Does John 6:44 Teach Irresistible Grace?

As I stated in my last post, there is no more important question with regards to the controversy between Arminianism and Calvinism than the question of priority with regards to faith and regeneration. R.C. Sproul writes,

A cardinal point of Reformed theology [Calvinism] is the maxim: “Regeneration precedes faith.” Our nature is so corrupt, the power of sin is so great, that unless God does a supernatural work in our souls we will never choose Christ. We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order to believe. (Chosen By God, pg. 72)

While many Calvinists will cringe at the charge, they are essentially saying that one does not believe until they are saved [born again]. This is the bare and necessary conclusion when the theological smoke screen of Reformed theology finally clears. I believe that I have already effectively demonstrated why such a doctrine is incompatible with God’s word in my last post. We will now take some time to consider some of the “proof texts” that Calvinists have offered to support their doctrine of irresistible regeneration. We will begin where R.C. Sproul began in Chosen By God, with 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.” [NASB]

Sproul says of this passage, “The key word here is draw.” After briefly, and somewhat inaccurately, describing the Arminian view that the drawing of John 6:44 is not irresistible, he concludes,

I am persuaded that the above explanation [that this drawing is a resistible “wooing”], which is so widespread, is incorrect. It does violence to the text of Scripture, particularly to the biblical meaning of the word draw. The Greek word used here is elko. Kittle’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it to mean to compel by irresistible superiority. Linguistically and lexicographically, the word means “to compel. (ibid. pg. 69)

He then cites James 2:6, and Acts 16:19, where the same Greek word is used of forceful dragging.

Steve Witzki, a contributor for The Arminian magazine looked into Sproul’s lexicographical claims and came up with some surprising results. He writes,

After investigating “Big” Kittel’s definition for myself, I was surprised to find that it did not agree with Sproul’s definition of draw. Albrecht Oepke comments that in John’s usage of helkuo “force or magic may be discounted, but not the supernatural element” [TDNT, 2:503]. Yet for Sproul’s definition to hold up, John’s usage must mean to compel or force. When I turned to find out what “Little” Kittel (the one-volume abridged edition of Kittel’s massive ten volume work) had to say on “draw,” I was shocked at what it had to say in comparison to Sproul’s dogmatic assertions. Here is the entire comment as translated and abridged by Geoffrey Bromiley:

The basic meaning is “to draw,” “tug,” or, in the case of persons, “compel.” It may be used for “to draw” to a place by magic, for demons being “drawn” to animal life, or for the inner influencing of the will (Plato). The Semitic world has the concept of an irresistible drawing to God (cf. 1 Sam. 10:5; 19:19ff.; Jer. 29:26; Hos. 9:7). In the OT helkein denotes a powerful impulse, as in Cant. 1:4, which is obscure but expresses the force of love. This is the point in the two important passages in Jn. 6:44; 12:32. There is 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). The apparent contradiction shows that both the election and the universality of grace must be taken seriously; the compulsion is not automatic [p. 227].

What? The compulsion is not automatic? But this is exactly what Sproul and other Calvinists argue that helkuo means in John 6:44 — God literally and irresistibly compels, drags, or forces the elect to come to Christ. Yes, helkuo can literally mean drag, compel, or force in certain contexts (John 18:10; 21:6,11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; and James 2:6), but it is not the lexical meaning for the context of John 6:44, nor for that manner, John 12:32. Sproul confidently states that “linguistically and lexicographically, the word means to compel,” but where is the citation of all the lexical evidence to support this statement?” [Steve Witzki, Free Grace or Forced Grace?, The Arminian, Vol. 19, issue 1] You can read the rest of Steve’s article here.

I would add the description of helkuo given in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words,

HELKUO, to draw, differs from suro as drawing does from violent dragging…This less violent significance, usually present in helko, but always absent from suro, is seen in the metaphorical use of helko, to signify drawing by inward power, by Divine impulse, John 6:44; 12:32. (328)

Here, the very connection that Calvinists often like to make (that helkuo in Jn. 6:44 has reference to violent dragging) is plainly discounted.

I agree with Forlines’ assessment in responding to a similar argument put forth by Calvinist Robert W. Yarbrough,

I think the evidence Yarbrough presents does suggest that the drawing of John 6:44 is strong. I have no problem with the idea that the drawing spoken of in John 6:44 is a “strong drawing”. But I do have a problem with speaking of it as a “forceful attraction”. A word used literally may have a causal force when dealing with physical relationships. However, we cannot require that that word have the same causal force when it is used metaphorically with reference to an influence and response relationship. John 6:44 speaks of a personal influence and response relationship. (F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth, pg. 386- emphasis his)

It is quite clear from Sproul’s comments and those of other Reformed theologians, that they see the drawing in Jn. 6:44 to refer to irresistible regeneration. In other words, “draw” is synonymous with “give life”. Therefore an accurate paraphrase of Jn 6:44 from a Calvinist view point would be,

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me first gives him life.”

So, according to Reformed doctrine, no one can “come” unless they are first regenerated [i.e. given life]. Only those who have first been given spiritual life can “come” to Christ. While this interpretation may line up with the teachings of Calvinism, it renders nonsensical two related passages in the gospel of John. Consider John 5:40,

“And you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (NASB-emphasis mine)

Jesus tells these Jews that having life is the result of coming to Him. Calvinism teaches that coming to Jesus is the result of already having life! If the Calvinist interpretation of Jn. 6:44 is accurate then Jesus should have said,

“And you are unwilling to come to Me because you have not been given life.”

When dealing with John 6, Calvinists are quick to point out that “come” is a synonym for faith. They come to this conclusion by comparing the parallelism in John 6:35. They then read this conclusion into John 6:37, 44, 45, and 65. They would likely agree that when Jesus speaks of “eating” His flesh and “drinking” his blood, He is also speaking about faith, for nobody can have such a relationship with God except by faith. John 6:51-58 would seem to confirm this.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day…Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your fathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever. (NIV)

It is clear from these passages that one must first eat and drink [by faith] the flesh and blood of Christ before they can experience life. The life resides in Christ and flows into those who partake of him by faith. If the Calvinist concept of regeneration preceding faith were accurate, then we would again expect to see Jesus saying something more like,

If anyone eats this bread [by faith] it is proof that he was already living. This bread is my flesh which I will give only to those who I have unconditionally elected and irresistibly regenerated in the world…I tell you the truth, unless you have been made alive you cannot eat the flesh of the Son of Man or drink his blood. Whoever has been given eternal life will eat my flesh and drink my blood, and I will raise him up at the last day…so the one who is living will feed on me…Your fathers ate manna and died, but he who already lives forever will feed on this bread.

The record is plain. Eternal life resides in Christ (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 6:35; 11:25; 14:6; 1Jn. 1:2; 5:11; Col. 3:4), and only those who come to Christ in faith will experience this life. The Reformed doctrine that one must first experience life, before he or she can come, is out of harmony with the testimony of God’s word.

The context of John 6 and the theological emphasis of the gospel of John forbids the Calvinist interpretation of John 6:44. The Arminian understanding of prevenient grace, however, does justice to the context of Jn. 6 and the overall tenor of John’s gospel. Steve Witzki said it well when he concluded,

Let us review the last few comments on the word draw from “little” Kittel:

There is 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). The apparent contradiction shows that both the election and the universality of grace must be taken seriously; the compulsion is not automatic.

What is rather ironic in all of this discussion is that the above definition coincides beautifully with the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace — a doctrine that R.C. Sproul denies that the Bible teaches [pp. 123-125]. Wesleyan-Arminians believe that divine grace works in the hearts and wills of every person to elicit a faith response or as Thomas Oden states so well, “God’s love enables precisely that response in the sinner which God’s holiness demands: trust in God’s own self-giving” [The Transforming Power of Grace, p. 45].

God’s prevenient or assisting grace is morally drawing all people to Himself (John 12:32). This gracious working of God does not compel or force anyone to believe but enables all to respond to God’s commands to turn away from sin in repentance, and towards the Savior Jesus Christ in faith. Thus, with all the strength of Calvinism, salvation can be ascribed completely to God, but without denying genuine human responsibility that Calvinism does. (Witzki, Free Grace or Forced Grace?)

We conclude with the plain declaration of John 20:31,

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

For more on John 6 and related passages in John with regards to the claims of Calvinism, see here.  (you will also find several more helpful posts and articles linked to at the bottom that post).