Calvinism and John Six: An Exegetical Response
Calvinist’s believe that one of their strongest arguments for unconditional election, irresistible grace, and unconditional security is found in the Gospel of John chapter six. In reading Calvinist interpretations on this passage I have found two that are identical in nature, but different in emphasis. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware are concerned with emphasizing unconditional election and irresistible grace in Still Sovereign. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday want to emphasize divine preservation or unconditional security in The Race Set Before Us. Each provides a clear, concise, and compelling interpretation for these doctrines. Since both share the same understanding of John 6:35-44, I will respond first to Schreiner and Ware and then to Schreiner and Caneday.
Our understanding of God’s saving grace is very different [in comparison to the Arminian understanding]. We contend that Scripture does not teach that all people receive grace in equal measure, even though such a democratic notion is attractive today. What Scripture teaches is that God’s saving grace is set only upon some, namely, those whom, in his great love, he elected long ago to save, and that this grace is necessarily effective in turning them to belief.
This latter understanding of grace is found, for example, throughout John 6. Take John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” The “coming” of John 6:37 is synonymous with “believing.” That the words coming and believing are different ways of describing the same reality is confirmed by what Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never by thirsty.” To come to Jesus is to satisfy one’s hunger and to believe in him is to quench one’s thirst. It is easy to see from this verse that “coming” and “believing” are synonyms, just as the metaphors of satisfying one’s hunger and quenching one’s thirst are parallel ways of saying that Jesus meets our every need. Two verses later Jesus says “all that the Father gives me will come to me.” We would not, therefore, do any violence to the meaning of this verse in wording it as follows: “All that the Father gives to me shall believe in me.” Of course, not all people “come to” or “believe in” Jesus. The verse says that this will be true only of those whom the Father has given to Jesus. In other words, only some have been given by the Father to the Son, and they will come, and they will never be cast out, and they will be raised up on the last day (John 6:39-40).
Or, consider John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” The first half of this verse indicates, as Arminians gladly acknowledge also, that God’s grace (i.e., the drawing of the Father) is necessary for personal salvation. But the question before us is what kind of grace this is. Is it unlimited or common grace, given to all? Or is it a particular grace, an efficacious grace given only to some? The second half of verse 44 answers our question, for there we find that the one who is given grace (who is drawn by the Father) is actually saved (raised up). The drawing of the Father, then, is not general, but particular, for it accomplishes the final salvation of those who are drawn. God’s grace, without which no one can be saved, is therefore an efficacious [irresistible] grace, resulting in the sure salvation of those to whom it is given [Still Sovereign, pp. 14-15].
I admit that as a Classical Arminian I have yet to read a convincing exegetical rebuttal to this Calvinist interpretation. Nevertheless, it was this disappointment that drove me to examine more closely the Calvinist exegesis. What I discovered is that this cherished passage by Calvinist’s does not support their doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace, nor unconditional security.
The first and most obvious problem with Schreiner and Ware’s interpretation has to do with who the “all that” refers to. They identify the “all that” in verses 37 and 39 as “those whom, in his great love, he elected long ago to save.” The “all that” would then refer to those people, “the elect,” whom God the Father has selected in eternity to become believers in time. This is confirmed when they paraphrase verse 37a as, “All that the Father gives to me shall believe in me.” Thus, this giving is “necessarily effective in turning them [奏he elect’] to belief.”
Such an understanding cannot be justified when we compare the “all that” found in verse 39 with verse 40. Please observe the parallel lines in the ABCCBA structure of verses 39-40. “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
A raise them up at the last day
B that I shall lose none of all that he has given me
C this is the will of him who sent me
C’ For this is the will of my Father
B’ that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life
A’ raise him up at the last day
First, we should note the connective word “for” in verse 40. There is a logical connection between the last sentence and the following. This logical connection was self-evident in the ABCCBA structure of these verses. The “all that” in verse 39 whom the Father “has given” to Jesus is none other than “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him,” in verse 40. Both verses affirm that all believers will be raised up on the last day.
Calvinist F. F. Bruce clarifies our conclusions, “In verse 39 疎ll’ is neuter singular (pan) as in verse 37a, and when Jesus says that he will 喪aise it (auto) up on the last day’ he speaks of the sum-total of his people. In verse 40 粗very one’ is masculine singular (pas), and when Jesus says that he will 喪aise him (auton) up at the last day’ he speaks of each individual believer as in verse 37b.”
The “all that” in verse 39 is identical to that in verse 37 as Bruce explains once again, “In the first part of verse 37 the pronoun 疎ll’ is neuter singular (Gk. pan), denoting the sum-total of believers. In the second part (奏he one who comes’) each individual member of that sum-total is in view. This oscillation between the [believing] community as a whole and its individual members reappears in verses 39 and 40.” So Schreiner and Ware are correct in saying, “only some have been given by the Father to the Son.” However, the “some” that the Father has selected to be given to the Son are none other than “the sum-total of believers” or “the whole mass of believers” [Lenski, The Gospel of John, p. 468], or better yet “all believers regarded as one complete whole” [Vincent, Word Studies, 2:150]. Therefore, certain persons are not selected and then given to Jesus in order to become believers, as Calvinist’s assert, people are given to Jesus because they are already believers.
Since the Father gives believers to Jesus, then what did Jesus mean in saying they “will come to Me?” This brings us to the next major problem with Schreiner and Ware’s interpretation. They link the word “come” in verses 35, 37b, and 44 with “will come” in verse 37a. They write, “We would not, therefore, do any violence to the meaning of this verse in wording it as follows: 羨ll that the Father gives to me shall believe in me.'” Unfortunately, this is precisely where Calvinist’s have failed to accurately reflect Christ’s intended meaning and where Arminians have failed to point this out.
First, we have already determined who the “all that” refers to預ll believers regarded as a complete whole. Consequently, it would make no sense for Jesus to have said, “All believers that the Father gives to me will believe in me.” Jesus already has the whole mass of believers in view as those given to Him by the Father and who “will come” to Him.
Secondly, it is significant that the Greek word for “come”in verses 35, 37b, 44, and 45 is different from that of “will come”in 37a. “Will come” (heko) emphasizes the idea of reaching or arriving, whereas the one who comes (erchomai) to Jesus emphasizes the process of coming. In verses 35 and 37b, “comes” is a present participle that refers to ongoing action and is literally translated “coming.” As Schreiner and Ware have rightly noted, it is synonymous with “believing” in this context. It is also significant that “believe” is used as a present participle in verses 35, 40, 47. Individual believers who keep on coming to Jesus in faith are promised that they will never be spiritually hungry (v 35a), nor will they be driven away or “cast out”from Jesus into condemnation on the last day (implied, v 37b).
However, in verse 37a, Jesus does not specifically have the individual believer in mind, but all believers seen as a collective whole. It is they who will come to Jesus. The Greek word for will come (heko) is not a present participle but a future indicative. How is it that all believers, regarded as a complete whole, will come to Jesus or reach Him in the future? The answer is provided just two verses later by the other “all that” verse 39: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.”
According to verse 39, all believers, regarded as a complete whole, that the Father has given to Jesus will be raised up on the last day. In verse 37a, all believers, regarded as a complete whole, that the Father gives to Jesus will come to Jesus. Each time the verb “raise up” (anistemi) is used in John (6:39, 40, 44, 54) it is in the future indicative like “will come” (heko). Therefore it seems safe to conclude, from the immediate context, from the corresponding phrase “all that,” from the change in the Greek word and its tense, that “will come” to Christ in verse 37a is parallel in meaning with the phrase “raise up on the last day.” All believers will certainly come to Jesus in final salvation via a future resurrection!
That “will come” (heko) is to be interpreted as a coming to final salvation via a future resurrection in John 6:37a is given further confirmation when we see how it was used by Jesus in the other Gospels. “I say to you that many will come (heko) from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out (ekballo) into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:11-12, NASB). “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out (ekballo exo). People will come (heko) from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:28-29, NASB). “All that [all believers regarded as a complete whole] the Father gives Me will come (heko) to Me [in final salvation via a future resurrection], and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out (ballo exo)” (John 6:37, NASB).
In each of these contexts the community of believers are the ones who will come to Jesus in final salvation, while unbelievers will be cast out into final condemnation. While Arminians have missed the significance of heko in interpreting John 6:35ff, Calvinists have consistently misused it to support unconditional election and irresistible grace. But doesn’t John 6:44 teach a particular grace, an efficacious grace given only to some? No it does not. The verse does not say, “the one who is given grace (who is drawn by the Father) is actually saved (raised up),” as Schreiner and Ware argue. The verse reads, “No one can come (erchomai) to [believe in] me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Who is it that will be raised up on the last day according to Jesus? The phrase “raise up” is used three other times by Jesus in John 6 and each time it applies to both the believing community and to its individual believers:
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that [all believers regarded as a complete whole] he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (v 39). “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v 40). “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v 54).
Notice that before we encounter this “drawing” of the Father we find Jesus declaring several times that only those believing in Him possess eternal life (6:27-29, 40; cf. 3:16, 18, 36; 6:54); will never hunger nor thirst (6:35); and will not be driven away or cast out (6:37b). It is only when we get to verse 44 that we find out that a person cannot believe in Jesus unless the Father first “draws” him. Clearly,
Both God’s sovereign grace and human response play a role in human salvation, but even one’s human response is enabled by God’s grace. God’s role in the relationship is incomparably greater than the human one, but the fact remains that God does not and will not save a person without the positive human response, called faith, to the divine leading and drawing [Ben Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, p. 158].
Jesus could have said, “No one can believe in me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and the one who believes in Me (in response to this drawing), I will raise him up on the last day.” But since he already affirmed to his listeners that they must come to or believe in Him in order to receive the promises, it was not necessary to emphasize it here. Jesus’ concern was to emphasize God’s sovereign initiative that precedes and enables the human response of faith. Therefore while verse 44 does not imply irresistible grace, it does imply an enabling grace necessary for a person to respond in faith to Jesus’ offer to receive eternal life.