JOHN 6:65 AND CALVINISM
Jack Cottrell – November 2015
QUESTION: In John 6:65 Jesus says, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” This sounds a lot like Calvinism. How do you understand it?
ANSWER: The sixth chapter of John might be described as the Calvinist’s “happy hunting ground.” Verse 65 (cited above, NASB), plus verse 44 (“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him”), are proof texts usually cited to establish such Calvinist doctrines as monergism, total depravity, and irresistible grace. In my judgment they are among the texts that are the most difficult for non-Calvinists to explain. I am pleased to have the opportunity to deal with them here.
I. THE CHOOSING OF THE TWELVE. The first thing to notice in this general context (especially John 6) is that Jesus is discussing two similar but distinct issues. One is how the twelve apostles were chosen and given to Jesus by the Father; the other is how sinners are drawn and given to Jesus by the Father. I will first sum up what is said about the apostles.
A. Divine Foreknowledge. It is important to distinguish what is said about the various stages or steps involved in bringing the apostles to Jesus. The first step is the foreknowledge of Jesus. In John 6:64, where Jesus is speaking specifically to his disciples, we are told that “Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.” John 13:11 adds, “For He knew the one who was betraying Him.”
The pure divine consciousness has foreknown everything about the universe “from the beginning,” and the divine Messiah could “tap into” this omniscience as needed. So here we learn that from the beginning of his ministry Jesus knew about Judas’ unfaithfulness.
B. Divine Will. The second step is that Jesus willed to call these twelve, including Judas, to be his apostles. Mark 3:13 says he called to himself “those whom He Himself wanted (Greek, thelō), and they came to Him.”
C. Divine Election. Third, those whom Jesus wanted, he personally chose (Greek, eklegomai)—even the betrayer. He said to them, “‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’” (John 6:70). “Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him (John 6:71). Later Jesus emphasized that the choosing was his: “You did not choose Me but I chose you . . . . I chose you out of the world” (John 15:16, 19).
(In the next main section we will see that in John’s description of the divine actions that lead sinners to come to Jesus, he never mentions election. I.e., he never says that God chooses which sinners he will save. Nowhere does Jesus say of sinners, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” Calvinists often quote this verse, John 15:16, and misapply it to sinners; but that is wrong. It applies to the choosing of the apostles, not to sinners.)
D. Divine Giving. Fourth, these twelve whom Jesus wanted and chose are described as being given to him by the Father. The twelve chosen for apostleship are included in the main text in question here (John 6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” In other places Jesus refers to the Father’s act of giving the apostles to him: “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world” (John 17:6; see vv. 9, 24). Jesus also said to the Father, “Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one” (John 18:9).
E. Coming to Jesus. Finally, in the fifth place, those given to Jesus are described as coming to him, as in John 6:65: “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” (Verse 64 shows that Jesus is including the apostles in this statement.) See also Mark 3:13.
Despite all of these positive steps that applied equally to all twelve of the original apostles (the divine foreknowledge, will, election, and giving, plus the twelve’s coming to Jesus), one of the twelve was different. This was Judas, of course. Though he was chosen and given to Jesus, he was foreknown to be the betrayer (John 6:64-65; 13:11, 18), and he was referred to as “a devil” (John 6:70) and as “the son of perdition” who would perish (John 17:12).
What did Jesus mean, then, when he said later, “Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one” (John 18:9)? Jesus’ main point is in the statement, “I lost not one.” This means that Jesus was not controlling the heart and will of Judas; Jesus was not determining whether Judas willed to surrender to him or oppose him. This was Judas’ decision. Jesus did not override Judas’ will; Judas’ lostness was his own fault, not the choice of Jesus.
II. THE GIVING AND COMING OF THE SAVED. This leads us into our main point, namely, what the gospels (especially John) say about the various steps through which sinners pass as they are led to the state of eternal life.
A. Divine Foreknowledge. Again, as with the apostles, the first step is foreknowledge, as in John 6:64, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe.” (That he knew who would NOT believe necessarily implies that he knew who WOULD believe.) That the result of believing is eternal life (John 6:40, 47) shows that this is talking about sinners coming to Jesus for salvation. The individual’s faith that is a condition for salvation is known “from the beginning.” This helps to explain the reference to foreknowledge in Romans 8:29, which says of God that “those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.”
B. Divine Will. The second step in the process is the divine will (Greek, thelō, thelēma). In John 6:40 Jesus says, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life.” Jesus himself later expressed the same will toward his Jewish brethren, thus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). (In this verse the same verb, thelō, is used for both Jesus’ willing and the Jews’ willing.)
C. Divine Drawing. In the process of bringing sinners to salvation the third step given by John is the act of drawing (Greek, helkuō) by the Father. It is the Father’s will that sinners come to Jesus, and yet, as Jesus says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). This is clearly stated: no one can come unless drawn by the Father.
Here is one place where Calvinists make a huge mistake. They interpret this “drawing” to be selective (applied only to the “elect”) and irresistible (necessarily resulting in faith, apart from any act of human will). Both ideas are seriously false. The divine drawing is indeed powerful, but it is both universal and resistible. That it is universal is seen in John 12:32, where Jesus, using the same word for “draw” (helkuō) that he used in 6:44, says, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” Here he is talking about the gospel message of the cross (see v. 33), which exerts its drawing power on the hearts of ALL who hear it; but only SOME respond positively to it.
D. Divine Teaching. This points us to the fourth step in the conversion process, which is the stated means by which the drawing of 6:44 takes place. Jesus explains this drawing in the next verse (John 6:45) as being accomplished by God’s teaching: “It is written in the prophets, ‘AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” When sinners hear the inspired teaching of God’s prophets and apostles, they are drawn by the truth toward the light. ALL who hear the word are so drawn, as John 12:32 says; see also Romans 1:18; 10:14; and Hebrews 4:12 on the drawing power of the word.
E. Human Willing. As the result of this divine teaching, the door is now opened to the sinner’s own participation in this journey to salvation. When the word is taught, says Jesus, “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me” (John 6:45). Of course, all who are exposed to the teaching hear it, but not all learn from it. This learning is the result of the fifth step of the salvation journey, namely, the involvement of the human will. Such learning does not automatically follow from hearing. In order to learn, one must will to open his or her mind to the meaning of the message, and must will to accept this meaning and to act upon it. God does not force this act of the will; it is a choice some sinners make and some refuse to make. Jesus speaks of this willing in 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.” See also Matthew 16:24-25.
Despite God’s own willing, drawing, and teaching, the human will at this point is decisive. Jesus declared that the Jewish leaders themselves were searching the Scriptures for the key to eternal life; but, he said, “You are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:40). See Matthew 23:37 again: Jesus wanted (thelō) to save his people, but they were NOT willing (thelō). They heard, but they refused to learn.
F. Human Believing. When one hears and learns from the teaching, this leads to the sixth step in the conversion process, which is believing. Those who will to learn from their hearing are ready to believe. They will to conform their minds to the truth of the gospel facts (the assent aspect of faith), and they will to surrender their hearts to the person of Christ (the trust aspect of faith). These are now ready to receive the gift of eternal life: “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). See John 6:35; 7:38.
G. Divine Giving. Once this faith is present in the convert’s heart, step seven occurs as the Father resumes his role in the overall process by engaging in the activity of giving. A specific act of giving now occurs, in which we see how John 6:65 is fulfilled. Specifically, the Father now grants something to the new believer—something that has to do with the Son. This act of giving or granting (Greek, didōmi) is explained in John 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” I.e., those who will to receive Jesus and to believe in his name are given the exousia (“right, power, authority”) to be a part of God’s family.
Another way of putting this is that those who have been given the right to become children of God are now actually given to Jesus by the Father, so that we are now able to come to Jesus in order to receive eternal life. I.e., because we have been foreknown and wanted and drawn and taught, and because we have heard and willed and learned and believed, the Father now gives us to Jesus (John 6:37, 39; 17:2).
H. Coming to Jesus. This “coming to Jesus” is the climax of this whole process. As Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35). “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). And this is of course the essence of our key text, John 6:65: “For this reason I said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”
As stated above, this “coming to Jesus” is the climactic step in the process John is describing. This “coming” (Greek, erchomai) refers to the point where we enter into a life-giving relationship with Jesus. It is the point where we come into contact with the saving power of grace as it flows from Christ’s cross. Everything else described above (points A through G) is preparation for it.
How is the above explanation different from Calvinism? It is different because it separates the various steps that lead up to the final step of “coming to Jesus,” and because it distinguishes the steps that are God’s actions from those that are human actions. For example, in John 6:44 (“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him”) Calvinists see this drawing and coming basically as a single act empowered by God. We have seen, however, that the drawing and coming are quite distinct, and are separated by several other actions, some of which are God’s and some of which are those of the sinner. Also, we have seen that the granting of the right to come to Jesus (John 6:65) is not a unilateral act by the Father but is the result of a series of related events which include acts of the sinner.
The concluding bottom line is that the divine will does not work unilaterally (monergistically) in the salvation process. The human will is also involved, even decisively. Yes, divine drawing is necessary (John 6:44), but this drawing can be resisted (Matt. 23:37); the gift of John 6:65 can be refused: “You are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:40).
We should also note that once the gift has been given and received, it can be returned (given back, discarded). It is very true that God himself will not take it away from us. As Jesus says in John 6:37, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” It is also true that God will not allow anyone to steal it from us or take it from us against our will: “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29).
But even here the will of God, in the sense of God’s desire, can be defied and thwarted. In John 6:39 Jesus says, “This is the will [thelēma] of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing.” Here, thelēma is not God’s purposive will but his desire; it is not what he decrees but what he wants. We can see this by comparing it with 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. It is God’s desire that none will be lost, but the fact is that some will be. It is God’s desire that no believers will lose their faith, but the fact is that some will. Here we should not forget Judas, one of the twelve whom God gave to Jesus as an apostle. Jesus said of the twelve, “I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory” (John 17:24). But we know that Judas defied and frustrated this desire (will) of Jesus. Let us not ignore the clear parallel between the way the apostles were chosen and given to Jesus, and the way sinners are drawn and given to Jesus. We dare not let our guard down regarding our responsibility to be faithful unto the end.