On the blog I sought to provide a solid interpretation of 1 John 2:2. Dan Phillips, one of the writers at the Pyromaniacs web site wrote a short article called “Karate Exegesis” some time back. It provides an innovative approach to the discussion of the verse. I thought it was worthy of a mention here. He writes:
Yes, it’s true: I “do” karate, using the verb in its very broadest sense. My three sons were in first, and then it became possible for me to join in and start making with the kiyai!
One of the (to me) counter-intuitive strategies one learns about sparring is to present a profile, not a flat-on wide target. That way, there’s less to hit — and you’re positioned to move outside. So if your opponent lunges at you, you just let him follow his momentum, you step to the side, and you work a little mayhem as he passes. Remember that: let him lunge, then do some mayhem from the side.
This same principle — allowed lunging, then angular mayhem — applies well in exegetical debates. Too often, we allow ourselves to be put unnecessarily on the defensive. Somebody cites a problem verse, and we start with the 47-page frontal-assault exegetical answer defending our position… and when we finish, they just go on to the next attack unfazed, untaught, unchallenged. We stay on the defensive.
I probably shouldn’t tip my hand so publicly, but here’s the sort of thing I try to do. Say we’re making the Biblical case for Purposeful Redemption — that is, the view that our sovereign Lord died so as actually to save particular people (Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 1:15), not to save everyone in general but nobody in particular. (Or “Effective Redemption,” in that we affirm that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners [1 Timothy 1:15], not merely make it possible for them to add the necessary critical ingredient to save themselves.)
Our friend pulls out 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,” and slaps it on the table with the air of a gambler laying down the winning card.
“‘The whole world,'” our friend emphasizes meaningfully, perhaps tapping the verse in his Bible. “‘Not for ours only.'”
How do we answer?
Well, we could do a lo-o-o-o-o-ong riff on every occurrence “world” in and out of John’s writings. We could go to John 11:51-52, and 12:19, and discuss them at length. We could do lots of frontal, defensive things, and take a long while and expend a lot of energy doing them.
Or we could step aside, let our friend plow on through… then work a little mayhem from the side.
That is, we could nod sympathetically and say, “Yes, I can see how that is a real problem for your position.”
Our friend (if he’s not read this post) will likely do a double-take, say “Yes, I… wait — my position? Huh? It isn’t! It’s a problem for your position!”
You see, he has lunged. Now we make with the mayhem.
With a puzzled look, we could say, “How so? Your idea is that ‘world’ means every human being who ever was, or ever will be born, right?” (Nod.) “So, do you believe that every human being ever born will go to Heaven?”
Aghast, our friend will assure us that he believes no such thing.
“I didn’t think you did. But that means you have a real problem with this verse, don’t you?” we could continue. “John writes that Jesus Christ is — not ‘would really like to be,’ or ‘wishes He could be,’ or even ‘stands ready to be,’ but is — the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. What is a propitiation?”
Our friend, an astute soul that he is, replies, “A ‘propitiation’ is a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God.”
We agree. Then with knitted brow, we ask, “So, if you’re right about ‘the whole world,’ then John is saying that Christ has turned away the wrath of God for the sins of every human being ever born — you, me, Judas, the Beast, the False Prophet — everyone.
“On that understanding, how can anyone be under God’s wrath, which Christ propitiated? How can anyone be in Hell? Why are they there? For what are they being judged and punished?”
“For their unbelief,” our friend may offer.
“Oh, I see. Is unbelief a sin?” we ask innocently.
Our friend may nor may not allow as much. If he does not, we could add, “From what I read, unbelief certainly is a sin. Or is it not a moral issue to call God a liar (1 John 5:9-10)?
“See,” we can conclude sympathetically, “you have a real problem. On your view, either unbelief isn’t a sin, in which case God is a liar; or everyone’s going to Heaven, in which case, again, God is a liar; or Christ really isn’t a propitiation for all the sins of everyone without exception — in which case, one more time, God is a liar. Do you think God is a liar?”
Maybe now our friend might be willing to consider that the text is capable of a better construction.
We might help him open up to the possibilities with another question: “I think it’s your idea of what John means by ‘world’ that is giving you such trouble. Can you think of any verses where ‘world’ unambiguously means ‘everyone who ever was born or ever would be born’? I can certainly think of many that do not. Maybe that isn’t the best way to read that verse?”
At the very least, he’ll now know that, if the verse is a problem for Calvinists, it isn’t a problem for us alone. If he’s honest, that is. (And why would we have dishonest friends?)
In your mind, try the same exercise with 1 Timothy 2:6 or 4:10, or other similar “problem” passages. I think you’ll find it pretty effective.
Allow the lunge. Step aside.