Is it true that the whole world's sins are forgiven at the moment of Christ's death on the cross? We don't have to ask for his forgiveness, but in order to be saved we must place our faith in His resurrection after death?
In recent times, a false teaching has emerged within the church to the effect that Jesus’ payment on the cross forgave the sins of the entire world without regard to faith. Usually, this teaching cites 1 John 2:1-2 to support such a conclusion:
1John 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
1John 2:2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
This reading is a misinterpretation of John’s teaching and is contrary to other scripture.
First, John’s teaching in 1 John 2 is not arguing for universal salvation. John was writing to an audience of Jewish believers living in the Diaspora in the mid-first century. To these believers, John says that Christ’s death on the cross was a payment not only for them but for the “whole world,” meaning for all kinds of men (i.e., Jew & Gentile), in all places and throughout all history. The Lord was dying for the sins of humanity, not just to save the Jews of the first century.
John's comment is similar to the statements of other writers of the New Testament when they say:
Rom. 6:10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
Heb. 7:26 For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens;
Heb. 7:27 who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
Heb. 9:11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation;
Heb. 9:12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
1Pet. 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
In all these passages, the author is speaking of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. His death is a once-for-all sacrifice sufficient to enact the Father’s plan of salvation such that no additional sacrifice is needed. No additional Messiah is required. Jesus did all the work needed.
Therefore, these statements do NOT mean that the payment of Christ on the cross was applied to the sins of all humanity nor that all people will ultimately benefit from it. As John himself says:
John 3:17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
John 3:18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Notice, those who do not believe are showing evidence they were “judged already” because they did not believe. Men are born sinners, and therefore all human beings are due judgment from birth. As Paul says:
Rom. 3:10 as it is written,
“There is none righteous, not even one;
Rom. 3:11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
Rom. 3:12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
As someone once said, we are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are born sinners. Therefore, all men are due judgment for their sin nature from birth, not for some specific sinful decision or action during their life. Those who fail to place their trust in Christ will be judged for their sin nature and the life of sin that resulted.
As John himself writes in Revelation:
Rev. 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.
Rev. 20:12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.
Rev. 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.
Rev. 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
Rev. 20:15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
At the judgment, the world of unbelievers will be called to account. They will not be judged for a specific sin of rejecting Christ. In fact, many of these will never have even heard the name Jesus or been exposed to the Gospel. Millions die every day who have never heard the name Jesus. Nevertheless, they will be rightly judged at the Great White Throne since they are sinners by nature and are due the penalty of sin.
Only by God’s grace may a person come to trust in God’s propitiation in Christ and be saved from the penalty of their sin. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the once-for-all payment for the whole world, but the effective application of His payment requires God’s grace to bring a man or woman to trust in that payment.
Regarding the unforgivable sin, please read our article on this important question.