As a student of Greek for the first time back in August of 2006, I realized the first day of class that I had a lot of growing up to do! Greek was hard work. Though it was a good language and fun to learn, I had much to learn: word meanings, syntax, exegesis (did not know what “exegesis” was!), etc. I was a babe in all words Greek. Today, however, the days of Greek 1 are far behind me; I’ve learned much about Greek (and sound hermeneutics and exegesis) since then...but the fundamental lessons I’ve learned have stuck with me all through these last five years---and they’ve not steered me wrong yet.
In today’s post, I am tackling the Calvinist prooftext of John 6. No matter what you read in Calvinist literature, John 6 (like Romans 9) is another passage that the Calvinist has unfortunately taken out of context. And it all revolves around one word: the Greek word helkuo, which can mean either “draw” or “drag.”
Forlines summarizes the claim of Robert W. Yarbrough:
“According to Yarbrough, the word helkuo describes an irresistible drawing. He explains that the word appears only one place outside of John’s gospel, in Acts 16:19 (‘they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace,’ [NASB]. The Gospel of John uses helkuo, Yarbrough argues, ‘to speak of persons being drawn to Christ (12:32), a sword being drawn (18:10), and a net full of fish being hauled or dragged to shore (21:6, 11).’ Furthermore, Yarbrough argues, helko, a related word, ‘appears in Acts 21:30 (‘they dragged him from the temple’) and James 2:6 (‘Are thy not the ones who are dragging you into court?’). It is hard to avoid the impression that John 6:44 refers to a “forceful attraction” in bringing sinners to the Son’” (Robert W. Yarbrough, quoted by F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. Nashville: Randall House, 2011, page 159).
The word helkuo is found in John 6:44, so John 6 becomes the context of the word and the verse itself.
In the context of John 6, we find Jesus emphasizing again and again that He is the One the Father has sent, and that the Jews must believe in Him to have eternal life. In verse 27, Jesus tells the Jews that “God the Father has set His seal on Him” (NKJV), referring to Himself. The Father has given His “seal of approval” to Jesus, and we see this at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). They ask Jesus what they could do to do the right works and He responds, “Believe on Him whom He has sent” (Jn. 6:29). They listen to Jesus’ teaching that He is the Bread of Life, better than the bread the Jews ate in the wilderness (vv.32-35), but they still reject Him because He is “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (v. 42). Jesus then tells them that the only way one can come to receive Him is if “the Spirit draws him” (v. 44); He then proceeds to continue emphasizing that He is the Bread of Life (vv. 48-51). In verse 52, the Jews still do not understand Jesus’ teaching that He is the Bread of Life, and that He would give His flesh for the world (atonement via crucifixion). Next, He tells them that one must “eat His flesh and drink His blood” in order to have life (a reference to “partake” of His very life via faith).
In verse 60, they stop murmuring and ask, “Who can understand it [Jesus’ teaching]?” At this point, Jesus addresses the crowd: “there are some of you who do not believe” (v.64). This is the reason He emphasizes that “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted by My Father” (v.65).
Verse 44 (which is the Calvinist prooftext verse) and verse 65 confirm that it is the “Father” grants individuals to come to the Son. Robert Yarbrough above points to John 6:44 and argues that it affirms the Calvinist notion of irresistible grace. But this cannot be true for two reasons: first, if it is true, then it contradicts Acts 7:51, which argues that one can “resist the grace of God” (in Acts 7, it is the Jews who hear Stephen’s sermon that resist). If the Scriptures contain both resistible and irresistible grace (it’s exact opposite), then the Scriptures affirm a contradiction. And yet, the Word is not contradiction, but “truth” (John 17:17).
Since the Scriptures cannot contradict, there has to be some other meaning of the word “helkuo” that will not allow it to mean “irresistible drawing.” Not only must it refer to a “resistible drawing” or else the Scriptures contradict, but it must also affirm a “resistible drawing” because of the context.
With Jesus’ statements that one cannot come unless the Father draws him (v.44) and that one cannot come unless the Father grants it (v.65), Jesus is saying that one cannot, of his or her own intellect and ability, come to Christ without divine aid. In verse 36, Jesus indicts the Jews for not believing in Him: “you have seen Me and yet do not believe.” Does this imply irresistible grace? I think not. Clearly, the truth has been revealed to them and yet, they still seem to murmur against Jesus’ teaching and deem it hard to understand (Jn. 6:41-42, 52, 60). What this shows them is that they cannot believe without divine aid. One cannot understand the teachings of Jesus (or the Scriptures in their fullest sense) without the Holy Spirit.
But once again, this does not imply irresistible grace. If those who did not believe needed clarification, they could have asked the Lord to further explain Himself. Instead, John tells us that after Jesus’ spoke about Himself, “many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (v.66). And then, as if Jesus was eliminating the idea of irresistible grace, He asked His chosen disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” (v.67)
One could easily think that those who did not believe left and walked away because “they were never saved to begin with”; however, what does one do with Jesus’ own chosen disciples? The fact that Jesus asks them about departing from Him demonstrates that grace was not irresistible. Why would Jesus ask them a question of such a serious nature (regarding faith and salvation) if the goal was to ask them about something they could not do? If Calvinism is right, then Jesus’ question about departing from union with Him was rhetorical and not meant to give an answer...and yet, Simon Peter responds:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also, we have come to believe and know that you are Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69).
Why is it that Peter and the others refuse to depart from Jesus? Because they have found Him to be the Messiah, the One the Old Testament Scriptures foretold, the One whom all of Israel anticipated to come. They did not need to depart because they found what they were looking for in Jesus Christ Himself.
Yarbrough’s claim that helkuo refers to an irresistible drawing because all the other references to the word do in the New Testament may seem like a persuasive argument to some; but anyone who knows proper language syntax also knows that word meaning is dictated by context. The context of John 6 indicts the Jewish audience for not believing in Jesus, and argues that the misunderstanding of the Jews regarding Jesus’ teaching proves that one cannot come unless the Spirit draws him. This explains why many leave Jesus: they do so not because they were offended at His message of “irresistible grace”; instead, some of the other disciples leave Jesus because His answers do not appeal to them. They came to Jesus wanting to know “what works of God” they could do in order to be saved (Jn. 6:29); but instead of Jesus giving them a list of good deeds they could perform, He told them of faith. What could they do to be saved? Nothing but believe in the Son of God. They were turned off because Jesus’ message was not one of works-salvation, but faith-salvation. And the natural man cannot understand the things of God, unless the Spirit is with him (1 Cor. 2:10-12).
If helkuo does not refer to irresistible grace, then it must confirm the rest of Scripture on resistible grace (Acts 7:51). In addition, Calvinism as a soteriological system is damaged by John 6:44, and Reformed Arminianism (the soteriological system to which I ascribe) remains intact. Reformed Arminianism posits that no one can come to Jesus unless drawn to Christ by the Spirit. In addition, we would affirm that grace is resistible and that one can either accept or reject the gospel of Christ. At least on this one point (not to mention all the others), Reformed Arminianism has it right...