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Unconditional Election and The Gospel of John

Introduction

The Gospel of John is a critical battlefield in the debate over biblical election. Calvinists and Arminians both find strong support for their respective views here. Arminians draw much attention to the passages which emphasize human responsibility. Calvinists point to passages which lay great emphasis on God’s sovereignty. In particular, Calvinists point to passages that express both necessary and sufficient conditions for coming to faith in Christ that are found throughout the Gospel of John. Consider these:

  • John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (Necessary condition)
  • John 6:65 “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” (Necessary condition)
  • John 6:37 “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (Sufficient condition)
  • John 8:47 “He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” (Sufficient condition)
  • John 10:26 “But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep.” (Sufficient condition)

Each of these statements appears in the context of Jews challenging Jesus’ divine claims and therefore His identity. Indeed, this theme of the Jewish rejection of Christ as their Messiah runs throughout John’s Gospel. In the prologue, we see that Jesus “came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (1:11). Since the references to “coming” and “hearing” in these chapters are references to believing unto salvation, each of the verses listed above gives an explanation for why certain Jews were not believing in Christ. They were not being “drawn” by the Father or “given” to the Son. They did not belong to God. They were not Christ’s “sheep.”

The expression of necessary conditions for believing do not pose much of a problem for Arminianism. Due to the doctrine of prevenient grace, Arminians can fully affirm that no one comes to faith in Christ unless it has been granted to them or unless they have been drawn by the Father. Prevenient grace is God’s means of drawing people to Himself in such a way that their free will is not compromised. While it is evident enough that the presence of necessary conditions does not undermine Arminian theology, the presence of sufficient conditions appears to be much more challenging. Sufficient conditions inevitably terminate with people believing (6:37). Moreover, some people are said to be excluded from believing because they either do not belong to God (8:47) or because they are not Christ’s sheep (10:26). In light of the fact that Arminianism believes that God wants all to be saved, these statements appear to provide prima facie evidence against Armininism.

The Calvinist Argument

Since the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election teaches that God has pre-selected a definite number of people to be saved (the elect), it is not surprising that Calvinists have found support for this doctrine in passages expressing the sufficient conditions for coming to faith. Those who are given to the Son, belong to God, and are Christ’s sheep are understood to be the elect. Moreover, Calvinists believe God has pre-selescted the rest of humanity to eternal damnation in hell. They see confirmation for this in the fact that the Jews who are rejecting Jesus are said to actually not be able to believe. Bruce Ware states the case forcefully.

“Surely this means that there are other specific individuals who are already his, specific ones who surely will be saved (“They will listen to My voice”), but as yet they have not been saved. If, instead, it was possible for any and all of the sheep of the world to hear his voice and follow him, then this statement would make no sense… Specific and individual election is required to make meaningful sense of what Jesus says.”

Bruce A. Ware, “Divine Election to Salvation” in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2006) Chad Owen Brand, editor, Pg. 43-44

Arguments like this bite deep, and especially so in light of the weak responses they have generally received from Arminians and other non-Calvinists. Arminians, by and large, have unfortunately not given the Calvinist arguments from John’s Gospel anything like an adequate answer. Arminian literature is replete with statements such as,

“John felt no tension between predestination and free will”

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: Volume 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012) Pg. 685

and

“John does not attempt to harmonize the concepts of predestination and free will but merely assumes that larger unity and the validity of both.”

Grant R. Osborne, “Soteriology in the Gospel of John,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, Zondervan, 1989) edited by Clark H. Pinnock, Pg. 257-258

Such vague and mysterious statements devoid of critical engagement with Calvinist arguments prove unhelpful. Jesus was trying to communicate something and it simply will not do to dismiss His statements as being mere mysteries.

The Strategy for This Essay

In this essay I intend to present a cogent and exegetically sound interpretation of those verses in the Gospel of John that are presumed to pose a challenge to Arminian soteriology. I shall primarily draw upon the exegetical work of Robert Hamilton to build my case. Utilizing Hamilton’s research, I hope to demonstrate that Calvinists have neglected the Jewish context and have overlooked important themes within the Gospel of John. After offering an alternative way of reading passages that present sufficient conditions for coming to faith, I will proceed to defend this reading over and against the Calvinist reading using compelling evidence from the Old Testament and from the Gospel of John itself. After defending the superiority of this interpretation, I will take a closer look at the verses presenting necessary and sufficient conditions for coming to faith and apply this hermeneutic to them. After this, I will anticipate and address a potential concern regarding this proposal. Finally, I will examine verses in the Gospel of John which seem to negate the role of man’s will in election. Statements such as “You did not choose Me but I chose you” (15:16) will be evaluated and found not to rule out the determinative role of the will of man in election.

An Alternative Hypothesis

Being given by the Father, belonging to God, or being one of Christ’s sheep are all logically prior to saving faith in the Gospel of John. Attempts to deny this have proven embarrassing. The questions we want to answer are these: What does it mean to belong to God or to be one of Christ’s sheep? and Why are some given to Christ and not others? As we have seen, Calvinists answer these questions by saying that these are references to the elect, and the reason they are given is because God unconditionally chose them for salvation and He rejected the rest.

But Robert Hamilton offers an alternative hypothesis. According to Hamilton, these terms refer not to a specific group of individuals chosen for salvation before the foundation of the world. Rather they primarily refer to the faithful Jews who were God’s children under the old covenant, and who were therefore prepared to believe on Christ by their own willful obedience to the law of God. Secondarily, it can be seen to refer to all people who respond positively to God’s prevenient grace and are therefore in a position to believe on Christ when God draws them to Himself. This is the thesis I shall defend in this essay.

Old Testament Evidence

Examining the Old Testament usage of certain terms and phrases often sheds considerable light on their usage in the New Testament. Such is the case when we examine what the the Old Testament has to say about belonging to God and being one of God’s sheep. As Hamilton notes, in the Old Testament, it is plainly obvious that the nation of Israel belongs to God and he cites the following passages (Exodus 3:7, 10; 5:1; 6:7; 7:4, 16; 8:1, 20-23; 9:1, 13, 17; 10:3-4; 18:1; 22:25; 32:14; Leviticus 25:55; 26:12; Deuteronomy 14:1-2; 26:18-19; 29:13; 32:9; Ruth 1:6; 1 Samuel 2:29; 9:16-17; 12:22; 13:14; 15:1; 2 Samuel 3:18; 5:2, 12; 7:7-8, 10-11; 1 Kings 6:13; 8:16; 56, 59, 66, 14:17; 16:2; 2 Kings 20:5; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 14:2; 17:6-7, 9-10; 22:18; 23:25; 2 Chronicles 1:11; 2:11; 6:5-6; 7:10, 13-14; 31:8, 10; 35:3; 36:15-16, 23; Ezra 1:3; Psalm 50:4, 7; 53:6; 78:20, 62, 71; 81:8, 11, 13; 85:2, 6, 8; 105:24-25, 43; 106:40; 111:6, 9; 116:14, 18; 125:2; 135:12, 14; 136:16; 148:14; Isaiah 1:3; 3:12, 14-15; 5:13, 25; 10:2, 24; 11:11, 16; 14:32; 28:5; 30:26; 40:1; 43:1, 20-22; 44:5; 47:6; 49:13; 51:4, 16, 22; 52:4-6, 9, 14; 58:1; 63:8, 11, 14, 18; 65:9-10, 19, 22; Jeremiah 2:11, 13, 31-32; 4:11, 22; 5:26, 31; 6:14, 27; 7:12, 23; 8:7, 11; 9:7; 11:4; 12:14, 16; 15:7; 18:15; 23:2, 13, 22, 27, 32; 24:7; 30:3, 22; 31:1, 14, 33; 32:38; 33:24; 50:6; 51:45; Ezekiel 13:9-10; 14:8-9, 11; 25:14; 33:31; 34:30; 36:8, 12, 28; 37:12-13, 18, 23, 27; 38:14, 16; 39:7; 44:23; 45:8-9; Hosea 4:6, 8, 12; 6:11; 11:7; Joel 2:17-18, 26-27; 3:2-3, 16; Amos 7:8, 15; 8:2; 9:10, 14; Obadiah 13; Micah 2:8-9; 6:2-5; Zephaniah 2:8-9).

Similarly, he points out that Israel is referenced as being a flock of sheep and cites the following references (Numbers 27:17; 2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Psalm 23; 28:9; 74:1-2; 78:52, 71-72; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 3:15; 23:1-6; Ezekiel 34:2; Micah 7:14; Zechariah 10:3). Even more significant than this, Hamilton sees that the concepts of belonging to God and being His sheep sometimes take a more restrictive sense. That is, in some cases, only the faithful Israelites are counted as belonging to God (Exodus 19:5-6; Psalm 103:13, 148:14, 149:4-5, 65:10; Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33; Ezekiel 36:28; 37:21-28; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:16-18). Furthermore, sometimes unfaithful Jews are identified as not belonging to God. In other words, being God’s people in a special sense is contingent upon obedience to Him. Those who are disobedient are not counted among God’s people though they are still part of Israel (Leviticus 26:3-12; Jeremiah 5:10-11; 7:23; 11:2-5; Hosea 1:9).

Yet, the evidence becomes even more interesting. The Old Testament foretells that when the Messiah comes, He will gather together the faithful remnant from among God’s people. Consider Jeremiah 23:3-5:

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,’ declares the LORD. ‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.”

Jeremiah 23:3-5:

Also consider Ezekiel 37:23-26.

“They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. . . . and David my servant will be their prince forever.”

Ezekiel 37:23-26

So first we see that faithful Israelites can be considered God’s sheep in a special sense and that unfaithful Israelites can be excluded. But in these prophecies, we see that when the Messiah comes, He will specifically gather together the faithful children of Israel. This is all the more compelling when we consider that the New Testament says that Jesus was sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), that He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), redeem “his people” (Luke 1:76), and preach to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). With this Old Testament background in mind, we can see Luke 1:16-17 in a new light.

“Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Luke 1:16-17

The purpose of God sending John the Baptist was to prepare a people for the Lord.

To summarize all of that, the Old Testament presents Israel as being God’s people and God’s sheep. However, when the people of Israel are nationally in rebellion against God, it is only those faithful Jews who are said to belong to God. The disobedient Jews are explicitly said to not be God’s people. This is significant because those who belonged to God were counted as such contingent upon their obedience and faithfulness to God’s law. Moreover, the Old Testament predicts that the Messiah will gather together His faithful ones. When we read the New Testament, we see these prophecies being fulfilled. This has major implications for our understanding of John 6, 8, and 10. If we understand the Father to be giving the faithful Jews to Jesus in John 6 and referring to the faithful Jews in John 8 and 10 as belonging to God, we see a clear fulfillment of these Old Testament predictions. Of importance for our purposes here, the giving of these faithful Jews to Christ is conditional upon their prior receptivity to God’s revelation which allowed them to be able to believe on Christ while the unfaithful Jews were blinded (Rom. 11:7).

Contextual Evidence

As we have seen, the Old Testament gives plausibility to the idea that the Jews who were given to Christ (6:37), belonged to God (8:47), and were Christ’s sheep (10:26) were faithful Jews who were voluntarily living in proper covenant relationship with God. Nothing in the Old Testament gives any hint that God had unconditionally predetermined to save a select number of people. But more than this, there are good contextual reasons within the Gospel of John itself for preferring this interpretation. As noted above, each of these statements that express sufficient conditions for believing appears when certain Jews are challenging Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah. From the context, therefore, we can see that the specific individuals who Jesus identifies as not being given to Him (6:37), not being drawn (6:44, 65), not belonging to God (8:47), and not being His sheep (10:27) definitely refers to those who were not prepared to receive their Messiah. They were not living in right covenant relationship with God. Jesus even says this in John 5:40-47.

“You are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. … Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”

John 5:40-47

We see that the Jews refused to believe on Christ, and the stated reason is that they did not respond positively to the revelation God had already given to them. Nothing is said about an eternal decree of God to save some and damn others. The cause of their inability to believe in Christ lay in their own refusal to heed the light God had already given them – not an unconditional decree of God. Note well that Jesus says if they had listened to Moses, then they would have believed in Him. Jesus states both the fact of their unbelief and the cause of their unbelief – willful rejection of the truth. Let us make no mistake. Jesus is expressing a sufficient condition for coming to faith here every bit as much as He is in the passages that Calvinists reference. The difference is that in this passage, Jesus lays the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of those Jews who had not listened to Moses.

This idea is also found in John 3:20-21.

“For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

John 3:20-21

In this verse, coming to the Light is synonymous with believing in Christ (Christ is identified as the Light in 1:4-5). We see that Jesus recognizes two kinds of people. Those who love the darkness due to their evil deeds, and those who come to the light because they have practiced the truth. Here again, we see evidence that the responsibility for who comes to Christ and who does not, lies in the Jews’ own prior response to the revelation God had given them.

Along these same lines, Jesus’ statement in John 18:37 lends more support to this interpretation. “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” The hearing of Christ’s voice is conditioned upon one’s own decision to be on the side of truth.

Another text in the Gospel of John that supports this reading is John 7:17. Here, Jesus says, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” We see that recognition of the truth of Christ’s words is contingent upon first voluntarily submitting to the will of the Father. As Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell put it,

“Rejecting God’s first offerings of truth will utterly block further illumination. God will not offer more truth or manifest his full glory (the eternal Son) while light at hand is being spurned.”

Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I am Not a Calvinist, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004),Pg. 74-75

Where, may I ask, is the text which states that the reason the Jews could not believe was because God had unconditionally damned them to hell? We see just the opposite. Jesus seems to regard the fate of those who were not believing in Him as yet contingent. He says, “For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (8:24).

To summarize, we have seen that the Gospel of John recognizes a class of people who cannot believe on Christ and a class of people who certainly will. Calvinists explain such statements by reference to unconditional election. However, evidence throughout the Old Testament and the Gospel of John suggests a very different explanation. Those who can not believe on Christ have ignored the previous revelation of God whereas those who have received God’s revelation will most definitely believe on Christ. The explanation for who believes and who does not remains conditional upon the actions of the individual. Let us now apply this hermeneutic to the controversial texts.

Applying the Hypothesis to the Text

Having thus defended the legitimacy and superiority of this interpretation, let us read these controversial verses again. Armed with this understanding of the sufficient conditions presented in the Gospel of John, I shall offer an interpretation of each of the verses listed at the beginning of this essay.

John 6:37

“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)

James White sees strong support for Calvinism here saying,

“The action of giving by the Father comes before the action of coming to Christ by the individual. And since all of those so given infallibly come, we have here both unconditional election and irresistible grace in the space of nine words!”

James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom, (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), Pg. 156

The question we want to answer is, Who is given to the Son? In contrast to White who sees this as an irresistible work of regeneration, the interpretation I have proposed works well. God gives the faithful children of Israel to Christ because they have been receptive to the revelation God has already given them. There is no reason to suppose, as White does, that this giving is unconditional. Jesus’ statement in John 6:45 supports my contention that this giving is conditional. “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” So the mechanism that the Father is using to give people to Jesus is revelation. Joseph Dongell explains:

“Those who respond properly to the Father’s teaching by listening to and learning from Him inevitably will come to Jesus, and certainly will be received by Him. Conversely, failure to believe in Jesus stems from a refusal to heed the Father’s instruction.”

Joseph Dongell, John: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1997), Pg. 101

Calvinist Bruce Ware attempts to argue that John 6:45 supports the Calvinist reading. He says,

“Jesus’ statement in 6:45 (‘Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me’) only reinforces his point in 6:44 by stating again it’s complimentary truth. As 6:44 had stressed that no one can come apart from the drawing of the Father, 6:45 reaffirms the truth Jesus had already presented in 6:37, namely, that all those given by the Father do come.”

Bruce A. Ware, “Effectual Calling and Grace,” in Still Sovereign, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), Pg. 217

But why should it be assumed that 6:45 is a reiteration of 6:37? In John 6:45 Jesus gives us new information which is not found in 6:37. He states that there are conditions that must be fulfilled by individuals before they come to Christ in faith. If it is assumed that the “giving” in verse 37 is the same as regeneration, then Ware’s interpretation faces a difficulty. Many Calvinists believe that regeneration and faith occur contemporaneously (though they maintain that regeneration is logically prior). Even Calvinists who affirm that regeneration is temporally prior to faith do not think there is a significant gap of time between the two. But if that is the case, this does not allow time for listening and learning from the Father. Thus, my hypothesis makes sense of the passage by seeing the listening and learning as chronologically prior to the giving and, indeed, serving as the condition for this giving. Robert Hamilton concludes the matter well.

“Though Jesus said that “all that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37), this statement assumes that the ones so given are at that time in a state of receptivity to God’s revealed truth. Nowhere in any of the passages explored earlier do we find any hint that a person who is resisting God’s grace can simultaneously be a recipient of the saving actions of God.”

Robert L. Hamilton, “The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep” Evangelical Arminians.org, February 8, 2008 , Pg. 33-34 http://evangelicalarminians.org/robert-hamilton-the-order-of-faith-and-election-in-johns-gospel-you-do-not-believe-because-you-are-not-my-sheep/

John 6:44 and 65

If it has been established that John 6:37 does not secure the case for unconditional election, let us turn to John 6:44 and 65.

John 6:44 “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 6:65 “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

Since verse 65 is essentially a reiteration of verse 44, I shall focus my comments on verse 44. Once again, we see that the interpretation I am proposing works well. Those being drawn are the faithful Jews. God is not drawing the unfaithful Jews because they have not been receptive to the revelation that God has already extended to them. As I argued in the discussion on 6:37, these are the faithful Jews who had believed the revelation that God had given them, were thereby prepared for the full revelation of God in Christ, and were now being drawn to Him. There is no contextual reason to suppose that the giving and drawing referenced here is unconditional. Conversely, there are good contextual reasons for thinking the giving and drawing were based on the Jews’ own response to their Scriptures and to God’s prevenient grace (see 5:40-47 and 6:45). As Robert Shank says,

“Jesus further declared that, for every person, the effect of the Father’s teaching (of which Jesus was the anointed vehicle John 7:16; 12:49, 50; 17:8) is directly determined by something within, and of, the individual himself: ‘If any man wills to do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.’ … All who ‘will to do His will’ are persuaded of the truth of His teaching, and therefore ‘hear’ and ‘learn’ of the Father and are drawn to Jesus as the Father’s gift to the Son.”

Robert Shank, Life in the Son, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), Pg. 338-339

As noted, the drawing in verse 44 parallels the giving in verse 37. The “giving” in verse 37 is a present-tense verb. Thus, the giving and drawing of John 6:37 and 6:44 refer to actions God is presently doing. As David Allen notes,

“When did this ‘giving’ take place? Not in eternity past, for the use of the present-tense verb indicates contemporary action: the Father was in the very process giving to the Son those who were believing in Him.”

David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), Pg. 697

Jesus says that no man can presently come to Him unless the Father draws Him. He does not say no man can ever come to Him without being drawn in the way John 6:44 describes. Of course, as an Arminian, I do believe that God must enable people to believe through prevenient grace. But that is not what I take John 6:44 to be describing. This verse refers to the Father’s present action of drawing the faithful children of Israel to their Messiah.

Calvinists lay much emphasis on the fact that the drawing is effectual. For example, Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware argue,

“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.”

Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, Still Sovereign, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), Pg. 15

Elsewhere, Ware says,

“Because the drawing of the Father is effectual, it is clear that this cannot be be a universal or commonly bestowed drawing to Christ exerted to all people, but rather a selective drawing of those whom the Father chose to the Son.”

Bruce A. Ware, “Effectual Calling and Grace,” in Still Sovereign, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), Pg. 217

But the fact that the drawing is effectual is not problematic for my reading. An effectual drawing is simply a successful drawing. My hypothesis suggests that the Father draws those to Christ who had already established a pattern of receptivity to God’s revelation. Thus, when God fully reveals Himself in the person of Christ, it is expected that those who have already responded to His previous revelations will respond to the full revelation. Those who believe Moses will believe Christ (John 5:46). Establishing that the drawing is effectual does not establish that it is unconditional or irresistible as we shall consider shortly. As Hamilton says,

“It is important to bear in mind here that a sufficient condition does not properly entail irresistibility. Though all those who “belong” to God as Christ’s “sheep” unfailingly come to Christ, this is not because they are irresistibly determined to do so, but because their hearts are already freely predisposed (in response to prior prevenient grace) to continue exercising faith.”

Robert L. Hamilton, “The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep”, Pg. 46

Some Calvinists, notably R. C. Sproul, have argued that the Greek word for “draw” (helkuo) here must mean “to drag.” From this premise, it is argued that the drawing refers to irresistible grace. Although I agree that the specific drawing referred to in John 6:44 does, in fact, terminate with the person who is drawn believing, the claim that the word “draw” must mean “drag” is inaccurate. Although the word can mean “to forcefully drag” it can also simply mean to woo or attract. According to Sproul’s own source, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “draw” in John 6:44 has

“no thought here of force or magic. The term figuratively expresses the supernatural power of the love of God or Christ which goes out to all (12:32) but without which no one can come (6:44).”

Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Abridged in One Volume, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), Pg. 227

Kittle notes that the same word for “draw” in 6:44 is used in 12:32 where Jesus says He will “draw all men” unto Himself. John 12:32 refers to a future drawing of all men which is different than the specific drawing of faithful Jews in John 6:44. However, if “draw” always means to forcefully drag, then Calvinists who make this argument seem to commit themselves to universalism.

Regarding any reference to John 12:32, Robert Yarbrough gives a two-fold response. First, he argues that it cannot be assumed that the word always has the same meaning. Second, he argues that

“the immediate context … suggests that ‘all’ here refers to the elect of both Jewish and Gentile origin, not to the general benevolent effects of the atonement on the human race as a whole.”

Robert Yarbrough, “Divine Election in the Gospel of John,” in Still Sovereign, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, editors, Pg. 52

To Yarbrough’s first argument, I can agree with it as far as it goes. Certainly authors can use the same word with different meanings. But Yarbrough misses the point entirely. If “draw” does not have to mean “drag” in John 12:32, then it also does not have to mean “drag” in John 6:44.

To Yarbrough’s second argument, I find his interpretation unlikely. It is far from obvious that “all” means “Jews and Gentiles.” As many commentators have noted, the phrase “lifted up” in verse 32 is parallel with the same term in 3:14-15. Here, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” So we note that this “lifting up” was prefigured in Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in Numbers 21. According to Numbers 21:8, the bronze serpent was intended to provide healing for every Jew who had been bitten by fiery serpents. Moreover, all indications are that anyone who was bitten had the ability to look at the serpent. If we understand Jesus’ statement in John 12:32 against the background of Numbers 21:8, it seems probable that Jesus truly is referring to all men without exception. Everyone who has been “bitten” by sin is able to look upon Christ who has been “lifted up” on the cross.

Even if the drawing here does only refer to both Jews and Gentiles, this is fairly inconsequential. First, the interpretation I have proposed understands the “drawing” in John 6:44 to refer to God drawing those faithful Jews. As I shall argue below, in a secondary sense, this drawing applies to all men who are receptive to God’s prevenient grace. Thus, if “draw” has the same meaning in 12:32, and “all men” refers to “Jews and Gentiles” this is perfectly compatible with my hypothesis. But the main point is that there is no reason that “draw” must mean “drag.” F. Leroy Forlines summarizes this nicely.

“If a person is going to interpret helkuo [draw] in John 6:44 and 12:32 to be an irresistible drawing, he must first find a passage elsewhere that irrefutably teaches that there is such an irresistible drawing. Then, he might suggest that as the meaning in John. These verses cannot be used as a part of a person’s arsenal of irrefutable proof of an irresistible calling.”

F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism, (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2011), Pg. 160

John 8:47 and 10:26

“He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” (John 8:47)

The interpretation that I am proposing understands those “of God” to be the faithful Jews and those who are “not of God” to be those rejecting the truths God had revealed in the Law. Once again, we see that the context of John 8 favors this reading. The Jews who are rejecting Jesus as their Messiah claim that Abraham is their father (8:39). But Jesus responds sharply by saying that if they were children of Abraham, then they would do the deeds of Abraham. He then adds to this that their real father is the devil (8:44). In verse 56, Jesus goes as far as to say that Abraham rejoiced when he saw Christ. The implication is that if these Jews truly had the faith of Abraham, then they would have also rejoiced at seeing Christ. When we come to verse 47, Jesus has already established that these people are not living in right covenant relationship with God. No wonder He says that they do not belong to God and therefore cannot hear His words. They have rejected the light that God gave them, and they are blinded as a result. This was the result of their own decision. The text says nothing about the cause of their inability to hear being God preordaining their damnation.

“But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep.” (John 10:26)

My hypothesis understands those who are Jesus’ sheep as being those who were being receptive to God’s revelation. Therefore, those who are not his sheep can be understood to be those who had rejected God’s revelation. The following context demonstrates that these Jews were not living in a proper covenant relationship with God. Immediately after Jesus’ claim to deity (10:30), these Jews try to stone Him (10:31). John 10 does not suggest that God unconditionally selected some men to be His sheep and other to not be His sheep.

A key piece of contextual evidence for this interpretation comes from 10:8. Here Jesus says, “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.” Here, Jesus shows that those who are his sheep were already demonstrating a pattern of faithfulness by not following those who came before Christ. This is significant since, according to the Calvinist hypothesis, the sheep should not be faithful until they are regenerated by God. Yet, according to Jesus, they were already being faithful before Jesus called them. This statement creates serious problems for regarding the sheep as being “the elect,” yet it dovetails perfectly with my hypothesis that the sheep are those who were being obedient to God’s revelation. Hamilton concludes this well.

“Those whom Jesus said would come to him in faith because they ‘belonged’ to God as his ‘sheep’ (8:47b, 10:26) refers primarily to those Jews who had responded favorably to God’s prevenient grace by being faithful to the covenant as it was revealed in the Old Testament. [This] proposal not only takes into account a wide range of biblical data bearing on the subject, but also satisfies the key requirement that must be met by any account of Jesus’ statements of the sufficient conditions for coming to faith presented in the Gospel of John. Specifically, [this] proposal explains how people can already ‘belong’ to God as his children and be considered Christ’s ‘sheep’ before they ever exercise saving faith in Jesus Christ.”

Robert L. Hamilton, “The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep”

Calvinists will sometimes object by saying that this interpretation has the sheep determining who they follow. As James White likes to quip,

“It’s obvious, I would think, that sheep do not choose shepherds.”

See Alpha & Omega Ministries, “Radio Free Geneva: The Choice Meats Analygesis of Leighton Flowers in John 10,” YouTube.com, July 6, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iL1g7xX9riE timestamp 16:31-39. See also James R. White, God’s Sovereign Grace, (Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, 1991) Pg. 93

Objections of this sort assume that how or why one is a sheep is the point of the sheep/shepherd language. However, this is manifestly not the purpose of the analogy. We may respond to White by pointing out that shepherds do not choose their sheep unconditionally before they are born either. If Jesus were trying to teach that one became His in the same way as a literal sheep becomes the property of a shepherd, then both Calvinism and Arminianism are reduced to nonsense. Jesus gives us no insights into how they came to be that way. That is not His intention. As Forlines notes,

“At the time these words were spoken to them [the Jews] they were still resisting. There is nothing to suggest that it was impossible for them to believe and to be saved at a later date. There is no indication that God had made an unconditional choice to leave them out of His plan.”

F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism, (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2011), Pg. 162

The purpose of this language is to demonstrate the dynamics of the relationship between Christ and those who are faithful. In other words, it is a statement of the fact that some are responsive and not others. Jesus is explaining why it is that some recognize His voice. Once this point is firmly grasped, the reading I have proposed becomes plausible. Those who have listened and learned from the Father have become acquainted with the sound of His voice over time. And since Jesus speaks the words of the Father (John 12:49), when He speaks, the sheep recognize the voice, and they follow Him.

A Matter of Concern

Many will balk at the interpretation I have offered. They wonder if this understanding of the Gospel of John means these texts have no relevance to us today. While I do believe that these texts are primarily referring to Jesus gathering the faithful children of Israel (Jer 23:3-5, Ez 37:23-26, Lk 1:16-17), I also believe there is a secondary sense in which these texts do apply to everyone. It is my hope that this secondary sense will serve to alleviate the concern which states that my interpretation results in these verses having no relevance to us today.

In John 10:16, Jesus mentions that He has other sheep. He says,

“I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.”

John 10:16

There is broad agreement that these “other sheep” are the Gentiles and that Jesus is here teaching that the Gentiles will also be brought into the family of God. These Gentiles are also referred to as sheep, meaning that they are in the same condition as the faithful Israelites. These Gentiles had also been responsive to God’s revelation and were therefore in a position to believe on Christ. This includes people like the centurion who came to Jesus seeking healing for his slave (Lk 7:1-10), the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus (Jn 12:20-21), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27), Cornelius (Acts 10:22), the God-fearing proselytes (Acts 13:43), possibly the Gentiles appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48), and Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:14). However Jesus makes it clear that He will gather them at a future point in time. This seems to suggest that there is indeed a more general and universal sense in which we may understand these texts. The Father draws and gives everyone to the Son who is responsive to God’s prevenient grace. Conversely, everyone who scorns God’s revelation will ultimately be blinded and therefore unable to come to Christ in faith (John 12:38-40). As Hamilton says,

“If a person accepts the prevenient grace given to him, then God will give more prevenient grace or else saving grace, as appropriate (depending on the nature and extent of the prevenient grace already received). If a person rejects the prevenient grace given to him, he risks not being offered further grace.”

Robert L. Hamilton, “The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep”, Pg. 23

Other Controversial texts

On the one hand, the Gospel of John would seem to contain some of the strongest verses supporting the idea that man’s choice plays a determinative role in his own salvation. This is evidenced by the numerous calls to believe upon Christ and be saved (see John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 11:25; 14:1; 20:31). On the other hand, the Gospel of John contains two statements which seem to say that man’s will is not a reason that he is saved. The first is John 1:13. The verse reads, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The second is John 15:16 which says, “You did not choose Me but I chose you.” Guillaume Bignon uses these verses to support Calvinism saying,

“Some biblical passages seem to outright deny the reality of human choices in the decision to follow Christ.” 

Guillaume Bignon, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Pg. 59

In this section I hope to demonstrate that neither of these verses demonstrate that man’s choice is not a determining factor in his election or salvation.

John 1:13

We turn first to John 1:13. The verse says that people are born again by God’s will and not man’s will. At a glance, this could appear to support the idea that man’s will plays no determining role in his own salvation. As Robert Yarbrough argues:

“Divine election receives sharp emphasis in John 1:13, which sheds light on the identity of ‘all who received him’ in 1:12. That is, those who savingly received the Messiah for who he truly was (1:12) did so because they were ‘born of God’ (1:13)–and not vice versa. More specifically, they cannot ultimately attribute their saved status, if they possess it, to ‘natural descent,’ their Jewishness or descent from Abraham (cf. John 8:33). They cannot ultimately attribute it to ‘human decision,’ their own act of belief alone, or their parents’ decision to have a child who would eventually declare belief in Christ.”

Robert Yarbrough, “Divine Election in the Gospel of John,” in Still Sovereign, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, editors, Pg. 49

Verse 13 cannot be divorced from verse 12 which reads, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” So verse 12 says that becoming a child of God does depend on man’s will (faith) while verse 13 seems to be saying that being born again does not depend on man’s will. At a glance, this seems to be a flat contradiction. However, a closer examination of the verses reveals a solution. Verse 12 speaks of the power or right to become the children of God being given to those who believe. Verse 13 speaks of the actual process of becoming a child of God or being born again. Verse 12 speaks of something chronologically prior to verse 13. That is, after one believes, he is then born again by the will of God. No Arminian believes that man’s choice to have faith is the instrumental cause of him being born again. The new birth is an act entirely of God which He performs in response to man’s faith. But faith alone does nothing. God must respond to faith in order for a sinner to be born again. Steven Hitchcock explains this rather well.

“Christians never decided to become regenerated or cause themselves to be born spiritually, rather they believe in Him who causes them to be born of Himself.”

Steven L. Hitchcock, Recanting Calvinism, (Xulon Press, 2011), Pg. 154

This, I think, provides an adequate solution to the apparent contradiction and also demonstrates that John 1:13 does not mean that man’s choice plays no role in whether or not he is born again.

While the argument above suffices to preserve the Arminian view that man must exercise faith in order to be born again, this whole way of approaching the text misses John’s purpose. John has no concern here with addressing whether or not man’s choice is required in order for him to be saved. John’s purpose here is to rebut common Jewish notions about how one was to be saved as well as to emphasize the supernatural cause of the new birth. He first says that they were not born of blood. There seems to be general agreement that this is reference to ancestry. It is understandable why John would feel the need to mention this as many Jews believed they were to be saved simply by virtue of their ancestry. The verse is saying that ancestry is not the cause of the new birth. Second, John says that they were not born of the will of the flesh. This phrase is a little more disputed, but many commentators agree that this is a reference to lust, adultery, or some other form of sexual immorality. John seems to be saying that sexual desire is not the cause of the new birth. Finally he says that they were not born of the will of man. Some translations and commentators understand the word man here (anēr) to simply mean “father.” Since, in first-century Jewish culture, the father was thought to be in charge of procreative activity, John was also ruling out marital sexual reproduction as being the cause of the new birth. The verse is teaching that God is the cause of the new birth as opposed to normal methods such as human ancestry, immorality, or marriage. Robert Hamilton makes this point particularly well in his response to Yarbrough, and therefore I quote him at some length.

“Yarbrough’s assertion here rests on a misreading of the phrases “not of natural descent [lit., ‘of bloods’], nor of human decision, or a husband’s will” as referring to human-based attempts to obtain salvation. However, this is not the most straightforward way to understand the text. The contrast in this passage is not between two different means of attempting to obtain salvation, but instead between two different types of conception. … The “human decision” in verse 13 does not refer to any and all human decisions, but instead should be identified with the immediately following phrase, “a husband’s will,” which refers specifically to parental volition in bringing about physical conception. Identifying the two phrases in this way accords with the conventions of standard Hebrew parallelism. Consequently, the passage does not entail what Yarbrough asserts, that salvation cannot be contingent upon one’s faith decision.”

Robert L. Hamilton, “The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep”, Pg. 35-36

It should also be pointed out that if Yarbrough is correct that this a reference to any and all human volition, then referencing both the “will of the flesh” and the “will of man” makes the verse needlessly redundant. One will is subsumed within the other. Moreover, verse 12 makes it clear that faith precedes the new birth for it is clear that the right to become sons of God is given to those who believe because they believe. Calvinist John Murray recognizes this, and so in order to preserve his belief that regeneration precedes faith, he takes the reference to the right to become children of God as a reference solely to adoption. However this is implausible for it requires us to presume that being “born of God” and becoming a “child of God” are distinct in these two verses but without justification. Brian Abasciano corrects this ad hoc interpretation by saying:

“‘Becoming children of God’ and ‘being born of God’ are parallel expressions referring to the same phenomenon (it would be special pleading, and a desperate expedient at that, to argue that becoming God’s child and being born of him are distinct in the Johannine context or that the text would allow that a person could be born of God and yet not be his child), so that God’s act of regenerating believers, making them his own children, is a response to their faith.”

Brian J. Abasciano, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.10-18, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2011) Pg. 191, Footnote 153

John 15:16

The other verse that Calvinists will sometimes appeal to as proof that man’s will does not play a determining factor in his election is John 15:16. Here, speaking to His disciples, Jesus says,

“You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”

John 15:16

Edwin Palmer sees strong support for unconditional election here. He says,

“If ever a text was clear in pointing out unconditional election, this is the one. The Arminian says he chooses Christ. Christ says, ‘No, you did not choose me. Rather, I chose you.’”

Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972), Pg. 28

However, the context of John 15 makes it fairly clear that Jesus is speaking to His disciples and that He is speaking to them uniquely as His disciples. In other words, what Jesus says here was addressed specifically to His disciples and does not necessarily apply to believers in general.

Even more significant is the fact that Jesus is not referring to His disciples’ salvation here. None other than John Calvin himself clearly stated that the choosing in John 15:16 was not a choice unto salvation (though he still tried to use this verse to support unconditional election). He said,

“The subject now in hand is not the ordinary election of believers, by which they are adopted to be the children of God, but that special election, by which he set apart his disciples to the office of preaching the Gospel.”

John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, (Devoted Publishing, 2018), Pg. 254

Even James White, a passionate defender of Calvinism, openly confesses that John 15:16 is not a reference to God’s choice of people unto salvation. He says,

“The problem is, that text from John is not really about election at all. It’s about the disciples, and it’s about apostleship, and it’s not really about election at all.”

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF3KlVXuexo

Indeed, if John 15:16 really were denying that man chooses to believe in Christ, then this verse would also be incompatible with Calvinism for Calvinists also affirm that believing is a human choice. It is ironic that after his bold proclamation that John 15:16 definitively refutes Arminiansm, Palmer turns right around and contradicts himself. He adds,

“Now it is true that the Christian chooses Christ. He believes on Him. It was his decision.”

Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972), Pg. 28

But if that is the case, then this verse does not help the Calvinist. Palmer cannot have his cake and eat it too. If the verse is saying that sinners do not, in any sense, choose Christ, then Calvinism is in the same trouble as Arminianism. Likewise, if the verse is not denying that men choose to believe, then it does not refute Arminianism.

Jesus is referring both to the disciples’ call to follow Him and to their mission to evangelize the world. This is made clear when Jesus says that He had chosen them and ordained them for the purpose of bearing fruit (i.e. evangelism). This interpretation is strengthened as Jesus goes on to explain how the world will hate them for serving Him. The significance of Jesus saying that they had not chosen Him makes sense once we understand the relationship of teachers to their disciples in the first century. As Craig Keener explains,

“Normally disciples chose their own teachers, but according to the Synoptic tradition, Jesus had chosen these disciples. … That Jesus ‘appointed’ them (15:16) suggests that he not only exercised a purpose concerning them but ‘established’ that purpose.”

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: Volume 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Pg. 1015, 1016

Thus, the importance of the disciples not choosing Jesus emphasizes the reality of their divine calling. Jesus is not saying that they had no choice in the matter of their salvation. As Hamilton says,

“The thrust in these verses is clearly election to their apostolic role. … The standing of the twelve in regard to faith and salvation is not directly addressed here at all, and must be considered independently.”

Robert L. Hamilton, “The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep”, Pg. 41

Conclusion

In this essay we have considered the key texts from the Gospel of John which Calvinists use to support the doctrine of unconditional election. We saw that Calvinists have not provided any exegetical support for their contention that John 6, 8, and 10 teach unconditional election. Moreover, we have seen that they have ignored the Old Testament background as well as important clarifying remarks that Jesus makes throughout the Gospel thereby telling us why some can come to Him and others cannot. When this additional information is considered, it becomes evident that there were conditions that had to be fulfilled prior to faith in order for people to believe, namely being obedient to the first truths that God had revealed to them. Once the controversial texts are seen against this backdrop, it becomes evident that they pose no challenge to Arminianism.

Appendix: Faithfulness and Works Salvation

I have shared the understanding of the Gospel of John that I have just explained with many Calvinists over the years. The most frequent objection to my interpretation is not exegetical, but theological. Calvinists express concern that this interpretation makes salvation conditional upon works. If only those who have obeyed the law are drawn to Christ, does this not mean that one has to do works in order to be saved? In this appendix, I hope to show that this criticism is misguided.

I cannot lay too much stress upon the fact that my interpretation makes salvation conditional upon faith – not works. Those Jews who had believed God’s revelation as contained in the Old Testament were drawn to Christ their Messiah. The reason they were drawn was because they were prepared to receive Christ based upon a pattern of receptiveness to God’s truth. Faith in Christ is a natural response for someone who faithfully follows the light that God gives them. This was not something they had earned. It is certainly true that the Old Testament covenant involved works as a condition for being one of God’s people. But even the performing of works under the old covenant was meant to be the result of faith in God. Jesus’ clashes with the Pharisees tell us nothing if not that faith was more important than the works. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that it was the faith of these Jews that caused them to be drawn to Him. He said, “if you believed Moses, you would believe Me.”

Thus, even though faith leads to works (James 2:17), it was faith that formed the basis for these Jews being drawn to their Savior. Once this point has been firmly grasped, I think it is evident that my interpretation of the Gospel of John is fully compatible with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. It does not lead to a works-based view of salvation.

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David Pallmann

David Pallmann runs the Faith Because Of Reason YouTube channel and is the former co-host of the Proselytize Or Apostatize podcast. He is a Christian intellectual who has deeply studied general apologetics, soteriology, and epistemology.

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