Having examined the primary passages that teach apostasy we now examine the passages that the advocates of unconditional eternal security believe clearly support their doctrine:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
The first thing that needs to be noted is that there is nothing in this passage to suggest that the security being described by Christ is unconditional. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the Calvinist position. One will look in vain for a passage of Scripture that explicitly makes salvation security unconditional. The best that can be produced are passages which do not explicitly state a condition, but the absence of a stated condition does not necessitate the absence of a condition (e.g. Hebrews 13:5, cf. Deut. 31:6, 8, 16-18; 2 Chronicles 15:2; Joshua 24:19, 20). This is especially true since there are numerous passages which do state conditions and warn of defection from saving faith (as we have seen in parts 2-11 of this series).
In the case of John 10:27 we can even argue that a condition is stated, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” The verbs “listen” and “follow” are present active indicative in the Greek describing continual action. The “sheep” are characterized by their “listening” to and “following” of Christ. They are the listening and following ones, and only those who are listening and following can rightly be called Christ’s “sheep” and lay claim to the promises stated in John 10:28 and 29. In other words, the sheep are believers who are presently believing. It is to these believers alone that the promises are made. Surely, those who are listening to and following Christ are secure in His arms and cannot be snatched out. They also possess the eternal life that resides in Christ since they are in union with Him by faith (vs. 28). There is nothing in the passage, however, to suggest that the sheep can never stop “listening” or “following” and no promise given for those who might indeed cease to do so. The passage is only speaking of those who are presently listening and following. It is a powerful promise to believers that as long as they are believing they are secure in Christ. F. Leroy Forlines comments on this security in The Quest For Truth:
The teaching is simply this: The believer’s relationship with God is a personal one between him and God. Though all the powers of the universe were to combine against the believer, they could not take the believer away from God. Some would add, ‘Neither can the believer take himself out of the body of Christ.’ Yes, that is true. But, it is also true that he could not place himself into the body of Christ. However, upon his faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit placed the believer into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). If the believer renounces his faith, God will take him out (Jn. 15:2, 6). There is no contradiction between the statements ‘No man can take us out of Christ’ and the statement ‘God the Father takes those people out of Christ who turn from Christ in unbelief.’ (pg. 275)
The passage does not state that faith cannot be renounced nor does it state that any such promise of security is given to unbelievers. The promise of security in Christ described in John 10:27-29 is for believers who continue to believe and for them only. The question then becomes, “Can believers cease to believe?” The answer to that question cannot be resolved in John 10:27-29 and for that reason it fails as a proof text for inevitable perseverance.
Special Contextual Considerations for John 10:27-29
The Calvinist might object that verse 25 is not in harmony with the above interpretation due to the fact that Jesus tells the Jews that they do not believe because they are not His sheep. It could be argued that verse 25 refers to a predetermined and unconditional election: The sheep are those who were elected by God prior to creation and then given faith to believe in Christ. The problem with this suggestion is that there is nothing in the text to indicate that Jesus is describing a pre-temporal election of certain individuals for salvation. Such an eternal decree must be first assumed and then read into the text.
A more plausible interpretation is to understand Jesus’ words in John 10:27-29 in the context of the unique historical situation taking place at the time of His ministry with regards to the transition from the old dispensation to the new. The passage has a secondary application to believers of all ages (as described above) but the primary application concerned only the Jews who were alive during Christ’s ministry and were specifically being addressed in this and other similar chapters in John (John 5:24-27; 6:37, 40-44, 65; 8:12-59). The “sheep” in this context are the Jews who are currently living in right covenant relationship with the Father during the time of Jesus’ ministry. The Jews that Jesus is addressing in this discourse and others like it throughout John’s gospel are not in right relationship with the Father during the time of Christ’s ministry. Since they do not know the Father (are not “of God”) they cannot recognize the perfect revelation of the Father in the Son (Jn. 7:16, 17; 8:19, 42-47). They reject the Son and refuse to trust in Him because they have rejected the Father. Therefore, they are not Christ’s sheep and cannot be given to the Son (John 6:37). If they had known the Father they would have recognized the Son as their Messiah and would have been given to Him.
So the primary application still addresses the issue of faith but not in the same way as we would tend to apply it today since our situation is different from that of the Jews and we are not living at a critical time in history where the faithful Jews were being given, by the Father, to their Shepherd and Messiah. For them it primarily involved the transition from one sphere of believing (in the Father) to another (in the Son). Those faithful Jews recognized the Father in the Son and as a result listened to Him and followed Him as their long awaited Messiah. In either case the “sheep” are those who are “listening” and “following” and the passage gives no indication that one cannot cease to be one of Christ’s sheep by later refusing to listen and follow.