John 1:29 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The last time we looked at John 1:29, we focused on the OT allusion in the passage wherein John the Baptist referred to the Lord Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God.” We saw how through typology, we can better understand the relationship between the OT institutions, such as Passover and the sacrificial lamb, and the NT greater Sacrifice, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. In this post, we’ll look at the second half of John’s declaration “who takes away the sins of the world.”
There are essentially 3 conclusions that are typically arrived at in a passage like this. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the universality of the language, i.e. “of the world.” Those who hold to this universal view would conclude that this passage promotes and teaches universalism, or the belief that everyone will ultimately be saved and that Jesus has indeed taken away the sins of every single individual without exception.
The second conclusion is that the passage speaks of universality, i.e. all without exception, but that the language needs to be qualified to include application or effectiveness restricted to only those who believe. In other words, Christ died for everyone without exception, but the application of His salvation is only made to those who believe in Him.
The third conclusion is that world here does not refer to everyone without exception, but instead refers to everyone without distinction. Rather than limit the effectiveness of Christ’s saving work, those who hold to this position limit the extent of Christ’s atonement to the elect, though see it extending to people from “every tribe, tongue, and nation”, i.e. the world (see Rev. 5:9).
Summarizing, the popular views are: 1) Universalism, i.e. all people everywhere all time will be saved 2) Christ died for all people and all people have had their sins removed by Him, but the effectiveness of Christ’s saving work is only actualized through faith. 3) The effectiveness of Christ’s atonement is not restricted in power, but is instead limited in extent to the elect, though the elect will be comprised of people from every tongue, nation, and tribe. Which view then is correct?
First we must deal with the theory of universalism. If this were the correct view, we could toss out any notion of divine punishment; in other words, there would be no hell because there would be no one deserving of hell, because all had been atoned for by Christ on the cross. I hope it should be obvious how patently unbiblical this view is and how it assaults the very nature of the Gospel by denying the substitution of Christ in the place of sinners, suffering the very punishment that they deserved and satisfying the wrath of God. It also denies the reality of hell, of which Jesus speaks most prominently. It is for good reason that the view of universalism has been condemned as heresy since the early church.
Secondly, and perhaps more popularly, is the view that, by necessity, limits the effectiveness of Christ’s atoning work, because it views Christ’s atonement having been extended to all people without exception, but that it has no effect until a person believes. We must ask then, particularly on the basis of this passage from John 1:29, but more broadly on the pages of the rest of God’s Holy Word, is this the correct view?
Remember in the last post we saw the OT connection to the Passover sacrifice; now, we must again keep in mind the OT sacrificial system that God instituted to Israel under Levitical law. These sacrifices, made throughout the year, really culminated in an annual sacrifice known as The Day of Atonement. You can read more about that here and here. Recall that in the description of this sacrifice from Leviticus 16 we find the high priest’s requirement to bring before God two goats over whom the priest would cast lots to determine which goat was sacrificed and which goat was set free into the wilderness, i.e. the scapegoat. In those previous posts we noted the dual nature of atonement that was typified in the OT sacrifice, namely one of expiation, the removal of sin and guilt (this was the scapegoat) and propitiation, the satisfaction of God’s wrath through the sacrifice of atonement (the slaughtered lamb). We noted that both of these OT concepts must be held together as they point towards the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who both expiated the guilt and sins of His people and satisfied or propitiated the wrath of the Father in their place.
With this background laid before us, we return to our statement from John 1:29 and we find that John the Baptist is using language very similar in concept to that of expiation, or the removal of sin and guilt. Now we must ask, given our understanding of Scripture, has Jesus Christ removed the sin and guilt from the entire world without exception? In other words, has everyone who has ever lived or ever will live had their sin and guilt removed from them? Did all those who lived prior to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ have their sin and guilt removed from them? Have those who have died apart from saving faith in Christ been sent to hell unjustly, having their sin and guilt removed, yet still having to suffer in all eternity for sins from which Christ expiated? Simply put, no.
The same author of our passage, the Apostle John, writes using similar language in 1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Note here a nearly identical statement, only this time the concept of propitiation is in view. So would this particular view of all without exception fit this passage? Well, this would leave us with a passage that resulted in every single individual person in the world having the wrath of God removed from them. John 3:36 tells us, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Contrary to this second view we are examining, John 3:36 is a prime example of how God’s wrath has not been removed from every single individual person without exception, but in fact those who do not believe Jesus is Lord and that He shed His blood on the cross of Calvary do in fact have the wrath of God remaining on them. Consistent with this view is Ephesians 2:4, “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Note here that Paul, in writing to believers, placing them, along with himself and us, in the category of children of wrath along with the rest of mankind. Only here, Paul asserts that because of God’s mercy He has made us alive in Christ, who bore the wrath of God on our behalf. All those who believe in Christ can trace their faith to God who has given them new life and the ability to believe (Phil. 1:29; Ephesians 2:8-10).
The conclusion of this second view, as seen from both John 1:29 and 1 John 2:2 must by necessity result in universalism, the view espoused in #1. If every individual person has had their sin and guilt removed and the wrath of the Father satisfied in Christ on their behalf, then there simply remains no justifiable reason for the punishment of unbelievers in hell. Most who hold to this view get around this conclusion by making a person’s faith the necessary ingredient for Christ’s saving work to take effect, but we simply do not find this corroborated in Scripture. In fact, we find that Scripture refers to a person’s individual faith in Christ as even a gift from Him (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil 1:29). So salvation is all of grace. This view begs the question then, if Christ has died for every single individual’s sin and guilt, what about the sin of unbelief?
Which brings us to the third and final conclusion; the view that holds Christ’s atonement is without limit in its power, but is limited in its extent. If this is true, what are we to make of passages such as John 1:29 and even 1 John 2:2 which would seem to extend Christ’s expiation and propitiation to the entire world, without exception. Two clues from these passages will help our understanding of world here. First, recall that the OT concepts from which these two passages build is in respect to the Levitical system of sacrifices established by God with Israel. When the high priest entered into the temple to make the sacrifice on behalf of the people, it did not include all the surrounding pagan nations. Only those who had identified with the God of Israel, through physical circumcision, whether ethnic Jew or not (see Genesis 17:10-14; Exodus 12:48; see also proselytes). With this in mind, one can easily see how referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God might carry with it restricted language to Israel only. Thus when we read of John the Baptist attaching the statement, “who takes away the sins of the world” his intention is not to include every individual without exception, but is intended to mean every individual without distinction. In other words, he is expanding the OT concept of sacrifice beyond simply Israel, but now to every tongue, tribe, and nation. Likewise, in 1 John 2:2, we see the Apostle making the qualification, “not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” thus removing the perceived strictly Jewish application and expanding it to include all nations, Jew and Gentile, whom he refers to as the whole world.
This concept can be likewise seen in John 11:49-53, “49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
Here we see the high priest Caiaphas prophesying of Christ’s death, not only for the nation of Israel, but for all the children of God scattered abroad. His statement provides commentary on the very idea of this expansion from Israel to the “world”.
Jesus’ death on the cross absolutely accomplished all that He intended and it is not restricted in power in any sense of the word. There was truly a transaction that took place on Calvary; real sin and guilt was removed and real wrath from God the Father was placated by the Son through His substitutionary death. Man’s faith does not give Jesus’ death power. It is simply the means through which God has chosen to unite His people with His Son such that they come to realize the effect of Jesus’ death on the cross. This passage, and others, does not teach universalism, nor is it meant to be a blanket reference to all people without exception. But as we’ve seen, it is meant to convey a powerful message that Christ is not merely the Savior of the Jews, but is in fact the Savior of the World (1 John 4:14), all nations, from whom God has sovereignly decreed to build His Church.
For more on the definite atonement of Christ see John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished Redemption Applied and John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. See also the recent video debate: White vs. Brown. Also the following link by R.C. Sproul: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/two-important-words-good-friday-expiation-and-propitiation/