At no place is the tension between the various views of God’s sovereignty been highlighted more clearly than regarding the matter of personal salvation. Again, all orthodox believers would assent to God’s sovereignty in this area, but their respective understandings of it would be considerably different. At the risk of oversimplification, the dividing line seems to focus on the biblical concept of election. Wayne Grudem’s definition of election is helpful for narrowing the discussion and tying it to the subject of this article: “Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.”14
Not all who embrace God’s sovereignty over personal salvation would be willing to embrace this definition of election. And, generally speaking, it would be those who reject this understanding of election that make the charge that such a belief is detrimental to evangelism and missions. A full defense of this view is beyond the scope of this article, but a brief examination of the teachings of Jesus Christ found in John 6 will serve to bring the issues more clearly into focus.
God’s Sovereignty in Giving Some to the Son
Jesus taught that there was a group of people who were given to Him by the Father, and these are the ones who will come to Him: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (v. 37). Note the argument that the Lord makes here: those given to Him by the Father are the ones that come to Him. What does He mean by the words, “All that the Father gives Me”? The other uses of this language in John’s gospel shed light on its meaning:
This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day (John 6:39).
My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29).
Even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life (John 17:2).
I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word (John 17:6).
I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours (John 17:9).
Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).
To fulfill the word which He spoke, “Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one” (John 18:9).
John 17:2 seems to be particularly clear in establishing this point and brings this issue into penetrating focus—the Son has authority over all flesh, but He will give life only to those whom the Father has given to Him. The language is clear that the purpose of Christ’s receiving authority is to give life to those who were given to Him. Laney captures it well:
The purpose clause, introduced by “that” (hina), reveals the purpose for which Christ received His authority. The divine authority possessed by Jesus was for the specific purpose of conferring “eternal life” (3:15–16; 3:35–36; 5:24; 10:28). Yet this gift is not conferred indiscriminately. It is granted only to the elect—those “given” to Christ by the Father (cf. 6:37).15
This same truth is taught in 5:21 (“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes”) and 17:9 (“I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours”). These texts affirm that God’s will regarding eternal life is both determinative (“to whom He wishes”) and discriminating (“not…on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me”).
Contrary to our contemporary hesitancy about these truths, the Lord confronted those who rejected Him with them. Consider His powerful words to another group of rejecters:
But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one (John 10:26–30).
Here Jesus roots their rejection (“you do not believe”) in the fact that they were not His sheep. His sheep, on the contrary, “hear” His voice and “follow” Him because they were “given to” Him by the Father.
God’s Sovereignty in Drawing Them to the Son
Jesus taught that man has no ability to come to Him apart from the drawing work of the Father: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). The Lord restates this truth in v. 65: “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” Before anyone can come to Christ, there must be a preceding work by the Father to provide the ability to do so. “The responsibility of men and women in the matter of coming to Christ is not overlooked (cf. John 5:40); but none at all would come unless divinely persuaded and enabled to do so.”16
Man’s inability to respond to the gospel apart from God’s gracious work is continually at the center of the debate about God’s sovereignty and seems to serve as the ultimate dividing line in this debate—at some point the discussion turns to the “freedom of the will.” Yet this debate often ignores the fact that both Arminian and Calvinist theologians agree that man’s unaided will is in bondage to sin and unable to come to Christ.17 The Arminian sees this inability overcome via prevenient grace, whereas the Calvinist sees it overcome via efficacious grace, but both acknowledge the inability of man apart from God’s grace. Wiley, an Arminian theologian, explains this concept as follows:
Prevenient grace, as the term implies, is that grace which “goes before” or prepares the soul for entrance into the initial state of salvation. It is the preparatory grace of the Holy Spirit exercised toward man helpless in sin. As it respects the guilty, it may be considered mercy; as it respects the impotent, it is enabling power. It may be defined, therefore, as that manifestation of the divine influence which precedes the full regenerate life.18
It is clear from this explanation that unsaved man, even from the Arminian perspective, is both “helpless” and “impotent,” and, subsequently, needs “enabling power.” Picirilli acknowledges that prevenient grace, which he prefers to call “pre-regenerating grace,” is necessary since “the unregenerate person is totally unable to respond positively, by his natural will, to the offer of salvation contained in the gospel.”19 And he believes that the idea of drawing taught in John 6:44 is an example of this pre-regenerating grace.
Prevenient grace, while absolutely necessary, may be finally resisted, so it is not to be confused with the concept of efficacious grace, that is, a grace which effectively produces a saving response to Jesus Christ. The doctrine of prevenient grace seeks to retain the right of ultimate self-determination for the sinner—he or she determines finally whether grace is to be accepted or rejected. The doctrine of efficacious grace is grounded in the belief that salvation is not ultimately determined by the will of man, but by God.
Another dimension of the prevenient grace doctrine is that such grace is extended to all who hear the gospel (versus only to some who hear the gospel).20 But the truths that the Lord teaches in this passage run contrary to this idea. Carson demonstrates the problem for those who advocate prevenient grace from a text like John 6:44:
The thought of v. 44 is the negative counterpart to v. 37a. The latter tells us that all whom the Father gives to the Son will come to him; here we are told that no-one can come to him unless the Father draws him…. The combination of v. 37a and v. 44 prove that this “drawing” activity of the Father cannot be reduced to what theologians sometimes call “prevenient grace” dispensed to every individual, for this “drawing” is selective, or else the negative note in v. 44 is meaningless.21
It seems obvious from the passage that those to whom Jesus was speaking had actually heard the gospel; that is why Jesus is confronting their unbelief (cf. vv. 36, 64). While Picirilli correctly acknowledges that this passage teaches that God’s drawing provides enabling power to come to Christ, he seems to ignore the indicators in the text that not all who heard were actually drawn by the Father to Christ.
The same truth is found in John 8:47 (“He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God”) and 10:26–27 (“But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me”). In both passages the Word about Christ is being proclaimed, yet the text is clear that some can “hear” it and others cannot; the difference between them is whether one is “of God” and one of His “sheep.” As Milne notes:
Jesus’ specifying the reason for the Jewish leaders’ failure to believe in him as you are not my sheep confronts us with the mystery of divine election and human unbelief. In stressing the call of the Son and the gifting of the Father, Jesus does not eliminate the leaders’ culpability for their rejection of him. Their responsibility is the unuttered premise of every word of judgment he pronounces. But behind and through their response God is also at work.22
It seems impossible to deny that this passage teaches that no one can come to Christ apart from God’s enabling. Attempts made to smooth the rough edge of this truth by arguing that God draws either all men23 or, at least, all those who hear the gospel24 fall short. The language of this passage will not allow such limitations—not all who hear the gospel are drawn by the Father, only those who have been given to the Son (vv. 37, 65).
God’s Sovereignty in Teaching Them
Another difference between the concepts of prevenient and efficacious grace is the certainty with which the latter will accomplish its purpose. Advocates of prevenient grace (God’s drawing) teach that it supplies the enabling power needed to come to Christ, but it does not necessarily result in someone doing so. In the words of Picirilli, it “makes faith possible without making it necessary… it does not by itself guarantee the conversion of the sinner.”25
This is different from the ministry of the Father described in v. 45. Here Jesus teaches that those who have “heard and learned from the Father” will indeed come to Him: “It is written in the prophets, ‘and they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” Note the certainty of the Lord’s words: “everyone” that fits a certain description “comes to Me.” What is that description? Such people as have “heard and learned from the Father.”
It seems clear that the words “heard and learned” are another way of referring to the drawing ministry of the Father since the result of both is coming to Christ. Kent is insightful on this point:
The true believer, therefore, is one who hears the Word of God and that Word is interpreted to his heart by the Holy Spirit. In this way God acts upon men’s hearts and creates that spiritual attraction toward Christ that draws men to him. It must not be imagined, however, that this “drawing” is a mere influence which may be wholesome and beneficial if followed, but is not always successful.26
Again, there are parallels to this text in John 8:47 (“He who is of God hears the words of God”) and 10:27 (“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me”).
The critical and debated issue focuses on the effectiveness of God’s drawing, speaking, and teaching ministry. Verse 45 clearly states that all who hear and learn from the Father come to Christ; hearing and learning are not mere enabling that falls short of coming to Christ. In theological terms, v. 45 teaches what is often referred to as God’s effectual call to salvation. Grudem defines the effectual call as “an act of God the Father, speaking through the human proclamation of the gospel, in which he summons people to himself in such a way that they respond in saving faith.”27
This truth clearly establishes God’s sovereignty in the gift of salvation. While all are invited to come to Christ, only those given to the Son experience this inward work that not only enables them to do so, but actually results in their doing so. Because the Father has given them, they come (v. 37); because they have heard and learned from the Father, they come (v. 45).
This same truth is found in the Apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 1:22–24 about the preaching of the gospel:
For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
If the message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, how is that any of them come to believe it? Paul’s answer is that some of those who hear the message are “the called” (v. 24). It is obvious that the idea of “called” here does not mean invited; everyone who hears the gospel is invited. Merely being invited does not change the heart from viewing the message as a stum-bling block or foolishness. To be “called” in the sense in which this verse uses it is something which effectively transforms the heart so that the same message, Christ crucified, is now viewed as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
From any merely human perspective the central message of the Christian gospel must always appear as folly. But to people from both groups this folly turns out to be the very place where God is powerfully at work, calling out a people for his name. Those who are “being saved” (v. 18), the “believing ones” (v. 21), are so because of God’s prior action; they are “those whom God has called”.… For them the preaching of “Christ crucified” is effectual….28
What the Apostle Paul refers to as being “the called” is another way of saying that they have “heard and learned from the Father.”
Although this truth is often attacked as destroying man’s freedom, this is a misunderstanding of the concept. No one is forced or coerced into salvation. Rather, God graciously illumines the mind so that a true understanding of the gospel takes hold, and, having seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the heart turns to Him in saving faith (cf. 2 Cor 4:4–6). What this truth does demand is the recognition that salvation “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9:16). In Carson’s words, “genuine coming to faith is never finally a matter of autonomous hu-man decision.”29
God’s Sovereignty in Keeping Them Eternally
The final aspect of God’s sovereignty to be considered in relation to salvation is the matter of His preservation of genuine believers. The Lord Jesus Christ also taught that those given to Him by the Father will never be lost: “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:39–40). The certainty of their eternal salvation is presented from both negative (“I lose nothing”) and positive (“I Myself will raise him up”) perspectives. The language leaves no room for exceptions: “all that He has given Me.”
Some views of God’s sovereignty would never be accused of interfering with the believer’s responsibility for evangelism and missions. This attack is usually reserved for those who believe that God’s power is exercised with sovereignty over all things, and that God’s grace is likewise bestowed according to His sovereign good pleasure. The tension cannot be felt properly without clarity about the extent of God’s sovereign control. It is this writer’s contention that: (1) God has eternally planned all things which come to pass; (2) God, before the world was created, chose some to salvation; (3) man is unable to respond in repentance and faith without an enabling work of God’s grace; (4) God only enables to come to Christ those whom He has given to His Son; (5) when God does draw sinners to Christ, He does so effectually; and (6) none of those who come to Christ will ever be lost, but will all be raised up on the last day.
14Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 670.
15J. Carl Laney, John (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), p. 301.
16F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 156.
17Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, p. 151.
18H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, vol. 2 (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1945), pp. 345–46.
19Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, p. 154.
20Ibid., p. 158.
21Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 293.
22Bruce Milne, The Message of John, The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), p. 154.
23Hunt (What Love Is This? p. 338) argues that “the Father is drawing everyone (even through the witness of creation and conscience).”
24Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Freewill, p. 158.
25Ibid., p. 156.
26Homer A. Kent, Jr., Light in the Darkness: Studies in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), p. 107.
27Systematic Theology, p. 693.
28Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 76–77.
29The Gospel According to John, pp. 302–3.