2 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
In this, our fourth lesson, we will slow down a bit to consider the foundational doctrines of our faith which John here sets before us. But first, let’s orient ourselves to what has already been taught, what will yet be taught, and what this passage is not teaching. Simon Kistemaker opens his commentary on 1 John 2:1-2 by observing:
Except for Jesus, there is no one who is sinless. Even if we know God’s law and precepts, we still stumble and sin from time to time. What remedy is there for the person who has fallen into sin? John provides the answer by pointing to Jesus Christ, who is our helper.
We need to keep this comforting reminder at hand because John, with pastoral affection together with apostolic authority, will spend much of this epistle encouraging believers not to sin in terms that, at first blush, are rather challenging. The vast testimony of Scripture assures us that those who are in Christ have been freed from bondage to sin—sin is no longer our master—and yet, we will battle with indwelling sin and temptations from the world and the devil until the moment we pass into glory. So, take heart, dear one, when (not if) you sin, God has provided a means for our cleansing, His own Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, as John will unfold for us in this passage of his epistle.
In verse 1, John tenderly addresses his readers as “My little children,” which reflects his affectionate pastoral concern, his apostolic authority as their spiritual father, and perhaps even his advanced age, as this epistle was written near the end of his life. According to this verse, he is writing to them to encourage them not to sin, and to reassure them that even if (when) they do sin, Jesus Christ himself pleads their case.
Let’s begin our exploration of this verse by defining our terms. What is sin? According to the answer to the 14th question of The Shorter Catechism, sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Brief and to the point, but our modern ears may need more explanation, which Douglass Sean O’Donnell provides in his commentary on this passage:
Sin is broad enough to include disobeying God’s revealed will concerning Jesus, as well as disregarding his ethical and social demands. Unbelief, disobedience, and lack of love are inseparably intertwined in John’s definition of sin.
As we learned last week, everyone is born with a nature enslaved to sin. When we are born again, the blood of Christ cleanses us in the one-time justification that makes us children of God, frees us from bondage to sin, and makes possible our growth in holiness and righteousness. This does not mean, however, that believers never sin—oh no. We do continue to sin, but because of Christ, we may confess our sins to the Father and be forgiven and cleansed anew as the Holy Spirit sanctifies us. The difference between unbelievers and believers, as John has been unfolding for us, is whether one is “walking in darkness,” in a persistent life-pattern of sin, or committing acts of sin in conflict with a life-pattern of “walking in the light” (1 Jn. 1:6-7).
John gives hope for believers who sin in verse 1 when he writes that “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Notice how he includes himself—“we have an advocate”—even John knew that he must rely on Christ’s advocacy when he sinned! But what does “advocacy” mean?
The term “advocate” conjures up images of a courtroom, with the believer in the dock and Jesus arguing as our defense lawyer before God, our heavenly Judge. And yet, we have learned Christians have been justified once by the crosswork of our Savior, and this justification does not need to be repeated—ever. The status of the believer before God’s bar of justice is that of a child before her father. Christians do not come into judgement, nor do we face condemnation when we sin, rather, we are forgiven, our record of debt is cancelled, and the legal demands against us have been nailed to the cross (Jn. 5:24; Rom. 8:33-35a; Col. 2:13-14).
The accusations against which Jesus defends us come not from God, but from our enemy, Satan (Job 1:7-11; Rev. 12:10). Though he is clever, our accuser is a defeated foe. For, every accusation he hurls at us is repelled by the effective intercession of our victorious Lord. Though the accusations be true, though we have indeed sinned, Jesus points to his atoning blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of his Father’s righteous throne and declares, “I paid for that! This child belongs to me!” There before the throne we confess our sins and God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1:9).
Once the sinner has been justified by God his Judge, he has entered the family of God and become related to God as his Father. If he should sin, he does not need another justification from the divine Judge. He is a child of God; he needs the Father’s forgiveness. . . Christ pleads our cause against our ‘accuser’ (Rev. 12:10) and to the Father, who loves and forgives his children.
We need a righteous advocate because we are so entirely unrighteous without him. Without our Savior we are dead in our trespasses and sin, fully deserving God’s wrath, but Jesus is holy, unstained, separated from our sin, not needing to offer a sacrifice for his own cleansing and therefore, having righteousness in himself, able to bring us to God by his death and resurrection (Eph. 2:1-3; Heb. 7:26-27; 1 Peter 3:18).
He advocates for us by continually praying for us. Alive in heaven, he looks his holy Father in the eyes and prays effective prayers on our behalf, that we may be forgiven of our daily sins, strengthened through our trials, grow in holiness, and persevere in faith to the end (Rom. 8:34b; Heb. 7:25).
In verse 2, John tells us why Jesus is such an effective advocate on our behalf. We are wading into deep doctrinal waters, and sisters, the water is sweet. Drink deeply.
He is the propitiation for our sins, (2a.)
Chances are, “propitiation” [prō-pĭ-chee-āshun] isn’t a word you use every day, so let’s take a moment to define this term.
Propitiation. An offering that turns away the wrath of God directed against sin.
In class we made the distinction between propitiation and expiation, which are often used in tandem with one another as opposite sides of the same theological coin. Propitiation is the effect that the satisfactory offering has upon God—it turns away his wrath, and furthermore, it causes him to look in favor upon those from whom his wrath is thusly turned away. Expiation is the effect that the satisfactory offering has upon the sin that offended God—it cancels the debt or covers over the sin. Propitiation is God-ward and expiation is sin-ward; they operate simultaneously to satisfy God by dealing satisfactorily with sin.
The Greek word translated as “propitiation’ is used only four times in the New Testament (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10), but the concept is woven together with substitutionary atonement all throughout Scripture. Let’s take a brief tour of the Old Testament history of propitiation and substitutionary atonement:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. . . . Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. . . . . For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:1-3, 5-7, 12-13, italics mine)
This episode in the book of Exodus was the beginning of the final plague against Egypt by which God would set his people free from their slavery. It’s familiar to us for this reason, but I want us to slow down and notice a detail or two which may have escaped your attention. The lamb which each family was to kill for its blood to mark their doors and to eat for their Passover meal was kept in their home for four days, from the tenth to the fourteenth day of the month.
How long do you suppose it took these people to bond with an adorable, cuddly, fuzzy lamb? Living with them, toddling around underfoot, baa-ing delightfully, playing with and probably sleeping with their children? I don’t know about you, but it would take me all of one hot minute to fall in love with such a precious pet.
But it wasn’t a pet. It was a sacrificial offering. After four days they would kill it, paint its blood around their doors, and cook it for dinner. This was not an easy sacrifice. It cost them something.
Also notice that the blood was to be a sign both for the people and for the Lord. After they painted the blood outside their doors they needed to be reminded that they were safe. They had been told what was going to happen, and as they heard the wailing of their neighbors as the firstborn throughout Egypt were struck down they could look to the blood and remember God’s promise that they would be safe.
But it was also a sign for the Lord. As he passed through Egypt visiting his wrath upon his enemies, he would see the blood which set his own people apart from the rest and his wrath would not fall on them. The blood signified which people belonged to him. It was a sign for the people and a sign for God.
Later, while establishing the law and the sacrificial system in the wilderness for the new nation of Israel, the Lord makes it clear that the Aaron the high priest must sacrifice animals to atone for his own sins and then to cleanse the tabernacle before he can offer the sacrifice of atonement for the people of God. Through an elaborate ritual, God taught his people that there is no one among them, not even the anointed high priest, who can approach his Holy Place without an offering of blood to cleanse away their sins and transgressions (Leviticus 16:1-3, 6, 11, 14-16)
The author of the book of Hebrews reminds us that “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22). Blood was required because blood symbolized death, and throughout Scripture it is made clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). The price tag for sin is death, and bringing a bloody sacrifice was how God arranged for his people to pay for their sins—by the blood of another, rather than their own death. But the blood was really just a sign, pointing to the need for a sufficient sacrifice which would effectively cleanse God’s people from their sins.
If all this talk of bloodshed and death seems extreme, we may not have a biblical view of (and therefore response to) sin. Scripture reminds us repeatedly that God’s response to sin is wrath (Rom. 1:18). But God’s wrath is not like the uncontrolled, vengeful, vindictive, or passionate anger of men, nor is it the capricious and arbitrary wrath of the pagan deities of old. The wrath of our God is “his settled, controlled, holy antagonism to all evil.” We who have never drawn a sinless breath forget how utterly heinous and deserving of wrath are our sins to the King, the LORD of hosts. There are many ways that God’s wrath is said to fall on his enemies: it burns or is kindled against them, is poured out or comes upon them, and at times, Scripture speaks of God expressing his holy anger in terms of his “cup of wrath” being poured out or drunk (Ps. 75:8; Is. 51:17, 22; Jer. 24:15; Rev. 14:10, 16:19).
The synoptic gospels record our Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mat. 26:39). The sinless Son of God drank the cup of his Father’s wrath—meant for us—so that we instead could drink from his springs of living water welling up to eternal life (John 4:10, 14). We who ought to have suffered God’s wrath, because of the intervention of our sinless substitute, will never thirst again. Jesus took our place, yet we must not view propitiation as some sort of cosmic bribe in an unsavory effort to assuage the Father’s anger. On the contrary, “the initiative in the propitiation is entirely God’s.” God himself is both the recipient and the origin of propitiation (John 10:17-18).
This origin is his love, the spontaneous, uncaused love of Father and Son together. We must not imagine either that the Father sent his Son to do something which the Son was reluctant to do, or that the Son was a third party intervening between the sinner and a reluctant God. Both these views are excluded by the teaching of this letter. It is not reluctance but love which is attributed to both Father and Son (see 3:16 & 4:10).
Jesus Christ did not merely provide a propitiatory sacrifice outside of himself, but, as the New Testament makes clear, he is our propitiation:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
… knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
… the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7b)
On the cross Jesus turned away God’s righteous anger, satisfied the demands of divine justice, and averted our punishment in a substitutionary manner.
Furthermore, Christ’s advocacy and propitiation cost guilty sinners nothing! Emblazoned across the Bible like an infomercial—Free Gift! Free Gift! Free Gift!—the grace of salvation is freely given by our Lord Jesus Christ so that we may be justified and made righteous (Rom. 5:15-17, 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9). This is good news indeed! But wait, it’s incomprehensively better than we could imagine:
Our advocate does not plead that we are innocent, or adduce extenuating circumstances. He acknowledges our guilt and presents his vicarious work as the ground for our acquittal.
Oh sisters, we need not be perfect or innocent to be forgiven. How does this change your view of confession and repentance?
The Whole World
John finishes his thought in verse 2 by declaring that the efficacy of Jesus’ propitiation covers not only “our sins,” but those of the “whole world.” There are some who use this passage to teach that Jesus’ death was sufficient to atone for the entire human race, making it “possible” for all to be saved, if only they will add some contribution, however small, to complete the transaction, whether that something be faith, works, or repentance (prior to regeneration). Others use this passage to teach universalism, the teaching that Christ’s death atones for every person’s sins without exception, and therefore, everyone is saved. Let us be clear on this point: “The existence of Heaven and Hell and the final separation of the wicked from God are Essentials of the faith that cannot be compromised.” To deny this foundational truth is therefore heresy.
As Reformed Christians, we believe in the doctrine of “limited atonement,” (the “L” in TULIP) also known as “particular redemption.” This is the most controversial of the five points of Calvinism, and it teaches that Jesus died to atone only for the sins of the elect—those chosen before the foundation of the world to be God’s people, given by the Father to the Son and kept in his name such that none shall be lost, but we are united in a fellowship as intimate and secure as that enjoyed by the Holy Trinity for all eternity. (Eph. 1:4-5; John 17:9-12).
Scripture teaches that the kingdom of God is composed of believers from every nation and tribe and tongue (Matt. 28:19; John 11:50-53; Rev. 7:9-10). This means that the brothers and sisters with whom we are united in Christ come from both genders and every nationality, ethnicity, skin tone, culture, language, socio-economic- intelligence- and education level, marital status, political party, and personality trait. The limitation of “limited atonement” is nothing that can be measured externally, but only by the measure of faith—does one have faith in Jesus?
When John here speaks of the “whole world,’ he means people from all backgrounds, without distinction, not every human being without exception. The kingdom of Jesus Christ is composed only of those who trust in him and includes people from every race and culture. When Jesus laid down his life and humbled himself to a violent death on behalf of sinners, his shed blood was sufficient to cover the sins of every elect believer in the whole world: from Jerusalem to Jakarta; from Palestine to Papua New Guinea: corners of the globe the apostles never knew existed when they penned the Scriptures!
Sisters, such knowledge should move us to worship! Charles Wesley must have had 1 John 2:2 in mind when he wrote this glorious hymn:
Arise, my soul arise, Shake off thy guilty fears:
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the Throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on his hands.
He ever lives above, For me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love, his precious blood to plead;
His blood atoned for every race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
Five bleeding wounds he bears, Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers, They strongly plead for me;
Forgive him, O forgive, they cry,
Nor let that ransomed sinner die!
My God is reconciled; His pard’ning voice I hear;
He owns me for his child, I can no longer fear;
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.
I was reminded only last Sunday of a prophetic picture from the Old Testament of Christ’s advocacy and propitiation. Read with me from the book of Zechariah, and if you are a child of God, picture yourself in Joshua the high priest’s place:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by. (Zechariah 3:1-5)
Sisters, we are but brands plucked from the fire, clothed no longer in our own filthy rags, but in the spotless robes of Christ. We owe him everything, and he invites us to come before him for cleansing from our sins every hour. When you sin, run to his throne of grace with gratitude—lamenting your sins but rejoicing in his freely-given grace!
Next week we will explore how Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice and advocacy on our behalf frees us from the bondage of rebellion against God to walk in obedience to him. For now, though, I pray that your mind and heart are filled with gratitude for the cross, as you meditate on the mystery and magnificence of God’s plan for salvation. Are you a ransomed sinner, sprinkled with Christ’s blood? Have your sins been atoned for by the only sufficient sacrifice and are you reconciled to God? We are selling no false assurances here. If you have not yet fled to Christ for salvation, there is time today— even now!— for you to repent of your sins and humbly submit to Christ.
 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986)
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, together with The Larger Catechism and The Shorter Catechism, 3rd Edition, (Lawrenceville, GA: the Committee for Christian Education & Publications, PCA Bookstore, 1990) Written and agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster which met from 1643-1647, and adopted, with minor changes, as the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church in America by the First General Assembly, meeting at the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL, December 407, 1973.
 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1-3 John, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015), 33.
 Stott, 85.
 Stott, 87.
 Stott, 87.
 Ibid., 87.
 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1-3 John, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015), 36.
 Stott, 86.
 I am grateful to Pastor John Bennett for clarifying this point and thereby adding the weight of ordained authority to back my punch.
 Charles Wesley, Arise, My Soul Arise, 1742, from the Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 305