Sometimes we get a little confused in our language when we communicate. The telephone game is a childhood favorite that not only provides us an entertaining challenge but teaches the terrifying reality that communication is difficult. One person intends to communicate a fact, but because of the cultural background, the vocabulary proficiency, the paradigms, and belief system of the hearer – let alone any physical malady that might impair hearing or ability to comprehend – more often than not that which is heard is not the true message of the speaker. This is why we have tests in the educational system. This is why we have checks and balances in the work place. This is why we take classes on communication. This is why we have marriage counseling. Concepts can be lost, terms can be wrongly defined and intentions can be misinterpreted. Therapists and counselors readily teach people the habit and skill of repeating back what they have just been told – in their own words – to confirm that they have rightly understood the intention and communication of the speaker.
Slight misunderstandings of truth have the ability to compound upon each other over generations and over time. One such tragedy in the Church is today’s inclusivist teaching that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, therefore no one will go to Hell.
In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. He created Adam and Eve and put them in a garden called Eden giving them one prohibition: do not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Scripture does not tell us how long they lived in the Garden in communion with God, but eventually Adam and Eve ate the fruit. They disobeyed God. They sinned. And because of that one, very small sin, they were cursed, condemned and removed from the presence of God. Through one man, sin entered the world, and all of creation was cursed (1 Cor 5.12-21). God immediately took an animal, killed it, and used the skin to make clothing for Adam and Eve to cover them (Gen 3.21). This was the first sacrifice for sins which set the stage for all of history. Scripture teaches us that “the punishment for sin is death” (Rom 6.23), and that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9.22). Therefore Adam and Eve continued to make sacrifices to atone for their sins throughout their lifetime, as did every person who feared God until the time of Jesus.
Everyone will die a physical death because we have all sinned. The physical penalty for sin is death. The Spiritual penalty for sin is eternal separation from God – damnation (Matt 25.31-46). Sin is our problem. Sin is what separates us from a perfect God. God hates sin. He condemns it. He judges it. He promises that He will never acquit the guilty (Ex 23.7, Nah 1.3).
The progression of our misunderstanding, however, began with a wrong understanding of our sinful nature. For the last five hundred years or so, there has been debate over whether or not human beings are fundamentally good beings or evil. When the conversation first began, the Church had councils and meetings and declared that Scripture teaches plainly that we are wicked (they used the term “depraved”), and they declared anyone who would say that human beings are fundamentally good are heretics – non Christians who pervert the Scripture and lead people astray.
Scripture teaches us that apart from God we are Spiritually dead:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.”
– Eph 2.1-2
Scripture also teaches us that there is none righteous and none who seeks after God of his own will:
“As it is written, there is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is non who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, not even one.”
– Rom 3.10-12
We were enemies of God, we were sons of the devil, we hated God.
“…because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
– Rom 8.7-8
“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
– John 8.44
Unfortunately, this heresy and exceptionally dangerous teaching has continued to flow into conversation and hearts throughout the years. It does ebb in popularity when we find ourselves in major crises, however. The Church by-in-large believed that the world would continue to get better and morph into the thousand year reign of Christ between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of World War I. This is when the popular beliefs of a pre-tribulational rapture and a-millenialism were birthed. However, once humanity returned to her true colors on a global scale through WWI and the atrocities of WWII, people returned to a Biblical understanding of our wicked nature. The last seventy years in the West, however, have lent us to entertain this dangerous belief – even in the midst of wars in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and many more, as well as the growing reality of terrorism and unrest even in our own communities. It is almost like we have stuck our heads down in the sand and proclaim that a little love will reveal a terrorist to truly have a good heart, rather than recognizing our own tendencies towards evil. But that is another conversation for another day.
Compounding the difficulty of our misunderstanding of the human nature is our misunderstanding of the nature of God. We cling to those glorious biblical truths that “God is love” (1 John 4.7-8), that He is merciful (Deut 4.31), that He is kind (Ps 36.7), and most importantly He is gracious (Titus 2.11).
These truths have been erroneously applied to our worldview such that we think human beings are not really that bad, and God is gracious and loving, so He would never judge or condemn us – He will forgive us. A loving God would never send someone to Hell, because we are all basically good. We just make mistakes. We cling to verses like 1 John 2.2 to appease ourselves:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
– 1 John 2.1-2
So we are left to simply ask the question, “for whom did Jesus die?” The emerging popular belief is that Jesus died “for the whole world” – therefore He paid the penalty for every sin of every person, therefore everyone is safe. The popular teaching for the last thirty years which has led us to this terrifying state of misunderstanding is “Jesus died for everyone, we only have to believe and receive it”. This is a half truth that leads us to the heresy we are facing today.
Because either a sin has been punished or it has not. If Jesus paid the punishment for my sins, then there is nothing left for which I would be condemned. People go to Hell because of their sin, not because they rejected Jesus’ sacrifice.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
– 2 Cor 5.10
“But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”
– Rom 2.5-8
Jesus came to the world to take care of our sin problem. We could not appease the wrath of God by making sacrifices or tying to be good enough. Every sin will be punished – either in Jesus on the cross, or in us eternally in Hell.
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
– 2 Cor 5.21
The answer to the question is simply: Jesus died for those who would be saved. This does not compute in our finite, worldly minds because we do not have God’s sovereignty or perspective outside of time. God not only knows who will be saved, He chooses them, gives them to Jesus, gives them the gift of faith, sanctifies them, and makes them righteous.
“Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
– Eph 1.4-6
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
– John 6.37
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
– Eph 2.8-9
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
– Phil 1.6
“…for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
– Phil 2.13
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”
– Rom 8.28-3
What then does the Bible mean, “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)? And, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3.16). In order to understand this, it is important to remember the context of the New Testament letters. Throughout history until this point, God had chosen the Hebrew people as His own. They were commanded not to intermarry with other nationalities, they were commanded to remain separate and to keep themselves pure from the world, other cultures, other religions, and other influences. When Jesus came on the scene, He fulfilled the promise to Abraham that through Him, all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen 12.2-3). Jesus blew open the doors of salvation to include people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Rev 7.9). It is not every person in every tribe, tongue and nation, but individuals from every tribe, tongue and nation.
This was difficult for the Jews of the day. Many Jewish believers remained separatists. Many Jewish believers tried to force the Mosaic Law on non-Jewish believers by compelling them to be circumcised. The Old Covenant had taught them that an outsider could settle amongst them if and only if they were circumcised. We even see Peter stumble in adapting to this paradigm shift – the very one to whom Jesus gave a vision about reaching non-Jews and the first one to lead an entire non-Jewish family to faith in Jesus (Gal 2.11-13).
Therefore we rightly understand John to be teaching us that Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of Jews, but also for the sins of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. The whole world. The word “world” here literally means cosmos, the sphere of the world. It is, in fact, the Greek word “κόσμος” which transliterates “kosmos”. We must take the context in consideration alongside the entire teaching of Scripture to come to the full understanding that God loves and has chosen people from every nation, and His sacrifice paid the punishment and debt for people from every nation. We know those people whose debt has been paid by their belief and repentance. Reading the fullness of John 3.16 shows us that Jesus’ death only paid for those who would believe, and those who believe are those to whom He gives faith:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 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 3.16-18
There is an offering of grace to everyone. Theologians call this “general grace” and a “general calling”. Scripture is abundantly clear, “All who believe will be saved”. But Scripture is also abundantly clear that God puts it within some to believe. If you hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and desire to be saved, God Himself has put it in you to believe! So believe and be saved! To everyone else, the Gospel is 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
We, however, do not have that insight of God to know who will be saved. We also have been commanded to preach the Gospel boldly, at all times, and make disciples of every nation (2 Tim 4.2, 1 Peter 3.15, Col 4.5-6, Mat 28.18-20). Thus we must proclaim the Gospel to everyone and trust God to provide the fruit.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.”
– 1 Cor 3.6
Will everyone be saved? No. Because not everyone will believe. Those who believe have made an unthinkable exchange with Jesus whereby He took our guilt and shame and by paying the penalty for them was free to give us His righteousness (1 Cor 5.21). There is now no condemnation because every sin we have ever committed and will ever commit has already been punished in Jesus.
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
– Rom 8.1
There is, however, still condemnation for those who are not in Christ Jesus. And that is because their sins have not been punished and will be punished in eternity.
Therefore, let us take seriously the command of Jesus to get out and share the Gospel with everyone. Let us have compassion on those around us who do not yet know Jesus, considering their eternity and be the mouthpiece by which Jesus may instill faith in their hearts! Let us serve and honor Jesus by obeying Him in sharing and let us be used by Jesus to make disciples of every tribe, tongue and nation – all to His glory!