Various Thoughts on The Use of John 6 And Related Passages From John’s Gospel to Support Calvinism

I have been meaning to do an extensive post on John 6 and related passages for some time, but have not gotten around to it yet.  In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful to post various comments I have made about John 6 and related passages in John’s Gospel.  These comments mostly come from previous posts and comment threads, so it can feel like coming into the middle of a conversation at times.  Still, it shouldn’t be too hard to decipher what is being discussed.  At the end are some links to other posts and articles on John 6 that take similar approaches (though not necessarily drawing all of the same conclusions).

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“However, I do think the issue of why the Jews specifically rejected Jesus is a main concern for John. John’s gospel was written very late at a time when the church was shifting heavily to being primarily a Gentile church. I think John is addressing a major concern taking place at the time of his writing. The concern for the Jews would be to help them see why the Jews who knew Jesus rejected Him, which also explains why many Jews at the time of John’s writing were still rejecting Christ as their Messiah. No doubt many Jews were wondering why, if Jesus was the Messiah, did the Jewish leaders largely reject Him? Likewise, Gentiles would also be wondering why, if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, did the Jewish leaders reject Him, and why are so many Jews still rejecting Him? Is their rejection an indictment on Christ’s claims?

If that is the case, then John is very focused on showing that the Jewish leaders and many of the Jews who encountered Christ rejected Him, not because He wasn’t from God, but because they (the Jews) were not “of God.” They pointed the finger at Christ saying that He was not of God, but the reality was that Christ was of God (one with Him, in fact), and the reason they didn’t recognize it was because they didn’t know God (were not in right covenant relationship with God). I believe that is the primary issue being addressed in Jesus’ confrontations with the Jews in John (chapters 5, 6, 8, and 10 especially). Look at this verse,

“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, NASB)

If we interpret this as Calvinists (and some Arminians) do as a simple passage on depravity, we run into a serious problem. The text says that “whoever does what is true comes to the light”.

Coming to the light, in this context, is coming to Christ, i.e., putting faith in Christ. So this text is saying that those who “practice truth” come to Christ. That doesn’t sound like a biblical description of someone who is depraved. Someone who is totally depraved in the Calvinist sense is not someone who can be characterized as “practicing truth.” But if John’s point is the same as being described in John 10 (as well as in John 5, 6, and 8) that those who know the Father come to Christ, and those who do not know the Father reject Christ, then this passage makes perfect sense.

But if we universalize this passage to all people we run into the same difficulty. How is it that Gentiles who know nothing of God can be characterized as “practicing truth” prior to coming to Christ? It doesn’t really fit with that paradigm. But it does fit with the idea of faithful Jews submitting to the claims of Christ because they already know God (have a relationship with Him). It could, however, extend to Gentiles like Cornelius who knew God as well, prior to hearing the message preached by Peter. But his faith was based on his knowledge of God from the Jews. He was one of those “other sheep” who already knew God and would automatically recognize the Shepherd and His voice (which is the voice of the Father as well).

Another good one is John 7:17,

“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.”

Here we see this principle being plainly described by Christ. The one who truly wishes to do the will of the Father (i.e. truly knows the Father and thereby “practices truth”) will immediately recognize that Jesus is speaking the words of the Father. Such people will be given, by the Father, to the Shepherd as His sheep. They recognize His voice, listen to Him and follow Him, just as they followed the Father.

The secondary application is simply that those who are willing to hear from the Father (however He may teach them) will be drawn by the Father to Christ. In our situation, this happens by the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the gospel. The principle is similar, but it is a different time and a different situation. We come to the Father through the Son, while in a very real sense the Jews of Jesus’ time came to the Son through the Father and were then able to take part in the new dispensation when only those joined to the Son can remain in right relationship with the Father. Here are a few things I wrote on drawing that might help shed light on what I am saying (how there is both a primary and secondary application),

“Not of God” [in John 8] simply means that these Jews were not in right covenant relationship with the Father when they encountered Christ and His claims. Since they didn’t know the Father they naturally would not recognize the perfect expression of the Father in the Son, nor would they recognize the Father’s teaching in the Son’s words (John 8:19, 20, 42, 54, 55, cf. John 5:37-40; 7:16, 17 12:44, 45). As long as they reject the Father and refuse His teaching, they will reject the Son and His teaching (which is also the Father’s teaching, John 12:49, 50) and will not be given to the Son (John 6:37, 44, 45).

None of these passages say anything about an unconditional eternal election being behind the description of these Jews as “not of God.” Such an idea is only read into these passages by Calvinists…. Second, as mentioned above, their inability to hear was not because God wasn’t working, but because they were resisting that working. Clearly, Jesus is still trying to reach them (8:27-31, 36, cf. John 5:44; 10:37, 38), which would be senseless if He viewed them as hopeless reprobates. This is especially evident in Christ’s statement to the same sort of resistant Jews in John 5 where Christ both declares their inability and yet tells them, “…not that I accept human testimony, but I mention it that you may be saved”, vs. 34. This is especially relevant to my point since the “testimony” Christ refers to is the prior testimony of John the Baptist. Christ then points them to other “testimonies” like His miracles, the Scriptures in general, and Moses, obviously implying that through the acceptance of these testimonies they may yet be enabled to “come to” Him and be “saved”, cf. vss. 39, 40; Luke 16:27-31).

Jesus’ method of discourse is actually a rather common teaching technique used for the purpose of admonishment in order for the “students” to fully realize their situation with the hope that in realizing it (coming to grips with this important revelation) they will be spurred on to change (i.e. repentance). I work in schools daily and see this type of teaching technique used all the time. It is similar to a Math teacher saying, “how can you expect to do division when you haven’t even learned your times tables? You can’t do division while you remain ignorant of multiplication.” Such instruction is not meant to highlight a hopeless state. It is not meant to express that the student can never do division. Rather, it is intended to get the student to re-examine the reality of their current state and how it makes further progress impossible, with the hope that they will learn what is required in order to move forward (e.g. John 5:41-45).

Likewise, Jesus is actually using much of what He says for the purpose of getting those who are listening to re-examine their present relationship to the Father and thereby realize that they are not in a proper position to be making such judgments about Christ and His claims, with the hope that they will yet “learn” from the Father so that they can come to a place where acceptance of Christ and His words is possible (e.g. John 5:33-47; 10:34-39, cf. John 6:45, etc). Had they already learned from the Father (been receptive to God’s grace and leading through the Scriptures, the prophets, the ministry of John the Baptist, the miracles of Christ, etc.), they would have immediately recognized that Jesus was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, Shepherd and King of God’s people, and been given to Him. Yet, not all hope is gone, for they may yet learn if they stop resisting the Father’s leading.

Christ’s teaching on drawing in John 6:44, 45, therefore, is not just descriptive, but for the purpose of admonishment, that they might be careful not to spurn and resist this drawing and miss eternal life and the promise of resurrection. God’s working in prevenient grace and drawing can be complex and operate in different ways depending on the person and the situation. God approaches us from a variety of angles. These passages illustrate that. Yet, we dare not assume that because the operation of prevenient grace on the human heart and mind doesn’t necessarily reduce to a simple equation or formula, God is not still working. Indeed, God is always working (John 5:17).”

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“The Calvinist might object that verse 25 [of John 10] 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.”

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Other helpful posts and articles:

The Oder of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel: You Do Not Believe Because You Are Not My Sheep

Daniel Whedon on John 6

Benson on John 6

John 6:37 (Richard Coords)

Calvinism: John 6

Tim Warner Responds to James White on John 6 Part 1

Tim Warner Responds to James White on John 6 Part 2

Tim Warner Responds to James White on John 6 Part 3

 

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7 Responses

  1. Ben,

    I think your thoughts are insightful on the context and history of John’s gospel. When read with these things in mind, John makes a lot more sense. It’s been a month or two since I really studied it, but I recall that this historical and covenantal context made unconditional election more difficult for me to accept–it seemed forced into the text.

    I was also looking for “regeneration precedes faith” and found the opposite (John 1:12, 3:15-16, 36, 5:24, 6:27-29, 35-40, etc). Then I saw what seemed plain: those Jews being in right relationship with the Father were given to the Son; those who were not did not go to the Son. The woman at the well is a prime example. Maybe even Nicodemus as he struggled through his faith. It’s like John gives a lessen followed by mini case studies. You have some in right relationship, and others not. And to say that only those who are predestined will be born again (John 3:1-8) and will come (John 6:44) as Calvinism teaches while looking at this historical backdrop only confuses things. On the other hand, if one emphasized such Calvinistic doctrines the historical context seems to quickly vanish or becomes ignored.

    I look forward to your post when you get to it.

  2. Now Dimly,

    I agree completely.

    The article by Hamilton definitely helped me develop my views on John 6, as well as many early Methodist writers who made similar observations. Brian Abasciano pointed out to me the significance of John 3:20, 21. That passage along with John 7:17 really set the backdrop of what is going on in these various dialogues. John 5 is also very instructive. Of course, John is also loaded with universal language that contradicts Calvinism, even in John 6 (vss. 33, 51).

    While Calvinism can certainly be read into many of these passages, these passages do not require the Calvinist interpretation and falter when considered along side the other things that John has to say about salvation and the provision of atonement and God’s love for the world. The interpretation offered here comports perfectly with all that John has to say and makes sense of passages like 3:20, 21 which is a major problem passage for the Calvinist view. It is also supported by a tremendous amount of OT evidence as Hamilton does a good job demonstrating in his article. There is simply no way to get a secret eternal decree of unconditional election out of these passages unless one presupposes that doctrine and reads it into these passages.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  3. What are your thoughts about John 6:28-29? If Unconditional election was what Jesus promoted, wouldn’t it be reasonable to inject that idea into the conversation in which the ‘followers’ were asking what to do?

  4. Not sure if I understand your question. If you comment further, please use a name. Thanks.

  5. “Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” AV

    I don’t see any way of reading unconditional election into that. If “the works of God” are interpreted as works pleasing to God, then believing on Jesus satisfies God’s requirements.

    Of course John 6:27 says that they must labour for the meat that endures unto everlasting life. Is Jesus preaching a gospel of works? Maybe he was moonlighting as a butcher?

  6. I know Calvinist interprets this:

    “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.”

    As its God’s Work “to make” people believe Jesus. I actually cringed when a C friend told me that’s how they interpret it. As in God makes people believe… Irresistibly. 🙂

  7. rex,

    Yeah, that is a desperate interpretation of the text. Here is how I answered someone who tried to make that argument with me a while back,

    Visitor: “We can see that the work God requires is faith. Either you accept from this verse that belief is God’s work into a man (the calvinist position) or belief is the work God requires from man for not only for initial salvation but also continued salvation.”

    Me: “Not really. Jesus is just explaining that what God requires of them is faith (i.e. faith is the God ordained condition for receiving eternal life). He is not speaking of “working” in the Pauline sense of faith vs. works. You say that the Calvinist position is that this means not that man works, but that God “works [faith] into a man”. But this contradicts the way Christ uses the word in verse 27 when He introduces the concept. The idea of God “working” faith into man cannot make sense of the way Christ uses the concept in verse 27. So the Calvinist interpretation (though I don’t think that many Calvinists interpret this as you do) is highly unlikely. But it is important to add that Arminians do not necessarily object to the idea that God works faith into people. They only object that God does so irresistibly.

    I think the main idea here is simply for Christ to re-direct their focus to what matters most. These men actually “worked” (labored) to find Jesus after He fed them (John 6:22-24). Jesus doesn’t want to discourage their effort in coming to Him and seeking Him out. Rather, Jesus wants to discourage them from coming to Him for the wrong reasons. The end result of their effort should be to believe in Jesus and receive from Him the bread that will create spiritual life in them.

    Christ’s words might possibly have secondary application to be understood in the sense that in order to do the “works” God requires, these works can only be done in the context of a relationship with Christ, through which we gain the life and power to truly “work” for God (i.e. the work of God can only be done through faith, cf. Rom. 8:3-17). Therefore, Christ points them to the need for faith, since this must be the beginning of any opportunity to do the works that please God. There is work to be done, but this work must be the result of faith in God and a desire to serve Him, not just a desire for God to take care of our physical needs (cf. John 4:4-38, esp. verses 31-38). It is also interesting to note that Jesus is clearly reaching out to them here, which contradicts the typical Calvinist understanding that these Jews were reprobates without any hope of truly coming to Christ in faith (more on that below).”

    From: https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/%E2%80%9Csaved-by-grace%E2%80%9D-through-faith/

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