(John 6:41-42 ESV) 41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Indeed, it would be hard to accept that Jesus had come from heaven if you’d been with the family when they’d brought him home to Nazareth and seen him grow up.
(John 6:43-44 ESV) 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
“Grumble” is the same word used of the Israelites murmuring against Moses in the desert
— quite intentionally, I’m sure. They’re being accused of a very serious sin.
What does Jesus mean by the necessity of a convert being “drawn” by God? Is this the Calvinist Unconditional Election or prevenient grace? Is he saying that some can’t be saved even if they wish to be saved?
As is so often the case, Jesus is speaking the language of the Tanakh (Old Testament) —
(Jer 31:2-6 NIV) 2 This is what the LORD says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.” 3 The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. 4 I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. 5 Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. 6 There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.'”
Jesus alludes to Jeremiah 31, an important prophecy of the return from Exile. Later in the same chapter, Jeremiah promises a “new covenant” with God writing his laws on the hearts and minds of his people. It was a familiar passage to Jesus’ audience, and should be equally familiar to us.
In Jeremiah 31, God promises to draw his people back from Exile with incredible, unfailing love — just as he did at the time of the Exodus.
You see, these passages about God giving his people to Jesus and not driving them out aren’t about Calvinism. They’re about Jeremiah and God’s covenant faithfulness. Jesus is voicing God’s promise to honor his covenant with his people (Jesus’ audience), even if it’s only a remnant. But God will not drive them out (even though they deserve it). God will honor his promises by providing his people so much love and compassion that some — at least a remnant — will respond with faith, and God will keep his promises.
But there is no more a guaranty of perseverance here than there was during the Exodus or the return from Exile. God will be true to his promises. He desires that all make it to the Promised Land or return from Exile. He will draw Israel toward his promises with lovingkindness, and will never, ever reject Israel. But, sadly, many of Israel will reject God in rebellion.
Of course, you have to be drawn by God to believe, but Jesus’ point is that God is showing his compassionate, unfailing love to them right now. The food he gave them the day before is but a crumb from God’s table of gifts. If the food is real, then so is the resurrection. See and believe!!
(John 6:45-46 ESV) 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me — 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.
Jesus now quotes from Isaiah —
(Isa 54:11-14 ESV) 11 “O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. 12 I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones. 13 All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children. 14 In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you.”
This is another promise from God speaking of the end of the Exile and the beginning of the Kingdom. The greatest of the promises is that the Israelites’ children “shall be taught by the LORD” — will receive the Holy Spirit. God himself will instruct his people, just as he promised in —
(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 33 “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Jesus’ point is that you can’t belong to God and reject Jesus. God’s people are taught of God — have the Spirit — and so acknowledge and have faith in Jesus. You cannot be a follower of God and not be a follower of Jesus.
A note on Calvinism
I am not a Calvinist, but neither do I take offense at Calvinism. The Calvinists and I will one day spend time in heaven asking Paul many questions — and I’m sure the Calvinists are going to be SO embarrassed! But they’ll be in heaven. I entirely agree with Alexander Campbell that disputes over Calvinism are not salvation issues. In fact, some of the greatest Bible scholars to have walked the earth are Calvinists. Thomas Campbell most likely died a Calvinist.
Nonetheless, Calvinism errs by failing to give proper weight to the Old Testament and to the overarching theme of God’s redemptive story. You see, Calvinism says nothing about the Exile, the Kingdom, the fulfillment of the prophecies, God’s covenant with Abraham, etc.
Rather, Calvinism seeks to tack an entirely new theology on top of Old Testament theology. “Elect” no longer refers to the children of Israel and those grafted in by faith in Jesus. No, “elect” means chosen by God to be saved. The idea is no longer rooted in Abraham and Israel; it’s merely that God chose you, and the children of Abraham and nation of Israel disappear from the picture.
“Chosen” is given much the same treatment. No longer does it matter that God chose Abraham and that we are chosen because we are part of his family.
“Faith” is a gift imposed by God through the Spirit on the elect, and no longer a response to his mighty works, done through Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and the apostles. We do not respond in faith. Rather, we are irresistibly compelled to have faith.
Thus, we aren’t drawn to God by his great lovingkindness. We are irresistibly elected.
The stories about the Israelites falling away due to their lack of faith — stories that permeate John and Hebrews — have no real meaning for the Christian because we can’t fall away. Those warnings carry no dread for the Calvinist. Our redemption is nothing like the redemption of Israel.
Indeed, Jesus can assure the Galilean Jews that God will never drive them out of his hand, even though God very nearly cast out Israel during their wilderness journey. But this is not because of God’s great love; rather, to the Calvinist, it’s because they’re guaranteed to never rebel — so they’ll never even test God’s love as Israel did.
But Jesus’ point is that, just as the Jews were doing at that moment, if God’s Kingdom were to test his patience as the Israelites had done, so much so that God threatened to kill them all and make a new nation from Moses (as really happened) — God’s lovingkindness would be so great that he could not bring himself to cast them out.
It’s just different. Calvinism speaks to questions raised by Medieval Scholasticism and Augustinian speculation. It deals with genuinely hard questions and finds an answer that suits a Reformation era mindset. But it’s not Tanakh. It’s not covenant.
Indeed, the severe change in theology from Old Testament to New Testament occasioned by Calvinism is, I believe, one reason so many of us consider the Old Testament a dead letter and why we insist on being “New Testament Christians,” making clear our disdain for the Scriptures of Jesus and Paul.
Ah, but when we open our hearts and minds to the Torah and the Prophets, and if we were to read the New Testament with the Old Testament open alongside, assuming that Jesus is alluding to Moses and Jeremiah, not Calvin and Zwingli, new light will be shed on the text — and the text will become much richer and deeper.
Of course, none that makes me a Semi-Pelagian Campbellite either. I do not toe the works-based religion of the 20th Century Churches of Christ. Rather, I just want to be a student of God’s word — all of it.
And so I find more and more that I greatly prefer to discuss the meaning of Jeremiah 31 or Isaiah 66 or Deuteronomy 30 rather than rehashing the 16th Century debates of our antecedents. Those debates haven’t gone anywhere for 500 years. And they’re not the path forward today.