One of the most difficult passages for Arminians to read and exegete is John 6:35-51. Various Calvinists have picked up on this difficulty and have written several books on the passages as they pertain to predestination and election. One of my favorite books is from Dr. James White and is entitled, Drawn By The Father. Dr. White covers John 6:35-45 but I have added down to verse 51 because I believe they add to the content of the passage.
Before we look at John 6, let me make several key points about Arminian theology that needs to be known before the exegesis can be done. First, Arminians do believe in predestination. We simply do not believe that predestination is unconditional, but that God places the choice on the individual to either respond to His grace or resist it (Acts 7:55). God does not violate the person’s free will in Arminian theology but rather He convicts the sinner and allows the sinner to submit to God’s grace or deny the cross and turn away from Christ. Secondly, Arminians believe that salvation is by the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus (Titus 2:11-12). Salvation is not a work of man or even man co-operating with God for their salvation, but it is a humbling denial of self in true repentance before the cross. As the hymn reads, “Jesus paid it all; All to Him I owe.” Arminians cherish Ephesians 2:8-9 and we affirm that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Thirdly, Arminians believe that God has given free will to man and thus when Adam fell into sin, he did so by his own accord (Romans 5:12; 1 Timothy 2:14). God is not the author of sin nor does He tempt anyone (James 1:12-15).
These principles will help us as we begin to break down John 6:35-51.
The Focus of the Passage: Jesus
It is important for us to see that Jesus is the focus of John 6:35-51. We must not make the mistake that Jesus is placing the focus on the doctrine of election or predestination or even on salvation in general. The focus of the passage is nothing more than Jesus Himself. He is the bread of life (v.35), Jesus has come to do His Father’s will (v.38), He alone is the source for eternal life (v.47). Jesus is not dead bread but He is living bread (v.51). As John 6:35-51 is not about election or predestination but Jesus, so salvation is all about Jesus. Salvation is not a state we can obtain in our power but salvation only comes in Jesus (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 5:8-9). We must be in Christ (Colossians 2:12) in order to be part of the elect (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). To me, this is the theme of the book of John: God sending His only begotten Son (John 1:14) to redeem humanity (John 3:15-17). John begins his gospel this way (John 1:1-3) and ends it this way (John 20:31). The focus of the gospel according to John is salvation through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
An Arminian Reading of John 6:35-51
So let me, as best that I can, articulate an Arminian understanding of John 6:35-51. I mainly want to focus on the passages of this section that Calvinist theologians often focus in on.
John 6:37 – This passage is pointed out by Calvinist as proof of the doctrine of irresistible grace but Arminians see the passage and take it as it is written mainly that the Father draws sinners unto His Son. How does the Father do this? Arminians don’t believe that this comes by irresistible grace or divine election but through the prevenient grace of God. God’s grace prepares the heart for the gospel. All who do become disciples of Christ do so by the grace of God and not a work of man (Titus 3:5-7). Furthermore, the end of verse 37 is a strong case for Jesus allowing “whosoever” to come to Him (Revelation 22:17). Those who come to Jesus can find salvation.
John 6:40 – Notice again another strong verse for an unlimited atonement view. Here Jesus makes it clear that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life. For Arminians we simply take this passage as it is written. By the way, the word “believe” throughout this section of Scripture is in the present active tense. It is not “believed” (past tense) but “believe” (present tense). Dr. White makes a good point on this in his book. I applaud him for going against many Calvinist who teach “preserving the sinner” rather than “perseverance of the saints.”
John 6:44-45 – The key to the entire Calvinist argument for divine election from this section is verse 44. It says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (NASB). But Arminians believe that we must [not] isolate verse 44 and build an entire doctrine on this one passage but we must continue in the context and so we move to verse 45. Here Jesus says, “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” (NASB). Again, we believe in election but we believe that God elects those in His elected one, His Son. We believe that through the preaching of the gospel, men can be saved by submitting to God’s grace in His Son. But we can not become part of the elect (v.44) without first hearing the gospel (Romans 10:14-17).
John 6:50-51 – Many Calvinists stop after verse 45 feeling that they have built an air-tight case for election but I believe that verses 50-51 give us more evidence of an unlimited atonement. Jesus says that the one who eats the bread of life (Himself) and continues to eat, they will have eternal life. Nothing in these passages of Scripture even comes to close to language such as “the elect” or “predestination.” Jesus uses the word “whoever” or “him” throughout John 6:35-51.
I believe that John 6:35-51 should not scare Arminians from holding firmly to the idea that the atonement of Jesus Christ provides salvation for all who may come. While Scripture is clear that not many will come (Luke 13:23-24), some will. This idea does not negate God’s sovereignty but enhances it. God is sovereign and He allows sinful humanity to respond to His Son without Him overruling their own hearts. Further, God’s divine foreknowledge foresees all and nothing happens without God’s hand upon it (Ephesians 1:11). Election is indeed a biblical truth but we must be careful not to teach an unbiblical view of divine election that makes God the author of sin and cast people into hell simply because He desires it to be done.