If we had to pick two passages that are used the most to defend that Calvinistic understanding of soteriology they would be Romans 9 and John 6, probably in that order. After all, what could “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” possibly mean besides God chooses which individuals will be saved and they will be unable to come unless they are chosen?
The biggest barrier to Calvinists and non-Calvinists understanding one another’s perspective is the different ways we read the Bible. It isn’t that one of us isn’t reading the Bible and the other is. We both are. Instead, we’re both wearing “goggles”, or interpretive lenses, as we read the text and this greatly informs our conclusions.
Rather than this being a polemic against the Calvinistic “goggles”, I will endeavor to explain the non-Calvinistic (as I see it) reading of John 6. I will contrast the Calvinistic view when necessary as a way of further clarifying my reading. Just like with my Romans 9 reading, what follows is not intended to be an in-depth exegesis, but a top-down overview of what we think is the flow of the passage.
From the Top Looking Down
Calvinism: Jesus is talking to the Jews about how all come to have faith in God. Specifically, God chooses before the foundation of the world all who will have faith in God, and when chosen, they will come.
Non-Calvinism: Jesus is telling the Jews why it is that though they see him they do not believe in him. Specifically, it is not His job to draw them but the Father’s and how the Father draws is through the prophets who told of Jesus’ coming.
The persuasive strength of Calvinist view, as I see it, is that it’s simple. And I don’t mean that derogatorily. A single, tweet-length assertion is all that is need to explain this view. I wish I had such a brief, simple answer. This not only plays in our current learning environment (when was the last time you watched a Youtube video past 10min in length? 5min?) but it also plays to our Christian milieu where everything is assumed to be about salvation and how it works.
The strength of my view is that it takes each verse of this passage with as much weight as the next, allowing the passage to explain itself. My view can explain how each sentence fits into the next and it takes the scope and audience for what the Scriptures tell us it is and does not insert them from an outside theological system.
Keep the above summaries in mind and let us see which fits the flow of Jesus’ argument here.
Setting The Stage
The pericope in contention takes place right after the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water. Jesus had slipped away in the night (walking across the water) and when they awoke in the morning and saw that he was no longer there, they followed Him to the other side.
Jesus ties in the work they did to get to the other side of the sea so as to be fed and says they should instead work for the greater food. They answer, v. 28b
“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
They are probably thinking that “food that endures to eternal life” means earthly food that does not go bad. They want some of that! v. 29,
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
So just like they had worked to get to the other side of the sea to find Jesus so that He would feed them again; belief in Jesus is a work they must do. This is where I may get stopped with some objections. I’m going to head those objections off by pointing out that I’m not making a theological argument nor forming a doctrine based upon that. I’m making an exegetical observation. Jesus acknowledged that they worked to get to Him, told them they should work for unperishable food, they asked what that work is, and He answered, “believe in him whom he has sent”.
The Jews ask about this belief, v. 30-31:
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Remember, this is one of the key points to understanding the non-Calvinist perspective: The Jews asked for a sign so that they could believe in Jesus. I do not need to see their request for a sign as completely pure of heart; I just need to recognize how this sets off the rest of the passage.
Understandably, they’re still focused on eating for free. But Jesus is on earth to give them what they really need, v. 32-34:
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. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
I’m of the opinion that the Jews still have no idea what Jesus is talking about. The “bread” they are asking for is still the bread they received on the other side of the sea. However, the fact remains, they have again asked Jesus for something, first a sign, and now bread.
We will now be reading over the texts in question. To summarize, the Jews came searching for food but Jesus says it is better to work for spiritual food and, upon being asked, says that this work is believing in Him who was sent. The Jews then asked Jesus for a sign to believe and for bread so they could eat.
The Key Question
This is the first of Jesus’s seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. He makes this statement in response to the Jews request to receive the bread that doesn’t perish, v. 35-36:
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. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.
This is one of the key points to understanding our perspective. Remember, the Jews asked for a sign, they asked for the bread like Moses gave them in the wilderness. Jesus is saying “I’m the sign, I’m the bread, I am standing right in front of you and you don’t believe.”
Notice what happens next. Jesus does not try to persuade them to believe but instead, and here comes the key, tells them why they do not believe. The Calvinist seemingly assumes that Jesus is answering the question “How can everyone who has ever existed come to faith?”. In contrast, we see Jesus as answering the question “Why don’t the Jews believe in Him?” Here are three points that I think strongly support this reading:
- The teaching that follows has exegetical markers that point to what Jesus’ purpose on Earth is.
- Jesus does not try to persuade them to believe and lets them leave. Almost all of them do. Thus displaying what Jesus’ purpose on Earth was.
- The purpose of the Gospel of John is “…so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).” It would be natural in a book meant to convince readers who have never seen Jesus to address the question “Why didn’t those that saw Him believe?”
Let’s keep these three points in mind as we follow Jesus’ argument as to why He is here.
The Purpose of Jesus on Earth
Jesus goes on to discuss why He is here, v. 37-38:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Jesus is not here to give them a sign so that they will believe. Instead, He is here to do the will of the Father.
The “for” begins a purpose clause. Why is it that only those whom the Father has given will come? Because Jesus is on Earth not to do His own will. The strong, and in my opinion, inescapable implication is that Jesus is not on Earth to pursue followers. It is up to the Father to “give” those who come, not for Jesus to go out and get them. As we see in the rest of the pericope, and truly the narrative of the Gospels in general, Jesus does not pursue them.
What is the will of the Father?
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.
Remember, what starts this entire explanation of why the Jews don’t believe is “you have seen me and you do not believe”. Jesus is talking to and about those that have seen Him on Earth. Jesus is talking about what God’s will for Him is while on Earth, while those people are looking on Him. I’m open to anyone showing me an exegetical marker that universalizes Jesus words to all men who have ever lived. Absent of that, I have to stick with the limitations in the audience and scope the Scriptures give me.
Of course, I agree theologically that “eternal life” and “raise him up on the last day” also applies to later Jew and Gentile converts. But that’s because those promises are given elsewhere in the Scriptures. Right here, in this passage, the promise given is to those who behold Jesus while he was on Earth and believe in Him.
We’ve done all this work to get here. We’re finally here. We’re now ready to consider John 6:44.
The Jews begin grumbling. They don’t get it. And Jesus doesn’t explain it to them. He merely further clarifies why it is that they see him but do not believe, v. 41-44:
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 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 is a striking answer. They cannot understand how it is that this person who’s parents and birthplace they know is now saying “I have come down from heaven”. If Jesus was trying to draw people to Himself he would have explained it to them; “well guys, you see, my mother was a virgin and the Holy Spirit…”. Nope. He does not explain it to them. Because that’s not what he’s on Earth to do.
Do you see how our understanding of 6:44 flows neatly into the context of the entire discourse? Jesus is responding to their grumbling, and they are grumbling about what Jesus previously said. They did not ask him, “How is that all men can believe?” They asked him, “How is that you can say you’re from heaven?” And Jesus’ answer is, “It’s not my mission on Earth to explain that to you, if God had drawn you, you would believe in me now”.
The main weakness of the Calvinist’s perspective is that it raises this verse out of its context, isolates it on a pedestal far above the concerns of the narrative as told by John, and then on to it pours alien assumptions about the audience, scope, and what “drawing” means.
Here comes the other key to understanding our perspective. How does the Father draw them? How does the Father give those that come? By an inward irresistible means? Notice the exact parallels between “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” and v. 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—
“No one can come unless X” and “Everyone who has X comes” are negative and positive ways to express the same thing.
“No one can dunk unless they can jump high” = “Everyone who has a 36-inch vertical leap can jump high”.
Hearing and learning from the Father, through the Prophets of course, IS being drawn by the Father.
Having a 36-inch vertical leap IS jumping high.
Maybe this should be my tweet-length mic drop: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”. That is a single sentence after “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” but if I quoted just v. 45 that would give you an entirely different impression of what the drawing is.
Put Those Goggles On
At this point let’s back out of the passage and return to the concept of the goggles we are using to interpret the text. As you can see, I’m using exegetical markers from the passage to tell me what the author/speaker means by each sentence in the passage ie. the audience, the scope, and the main point. Here is my summary again:
Jesus is telling the Jews why it is they see him but do not believe. It is a question a 1st-century reader would ask and a question the author, John, would have a serious interest in answering. Jesus is explaining to them that it is not His job while on Earth to make them see that He is the sign they are looking for. Instead, it is the Father’s will to give/draw certain individuals to Him during this Earthly mission, it is the Son’s job not to lose those individuals. How is God drawing/giving these certain people? By teaching them from the prophets. And if the Jews who are now standing in front him had learned of God they would come to him. It is God’s will that the Son would not lose any that the Father gives him.
In contrast, the Calvinist tends to simply quote v. 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” and import already decided definitions for not only what “draws” means but also who the audience is and the scope of the teaching. It seems to be merely assumed, as an a priori first truth, that all of Jesus teachings are universal, applying to all men in all time, every time Jesus opens his mouth. I do not see this principle in the Bible.
Of course, what I’m saying has far-reaching theological and doctrinal implications but I’m not intending it to. I’m merely following Jesus’ flow of thought and pointing out the exegetical markers that inform that flow. I’m contrasting it with the Calvinistic view to show the assumptions inherent within and how the text does not bear those assumptions out.