As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the fifth point in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym of Calvinism, Perseverance of the Saints, rests pretty heavily on the fourth point, Irresistable Grace. In other words, the idea that those who are saved by God cannot fall away is anchored in the idea that they couldn’t have kept from becoming saved in the first place.

On the one end of the Christian experience, those who will be saved cannot avoid becoming so, and on the other end, once they are saved they cannot avoid remaining so… or so the thinking goes. In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, God’s control over the situation is a big deal for Calvinists. Because of this, it is little wonder that Calvinists tend to draw heavily from the Gospel of John on this point.

Was John a Calvinist?

It’s pretty common knowledge among biblical scholars that John’s Gospel places a particular emphasis on God’s sovereignty, especially as it relates to the events surrounding Jesus. For instance, whereas the book of Acts  depicts the apostle Peter indicting the Jewish people for having killed Jesus (Acts 5:30; 10:39), and whereas Matthew and Mark’s Gospels both depict Jesus in anguish, crying out from the cross with an apparent sense of abandonment by God (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34), John’s Gospel rather depicts Jesus as being in relative control of the situation, making quick preparations of care for his mother from the cross (Jn 19:26-27) and proclaiming triumphantly with his last breath, “It is finished” (19:30). Moreover, in John’s Gospel, Jesus expresses confidence in having control over when his own life will end—”No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10:18)—and he boldly proclaims to Pilate that any authority the prefect has to execute him is authority granted by God (19:10-11).

In keeping with this theme of God’s sovereignty, and more relevant to the doctrine of Irresistible Grace, we find a number of sayings of Jesus in chapter six of John’s Gospel that seem to support the notion that if someone is called by God, then they cannot resist:

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. (Jn 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. (v 39)

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. 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. (vv 44–45)

And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” (v 65)

When viewed in isolation like this, the above passages seem pretty conclusive, don’t they? John must have meant for his readers to walk away with the same conclusion that John Calvin came to: anyone who comes to Christ did so entirely because of God’s initiative, not their own, and couldn’t have done otherwise. If God calls you, His grace is irresistible and you cannot not come to Him.

Surely the apostle John was a Calvinist…

… or was he?

You see, while John certainly emphasizes the powerful influence that God exerted on Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection, he also has a lot to say about the role that human free will plays in all that.

Now, to be fair, John expends no discernible energy in arguing for the existence of human free will. But, then again, why would he? The post-Newtonian determinism that almost always goes hand-in-hand with Calvinistic views on divine sovereignty was not part of the worldview of first century Palestinian Jews… or any ancient culture for that matter. Free will is simply assumed by John and the other biblical authors, and there is much in John’s writings that demonstrates this assumption.

For instance, John hangs quite a lot on whether or not people believe in Christ, always with the presupposition that people genuinely could go one way or the other:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16)

He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (v 18)

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life (v 36).

The either-or structure of John’s words here is hard to miss: either perish or have eternal life, either belief or judgment, either believe and see eternal life or don’t. Again, John isn’t trying to convince his audience of free will; rather, he wants them to make a wise decision using the free will he assumes they have.

In fact, if John’s audience did not truly possess the ability to choose God or reject Him, it’s difficult to make out exactly why the apostle took the time to write such exhortations.

So is John on the side of sovereignty or free will? The answer, it would seem, is both.

A Necessary (but Not Sufficient) Condition

Perhaps a helpful way of making sense of the both/and of divine sovereignty and free will in John’s Gospel is the philosophical idea of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Without getting into all the “if p, therefore q” lingo that philosophers often throw around, let’s just say this: a condition is necessary if you have to have it to get a certain result, and a condition or set of conditions are sufficient if they are enough to get that result.

So, for example, let’s say I wanted to make a gin and tonic (or G’n’T as the kids call it these days) to drink as I binge watched some Netflix. In order to have this drink, I would need to add some gin to my glass. I couldn’t substitute the gin for something else, say vodka, because then I would find myself drinking a vodka and tonic. In other words, gin is a necessary condition for a gin and tonic. However, gin by itself is not a sufficient condition for a gin and tonic, since if that’s all I had in my glass I would just be drinking straight gin and not a gin and tonic.

To put it simply, and at the risk of being vapid, in order to have a gin and tonic one would need both gin and tonic. Gin is a necessary condition, and gin and tonic water are together sufficient.

If we bring this understanding with us to the text of John 6, it becomes pretty clear that the grace of God is most certainly a necessary condition for salvation, but it is not in and of itself a sufficient condition. Yes, those who come to Christ must be given by the Father, but humans must also comply with the Father’s gift for it to be effective. It is true that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them, but it is also true that no one can come to Jesus unless they allow themselves to be drawn, they must listen and learn (6:45).

God must call a person for them to be saved, but they must also heed the call to be saved. It’s a both/and, not an either/or sort of thing. So perhaps we can say that God’s grace is indispensable, but certainly not irresistible.

That’s great!, you’re probably thinking. So all people have to do is answer God’s call and they will find Christ and salvation, since the first necessary condition is already met, right? I mean, God’s call to grace is something that has to happen first, but of course God’s call is extended to all people… right?

I mean, right?

Well… not in the Calvinist estimation. Which leads us to the third point in the Calvinist T.U.L.I.P. acronym: Limited Atonement, the belief that Christ’s atonement extends to, and is only effective for, those whom God has elected (i.e., not everyone). We’ll talk about that next.

| Scripture | 9 comments so far

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Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)

9 Comments

  1. Theophilus, April 5, 2017 at 1:29 pm:

    Rocky,

    I like that you’ve pointed us toward thinking about necessary and sufficient conditions here. I’ll actually be giving some pretty clear explanations of these on my blog in a couple of weeks. (I’m currently in the middle of a series on logic.)

    You give the gin and tonic example, and then criticize the Calvinist view for saying that grace alone is sufficient for salvation (or it seems that way). But based on your example, it seems like we should be saying that there is something in conjunction with God’s grace that provides two jointly sufficient conditions for salvation. And that’s their point, I think. That second condition is that God intends to regenerate somebody. And if he intends to regenerate somebody, he can’t fail.

    Your posts motivated me to finally get Against Calvinism (Roger E. Olsen) and For Calvinism (Michael Horton) on audiobook. I’ve finished Olsen’s volume, and I’m about a third of the way through Horton’s.

    Thanks for getting me thinking, my friend.

    • Rocky Munoz, April 5, 2017 at 2:20 pm:

      Anytime! And thank you for reading. :D

      Would you be interested in posting a link to your series on logic here in the comments? That way future readers who want to learn more about that can go there to do so. Thanks!

  2. Theophilus, April 5, 2017 at 6:14 pm:

    I will get to that exact discussion in about 3 weeks I think, but readers interested in what I’ve done so far can take a look at my Series Directory on the site: bit.ly/oe-index

  3. Micah, April 7, 2017 at 10:43 pm:

    Rocky, I’m interested by your comment about post-Newtonian determinism vs a first century assumption of free will. I’ve heard some people (Calvinists I believe) argue that the whole idea of free will is something that was basically unknown before the enlightenment and would have been foreign to a first century mindset. Do you have any info about that or know of any resources? To me it seems like free will is an intuitive assumption that is necessary for life to be coherent whatever century you live in, but I’d be interest to see some historical scholarship on it. Thanks! And keep up the good work!

    • Rocky Munoz, April 10, 2017 at 12:32 pm:

      This is a fantastic question, Micah! I had to do a little more digging to make sure my claim that post-Newtonian determinism was not part of any ancient worldview actually lined up with history, since (like you mentioned) free will seems like a properly basic assumption. From what I can tell, the idea that we have complete free will has not always been been a foregone conclusion in ancient thought. At least in western (re: Greek) thinking, there has been a tension going as far back as Socrates, and maybe even before. To be fair, the tension was not between free will and determinism as we know it today wherein all events (including their causes and effects) are merely part of the machine of physics and exhaustively determined. Rather, the question was mostly focused on the idea of fate. We have several myths and writings on whether or not humans (and at times even the gods) can escape their fates. This is less about determinism and more about destination; less about whether or not we have free will, and more about whether or not our free agency is enough to overturn the overwhelming direction of our lives.

      Of course, this is all Greek philosophy, which is only half (if that) of the first century church’s thought. From the little that I’ve read from Jewish philosophers, Judaism has never directly concerned itself with whether or not humans have genuine free will. Instead, the assumption from all of the exhortations (and prescribed consequences) in Jewish Scripture and supplemental literature is that humans do authentically possess the ability to make choices, whether for good or for evil.

      Anyhow, that’s what I’ve learned. Let me know if you come across any sources that seem to suggest otherwise. I’d be curious to consult those. :)

      • Micah, April 10, 2017 at 9:38 pm:

        Thanks Rocky! This is helpful, especially the distinction between absolute determinism and the idea of fate. It does appear to me that the idea of individual, personal liberty was not something that was self-consciously recognized in many ancient worldviews to the degree that it is now in our post-enlightenment Western world. At the same time, it seems to me that every human society has always relied on a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, such that bad actions could be punished or good actions could be rewarded, which depends on a “properly basic” assumption of personal agent-hood, or free will. My observation is that even the most rigid determinists now (whether of a theistic or atheistic version) still live every day as though they have real choices that really belong to them and have real significance in influencing the world. I don’t see how I person can live any other way.

  4. Cody, April 21, 2017 at 4:50 pm:

    Rocky, a few question and thoughts:

    You say “whereas the book of Acts  depicts the apostle Peter indicting the Jewish people for having killed Jesus (Acts 5:30; 10:39).” Isn’t it also true that Acts is pretty pointed about it being God’s plan as well, Acts 2:23: “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”

    In the necessary and sufficient conversation, I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. You are saying that while Jesus death was certainly necessary for us to be saved, it is not sufficient to save anyone in and of itself.

    To the conversation about free will being assumed, Greek philosophy on fate, etc. I am certainly no expert on the variety of ancient worldviews that were out there. However, isn’t it true that John’s gospel is particularly pointed toward the Greek mindset of the day (ex: the Word became flesh). A mindset that you say in the comments does not assume free will (though you said in the original content that you believed John was assuming it). You say it’s more likely that the Greek mindset was one of fate…an impersonal force. In light of that, wouldn’t it make more sense that John is seeking to show that it’s not fate which is in control but a loving and personal God who would send his Son to die to make eternal life possible? But, even if it is free will which was assumed in that culture, couldn’t you just as easily say that John was combating that thought rather than assuming it?

    Thanks!

    • Rocky Munoz, April 26, 2017 at 11:50 pm:

      Well observed, Cody! You’re correct that no book of the Bible, including Acts, falls entirely on one side or the other of the sovereignty/free will tension. My point was simply that John’s Gospel is noticeably further along that spectrum toward sovereignty than many (perhaps most) other books.

      You’ve summed up my claim correctly: Jesus’ atonement (not just his death) was necessary for us to be saved, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to save humanity. Now, I’m not beyond saying there might be exceptions. Perhaps people who lack the necessary faculties to choose Christ (e.g., infants, mentally disabled) get a free pass. Or, perhaps Jesus’ atoning work is sufficient, and Christian Universalism is true. I’d be okay with that. :)

      You raise such great questions on John’s relationship to Greek thought!!! On the one hand, yes indeed, John’s Gospel borrows heavily from certain hellenistic concepts, most notably his use of the eternal logos, which he identifies as the pre-existent Christ. Since John’s Gospel was written toward the end of the first century, his work makes occasion for the transition of the church from predominately Jewish at its inception to predominately Greco-Roman, particularly after Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome (c. 41 CE), the council of Jerusalem (50 CE), and the Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE).

      However, although he borrows from Greek thought (which classically had a high view of fate), John’s framework is still characteristically Jewish (which traditionally had a high view of human agency). Even in his use of the Greek term logos, John seems to have in mind something less akin to rationale in Greek philosophy, which was fundamentally cerebral, and more akin to the Hebrew concept of wisdom personified and deified, which is fundamentally volitional. Hence, the evident parallels between the logos through whom all things were created (Jn 1:3) and the word spoken by God to bring about creation in the Old Testament (Gen 1). To be sure, John is borrowing a close equivalent from Greek philosophy, but it would be a mistake to think he was adopting it wholesale along with the broader Hellenistic worldview (vis-à-vis fate and free will).


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