What your reading was originally a position paper I wrote for my class. In part one, I enumerate several views on the sovereignty of God, especially in regard to salvation. We will examine each of these for a proper interpretation of 1 John 2:2. I’ve never read anyone that’s delineated this view in the particular way I do. This uniqueness is within orthodoxy, but not standing on thousands of years of church history can be dangerous. I pray that it is helpful and edifying to the reader, and that it can be examined and critiqued.

Different models of providence and sovereignty have been debated within orthodoxy for centuries. Within the Southern Baptist denomination today, these differing views on providence and sovereignty in modern times have delineated into a multiplicity of other areas as well: theology proper, soteriology, eschatology, missiology, church history, and anthropology.  People usually decide on these questions one way or another a posteriori based on how they view the sovereignty of God.[1] Needless to say, how one views the sovereignty of God is a major factor in Christian theology.  Two major views compose orthodoxy and Southern Baptist life: general sovereignty and specific sovereignty.[2]  Both of these views believe God has an ultimate plan and accomplishes it with unilateral action. Where they differ is the basis of the plan.  The specific sovereignty view bases the ultimate plan on God’s will and choice, including humans’ (compatibilist) free actions (unconditional). Whereas, the general sovereignty view bases the ultimate plan on God’s foreknowledge of humans’ (libertarian) free actions (conditional).[3]

These views of sovereignty have also affected interpretations of texts. Biblical scholars and exegetes have the exact same data, but often come to differing conclusions based on their convictions on God’s sovereignty. One of those texts in particular is 1 John 2:2, “and he is the propitiation on account of our sins, and not for ours only, but also on account of the whole world” (author’s translation). What exactly does Christ accomplish according to this text? These 20 words (in Greek) are the same read by either sovereignty view; however, a chasm exists between their interpretations. Does he provide plausible atonement for the entire world without exception as long as they respond? Or does he provide definite atonement for the entire world without distinction as long as they are elect?  Reviewing and critiquing these interpretations from three viewpoints (one general sovereignty and two specific sovereignty views) will necessitate a fourth, more probable interpretation. More reasonableness concedes to Christ accomplishing a dual-faceted propitiation—1. limited propitiation applied unconditionally to the elect without distinction and 2. universal propitiation allowing only for common grace to all without exception—because it better upholds the justice of God, more properly conforms to the exegesis of the text (namely the syntax, semantics, and context), and withstands a more judicious systematic scrutiny following the Biblical timeline. After surveying the various viewpoints, this paper will examine the Greek exegesis and syntax of 1 John 2:2, analyze relevant passages that fit systematically with that text, and apply it to biblical theology.

A Survey of Sovereignties

Much debate has surrounded the semantics of this particular verse, especially around the word ἱλασμός (hilasmos, “propitiation”). A major debate ensued in the twentieth century on whether this word refers to expiation or propitiation. The majority of evangelical scholarship agree today that it is a reference mainly to propitiation, but it can have connotations of both.[4] The question in debate now is how ἱλασμός (hilasmos) is applied to κόσμος (kosmos, “world”). Κόσμος (kosmos) has a much wider semantic range than ἱλασμός (hilasmos), defined more specifically as, “humanity in general…before conversion.”[5]

General Sovereignty

Is this “humanity in general” without exception or without distinction? The general sovereignty view applies plausible propitiation to all humanity without exception. Every single human is included in the κόσμος (kosmos). David Allen argues:

Christ is the propitiation for the sins of “the whole world.” In 5:19 …the phrase being translated “the whole world” in both passages is identical in Greek. “World” in 1 John 5:19 must mean “the unbelieving world,” as in all people with the exception of believers.[6]

Allen identifies “the whole world” in 1 John 2:2 as those who do not believe, even those who will never believe. How does this not amount to universalism? The conditional application of propitiation due to a given person’s libertarian choice to repent and believe prevents the accusation of universalism. This conditional choice is also not seen as meritorious, but as a beggar receiving a handout.[7] Therefore, the general sovereignty view presents Christ’s accomplishment in 1 John 2:2 as a plausible and equal intent to save all humans without exception given that they repent and believe.

Specific Sovereignty

Three specific sovereignty perspectives are considered due to the important nuances in each view. Each of these views are within orthodoxy and provide unique interpretation to the terms in 1 John 2:2. These three views will be called merely the classic specific sovereignty view (i.e. classic “5-point Calvinism”), Amyraldianism (“4-point Calvinism”), and the expanded specific sovereignty.

Classic Specific Sovereignty

The standard specific sovereignty view defines κόσμος (kosmos) as all people without distinction (i.e. all kinds of people). This semantic choice can be found in early church history. Origen uses 1 John 2:2 to argue against Celsus who claimed that Christianity was just for “foolish and low individuals.” Origen argued from the word κόσμος (kosmos) that Christianity includes all kinds of people.[8] Augustine likewise used this term ‘the whole world’ saying, “we have found the Church in all nations.”[9] This definition of κόσμος (kosmos) is also defended using the context of the letter. Matthew S. Harmon argues that John is responding to the opponents’ superiority complex by reminding his readers of Christ’s death for all without distinction, not just one particular group (i.e. the opponents).[10] This propitiation applied to the elect is definite, not plausible. Therefore, in the specific sovereignty view, Christ accomplishes a definite and equal intent to save all elect without distinction when they repent and believe.


An Amyraldian view is also helpful to discuss in order to differentiate from the expanded specific sovereignty viewpoint. Bruce Ware has commonly supported this claiming that Christ has paid the penalty for the sins of those in hell, citing 1 John 2:2.[11] He rejects that atonement is limited arguing that, “Christ died for the purpose of paying the penalty for the sin of all people making it possible for all who believe to be saved.”[12] This view holds that Christ accomplishes a plausible propitiation with multiple intents to save all without exception, applied only to the elect.

Expanded Specific Sovereignty

Finally, an expanded specific sovereignty view is two-fold in its application of “propitiation” to the “whole world.” This view understands κόσμος (kosmos) as all people without exception, but applies definite dual-faceted propitiation to every person. In other words, every single human being must be atoned for in order to not experience the explicit wrath they deserve immediately upon birth. Therefore, Christ applies temporary propitiation to the reprobate and eternal propitiation to the elect. Expanded specific sovereignty eliminates the dilemma of the accused unnatural reading of “the whole world.” At the same time, it still applies definite atonement in accordance with classic Calvinism, only adding propitiation of a different category (non-eternal-salvific) to allow for the justice of God in giving common grace. According to this view, Christ accomplishes a definite and dual-faceted propitiation to save all people without exception, temporarily to the unregenerate and eternally to the regenerate, according to his own foreordination and absolute plan. These views can be depicted graphically as follows:

Atonement General Amyraldian Specific Expanded Specific
Intent Single/Plausible Multiple/Plausible Single/Definite Dual/Definite
Extent Universal Universal Elect Universal & Elect
Application Elect Elect Elect Universal & Elect

[1] This is speaking generally; of course there are always exceptions to the rule.

[2] These two views go by a variety of names (often relating them to soteriology). Within the SBC adherents to general sovereignty views are also called ‘Tradationalists,’ ‘extensivists,’ or ‘non-Calvinists’ (generally avoiding the term Arminian due to their belief in eternal security). Adherents to specific sovereignty views are called ‘Calvinists,’ ‘reformed,’ et. al. General sovereignty authors have further divided  specific views to include ‘moderate Calvinists,’ ‘high Calvinists,’ ‘classic Arminians,’ and ‘Wesleyan Arminians.’ Cf. Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: a Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3 ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2010); Geisler makes these four distinctions then presents his general sovereignty view as a balanced view in the middle. These distinctions, when handled incorrectly, can convolute the discussion and cause either side to talk past the other. For the sake of clarity and ease, this paper will prefer the terms “general sovereignty” and “specific sovereignty.”

[3] Stephen Wellum, “Decree of God and the Divine Act of Providence” (video of lecture, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, Nd.), accessed October 10, 2017, https://sbts.instructure.com/courses/1179/pages/06-decree-of-god-and-divine-act-providence-37-09?module_item_id=79997.

[4] The reasoning for this will not necessarily be discussed in detail due to the nature of this paper. Two commentators use the context of “advocacy” (2:1) to explain ἱλασμός as “propitiation.” Kruse argues: ἱλασμός is juxtaposed with advocacy, advocacy implies pleading for mercy for sinners, therefore, ἱλασμός secures that mercy. Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (Leicester, England: Eerdmans, 2000), 73. Cf. Robert W. Yarbrough, 1-3 John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), 7.

[5] Frederick Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 562.

[6] David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: a Historical and Critical Review (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), lc. 20826.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: a Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3 ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2010), 239.

[8] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed., vol. 4, Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minicius Felix; Commodia; Origen (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 484.

[9] St. Augustin, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 7, Augustine: Gospel of John, First Epistle of John, Soliliques (1994; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 2012), 465.

[10] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 285.

[11] Ibid. 648-9.

[12] Bruce Ware, Extent of the Atonement: Outline of The Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and Key Theological Arguments(Sandy, OR: Eternal Perspective Ministries, 2005), 3, accessed November 2, 2017, http://www.epm.org/static/uploads/downloads/Extent_of_the_Atonement_by_Bruce_Ware.pdf.