Does Jesus Teach Unconditional Eternal Security in John 10:27-29?

Having examined the primary passages that teach apostasy we now examine the passages that the advocates of unconditional eternal security believe clearly support their doctrine:

John 10:27-29

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.

The first thing that needs to be noted is that there is nothing in this passage to suggest that the security being described by Christ is unconditional.  This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the Calvinist position.  One will look in vain for a passage of Scripture that explicitly makes salvation security unconditional.  The best that can be produced are passages which do not explicitly state a condition, but the absence of a stated condition does not necessitate the absence of a condition (e.g. Hebrews 13:5, cf. Deut. 31:6, 8, 16-18; 2 Chronicles 15:2; Joshua 24:19, 20). This is especially true since there are numerous passages which do state conditions and warn of defection from saving faith (as we have seen in parts 2-11 of this series).

In the case of John 10:27 we can even argue that a condition is stated, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  The verbs “listen” and “follow” are present active indicative in the Greek describing continual action.  The “sheep” are characterized by their “listening” to and “following” of Christ.  They are the listening and following ones, and only those who are listening and following can rightly be called Christ’s “sheep” and lay claim to the promises stated in John 10:28 and 29.  In other words, the sheep are believers who are presently believing.  It is to these believers alone that the promises are made.  Surely, those who are listening to and following Christ are secure in His arms and cannot be snatched out.  They also possess the eternal life that resides in Christ since they are in union with Him by faith (vs. 28).  There is nothing in the passage, however, to suggest that the sheep can never stop “listening” or “following” and no promise given for those who might indeed cease to do so.  The passage is only speaking of those who are presently listening and following.  It is a powerful promise to believers that as long as they are believing they are secure in Christ.  F. Leroy Forlines comments on this security in The Quest For Truth:

The teaching is simply this:  The believer’s relationship with God is a personal one between him and God.  Though all the powers of the universe were to combine against the believer, they could not take the believer away from God.  Some would add, ‘Neither can the believer take himself out of the body of Christ.’  Yes, that is true.  But, it is also true that he could not place himself into the body of Christ.  However, upon his faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit placed the believer into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).  If the believer renounces his faith, God will take him out (Jn. 15:2, 6).  There is no contradiction between the statements ‘No man can take us out of Christ’ and the statement ‘God the Father takes those people out of Christ who turn from Christ in unbelief.’ (pg. 275)

The passage does not state that faith cannot be renounced nor does it state that any such promise of security is given to unbelievers.  The promise of security in Christ described in John 10:27-29 is for believers who continue to believe and for them only.  The question then becomes, “Can believers cease to believe?”  The answer to that question cannot be resolved in John 10:27-29 and for that reason it fails as a proof text for inevitable perseverance.

Special Contextual Considerations for John 10:27-29

The Calvinist might object that verse 25 is not in harmony with the above interpretation due to the fact that Jesus tells the Jews that they do not believe because they are not His sheep.  It could be argued that verse 25 refers to a predetermined and unconditional election:  The sheep are those who were elected by God prior to creation and then given faith to believe in Christ.  The problem with this suggestion is that there is nothing in the text to indicate that Jesus is describing a pre-temporal election of certain individuals for salvation.  Such an eternal decree must be first assumed and then read into the text.

A more plausible interpretation is to understand Jesus’ words in John 10:27-29 in the context of the unique historical situation taking place at the time of His ministry with regards to the transition from the old dispensation to the new.  The passage has a secondary application to believers of all ages (as described above) but the primary application concerned only the Jews who were alive during Christ’s ministry and were specifically being addressed in this and other similar chapters in John (John 5:24-27; 6:37, 40-44, 65; 8:12-59).  The “sheep” in this context are the Jews who are currently living in right covenant relationship with the Father during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  The Jews that Jesus is addressing in this discourse and others like it throughout John’s gospel are not in right relationship with the Father during the time of Christ’s ministry.  Since they do not know the Father (are not “of God”) they cannot recognize the perfect revelation of the Father in the Son (Jn. 7:16, 17; 8:19, 42-47).  They reject the Son and refuse to trust in Him because they have rejected the Father.  Therefore, they are not Christ’s sheep and cannot be given to the Son (John 6:37).  If they had known the Father they would have recognized the Son as their Messiah and would have been given to Him.

So the primary application still addresses the issue of faith but not in the same way as we would tend to apply it today since our situation is different from that of the Jews and we are not living at a critical time in history where the faithful Jews were being given, by the Father, to their Shepherd and Messiah.  For them it primarily involved the transition from one sphere of believing (in the Father) to another (in the Son).  Those faithful Jews recognized the Father in the Son and as a result listened to Him and followed Him as their long awaited Messiah.  In either case the “sheep” are those who are “listening” and “following” and the passage gives no indication that one cannot cease to be one of Christ’s sheep by later refusing to listen and follow.

From: Perseverance of the Saints Part 12: Examining Passages Commonly Appealed to by the Advocates of Unconditional Eternal Security

Debunking the False Faith View of the Hebrews Warning Passages

Below are some comments I made long ago in my perseverance series against the idea that the writer of Hebrews is addressing his warnings of falling away to those whose faith is not genuine, or describing those with non-genuine faith. My comments are followed by more recent comments by Scot McKnight against O’Brien’s false faith interpretation. The specific language of the warnings and the way the believers are described and addressed simply will not allow for the false faith interpretation. The writer of Hebrews is describing genuine believers who have fallen away from faith and salvation and admonishing those with genuine faith to endure less they too fall away and forfeit salvation.

From: Perseverance of the Saints Part 10: Examining Wilderness Typology

What sense would it make to say to unbelievers, “Take care…that there not be in any one of you an evil unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God?” Why shouldn’t unbelievers have an evil and unbelieving heart? Does it make sense to warn unbelievers against falling away from God? This is not a call to conversion but a warning to those who are already converted. We can plainly see this in the fact that the writer of Hebrews then calls on them to “encourage one another day after day…so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Are unbelievers to encourage each other? Are they to encourage each other in unbelief or in a faith that they do not yet possess?

From: Perseverance of the Saints Part 9: Hebrews 10:32-39 

Notice that the inspired writer is not admonishing them to gain confidence (i.e. believe the gospel and be converted), but to keep the confidence that they already have. They are being told to endure in their faith which plainly assumes that their present faith is genuine. In fact, their faith has been proven so by the way they had responded to prior trials. However, they cannot rest on what they had done in the past but must continue to press on in the face of present trials to gain the promised reward of final salvation. They “have need of endurance.” The inspired writer never questions whether or not his readers have genuine faith. He only questions whether or not that faith will last. This is the main concern of the entire epistle.

Scot Mcknight writes,

Second, if the exhortation is to continue or persevere, how can a person with non-genuine faith be exhorted to continue? In what, their non-genuine faith? The only answer here is that the non-genuine faith person should be urged to repent and to believe or to enter deeper from a spurious and inadequate non-saving faith into a real, genuine saving faith. When this topic arises at the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of Hebrews 6 there’s no evidence the author thinks of these people of having spurious faith, but instead of having faith that needs perseverance. In other words, it’s just how the author says it: immaturity (or the “elementary”; 6:1) needs to move onto maturity. The elementary is not “spurious” but an immature version of the real thing. Grade school math is not spurious but immature, especially if the aim is mathematical physics.

The exhortation to continue then can only apply for O’Brien to the genuine saving-faith person (in which case the whole conditionality issue becomes hypothetical or only rhetorical and not real — an issue that needs a different discussion). In O’Brien’s sketch the warning passages are working with their eyes on two different faiths: genuine-faith people and non-genuine-faith people. I contend this is impossible to prove apart from one’s already-at-work Calvinistic assumptions. I see no evidence for two groups until the final day; at the moment of writing they are believers. The writer of Hebrews never suggests anyone has spurious faith; he worries those with faith will not persevere.

From: Warning Passages Ahead: Brief Response

Related Posts:

Category: Warning Passages in Hebrews

Never Really Saved to Begin With?

Never Really Saved to Begin With? (Part 2)

Perseverance of the Saints Part 13: Salvation Assurance

Happy Easter

Just wanted to leave a short note to wish everyone a blessed Easter as we remember and celebrate the resurrection. May God help us to fully understand and embrace the significance of Christ’s resurrection and the new life and promise of resurrection that we have as a result. May God strengthen us each day to live in resurrection newness of life and to magnify God to others that they may come to desire the new life that God has granted us in His dear Son.