For the Sins of the World

Within the new testament, Jesus is said to take away the sins of the entire world. What does this mean, and how should it influence our thinking about the mission of the church in history? In this article, I’ll be interacting with the most common understanding of such language and proposing an alternative reading, one which is more salvation-historical in scope.

Individual or Corporate?

There are a number of passages in the new testament which teach that Jesus came to save the whole world. Jesus is said, many times, to be the one who takes away the sins of the “world” (John 1:29, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 John 2:2, 4:14). He is said to make atonement for the sins of “all” mankind (Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, 4:10, Romans 5:18). What does this language mean in its context?

The most common interpretation of such language is to understand it in an individual and subjective sense. In other words, each individual person in the world is offered salvation through the death of Christ, but they can only receive the benefits of his death by personally responding in faith and repentance to the message of the gospel. This is how many commentators have typically understood such language.

A better reading though, which is more consistent with the flow of the relevant passages, is to take such language in a corporate and objective sense. In other words, the whole world (as a corporate entity) will actually be saved through the gospel. This doesn’t mean the salvation of each individual person, but it does mean the salvation of the vast majority of people at some future point in history. This happens in a gradual sense, as the gospel fills the world like a mustard seed growing into a full tree or like yeast spreading through dough (Matthew 13:31-33).

Saviour of the World

Let’s take, for instance, one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. In John 3:16, we are told that God “loved the world” and sent Jesus so that those who believe in him may have eternal life. The reference to “whoever believes in him” is often taken to qualify the first half of the verse, so that God’s love for the world is taken as indicating a mere wishful intent to save all mankind, an intent which is only realized for the small group of individuals who actually believe. However, this reading doesn’t fit with the following verse, which reads “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The idea conveyed here is not merely of individuals from the world being saved, but of the world itself being saved.

We see a similar pattern elsewhere. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul builds up a careful argument that since the time of Adam, death has reigned over the human race, but that now through Jesus Christ, there is “justification and life for all men” (v18). Elsewhere in the passage, Paul uses the term “many” in reference to those saved through the gospel, but this shouldn’t be taken as implying a small remnant of humanity. Earlier in the passage, Paul draws a contrast between the “many” who died since the fall of Adam with the “many” who are transformed by the coming of Christ (v15), implying that the second group are greater than the first.

In fact, several of these ‘cosmic salvation’ passages in the new testament clearly teach not simply that Jesus died for the world but that he actually saved (or rather, will save) the world. 1 Timothy 4:11 teaches that God “is the saviour of all people, especially of those who believe”. This implies that God doesn’t merely save the small community who believe in the present time, but will save the whole world in the long run. Other passages which teach similarly would include Colossians 1:20, which indicates God’s intent to “reconcile to himself all things” through Christ and Ephesians 1:10, which teaches that God intends to “unite all things” in Christ.

All of this finds its origin in the promise to Abraham. God had promised to him that “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God confirms this promise later on in Genesis when he assures Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (22:18). This promise, that the tribes and nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham, is fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of his Spirit in history (Galatians 3:8, 14).

Glory filling the Earth

In conclusion, the new testament teaches not only that God offers salvation to the world, but that God will actually save the world. This doesn’t mean that every person who ever lived will be saved, but it does mean that the world, the nations of the earth, will come to acknowledge Christ as Lord over all. This will happen through the preaching of the gospel in every nation, until the kings of the earth bow the knee to Christ and the glory of the Lord fills the whole world.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)

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