Sin. It is our human condition and it is our universal problem. We are separated from God because He is perfect and He wrote the moral Law and the Biblical Law that defines right and wrong, and He established that the penalty for sin is physical and spiritual eternal death (Rom 6.23). But God loves us and offers us a path to redemption.
“The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'”
– John 1.29
Jesus takes away the sin of the world. He takes away our sin by his perfect life on the Earth, which did not merit death because He never sinned, but He died physically and suffered Hell Spiritually and conquered death by raising back to life and returning to Heaven. He took the punishment that we deserve and offers us the legal verdict, “time served”. He does not take away our sin in such a way as to pretend it never happened. He takes away the guilt and punishment it deserves by paying it for us.
So. When Jesus died on the cross, did He “take away” the sin of the entire world? This is one of the most confusing concepts in Scripture, in my opinion.
“and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
– 1 John 2.2
John, the apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, used this phrase twice in two different letters that He wrote. Jesus “takes away the sins of the world”, and He is the propitiation for the sins “of the whole world”. Does John believe in universalism? Will everyone ultimately be saved? Does the phrase, “The whole world” mean every single person who has ever been born? Obviously the world does not mean the dirt and trees, but people…
If we keep reading after that most famous of verses, we see a bit more of John’s understanding:
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
– John 3.17-18
And even more clearly a few verses later:
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
– John 3.36
John states clearly that the one who does not believe in Jesus is already judged. Past tense. And the one who does not believe or obey lives with the wrath of God abiding on him. The only reason the wrath of God is poured out on someone is because of sin:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.”
– Rom 1.18-19
If God takes away the sin of everyone, then there is no place or reason for His wrath. Because we know that the wrath of God was satisfied in the death of Jesus for the sins of those who would be forgiven. But John tells us that some people still remain under the wrath of God, and it is those who do not believe.
All sins will be punished: either they were punished definitively in Jesus 2000 years ago, or they will be sentenced upon the offender in eternity.
So what does it mean that Jesus “takes away the sins of the world”? If He paid for everyone’s sin, then there should be no one going to Hell – there should be no one on whom the wrath of God still abides. Either He paid for your sins or He didn’t. But John says some people are still under the wrath. Jesus did not pay for them for you to have to turn around and pay for them too!
Think of it like an antibiotic. When a researcher finds the cure for a disease or infection, he could say, “This will cure the whole world”. What he means is that anyone who has the disease and takes the medicine will be made healthy. The simple fact of the existence of the cure does not mean that everyone who has the illness will be healed, the medicine must be ingested into the system to work. But it has the capability to heal everyone who takes it. Now, this analogy breaks down (as all analogies do) because sin is not a disease. It is not an outside force acting on an otherwise healthy creature. Sin is who we are. It is our nature. So Jesus’ forgiveness is not an antibiotic that kills a bacteria infesting our cells, but He is a transforming power that changes the very nature of our cells. More accurately, He is life to dead cells.
Where it gets a little tricky is God’s role in administering this cure. John says that Jesus died and whoever believes in Him will be saved. But then he says in the next breath that those who do not believe have already been judged. Jesus is not only the one who paid our debt, but He chose whose debt to pay and effectively instills faith in those whose debt He paid. Those who do not believe were judged before He even came into the world, according to John.
Jesus is infinite and He is God. His death is not lacking in ability to atone for the sins of everyone, but God used it purposefully and intentionally. He is not in the business of double punishing sins. Either Jesus paid for your sins, or you will.
So how do you know if Jesus paid for your sins? What is the application here? It is simple. Do you want His punishment to count for you? Then believe! If you are capable of believing, desire to be saved and repent then He has paid for you! There is no extra revelation. There is no added spirituality. There is no requirement other than belief and repentance. If you want it, it is yours, because God has put it in your heart to want it. Otherwise, it sounds like foolishness:
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
– 1 Cor 1.18
If the word of the cross to you is hope, then He paid your debt. If it is foolishness, then it matters not to you anyway.