When I first started thinking about Calvinism, it mostly stayed on the back of my mind. I looked into it here and there but I hadn’t really tackled any of the major passages. One day, I randomly stumbled across a Facebook status where someone I didn’t know said that he wanted to leave Calvinism, but couldn’t with a clean conscience because he was devoted to the Bible and couldn’t explain John 6 from an Arminian point of view. He sincerely asked his Facebook friends to help explain it to him. At the time I wasn’t even aware how important John 6 was to the debate. One of my Facebook friends had taken the time to write a very lengthy explanation of John 6 trying to spin it so that it did not teach Calvinism. I walked away thinking he failed utterly. I agreed with the person who wanted to leave Calvinism, I couldn’t see any way around what was said in John 6.
Jesus Taught Calvinism
The obvious first place you should start with when making a positive case for a doctrine is with the teachings of Jesus.
In the case of Calvinism, it is asserted by many to be a much later philosophic framework imposed on the Bible and does not represent the teachings of the Bible, much less Jesus. Some claim that it wasn’t formulated until Augustine. Others say that it started with the apostle Paul. Both of these are incorrect; the first person to ever clearly, directly teach the doctrines currently known as Calvinism was none other than the Lord Jesus himself, and he taught them most clearly in John chapter 6.
For our purposes John chapter 6 will be the first of four major passages that we will look at to put forward the positive Biblical case for Calvinism.
The larger context of John’s gospel
When you think about it, John is probably the most likely candidate of the four gospels to weigh in on the controversy we are dealing with. We are at the most fundamental level trying to determine if God’s choice determines who will believe or if his choices are based on who ends up believing on their own. Where better to look for insight on that issue than the gospel who’s stated purpose is for the reader to believe in Jesus and receive life in his name (John 20:31).
Before coming to John chapter 6 we have already seen numerous examples of John carrying out this purpose. Consider some of the following verses:
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
Also consider these verses from the middle of the conversation that we will be looking at:
40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
The idea of faith resulting in eternal lie has been the heartbeat of John’s Gospel.
The immediate context
At the start of John chapter 6, we have the account of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. John mentions that this is a “sign,” a theme in the gospel being that miracles are signs pointing to who Jesus is. The crowd correctly identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18, the prophet sent like Moses. Knowing they want to make him king, Jesus withdraws.
That night his disciples take the boat out and are scared for their lives when a storm comes. Then Jesus again comes through with a miracle when he walks on water to them. Immediately after receiving him they are saved and arrive on the shore.
The next morning the crowds, the same ones that had wanted to make Jesus king the day before, crossed the sea seeking Jesus.
Starting in verse 25 we read:
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you,you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Instead of answering their question, Jesus decides to steer the conversation where he wants it to go; calling out their motives right from the beginning. They saw a sign that pointed to who Jesus truly was, and came away mainly concerned with the fact that they had been fed.
27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
This is where the subject of salvation is first brought up (here as “eternal life”). Jesus is quick to shift their perspective from working for the fleeting physical sustenance of food and to focus on eternal things. He also intimately connects himself (“which the son of man will give to you”) to the eternal life that they should be seeking.
28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God,that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
They seize on the idea of doing “the works of God” but Jesus slides effortlessly right into the gospel message, namely that they should believe in him. So far in the dialogue, the issue of eternal life has already been brought up and now the issue of belief in Jesus has as well.
30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The people point out that God, through Moses, gave the Israelites manna to eat in the wilderness. They have already seen Jesus perform a miracle where he provided food to all present, and now they are almost challenging him to prove that he is a successor to Moses by doing it again. Jesus reminds them that God was the source of the manna, not Moses. Jesus again re-frames the question for his own purposes and points out that he is the bread that God has given.
34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Here we get one of seven “I am” statements in John’s gospel. Notice here the parallels, human spiritual need is metaphorically represented as hunger and thirst, and the solution is stated two ways as well, “coming” and “believing,” two terms that become interchangeable throughout the passage.
36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.
This verse is critically important. Jesus has been calling out their motives in seeking him from the beginning of this dialogue, now he explicitly points out that they are in fact unbelievers. It has already been established in John’s gospel (even in this very conversation) that those who believe receive eternal life, but now the curtain is being pulled back and we get to see why some believe and others don’t.
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
The reason they don’t believe is that they haven’t been given to Jesus by the Father. If they had been given, they would have come since everyone that Father gives comes to the sun. Remember as was set up in verse 35 that coming to Jesus is equal to believing in Jesus in this context. This verse ends up being a textbook definition for Irresistible Grace.
38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Now we move on to the purpose of Jesus coming; to perfectly save those he intended to save. Sometimes the issue of the eternal security of the believer is framed by the question “can a Christian lose their Salvation,” but the applicable question is actually “Can Jesus lose a Christian?” The answer here is a definitive “no.” The will of the Father is to give some to Jesus, and to have Jesus raise them on the last day. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that not only will every Christian be raised up on the last day, but the reason that they will remain in the faith until that time is because Jesus does not lose those who have been given to him by the Father.
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Those listening seemed to understand the implications of Jesus claiming to have come down from heaven.
43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves.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.
This statement by Jesus serves as the reciprocal of what he said in verse 37: All that the Father gives Jesus come to him, and they cannot come unless they are drawn. Since the “coming” to Jesus is coming to him in faith resulting in eternal life, we clearly see that faith is determined by the actions of God, not the self-determination of man. Some claim that Jesus draws all men and so while all men are initially unable to come, they are made able and brought to a neutral position where they can decide to believe for themselves. Some do believe and get saved, others fail to do so and die in their sins. This interpretation doesn’t fit this verse however, since the “him” who was unable to come until the Father drew him in verse 44a is the same “him” that gets raised up on the last day in 44b.
45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
Here again we have the coming to God predicated on the actions of the Father. The idea is also emphasized, as has been the constant refrain of the gospel until this point, that everyone that believes has eternal life. This truth is believed by Calvinists, but as we have been discussing that doesn’t diminish the truth that the actions of God provide the decisive impulse as to why some people get saved and some don’t.
The next several verses aren’t directly relevant to this particular discussion so we will pass them over and pick it up with verse 63:
63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Aside from the amazing pronouncement that only the spirit, not the flesh, ca bring life, the real significance of these verses is that they circle back to an earlier point. In verse 64 Jesus brings up their unbelief just like he did in verse 36. In the very next verse John himself inserts his own commentary into the middle of Jesus’s words to reiterate that he knew who would not believe. That makes three times that John has called attention to the fact that these men are not believers. Jesus then goes on to say that the fact that they are unbelievers is the very reason why he told them that no one can come to him unless it has been granted by the Father. Earlier the statement that all that the Father gave him would come to him immediately followed mention of their unbelief. Now we have him connecting their unbelief to the statement that no one can come to him unless they have been granted from the Father. So we see that the two statements indeed go together as a pair, no on can come to Jesus unless the Father grants it to them/draws them, and if God does grant it and give them to Jesus they will come to him. As we have seen, this coming is coming in faith for salvation. In coming and believing they get their spiritual need (the metaphoric hunger and thirst of verse 35) satisfied, they also receive eternal life (verse 40), and get raised up on the last day (verses 39,40,44)
There are several amazing things about this passage. The first is that it directly addresses the unbelief of a group of Jesus’s disciples. This is what allows us a rare chance to see if self-wrought faith is the ultimate determining factor in salvation or if it is merely a necessary step, but not the root cause. We see here that Jesus himself clearly teaches that it is the actions of God that are ultimately decisive. God is the actor not the reactor.
The other amazing thing is that despite occurring a millennium and a half before the five points of Calvinism came to be, this discussion traces them out rather fully. The doctrine of unconditional election is implied since the passage teaches that God’s actions determine who will be able to believe and indeed who will believe. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is clearly laid out in the fact that Jesus does not lose any that the Father gives him, and the doctrines of Irresistible Grace (in verse 37) and Total Depravity (verse 44) are laid out so clearly and succinctly that those verses might as well serve as the official definitions for those doctrines.
Perhaps the most important thing about the passage for our purposes is that the context is applicable to the debate at hand. It is explicitly dealing with the topics of eternal life and belief and how the actions of God relate to those things. This isn’t a passage that’s been hijacked by Calvinists looking for a proof-text; this is a passage whose original intention was to delve into the inner workings of the process of salvation in order to explain the amazing and tragic reality of unbelief in the face of the Son of God himself.
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