“They shall never perish”
“They shall never perish” is a Hebraic parallel with “I give them eternal life.” The English translations aren’t very true to the Greek. The Greek is literally —
And I give to them life eternal [aionion], and by no means they perish unto the age [aiona], and shall not [forcibly] seize anyone them out of the hand of me.
(Translation from Alfred Marshall’s Greek interlinear).
Notice that the “unto the age” (aiona) isn’t translated in most translations. Morris argues (and I agree, for whatever it’s worth) that just as aionion refers to eternal life (literally, life in the next age), the aiona (the next age) means they won’t die eternally. (Leon Morris, New International Commentary on John). And that’s very parallel: “I give them life in the next age, and they certainly won’t die in the next age” is a very precise translation, I think — remembering that “eternal” is only a rough translation of aionion, which literally speaks of the next age and doesn’t take “everlasting” as its primary meaning.
Jesus’ emphasis in this part of the verse, therefore, isn’t on perseverance but on salvation. Jesus is speaking of what will happen in the next age, not our preservation unto the next age. That is, this no more speaks of perseverance than the hundreds of other references in scripture to “eternal life.” For example,
(John 3:16) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This is very parallel, but few argue perseverance of the saints (POTS) from this passage. Obviously, to a Calvinist, that’s exactly what the passage promises. The point is that the reason John 10:28 figure so prominently as a POTS prooftext is the language “no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
To a non-Calvinist, of course, “have eternal life” or to be given eternal life means that Jesus gives life eternal to those he saves. It’s a gift they possess, and yet it’s a gift they can throw away.
The parallel that comes to mind is —
(Rom 8:38-39) For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It seems to be much the same thought — and taken out of context, argues for perseverance. But Paul also writes —
(Rom 11:20-22) Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.
(1 Cor 15:2) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
(Gal 6:9) Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
As I pointed out earlier in this series, it’s easy enough to imagine that God wants us to admonish one another to be faithful as part of his providential working to assure our perseverance. I just can’t imagine that God wants us or his apostles to deceive our listeners about their eternal fate or how protected they really are.
Protection against whom?
Both here and in John 10:28-29, the emphasis is on protection against others — God protects us from others. Nothing protects us from our own rebellion — and I’ve yet to see the verse that says we can reject Jesus as Lord and yet remain saved. Rather, as I argued in a post near the end of the series on Election,
Let me try out a hypothesis and test it as we work through the verses: Paul’s point is that God called and elected Israel, they became faithless so that only a remnant were faithful and so will be saved. However, for the true Israel (anyone with faith in Jesus), the calling and election is different. God’s plan does not require a falling away and bringing in the Gentiles to make the Jews jealous.
Both the original call and election and the new call and election are irrevocable — God will honor his promises to those who are faithful. And he’ll move in history in such a way that at least a remnant of Jews will believe in Jesus. But the new call and election are not part of a plan that requires a massive falling away to be successful. And, therefore, Paul exults that the falling away and making jealous part of God’s plan is over.
If the answer isn’t something like this, then how can Paul refer to the Jews as “called” and “elect” [given that nearly all rejected Jesus!] and yet exult in the justification and glory of the called and elect?
We don’t tend to think of the necessity of protection against third parties, as we see salvation as entirely personal — between us and God, who is both the One who saves and the one who damns. But the First Century sense of “salvation” was different. The Jews expected not only to be resurrected in the new heavens and new earth, but to find protection from their enemies.
Consider the prophecy of Zechariah —
(Luke 1:68-75) “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us — 72 to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
What would be the point of salvation without protection? Peter speaks in similar terms —
(1 Pet 1:3-5) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
Shielded from what? If our enemy is God’s wrath, what does God shield us against? Himself?
You see, the problem is that we Westerners don’t think in terms of demons and powers. Paul exulted in Rom 8 that God would keep us safe from angels and powers. We take that to be poetic license. I think Paul meant exactly what he said. I think Jesus meant the same.
F. F. Bruce explains in his commentary on Romans in the Tyndale series,
In any case, the principalities and powers are the forces of evil in the universe, the ‘spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places’ of Ephesians vi. 12 (RV).
C. K. Barrett argues in the Harper’s New Testament commentary,
In his final affirmation of God’s love, Paul turns to what his readers probably regarded as their chief and most dangerous enemies, the astrological powers by which (as many in the Hellinistic world believed) the destiny of mankind was controlled.
Take whatever view you wish regarding demonic powers that seek to push us into damnation, to a First Century Jew or Greek, protection from evil powers was a serious matter. And I think we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss their thinking as superstitious. (Think of C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.)
(John 8:44) You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Now, go back and re-read John 10:28-29 in light of what Paul and Peter actually wrote. Rather than reading with 16th Century Reformation concerns in mind, or even Restoration concerns, try to think like a First Century Jew or Hellenist. Who was Jesus promising protection from when he said that “no one can snatch them out of my hand”? Who is the snatcher? Satan? Demons? Fallen angels? Powers? Exactly.
In short, in context, the promise is for protection against wolves — third parties, especially demons — not against our own rebellion. Nor is it a guarantee that we’ll never rebel. After all, why would God warn us against an impossibility? It would be like warning your children against the bogeyman (or invisible snakes in their bedroom, for you Bill Cosby fans). God doesn’t lie to achieve his ends. But he does promise a salvation untouchable by the highest of the demonic forces — if only we’ll “continue in his kindness,” “hold firmly to the word,” and “do not give up.”
One last point: Some have asked whether Jesus really protects us from Satan. If we sin so as to fall away, isn’t it due to temptation by Satan?
But Jesus (and Peter and Paul) don’t promise the absence of temptation. Rather,
(1 Cor 10:13) No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
This is serious protection. And despite God’s protection, we’ll still sin. But if we rebel, it’s our own fault.