"The Savior and the World"
1 John 2:2
(Delivered Sunday, December 9, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:2).
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There's a word that I have grown to love. I don't necessarily love the thing that the word represents. In fact, the thing itself perplexes me. But I do love having a name to call the thing. The name of the thing is "an antimony."
The word "antinomy" comes from two Greek words combined together: the Greek preposition "anti" (which, when used in combination with another word, often indicates a state of opposition or contrast); and the Greek noun "nomos" (which means "rule" or "principle"). An "antinomy," therefore, is a situation in which two principles - both equally sound and plainly true - co-exist together in apparent contrast or opposition. In other words, an antinomy exists when two undeniable truths seem to irreconcilably clash with one another. An "antinomy" is not a "contradiction." The two principles in an antinomy only appear to us to be a contradiction because of the natural limitations of human understanding. But because both principles in apparent contradiction are undeniably true, and because we're forced to believe both in order to be faithful to the truth as it's presented to us, then we must hold those two truths together in an "antinomical" relationship toward one another and learn to live with the tension between them.
The Bible often forces such antinomies upon us. Think, for example, of the Bible's doctrine of the Trinity. With respect to the Bible's teaching on the nature of God, we're to believe in only one God - not three God's, but just one. And yet, the Bible also reveals to us that this one God is triune in nature - not just one divine Person, but three who are all co-equal and co-eternal in power and glory. If we deny that our God is a triune, then we fall into heresy concerning Him. But we will equally fall into heresy if we deny that all three separate Persons of the Trinity together constitute but one God. By faith, we believe these two truths to be in perfect union in the supreme mind of God; but to our limited intellects, they appear - only "appear" - to be in opposition. And to be faithful to the truth as God has revealed it to us, we must confess both things to be true, live with the tension, and humbly bow before this majestic "antinomy".
Another biblical example of an antinomy concerns the Bible's teaching with respect to our salvation. The Bible teaches us very plainly that we're saved by God's grace through our active, willing choice to place our faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Bible urges us to exercise our will to choose Jesus as our Savior; making the sincere appeal: "... Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17; King James Version). That's why we send missionaries and evangelists throughout the world - to tell people the message of the gospel, and to urge them to believe it.
But at the same time, the Bible also teaches us that the ultimate basis of our salvation isn't in our choice of Jesus at some point in our lifetime, but rather in God's choice to save us from before eternity - completely apart from any good works or act of faith on our part. The Bible says that God "chose us in Him [that is, in Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (Eph. 1:4-5). If we deny God's absolute sovereignty in choosing us for salvation, we fall into the error of making ourselves, somehow, the author of our own salvation. But if we deny our own responsibility to actively choose Jesus Christ as our Savior, we likewise fall into error - denying the need to proclaim the gospel to people.
Again, the Bible calls us to hold as equally true both God's complete sovereignty in our salvation and our human responsibility to choose. The Bible doesn't seem to have any difficulty in presenting both truths to us at the same time. The gospel of John says, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe on His name; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). Jesus Himself affirmed both things as true when He said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37). How these two truths fit together is only understood perfectly in the infinite mind of God; but for our part, we must humbly confess both things to be true, live with the tension, and humbly bow before yet another "antinomy".
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There are other such antinomies in the Bible. The Scripture, for example, calls us to believe that Jesus Christ exists as both fully God, and yet fully man - with both natures coexisting together forever, unmixed and unmingled, in one glorious Person. How could our limited, creaturely minds understand how such a thing could be?!! Or, as another example, the Bible teaches us about itself; calling us to believe that the Scriptures are at the same time fully divine - having been given by inspiration of God, and a fully human - having been written through the willing agency of men. Again, this is far beyond our ability to grasp; but we must hold both things together as equally true; because God reveals both to be true.
Now, you may be wondering why I'm telling you this. I'm sharing all of this with you because I have been wrestling with this morning's passage for a long time - struggling to understand it in relation to other things that the Bible teaches. And I have finally come to believe that I can't grab hold of it unless I yield to it as yet another "antinomy". I can't completely explain how what it says in this verse can be perfectly reconciled with other things in the Scripture. I only bow to the mystery of two seemingly irreconcilable, yet both equally true facts of Scripture - one of which is suggested to us in this morning's passage.
The first of these two seemingly irreconcilable truths from the Scripture is one that is sometimes called the doctrine of the "limited atonement" (although I personally prefer the name "particular redemption"). This is a doctrine that's connected logically to the Bible's teaching of God's sovereign act of election in our salvation.
The Bible teaches us an amazing and wonderful truth about God's grace - that God, from before the formation of the world, and long before any human being had been created, unconditionally chose those from the human race that He would save. Personally, I haven't found a better or more thorough summarization of this doctrine than the one found in The Westminster Confession of Faith. I invite you to read these words slowly and carefully:
Those of mankind that are predestined unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only (Chapter 3, paragraph 5-6).
This idea of God choosing before time those He would save is controversial in the minds of some. But I believe whole-heartedly in it, because - quite frankly - it's plainly taught in the Bible. The apostle Peter wrote his first letter those who were "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2). Luke tells us, in the Book of Acts that the gospel of Jesus began to spread among the Gentiles who were glorifying God; "And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48). Jesus said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me ..." (John 3:37). He told His disciples that they were not of the world, because, as He said, "I chose you out of the world" (John 15:19). He said, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you ..." (John 15:16). He prayed to His Father and said, "I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours" (John 17:9). Paul said, "In Him also [that is, in Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will ..." (Eph. 1:11). As I shared with you a moment ago, Paul speaks of God, who "chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (Eph. 1:4-5).
Now admittedly, that's a hard pill for some people to swallow. Some believers protest: "But I chose Jesus as my Savior! I was the one that chose to have faith in Him!" And it's true that they did. But the Bible teaches us that even this faith - an essential requirement for salvation - is, itself, the gift of the sovereign God, given as an act of elective love. "For by grace you have been saved through faith," as the apostle Paul teaches us; "and that [that is, the very faith itself] not of yourselves; it is the gift of God ..." (Eph. 2:8). Obviously, not everyone is saved; but only those who have placed their faith in Jesus. And if our salvation is dependent upon God first acting to give us the faith to believe, then it follows that our salvation is dependent upon God first choosing to give us that faith. The marvelous truth the Bible reveals to us is that He chose us for this faith from before the foundation of the world - not on the basis of anything in us, but strictly on the basis of His own gracious love. We owe everything in our salvation to Him!
So, I believe in the Bible's doctrine of election. And I'll tell you what this wonderful, mysterious doctrine means to me personally: I draw assurance from it. If someone has been chosen by God for salvation, then, in time, they will indeed unfailingly believe. And if they believe, it's because they first were chosen by God for salvation. Therefore, I have the assurance that, because I was chosen for salvation - as evidenced by the fact that I believe - then I will never be lost to Him. My salvation is secure because, in the end, it's ultimately God's doing - not mine. All that God has purposed to bring about in my salvation will be fully accomplished by Him - and that without failure! Romans 8:29-30 puts it this way - as if the matter of salvation is a completely done deal: "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified."
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Now, this brings us to the doctrine I told you about earlier - that of "limited atonement" or, better still, "particular redemption". It's related to the doctrine of election in this respect: If God chooses before time whom He will save, and if He sent Jesus His Son specifically to be the atoning sacrifice for the salvation of those He chose, then the intended purpose of Jesus' atoning sacrifice can only rightly be said to be the salvation of those God chose. (Some have said Jesus' sacrifice was "limited" only to the salvation of the elect. I, however, prefer to say that His sacrifice is "particular" in that it was designed by the will of the Father, executed by the Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit, with the full salvation of the elect as its intended purpose from the very beginning. I prefer putting it in those terms, because it then places the limitation on the object of His atoning sacrifice, rather than on the sacrifice itself.)
In other words, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross as our substitute was not an act intended to bring about the salvation of all people of the world, but had as its effectual purpose the salvation of only certain people - God's elect, chosen by Him from before time. Again, The Westminster Confession is helpful to us when it says:
The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him (Chapter 8; paragraph 5).
If the doctrine of election is a hard pill for some to follow, then this one is even harder! But again, this is something that's taught in the Scripture. Jesus said, while debating with the Jewish leaders, that they did not believe in Him because they were not His sheep (John 10:26). And Jesus said this about those who were His sheep: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep" (John 10:11). Plainly, Jesus didn't give His life for everyone, because not everyone was His "sheep". Instead, the particular intention of His atoning sacrifice was the salvation of His "sheep". He said, "As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep" (John 10:15).
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But suddenly, we come to this morning's passage; and the truth it affirms seems to be in opposition to all of what was just said. John speaks of the Lord Jesus, and writes; "And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." Suddenly, we're faced with an antinomy: Jesus laid down His life not for everyone, but particularly for the "sheep" that the Father gave Him; and yet, He is here declared to be the propitiation for the world. He gave Himself to save the elect of God; and yet, He is called the atoning sacrifice for the whole world.
Many have sought to reconcile these two seemingly-contradictory doctrines by combining them together in a fuzzy and undefined way. Others have sought to settle the matter by siding with one and flatly denying the other. And yet either attempt to solve the problem seems to lead us into error.
We can choose for example to believe - as some do - that Jesus death was genuinely intended to save every human being in the world, and not just the elect in particular. But this forces us into one of two unwanted directions. We either must believe in a kind of Universalism - that is, the belief that every human being will actually be saved (a teaching that is denied by the Scripture and by the facts of experience); or we must believe that Jesus' sacrifice was, to some degree, a failure (since not everyone, for whom He is then said to have died, has been saved).
Or, we can choose to believe - as others do - that Jesus' death was, in the strictest possible sense, only for the elect and had nothing whatsoever to do with the whole world. But this forces us to deny the plain, straight-forward teaching of Scripture elsewhere in the Bible. Consider the following examples. John the Baptist, when he first identified Jesus to the people he was baptizing, said, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29) Or consider one of the most beloved verses in the Scripture; "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The apostle Paul spoke of God our Savior, "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all ..." (1 Tim. 2:4-6). Paul once wrote, "Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18-19). The apostle Peter even speaks of diabolical false teachers and false prophets, "who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction" (2 Pet. 2:1).
So then, was Jesus' atoning death specifically and strictly intended for the elect of God? I believe the Scripture demands we say, "Yes!" But did Jesus also give His life for the whole world - including the elect? I believe that the Scripture demands we say "Yes" to this as well. How do we reconcile these two things? I confess that I have given up trying. I've read the different attempts by different theologians and commentators - most all of whom I greatly respect; and yet I, personally, have found their explanations to be un-compelling, and their interpretations of these passages rather strained.
Yet, I find that the Bible seems to have no problem presenting both truths to us together. Consider Paul's remarkable statement in 1 Timothy 4:10. There, the apostle spoke of how he and his co-workers labored and suffered for the cause of the gospel, "... because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe." And so, I propose that we cannot reconcile these two truths to the complete satisfaction of our poor, frail human minds. I believe these two truths force an antinomy upon us. What we should do is grab both truths firmly with both hands, trust confidently that these two truths are reconciled in the perfect mind of our heavenly Father, and simply bow humbly before the wonderful mystery of God's saving love and grace. Jesus truly is the Savior of the world; and yet He purposefully came to lay His life down only for the elect. We shouldn't become so frustrated with this that we throw the whole thing out as incomprehensible. Rather, we should fall before God in worship. We should respond to it all in the words of the apostle Paul:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! "For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or Who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to Him?" For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).
May I suggest that that's the wisest way to respond to an antinomy such as this? As Augustine said, "Let others wrangle. I will wonder!"
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I've spent enough time telling you about my own struggles with this antinomy. All of this leads us to what I really wanted to talk about all along - and that is, what John was actually intending to teach us in this verse. When he penned these words, I can't imagine that he raised his head up and thought, "Oh dear! I hope no one will be confused by what I just wrote, and think that I'm denying election, or the doctrine of limited atonement!" I don't believe John was bothered by the theological tensions that many of us feel from this verse. Nor was he trying to deal with the theological issues that we struggled with centuries later. I believe he was wanting to help people grow in their fellowship with Jesus.
Having - I hope - sufficiently established the theological "lay of the land", let's look at what this verse says by asking and answering three questions. First, ...
I. HOW IS JESUS THE "PROPITIATION" FOR THE WHOLE WORLD?
To "propitiate" basically means to satisfy the wrath of someone. It implies that someone has a justifiable reason for their wrath; and that this state of wrath will continue until something appropriate happened to appease it.
Have you ever done something wrong to someone else - perhaps a neighbor, or a family member, or a work associate - and felt as if there was a rift in the relationship as a result? Have you ever asked them, "Is there something wrong between us?" And have you heard them answer back, "Yes! I'm angry with you because you did thus and so"? We've all experienced such times; and we also know that, under normal circumstances, things won't be right between ourselves and that offended person, nor that anger appeased, until we've done something to satisfy the anger and make amends.
When it comes to human relationships, a simple apology is often all that's needed. Sometimes, restoring the damage we may have caused is also necessary. But when it comes to a sinner's relationship with a holy God, a simple apology won't do the job, nor will attempts at simple restitution. Our sins against God require that a death penalty be paid; for the Bible tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Full propitiation of God's wrath demands that a death occur for our sins. And without that full propitiation, God's wrath continues to abide on us. But Jesus is held up to us in this verse as our "propitiation" - that which satisfies God's just wrath for our sins. Jesus isn't simply said to have offered "propitiation" for our sins; but rather that He Himself is the propitiation for our sins. He Himself is the propitiation, because He laid His own life down, dying on the cross for our sins.
It's true that, in the verses before this one, John says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:9). But this is a promise made specifically to those who have first placed their trust in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. John says, in verse 7, that "... if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin." Sadly as believers, we often stumble and fall in sin. And in all such cases, we find God's free forgiveness and full cleansing available to us every time we sincerely confess our failure to Him. But this is only true because of or faith in Jesus, who has first given Himself on the cross as the "propitiation" for our sins. He paid the death penalty on the cross for our sins, thus completely satisfying the wrath of God for sins forever - past, present and future. And God didn't resent doing this for us; because as we read on, we find that the Father Himself sent Jesus to do this for us out of love. 1 John 4:10 says, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
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Jesus is presented to us here, then, as "the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." And so, this leads us to our next question ...
II. WHAT DOES JOHN MEAN BY "THE WHOLE WORLD"?
I believe that "the whole world" should be understood at face value. In whatever sense Jesus is the "propitiation" for our sins, He is also the propitiation for the whole world. Obviously, however, we can't say that every person in the world is now no longer under the wrath of God. John says later, "We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19). In his gospel, John wrote, "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:36). In the vision that the resurrected Lord Jesus gave him, John saw the kings and great rulers of the world hiding in the rocks and caves, crying out to the mountains, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Rev. 6:16-17). So even though Jesus is said to be the propitiation for the whole world, there are many upon whom the wrath of God still remains; and there will be many who will experience that wrath to the full.
In what sense, then, is Jesus the propitiation for the whole world? First, I believe John's intention is to let us know that there is no other way for sins to be propitiated in this world than through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only "propitiation" from God that has ever been, is, or ever will be made available to the whole world - whether across the expanse of the globe, or across the span of time.
Experts in population growth tell us that approximately one quarter of the total number of people who have ever lived throughout human history are alive in the world right now. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the world population is estimated to reach 9,036,000,000 by the year 2055. If we multiply that figure by four, that would mean that, by 2055, there will have been a total of approximately 36,144,000,000 people who have lived throughout human history. But if we take into account the world population that could have existed before the flood (which some biblical scholars estimate could been the equivalent of our own today); and if we take into consideration the untold multitudes of children that have not live past infancy, or who were taken into God's presence while still in the womb; then the full number of human souls to have been brought forth from Adam and Eve could easily exceed a hundred billion! Only God alone can know for sure what the total number of people will be. But we can know this for sure: for every single one of them - and for all the sins that could have ever been committed by them, from our first parents onward - there will have been only one propitiation for sin available: God's Son, Jesus Christ.
The Bible affirms to us that there is no other; "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12); "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). He isn't the propitiation for the Jewish people only. Nor is He only the propitiation for sinners in America. He is the only propitiation there has ever been for any and every human being who has ever lived in any culture at any time. He is, in this sense, not only the propitiation for our sins, but is the propitiation for the whole world. If the wrath of God for the sins of anyone in the world are ever to be propitiated, it will be only through Him.
And second, I believe John's intention in saying that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the world is to affirm that, while it was God's intention that Jesus' death be specifically effective only for the elect, there is no limit whatsoever to the sufficiency of Jesus' atoning death for anyone who trusts in Him. We say "the whole world" with its untold billions of people; but Jesus' death would in fact be sufficient for the sins of a hundred billion worlds filled with hundreds of billions of people each, if those billions upon billions of people on those billions upon billions of worlds were but to place their trust in Him!
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And now, this leads us to a final question ...
III. WHY DOES GOD WANT US TO KNOW THIS ABOUT JESUS?
I try to imagine John as he was writing this letter. As anyone who has ever studied the letter carefully can testify, it's filled with deep and profound theology. Theologians have argued and debated for centuries about the things that John - under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - wrote in it. But I don't imagine that John sat down to write a work of sophisticated theology. He wrote because he loved his brothers and sisters in Christ; and wanted them to enter into the fullness of fellowship with Jesus Christ that he enjoyed. His purpose in what he wrote was not philosophical, but practical and pastoral.
John knew that, even as believers, we all stumble and fall in our walk with God. But he wanted to assure his readers that their stumbling and falling doesn't cause God to terminate His relationship with them. He wanted to assure them that Jesus' blood truly does cleanse them from all their sins forever; and that if they fall, they only need to confess their sins and turn from them in repentance. God still loves them and accepts them fully in Jesus. He wanted to assure them that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father as their Advocate; pleading the merits of His own blood for their sins. And to assure them of the sufficiency of Jesus' sacrifice for them, He presents it to them in its wonderfully "unlimited" extent. Therefore, he writes;
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2).
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I believe this precious verse is worth much more than all the controversy it has stirred up. If we aren't afraid to bow before the antinomy this verse presents to us, then it brings us assurance in two wonderful ways.
First, it sets us free to look at every man and woman in this world as an object of God's genuine, sacrificial love. He is genuinely willing that none perish, but that all come to repentance. He has truly sent Jesus His Son to die for the sins of everyone in the world; and He sincerely offers the free gift of salvation to whoever will accept it. Jesus is - in the fullest sense - the propitiation of the whole world; and we shouldn't hesitate one bit from gladly and freely offer Him to everyone in the world as such.
As we offer Him faithfully to the world, we will find that those that God has chosen for salvation will hear and believe. And so, second, I believe John included this affirmation for the assurance of His elect ones.
You may have placed your trust in Jesus as your Savior; but you might worry: "Is Jesus really able to satisfy God's anger toward my sins? Even mine? I mean, I've been a pretty horrible sinner. What's more, I live way on the other side of the world from Israel, and 2,000 years after Jesus came. Can this be true for even me?" Yes, it is true - even for you. If Jesus is sufficient to be the propitiation for the whole world; then He is certainly sufficient to be your propitiation too. And because Jesus is the propitiation of those whom God has chosen from the beginning, then if you trust Him, you will never be lost to Him. He lives forever at the right hand of the Father to be your Advocate.
If you have genuinely placed your trust in Jesus as your Savior, then you can rest assured that you are among those that He has chosen, from before time, for salvation. He is the full propitiation for your sins; and you can rest assured that you will be saved by Him forever.
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is prohibited.)
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