Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. 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.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. (10:25–31)
But Jesus already had told them plainly who He was (cf. 5:17ff.; 8:12, 24, 58); in fact, He had spent the last three years doing so. Not only that, the works that He did in the Father’s name also demonstrated that He was the Messiah; the Son of God; God in human flesh (cf. vv. 32, 38; 3:2; 5:36; 7:31; 11:47; 14:11; Acts 2:22). The Lord’s twice-repeated declaration, you do not believe, indicates that the problem was not due to any ambiguity in the revelation of the truth, but rather to their spiritual blindness. They lacked understanding, not because they lacked information, but because they lacked repentance and faith. Their unbelief was not due to insufficient exposure to the truth, but to their hatred of the truth and love of sin and lies (John 3:19–21). Anyone who willingly seeks the truth will find it (7:17), but Jesus refused to commit Himself to those who willfully rejected the truth. Had He again given them the plain answer they were demanding, they would not have believed Him anyway (cf. 8:43; Matt. 26:63–65; Luke 22:66–67).
From the perspective of human responsibility, the hostile Jews did not believe because they had deliberately rejected the truth. But from the standpoint of divine sovereignty, they did not believe because they were not of the Lord’s sheep, which were given Him by the Father (v. 29; 6:37; 17:2, 6, 9). A full understanding of exactly how those two realities, human responsibility and divine sovereignty, work together lies beyond human comprehension; but there is no difficulty with them in the infinite mind of God. Significantly, the Bible does not attempt to harmonize them, nor does it apologize for the logical tension between them. For example, speaking of Judas Iscariot’s treachery, Jesus said in Luke 22:22, “The Son of Man is going [to be betrayed] as it has been determined.” In other words, Judas’s betrayal of Christ was in accord with God’s eternal purpose. But then Jesus added, “Woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” That Judas’s betrayal was part of God’s plan did not relieve him of the responsibility for his crime. In Acts 2:23 Peter said that Jesus was “delivered over [to the cross] by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” Yet he also charged Israel with responsibility for having “nailed [Jesus] to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” God’s sovereignty never excuses human sin. (For a more complete discussion of the interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, see the exposition of 6:35–40 in chapter 20 of this volume.)
Repeating what He said in His discourse on the Good Shepherd (see the exposition of vv. 3–5 in the previous chapter of this volume), Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” The elect will heed Christ’s call to salvation and continue in faith and obedience to eternal glory (cf. Rom. 8:29–30).
The Lord continued by articulating the wonderful truth that those who are His sheep need never fear being lost. “I give eternal life to them,” Jesus declared, “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.” Nowhere in Scripture is there a stronger affirmation of the absolute eternal security of all true Christians. Jesus plainly taught that the security of the believer in salvation does not depend on human effort, but is grounded in the gracious, sovereign election, promise, and power of God.
Christ’s words reveal seven realities that bind every true Christian forever to God. First, believers are His sheep, and it is the duty of the Good Shepherd to protect His flock. “This is the will of Him who sent Me,” Jesus said, “that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (6:39). To insist that a true Christian can somehow be lost is to deny the truth of that statement. It is also to defame the character of the Lord Jesus Christ—making Him out to be an incompetent shepherd, unable to hold on to those entrusted to Him by the Father.
Second, Christ’s sheep hear only His voice and follow only Him. Since they will not listen to or follow a stranger (10:5), they could not possibly wander away from Him and be eternally lost.
Third, Christ’s sheep have eternal life. To speak of eternal life ending is a contradiction in terms.
Fourth, Christ gives eternal life to His sheep. Since they did nothing to earn it, they can do nothing to lose it.
Fifth, Christ promised that His sheep will never perish. Were even one to do so, it would make Him a liar.
Sixth, no one—not false shepherds (the thieves and robbers of v. 1), or false prophets (symbolized by the wolf of v. 12), nor even the Devil himself—is powerful enough to snatch Christ’s sheep out of His hand.
Finally, Christ’s sheep are held not only in His hand, but also in the hand of the Father, who is greater than all; and thus no one is able to snatch them out of His hand either. Infinitely secure, the believer’s “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
The Father and the Son jointly guarantee the eternal security of believers because, as Jesus declared, “I and the Father are one” (the Greek word one is neuter, not masculine; it speaks of “one substance,” not “one person”). Thus their unity of purpose and action in safeguarding believers is undergirded by their unity of nature and essence. The whole matter of security is summarized in our Lord’s own words in John 6:39–40:
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.
Incensed by what they accurately and unmistakably perceived as another blasphemous claim to deity by Jesus, the Jews, self-righteously exploding in a fit of passion, picked up stones again to stone Him—the fourth time in John’s gospel that they had attempted to kill Him (5:16–18; 7:1; 8:59). Though the Romans had withheld the right of capital punishment from the Jews (18:31), this angry lynch mob was ready to take matters into its own hands.
Christ, the Calvinist
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
One time, after I had preached a sermon from John touching on some of the main points of the Reformed faith, I found a copy of that week’s bulletin on which someone had scribbled his opinion of the message: “I’m sick of Calvinism in every sermon.”
The message did not particularly bother me. Notes like that seldom do. But I found it surprising that the person who wrote the note somehow regarded Calvinism as a system of thought that could well be dispensed with while, nevertheless, as he assumed, still preserving Christianity. In other words, this person, like many others, somehow regarded the doctrines that go by the name of Calvinism as at best an addition to the pure gospel and at the worst a system that is opposed to it. Is this true? Are the doctrines of grace wrong? One proof that they are not is seen in the verses to which we come in this chapter.
The verses I have in mind are those in which the Lord Jesus Christ spoke plainly to his enemies, saying that those who do not believe on him do not believe because they are not his sheep, that those who are his sheep believe and follow, that this is true because they are given to him by the Father, that these who are given to him by the Father inevitably come to him and, finally, that these who come will never be lost. This is a message of man’s complete ruin in sin and God’s perfect remedy in Christ, and it can be expressed in the distinctive points of Calvinistic theology. Before we look at these points in detail, however, we should see that far from being an aberration or addition to the gospel, these truths have always belonged to the core of the Christian proclamation and have been characteristic of the church at its greatest periods.
To begin with, the doctrines of grace that have become known as Calvinism were most certainly not invented by Calvin, nor were they characteristic of his thought alone during the Reformation period. As we shall see, these are the truths taught by Jesus and confirmed for us in Scripture by the apostle Paul. Augustine argued for the same truths over against the denials of Pelagius and those who followed him. Luther was a Calvinist. So was Zwingli. That is, they believed what Calvin believed and what he later systematized in his influential Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Puritans were also Calvinists; it was through them and their teaching that both England and Scotland experienced the greatest and most pervasive national revivals the world has ever seen. In that number were the heirs of John Knox: Thomas Cartwright, Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, Matthew Henry, John Owen, and others. In America, thousands were influenced by Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, and George Whitefield, all of whom were Calvinists.
In more recent times the modern missionary movement received nearly all its direction and initial impetus from those in the Calvinistic and Puritan tradition. The list includes such men as William Carey, John Ryland, Henry Martyn, Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, John G. Paton, John R. Mott, and many others. For all these the doctrines of grace were not an appendage to Christian thought but were rather that which was central and which most fired and gave form to their preaching and missionary efforts.
This, of course, is precisely why I am reviewing this history—to show that the doctrines known as Calvinism are not something that emerged late in church history but rather are that which takes its origins in the teachings of Jesus, which has been found throughout the church in many periods, and which has always been characteristic of the church at its greatest periods of faith and expansion. It follows from this that the church of Jesus Christ will again see great days when these truths are widely proclaimed, and proclaimed fearlessly.
Jesus is our example. We sometimes think of these doctrines as household doctrines; that is, as truths to be proclaimed only to those who already believe. But this was not Jesus’ procedure. He taught them also to his enemies. In this case, they had come to him with the implication that he was responsible for their failure to believe; they had said, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” He answered this, not so much with a statement concerning his identity as the Messiah (although he did say that his words and works authenticated him), but much more importantly by a full statement of man’s utter inability to choose God and of the necessity for divine grace in each step of salvation. Did they want it told plainly? Well, this is the truth told plainly: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (vv. 26–29).
State of the Lost
First of all, Christ’s words reflect the desperate state of the lost; that is, the state of all men as they are apart from Christ. The teachings on this point are not so much direct as indirect. Still they underlie the positive points made in this passage.
In reference to man’s desperate state apart from Christ, these verses show that he has lost spiritual life; otherwise it would not be necessary for Christ to speak of it as a gift. Originally, man had life. When the first man and woman were created by God they were created with that life that shows itself in communion with him. Consequently, we learn that they communed with God in the Garden in the cool of the day. When they sinned, this life was lost, a fact evidenced by their hiding from God. This has been the state of people ever since. Consequently, when the gospel is preached, those who hear it turn away unless God intervenes to do a supernatural work of regeneration in their hearts.
Moreover, the desperate state of people apart from Christ is suggested by the fact that no one can recover this life except as a free gift from God. Jesus calls it a gift, for it is undeserved and unearned. If it were earned, it would be wages; if it were merited, it would be a reward. But eternal life is neither of these. It is a gift, which means that it originates solely in God’s good will toward men.
As a last thought on this subject, it is also true, is it not, that men and women will perish except for this gift. Jesus says of those to whom he gives life that “they shall never perish.” But since he makes this promise, it must be because we will perish if he does not intervene. We are sinners. Sin makes us heirs of God’s wrath. If God does not intervene, we stand under divine judgment, without hope, facing the punishment due us for our own sins. According to these verses, we cannot even come to Christ, for we are not of his sheep and so lack the ability to hear his voice and turn to him.
This brings us to the next thought. For while it is true that in ourselves we cannot come to Christ and so lie under God’s just condemnation, the main point of these verses is that God has nevertheless acted in grace toward some. Earlier this was expressed by saying that Christ died for the sheep; in other words, by the doctrine of a particular redemption (v. 11). In this section we are told that Jesus has given eternal life to the same people (v. 28), and that these are those whom God has given him (v. 29).
You cannot trace the origins of our salvation farther back than that. In this, as in all things, the origins are to be found in God. Some say, “But surely God called them because he foresaw that some would believe.” But it does not say that. Others say, “He chose them because he knew in advance that they would merit salvation.” It does not say that either. What it does say is that the initiative in salvation lies with God and that this is found, on the one hand, in God’s electing grace whereby he chooses some for salvation entirely apart from any merit on their own part (which, of course, they do not have) and, on the other hand, in Christ’s very particular atonement by which he bore the penalty for the sins of these people.
I need to say also, however, that there are aspects of the death of Christ that apply to the world at large. I am not denying that. The death of the Lord Jesus Christ is a revelation of the nature of God. It is a revelation of his hatred of sin in that Christ died for it. It is most certainly a revelation of God’s love, for love lay behind it. It is an example to the race. These things are true. But in addition to these there is also a sense in which the Lord Jesus Christ died particularly and exclusively for his own, so that he literally bore the penalty for their particular sins, that they might be forgiven.
These truths do not make us proud, as some charge. Rather they increase our love for God who out of pure grace saves some when none deserve it.
An Effective Call
The third of the reformed doctrines presented by Jesus is the effective call: that is, that God’s call of his people is accompanied by such power that those whom he calls necessarily come to him, believing on Christ and embracing Christ for salvation. Jesus expresses this by saying: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (v. 27). It is a mark of the sheep that they both hear and follow their shepherd.
In the Puritan era it was the habit of many preachers to play on these two characteristics, calling them the marks of Christ’s sheep. In days when there were many flocks of sheep it was necessary to mark the sheep to distinguish them. In our day, at least on cattle, this is done by branding. On sheep it was often done by cutting a small mark into the ear. “Well,” said the Puritans, “each of Christ’s sheep has a double mark—on his ear and on his foot. The mark on his ear is that he hears Christ. The mark on his foot is that he follows him.”
This is true, of course. It leads us to ask, “Do we hear? Do we follow?”
How many of those who come to church on a typical Sunday morning really hear the voice of Christ or have ever heard it? They hear the voice of the preacher; they hear the voices of the members of the choir. But do they hear Christ? If they do, why are they so critical of what they hear? Why are their comments afterward so much more about the Lord’s servant than the Lord? Those who are Christ’s hear Christ. And they follow him. But how many who come to church are really following? Most seem to make good leaders—in their own cause—but they are poor followers. They make good critics—of the Bible and of Christ’s people—but they are poor disciples. They make respectable wolves, for they ravage the flock, but they do not have the traits of the sheep and would even be contemptuous of them if they had an understanding of what those traits are.
Do not presume on your relationship to Christ. You are not his unless you hear his voice and follow him. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He said, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7).
Finally, notice that these verses also speak at length of God’s perseverance with his saints. That is, they teach us that none whom God has called to faith in Christ will be lost. Indeed, how can they be, if God is responsible for their salvation? Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (v. 28).
“But,” says someone, “suppose they jump out of their own accord?”
“They shall never perish,” says the Lord.
“No, never,” says Jesus. “They shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
This does not mean that there will not be dangers, of course. In fact, it implies them; for if Jesus promises that no one will succeed in plucking us from his hands, it must be because he knows that there are some who will try. The Christian will always face dangers—dangers without, from enemies, and dangers within. Still the promise is that those who have believed in Jesus will never be lost. We may add that the Christian may well be deprived of things. He may lose his job, his friends, his good reputation. Still he will not be lost. The promise is not that the ship will not go to the bottom, but that the passengers will all reach shore. It is not that the house will not burn down, but that the people will escape safely.
Do you believe this promise, that you are safe in Jesus’ hands, that you will never be lost? Are you able to trust God for this as you have for other truths? I suppose there is a way of explaining away almost everything, but I must say that I do not see how the opponents of eternal security can explain away this text. Am I Christ’s? Then it is he who has promised that neither I nor any who belong to him shall perish. If I do perish, then Jesus has not kept his word, he is not sinless, the atonement was not adequate, and no one in any place can enter into salvation.
I wish that all God’s children might come to know and love these truths. I wish that many might be saved by them.
We live in a day that is so weak in its proclamation of Christian doctrine that even many Christians cannot see why such truths should be preached or how they can be used of the Lord to save sinners. This was not always so. It was not always the case that these truths were unused by God in saving sinners.
Did you know that it was these doctrines, particularly the doctrine of God’s perseverance with his people, that God used to save Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers who ever lived? Spurgeon was saved when he was only fifteen years old, but before that time he had already noticed how friends of his, who had begun life well, made shipwreck of their lives by falling into gross vice. Spurgeon was appalled by such things. He feared that he himself might fall into them. He reasoned like this: “Whatever good resolutions I might make, the probabilities are that they will be good for nothing when temptation [assails] me. I [will] be like those of whom it has been said, ‘They see the devil’s hook and yet cannot help nibbling at his bait.’ I [will] disgrace myself.” It was then that he heard of the truth that Christ will keep his saints from falling. It had a particular charm for him and he found himself saying, “If I go to Jesus and get from him a new heart and a right spirit, I shall be secured against these temptations into which others have fallen. I shall be preserved by Him.” It was this truth along with others that brought Spurgeon to the Savior.
I wish it might be the same with you! I do not preach a gospel that has a shaky foundation. I do not proclaim a religion of percentages and probabilities. I proclaim the message of Christ, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and all others who have found God to be their pure hope and salvation. It is the message of man’s complete ruin in sin and of God’s perfect remedy in Christ, expressed in his election of a people to himself and his final preservation of them. God grant that you might believe it wholeheartedly.
Safe in His Hand
“I give them eternal life, 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.” (John 10:28–29)
When well-known Bible expositor James Montgomery Boice was preaching through John 10, he found a church bulletin on which someone had written, “I’m sick of Calvinism in every sermon.” The note referred to teachings associated with the name of John Calvin, teachings also known as the doctrines of grace. What is noteworthy is that in reading Boice’s published sermons on the preceding passages, one discovers that he had not mentioned Calvin or emphasized Calvinism, but had simply expounded the teachings of Jesus.
This makes the point that the doctrines for which Calvinism is known do not originate with the great Reformation teacher. We might observe that such teachings as man’s total depravity, God’s unconditional election, the definite design of Christ’s atonement, effectual grace, and the eternal security of believers were taught long beforehand by biblically minded preachers such as Martin Luther and Augustine. Nor do these doctrines depend on Calvin’s writings: they have since been taught and defended by such great teachers as John Knox, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. These doctrines were believed and spread by the early leaders of the modern missionary movement, including William Carey, Henry Martyn, David Livingstone, and John G. Paton.
But what really matters is what the Bible teaches. A study of the prophets and apostles will reveal their teaching of the doctrines of grace. Most significantly, as John 10 shows, these truths were emphasized by Jesus himself. This is why the great evangelist George Whitefield said, “I embrace the Calvinistic scheme, not because Calvin, but Jesus Christ has taught it to me.” The famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon explained, “There is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is called Calvinism.… Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”2
The doctrines known as Calvinism are therefore not some addition to the gospel that we may safely neglect or ignore, but are at the very heart of the Bible’s teaching about God, man, and salvation. Some would say, however, that while they are true, these doctrines should be kept in-house. We might discuss them in seminaries, but we should not preach them to general audiences and especially not to unbelievers. But Jesus did not seem to share this view. He declared the truth of man’s lost condition, God’s sovereign grace, and the final security of believers to all who would hear and even in the presence of his enemies. In fact, Jesus’ preaching of these doctrines was most explicit in his most public sermons, such as in John 6 and John 10. We must therefore regard them as essential to Christian faith and vitality and humbly receive them from the mouth of the Lord.
Sinful Man’s Spiritual Inability
In chapter 10, John advances his timeline of Jesus’ ministry from fall to winter, with Jesus now appearing at the Feast of Dedication, which recalled God’s blessing in restoring the temple in the year 164 b.c. The Jews had been controlled by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, who had defiled the temple with pagan idols. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus, the Jews expelled the Greeks and restored the temple. Jewish people continue to celebrate the Feast of Dedication today under the name of Hanukkah.
John points out that it was winter, which described not only the weather but also the chilly winds of unbelief that were blowing in Jerusalem. “Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon,” John says, referring to the great pillared porch that surrounded the temple courts, when “the Jews gathered around him” (John 10:23–24). The Greek word for “gathered around” (kukloo) indicates that they surrounded and pressed in on Jesus. In Revelation 20:9, the same word is used for a military siege. This indicates the intensity and spirit of their question: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).
In fact, Jesus had not publicly named himself as the Messiah in so many words. It seems that he did not do this because so many people understood the Christ, or Messiah, to be a political and military leader who would overthrow the Roman rule. In private conversation with his disciples, Jesus had plainly identified himself as the Messiah (see John 4:26; 6:69). But in public speech, he seems to have avoided this title because of the popular misunderstanding.
In his answer to the question asked of him, Jesus expounds one of the chief teachings of the doctrines of grace, namely, sinful man’s spiritual inability. The Bible teaches that man’s problem is not just that he has yet to decide to turn from sin. Man’s problem is that because of sin he is spiritually dead and thus beyond the point of being able to do anything for his own salvation. As Paul wrote, “You were dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). There is no hope for a dead man unless he is miraculously raised to life; likewise, apart from God’s saving grace, sinful man is not able to believe.
Jesus made this point, first, by insisting that he had revealed himself quite clearly: “I told you, and you do not believe” (John 10:25). While Jesus had not publicly claimed the title of Messiah, his teaching had nonetheless made quite clear who and what he was. Jesus had openly identified himself as the Son of God (5:25–26) and Son of Man (5:27; 6:53, 62; 9:37), the latter of which was a clear messianic title. He had referred to himself as “the bread of life” (6:35, 48) and “the light of the world” (8:12). Jesus repeatedly claimed to be sent from heaven (6:58; 8:42), and he took the divine name “I am” (8:28, 58). These and other teachings were clear enough for his disciples to believe on him as the Christ; the fact that the religious leaders did not believe reveals their moral perversity and spiritual inability.
Jesus makes the same point about his “works,” which refers especially to his miracles: “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me” (John 10:25). Jesus’ miracles fulfilled many prophecies and could be accounted for only by the fact that he was the Messiah. This was the chief function of the miracles: to bear witness to Jesus as the Christ. But Jesus’ miracles only hardened the hearts of his unbelieving observers, yet again demonstrating the sinful bondage of their hearts and minds.
Jesus culminated his reply by stating the cause for their unbelief: “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (John 10:26). This is a significant statement. Most people would put this backward: “You are not part of my flock because you do not believe.” But Jesus insists that their unbelief was caused by their not being his sheep. Unbelief is not the cause of man’s separation from God, but the result and mark of man’s separation from God. They did not believe because their nature was darkened and hardened in total depravity. Moreover, since Jesus states that they were not elect in himself—“you are not part of my flock”—they remained unregenerate. This does not reduce their responsibility for unbelief. D. A. Carson points out: “That they are not Jesus’ sheep does not excuse them; it indicts them.”
Salvation by Grace
Jesus’ answer furnishes some valuable insights for believers. It reminds us that we are not members of Christ’s flock because we believe; we are not saved because of our faith. We do not save ourselves by believing in Jesus, but God saves us through the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8–9). We believe because we have been saved—because we have been graciously entered into Christ’s flock by God’s sovereign mercy. Indeed, we could not possibly believe until we had been born again, that is, until the Holy Spirit had changed our hearts so that we became sheep who hear Christ’s voice. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). It is because Jesus calls us “my sheep” that he says that we hear his voice and follow. To be sure, one must believe to be saved. Yet our salvation does not rest on our faith, but rather on God’s grace in Christ, who calls his sheep to faith.
Consider the question: Why does a Christian believe whereas another does not? Is it because the Christian is more spiritual by nature, more willing or more able in and of himself or herself? Not according to the Bible! Christians were just as sinful and spiritually dead as anyone else before being born again (see again Eph. 2:1). It is only by God’s sovereign grace in election that Christ’s sheep believe and are saved.
When we speak of salvation by grace, we mean that sinners receive eternal life as a free gift from God. Jesus states this plainly: “I give them eternal life” (John 10:28). This implies that before being saved, we do not have eternal life. This is why we are not able to believe until we are first born again (see 3:3). As a gift, salvation is free. A gift is not something we claim as a right; God is not obliged to save sinners, but out of his grace he gives eternal life. James Montgomery Boice comments: “If it were earned, it would be wages; if it were merited, it would be a reward. But eternal life is neither of these. It is a gift, which means that it originates solely in God’s good will toward men.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul writes. “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
When it comes to the doctrines of grace associated with Calvinistic theology, it would be hard to find a more concentrated teaching than John 10:27–28. Jesus says, “My sheep,” which refers to divine election, for he goes on to say, “My Father … has given them to me” (10:29). Next, they “hear my voice”—this is effectual calling unto saving faith. It is by Christ’s power in the gospel that we hear and believe. “I know them,” he continues. This corresponds to our justification; through faith in Christ we are forgiven and accepted into the divine love. “They follow me,” Jesus adds. Here is sanctification, as Christ leads his sheep in paths of righteousness (Ps. 23:3). Then he states, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Here is glorification: Christ’s sheep will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6). Here, then, are the doctrines of grace as taught by Jesus: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:27–28).
Salvation by grace is the greatest news that one could ever hear. We cannot earn salvation, since no good works can erase the guilt of our sins. We cannot buy salvation, since we have nothing to offer to God. We do not have a right to eternal life, since our whole race fell into death by the sin of Adam. Yet we can still have eternal life: by receiving it from Jesus as a free and unmerited gift of God’s grace.
Salvation through Faith
How, then, do we receive this gift? The answer is through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul explains: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, … to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23–25).
John 10:27–28 gives a short summary of the meaning of saving faith. We may say that faith involves three elements, the first of which is the faith of the hands. Jesus says, “I give them eternal life” (10:28), and faith receives his gift. Faith does not reject the gift of eternal life or resent the fact that we cannot earn our own way to heaven. Faith gratefully accepts what God offers us in Jesus Christ.
But there is also the faith of the ear. This was Jesus’ point in answering the Jews’ question. They demanded that he tell them plainly whether he was the Messiah. Jesus replied that if they had had the ears of faith, they would already have believed his teaching and miracles. The ears of the unconverted are dead to Christ’s voice, but the ears of his sheep hear and believe. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says (John 10:27).
Finally, there is the faith of the foot. “And they follow me,” Jesus adds (John 10:27). This is where our claim to faith is tested. Do you say that you believe in Christ? Then are you following him? Do you obey God’s commandments? Do you strive to copy Jesus’ example? Is your character being conformed to his—in humility, love, and holiness?
In Jesus’ day, shepherds would mark their sheep with a special notch on the ear. But Jesus places two marks on his sheep: on the ear and on the foot. In the same way, what you believe and how you live identifies whether you are one of Christ’s sheep or not. If your hands have received God’s gift of eternal life, if your ears have heard and believed, and if your feet are following after Jesus, you may be confident that you belong to Jesus and have eternal life.
Salvation to Safety
Those who truly belong to Christ not only possess eternal life, but also have the blessing of knowing that they can never lose it. “I give them eternal life,” Jesus said, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
Given such a clear statement, it is hard to understand how so many Christians can be taught that a true believer can lose eternal life. By its very definition, eternal life cannot be lost. As everlasting life, it lasts forever. It is true that false disciples may lose their salvation, for the simple reason that they never really had it. But those who truly believe—who have received God’s gift into their hands and are marked on the ear and foot through a living, obedient faith—cannot lose a life that is eternal.
Eternal life is a true gift from God. A gift that is taken back was never truly a gift. And since God cannot change, his gifts cannot be revoked. “The gifts and the calling of God,” Paul says, “are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Therefore, if you are sure that you have God’s gift of eternal life, you can be equally sure that you always will.
Since we are prone to doubt, Jesus expresses this as a promise that he is obliged to fulfill. “They will never perish,” he says. A Christian may lose many things in this world: money, position, worldly esteem, and comfort, and unless Jesus returns first, we will all lose our mortal lives. But we will not lose our eternal life. Since Jesus has been raised from the dead and has entered into his eternal heavenly reign, there will never be a time when he will not uphold this promise. “He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever,” says the writer of Hebrews. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:24–25).
A World War II bomber was hit by flak fire during a mission. The pilot had trouble steering, so he asked the rear gunner how bad it was. The gunner replied, “There’s a three by five hole in the left horizontal stabilizer and elevator.” “Will we be able to make it home?” he asked. “No sweat,” the pilot replied. But they barely made it, skewing and skidding as they landed. When they got out and the pilot examined the damage, he screamed: “When you said three by five I thought you meant inches, not feet!” They really had not been safe but were in mortal danger all along. Leon Morris, who tells the story, comments:
A good deal of our earthly security is like that: it is far from being as secure as we imagine. Sometimes things turn out all right for us and sometimes they don’t.… But the wonderful thing about eternal life is that it is absolutely secure. Jesus holds his people in his own firm grasp, and they can trust his assurance that they will never perish.
In John 10:29, Jesus gives one more reason why his sheep are eternally secure: the power of God the Father in keeping safe his own. It is as though Jesus, knowing our need of encouragement, were wrapping his own saving hand with the omnipotent hand of God the Father: “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.”
It is self-evident that nothing is stronger than God. So if we are placed in his hand, we can never be taken out. It is true that we are weak, but how strong God is! It is true that we are prone to error and stumbling, but God is faithful to bring us back and lift us up. We are beset with many enemies and dangers, but God is greater than them all, so no one can “snatch us” out of God’s hand.
When Jesus says that “no one” can snatch believers, what is included in this “no one”? The answer is “everything.” Time is included, since it has no effect on God. Death is included, since God is the Maker and Giver of Life. Sin, too, is unable to snatch a true believer from eternal life. God defeated sin by the death of his Son on the cross. What about earthly powers—kings, generals, and captains of industry? They are part of this “no one,” since God rules over them. What about spiritual powers—Satan and his minions? The Bible shows that Satan can go no further in his wicked schemes than God allows him. Jesus states that God will not allow anyone to pluck his sheep from his hand. Even we ourselves are included in this “no one,” with all our foolish, sinful, rebellious tendencies: nothing we can do can pluck us from God’s strong hand. Paul, therefore, was able to rejoice in the full assurance that every believer can have in the unchanging grace of God. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asked (Rom. 8:35). He answered: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38–39).
For this reason, though we are beset with many troubles and woes, every Christian has every reason to rejoice all the time. As the hymn says:
Heav’n above is deeper blue,
Earth around is sweeter green, …
Since I know, as now I know,
I am his and he is mine.
Salvation for Me
This wonderful teaching of God’s saving grace for Christ’s sheep leaves only one question: How can I be sure that I am one? The reality is that some who profess faith in Christ do not persist to the end. According to the Bible, this proves that they never were truly saved. John says of them in his first epistle, “They were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). So how can I be sure that I am not one of those who fall away?
The classic contrast is between Peter and Judas. Both were disciples, at least outwardly. One persisted in faith until death, but the other, Judas, betrayed Jesus and lost his soul. So how can I know that I am a Peter and not a Judas?
We cannot tell merely by an outward affiliation with Christ and his church, since this was true of both Peter and Judas. But we read on more than one occasion of Peter’s making a good confession of faith in Christ, while from Judas we hear nothing. So have you made a public profession of faith that has been recognized as genuine by the church? Or are you only lingering in the company of God’s people and, like Judas, never committing yourself to Christ?
Furthermore, we cannot tell the difference by observing which one fell into sin, for they both did. John tells us that Judas was greedy and frequently stole from the disciples’ moneybag (John 12:6). Peter was often at the center of error and division, usually because of his pride. So what was the difference? The difference was that Peter was eager to repent of his sin and that his life was increasingly shaped by his discipleship to Christ. Are you repenting of known sins? Are Jesus’ teachings shaping your attitudes and thoughts in new and godly ways? In Judas’s remorse, he turned to self and was destroyed; in Peter’s remorse, he turned to God and in the power of God’s grace repented and was saved.
Finally, we also cannot tell a difference merely by the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus, since Peter did as well. Judas betrayed Jesus to the religious authorities, but Peter denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. The difference is that Peter returned, whereas Judas went off to die in despair. Are you returning to Christ, if you have failed or denied him? How important it is that you do.
Ultimately, we can be sure of our eternal safety only through a present and living faith in Jesus. Jesus says that his sheep are those who accept God’s gracious gift of salvation, hear his voice, and follow him. Flawed and foolish though you may be, does this describe you? If not, then now is the time to commit yourself to Jesus. If this does describe you, you have eternal life and will never perish. Saved in Christ, you are safe forever, and no one will ever snatch you from his mighty hand. What greater incentive could you ever have to live for his glory and serve wholeheartedly in his cause?
27. My sheep hear my voice. He proves by an argument drawn from contraries, that they are not sheep, because they do not obey the Gospel. For God effectually calls all whom he has elected, so that the sheep of Christ are proved by their faith. And, indeed, the reason why the name of sheep is applied to believers is, that they surrender themselves to God, to be governed by the hand of the Chief Shepherd, and, laying aside the fierceness of their nature, become mild and teachable. It is no small consolation to faithful teachers, that, though the greater part of the world do not listen to Christ, yet he has his sheep whom he knows, and by whom he is also known. Let them do their utmost to bring the whole world into the fold of Christ; but when they do not succeed according to their wish, let them be satisfied with this single consideration, that they who are sheep will be gathered by their agency. The rest has been already explained.