Freely Drawn by the Father: Human Faith and the Power of God in John 6

For many, there are specific texts in scripture that are gateway drugs to specific doctrines. For me, Romans 16 and Judges 4 were both a gateway to adopting an egalitarian reading of scripture. For others who are interested in the Reformed/Calvinist and Arminian/Wesleyan debate (a debate between brothers and sisters of good will), John 6, Hebrews 6, 2 Peter 3, and Romans 9 are often considered the central prooftexts in this debate, although there are many other considerations. For some of my Reformed brothers and sisters, however, John 6:44 is considered the mainstay text. Jonathan Dorst at The Chorus in the Chaos blog on Patheos writes[1]

As I began to study Calvinism, this was the thread that wove throughout: that salvation is a work of God from first to last. I saw that, though we are responsible for our actions and sin, and though the outward call is universal (“whoever comes to me I will never cast out”), God is the prime mover in saving His people. God is not up in heaven wringing His hands over who will choose Him, and He is not casting a vote that gets equal influence with the devil’s vote hoping to win our patronage- God is actively drawing people to Himself. Here in John 6:44 was a hint of the effect of total depravity, the implication of unconditional election, the inescapable conclusion of limited atonement, the stark reality of irresistible grace, and a building block for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (which, of course, is about God persevering to perfect His people and to raise them up on the last day, not us working to stay in God’s good graces)…. We all believe the Bible, but we interpret it differently, and we need the help of godly men and women who have gone before us to understand the Bible. And while John Calvin and his disciples were gifted, but flawed, theologians, and Calvinism is just a tradition and is not perfect, it is the tradition that I believe represents Scripture most accurately. And John 6:44 was my gateway drug to becoming a Calvinist.

Personally, I find this sort of theological method and journey fascinating. In many respects, when a person reads a particular text or book is almost more important then what they read. This is not to make light of Dorst's comments or look down upon people who have aligned themselves to a specific theological group with a clear conscience. Rather, the time of much of our reading and research is almost as important as what we are researching. Just a thought on that. I also cite Dorst not to refute him (although I do not think John 6:44 is helpful to Calvinism in context at all), but to simply illustrate the interpretive power at work for many people within a specific Christian tradition: who we read—whether Calvin or Wesley or Beza or Spurgeon or Arminius or Oden—often determines which specific texts gain our hermeneutical imagination. The seeds of a specific worldview are often planted before we ever turn to Holy Scripture.

Audience in John 6

John uses two specific terms for the audience surrounding Jesus. He first uses the phrase "a great crowd" (πολὺς ὄχλος) throughout the beginning pericopes. In John 6:2 and 6:5, throughout the feeding of the five thousand, the "great crowd" does not leave Jesus but "follows him" (ἠκολούθει: imperfect verb). The pericopes in John 6 may be divided into the "feeding of the give thousand" discourse (vv.1-15), the "walking on water" discourse (vv.16-25) and the "bread of life" discourse that occurs for the rest of the chapter (vv.26-71). John seems to single out what could be called Jewish opposition (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) in 6:4 and 6:41 as well, which suggests that Jesus' comments in the Gospel of John are concerned with his Jewish interlocutors.

The Heavenly Son, Grumbling, and John 6:41-43

The imperfect verb ἐγόγγυζον ("grumbling": v.41, 61; see also ἐμάχοντο in v.52) is our first indication of the mood of Jesus' interlocutors (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι). These Jewish leaders, hardly representative of all Jewish people in the crowds, are concerned with Jesus' claims to "descend from heaven" (ὁ καταβὰς ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), implying preexistence in some form. The context, therefore, does not appear to be about Calvinism or Arminianism, but on the origin of the Son (c.f. 1:1-18). A heavenly figure descending from heaven is not a foreign concept necessarily in Judaism (Dan 4:13, 23 LXX), but given the apocalyptic imagery of Daniel, one cannot necessarily fault the Jewish leaders for not seeing the obvious.

God's Sovereignty and Human Faith in John 6:44-51

How a non-Calvinist will understand vv.44-51 (and vv.61-66 by implication) can be largely reduced to how we exegete certain words. Those words include the negated participle δύναται ("able"), the verb πιστεύω ("to believe, have faith") throughout John 6, and the aorist ἑλκύσῃ ("draw"). I will address these in order.

On the first verbal phrase οὐδεὶς δύναται, we must be clear about what the phrase does not say. The phrase does not specify exactly for what reason one is "not able" to come to the Son. Dorst (and many of my Reformed brothers and sisters) have to supply a reason for this inability (i.e. total depravity, which I affirm but do not see as the reason) but the text itself seems to provide a specific reason. Specifically, v.45 uses the adjectival phrase διδακτοὶ θεοῦ ("learners of God," or "God's learners" depending on how one interprets the genitive θεοῦ) to speak about those who "hear/ understand" (ἀκούσας), which is based upon the knowledge received from God. As a consequence of this learning and understanding, a person can then come to the Son. But, as with much of the New Testament and Jewish thought, the concept of learning requires participation in what one has learned. I have written on this elsewhere.[2] That is, having learned and understood, one is then required to "come" (ἔρχεται: middle voice, suggesting personal agency) to the Son as a consequence of adopting and participating. One is unable to come to God without learning about what God requires. The universal witness of God is for all people (πάντες) and is predicated upon active participation in God's call. The cognitive element of this learning and understanding cannot be stressed enough.

Thus, a person's inability to come to God may be conditioned on total depravity, but God's universal prevenient grace draws us to him regardless.

This flows nicely into John's use of the verb πιστεύω (6:29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64 [2x], 69). The verb refers to "believe something to be true and, hence, worthy of being trusted - 'to believe, to think to be true, to regard as trustworthy (Louw-Nida). Faithfulness is a precondition that demands a person's awareness of the Son and the Father, and an active sense of participation in the mission of the Spirit. As Jesus says in 6:47, "Amen, amen, I say to you, the one who believes (i.e. exercises faithfulness) has eternal life" (ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ πιστεύων ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον). John Wesley in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, says this concerning John 6:44:

No [person] can believe in Christ, unless God gives him power; he draws us first, by good desires. Not by compulsion, not by laying the will under any necessity; but by the strong and sweet, yet still resistible, motions of his heavenly grace.

The final consideration concerns the verb ἑλκύω. In the New Testament, this verb does not appear to be used primarily in a soteriological or eschatological context (John 18:10; 21:6, 11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; James 2:6), save for John 12:32. If John 12:32 is interpreted in the way of "to drag" or "compel," then one ends up with universalism in some form. While some may insist on distinctions in how they understand "all" in that verse, I do not find such arguments compelling—but that is another debate for another time. Suffice to say, the power of the Son to resurrection (ἀναστήσω: 6:44b) is predicated upon the exercise of human faithfulness: resurrection to eternal life (as opposed to destruction per 3:16) is conditioned on human participation in the life of the Spirit. Marianne Meye Thompson argues that the verb ἑλκύω most likely means, "to attract." She writes

In John the emphasis on God's love for the world argues strongly for [the aforementioned meaning of "to attract"]. According to Jer 31:3 (38:3 LXX), because God loves Israel with an eternal love, God has drawn them…with compassion; later Jeremiah promises that God himself will write the law on the hearts of his people so that they no longer need teachers…that prophetic vision comes to fruition in God's drawing people to Jesus.[3]

In summation, I respect the different positions many take in interpreting John 6:44. Personally, I believe the reasons I have provided above offer non-Calvinists a more consistent way to understand this wonderful text:

God's glory is manifested in the eternal Son, and all are called to learn and faithfully participate in the mission of God for the reconciliation of the world.

To God be the glory.

NQ

[1] Jonathan Dorst, "John 6:44—The Verse that Made me a Calvinist," http://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/john-644-the-verse-that-made-me-a-calvinist/.

[2] See here: http://www.splitframeofreference.com/blog-1/2017/12/15/learning-in-the-pastoral-epistles-deception-verbs-and-wives-in-1-timothy-2

[3] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Known, 2015), 152-153.

My Top Theology Podcasts of 2017

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In my final third year of my masters degree at Fuller, I discovered many new podcasts during my one hour commute to work (usually starting at 330am). When you have around 3 or more hours of time by yourself in the car and you don't want to get caught talking on the phone (I never did this), then you have to find something to do.

For me, that something to do was centered on finding good theological content to enjoy. Thankfully, in addition to finding out about some epic listening material, I got to meet some new people and have become friends with many of them.

Real quick, Overcast is the best podcast app. Just fyi.

These are in no specific order, except the first one.

Split Frame of Reference Podcast

This one naturally had to be here. If you aren't listening to Allison's and my podcast, you really should be. We're looking to wrap up our section on gender probably in 2018 sometime, as we still have to explore various Old Testament texts and themes, and then it is onto different trains of thought.

OnScript Podcast

Having grabbed a copy of Matt Bates book on "faith" in the New Testament, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he also had a podcast. Now that OnScript has added Dr. Erin Heim of Denver Seminary, I am anticipating an epic added dimension to an already killer podcast. If you like theology books on serious theological topics (ranging from adoptionism with Michael Bird to violence in the Old Testament with Greg Boyd), OnScript is seriously among the best.

The Libertarian Christian Podcast

If you are politically inclined (if so, my apologies—it is a curse I tell you) and if you are serious about your faith, then this podcast will challenge you to think deeply about the "statist quo." With topics ranging from non-violence to "just war" theory to Romans 13 and the State, you cannot get any better than this informed and delightful podcast.

Full disclosure, as someone who is largely aligned with the political philosophy of this podcast, I can tell you the material is top notch.

Doctrine and Devotion

One of several reformed podcasts that (usually) warm my heart whenever they appear in my feed—Jimmy and Joe are a delight to listen to (don't stop, guys -- #banterforever). While I am not reformed (and most likely not to become reformed), Jimmy and Joe's constant theological reflections are helpful, insightful and wise.

#JoFo4ever

Greg Boyd: Apologies & Explanations

I've never understood the controversy around Greg Boyd—the dude asks hard questions and eschews easy answers. Sure, Open Theism might rub some people the wrong way but even then, one is at a severe loss by ignoring Boyd's insights and wisdom. Packed into small bite-sized chunks, Greg answers questions ranging from Old Testament violence to whether or not God makes people delusional. His answers are always perceptive, even when I find myself reaching closer to my bag of classical Wesleyan answers.

Soteriology 101

Let me be clear: Leighton and I do not entirely agree. There. I said it. This places Leighton with the rest of the known universe of people who disagree with me. That said, I find Leighton's humble candor refreshing, and I suspect his winsome attitude toward his interlocutors will contribute to a more irenic debate concerning soteriology. 

Bible Brodown

I think I learned about Matt and Billy's podcast after listening to the White/ Flowers debate (#teamflowers), and since then it has been refreshing to listen to their work on various soteriological topics. Plus, they are really nice dudes and even if you end up disagreeing, why not disagree with agreeable folk?

Trinity Radio

As many of you know, I am not big on apologetics, especially debates that are apologetically themed. However, after listening to Braxton and Johnathan do their thing, I've become far more appreciative of the entire enterprise of apologetics. Johnathan has begun his own series on 1 Peter on youtube and it is a treat for those of you who care about Peter (or whoever wrote 1 Peter). After all, Saint Peter is pretty cool for being a guy who wouldn't eat with gentiles.

#PritchettPrime

PazNaz Weekly Sermons

I've loved Pastor Tara Beth's sermons for a while, but it is only recently that I began to go back and listen to the entire catalogue. Pastor Tara Beth's winsome and passionate preaching has ministered to me for my final 9 months in seminary as she worked through the Epistle to the Romans, and I commend her preaching and her sermons to you.

Remonstrance

My heart goes from dark and cold to mildly bright and warm whenever I see a new episode of this podcast in my feed. These guys go deep, talking about John Wesley and Jacob Arminius, giving new insights and clarifications for Wesleyan theology. Never dry or boring, these guys are insightful and scholarly in their pursuit of making Wesleyan theology clear and accessible to those who are interested. Highly recommended. 

The Teaching Pastor

As with all of these, I am biased when I place this podcast here. However. Dr. Craig Hill taught me Greek during my first two quarters at Fuller Theological Seminary and so hearing his voice is a welcome callback to that epic first 6 months. The podcast centers on Craig interviewing teaching pastors throughout the southern Cali area, and he goes through the process of researching and applying critical tools for sermon prep. As someone attempting to be more engaged in pastor/teaching ministry, this podcast is incredibly helpful, especially given the diverse cast.

The Productive Pastor

When one of my favorite podcasts (The Threshing Floor) went under, my warmed Wesleyan/Baptist (Waptist?) heart had no place to go. Thankfully, one of the dudes started his own podcast about the various issues centered on being a pastor: time management, social media, notes, and the epic struggle of being a pastor in a "hectic world." I love listening to Pastor Chad and I commend this podcast to you. 

So that is it! All of the major theology podcasts I enjoyed during 2017. What about yourself? Cheers to 2018!

Now where did I stick that mic?

NQ

Christology and the Gift of Prevenient Grace: A Look at Titus 2:11

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In thinking through much of John Wesley's teachings and writings, I am often struck by the idea of prevenient grace. Most of my Reformed brothers and sisters find the entire concept to be compelling, but for other reasons offer objections to the doctrine—I find these to be unsatisfying but will leave them aside for the moment only to note anecdotally that there is some significant correspondence between common grace and prevenient grace.

A text that I have been meditating over is Titus 2:11. The Greek text reads as follows:

Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις

I have translated it as follows:

"For the Gift of God has apocalyptically revealed [i.e. displayed] the [i.e., his] liberation to all people."

The Greek verb Ἐπεφάνη is regularly used in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament; that is, the Greek translation of the Hebrew, which would have been Paul's primary Bible) to refer to God's revelation of himself to various people (Jacob: Gen 35:7), to Moses and the totality of Israel (Num 6:25), and to show kindness and mercy to the various Psalmists (Ps 31:16, 67:1, 80:3 and others). More citations could be offered, but the point is relatively clear: this verb refers to an apocalyptic unveiling of God's presence and purpose for humanity. God has also revealed himself to people in wrath as well (Rom 1:19): the interplay between "apocalyptic" language and "revelation" language in Rom 1:18-20 strongly suggests that God has been revealed to all people, even the unrighteous in Romans 1 and to the present righteous in Titus 2. There appears, therefore, to be no distinction in God's revelation to all people, as the categories of righteous/unrighteous are Paul's major binary thinking, especially as it relates to his eschatology (c.f. 2 Cor 2:15; 4:3, 9).

What is more controversial or disputed perhaps is the articular use of χάρις ("gift, grace"). Personally, I suspect this may be a reference to Christ, as the capstone of Paul's argument in 2:11-13 is that Christ is both God and Savior, so v.10's reference to "gift" could refer to Christ (c.f. Titus 1:4), who is perhaps described as a gift elsewhere in Paul (c.f. Eph 3:8 and 4:7; Rom 3:24; 2 Cor 8:9; plus the ending benedictions of most of Paul's epistles include χάρις and Christ). This is not a major point, but it might be a substantial one if I am correct. Or, perhaps as likely, the use of σωτήριος is itself the gift to all people. It may even be both.

In any sense, this "liberation" (see λυτρώσηται in v.14 as well) has been apocalyptically revealed "to all people" (taking the dative in its most normative sense). The use of ἀνθρώποις is generic, referring to the mass of humanity, and is thus not necessarily restricted to a specific group. This is consistent with Wesleyan theology, which specifies the need for all people to repent and join the family of God.

Some disagree. Thomas Schreiner ("Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace?" in Still Sovereign) is perhaps representative when he writes:

Titus 2:11 says that God's grace has been manifested through Christ's work on the cross, but it does not say that God has thereby supplied the ability to believe to all people. Wesleyans conclude from the atonement effected by Christ that enough grace has been imparted to all people so that they can now choose whether or not to believe. But it is precisely this point that is not taught explicitly in the verse. It does not necessarily follow that since grace was manifested in the death of Christ that all people as a result have the ability to believe in him.

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Schreiner seems to miss the point on multiple counts. First, the verse is not exclusively about the atonement, but about the revelation of God in Christ (vv.11-14). Liberation and atonement surely correspond but we must be careful to not reduce this verse to atonement theology. Second, a mistaken matter of logic seems to be at work in Schreiner's brief commentary on this verse: if one assumes that a verse is limited entirely and exclusively to the text, and does not address any other issues within the text, then the text itself cannot be said to speak "explicitly." One is then forced to ask, "How explicit must the text be for you?" Evangelical theology is predicated upon asking the proper questions of the text of Sacred Scripture, and not excluding questions that arise from a natural reading of the text. Theological interpretation is key here.

Third, and perhaps most problematic, is the assumption of "ability" on the part of Schreiner. Many Reformed theologians seem to assume that "ability" is in view here, but that places the exegesis of the text backward: what is the purpose of revelation (especially an apocalyptic revelation) if not to reveal the eternal Son of God as an impetus for belief and confession and submission? Take for instance the Christ-Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, which assumes that people's bowing the knee to Christ's exaltation is predicated on his resurrection! The imperatival nature of New Testament ethics does not necessitate that all human beings are able to respond to the apocalyptic revelation of God in Christ, but the inability does not suggest the opposite: that we are prohibited from recognizing our own need for liberation in Christ. A slave may recognize that he or she is a slave and believe in Christ, but that does not automatically free them from bondage: such is the need for Christ's reconciliation and salvation for all people. Of course, one might ask what the purpose of revealing what God desires ("perfection," see Matthew 5) if it is merely an ideal that does not demand pursuit: simply put, I do not think God gives laws and commands simply to show that people are sinful, but they are given because people are sinful and need a Savior.

Therefore, God has revealed his liberation to all people, unveiling the mystery of his plan for liberating all people (1 Tim 3:16). All people are witness to this resurrection power, and all are called to repentance, awaiting the "blessed hope and the grandeur of the glory of our great God and Liberator Jesus Christ" (v.13). Even the wicked acknowledge God (Titus 1:16) but in action/works, they deny him (ἀρνοῦνται). This assumes that participation in Christ is no mere mental acquiescence, but fully engaging and participating in the life of God's calling.

Does Titus 2:11 teach prevenient grace? It seems most likely, given Paul's theology and the immediate context that the Wesleyan reading is the best interpretive option, and the objections do not stand. So, yes: this text is a sufficient prooftext in support of the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. Thus, the revelation of God in Christ illustrates that all people are, by consequence, to not only submit to God in the totality of their being, but to live lives of "good works" as opposed to people who chose to participate in evil, suffering, and self (1:15-16).

NQ

Humbleness is next to Christlikeness

In thinking about ministry (not that I want to be a pastor, but I'm keeping my options open), I've had a chance to listen to a lot of podcasts and sermons, most of which I enjoy. I was there for the 'fall' of Mark Driscoll, for example. I've seen pastors fall from grace constantly, and most of these 'falls' seem to reflect a growing unease with power. As someone who was raised in the church, fell away for a few years, and then came back a time later, it is quite clear to me that humbleness is not a virtue many take seriously. I hate typing that, and I doubt it applies to you, but it is enough of a problem to warrant a short post.

My father, for instance, is quite humble. He worked in ministry and ended up being burned quite badly, and in hindsight, humbleness was not a virtue that was exercised by those who fired him. More could be said, but being an insider lets one see all of the foibles and warts and narcissistic elements of humanity featured inside church walls. A worship pastor wants to be a lead pastor, a youth group director wants to leave because he or she thinks they know better, and so on an so forth. We've all seen this, and if you haven't count yourself blessed.

So, when I was thinking about pastoral ministry and how the local church functions in a community, I came across a text in James—leave it to James to drop a truth bomb on my lap. James 4:10 reads: ταπεινώθητε ἐνώπιον κυρίου, καὶ ὑψώσει ὑμᾶς: "humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exact you." In the Synoptic Gospels, the verb appears often with the pronoun ἑαυτὸν ("himself," "herself," etc). In Matthew 18:4, Jesus tells his listeners to "humble themselves" (ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν) as this child. A child, of course, is not humble in the sense we think; rather a child is not set in his or her ways, and is open and is not concretized as a recalcitrant sinner.  Matthew 23:12 is quite similar in its parallelism: ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται: "therefore whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted" (see also the Lukan parallel in 14:11 and in 18:14). Luke 3:5 speaks of the mountains and hills being "brought low."

Paul may have echoed this sentiment in 2 Corinthians 11:7 when he talks about humbling himself (ἐμαυτὸν) so that the Corinthians might be exalted. Of course, Paul is being a bit of a pillock there, as is his custom. In 2 Corinthians 12:21, Paul speaks of God ταπεινώσῃ him ("humbling").

In the famous so-called "Christ-Hymn" in Philippians 2, Paul speaks of the preexistent Christ "humbling" himself (ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν) by becoming obedient to death, and Paul himself knows how to be humbled (ταπεινοῦσθαι) in Philippians 4:12. Finally, the author of 1 Peter tells his readers to "humble yourselves" (Ταπεινώθητε). Throughout the New Testament, the verb ταπεινόω (tapeinoō) is used to refer to "humbleness" or "being brought low" and so on. I am reminded of several things.

First, humbleness does not come naturally to me. When I am lectured by someone who I know does not know as much as I do, I tend to puff out my chest and tilt my hat forward and attempt to put that person in his place. Usually, that only happens once in a while, but it is something I should work on.

Second, being humble requires a special move of the Holy Spirit and one's theological community. If one is acting in a self-righteous way, call them out kindly. It's for their benefit, and your community's benefit as well.

Third, you can actually humble yourself. Scripture says you can, so you should. I can humble myself, you can humble yourself, and we can all humble ourselves. Just make sure we give credit to God for the grace given to us.

I end this little post with a comment by John Wesley: "mock humility which teacheth us to say, in excuse for our willful disobedience, 'Oh, I can do nothing,' and stops there, without once naming the grace of God" (Outler, Sermons, 3:208).

NQ