What about the Gospel of John and Calvinism?

Question: The Gospel of John seems to teach that people believe because God draws them, rather than that God draws people because they believe. If this is true, how can you deny the Calvinistic teaching that salvation is based on God’s choice, not ours?

Answer: As you note, many people find support for the view that God predestines who will and will not go to heaven in the Gospel of John. What most impresses these people is the way John seems to portray God’s calling as the efficient cause of faith, rather than the other way around. Thus, for example, John portrays Jesus as repeatedly teaching that “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (Jn 6:65), while “[a]ll that the Father gives [to Christ]…will come [to Christ]” (Jn 6:37). Those who are the Father’s gift to the Son are “of God”; they are Christ’s “sheep,” and therefore they hear Christ’s voice (John 10:3). Christ chooses them before they choose him (Jn 15:16–19). Others, however, cannot believe because they are not “of God”; they rather belong to the devil (Jn 8:42–47).

I agree that the Gospel of John emphasizes divine control. Clearly one of John’s central concerns is to highlight the dimension of divine control surrounding the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—including the development of faith in the hearts of those who followed him. The ability to believe and follow the Son is a gift bestowed by the sovereign God, not a work that anyone autonomously produces on their own.

However, along with the rest of the New Testament, John also emphasizes that God’s love is universal. It is God’s love for the entire world that leads him to send Jesus into the world and offer salvation to “whoever” would believe (Jn 3:16). John also clearly states that God’s will is to draw “all people” to Christ (John 12:32–33, cf. 1 John 2:2). Thus, if people refuse to accept this gracious invitation, this is not because the Father excluded them from his love ahead of time. As much as John emphasizes God’s control in the events surrounding the cross, and God’s influence in producing obedient faith in his “sheep,” John never portrays anyone as lacking the power to do other than they do—whether they choose to follow God or the devil! Those who believe are warned not to leave (or be stolen), and those who do not believe are repeatedly invited to do so (Jn 3:16, 18, 36; 7:38; 11:26; 10:9–10).

The question is, how do we reconcile this freedom to follow or not to follow Christ with John’s teaching that faith is a gift of God—viz. that only those whom the Father “draws” can come to Christ?

There are several ways to reconcile these motifs, all of which avoid the conclusion that God has decided from before creation which particular individuals will and will not be saved. These alternative readings, in other words, avoid making God appear arbitrary and duplicitous in saying he loves everyone and seemingly offers salvation to all, while enabling only a few to come to Christ when he could have just as easily enabled all. The Father’s “drawing” (which leads to salvation) and the devil’s stealing (which leads to damnation) are cosmic factors that work in conjunction with, but not in control of, the human volition. In other words, if a human heart is willing to submit, the Father will lead them to a saving faith relationship with Christ. If a human heart is unwilling, however, it is hardened to God’s leading and comes under the influence of Satan.

If a person comes to faith in Christ, therefore, they must credit God for graciously drawing them. But if they refuse to believe, they have only themselves to blame.

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