Some of you may remember a short debate I had with Gordan from over at Reformed Mafia concerning the implications of John 5:40 with regards to the Calvinist understanding of the ordo salutis [Gordan Gives Me Props And Rebukes At Reformed Mafia]. Well, it seems that since the first “hit” was unsuccessful; Gordan has reloaded his Tommy-Gun for another go at me. He fires off plenty of rounds but still manages to miss his intended target (probably because he is too busy repeatedly shooting himself in the foot). Below is his latest unsuccessful attempt to wack me out.
His comments are in blue:
Recently, I was in a discussion with a friend (who claims to hate me, in a good natured- way, of course) who proposed that John 5:40 is the death knell of Calvinistic soteriology. I mentioned this claim in an earlier post.
I did not say that John 5:40 was the death knell of Calvinism. I do believe that it is one of many passages which destroy the Reformed view of the ordo salutis. The question being addressed is whether the Calvinist claim that regeneration precedes faith is Biblical or not.
[For the record, I do not hate Ben (Kangeroodort) although I do have a big, big problem with his anti-biblical soteriology, and I in fact pity him for his choice of NFL teams.]
For the record, I do not hate Gordan either. In fact, I think I have told him that I love him on more than one occasion (as a brother in Christ of course). Likewise, I obviously have a problem with his approach to soteriology and find it to be based more on the necessary implications of a theological system than on sound exegesis. As for the football comment, all I need to say is that both the Steelers and Cowboys have 5 championships to their credit (though it took the Steelers less trips to the Superbowl to gain theirs); the Steelers are 2-1 against the Cowboys in the Superbowl, beat the Cowboys the last time they played each other (with a rookie Ben Roethlisberger at the helm), and have a more recent championship to their credit….‘nough said.
Here is the verse in the NKJV: “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (This is Jesus speaking to the Jews who sought to kill Him.)
Ben says this proves Calvinism is wrong. He is fairly certain that the “life” mentioned there must necessarily include Regeneration. He thinks that if I would simply read the text, I’d see that as an inescapable conclusion.
Spiritually dead people have to come to Jesus (i.e. believe in Him) in order to be regenerated. Ben sees that as straightforward, if only we Calvinists would read what the Bible says there.
But after pondering this for some time, both during and since our discussion at his blog, I am left where my objection began. That is, what is the textual evidence for the notion that the “life” of John 5:40 includes Regeneration? (And right here is where we may need a whole ‘nother discussion on what constitutes evidence…)
There are other options for what “life” might mean. It may be synonymous with “salvation,” which I think is not uncommon in John’s writings. Or, it may have to do specifically with “eternal life,” the glorified life post-resurrection.
In fact, I’d propose that this latter idea is suggested strongly by the context of the rest of John 5. (See especially verses 24-26, and 29.) In fact, in the verse right before the one in question (v. 39), it is “eternal life” that is expressly mentioned as that which the Jews have missed in their rejection of the Scriptures teachings about Jesus.
This does no harm to Calvinism. Every Calvinist would say that a person has to believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life.
There is a lot to deal with here. Gordan has been fair enough in representing my view that the “life” spoken of in John 5:40 must at least [if not primarily] include regeneration. Let’s take a look at the passages that Gordan cites in defense of his claims. It should be noted that I was the first one to refer to these passages in our discussion because I believed they further supported my interpretation. Gordan now brings them up as an attempt to bolster his own view.
But Ben’s contention is that regeneration must be included in that concept because it is the starting point of eternal life. Can’t have the everlasting life in heaven without first being regenerated, after all. So, then, you have to come to Jesus to be regenerated, since it is the beginning point of eternal life.
Before looking at these passages (5:24-26 and 29), something must be said concerning his comment that, “[life] may be synonymous with ‘salvation,’ which is not uncommon in John’s writings”. I agree completely. This is probably the biggest difference in our views. Arminians do not see regeneration as a means to an end (the ability to put faith in Christ), but as the ends itself. Regeneration is the beginning of the new life (which is the eternal life that is found in Christ alone). It is, therefore, the beginning of “salvation”, which Gordan admits is synonymous with “eternal life”. For Calvinists, the purpose of regeneration is to enable (more properly, “cause”) faith in the individual which leads to salvation (i.e. eternal life). The Calvinist, then, sees things like this: life–> faith–> life [eternal life, salvation]. The Arminian sees things like this: faith–> life [eternal life, salvation, which begins at regeneration].
The text in question says, “But you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life.” Gordan believes that there must be another “life” hidden in between the “unwilling” and “come”. The “unwilling” necessitates a need for “life” so that one can “come” to have “life”. For him we should understand Jesus to really mean: “Because you do not have life, you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life”. I am arguing that Jesus has given us enough information without needing to insert a separate sort of “life” in between the “unwilling” and “come”. I think that Jesus is quite plainly telling the Jews that they must come to Him in order to have “life” (which begins at regeneration).
An important question, then, resolves around whether or not the “life” spoken of in 5:40 has any reference to regeneration (the new birth where life begins). I believe that it must, and found evidence for this in the same passages Gordan now refers us to (John 5:24-26, and 29):
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (verse 24)
Look at that last phrase, “but has passed out of death into life”. Doesn’t that sound like the language of regeneration to you? A transition from death to life is a perfect way to describe regeneration, and many Calvinist have described regeneration with that exact same language. Another favorite metaphor for regeneration is “spiritual resurrection” which is just another way of saying that one has passed from [spiritual] death to [spiritual] life. This is the imagery that Jesus now turns to in describing the life spoken of in this context:
“Truly, truly, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the Son of God, and those who hear shall live.”
Here Christ speaks of a spiritual resurrection for those who hear the voice of the Son of God. The previous verse  reminds us that hearing unto life includes believing, “…and believes Him who sent Me”. So what have these passages taught us? They have taught us that Jesus is describing the need for these spiritually dead Jews to experience a transition from death to life: a spiritual resurrection! Well what about verses 28-29? Don’t they have reference to the final resurrection? Yes they do, but we must let the context determine Christ’s purpose in looking forward to the resurrection event.
Jesus anticipates that the Jews will object that He has the power to grant new life. Jesus tells them plainly that He does have this power (verse 21, 24, 26) and that not only can He bring about a spiritual resurrection in those who believe in Him, but He will one day call the dead from their graves as well. However, Jesus is speaking not of a specific resurrection to life of believers in verses 28-29, but the general resurrection of the dead. The point Christ is making is that they should not be surprised at His claims to be able to grant life to those who believe since He will one day raise all of creation from the dead in order to judge them (verses 28-29). If He has been given the authority to do that, then surely He has been given the authority to give spiritual life to those who come to Him in faith.
Therefore, I think it is self evident that the context Gordan mentions actually argues against his position while lending further weight to my initial interpretation of the passage in question. Gordan has much more to say on this issue, however, so let’s hear him out:
[A few quick points here before moving on. Gordan has now correlated “eternal life” with “the glorified life post-resurrection” and “everlasting life in heaven”. While these are not improper ways to understand “eternal life”, the gospel of John does not view eternal life primarily in an eschatological sense. John primarily sees and describes “eternal life” as the present possession of those who are “believing”. This is true of John’s epistles as well (see especially 1 John 5:11-13 which is tremendously helpful in understanding how John uses “life” and “eternal life” interchangeably as a present possession). Perhaps he is uncomfortable with how this passage could favor my interpretation if eternal life is viewed as a present possession for those who believe, and therefore opts to define “eternal life” in a way rarely used by John.]
A couple of problems with that:
1. It still doesn’t answer the question, Who will come to Jesus to be regenerated? How does a spiritually dead person decide to get resurrected? Ben believes in the doctrine of Total Depravity. I think he’d say, no spiritually dead person would choose to believe. But as an Arminian, Ben believes in Prevenient Grace. According to this doctrine, before any sinner may savingly believe in Christ, God must first grant a gift of grace that allows that sinner to overcome his totally depraved nature and make that decision from something like neutral ground.
In short, Arminian Ben sees the same dilemma the Calvinist does, in that no carnal man will or can receive the things of the Spirit (specifically, the Gospel of Christ.) Where the Calvinist solves this dilemma with the doctrine of Regeneration, the Arminian solves it with resistible Prevenient Grace. The two doctrines accomplish the same thing: they allow the sinner to obey the demands of the Gospel.
Now, here’s the catch for Ben. If John 5:40’s “life” must include Calvinistic regeneration (since that is the starting point of life in Christ) then why does Prevenient Grace get a pass? Doesn’t the Arminian process of receiving eternal life in Christ begin with Prevenient Grace? If so, then it is just as rightly included in the “life” of John 5:40 as the Calvinist’s doctrine of Regeneration. That is, they both stand at the beginning of the sinner’s experience of new life in Christ.
So, if John 5:40 means that you have to come to Christ to be regenerated, then it must also mean that you have to come to Christ to receive Prevenient Grace.
Gordan is really reaching here. His argument simply does not follow and seems to be based on a gross misunderstanding of how Arminians view prevenient grace. I do not believe that prevenient grace must be included in “life” as he contends. The new life cannot be given until one exercises the God ordained condition of faith. This is the order presented to us by Jesus in John 5:40. The “come” of 5:40 is synonymous with faith, just as the “come” of John 6:44 is synonymous with faith. Jesus is therefore saying that one gains life through faith. Prevenient grace comes before saving faith and therefore cannot be part of the “life” that results from faith. Prevenient grace is described in John 6:44 as a drawing. The Arminian then sees the ordo salutis as: draw [prevenient grace] –> come [in faith] –> life [regeneration, i.e. the beginning of eternal life and salvation]. This order is supported by comparing John 5:40 with John 6:44 [which is what initially provoked this debate]. The fact that one must first come before one can attain life in John 5:40 makes it impossible for us to understand the drawing of John 6:44 as regeneration. It must, therefore, have reference to prevenient grace as Arminians have always contended. Gordan has done nothing to prove otherwise. He has only succeeded in strengthening the Arminian interpretation by drawing (no pun intended) our attention to John 5:21-24, and 26.
Prevenient grace does indeed “stand at the beginning of the sinner’s experience of new life in Christ”, but that grace is not the same as regeneration. Prevenient grace enables the sinner to believe unto life. John 5:40 tells us that coming must precede life, and John 6:44 tells us that drawing must precede coming. That is exactly what Arminians believe concerning the ordo salutis and Gordan’s statement that, “…if John 5:40 means that you have to come to Christ to be regenerated, then it must also mean that you have to come to Christ to receive Prevenient grace” is a painfully obvious case of non-sequintur.
2. Another problem with saying that Regeneration has to be included in any thought of eternal life, is this: why stop there? I mean, why not go back farther? You have to be alive in the flesh before you can be alive in the Spirit, right? So why not include fleshly life in the “life” of John 5:40? You can’t enter into eternal life by faith while you’re physically dead any more than you can believe without being regenerated. So, surely physical life stands just as vitally at the starting point of life in Christ as Regeneration does. Why include one and not the other, aside from the fact that it seems to help your argument?
And I thought Gordan was reaching with his last comments. This argument barely deserves an answer. All we need to do is look at the context to understand what kind of life Jesus is referring to in John 5:40. We have done that above, and I am confident that any unbiased reading of the text would reveal that Jesus is speaking of a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life: a spiritual resurrection [i.e. regeneration]. Trying to bring physical life into the text is a desperate attempt to salvage an indefensible interpretation.
Or why not go all the way back to God’s foreordination before the foundation of the world?
And now Gordan has really given up the ghost.
Calvinists would say Regeneration only happens because Predestination has already happened long ago, so why not extend the line back to the real, genuine beginning of life in Christ? So then, Jesus would be saying, “You refuse to come to Me, that you may be predestined.”
Is Gordan really contending that “real” and “genuine” regeneration in Christ begins at some eternal decree? Wouldn’t that make the elect eternally regenerated? Is this really where Gordan is willing to take us in order to preserve his doctrine? Look at this statement again and let the absurd implications sink in:
Calvinists would say that Regeneration only happens because Predestination has already happened long ago, so why not extend the line back to the real, genuine beginning of life in Christ?
Surely Gordan misspoke and didn’t think very carefully about what he was saying since I am quite confident that he doesn’t believe the elect have been regenerated from eternity. I think that it is only fair that we give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.
So this is what I see as the conclusion of the matter, though I am certain others will disagree with me.
While Gordan’s statement is plainly and painfully ridiculous, he is actually on to something very important when he says, “life in Christ”. It is undisputable that spiritual life resides only in the person of Jesus Christ (John. 1:4; 5:26; 6:35; 11:25; 14:6; 1 John. 1:2; 5:11; Col. 3:3, 4). It is just as certain that we come to be in union with Christ through faith (Eph. 1:13; 3:17). The born again believer is truly a “new creature”, but only “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). Gordan’s belief that regeneration precedes faith puts him into the absurd theological position of explaining how someone can be given new life outside of union with the only source of life- Jesus Christ. He must also affirm that a holy God can give life to sinners before the blood of Christ has been applied, since he believes that regeneration precedes justification. His theology forces him to accept the unbiblical view that one can be born again before being forgiven (which is part of what it means to be justified). For more on this please see my post: Does Regeneration Precede Faith?
…including, I think, most Calvinists.
As a Calvinist, nothing that John 5:40 says conflicts at all with what I believe is Biblical soteriology.
…which only further demonstrates that his theology controls his exegesis and not the other way around.
I believe you must come to Jesus to have life. And, ta-da! I remain a five pointer.
…albeit a theologically confused and inconsistent five-pointer.
The only way this text is a challenge to Calvinism is if you force two things into the text: First, you must force it to include Regeneration when it speaks of eternal life.
No need to force it, just allow the text to speak for itself as has been demonstrated above.
The problem is that there is no good reason to force it that way, and no reason to stop there and not include earlier necessities like Predestination. It can be read in a perfectly harmonious, straightforward manner without that. Second, I think you must conflate Regeneration and Justification. If the two are separate things, this supposed hurdle for Calvinism proves to only be about ankle-high.
The only one who is forcing things into the text is Gordan. The fact that Gordan has to resort to statements about including physical life in the context of John 5 and the absurd idea of eternal regeneration is sufficient proof of that. There is, furthermore, no hint of conflating regeneration and justification in anything I have said. It is true, however, theologically speaking, that justification must precede regeneration. If that were not the case we would have sinners enjoying the new life prior to being forgiven. This may not be the “death knell” of Calvinism, but it should certainly be the “death knell” of the Calvinist doctrine that regeneration precedes faith.
I appreciate the fact that Gordan and I may never see eye to eye on this subject, but I hope that he will at least admit that his initial charge that my understanding of John 5:40 was not based on sound exegesis was without foundation.
Recommended for further reading:
Fletcher on Being Dead in Sin: Part 1 and Part 2
The Order of Faith And Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep [off site]