Does the Gospel of John Teach Unconditional Election? | Part Three

February 12, 2015

Dr. Bill Helton | Leroy A. Peterson Professor of Homiletics
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY

*For more information about Dr. Helton or Clear Creek Baptist Bible College click HERE.

Click HERE for Part One.
Click HERE for Part Two.

John 5:21

“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” (NASB)

It is very clear in this verse that John continues to make the case he began in the prologue that, “the Word was God.” (John 1:1, KJV) Jesus is not just the Son of God, but He is God. Anything the Father can do, the Son can do. Since God is the only one who can give life, as some argue in connection to salvation, John 5:21 “explicitly points to divine initiative.”[1] But, to make the leap from divine initiative to divine election is to stretch this verse beyond its context. This verse is part of Jesus response to the Jews’ desire to kill Him because of his claim of equality with God. In the words of Rodney Whitacre:

Jesus explains his relationship with the Father through a series of four explanatory clauses (5:19-23), each headed by the conjunction gar (variously translated in the NIV). He begins by saying he can only do what he sees the Father doing because [gar] whatever the Father does the Son also does (v. 19). Next, the Son’s complete revelation of the Father is grounded in the Father’s own love for the Son and the fact that the Father has not held anything back from the Son. For [gar] just as the Father raises the dead and fives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son (5:21-22). The last explanatory clause (5:22) states emphatically that the Father judges no one [oude … ouden], but has entrusted all judgment to the Son. Jesus is given this authority because of who he is; it is part of his identity (5:27). In these verses Jesus’ equality with God is revealed with the result (v. 23, hina) that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Here their complete equality is expressed in terms of people’s proper attitude toward Jesus: the very same honor given to the Father is to be given to the Son.[2]

Once again, John is clearly building on his thesis statements in the prologue. This verse was not only part of building the case from the prologue that Jesus was God, but it was also an important part of what is sometimes called the Festival Cycle. According to Borchert:

To make a person live was the prerogative of God and his special servants like Elijah (1 Kgs. 17:21-24). But according to John, Jesus is not merely a servant of God who acts for God like Elijah. Instead, the evangelist proclaims, “In him was life” (John 1:4). Raising a person from the dead therefore was a sign of the presence of God. The signs in the Festival Cycle (the healing of the lame man, the feeding of the multitude, and the giving of sight to the blind man) point toward the resurrection sign of Lazarus (the last sing in the Festival Cycle). Moreover, they all serve as an introduction to the ultimate sign of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the confirmation of his uniqueness. Jesus was truly the agent or special representative of God on earth. Here the mention of Son’s life-giving power (5:21) prepares the reader for discussion of two resurrections in vv. 28-29.[3]

There was no clear teaching of unconditional election in the prologue and there is nont to be found in this verse either. The next three verses in question will be found in the famous discourse of John chapter six where Jesus calls Himself “the bread of life.”

John 6:37

“All that the Father gives me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (NASB)

As pointed out by some Calvinists and Reformed Baptists it is clear that, “Jesus indicates that those who respond to His call somehow do so at the Father’s bidding. The Father gives to the Son whoever responds.”[4] Once again, the leap from the Father’s bidding to unconditional election seems extreme. Attempts to use this verse in defense of unconditional election presents another case of isolating a verse from its context. Consulting Borchert again:

“Because coming to Jesus involves a divine dimension, beleivers who are enabled to come can have a sense of confidence and assurance that they will neither be cast out by Jesus (ekballein, 6:37) nor misplaced or lost by Jesus (apolluein, 6:39; cf. also 6:12). There is at v. 37 (also v. 39) a fascinating use of the neuter singular pan (“all”). It may be used here as a collective and may suggest that the general intention of God’s gift is that people will indeed come. The use of the masculine singular pas (“everyone”) at v. 40 could then suggest that each individual authentic coming to Jesus would certainly not be rejected. Such an interpretation would keep the tension between the divine and human dimensions of salvation. It would also affirm the positive intention of God’s will (6:38) and at the same time recognize the role of the human will and the general negative unwillingness on the part of people to accept Jesus, even though they had a direct physical encounter with him (6:36, 40).[5]

The argument here about the Father giving believers to the Son teaching unconditional election is basically a repeat of the same Calvinist argument from above that because God is the initiator in salvation, He Himself must unconditionally elect all those who will respond to His invitation. Because God gives, does not necessitate that He must unconditionally elect all those He will give to the Son. Again, in context, this verse does not seem to teach unconditional election, but rather a sense of security for those who do come to Christ by grace through faith. This verse is an assurance that no true profession of faith will be rejected. It is in 6:39-40 that we find a further explanation of 6:37, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40, NASB) There is no question that those given to the Son will be eternally secure, but the will of the Father is that only those who believe will be given to the Son to be kept secure and then raised on the last day. The expression “raise him up on the last day” will occur two more times in 6:44 and 6:54 and serves as a theme for this section.

John 6:44
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (NASB)

The Calvinist argument here is that “’No one’ is unequivocal; whoever comes to the Son does so as the result of the Father’s forceful attraction.”[6] What is the significance of the “drawing” power of God in this text? Those who are persuaded of an Augustinian/Calvinistic interpretation emphasize the force of God’s supreme power in drawing persons to Jesus. Those who are committed to an Arminian interpretation emphasize that the drawing of God is on individual persons and that persons need to believe (cf. 6:47). Consulting Robertson:

Except the Father draw him” (ean m? helkus?i auton). Negative condition of third class with ean m? and first aorist active subjunctive of helku?, older form helk?, to drag like a net (John 21:6), or sword (18:10), or men (Acts 16:19), to draw by moral power (12:32), as in Jer. 31:3. Sur?, the other word to drag (Acts 8:3; 14:19) is not used of Christ’s drawing power.[7]

The Father indeed draws, but does not drag unwillingly. In this passage, Jesus further explained how the sinner can come to God: it is through the truth of the Word (John 6:44-45). It seems clear that “It is through the teaching of the Word that God draws people to the Saviour. (Note John 5:24 and its emphasis on hearing the Word.) The sinner hears, learns, and comes as the Father draws him. A mystery? Yes! A blessed reality? Yes!”[8] The force of these texts, therefore, is really neither an affirmation of strict Arminianism nor Calvinism. But, “The Calvinists attach this discussion to texts such as 10:25-29 whereas the Arminians unite this passage with other texts such as 12:32; 15:5-6. The solution to such problems normally is best found in a modified Arminian-Calvinistic position that maintains the biblical tension of the divine and human aspects of salvation found in this text.”[9]

Salvation cannot be achieved apart from the drawing power of God, and it can never be consummated apart from the surrender of the human heart to hear and learn from God. To choose one or the other of these to the exclusion of the other will ultimately end in unbalanced, unbiblical theology. A modified Arminian-Calvinistic position will generally not please either Calvinists or Arminians, “both of whom will seek to emphasize certain words or texts and exclude from consideration other texts and words. But in spite of all the arguments to the contrary, this tension between the divine and human aspects of salvation cannot finally be resolved by our theological gymnastics.”[10]

The repeated expression “raise him up on the last day” at the end of 6:44 clearly ties this verses to 6:39-40 which have been shown to support belief before regeneration and this challenge the doctrine of unconditional election. To try and understand the term “draw” without careful consideration of the larger context will most likely lead to a faulty interpretation. The final use of this repeated expression is found ten verses later, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54, NASB) The eating of flesh and drinking of blood are surely references to receiving Jesus Christ for salvation. Once again, as in the prologue, the gift of eternal life comes as a result of receiving Jesus Christ, not as the result of unconditional election. This section actually begins back at 6:26 just after the feeding of the multitude. The multitude had filled their bellies with the bread Jesus had multiplied and were ready to make Him king so they would not have to labor for bread any more. Jesus admonishes them in 6:27 not to labor for food that will perish but for food that brings everlasting life. Jesus also states here that the spiritual food He is talking about will come as a gift from the Son, who has the seal of God upon Him. When they misunderstand and ask, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28, NASB) Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:29b, NASB) Therefore this entire section, 6:26-54, remains consistent with the prologue, establishing that believing precedes receiving regeneration.

Part Four coming soon!


[1] Scriener, Thomas R. and Bruce A. Ware, eds. Still Sovereign. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 50.
[2] Whitacre, Rodney A.: John. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, S. 127. (Logos Research Systems)
[3] Borchert, Gerald L.: John 1-11. electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, S. 239. (Logos Library System)
[4] Screiner, 50.
[5] Borchert, S. 264
[6] Screiner, 50.
[7] Robertson, A.T.: Word Pictures in the New Testament. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, S. Jn. 6:44.
[8] Wiersbe, Warren W.: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, Ill.; Victor Books, Jn 6:44. (Logos Research System)
[9] Borchert, S. 268
[10] Ibid.

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Andrew Barker

I am always ‘drawn’ to comments on this subject because it was a sermon based on John 6:44 which prompted my deeper search into what Reformed theology was all about. The ‘pastor’ was trying to justify the idea of irresistible grace. I found a link to RC Sproul and his interpretation of the word draw. He was of course arguing that draw meant drag and linked it to various verses which all demonstrated a very physical aspect to the word draw. However, he failed to mention that the same greek word was used in John 12:32 and I wondered why. I came to realise that it was primarily because it didn’t fit well with his pre-existing beliefs. He was engaging in eisegesis. (as was the ‘pastor’)

On checking the various lexicons available I soon came across Thayer’s which gave strong’s definitions which includes both proper and metaphorical uses of the word drag. It also indicated that John 6:44 was meant to be taken metaphorically! Unfortunately, there are no other examples within scripture where the word drag is used in this way, but Strong’s gives an external ref to Plato’s Phaedrus. The ref: took a bit of digging out but I finally found Plat. Phaedrus 238a online which includes the lines “but when desire irrationally drags us toward pleasures and rules within us, its rule is called excess.” Of course, even taken metaphorically God’s drawing of us can be strong, but there is no support for the idea of an external force which is irresistible. The need for the Holy Spirit to drag us like some catch of fishes (John 21:6) or the Apostles being dragged into the market place (Acts16:19) is simply not supported. Indeed the concept of force does not sit particularly well with the idea of unconditional election. If God has already elected those who will respond, why is he going to make life difficult for himself and have to ‘drag’ those of his ‘chosen’ ones to respond? In a sense, I would argue that those advocating for the physical drag instead of a metaphorical draw have been shooting themselves in the corporate ‘foot’ all along.

Jim G.

In my undergraduate days, I was a math major, and we were required to take a course on symbolic logic. Little did I realize that my symbolic logic training would help me to better explain John 6:37 and 6:44.

Let’s let the following be symbols representing key clauses in 6:37a and 6:44a:

C(x) = person x comes to Jesus
G(x) = person x is given to Jesus by the Father
D(x) = person x is drawn to Jesus by the Father

We can now write 6:37a and 6:44a with our symbols

6:37a – For all x, G(x) implies C(x). Note that 6:37a does not say that G(x) = C(x). It leaves open the possibility that for some person y, C(y) is true but G(y) is false.

6:44a – For all x, C(x) implies D(x). This one is a little tougher, but logically it is what it says. There is no “coming” outside “drawing,” so “to come” implies “to be drawn.” Note that, like 6:37a, 6:44a does not say that C(x) = D(x). It too leaves open the possibility that for some person y, D(y) is true but C(y) is false. To construct this as a diagram, imagine three concentric circles representing those drawn, coming, and given, with given as the smallest and drawn as the largest.

The doctrine of unconditional election seeks to, among other things, say that for all persons x, G(x) = D(x) (and therefore, by transitivity, equal to C(x) as well). That is, it seeks to make the sets of persons who are given, called, and drawn, respectively, equal. All someone needs to do to show that the requirements necessitated for UE to fail in John 6 is to show that there is one who comes to Jesus who is not given, or one who is drawn but does not come. I don’t think that would be too difficult a task.

Jim G.

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