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When John says that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, does he mean that everyone will be saved?
No. There are some who say that verses such as 1 John 2.2 indicate that all people will be saved regardless of what they believe or don’t believe about Jesus. This universalistic interpretation asserts that all people will be saved in the end. This is wrong, unbiblical, and is the improper application of this verse and others like it. Still others would cite verses like this as evidence against the doctrine of limited atonement or election. I believe such interpretations to likewise be in error, mostly because such interpretations do not line up with the rest of scripture.
The most likely interpretation of 1 John 2.2 is that John is simply saying that the invitation for salvation through Jesus is open to everyone – not just a particular group of people. Note how John says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (referring John and his readers), and that Jesus is likewise the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (referring anyone who is not John or his readers). Indeed, the best explanation for this verse is that John is affirming the general call of salvation to all of mankind, and not just to his readers.
It seems unrealistic to me that John’s desire is for Christians to not sin. How could we ever hope to not sin?
Unrealistic as it might sound, it is the most plain reading of 1 John 2.1. John truly does desire that his readers do not sin. We think about that, and it seems impossible. But is it?
In one sense, yes, it is impossible. Even if we could clean ourselves up to the point of perfection, we still sin against God and our brothers and sisters in ways of which we aren’t even aware. That is, we sin without even knowing it. We can’t clean up areas of our lives that we aren’t even aware of, so in a sense we will never be free from sin, even if we eliminate and avoid every possible sin in our lives.
But in another very real, biblical sense, no, sinlessness is not impossible in the Christian life. The Bible declares multiple times that believers have victory and power over sin in their lives through Christ by the Holy Spirit (for example, see Romans 6.14 and 8.1-4). The Bible also declares that believers need not necessarily be overcome by temptation (1 Corinthians 10.13). That is, whatever we face, there is always a way out – we don’t have to give in to temptation. Put those two realities together and you get a theoretically possible equation for living the sinless life. In other words, since believers have power over sin and are never tempted beyond what they have the ability to resist, it is possible to consistently resist sin. The problem is, as James says, that when we do sin, it is because we have been drawn away by our own desires (James 1.14). What’s keeping us from living a sinless life? Our own sinful desires that we give in to, even though we don’t have to.
We should never try to interpret 1 John 2.1a without also interpreting the second part of the verse, which reads, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In other words, John affirms that the ideal for the Christian life is to be sinless, but the reality is that we are still in the flesh – we still battle sin. And thanks be to God that in our sin we have an advocate who pleads his righteousness on our behalf.
How do I overcome the shame and guilt I feel when I sin?
This is an important question because all of us feel shame and guilt from time to time. And, in fact, God can use shame and guilt in our lives in positive ways. So the first response is to not necessarily dismiss feelings of shame and guilt, as God can use them to point us back to the cross when we are in sin. If we feel no conviction when we sin, then John warns us that we might not be walking in the light (1 John 1.6). So take heart: the shame and guilt you feel over your sin could be a sign of your salvation.
But Christians should never be immersed in guilt. To feel constant guilt for our sin is to forget the cross. Those who have been saved have been declared “not guilty” on account of Christ’s sacrifice for sin. There is no more guilt as a believer stands before God – he or she is innocent. So to wallow in feelings of shame and guilt is not healthy, and does not demonstrate a complete understanding and appropriation of the gospel.
As stated above, God can also use our feelings of shame and guilt to point us back to the truth – back to the gospel. When we sin, and realize that we have sinned primarily against God, and that God poured out his wrath for our sin on Jesus, the natural response is one of guilt: “Why did I just do something for which Jesus died?” If this is how we feel when we sin, it is a good thing, because that guilt can and will push us towards repentance and back to the cross, which shouts a message of grace and mercy.
When you feel guilt it’s a good thing, but don’t wallow in it. Instead, run back to the cross as fast as you can.