One of the standard proof texts for prevenient grace is —
(John 6:44 ESV) No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
I should explain prevenient grace. The idea is that several scriptures suggest that no one can come to saving faith without God’s involvement through the Spirit. This is sometimes referred to as “Total Depravity,” which is a very poor choice of words, as the idea isn’t that the lost are totally depraved (as the words are used in their usual non-theological sense) — only that they can’t come to saving faith without God’s softening their hearts through the direct operation of the Spirit.
The Churches of Christ have usually taught, going back at least to Alexander Campbell, that God does this work solely through the preaching of the word. That is, Campbell denied that the Spirit operated on a potential convert by any means other than the gospel. He denied, therefore, the “direct operation” of the Spirit on the heart of the lost person.
Some have expanded this to include denial of any direct operation on the heart of the saved person, but Campbell’s largest concern was to reject the Calvinist doctrines of Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace. To an orthodox Calvinist, when the word is preached, the Spirit only works on the hearts of the elect, so that the elect are irresistibly caused to have saving faith, whereas the unelect receive no such blessing and so reject the faith.
But Jacob Arminius — the theologian who founded the Protestant school of thought called Arminianism — accepted Total Depravity while rejecting the other three doctrines (as well as rejecting Perseverance of the Saints), teaching that the Spirit works on the hearts of all who hear the word but that not all choose to accept the word. Hence, he taught prevenient grace (the working of the Spirit to overcome Total Depravity) but rejected the idea that God elects some to damnation regardless of free will. I think that’s pretty close to right.
Consider, for example,
(Acts 16:14) One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
(John 6:63-65) “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
In verse 63, “Spirit” is the Holy Spirit — a major theme of John’s Gospel. If the Spirit works with the spoken words, then it makes perfect sense to say “the words I have spoken … are spirit and they are life.” If the Spirit only comes as a result of believing the words, Jesus’ statement is problematic. Moreover, in v. 65, Jesus seems to be speaking of more than the preaching as the Father’s enabling.
That’s only the briefest of introductions, so the readers can understand what the disagreements over John 6:44 are about. But it’s a mistake, I believe, to approach the passage asking about prevenient grace. After all, Jesus may have had something else in mind entirely. Rather, we need to start with the context, and that means most especially the story — because Jesus was talking to an Eastern audience in terms of story (a true story, of course).
(John 6:3-5) Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Feast was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”
Now, John mentions the Passover Feast for a reason. After all, the feast wasn’t underway yet. It’ll become evident as we go. For now, we just need to highlight the word as a marker that helps explain what’s to come.
We next have the familiar story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Following this, Jesus has the disciples take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. A storm comes up and the disciples are unable to row against the wind, but they are soon met by Jesus walking on the water.
In Capernaum, they were soon met by the crowd that Jesus had miraculously fed. They had hired boats to carry them to follow Jesus and demanded another miraculous sign. Evidently, one miraculous meal was not enough proof!
(John 6:30-31) So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”
It was the Passover season, and the crowd referred back to the Exodus. They had earlier asked whether Jesus is “the Prophet” whom the Law of Moses says will one day come, and so we now have references to manna, the Prophet, and the Passover — all references to the Exodus.
(John 6:32-33) Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Jesus now declares that he himself is the “bread of God.” God gives the bread, and Jesus is the bread. And so we need to ponder what this means.
During the Exodus, the Israelites were in the desert and had no food. Had God not sent the manna, they would have starved. Manna was not only food, it was the only food. (God later made other provision, but this is how it was at the beginning.) Manna was God’s miraculous provision to support the Israelites so they could make it to the Promised Land. (The Prophets routinely spoke of our eternal life in terms of a return to the Promised Land.)
Jesus is therefore saying that he is the only means of making it to the new Promised Land — resurrection in the new heavens and new earth. And he’s not saying that provides what we need. He says he is what we need. After all, God is the Provider. Jesus is the provision.
(John 6:35) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus declares that not only is he only provision, he is the sufficient provision. We nothing else. He adds “thirsty” at this point to emphasize that he is all we need to make to the resurrection.
(John 6:40) “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Now, “looks to the Son” is literally “sees the Son,” as the KJV translates. I think the thought is much the same as in —
(John 14:17b-19) The world cannot accept [the Spirit of truth], because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.
The sense is more of “perceive” and, in 6:40, recognize him for who he is. Obviously, the crowd saw him — but they didn’t see him. The lesson is: Recognize Jesus for who he is and believe, and Jesus will give you the resurrection. It’s all about faith.
(John 6:42-43) They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
43 “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered.
“Grumbling” is “murmuring” in the KJV and is a reference to the murmuring of the Israelites in the desert, when they repeatedly showed their lack of faith by complaining. Jesus is accusing the crowd of being as faithless as the Israelites in the desert — who never reached the Promised Land.
It’s interesting to consider the “murmur” passages —
(Exo 15:24) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
(Exo 16:12) “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.'”
(Exo 17:3) But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
(Num 14:2) All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert!
Notice that Jesus, anticipating their grumbling, had addressed each of the Israelites complaints! They complained about a lack of food, a lack of water, and their inability to enter the Promised Land — and Jesus had already addressed the crowed in these very terms, promising them everything their ancestors had complained about!
He was accusing them of being as faithless as their forefathers, with the same results. After all, God repeatedly did miracles to care for Israel and yet they complained. And Jesus had just fed 5,000 people, and they demanded a sign!