, I am simply saying that the approach is deadly]. Anyone who reads texts with the assumption that he/she already knows what they mean is stunting the learning process. By all accounts, any word of God is infinite in its reach. Therefore, any finite creature who thinks himself to be fully conversant with any word of God is an egotistical knot head (pardon my French)!
So, we must ask the question: How do we decide what John meant by what he wrote? Without going into a technical discussion on how words communicate meaning, let me simply say that words communicate meaning as they are allowed to fall into their own immediate context. The key issue here is couched in the word immediate. Many students of the Bible think it is ok to assign meaning to words in a given context by pulling meaning from different contexts that simply have the same word(s) in them. This is self-evidently wrong-headed. There is no one I know who would like for his words to be interpreted by that method! If I write a letter to one of my friends and he doesn't understand something I wrote, the last thing I want him to do is look up the rest of my friends, get all the communications I have written to them, and then take a sentence out of one of those communications and plug it into what I wrote him just because I used the same, or similar words. And even worse would be for him to pool all of the letters that all of his friends wrote to him and take sentences from them to plug into my words! And, yet, in the name of bible study, this is done regularly and consistently without one hesitation. It is self-evidently wrong-headed.
That raises this question: how do we allow words to fall into their own immediate context? Well, let's look at 1 John 2:2 and see if we can answer that question. Let's ask this question: what is the immediate context about? That's not a hard question to answer. John is obviously writing about his readers' possible attitudes about sin. In chapter one he posits multiple possibilities about how people react to the message that God is absolute Light without any darkness of any kind (1:5-10). Those possibilities all reflect the tension men face when faced with absolute holiness. Those possibilities lead John into the statements that open chapter two. In those opening statements it is fairly obvious that John is attempting to get his readers to respond correctly -- i.e., to choose the proper option(s). Another thing that is pretty obvious is that John is continuing with his understanding of how men respond to holiness. On the one side, they often take a blindly arrogant position and deny sin's grasp upon them. On the other, they often take a despairing position and deny God's willingness/ability to break sin's grasp upon them. Clearly, John doesn't want his readers to take a casual/arrogant attitude toward sin. So he writes, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not." But, what if a person does sin without a casual attitude? Typically a person who knows the seriousness of sin, but falls into it anyway, tends toward despair. Thus naturally flow the following words, "And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous..." Faith in Christ's advocacy lifts the despair from the un-casual sinner. Now herein is the main point: John's words about Christ being the propitiation for the sins of the whole world are set in their own immediate context of his desire to keep the un-casual sinner from despairing. Thus, the words the whole world are deliberately designed to increase the reader's grasp of the sufficiency of Christ's advocacy. They are not, as some would have us believe, a statement about the extent of Christ's advocacy in terms of Jew/Gentile as though his readers might think that Christ is the propitiation of the Jew's sins as well as the whole world of Gentiles [that entire argument is a specious insertion of Jew/Gentile distinctions that does not exist in the immediate context of the words and is only cleverly brought into the text by those with a pre-set theological agenda]. That notion does not allow John's words to fall into their own immediate context. The immediate context is the attempt to lift a despairing sinner from his despair. That happens by understanding the magnitude of sufficiency that exists in Christ's propitiatory act. No one can despair about his sin in the face of God's holiness if he understands and believes that Christ's propitiatory act is sufficient for the sins of the whole world.
Now, there is another immediate context factor that can be used to check the legitimacy of our understanding of John's words in his own context: his use of world in this immediate letter. A simple reading of the rest of the letter will easily show that when John used the word world he did not have any Jew/Gentile distinction in mind, but rather a believer/unbeliever distinction.
Therefore, when we disallow the typical importing of foreign ideas and contexts into the words of our text, there is really only one way to take the words: they are, by design, a deliberate attempt to create confidence by virtue of a declaration of the enormous sufficiency of Christ's propitiatory act.
Thus, we have as clear a statement as we will find about Christ's propitiatory act in terms of its sufficiency. Any who are emboldened to faith by grasping how absolutely sufficient was Christ's propitiatory act will rejoice in the advocacy of this Christ. Also, any who are emboldened to faith by such a proclamation will frown indeed at the contradictory announcement that Christ didn't die for the sins of the whole world.
Now we must turn our attention to John's use of propitiation. When we do this with the restraint in mind that we must allow the words the freedom to fall into their own immediate context, what we find is that John used propitiation to address the issue of Christ's advocacy. In other words, it is because Christ is the propitiation for our sins that His advocacy has significance. This gives meaning to the word propitiation in its own context: it means that something Christ did makes His advocacy with the Father on our behalf carry enormous, helpful weight. And what is it that He did? We are told in the immediate context of 1 John 4:10: He came into the world so that we could live. And what did He do in the world that allows us to live? He died in our place "that we might live through him." Thus, John used propitiation to refer to the way Christ became a substitute for us so that we might have His life through that substitution. Thus, propitiation indicates the death of Christ as a Substitute for sinners so that the Father is disposed to treat us differently than He would had Christ not died.
That raises this question: how would the Father have treated us had Christ not died? In one word, justly. This means that the Father would have responded to us as sinners out of pure justice without mercy. But, because the Father loved us (1 John 4:10), He provided a way to permit Him to be just and merciful. Christ's propitiation permits Him to do so. Without this propitiation God could only be just. Thus, Christ's propitiation extends to the sins of the whole world because God seeks to render mercy to the whole world...and often does. When He sends rain upon the just and the unjust, He is being merciful to the unjust. Without Christ's propitiation, this would not be possible.
Our conclusion is this: when people deny that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, they are denying God the freedom to be merciful to sinners to any extent. Paul told his hearers on one occasion that "God winked at" man's ignorance and sin (Acts 17:30). Whence is the freedom in God to "wink" at sin? Only through a sufficient propitiation. Otherwise God ceases to be just.
Does this mean that Christ's propitiation means that all of humanity will be saved? Not at all. Why not? Because the propitiation was not fundamentally designed to save humanity. It was fundamentally designed to free God from the constraints of His own justice. We can learn from John's effort in 1 John 2 if we so desire: John wrote words to embolden men to believe. This means that John understood that faith is a crucial element in God's dealings with men. Without it, men perish. By it, men live. But faith does not make God propitious toward us. Only Christ's death can do that. Faith, though, does have a part to play in the methodology of God's salvation of us. Thus, propitiation frees God to be merciful if He chooses to be (He doesn't always send rain upon the unjust; sometimes He sends drought and death) and faith is grace's methodology for our salvation.
Most of the debate about particular redemption would be over if those who espouse it would recognize that Christ's death for the sins of the whole world was not designed to save all for whom He died. Rather, His death was designed to free God to be just and to justify those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Rather than assigning a hard and fast efficacy to Christ's death in respect to salvation, we ought to realize that Christ's death had a hard and fast efficacy in freeing God to be merciful according to His own choice. Without a comprehensive propitiation, there can be no mercy of any kind at any time because mercy without propitiation is a miscarriage of justice.