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

February 9, 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.

Any book that is to be deemed as exceptional would include a very well written introduction or prologue which would include a clear and concise outline of the book’s contents. The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John are generally referred to as the Prologue of his Gospel. In these verses we have the foundation upon which the rest of John’s Gospel is built. In the words of Borchert:

The Gospel opens with one of the most elevated statements about Jesus found in the New Testament. Only the texts of Col. 1:15-20 and Heb. 1:1-13 come close to approximating the profound view of God’s Son presented in John 1:1-18. These first eighteen verses of the Gospel, which have a wonderful poetic ring, have been labeled by scholars with the unpoetic title “The Prologue.” But in spite of its poetic ring, the reader should be forewarned that this Prologue is one of the most complex theological statements in the Bible.[1]

Assuming that John has written a quality prologue, it would be reasonable to expect that the contents and theology of the body of the Gospel would not contradict the contents and theology of its prologue. The next step is to identify some of the complexities found in John’s Prologue. The complexity of the prologue begins with the three affirmations about God in the first verse, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, NASB)

Affirmation one is that the “Word” or Logos existed before creations, “In the beginning was the Word.” Beginning like Genesis 1:1, John alludes to the Old Testament and Jewish picture of God creating through his preexistent wisdom or word. This basic statement could be misunderstood because “According to standard Jewish doctrine in his day, this wisdom existed before the rest of creation but was itself created. By declaring that the Word “was” in the beginning and especially by calling the Word “God” John goes beyond the common Jewish conception to imply that Jesus is not created” (cf. Is. 43:10-11).[2] In fact, not only is Jesus not a created being, but He is indeed the Creator; “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” (John 1:3, NASB) Some argue “Election is implicit in John’s opening words “In the beginning.”[3] The comparison of John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 is said to show a common link between creation and redemption and this link is “rooted in divinity’s eternal being expressed through the free decision to establish the material world.”[4] While the connection of creation and redemption can be made, and God’s sovereignty as creator is clear, it is extremely difficult to see divine unconditional election being taught in this verse. There is nothing in this opening verse that would even remotely suggest that God chose some individuals to receive salvation while others would be left hopelessly lost.

The second affirmation is that there is a relational distinction between the “Word” and “God” because the “Word was with God.” Robertson argues, “Though existing eternally with God the Logos was in perfect fellowship with God. Pros with the accusative presents a plane of equality and intimacy, face to face with each other.[5] Deity with a distinction is clearly a concept that defies human logic and is a matter of revelation, yet it is a truth that is essential to the Christian faith.

Whereas the second theological affirmation has emphasized a relational differential between the Word and God, the third affirmation leaves no doubt with respect to the interconnection or unity between the Word and God because “the Word was God.” The proclamation of John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NASB) leaves no doubt that John was referring to Jesus Christ as the Logos. Deity with a distinction creates a tension that cannot be resolved, but yet must be accepted as absolute truth. The doctrine of election creates another such irresolvable tension.

The very foundation of the Christian faith rests upon these three affirmation. They declare that Jesus Christ the man was indeed God incarnate. As the Prologue unfolds God sends the “Light” into a dark world, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:4-5, NASB) God also sent a witness, “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him.” (John 1:6-7, NASB). The goal of John’s witness here is that “all might believe.” Borchert says, “The Johannine theme of believing introduced here is without a doubt one of the most central concerns of the Gospel. It is crucial to the evangelist’s purpose statement for writing the Gospel (20:31)[6] According to Tenney, “The word “believe” (pisteuo) appears ninety-eight times in the Gospel, more often than any other key word, and is obviously the major theme.”[7] Again Borchert says:

In accordance with this purpose statement it becomes immediately clear that the Gospel is not intended as a mere academic exercise but that the reader is expected to provide an appropreiate response. That response is pointedly spelled out in 20:31, where genuine life s identified for the reader as the goal of human existence. The attaining of that goal, moreover, is proclaimed to be achieved through the process of believing in the reality and nature of who Jesus is, both as the long-anticipated Messiah (Christ) and as the actual human embodiment of the Godhead on earth.[8]

Thus, John the Baptist will identify Jesus as, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NASB) Any hope of salvation for those in the darkness, whether Jew or Gentile, lies in a personal belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, NASB)

John 1:11-13 has a lot to say about God’s plan to save a lost and dying world. The use of both the neuter “own” and the masculine “own” respectively in verse eleven shows the breath of Israel’s rejection of Messiah. According to Borchert:

Not only did the people of the world not know the Logos, but when he came to his own historical land (Israel), his own people rejected (“did not receive”) him. For the writers of the New Testament the rejection of Jesus by the Jews was extremely difficult to comprehend. John viewed this norecieving (ou parelabon) of Jesus by Israel not merely as a matter of not knowing (contrast 1:10) but as a conscious decision of rejection by the Jews was not merely directed at Jesus but also at the Jewish Christians who sought to remain in the synagogues (cf. 9:22, 34).[9]

It has been argued by some that, “Divine election receives sharp emphasis in John 1:13, which sheds light on the identity of ‘all who received Him’ in 1:12. That is, those who savingly received the Messiah for who He truly was (1:12) did so because they were ‘born of God’ (1:13)—and not vice versa.”[10] But, the clear wording of verse 12 contradicts this line of thinking. The receiving and believing clearly preceded the gift of power and authority to become the “sons of God.” (1:12) Verse thirteen is not an explanation of verse twelve, as some have suggested, but a response to those, especially Jews, who would claim association to god through natural descent, Jewish tradition, or descent from Abraham. The nation of Israel, as descendants from Abraham, were indeed God’s chosen people, but the choice of Israel by God in no way provided personal salvation from sin for any individual Jew, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” (Rom. 2:28-29, NASB) It is true that those who received Him in 1:12 cannot ultimately attribute their saved status to human effort. Man can claim no glory in his own salvation, for salvation is of God. God is the initiator in eternal salvation from sin, but man must respond to God’s initiative. The only part in salvation that man can play, and must play, is that of a beggar who in response to God’s calling cries out like the Publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner/” (Luke 18:13b, KJV) When a sinner acknowledges his helplessness to save himself, he is acknowledging that God is the only one who can save him and thus to God be all the glory for salvation.

The search for unconditional election in John’s Prologue leads to a dead end. God’s plan of salvation is clearly revealed in John’s Prologue, but not with the trappings of unconditional election attached as part of the plan. If unconditional election is to be found in John’s Gospel, it must be sough elsewhere.

Part Three coming soon!


[1] Borchert, Gerald L.: John 1-11, electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1996 (Logos Library System; The New American Commentary 25A), 100.
[2] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, S. Jn. 1:1. (Logos Research Systems)
[3] Screiner, Thomas R. and Bruce A. Ware, eds. Still Sovereign, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 48.
[4] Ibid, 40.
[5] Robertson, A.T.: Word Pictures in the New Testament. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, S. Jn. 1:1.
[6]Borchert, Gerald L. : John 1-11. Electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1996 (Logos Library System; The New American Commentary 25A), S. 112.
[7]Gaeblin, Frank E. ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, John – Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 12.
[8]Borchert, S. 31.
[9] Ibid, S. 114.
[10] Schreiner, 49.

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Dr. helton writes, “Any hope of salvation for those in the darkness, whether Jew or Gentile, lies in a personal belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world,…”

This is a central theme of the Book of John. It is not just the Jew who is to be saved; God had always intended that Gentiles be saved. Jesus emphasizes this and John records it. Later, Paul would write, “…by revelation [God] made known unto me the mystery;…That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:” This was, to Paul, earthshattering and he called it a mystery made known to him by revelation. Yet, in John, Jesus is already reveling this mystery. Jesus declares, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Not just the Jew, but the Gentile, also. Even in the prologue, we see this theme unfolding, “[The Baptist] came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.” This was not a message for just the Jew; it was a message for the Gentile, also.

Andrew Barker

Dr. Helton: I really appreciate your clear presentation of these opening verses of John’s gospel. Thank you!

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