The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is either a monster text in support of Calvinistic predestination, or else a fountain of revelation on some other spiritual truth. Admittedly, exegesis of this chapter by Arminian scholars has generally been lacking in substance. In this short article, I will attempt to offer a fresh perspective of this chapter which is compatible with free will. Moreover, I hope this understanding will be of practical benefit to the Christian reader in his or her daily walk of faith.
Three verses in this chapter are generally cited in support of Calvinism by our Calvinist brothers in Christ:
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. (John 6:37, NASB)
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)
And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”(John 6:65)
In the first passage, we have a statement that the Father “gives” people to Jesus, all of whom will come to Jesus, none of whom Jesus will cast away. The second and third verses place similar divine conditions—even restrictions—on salvation and election which may appear to support the deterministic doctrines of Calvinism. In this writing, I will focus on the first passage and address the other two in passing.
To be sure, verse 37 teaches that God plays a role in our ability to respond to the message of salvation in Christ. However, we must ask the question: who are these people who respond? Or on what basis does God choose to ‘give’ certain people to Jesus? On some arbitrarily predetermined plan (Calvinism), or does man also play a role in whether he comes to Jesus?
A most important passage in John’s gospel about those who “come” to Jesus is found in the third chapter:
“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.
19This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
20For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
21But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:18-21)
Jesus Christ is, of course, “the Light” referred to in this passage (see John 1:4-9). Here we learn that unbelievers do not “come to Me” because they prefer the passing pleasures of sin to a relationship with the glorious, all-loving and almighty God. This fascinating passage reveals that the gospel message about Christ has a particular character to it, that it manifests a person’s true color, revealing where they’re at with God. For it speaks of the good person’s deeds having been “wrought in God,” indicating that God has been dealing with that person in the past, and that he has been receptive to God’s revelation and the promptings of the Holy Spirit thus far in life. Good ole’ boy or hypocrite, sorcerer or scoundrel, prostitute or pope, one’s prior spiritual background does not necessarily have any bearing, for the Holy Spirit can circumvent and overcome our sinful condition in order to speak to us where we are at.
Has that person (regardless of his prior spiritual state) responded to the Spirit’s helping grace by displaying a love for God? The Jews of John 5:42 did not demonstrate anything of the sort, as Jesus tells them that “you do not have the love of God in yourselves.” (John 5:42) He holds them responsible as free moral agents, saying, “You are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:40)
Shortly after the subject passage in John 6:37, we read a very telling statement about those who “come” to Jesus:
It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” (John 6:45)
Again, how has the person responded to God’s self-revelation, whether through scripture or the witness of the creation or various other testimonies of God’s power and divine nature? Surely God attempts to teach all of us, as Paul says, “that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them.” (Romans 1:19) For this reason men are judged by God, because they “suppress the truth” which God shows them, “in unrighteousness.” Because theirs is a knowing and willful decision, Paul concludes, “they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) Some people would, of course, prefer that God never taught them anything at all. That way they could never be held responsible in judgment. In any case, Jesus tells us, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God…” (John 7:17)
We find, then, that whether one comes to Jesus—and therefore whether the Father “gives” a person to Jesus—is the result of one’s response to the Holy Spirit-empowered promptings and teachings of God. So what else does scripture tell us about how we receive such teachings? The importance of listening to the words of God with a humble, hungry and receptive heart is emphasized from the very first message of Jesus (see the Beatitudes, Matthew 5). And we need look no further than the Gospel of Matthew for an insightful disclosure on that subject:
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear,”
10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
11 Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.
12 For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.
13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
14 In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
15 for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.” (Matthew 13:9-16)
Here we read about the importance of listening receptively to the words of God, and with a humble and hungry heart (“ears to hear”). These Pharisees were not “granted” to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven because their heart had become dull and they did not have “ears to hear.” They were not faithful with the light of the scriptures which they had been given, therefore they were not given more, for he who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much (Luke 16:10, John 5:39). Thus we see man’s responsibility affirmed, just as the talent was taken from the wicked servant because he showed himself unfaithful in little (Matthew 25:29). This is the basis upon which God decides whether, through the Holy Spirit, to “grant” and to “give” a person to Jesus (for “on the day of salvation I helped you,” 2 Corinthians 6:2). Choices have consequences. God asks, ‘have you been hungry or haughty toward the leadings of the Holy Spirit’? In the second category, there are those “enemies of the cross of Christ,” “whose god is their appetite … who set their minds on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:18-19) Those who “oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith.” (2 Timothy 3:8) It is these people who are not drawn to Jesus, whom God does not grant the ability to come to Christ through the help of the Holy Spirit, whom the Father does not “give” to Jesus. But God helps the poor in spirit, the spiritually hungry, those who thirst for righteousness and forgiveness and a relationship with their heavenly Father. By contrast, many of Jesus’ seaside listeners present in John 6 were merely looking for a free lunch. For this reason, Jesus says, “You seek me [only] because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of
Man will give to you.” (John 6:26-27) And the invitation is open to all, just as we read in the next chapter:
Jesus cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)
A couple of other passages help to reinforce what we’ve seen thus far. This first of these is a set of related thoughts from three of the Gospels:
“Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it all all.” (Mark 10:14-15)
“Woe to you lawyers! … You yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52)
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! (Matthew 18:6-7)
In these parallel passages and their greater contexts, we find that those who are childlike to the grace and testimony of God will come to the light. But significantly, as we read in Matthew and Luke’s account, it is not inevitable for one of these “children” to “come” to Jesus, for He himself says with indignation that they can be hindered and stumbled by evil men who might influence them away from God. Christ tells us that the lawyers “hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52). This supports a view of “coming” that is compatible with free will, conditionality, and responsibility.
Next, we should seek to understand the meaning of these two related passages:
I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Luke 10:21-22)
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. … For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many might, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, and the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:21,26-29)
To whom does God grant salvation, according to these passages? Whom is God pleased to save? Not those who have been predestined, as says Calvinism, but infants—those who respond to the Holy Spirit’s conviction with humility. Whom does God hold in judgment? From whom does God withhold the drawing of the Spirit and the knowledge of salvation? Not those who have been arbitrarily damned and reprobated by decree, but those who are wise in their own eyes, proud and unsubmissive to the Holy Spirit. This view of election is not based on divine fiat, but is based on one’s response to the teaching of God. Clearly this is compatible with free will.
Finally, these passages bring clarity to God’s choice between who gets grace and whom God gives over:
But My people did not listen to My voice, and Israel did not obey Me.
So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their own heart, to walk in their own devices.” (Psalm 81:11-12)
“Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him [Moses], but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt … God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven. … You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.” (Acts 7:39,42,51)
“They did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12)
From all of these verses, it is clear that God acts justly in His withholding of grace. This is because God’s judgment is based on a prior choice within man—either to hear the words of God and submit to the refining fire of the Holy Spirit, which leads to salvation in Christ, or to resist the Holy Spirit and thus miss the calling of God. In other words, the Israelites were “unwilling” and “stiff-necked” to the Holy Spirit before they were finally given over by God. Again, this judgment is not ascribed to predestination, but to man’s unfaithfulness with the truth and mercy which he had already been given.
In conclusion, man’s accountability and free will agency is everywhere assumed in John 6. Yet God must grant a person the ability to come to Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit’s drawing, to receive salvation. Then it will be seen that their good deeds were “wrought in God” (John 3:21). In a future article, we will see how this principle sheds light upon other passages to which Calvinists often appeal (John 10, John 12, etc.). I am, however, thankful to my Calvinist brothers for drawing attention to these passages, for it has given me the opportunity to supplement and deepen my own Arminian perspective. Clearly the Bible has much to say about how we listen to God’s revelation about Himself. I have only scratched the surface.
It is also a fact of experience that those who fill themselves with all the stuff and pleasures of this world display little or no hunger for the things of God, and are therefore not among the people who come to Jesus for new life and spiritual regeneration. But let us be among those who (with God’s help) examine our own hearts (Psalm 139:23-24), who have “ears to hear,” who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), who respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and “seek for glory and honor and immortality,” (Romans 2:7) which can only be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, our Creator who loves us with an extravagant love.
 This is only true of the gospel when presented in its fullness and with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians proclaim Christ in an unworthy manner, with the result that what unbelievers reject is not the gospel itself, but some other thing which gets in the way.