Irresistible Grace?

If you’re familiar with the dreaded Five Points of Calvinism, then you’ve heard of Irresistible Grace. It’s that point of doctrine that says that God sovereignly draws only those whom he has elected and that his drawing is—ultimately—irresistible. Not that grace is always irresistible, but that when God sovereignly chooses to, he can overcome all your resistance to him.

This isn’t an attempt to answer every question about Irresistible Grace, though. Not even close. So much ink has been spilled on this subject that it would easily take a book just to communicate everything that I’ve learned about Irresistible Grace, let alone all the smart people out there who’ve actually labored over it and written multiple books. And I haven’t even read their books (except 2 anti-Calvinism books), so they may have made much better arguments than I’m making. But as an exercise for myself and for whomever happens to be reading, I’d like to go through what the Bible says about Irresistible Grace in some detail in a single passage. And the pillar passage for this doctrine is John 6. I’d encourage you to go read or re-read it, because familiarity with it is key to following along.

To help things, I’ve included some of the files that I was working with when I went through the passage. I’m a Greekless graphic designer, so I don’t study with sweet Bible software like Logos. I use Photoshop. And I start highlighting and color-coding things…. making notes in different layer sets and all that. Having a text that has nice typography helps, too. So let that be a lesson to you: You don’t have to be a scholar. You just need to be able to read, to think, and use what you know. If you can learn Greek, do it. But you’d be surprised what you can discover without it. So here are the files:

John 6 color coded for textual patterns and parallels John 6 broken down into thought blocks. In John 6, what is the food that endures to eternal life? In John 6, who is given to Jesus? In John 6, who is the bread?

In John 6, Jesus has just fed the 5,000 and the 5,000 have tried to make him king by force, so he runs away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But the 5,000 are persistent and chase him down at Capernaum. They’re selfishly clinging on, trying to get Jesus to do a repeat miraculous feeding. Every day. For the rest of their lives. “Give us this bread always.” Jesus’ response is to launch into a teaching about who can and cannot follow him. He concludes with some of the most offensive language (to religious Jews) he ever uses, clearly trying to drive away those who are clinging on for more bread, but not the bread of life.

So far, so good. Calvinists and non-Calvinists would agree up to this point. But non-Calvinists have two different readings on how this chapter unfolds.

Non-Clavinist Reading: Take 1

The first reading attempts to make a division in the types of people Jesus is talking to. According to non-Calvinists, the division is between those who do not believe, those who do believe, and those who are really committed disciples. Verse 27 is where the division begins. These 5,000 “disciples” are wanting to follow Jesus for the wrong reasons. So he begins to weed them out by telling them that they need to labor to be true disciples (which is how non-Calvinists would interpret “food that endures to eternal life”—it’s the food (rewards) of true discipleship). Then, when Jesus identifies the work of a true disciple that they should be doing, he begins with belief. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Therefore, Jesus is telling them that the first work they need to do is to believe. Without that, he can’t go on to the other works that they should do. Then he spends most of the rest of the passage trying to (1) get them to believe and (2) understand that they can’t be one of his earthly disciples unless God has chosen them. To support that, throughout the passage references to “come to me” are taken to mean “come to be one of Jesus’ earthly, walking-around-Galilee disciples.” So “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” means that only those whom the Father draws will end up being Jesus’ earthly disciples. Interestingly, non-Calvinists who take this interpretation also insist that inclusion in this group of earthly disciples does not mean inclusion as a believer. Which is clearly reflective of Judas. He was chosen as a disciple, but he was not a believer.

There are a lot of problems with this interpretation. Let me begin with a simple observation: Why would John spend so much time belaboring a point that people years and years ago (for him, when he wrote the Gospel of John) couldn’t be Jesus’ immediate disciples unless they were drawn by God? Why, in a book trying to demonstrate that Jesus is God Almighty, would he spend one of the longest conversations in the book trying to show that “You know, 40 years ago, not just anyone was allowed to be Jesus’ disciple.” It’s rather silly.

But on to the text…

The first significant objection comes in verse 35, where Jesus seems to equate “comes to me” and “believes in me.” If that’s true, then we can read the “comes to me” verses like this: “All that the Father gives me will [believe in] me, and whoever [believes in] me I will never cast out.” And in verse 44 “No one can [believe in] me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” If these can be read as “believe in me,” then they’re both clearly about salvation. And therefore drawing is a special sovereign act (irresistible grace) that ensures believing and resurrection. The non-Calvinist interpretation must make a distinction between “comes to me” and “believes in me” because, “comes to me” is clearly linked with a sovereign act. The trouble is, that distinction is not textually warranted. On the contrary, there is much textual warrant for taking “comes to me” and “believes in me” to be the same thing:

  1. The context of verses 27-34 is belief. Belief is the work the Father wants. (Saying “belief is just the first thing the Father wants” is an argument from silence.) Jesus is saying, “You believed in the manna the Father sent? Believe in the True manna that he sends now. The True manna is a person that gives eternal life. I am the bread of life [I am that person—the True manna]; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. Belief is the labor. I am the one to labor for [believe in]. Believing in me, like believing in the manna, means you don’t hunger because you eat me.” (see the parallel to eating flesh and drinking blood later in the passage)
  2. Some non-Calvinists get hung up on the word “labor” when it’s used so closely to salvation. They argue that Jesus could not have been talking about laboring for eternal life because that would be works-based salvation. But compare this language to how Jesus talks to other people. In response to the rich young ruler’s desire to have eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give to the poor. When Zaccheus tells Jesus that he’s giving back the money he stole with interest, Jesus tells him that salvation has come to his house. Was Jesus confused about justification by faith? Or did he know what people’s hurdles were to believing? Wasn’t he trying to get them to empty their hands in order to receive himself? Zaccheus did it. The rich young ruler did not. Here in John 6, the crowd won’t let go of their desire for bread in order to receive the bread of life. Jesus, just as he does in other encounters, hones in on that as the way of salvation for them. Give up what you’re craving and have me. It’s the way he always argues. Don’t labor for bread that perishes. Labor for the bread that endures to eternal life. Not rewards, but Me.
  3. Jewish writing makes constant use of parallelisms. It’s not odd at all that Jesus would be stating the same thing in two different ways. In fact, a few verses later, he’ll make another parallelism but in terms of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Non-Calvinists have no objection to treating “eating” and “drinking” as the same activities in those verses. So why the distinction in verse 35?
  4. Throughout the passage, “believe on me,” “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” and “comes to me” all have the same result, that is, “eternal life,” “I will raise him up on the last day,” “live forever,” etc. There doesn’t seem to be any textual distinction made between them. (If you’re looking at the Color Parallels file, notice how blues and oranges are always followed by a green.)
  5. Theologically, “comes to me” is tied inexorably with eternal security and resurrection. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” “No one can come to me unless the Father… draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” Therefore, “comes to me” cannot mean merely being an earthly disciple since, according to these sentence structures, everyone who comes will be resurrected. And Judas will not be resurrected because although he was an earthly disciple he didn’t believe (cf. v.64).
  6. John’s writing style isn’t linear like Paul’s. He doesn’t move from one thought exactly through to the next. Rather, he moves in something like progressive circles where he makes a statement and then begins another statement with a similar structure but with one old piece of information [from his last statement] and one new piece of information. In doing this, it’s almost like he’s trying out different ways of looking at the same thing, all while progressing a basic argument. (e.g., I John 1:5-2:6)

    John’s circle progression in verses 35-40 should be very clear. Verse 35 is like a theme announcing eternal life for those who come to him and believe. And then John/Jesus goes through circles to show how he came up with verse 35. He says “You don’t believe. But all that the Father gives will come and I will never cast them out. Because (v.38) that’s my Father’s will.” Then he circles back. “And that will of my Father? It’s for me to lose no one he gives to me, but rather to give them eternal life.” Then he circles back again. “The will of my Father is that the person who looks on the Son and believes in him is the one to whom I give eternal life.”

    So what’s the effect of the progression? Jesus has proved verse 35: that you are to come to the bread and believe in it for eternal life. And in the circles he has fleshed out all kinds of information about the process: that the process is begun by the Father’s giving, and giving ensures coming, and Jesus keeps the one who comes, and he finishes the process by raising from the dead the one who came. And coming to Jesus is looking on the Son and believing.

  7. The internal hermeneutic of verses 64-65 destroys the idea that “comes to me” can mean anything but belief. Jesus tells his disciples that the reason he told them that “no one can come to me unless the Father draws him” is because of Judas’ and the crowd’s unbelief. It’s non-sensical to say “no one can be my earthly disciple unless the Father draws him and that explains why Judas doesn’t believe.” It doesn’t explain anything. But “no one can believe in me unless the Father draws him” does explain a Judas. It does explain a man who can live, sleep, and eat with Christ, seeing all his miracles and hearing all his preaching for three years, giving up houses and friends and lands and comfort just to be a disciple. And yet he still does not believe in Christ. Not only does “unless it is granted to him by the Father” explain Judas’ unbelief, I think it’s the only thing that could.
Non-Calvinist Reading: Take 2

There’s one remaining objection from the non-Calvinist camp. It’s basically from those who agree that “comes to me” means belief, but believe that, according to John 12:32, “draws” is a more general call: No one can come unless the Father draws, and the Father draws everyone. A couple objections to this idea:

  1. This argument falls by the same internal hermeneutic of John 6:64-65. Once again, if God draws everyone, then saying that “the reason Judas doesn’t believe is because everyone can believe” is non-sensical. The only option that has explanatory power is that no one can come unless the Father draws. And Judas has not come because he has not been drawn. Therefore not everyone comes because not everyone is drawn.
  2. Like links in a chain, “draws” is inexorably linked to being given eternal life. “No one can come to me unless the Father… draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” So “draws” cannot mean a general call to salvation. It has to mean a specific call that absolutely results in a person’s salvation.
  3. A couple hermeneutical principles come into play here. Firstly, “immediate context takes precedence over more remote contexts.” So whatever John 12 means, it’s 6 chapters later and Jesus may be speaking about something different. Secondly, “never use unclear Scripture to interpret clear Scripture. Always use the clear to interpret the unclear.” Whatever John 12:32 means, it’s an isolated verse dealing with this topic. John 6 contains over 30 verses dealing with the topic. So John 6 is almost assuredly the clearer passage than John 12 for this immediate discussion.
  4. John 12:32 is seated within a context: the Jews are all going after Christ because he raised Lazarus from the dead (v.10). The Pharisees even say, prophetically, that “the whole world is going after” Jesus (v.19). In the very next verse, even Greeks approach Jesus’ disciples and want to meet Jesus. Philip has no idea what to make of it, so he tells Andrew. Andrew has no idea, so he and Philip go tell Jesus. Jesus then begins his answer to Philip and Andrew which continues and broadens all the way through verse 36. He basically tells them that his hour has come. That’s why they’re even beginning to see Greeks coming to find out about Jesus. And he gives them a heads up: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself.” In the context of Jesus answering Philip and Andrew about why Gentiles were seeking him, it seems clear that “all” means “all peoples.” He’s saying that salvation is about to be blown wide open to all nations. God’s covenant is about to broaden to all people groups.

    The trouble is, of course, that “all” has no referent in the Greek. It just says “all.” Not “all peoples” or “all individuals.” So there’s no immediate way, textually, to solve who he’s talking about in that verse. So the warrant has to come from the surrounding context. And the context indicates that Jesus is explaining why so many Jews and now Greeks—”the whole world”!—are coming to him. Especially after the clarity of John 6, that’s the only explanation that fits here.

  5. The term “draw” doesn’t mean “coax.” We tend to think of “draw” as a soft word where one thing is coaxing, encouraging, or suggesting that another thing come along. But the way it’s used in Greek is exactly the way we use it in English. Draw water. Draw a sword. Draw a blanket over you. In every case, it’s a superior force acting on a force that has no sufficient power to resist. The water might be heavy, but it is pulled out of the well nonetheless. The blanket may have friction, but there’s no question it will be dragged into place. That’s why some commentators suggest that the word “draw” be rendered more correctly as “dragged”. “Draw,” to our modern ears, doesn’t connote the effectiveness of the one who draws. So be sure you’re reading the word “drawn” with the proper sense: the thing drawn is grabbed and pulled and does not retain the sufficient ability to resist. So No man can come to me unless the Father [drags] him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
“I don’t like this. And I’m tired of reading this anyway.”

So what’s the point? What does all of this mean and why does it matter? Well, if you believe that you are ultimately self-determining in your salvation… that God issues a general call to salvation to everyone and then it’s up to you to choose… and that your choosing for Christ and your neighbor’s unbelief boils down to a difference between some obedience or faith or SOMEthing that originates in you that’s different from him (God looked into the future and saw that you would believe, etc.)… then this passage isn’t going to fit with what you believe. Because this passage is clearly stating that you cannot come to God unless you are drawn. And that drawing work isn’t granted to everyone.

“But that’s not fair!” you might be thinking. “How can God dangle salvation in front of people and then not let them have it?”

Firstly, God’s not dangling anything. “Dangling” implies that God is holding something out to the unsaved that they actually want. But the Scripture makes it plain that no one seeks after God. So God’s holding something out, yes. But no one wants it.

Secondly, be careful that you’re not just giving lip service to the fact that God owes no one anything but hell. I cannot stress this point enough. God would be absolutely just to send everyone to hell with no chance of repentance and no “life and breath and everything else”. And no one could cry That’s not fair! So until you can get to the point where your mouth is stopped and you realize all the world’s guilt before God… until you raise no objection to the thought of God casting everyone in to hell, then I’m not sure you’re ready for the good news of His grace in saving particular people. Because if the grace of salvation to anyone is owed, then it’s not grace. God owes us hell. Anything above that is, in some sense, injustice. An injustice for which God had to vindicate himself (“because he had passed over former sins”) by sending his Son to die. God had to justify himself for not killing all mankind immediately, let alone giving them life and breath and any chance for repentance.

So when God holds out salvation to a world of people hell-bent on not accepting his offer, who are we to cry Foul if he reaches out and draws people back from the brink of hell and compels them (however) to accept his offer? Is that unfair? Yes, it is. But the only sense in which it’s unfair is that everyone should be let go to fall into hell. That’s what everyone deserves. Trust me. You don’t want fair. Grace is better. Fair means God lets everyone run all the way right into hell without his gracious interruption. Don’t let your eye be evil because God is good.

This doctrine of Irresistible Grace (which is just theological shorthand for what we’ve seen in John 6 about God’s drawing) can be something that you choke on because this vision of God is foreign to you. It’s not the God you grew up with. It’s a tough swallow because it doesn’t seem loving.

But this doctrine can also be a source of immense joy and stability. Because, when Israel accuses God of not loving them (Malachi 1:2-3), God’s answer to them is: How can you possibly doubt my love? Esau had equal claim on my love and I rejected him and chose you. How can you possibly doubt? There is a sense in which love is defined not just by what we might do for the beloved, but by what we will not do for those who are not beloved. Love is, at least partially, defined by its exclusivity.

It’s like we have two eyes. One sees how God loves through what he has done for us. The other sees God’s love through what God is unwilling to do for those he has not chosen. And if we delight in seeing with the eye of what God does for us, but we reject seeing with the eye of what God will not do—even trying to gouge out that eye in others—then we miss at least half of God’s communicated love for us. That’s what Malachi 1:2-3 is saying. In a sense, since God’s rejection of Esau is his defense of his love for Jacob (see the verses that follow in Malachi where God elaborates on his destruction of Esau), there is a sense in which we understand God’s love best in the light of his rejection of others.

Please remember: God does not send anyone to hell who does not belong there. No one can accuse God of injustice or unfairness. The thing to be astounded by is not that God would reject Esau, but that God would choose Jacob. Both should have been rejected. “It’s of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.” Irresistible Grace is a doctrine about God being merciful to all—eternally merciful to some—while all deserve eternal damnation.

2 Thoughts.

  1. Jeff, this is quite a treasure chest of irresistible Christian stuff you’ve collected and so well presented. This is exactly what I’ve been hoping to find to re-engage my heart and mind with my disengaged soul. Well done mate and keep up the pioneering work so that ignorance is no longer bliss!

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