A Brief Study of Calvin’s Exposition of I John 1:9 and I John 2:2, Part 2


I John 2:2

The controversy over the extent of the atonement emerges in I John 2:2. The passage reads in context: “My little children, these things I write to you in order that you might not sin. But if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation concerning our sins, and not only concerning our sins, but also concerning the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2). John’s words beginning in chapter one is a reminder that sin can be forgiven. Once again, John reminds the reader of the purpose of the book: “that you might not sin.” But if a Christian should sin, John provides the solution. As Calvin notes:

…he (John) immediately adds a second clause, that when we sin we have an advocate…this confirms…that we are very far from being perfectly righteous, nay, that we contract new guilt daily, and that yet there is a remedy for reconciling us to God, if we flee to Christ…the hope of salvation.[1]

But how far and to what extent is this advocacy made?[2] Christ, the great sacrifice, sanctifies us, propitiates for us, and advocates on our behalf, but the latter clause is the troubling statement for those who argue for a particular atonement. The clause reads that these benefits are applied to us, but not to us only, but also applied to the sins of the whole world. Calvin writes that this clause serves to “assure the faithful that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.”[3] Calvin raises the immediate question: “how have the sins of the whole world been expiated?” The French theologian proceeds to deny the possibility that salvation is extended to the reprobate. Calvin declares that one solution is to pronounce that Christ “suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect.”[4] Though this solution may be applicable to some texts, Calvin does not believe it applies to this particular text; rather, Calvin prefers to understand the universal language as indicating a “benefit common to the whole Church.”[5] Hence, the words “all” and “whole” are not applied to the reprobate, but “designates those who should believe as well as those who were scattered through various parts of the world.”[6]

Strengths, Weaknesses, and Usefulness

Calvin’s theological view in this brief analysis of his interpretation, reveals that the Geneva commentator ascribed great power to humanity’s sinful condition, while at the same time ascribing even greater power to the Deliverer of sin, Christ Jesus. Implicit in these two passages-and explicit in his exposition of the entire Bible-is a commitment to the efficacy of Christ’s work on behalf of His own Church.

Calvin’s greatest weakness is not his own. He was incapable of providing a richer background to the texts due to the limited amount of knowledge and research in those areas. Nevertheless, Calvin’s insatiable commitment to special revelation provides the Church with one of the most articulate expositions of God and Redemption.

His strengths lie in many areas, but most significantly, in his sober assessment of the human heart.[7] For Calvin, the solution was not found in the Papacy-which he so strongly rebuked-but in the Christ, the righteous one. Pastors, scholars, and laypersons alike, will find Calvin’s commentary of I John enriching, encouraging, and timeless.

[1] Calvin, pgs.170-171.

[2] Calvin-in typical 16th century Reformation style-chastises the Papacy for “burying the idea of Christ’s advocacy on our behalf. Pg. 172.

[3] Ibid. 173.

[4] Ibid. 173.

[5] Ibid. 173.

[6] Ibid. 173. This argument is commonly known as the “geographical argument.” It was commonly held by other Reformers.

[7] Calvin once referred to the human heart as an “idol factory.”

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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