Paul Derengowski, ThM
Typically citing 1 John 2:2 as the springboard, some interpret—more like, impose upon the Bible—it to mean that no infant could possibly enter the portals of hell. John wrote, starting in verse one, “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Then he writes, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” But, is it possible that John had infants in mind when he penned his words? A closer look will show that he did not.
First of all, John, like all the New Testament writers, is not addressing unbelievers. If he or they were addressing unbelievers then admonitions involving evangelism and morality would be pointless. Universalism completely undermines the urgency to either preach the gospel and carry out the “Great Commission,” but it also serves to sanction immoral behavior, since everyone has been propitiated by the blood of Christ and, hence, everyone is going to heaven upon experiencing death anyway. Besides, Universalism contradicts Jesus’ own words which tell us that a majority of people will go the way of destruction one day, rather than enter the narrow gate of eternal life (Matt. 7:13-14).
Second, elsewhere John makes it quite clear that salvation is only for those for whom God prescribes it. John records Jesus saying, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:44). Shortly thereafter Jesus is quoted to say, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (Jn. 6:65). Clearly, salvation is not universal, since God does not draw all men to Jesus. The majority will die outside of Christ and spend an eternity in torment, unforgiven and unregenerate, in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). Those who are saved come exclusively through the will of God, not man (Jn. 1:13). If it was any other way, no one would ever attain salvation; all would find their destiny in hell, and Christ’s death on the cross would be superfluous.
Third, John speaks of propitiated believers as those who “keep His commandments” (1 Jn. 2:3) and know Christ. If those who choose to cite 1 John 2:2 in an effort to argue that infants will not be condemned to hell because (1) salvation is universally accessible, and (2) they are incapable of committing actual sins, they must be consistent by also citing 1 John 2:3-4, since they are part of the context. A person who does not keep Jesus’ commandments cannot be saved, much less can they know him. Yet, how many infants are capable of such a commitment or knowledge? If an infant, in other words, is incapable of committing an actual sin, then how is that same infant capable of keeping Jesus’ commandments? Moreover, how many infants even know the name Jesus, much less can intelligently relate to him on a personal level? It would seem that by citing 1 John 2:2 as support to keep the infant out of hell, the person doing so helps to add to the condemnation of the infant.
So, what and who is John referring to as “the whole world” in 1 John 2:2, if he is not referring to the whole world?
The “what” must refer to the efficiency of Christ’s death if it was applied to each and every person who ever lived. Yet, as already argued, such efficiency has not been applied to everyone. Only a few have had their sins propitiated, which is a sophisticated way of saying one’s sins have been reconciled or forgiven by God. The remainder have either already been judged, and are dead and waiting in hell for their final judgment, or they are currently under the curse and condemnation of God because of their unbelief (Jn. 3:18). Nevertheless, Christ’s death could efficiently bring forgiveness to everyone “dead in trespasses and sins,” if God so chose; that is how effective his death was at removing the taint of sin.
The “who,” therefore, must refer to a world of believers that will never be. John understood, once again, the extent to which Christ’s death could reconcile the sinful with God. Yet, he also understood that, depending on God’s providential plan and purpose, there was no intent to redeem everyone. If there was, then all would be saved, since no person’s individual will to be damned could possibly thwart God’s will to redeem. “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out,” Jesus said (Jn. 6:37). Taken together, Christ’s death is efficient enough to redeem everyone, but it has not been effectively applied to everyone, nor will it.
Therefore, 1 John 2:2 cannot be used as a proof-text to show that infants are precluded from the possibility of being condemned to hell upon dying in infancy. As seen elsewhere, infants are conceived in sin, born with a sin nature, and enter the world at odds with God from the very start.
Sin is what separates the individual from God and un-atoned for sin has only one justifiable prescription: eternal separation from God in hell. 1 John 2:2 does not support or condone a universalistic view of salvation, but is speaking strictly of the efficiency of Christ’s atonement, which is capable of wiping out the sin debt of every person who ever lived, if it is applied universally. Since many will die in their sins, though, then John’s comment is restricted only by God’s providential application, which is limited to only a few whom God chooses.
To John salvation is about God doing for the sinner what the sinner cannot do for himself, whether in the actual choice of salvation or the action leading to salvation. Salvation has nothing to do with the age, will, or capability of the sinner. It has to do with what brings glory to God. Salvation of the infant may be God’s greatest act, given the child’s age and incapability, but God is by no means obligated to act in behalf of the infant because of those factors.
Salvation, therefore, is not universally accessible, as if the sinner has something to do with his or her salvation, but is providentially gifted to those whom God elects, infant or otherwise. Those who fail to have their sin propitiated (i.e. atone for or forgiven) ultimately face an eternity separated from God, in hell and in torment.