Atonement in John’s Gospel and First Letter

©David Peterson (2009)

The Fourth Gospel

Köstenberger notes that ‘the giving of life by Jesus may be the most consistently stated purpose of Jesus’ mission in the Fourth Gospel.’[1] He further notes that in passages where this is emphasized (3:16-17; 6:57-58; 10:7-10; and 17:2-3) ‘reference is made in the immediate context to Jesus’ giving of his own life for the salvation of others (cf. also 14:6).’

However, many interpreters have followed Bultmann, who argued that ‘the thought of Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin has no place in John.’[2] For John, the human plight is alienation from God and existence in unbelief, darkness and ignorance of God.  Jesus provides the solution as revealer, in a ministry ranging from incarnation to glorification (the cross is simply a transition to glory).  Salvation is through knowledge of God.

Forestell sought to modify Bultmann’s thesis in a least two significant ways:[3]

  1. While Bultmann claimed that Jesus only effectively revealed that he is the revealer, Forestell understood revelation in John’s Gospel as the apocalyptic disclosure of salvation in Jesus;
  2. Forestell viewed the cross as the focal point of the revelation of God’s love (cf. 3:14-15; 8:28-9; 12:32), but not as an objective event of salvation.

Grigsby, on the other hand, argued that ‘through the use of “Akedah” (1:29; 3:16; 19:17), Paschal (1:29; 19:14, 29, 36), and “living water” (19:34; cf. 4:10-15; 7:37; 13:10) themes, the Evangelist has clearly endorsed the cultic rationale wherein sin is cleansed by either the outpoured blood of the sacrificial victim or the cultic washing with “living water”.’[4]

Salvation in the Fourth Gospel is presented not only as the bestowal of eternal life, but also as a state of existence wherein sin is eliminated and judgment is escaped; and though an expiatory rationale between Christ’s death and sin’s removal is not as explicitly spelled out as in the Pauline literature, there are sufficient hints throughout the Gospel to suppose that the Evangelist endorsed such a rationale.[5]

Köstenberger warns about overstating the case for the presence of atonement motifs in the Fourth Gospel:

Generally, John seems to assume and presuppose the notion of substitutionary sacrifice and atonement rather than elaborating upon these elements as much as the other evangelists.  Especially if John knew (of) the Synoptic Gospels and wrote to supplement rather than to duplicate them, it seems reasonable to expect him to build upon their tradition rather than simply repeat it.[6]

Weston is wary of reading theology into the narrative, but he observes various aspects of John 19 suggesting that ‘John clearly intends his readers to draw sacrificial conclusions about the significance of the cross.’[7] Furthermore, Weston outlines three great paradoxes in the crucifixion account, revealing a complex theological agenda:

  1. Despite appearances, the death of Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s plan (19:24, 28, 36, 37): this is associated with the fulfilment of specific Scriptures and excludes a purely ‘exemplarist’ view of the cross.
  2. Despite appearances, the death of Jesus is entirely voluntary (19:17, 25-7, 28, 30): the command of the Father and the willing self-giving of the Son are held together by John.
  3. Despite appearances, the death of Jesus is a revelation of divine glory (19:19-22): Jesus is ‘crowned’ on the cross and his victory over all the powers is demonstrated (cf. 12:31-2).

John’s First Letter

Michaels argues that, ‘while common authorship cannot be proven, the author of 1 John shows a proprietary interest in the Gospel’s teaching, developing it and clarifying it as his own.’[8] However, Michaels fails to take account of much of the evidence noted above and contends that John’s Gospel ‘never articulates a real doctrine of the atonement.’[9] In his view, John first introduces an explicit theology of Christ’s atoning sacrifice only in connection with the sins of believers in 1 John 1:5, 7.

After a brief preface (1:1-4), the first main section of 1 John begins with the affirmation that ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’ (1:5). With such imagery, John asserts the absolute holiness and moral purity of the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. This understanding of God is at the heart of the apostolic gospel.

Fellowship with God

The argument that extends at least to 2:2 spells out what it means to be in fellowship with such a God and to ‘walk in the light’. As in the OT, cleansing from sin (1:7, 9) and atonement (2:2) are seen to be essential for those who would be in an authentic relationship with the Holy One.  Holiness, cleansing from sin and atonement are intimately related concepts.

Each of the subdivisions in this passage commences with the words ‘if we say’ (1:6, 8, 10) and responds to the errors of certain persons known to the author and his readers.[10] The practical behaviour (‘walking’) of these false teachers gives the lie to their claim that they have fellowship with God and truly know him.

Rhetorically, John also uses this formula to warn the readers not adopt such an approach. Each error is opposed with the challenge of an alternative pattern of behaviour, reflecting certain fundamental beliefs about Jesus Christ (1:7; 1:9; 2:2-2). However, the structure of the argument changes somewhat in the last case.

‘Walking in the light’ actually achieves the goal of fellowship with God since it involves responding faithfully to the revelation that God has given of himself. This means believing the right things and putting them into practice.  Specifically here it means being part of the true community of Christ (1:7, ‘we have fellowship with one another’), since that is where Christ’s message is preserved and lived out (cf. 1:3; 2:19-21).

But John recognises that no Christian can claim to be practically without sin: all will fail and be disobedient. The reassuring promise for those who walk in the light is that ‘the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’. The verb ‘cleanses’ (καθαρίζει) in the present tense suggests that the sacrificial death of Jesus, though a unique, once-for-all event, has an ongoing effect.[11]

John further pursues the matter of sin and divine cleansing when he attacks another slogan of his opponents in 1:8. Their claim to ‘have no sin’ sounds like ‘the gnostic conviction that pneumatics cannot be defiled by the material world and its impurities.’[12] John views this as a dangerous lie (‘we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’), obscuring the need for redemption through Christ.

Fellowship with God requires a life without sin, but this is only possible ‘if we confess our sins’, so that he who is ‘faithful and just’ (πιστός ἐστιν καὶ δίκαιος) might ‘forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1:9).[13] Notice that it is the faithfulness and justice of God that forms the basis of our continuing confidence before him.[14]

Confession of sins (ὁμολογῶμεν) implies some outward expression and not just an inner attitude of contrition. In Judaism it was particularly associated with the Annual Day of Atonement (Lv. 16:21) and with sin-offerings more generally (Lv. 5:5). John identifies God’s willingness to ‘forgive’ or cancel the debt of sin (ἀφῆ) and to ‘cleanse us from unrighteousness’ (καθαρίση ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας) with the sacrifice of Jesus in this context (cf. 1:7).

John finally warns about any claim to be sinless, asserting that this makes God a liar and proves that ‘his word is not in us’ (1:10). Once more, he outlines the positive alternative, showing precisely how Jesus can help those who struggle with sin (2:1-2).

Christ’s present work

Using the title παράκλητος, familiar from the Fourth Gospel in connection with the Holy Spirit, he describes Jesus as an ‘advocate with the Father’ (cf. Jn. 14:16, implying that Jesus already had this role in his earthly ministry).  ‘Intercessor’ might be an appropriate rendering here (cf. Ex. 32:30-2; Job 42:7-10, and the use of different terminology in Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25).

The high-priestly dimension to this activity is suggested by the cultic terminology in the following verse.[15] Describing him as ‘righteous’ (δίκαιον), John recalls the term used of the Father in 1:9 and implies that Jesus is supremely qualified to act as advocate/intercessor on our behalf because of who he is and what he has accomplished.

Christ’s present work as advocate in heaven depends on the effectiveness of his atoning work on the cross. He remains ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (2:2, ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν).  His blood retains its redeeming and cleansing power because he is alive and remains ‘with the Father’ (2:1, πρὸς τὸν πατέρα), always able to apply the benefit of his once-for-all sacrifice to ‘those who approach God through him’ (Heb. 7:25).

The debate about the meaning of ἱλασμός in 2:2 and 4:10 has generally polarised people in favour of either expiation or propitiation.[16] Michaels argues that:

  1. The image of Jesus as παράκλητον πρὸς τὸν πατέρα (2:1) ‘makes God the object, not the subject of the reconciliation taking place, and to that extent supports “propitiation” as the meaning of ἱλασμός’ in 2:2.[17]
  2. God is the subject of reconciliation in 4:10 (ἀπέστειλεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἱλασμὸν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν) and to that extent the reference supports the meaning ‘expiation’.
  3. The death of Jesus is both expiatory and propitiatory in 1 John (‘God placates God’).

In John’s perspective, sin hinders a relationship with God and needs to be dealt with for God’s sake as much as for ours (cf. 1:5-10; 4:7-21).  As heavenly intercessor, the risen Jesus pleads the cause of the sinner because he is righteous and the perfect offering for our sins (2:1-2).

In summary, Jesus suffered for our sin historically when he shed his blood on the cross, thus making it possible for us to experience fellowship with the Holy One. But the benefit of his atoning work needs to be appropriated by confession of sin and ongoing confidence in Christ as ‘advocate’ and ‘atoning sacrifice for sins’.

Walking in the light involves such honest confession of sin and the expression of our need for forgiveness and cleansing through ‘the blood of Jesus’. Walking in the darkness involves a denial of sin and the need for continual application of Christ’s atoning work to our lives.

Destroying the rule of sin

1 John 3:5 affirms that the Son of God was revealed ‘to take away sins’ (τὰς ἁμαρτίας ͗άρη, cf. Jn. 1:29, 36), and 3:8 that the purpose of the incarnation was ‘to destroy the works of the devil’ (λύση τὰ ͗έργα τοῦ διαβόλου).  This is said within the context of affirming God’s intention that ‘no one who abides in him sins’ (3:6).

The Christus Victor theme is applied here to the rule of sin. John holds out the possibility of profound change in the lives of those who belong to Christ and have been ‘born of God’ (3:9).  This passage clearly needs to be held in tension with the warnings encountered in 1:5 – 2:2.

In 4:10 we learn again that Christ takes sin away by being ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’. It is the ultimate manifestation of the love of God that he provides his only Son as the means of atonement, so that we might ‘live through him’ (4:9). John says little about the judgment of God against sin (cf. 2:17-18, 28; 4:17), but Christ’s incarnation and atoning death are clearly necessary to enable us to pass from death to life (3:14; 5:6-12).

The penal and substitutionary dimension to Christ’s death is essentially conveyed in 1 John by the use of atonement language (2:2; 4:10). But there is also an exemplary and a re-creational dimension to Christ’s death. Loving one another as God has loved us is a sign of the new life in Christ already at work in those who believe (3:11-17; 4:7-12).


[1] A. J. Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 75 (my emphasis).

[2] R. Bultmann, The Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2 (trans. K. Grobel; London: SCM 1955), 54.

[3] J. T. Forestell, The Word of the Cross. Salvation as Revelation in the Fourth Gospel, AnBib 57 (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1974).  Forestell, 149, 161-2, 165-6, 194-5, considered that the reference to the forgiveness of sins in Jn. 20:23 was a later addition and the ‘lamb of God’ in 1:29, 36 was a mere cultic metaphor.  Compare the assessment of W. Loader, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel, BBET 23 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1992), 13, 93-146.

[4] B. H. Grigsby, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15 (1982), 62 (my emphasis).  Akedah refers to the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.

[5] Grigsby, 52.  Cf. G. L. Carey, Tyndale Bulletin 32 (1981), 97-122; M. M. B. Turner, Evangelical Quarterly 62 (1990), 99-122.

[6] Köstenberger, Mission, 80.

[7] P. Weston, ‘Proclaiming Christ Crucified Today: Some Reflections of John’s Gospel’, in D. Peterson, (ed.), Where Wrath and Mercy Meet, 142.  He notes the use of Scripture in Jn. 19:24, 28, 36, the Passover context, the allusion to Ex. 12:22 in Jn. 19:29, and the ‘framework of substitution’ that John employs throughout his Gospel.

[8] J. R. Michaels, ‘Atonement in John’s Gospel and Epistles’ in C. E. Hill & F. A. James (ed.) The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 113-14.

[9] Michaels, 109.  He contends that ‘lamb of God’ in Jn. 1:29, 36, is an image of purity rather than sacrifice, and that to ‘take away’ sin is not what is usually called expiation (cf. 1 Jn. 3:5). Although the Gospel mentions the sin of the world (e.g. 8:24, 31-5), Michaels does not see this as a big factor in the Gospel’s soteriology.  However, 1 John is written to deal with the implications of the gospel for the life of believers.

[10] Most commentators view the false teachers as representative of an incipient or developing Gnosticism, with a perverted Christology and a false ethic (e.g. S. S. Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 51 1, 2, 3 John [Waco: Word, 1984], xxiv-vii, 21).  However, R. Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles Introduction and Commentary (ET Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1992), 17-24, warns that the heresy cannot simply be paralleled with any other manifestation of heresy known from the late first century or early second century AD. ‘Yet it has affinities with more than one such movement.’ (p. 23)

[11] Cf. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 24-5 for the argument that ‘the blood of Jesus’ refers to his death as a sacrifice for sins.  A link with the argument of Hebrews is obvious here (e.g. Heb. 9:14, 22-23, 10:22; cf. Eph. 5:26; Tit. 2:14) and a contrast with repeated Old Testament rites of cleansing may be implied.

[12] Schnackenburg, Johannine Epistles, 80.

[13] Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 32, noting that there is no sharp dividing-line in Semitic thought between intention and consequence, rightly observes that, ‘The faithfulness and righteousness of God are such “that” he will forgive/purify (purpose), and does so (result).’ This is because of the divine promises and the divine provision in Christ.

[14] .S. Jeffery, M. Ovey, & A. Sach. Pierced for our Transgressions. Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Nottingham: IVP, 2007), 141, rightly observe that ‘this makes sense only with reference to penal substitution, for only if we are convinced that God has justly punished our sins in the person of his Son can we appeal to his justice as something that would acquit rather than condemn us.’

[15] Cf. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 36-7; Schnackenburg, Johannine Epistles, 87.

[16] H.-G. Link, NIDNTT 3:149, observes that in ordinary Greek usage, i˚lasmo/ß denoted ‘the action by which a deity is to be propitiated’.  In the LXX, such terminology translated derivatives of the Hebrew verb kipper (piel), describing the process of sacrificial atonement effected in the Israelite cult (e.g. Lv. 25:9; Nu. 5:8). Such terminology belongs with words like blood, cleansing and sin.

[17] Michaels, 114.  Cf. Smalley, 1,2,3 John, 40; I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 117-119.

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