(To read part 1 of this series click here.)
John 6:37, 44 and 65
All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
What was happening in John chapters 5 through 8? What is the context in which Jesus makes the statements we are considering? If we don’t keep this in mind we will never correctly interpret these verses. Before we look at what was happening and why Jesus made these statements let’s first look at it from a Calvinist perspective.
Calvinism is an airtight theological system. Their view of humanity states that humans are so bound to sin that people could never trust in Christ without first being born again (i.e. regenerated). After they are born again they will irresistibly repent of their sins and trust in Christ. Since this doesn’t happen to everyone, it is logically concluded that God does not want everyone to be saved. If he did he would simply regenerate them. This leads to the question of why he chooses some and leaves the rest to die in sin. Reformed theology leaves this in the realm of mystery except to say that he doesn’t choose anyone for what he sees in them. His decision is based on his secret will alone and has nothing to do with what men do or believe. And this decision was made before God created the world.
When the Calvinist comes to John 6:37 he certainly has all of this on his mind; it is his theological grid. When he reads, “All that the father gives to me will come to me,” his theology is once again vindicated. He never asks the question (at least not without assuming he already knows the answer), “Who is the Father giving to Christ?” His theology has already answered the question for him; he is giving those individuals that were eternally and unconditionally preselected by his sovereign will. There is no need to look into the overall context of John; it is already a settled fact in his mind. Nor does he need to ask, “Why will those whom the Father gives to Christ certainly come to Christ?” His philosophical grid has already informed him that God unilaterally regenerates certain preselected souls that are dead in sin, and this inevitably leads to genuine faith in Christ. The words of Jesus in John 6:44, “No one can come to be unless the Father who sent me draws him,” are crystal clear to him. He needn’t ask why people can’t come to the Son without the drawing of the Father, the doctrine of total depravity answers that question before he thinks to ask it. So in John 6:37 he has an “undeniable” proof-text for both unconditional election and irresistible grace. And John 6:44 (and 65) confirms his devotion to the Calvinistic version of total depravity. Ironically, he is certain that those who deny the “plain teaching” of these verses are obviously reading their theology into them.
So does this interpretation fit the wording of these verses? It most certainly does! But the problem is the context; it has nothing to do with unconditional election, irresistible grace or Reformed theology’s version of total depravity. These things are completely foreign to the context of Jesus’ debate with the Jewish authorities. But by looking at the context we will see that John 6:37, 44 and 65 reveal a completely different meaning; one that does not depend on the theological debates that raged in 16th century Europe between Catholics and Protestants, but on the debates that took place in 1st century Palestine between Christ and Jewish unbelievers. This debate is first referred to in John 1:11, actually begins in John 2:18 when Jesus cleanses the temple, and is really brought into focus in chapter 5.
Getting Our Bearings
The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.
But the testimony I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.
What was the debate that was raging in John chapter 5? The Jewish leaders were not accepting the claims of Christ. They claimed to be followers of the Scriptures and God, but they refused to follow Jesus. Jesus answer to this was to say that if they didn’t honor him, then they were not honoring the One who sent him. These Jewish men were not true followers of God or the Scriptures. Jesus told them that they had the Scriptures but didn’t listen to them. And they claimed to be followers of the one true God, but actually they did not recognize his voice. They couldn’t even recognize that the miracles Jesus was performing proved the Father had sent him. They showed that they didn’t truly know God by rejecting his Son. They did not love God (vs. 43). Jesus was telling them what John later told others in 1 John 2:23, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”
This debate between Jesus and “the Jews” (as John calls them) did not end in chapter 5 but continued on through chapter 6. When we turn to chapter 7 we see that the debate is still raging.
So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”
He who sent me is true, and him you do not know.
Jesus tells those who question his teaching that anyone who truly wants to please God will know instinctively that he is speaking the words of God. They would recognize the voice of the Father in his words if they were true followers of God; that is if they were “Israelites indeed” (John 1:47). He is telling them that they cannot recognize the voice of the Father because they don’t actually want to do God’s will, but their own. They are not God-seekers, but self-serving rebels. He is telling them that they simply do not know, and do not follow, the living God. They claim to be members of God’s people, but the fact is they simply don’t know God. They think that they are following the God of Israel because they are devout law-abiding Jews; Jesus is telling them that they are greatly mistaken.
In chapter 8 Jesus conflict with unbelieving Jews becomes even more heated and Jesus does not hold anything back that will make his point clear.
“In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”
He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”
As we see the debate rage and the accusations begin to fly we must keep something in mind. Jesus has been telling them that they do not know God; this is the reason he offers in order to explain their rejection of God’s Messiah. But he is not telling them that they can never know the Father. He is not saying, “You don’t belong to God and you can never follow him.” Instead he is telling them, “You are not following God and unless you repent and start listening to the Father, you will never know the Father or me.” Jesus was not a fatalist; he was doing everything he could to show them their rebellion against God in rejecting him, but they were resisting him. He was not telling them they could never repent, but that they must repent. Until they ended their rebellion against God, they could never come to Christ because he was representing the Father. Rejecting the Father could only possibly lead to a rejection of the Son.
Let me consider a verse from John chapter 13 so we can understand Jesus’ line of reasoning.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
Jesus gave us this principle. If we come to people in the name of Jesus preaching his message and people receive us, they are doing so because they are receiving the one who sent us. But if they reject us, they are not rejecting us only, but the one who sent us. If they say, “We already believe in Jesus, but we do not accept you or your message,” we know that they are not true followers of Christ. If they were disciples of Jesus they would accept us and our words since both we, and our words, are from him. And he goes onto say that those who accept him are actually accepting the One who sent him. People can’t reject Christ’s followers without rejecting Christ. And people can’t reject Christ without rejecting God. Acceptance of Christ is the litmus test by which we know the true followers of God. Again and again Jesus is telling unbelieving Jews that they are not followers of God, no matter what they tell themselves.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father -even God.”
Jesus no longer holds any punches. He begins to tell the unbelieving Jews, who were listening in as he instructed his disciples, that they were illegitimate children. He tells them that they bear the name of Abraham, but they don’t look or act like him at all. They understood what he was implying; Abraham was not their true father. Jesus was calling them “bastards”!
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear my word. You are of your father the Devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is not truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell you the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.
…You do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.
Wow! Jesus first tells them they are not truly Abraham’s children because they don’t act like Abraham. Now he goes even further and tells them whose children they are, the devil’s! Why does he consider them children of the devil? We must understand that Jesus is not telling them that they are children of the devil because of God’s failure to choose them as Reformed theology would have us believe. Instead it is because their character resembled the devil. They didn’t act like Abraham who trusted and obeyed God. Instead they were acting like Satan who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning. Their “will is to do their father’s desires.” They won’t accept the words of truth Jesus is preaching because they don’t want the truth. They don’t believe the One who sent Jesus so they don’t accept the words he brings from him. Instead they want to kill Christ. This shows they are the devil’s kids, following in the footsteps of their murderous father.
Jesus asks, “Why do you not understand what I say?” The Calvinist would answer that it was impossible for them to receive his word because they had not been regenerated by God’s Spirit. And they will never understand God’s word because God is not willing to open their eyes since they are not among the elect. But this is not the answer Jesus gives to his own question. He tells them they can’t understand his teaching because they “cannot bear his word.” In other words he tells them that they can’t understand because they don’t want to understand. They hate the truth and cannot stand to listen to it; it is contrary to what they want. They are men like Saul of Tarsus who covered his ears when Stephen declared the testimony of Christ (Acts 7:57-8:1). They want to keep following the desires of the devil, and so Jesus’ word “finds no place” in them. They can’t possibly accept the word of Christ without totally denying themselves and their own desires. If they sincerely desired to do God’s will, they would be able to understand and believe his word, but that is not what they want (John 7:17).
The disciple of Reformed Theology believes that when Jesus says some “cannot bear his word,” he means that it is actually impossible for those people to receive God’s word because they are spiritually dead. They think “cannot” here is used in the same sense one would say, “A bar of gold cannot float on water without something else holding it up.” For them an unregenerate (not born again) person repenting of their sin and coming to faith in Christ is an impossibility unless God first unilaterally regenerates them. But this is not the sense in which Jesus is using the word “cannot.”
When we say, “I cannot give you all of my money,” we are using the word “cannot” in the same way Jesus is. If someone asks us to do something we are not willing to do we often say we cannot do it. We cannot give you our money, we cannot attend your party, we cannot let you swim in our pool, etc. We cannot give you our money because we want to spend it ourselves. We cannot come to your party because we want to go somewhere else. We cannot let you swim in our pool because we think you are annoying and don’t want you anywhere near our house! In the same way Jesus says, “You cannot obey my teaching because you desire to do the will of the devil” (vs. 43-44). These men had rejected God, and so it inevitably led to rejecting his word spoken by his Son. They weren’t righteous men, as they supposed, but rebels and sinners; this was Jesus’ point! They were no more morally depraved than the many sinners that repented at the preaching of John the Baptist, but they chose to remain in their rebellion, and for this reason they were wholly accountable for their rebellion.
The Calvinist would say, “Right, they are naturally able to repent, but they are morally incapable. If they wanted to serve God they could, but they can never ‘want to’ because they are spiritually dead.” But Jesus is telling them that they cannot believe in him while they are in their present state of rebellion, not that they are have no way of ending their rebellion through repentance. They are unable to believe in the Son and listen to his words with spiritual understanding because of their moral depravity. But Jesus is no way implying that they are morally incapable of repenting of their rebellion as many others had already done through the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself. Jesus’ point is not that they are morally incapable of repentance but are spiritually incapable of divine revelation about the Son until they repent before the Father. In this way he is making them accountable for their unbelief because though as men created in God’s image they have the freedom to choose rebellion against, or surrender to, God, they have willfully denied the Father. Calvinism would say they are guilty THOUGH they were morally incapable of repentance, but the Bible teaches men are morally accountable BECAUSE they have chosen rebellion THOUGH they could have chosen submission to God.
The Jews Jesus was speaking to “could not” understand Jesus word because they “would not” repent and receive understanding from the Father. Jesus speaks to the Jerusalem, representing the Jewish nation, saying, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers here chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 – HCSB) The Pharisees and other religious leaders had already “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” by not receiving John the Baptist, now they were rejecting the Son of God as well (Luke 7:29-30). Jesus doesn’t call these men children of the devil because God had no desire to save them, but because they were unwilling to repent of their rebellious pride and submit to almighty God, though they had the ability to do so.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
Jesus called the religious leaders children of the devil because they responded to God in the same rebellious way as he does. They lived in darkness so their wicked deeds would not be exposed, just like their father. These were men with characters like Saul of Tarsus; they seemed to be zealous for the God of Israel, but they were actually wicked men who hated Christ because he exposed their rebellion. They seemed to be devout Israelites, but Jesus calls them illegitimate children born of the devil.
Calvinists have no problem saying that the non-elect are like the devil, but according to their theology everyone, including the eternally predestined elect, should be like the devil before they are born again. The elect, before they are regenerated, should also hate the light because they walk in wickedness and total depravity. After all that is why Reformed Theology insists that regeneration must precede faith and repentance. But in John 3:21 Jesus speaks of people who were walking in righteousness, following God in truth, people who were happy to come into the light. There were people who gladly accepted the Son because they were already following the Father. Jesus seems to be speaking about men that came to the light (i.e. Jesus) precisely because they were walking with God. These were men whose “works had been carried out in God.” There were people during Jesus’ earthly ministry whose desire was “to do God’s will”; and these people had no problem understanding that Jesus’ “teaching was from God” (John 7:17). Understanding who these people were is key to a proper understanding of the Gospel of John in general, and John 6:37, 44 and 65 in particular. We will discuss these people in the next post.
To be continued…