Yesterday morning, I preached from 1 John 2:1-6 in our series titled, “Know” which is a verse-by-verse exposition of John’s letter to the Christians throughout Asia minor. The first half of my sermon was focused on the ministry of Jesus and the second half was centered on pursuing assurance of true saving grace.
In the first half of the sermon, one of the points of consideration was the atoning work of Jesus on behalf of sinners. John calls Jesus the propitiation offered up to God the Father to save sinners. The reality of salvation through Christ is a joyful truth to consider. We are not left to find God or please God on our own. However, the extent of the atonement is a bit more complicated and certainly controversial in evangelical circles. I attempted to explain what John intended by the phrase in 1 John 2:2 and by doing so, I had to labor over several points to demonstrate what John was not intending to communicate.
The Word World Is Used Differently throughout the New Testament
Before taking time to consider the way the word world is used throughout the New Testament, many evangelicals run for the hills when people start discussing the extent of the atonement because of faulty methods, poor teaching on this subject, or both. How does Jesus use the word world?
John 17:9 – I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
In this passage, world is in reference to unbelievers among the total human population. Jesus makes a distinction between his people and the people of the world.
John 17:16-19 – They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
In this passage, world is used to reference the pagan worldly system. Jesus is said to consecrate himself for the people of God—not for the whole world.
The Extent of the Atonement in Various Other Passages
In various different places, we see the death of Jesus being offered up on behalf of a specific group of people as opposed to the entire world without distinction. John uses the word, “ἱλασμός” which is translated propitiation in our text. The word means, “appeasement necessitated by sin, expiation” 
Isaiah 53:10-12 – Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Certainly the prophet could have used the Hebrew word for world, but he did not do so. Instead, he pointed out on a couple of occasions in the suffering servant passage (Is. 53) that Jesus’ death was offered up for many. This is a clear distinction that limits the atonement.
Mark 10:45 – For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark 14:24 – And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
In Mark’s Gospel, we find two passages that seem to make it obvious that Jesus’ death was offered up for the sins of many people in the world, but not the whole world without exception.
Matthew 1:21 – She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
When Jesus’ birth was prophesied by the angel to Joseph, the angel touched on the extent of Jesus’ atoning death. According to the angel, Jesus came to save his people from their sins. Do you see the clear distinction?
John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:15 – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. There is always a clear distinction between the sheep and goats in the New Testament (see Matt. 25:32-33).
Ephesians 5:25 – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Jesus is pictured in Ephesians as giving his life for the church—not the entire world without exception. Therefore, it must be said that Jesus’ death was not a generic death, for a generic population in hopes that a generic people would come to Him by the power of their faith. Jesus’ death was substitutionary and had a specific design that would bring about definite results.
Was the atonement accomplished by the death of Jesus limited in any way? Yes, but that should do two very specific things in the hearts of all Christians. First it should humble every Christian knowing that God had no obligation to save anyone and he chose to send his Son to die in the place of sinners. Secondly, nobody knows who Jesus died for as we glance over our town, our city, the local high school, and our place of employment. We must go and share the good news of Jesus Christ indiscriminately and trust the sovereign grace of God for the results. One day, around the throne of God above, there will be a people from the whole world who were saved by the atoning death of Jesus—praising him and worshipping him (Rev. 5).
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 474.