“The Whole World”
Recently, SBF blogger Nathan White has begun a much-anticipated series [at least by me!] on the Regulative Principle of Worship, demonstrating a Reformed understanding of what the Bible teaches concerning how we praise the Lord, give for His kingdom, learn from His Word, and serve on another to the glory of God in a corporate setting. Previous to this post, Nathan had written an article on the practical ramifications of limited atonement– how what a Reformed understanding of what the Bible teaches concerning the perfect work of Christ on our behalf affects our daily Christian walk. Thinking on what the Bible says about the death of Christ on our behalf, I was driven once again to think about Dr. Jerry Vines’ sermon from last year at First Baptist Church Woodstock in which he, among other things, tried to refute the doctrine of limited atonement. Having dealt briefly with how Dr. Vines’ handled the Scripture in an earlier post, I wanted to take this opportunity to address one of his statements, one which I didn’t sufficiently address before, and the like of which I hear over and over again from the anti-Reformed faction of the Southern Baptist Convention:
There’s no way you can monkey with the text and play exegetical games and get around the fact that the Bible teaches when Jesus died on the Cross, He died for the sins of the whole world. [Jerry Vines, “Calvinism– A Baptist and his election” (sermon, First Baptist Church Woodstock, GA, 8 October 2006), download.]
Reading the quote above, my first thought is, ‘Amen, Dr. Vines! Jesus is truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’ (John 1:29) Regarding the way in which Dr. Vines utilizes this statement, however– in its context– I am considerably less enthusiastic about what Dr. Vines is actually saying. And so, by the observation just given, my first point is made, namely, that when evaluating a statement, attention must be given to the author’s intent, as discovered through examination of the context. For, as Robert Plant once sang, “You know sometimes words have two meanings.” When the context of words or phrases under consideration is ignored, then one often is guilty of equivocation– the fallacy Dr. Vines makes in the quote above.
Dr. Vines speaks the sentence under examination in the context of a section in his sermon wherein he attempts to disprove the doctrine of particular redemption, or limited atonement. Other than giving an analogy concerning a man who pays for the meals of an entire group, only to have some people insist on paying for their own meals (which I would argue is a very weak analogy, but that is not the passage currently being considered), Dr. Vines’ entire argument rests upon quoting passages wherein Jesus is said to die for “all” or “the world,” concluding with the sentence already quoted. For this line of argumentation to accomplish its goal, the word “world” must be understood according to the theology of general atonement– that is, “world” must be taken to mean “every single individual to ever live throughout human history,” specifically in the passages concerning the sacrifice of Christ cited by Dr. Vines: John 1:29, 1 John 2:2, and John 3:16. Vines’ assumed definition of world is extremely difficult to prove from the text, however, as it is obvious that John often uses the term “world” to mean something other than “every single individual to ever live throughout human history.” To give a few examples, in 1 John 5:19, John writes that the whole world lies in wickedness, in opposition to those who are ‘of God.’ Similarly, John records a prayer of Jesus in John 17 in which Jesus prays for those given to him out of “the world” (v. 6), specifically stating that He is not praying for “the world” (v.9). Conversely, John records the statement of the Pharisees that “the world” has gone after Jesus (John 12:19), indicating the majority population of Israel, excluding themselves, is following Him. In each of these references, John uses the word “world” to indicate masses of people, and yet particular individuals are excluded from the designation of “world.” For Dr. Vines’ argument to be effective, he must demonstrate why “world” in the passages he cites must mean “every single individual to ever live throughout human history.” Otherwise, it would seem more consistent with John’s use of “world” (and with John’s quotes from Jesus concerning the intention of His death specifically for His sheep, recorded in John 10), if we understand “world” simply to mean masses of people, as John writes, “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). To go beyond this into the general atonement definition, without further proof, certainly seems to be equivocation.