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.
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.
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.