Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘I have come down out of heaven’?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shallall be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” (6:41–50)
Because their unbelief kept them from understanding, the Jews (this term has a negative connotation here as it frequently does in John’s gospel [cf. 1:19; 2:18–20; 5:10, 15–16, 18; 7:1; 8:48, 52, 57; 9:18, 22; 10:24, 31, 33; 19:7, 12, 14, 20, 21, 38; 20:19]) were grumbling about Jesus (as their ancestors had grumbled against God; Ex. 16:2, 8–9; Num. 11:4–6). Specifically, they were disturbed by two things He had said. The first was His claim to be the source of eternal life (v. 35). The verb translated grumbling (gogguzō) is an onomatopoetic word that both means and sounds like muttered complaints and whispers of displeasure. They were also outraged at His declaration that He came down out of heaven. They thought of Him merely on the human level, as a fellow Galilean, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother they knew (cf. 4:44; 7:27; Matt. 13:55–57). They also knew that He came from the despised town of Nazareth (cf. 1:46). And so, like the Jews in Judea (5:18), these Galileans hardened their hearts against their Messiah, who called for repentance and faith as a prerequisite to entering His kingdom (Matt. 4:17) and who outrageously, in their view, claimed equality with God.
Those who continually reject the truth may find that God will judicially harden their hearts. For those who refused to believe His teaching, Jesus made the truth more obscure by means of parables. To His disciples’ question, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10) the Lord replied,
To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.” (vv. 11–15; cf. Isa. 6:10)
John 12:37–40 says of those who rejected Jesus after witnessing His miracles,
But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.”
In the end times, those who will “not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10) will find that “God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false” (v. 11). At the present time, there is a partial hardening of Israel (Rom. 11:25), leading to the salvation of the Gentiles (v. 11). But one day, during the future time of tribulation, God will remove Israel’s blindness, and all the believing remnant of the Jewish people will be saved (v. 26; cf. Zech. 12:10–13:1).
Rather than answer their confusion, Jesus commanded the Jews, “Do not grumble among yourselves.” He called for them to stop the mumbling complaints that reflected their rebellious and hard hearts. He had said and done enough, if they had been open and willing. Thus, there was no point in responding to their muttering discontent and disrespect with a detailed defense. They had willfully hardened their hearts, and would have only rejected the truth of His heavenly origin had He elaborated on it.
Then Jesus uttered some very solemn words: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him,” emphasizing man’s helplessness and utter inability to respond to Him apart from God’s sovereign call. Unbelievers are unable to come to Jesus on their own initiative (cf. the discussion of verse 37 above). If God did not irresistibly draw sinners to Christ, no one would ever come to Him.
To explain how lost sinners supposedly have the power to accept or reject the gospel of their own free will, some theologians introduce the concept of prevenient grace. Millard J. Erickson explains,
As generally understood, prevenient grace is grace that is given by God to all men indiscriminately. It is seen in God’s sending the sunshine and the rain upon all. It is also the basis of all the goodness found in men everywhere. Beyond that, it is universally given to counteract the effect of sin.… Since God has given this grace to all, everyone is capable of accepting the offer of salvation; consequently, there is no need for any special application of God’s grace to particular individuals. (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 3:920)
But the Bible indicates that fallen man is unable, of his own volition, to come to Jesus Christ. Unregenerate people are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13), slaves to unrighteousness (John 8:34; Rom. 6:6, 17, 20), alienated from God (Col. 1:21), and hostile to Him (Rom. 5:10; 8:7). They are spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:4) captives (2 Tim. 2:26) trapped in Satan’s kingdom (Col. 1:13), powerless to change their sinful natures (Jer. 13:23; Rom. 5:6), unable to please God (Rom. 8:8), and incapable of understanding spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. John 14:17). Although the human will is involved in coming to Christ (since no one is saved apart from believing the gospel—Mark 1:15; Acts 15:7; Rom. 1:16; 10:9–15; Eph. 1:13), sinners cannot come to Him of their own free will. (Moreover, a comparison of verse 44 with verse 37 shows that God’s drawing cannot apply to all unregenerate people, as proponents of prevenient grace argue, because verse 37 limits it to the redeemed whom God has given to Christ.) God irresistibly, efficaciously draws to Christ only those whom He chose for salvation in eternity past (Eph. 1:4–5, 11).
Once again, Jesus repeated the wonderful promise that all whom the Father chooses will be drawn, will come, will be received, and He will raise them on the last day (vv. 39–40, 54). Everyone who comes to Christ will be kept by Him; there is no possibility that even one elect person given to Him by the Father will be lost (see the discussion of v. 39 above).
In verse 45 the Lord paraphrased Isaiah 54:13 to emphasize that His teaching was consistent with the Old Testament. What was written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God,” restates the truth of verse 44 in different terms. Those who come to saving faith do so because they are supernaturally instructed by God. Drawing and teaching are merely different aspects of God’s sovereign call to salvation; it is through the truth of His Word that God draws people to embrace His Son (Rom. 10:14, 17; cf. 1 Peter 1:23–25). As a result, everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Christ. Jesus’ statement was also a subtle rebuke of His Jewish opponents, who prided themselves on their knowledge of Scripture. But had they truly understood the Old Testament, they would have eagerly embraced Him (5:39).
As the only way to God (John 14:6), Jesus hastened to add that no one has seen the Father (1:18; 5:37; Ex. 33:20; 1 Tim. 6:16) except the One who is from God. Because He was eternally in heaven one with the Father, and then sent to earth by the Father, the Son can speak authoritatively about the Father (cf. Heb. 1:2). No one else can rightly make such a claim. Thus, only the Son is qualified to speak firsthand about the expectations of the Father and the truth of salvation.
Jesus’ solemn statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (cf. v. 40; 3:15–16, 36; 5:24) sums up the importance of trusting God’s self-revelation in Christ. Those who believe in Jesus not only have the hope of eternal life in the future, but also enjoy the possession of that life even now, as the present tense of pisteuō (believes) indicates.
The Lord concluded this portion of His sermon by restating the truth that He is the bread of life (cf. v. 35). He then contrasted Himself as the true bread of heaven (cf. v. 33) with the manna (cf. v. 31) that the Hebrew fathers ate … in the wilderness. Although it was miraculously provided by God to sustain the Israelites’ physical life, the manna could not impart eternal life, since the fathers who ate the manna … died (Heb. 3:17; cf. Jude 5). Jesus, however, is the true bread which comes down out of heaven (vv. 33, 35), so that one may eat of it and not die. Eat refers metaphorically to believing savingly in Jesus, which alone rescues sinners from eternal death (cf. 3:16; 11:26). Appropriating Jesus as the Bread of Life is the theme of the next section of this sermon.
Murmurs of Disbelief
At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.”
It is one of the surest facts of Christianity that when the doctrines of man’s total spiritual depravity and the necessity for God’s electing grace in salvation are preached there will be resentment by many who hear them. That was true in Christ’s day, and it is true in our own. Moreover, we do not have to go far to find either contemporary or historical examples.
The Jewish Leaders
In Christ’s day this is precisely what happened. So we are not surprised to find that Jesus’ teaching about the necessity for God’s grace in salvation, which we have in John 6:35–40, is immediately followed by an outbreak of protest and resentment by certain of the leaders of Israel. The author of the Gospel reports the moment by writing, “At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he say, “I came down from heaven?” ’ ” (vv. 41–42).
In these verses we have a change of persons from the verses that have gone before, and probably a change of place. Up to this point Jesus has been speaking in the open to the crowds that had followed him from the other side of the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. Now he is speaking to the leaders who had heard his teaching, and probably speaking in the synagogue of Capernaum, as is suggested by verse 59. In this discussion Jesus restates his teaching and supports it by evidence both from the Old Testament and from experience.
The first thing we are told, however, is that the Jewish leaders “grumbled about him.” The King James Version uses the word “murmur.” What does that mean? To understand what that means and to understand how close it comes to what we do in our relationship to the gospel, we must realize that the word “murmur” is one of those unique words in the English language that exist solely because they sound like the thing they describe. “Hiss” is such a word. “Tinkle” is another; “buzz” is a third. Such words are often used in poetry because of their unique character. One of the earliest examples of this device (known technically as onomatopoeia) is in Aristophenes’ play The Frogs, in which one of the lines given to those who represent the frogs sounds like frogs croaking. Aristophenes wrote:
Brekekekex co-ax, co-ax!
A better known example in the English language is Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells.” To some degree the whole poem is built on this device, but these lines will be an example:
Hear the tolling of the bells,
What a world of solemn thought their monody compells!
In the silence of the night
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
In this stanza the words chosen by Poe suggest the matter being described. In exactly the same way then, murmur suggests by its sound what people do when they disagree with someone and protest what he is saying. Murmuring is the confused sound that runs through a crowd when people are angry and in opposition to some teaching. This is what the leaders of Christ’s day were doing in regard to Christ’s teachings. Others do it in our day. In fact, it is a sin that few, if any, are preserved from.
It is interesting, too, that the objections of the Jewish leaders took the form of a criticism of Christ’s person rather than a direct criticism of his teachings. They did not say, let us notice, “There are three reasons why we cannot agree with you and why we consider your views to be wrong.” Christ’s teaching was too consistent and too self-authenticating for that. Instead, they attacked him personally, saying, in effect, “Don’t listen to him. He is a nobody from the sticks of Galilee, the son of a carpenter named Joseph. Listen to us.” In this they revealed their consummate snobbishness, demonstrated their pride, and revealed their ignorance. The irony is that they did not recognize at all that there had been a virgin birth and that Christ’s true Father was God.
What did Jesus answer? It is important to notice that Jesus did not answer by defending himself on the personal level, as we might like to do. He could have done it, of course. But instead of this he returned to his teaching and restated it, giving two proofs. This was a challenge to his hearers to investigate his teaching for themselves. Finally, after having restated his teaching and given his proofs, Jesus stated the doctrine again for the final time. The verses that contain this read as follows: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes in me has everlasting life” (vv. 44–47).
We need to take these statements one at a time. First, Jesus repeats what he had said earlier, but here he does so in even sharper language. Before, he had said, “You have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me” (vv. 36–37). This implies that no one can come, apart from a special act of God on his behalf, but it does not say this negatively. Now Christ does. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
This verse is so straightforward in its language that it has always been a battleground between those who are willing to accept the doctrine of election here taught by Christ and those who resist it on rational or humanistic grounds. It was discussed by Augustine and Pelagius, by Calvin and Arminius, by Luther and Erasmus.
The latter case is particularly interesting. Erasmus had been led to attack Martin Luther’s teaching on the total spiritual depravity of man in a volume centering on the nature of the human will and on whether it can function in turning a man or a woman to God. Erasmus said it could. Moreover, he answered the obvious objection based on the argument of Christ in this verse—the objection that no one can come to Christ except the Father draw him—by saying that God draws people in the same way that an owner of a donkey might get it to move by holding a handful of carrots before its nose. The man draws, but obviously the will of the donkey is involved. According to this theory, God originates salvation but man nevertheless cooperates in it.
This may make good sense to the natural human way of thinking. But it is not what Scripture teaches, and Luther said so quite openly. What better drawing could there be, Luther argued, than the drawing of the Lord Jesus Christ himself? He was present among the people. He taught them personally. Still they did not come. In fact, they killed him. Luther concluded, “The ungodly does not ‘come’ even when he hears the word, unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly; which he does by shedding abroad his Spirit. When that happens, there follows a ‘drawing’ other than that which is outward; Christ is then displayed by the enlightening of the Spirit, and by it man is rapt to Christ with the sweetest rapture, he being passive while God speaks, teaches and draws, rather than seeking or running himself.”
This was a good answer, of course. But we can go even further than this on the basis of Christ’s statement. Luther’s key word in answering Erasmus was “passive.” He said that man was passive spiritually, inert, as inert as a dead man might be, if we may use that image. In John 6:44, however, there is in addition to this truth the thought that man also actually resists the work of God within. That is, he is not only passive; he also is perverse and obstinate.
We see this truth in the word that is chosen to speak of the Father’s work in “drawing” a man or a woman to Christ. This word always implies resistance to the power that draws. William Barclay gives a number of examples of this in his devotional studies on John’s Gospel. He shows that it is the word for drawing a heavily laden net to the shore, a net filled with a great number of fish (John 21:6, 11). It is the word that is used of Paul and Silas being dragged before the civil authorities in Philippi (Acts 16:19). It is used for drawing a sword from the belt or from its scabbard (John 18:10). Always there is the idea of resistance. So here also there is the idea that men and women resist God.
Curiously, however, Barclay adds that “God can and does draw men, but man’s resistance can defeat the pull of God.” The curious thing about this statement, though, is that not one of his examples shows the resistance to be successful. The fish do get to shore. Paul and Silas are dragged before the magistrates. The sword is withdrawn. Indeed, we can go even further than this. As Leon Morris notes in his commentary, “There is not one example in the New Testament of the use of this verb where the resistance is successful. Always the drawing power is triumphant, as here.” People resist. In this their depravity is seen. But the power of God always overcomes the resistance in those whom he has determined before the foundation of the world to give to Jesus.
Is this discouraging? Not at all. Actually, the fact that God does draw men and women to Christ in spite of themselves is our hope.
At this point the Lord Jesus Christ gives two points of evidence to support his teaching. He did not need to give evidence, of course. His word was sufficient. Nevertheless, in speaking to these religious leaders he does support his statement—first, by a reference to the Old Testament, and then, second, by an appeal to experience.
His reference to the Old Testament actually is a partial quotation of Isaiah 54:13. Jesus says, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God’ ” (John 6:45). As it stands in John’s Gospel, we might read this verse with the thought that the “all” in the quotation applies to all men, thereby thinking that somehow God illuminates all, and men either come to Christ or refuse to come to Christ on their own volition. The full text, as Isaiah wrote it, shows that this is not the case. Actually, Isaiah wrote, “And all your children will be taught by the Lord.” We see at once that the verse applies to God’s children only, not to all men, and that it implies that one must first be a child of God through the new birth before one can really understand about Christ and come to him.
Jesus then goes on to show that this truth is also confirmed by experience: “Everyone who listens to and learns from the Father comes to me.” Why is it that you and I can present the gospel to some people and never seem to get anywhere, even when the circumstances seem entirely favorable? And why is it that others with maximum problems and limited understanding believe? The only answer is that God has taught the one person and has not taught the other. Moreover, all whom God has taught do come to Jesus.
Life Before Faith
Finally, after having stated his teaching and having given two points of evidence to support it, Jesus repeats his teaching about the necessity of God’s grace in election a final time. He says, “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life” (v. 47).
I know there are many who have interpreted this verse in direct opposition to all that I have been saying. They have supposed that we are first to believe, after which, as a result of our having believed, we are given eternal life. But this would mean taking the verse in a way that would contradict all Christ’s previous teaching. Actually, it is a summation of it all.
Perhaps this illustration, often used by Donald Grey Barnhouse, will help. We must imagine a battlefield over which troops are advancing in order to take a ridge that is just before them. Suddenly heavy fire opens up, and immediately the soldiers fall to the ground and hold their prone position until the enemy fire is silenced. Imagine further that all the soldiers are either dead, or alive and unwounded. When the firing stops the command comes once again to advance. Naturally, some of the soldiers do get up and move forward while others, the ones who are dead, do not. Why is it that the ones who do get up and advance get up? It is because they are alive and hear the voice of their commander. Does their getting up give them life? Of course not! It is rather the other way around. In the same way, he that “believes” on Christ does so because he already has “everlasting life.” The hearing and believing are the marks of the existence of the new life of God implanted within the individual.
If you are not yet a Christian, this doctrine applies to you in the sense that the grace of God in election is your hope. There is no hope in yourself, either in your spiritual attainments or in your ability. In yourself you cannot even choose Christ. How wonderful, then, that God is able to do what you cannot do. He can draw you. Be cheered by that and prove that he is already at work in your life by coming to him.
On the other hand, if you are a Christian already, I challenge you to allow these great doctrines to have their proper and transforming place in your heart. I am convinced that to accept the principles of Christ’s teaching in this chapter of John’s Gospel would necessarily involve both a mental and spiritual revolution for many thousands of Christians at the present time. It would certainly involve a radically different approach to preaching and the practice of evangelism, as well as to most other parts of church life and theology. The great question is this: Will the Almighty God of the Christian Scriptures be our God? Or will our God be something less, something tailored to our own greatly limited horizons? Let us have the God of the Lord Jesus Christ, of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and countless others, as our God. Let us stand with them in giving all might, majesty, dominion, power, and all glory in the matter of our salvation from beginning to end to that God only.
Unless the Father Draws Him
“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)
It is remarkable how much Jesus’ encounter with the hungry crowd in John 6 resembles Moses’ experience with Israel in the desert. Then, the Israelites grumbled when God gave them manna from heaven. Likewise, the Jews who were fed by Jesus grumbled against him. In both cases, the people cared only for earthly satisfaction. The Israelites responded to the manna by demanding of Moses, “Give us meat” (Num. 11:13). The people in Jesus’ day demanded, “Give us this bread always” (John 6:34). The Israelites’ dissatisfaction with Moses led to a rebellion; the crowd of John 6 rejected Jesus, and ultimately, their leaders handed him over to be killed.
The way in which the Israelites reacted to Moses and the Jews reacted to Jesus mirrors how people react to God’s Word today. These episodes reveal not a Jewish problem but a human problem when it comes to the Word of God. It is especially the Bible’s doctrines of grace, which Jesus emphasized in this chapter, that stir up carnal opposition. James Montgomery Boice writes, “It is one of the surest facts of Christianity that when the doctrines of man’s total spiritual depravity and the necessity for God’s electing grace in salvation are preached there will be resentment by many who hear them.”
We need to realize this as we minister the gospel today. And being sinners ourselves, we need to recognize the tendencies of our own sinful natures so that we might be careful to believe the Bible’s teaching.
Isn’t This Joseph’s Boy?
When Jesus first called on the crowd to believe in him, they evaded the issue by asking for yet another sign (John 6:30–31), showing that an unbelieving heart never has enough reasons to believe. Jesus replied that their unbelief would not thwart his mission, since “all that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37). This led to another appeal for them to believe on him as the Savior from heaven.
This produced only another tactic of unbelief: unable to refute the message, the people focused on the messenger. This happens often today, as people put off a Christian witness by arguing the failings of Christians they know. Certainly, Christians should present a living witness that commends the gospel we preach. But the imperfections of believers are hardly a reason to reject God’s revealed truth.
In Jesus’ case, the problem was not his conduct or character, both of which were perfect. The problem was what the people knew—or thought they knew—about his origins. “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’?” (John 6:42). These were Galileans, and Jesus’ birth had taken place in Bethlehem of Judea. It seems that the virgin birth had remained a secret, so that the people assumed that Joseph was Jesus’ natural, rather than adopted, father.
The people were sure that Jesus’ statement to have “come down from heaven” could not have been true. How sure they were—and how wrong! The problem with human reasoning is that it is often misinformed. How often our thinking proceeds from false assumptions that we fail to question. People today say, “The Bible just contains what certain people experienced or thought.” In today’s postmodern culture, it is popular for skeptics to argue, “The Bible says only what the church wants you to believe.” Such reasoning keeps people from seriously considering the Bible, but if they were sincerely to consider God’s Word, they would find their reasoning to be in error. George Hutcheson writes, “Men need to subject their reasonings to divine revelation in the things of God, lest they wrong him and themselves both.”
The humanity of Christ is a doctrine that especially offends human reason. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” they asked. This shows that they understood that Jesus was claiming a divine origin: “How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” It is always hard to admire someone you knew growing up, which is why Jesus said, “A prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (John 4:44). But to think that a humble carpenter’s son might be the eternal, divine Son is beyond reason. Yet the humanity of Christ is one of the great glories of the gospel; that God’s eternally existing Son would take up flesh to live and die for us is, John Calvin says, “the shining example of His boundless love toward us and of His wonderful grace.”
The English poet Thomas Hardy was entertaining his friend T. E. Lawrence, the celebrated “Lawrence of Arabia.” Instead of exploiting his fame, Lawrence had enlisted in the Royal Air Force to lead a life of humble service. During Lawrence’s visit, the Mayoress of Dorchester arrived. Offended by the presence of an apparent commoner, the Mayoress whispered in French to Mrs. Hardy that never in all her life had she had to sit to tea with a mere private soldier. No one replied, until Lawrence said in perfect French: “I beg your pardon, Madame, but can I be of any use as an interpreter? Mrs. Hardy knows no French.” What a shock for the Mayoress of Dorchester! How much greater will be the shock of those who despise the manhood of Christ when he is revealed at the end of the age in all his heavenly glory!
Jesus’ response to the murmuring is telling: “Do not grumble among yourselves” (John 6:43). Some Christians need that rebuke, as they grumble about one thing or another in the church. But the need is greater among unbelievers. Trading in human reasons not to believe can lead only to death; instead of subjecting the Bible to the folly of our murmuring, we must submit our reasoning to the revealed Word of God.
The Bondage of the Will
Jesus responded with a spiritual assessment of these grumbling people. What can account for their obstinate unbelief? He explained, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Persistent unbelief results from man’s spiritual inability. Jesus says that man in his sinful condition not only does not or will not come to him, but cannot come to him.
This points to a matter in which the Bible sharply conflicts with worldly thinking. If human reason murmurs against Jesus’ incarnation, it rails against his denial of free will. Even Christians are divided on this issue, despite our Lord’scin church history have centered on the supposed freedom of the human will, including Augustine’s battle with the heretic Pelagius and that between Calvinists and Arminians.
A classic confrontation occurred between Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther at the dawn of the Reformation. Erasmus was the great scholar whose Greek New Testament was so helpful to the Reformers. But Erasmus was too much of a humanist, and over the question of free will he and Luther crossed pens. Erasmus defended free will partly by appealing to John 6:44. He said that God draws people in the same way that a donkey’s owner holds carrots under its nose to get it to move. He argued that “though sin has weakened man, it has not made him utterly incapable of meritorious action.… There is, he affirms, a power in the human will … ‘by which man may apply himself to those things that lead to salvation.’ ”
Luther replied with one of his greatest books, The Bondage of the Will. He did not deny that man has a will or that man makes choices. What he denied is that sinful man does so “freely.” For Luther, this was an essential question: “whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional invincible grace[;] … whether, in the last analysis Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort.”
Erasmus understood the “drawing” of which Jesus spoke to consist of simple outward persuasion: sufficiently enticing carrots to win over men’s free will. But Luther replied that in John 6 Jesus employed the most potent persuasions and got nowhere with his Jewish hearers. “The ungodly does not ‘come,’ ” he wrote, “even when he hears the word, unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly; which He does by shedding abroad His Spirit.”
Undoubtedly, the majority of evangelical Christians today insist on human free will. To argue otherwise, they think, is to look on people as mere puppets who make no choices at all. They often insist that God cannot or at least would not violate our “free will.” This inevitably shapes their approach to evangelism, and accounts for the way in which persuasions of almost any kind are used to induce unbelievers to “decide” for Christ.
How do we respond to the defense of “free will”? Like Luther, we agree that men and women make genuine choices. What we deny is that their choices are free from the overwhelmingly controlling influence of sin. As Jesus plainly states, man in sin is not free to come to Christ. A. W. Pink explains:
To talk about exerting the will is to ignore the state of the man behind the will. Man’s will has not escaped the general wreckage of his nature. When man fell, every part of his being was affected. Just as truly as the sinner’s heart is estranged from God and his understanding darkened, so is his will enslaved by sin.… To predicate the freedom of the will is to deny that man is totally depraved. To say that man has the power within himself to either reject or accept Christ, is to repudiate the fact that he is the captive of the Devil.
The Bible stresses that man is not merely sick and weak, but “dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Spiritually speaking, unbelievers are no more able to come to Christ than a dead man is able to rise and walk. Paul teaches: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7–8). Jesus insisted, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Luther therefore argued, “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only.… For the will is captive and subject to sin.… Hence Augustine said … ‘Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin’, and … ‘You call the will free, but in fact it is an enslaved will.’ ”
Returning to John 6:44, it is helpful to study the meaning of the word draws (Greek helkuso). The same word is used in John 21 for hauling or dragging a net full of fish onto the shore. In Acts 16:19, it is used when Paul and Silas are “dragged” before the civil authorities. Again, it is used in John 18:10 when Peter “drew” his sword from its scabbard. In each case, there is the idea of resistance that is overcome by superior force. By nature, man in sin is resistant to God, and unless overcome by God’s inward working, he cannot and will not come to Christ.
All this means that conversion to Christ is a supernatural work that relies on God’s power alone. “No one can come to me,” Jesus said, “unless the Father … draws him” (John 6:44). And it is because salvation depends utterly on the inward working of God’s sovereign grace that we know that the glory for our salvation goes to God alone. When Elijah wanted to show who is the true God, he doused the wood of his offering in water, until “the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water” (1 Kings 18:35). His point was to make the offering as unsuitable as possible for lighting. Then, when the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the offering, licking up even the water in the trench, all the people fell before him and cried, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (18:38–39). In the same way, God gathers glory to himself by drawing people doused and drowned in sin to faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Drawn by the Father
What, then, does it mean to be “drawn” to Christ by God? Does God violate the will, dragging sinners to the Savior by outward force? Is conversion like a man who is arrested in his home, placed into handcuffs, and dragged into the police car? The Bible contains no examples of conversion that look like this.
Instead, the Bible shows that God draws men and women to Christ by graciously changing their hearts, setting them free from their bondage in sin. Acts 16:14 describes the conversion of Lydia by saying, “The Lord opened her heart.” This is what God does in conversions: he opens hearts. Ezekiel prophesied, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26).
Theologians associate conversion with the “effectual call” of Christ. A good example is the conversion of Matthew. He was “sitting at the tax booth” in Capernaum, when Jesus came up and called, “Follow me.” Matthew must have heard Jesus’ gospel many times, since he was situated at a crossroads in Jesus’ base of ministry. This is the general call that goes out to all who hear, just as Jesus sent his gospel call generally to the crowd of John 6. But when Jesus called directly and personally to Matthew with the effectual call, “he rose and followed him” (Matt. 9:9). Matthew then came willingly and, no doubt, joyfully, his heart changed by the power of God. Pink says that the effectual calling or drawing of God
is the power of the Holy Spirit overcoming the self-righteousness of the sinner, and convicting him of his lost condition. It is the Holy Spirit awakening within him a sense of need. It is the power of the Holy Spirit overcoming the pride of the natural man, so that he is ready to come to Christ as an empty-handed beggar. It is the Holy Spirit creating within him an hunger for the bread of life.
In John 6:45, Jesus elaborates, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ ” This seems to quote Isaiah 54:13, where God promised to give his children “the true knowledge of salvation that they so directly lack.” Jesus might also have been referring to the great promise of the new covenant made in Jeremiah 31:33–34: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.… And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.” To be taught by God is to have the truth of his Word impressed on your mind and heart. When Peter made his Great Confession of faith in Christ, Jesus exclaimed, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17).
It is clear from this that the effectual call, and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, precedes and produces faith. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). Jesus speaks in the present tense to show that whoever believes already has eternal life. We believe as we are born again through the Word; just as a new baby responds to his birth by crying, the one drawn by God expresses his new life by professing faith in Jesus.
Moreover, those who are drawn by God always come to Christ. Jesus adds, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:45–46). The only way to know God is through his Son who reveals him. And the way to know that you have been savingly called by God is to come to his Son.
This is an emphasis that Christians greatly need to recover. An article in Christianity Today magazine touted a “cutting-edge” scholar who offered a “fresh” theological perspective. The author, Amos Yong, urged that Christians should discern God’s grace in non-Christian faiths. He spoke of “the universal work of the Spirit … outside Christianity’s borders,” and insisted that “the Spirit of God cannot be imprisoned within Christian walls.” But in direct contrast, Jesus said, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). John Calvin notes, “From this it follows that none of God’s elect shall be outside the faith of Christ … [since] the only wisdom that all the elect learn in the school of God is to come to Christ.”
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” Jesus says, “and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). What confidence this gives us for salvation if we have come to Christ in faith. Luther spoke boldly and profoundly when he wrote:
I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want “free-will” to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavour after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities, and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground and hold fast my “free-will” (for one devil is stronger than all men).… But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him.
Hope in the Lord
In applying this passage, let us first consider the implications for our ministry. If no one can come to Christ unless drawn by the Father, then we should commit to those means of grace given and approved by God. We are living in a day of many false conversions, precisely because people have been persuaded to call themselves Christians without having understood the gospel. I realize that it is possible to move the natural will by means of worldly persuasions. But since salvation depends on God, we must employ methods that are commanded by him and that alone have power to bring spiritual life, especially the preaching and witness of the gospel.
This means that our witness must focus on the Word of God. I mentioned God’s promise in Ezekiel 36 to give new hearts to his people. The next chapter dramatizes how this happens. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet comes to a valley of dry bones—human corpses devoid even of flesh—a most vivid picture of man’s spiritually dead condition. The prophet was appalled, but God commanded him, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord” (Ezek. 37:4). So Ezekiel began preaching. The bones began to move, and flesh came upon them as God’s Word was preached, and then “the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet” (37:10). What a vision of the power of God’s Word! Peter said, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). If we are to be used by God to bring spiritual life to others, it will be through the witness and teaching of God’s Word.
Second, Jesus’ teaching induces us to a greater commitment to evangelistic prayer. If only God can open the heart of our child, parent, spouse, or friend, then let us appeal to God. The general call of the gospel, without God’s effectual drawing, saves no one, even when Jesus himself is the One preaching. Likewise, our witness can have no effect without God’s drawing people through it, making the general call effectual by the sending of his Holy Spirit. Therefore, let us pray to God for his power to bring new life to those who hear his Word.
Third, while we might face the kind of frustration that Jesus felt with this Jewish crowd, we must not despair. For when he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” Jesus knew that the Father draws many, including the least likely of converts. Just as the lack of food did not keep Jesus from feeding the five thousand, human limitations today do not hinder the sovereign working of God in salvation. Let us look at no one and say, “He cannot be saved.” Instead, let us keep preaching God’s Word, pointing to Christ, living in a way that commends our witness, and let us keep praying, never giving up on anyone.
And do not give up on yourself, if you have not yet come to Christ. None of the things keeping you back from Christ can stand against God’s mighty grace, if he is drawing you. If God is speaking to your heart, come to Jesus Christ. Then rejoice, for Jesus says, “Whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). Then you will be free from the bondage of sin over your mind, heart, and will. For as Jesus taught, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 251–254). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 511–516). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Phillips, R. D. (2014). John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 412–421). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.