I don’t believe that verse has the universal meaning that you and others give it.
“He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for those of the whole world.” How are we to understand that? This is obviously a critical question.
Is this universalism? Does this mean that Jesus has literally propitiated God for the whole world? Does the whole world mean the whole world? Has Jesus actually satisfied God’s justice for everybody who has ever lived? If so, then where is hell in that? Where is condemnation? Why are all the warnings and why preach the gospel?
The answer is this is not a statement of universalism. It is not telling us that the atonement was literally made for everyone. What is it saying? I’ll tell you what it’s saying. John was in particular Jewish and primarily wrote to a Jewish audience. In Galatians 2:9 the Apostle Paul describes his first meeting with the other Apostles. He writes, “When James, Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship that we should go to the heathen and they to the circumcision.” Did you get that? So in Galatians 2:9, James, Peter and John make it clear that their ministry is to the circumcision, to the Jews.
John was an Apostle to the Jews. The recipients of his epistles would be predominantly, if not completely, Jewish. He is saying to this Jewish audience, who completely understand propitiation because they understand the sacrificial system, they understand the function of the Mercy Seat, they understand Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And what they understand about it is to be learned from several verses in Leviticus, listen to this, verse 17 of chapter 16, “When the high priest goes in to make atonement, no one shall be in the tent of meeting until he comes out that he may make atonement for himself, for his household...listen carefully...and for all the assembly of Israel.” The Day of Atonement had limitations. It applied only to Israel, only to the people of Israel. It was a sacrifice for Israel. It went on for centuries as their unique Day of Atonement. John says here, “Jesus Himself is the propitiation, Jesus Himself is the sacrifice, Jesus Himself is the bloody offering upon the Mercy Seat of God and not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.” The normal, national, limitation of the Day of Atonement for Israel is no more. In the Jewish context, they understood Day of Atonement, they understood the language of propitiation. John is telling them that the sacrifice that Jesus offered is not just for the nation Israel, it’s now for the world because the Lord is calling out a people for His name from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
Jesus on the cross offered an atonement for those in Israel who would repent and believe and those throughout the world who would repent and believe. It is not a universal appeasement of God. Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of Judas because when Judas died, he went to his own place to pay for his own sins. Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of Herod. Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of Pilate. Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of Adolph Hitler. Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of the mob that screamed for His blood. Jesus didn’t pay for the sins of all that mass of humanity that show up at the Great White Throne and are cast into the Lake of Fire forever and ever where they will give their satisfaction to the offended Law of God. But He did pay for the sins of all who will believe in Israel and the world. The point is, it went beyond their normal provincial idea of propitiation. And He didn’t just make salvation an option, He actually purchased salvation for all who repent and believe because they are called by God. It was an actual substitution.
Here is what John Piper had to say on 1 John 2:2, to wit,
The final word of the text is that we must not keep this consolation for ourselves alone. “And he is not the propitiation for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.”
John does not mean that all God’s wrath against the sins of every person in the world has been propitiated, because then every person in the world would be saved. “He who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). The wrath of God is propitiated only for those who obey the Son of God. (Cf. Romans 3:25.)
What John means can best be seen when we compare the closest parallel to this verse in his writings, namely, John 11:52. Caiaphas predicts the death of Jesus like this: “He prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” Or as Jesus says in John 10:1516, “I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold; I must bring them also.”
In other words there are children of God, or sheep, scattered through the whole world. As John says in Revelation 5:9, Christ was slain and by his blood didst ransom men for God from every tongue and tribe and people and nation.” He did not ransom everybody. He gave his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He did not propitiate the wrath of God against everybody. But he laid down his life for the sheep. They are scattered throughout the world in every tongue and tribe and people and nation.
No one who enjoys the forgiveness of Jesus can be content to hog it for himself. He is not the propitiation for our sins only. There are other sheep that are scattered throughout the whole world. Their sins, too, are covered. And the last commandment of Jesus was, “Go make disciples out of them from every people.”
It is not universalism to say that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for all sins. It means that the price has been paid at the cross for all sin, that no sin can now stand in the way of anyone’s salvation.
The sacrifice opened the way to eternity for those who receive Him. “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (John 3:6)
In other words, salvation comes to those who believe. “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
As repeated the other day, an illustration a past freeper friend used to use: I can buy you a ticket to Hawaii, can tell you about it, can tell you it’s waiting for you at the ticket desk at the airport, but if you don’t believe me, then you’re not going to get on that flight. Nevertheless, that ticket has been purchased whether you avail yourself of it or not.