John 6, and especially John 6:37, is considered by Calvinist scholars and Bible teachers to be among their most convincing texts. Calvinist author James White believes it to be the strongest Calvinist passage in the entire Bible. In his book, The Potter’s Freedom, he writes:
John 6:37-45 is the clearest exposition of Calvinism in the Bible… There is a good reason why non-Calvinists stumble at this point: there is no meaningful non-Reformed exegesis of this passage available.1
To many, John 6:37 may seem to give strong biblical support to the Calvinist viewpoint of unconditional election and irresistible grace. However, is this verse an “exposition” of the Calvinist doctrine? Does John 6:37 unquestionably support the Calvinist view of divine election? Our premise is that this text is taken out of context, misinterpreted by many Calvinists, and does not support Reformed theology at all. That may seem like quite a statement. However, let us to examine this passage in the light of Scripture.
The Biblical Context
The fundamental issue of this passage is not divine election but the deity of Christ. The Jewish opposition and rejection of Christ did not lie in election but rather in their rejection of Christ’s deity and the teaching He had received from the Father. In chapter 5, the Lord explained that both Moses and John the Baptist testified of His relationship with the Father (vv. 33, 46). Nevertheless, these Jews rose up in opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ, dismissing the teaching of both Moses and John.
If they had received Moses’ teaching and had truly come to know the Father, they would have belonged to the Father’s flock, and the Father would have drawn them to the Son and placed them into His shepherd care (Jn. 6:45). Our Lord’s phrase “give to Me” in chapters 6 and 17 of John’s Gospel expresses a two-fold spiritual truth. The primary meaning of it was to come under His shepherd care (Jn. 17:11-12). Secondarily, it meant to come to Christ by faith (Jn. 17:1-2). All that the Father gave the Son would come under His spiritual shepherd care, and the majority would also move from faith in the Father to faith in Christ but, sadly, not all, such as Judas Iscariot.
The Calvinist Perspective
All Calvinists are united in seeing unconditional divine election and irresistible grace taught in John 6:37. Calvinists equate the word “gives” with divine election. They reason that the people whom the Father gives to the Son are the elect, and the Father will irresistibly draw these to the Son for salvation. The Father draws and elects only some to salvation in Christ; the others are not drawn, and, so, they are eternally lost. Representative of this view is Calvinist author Edwin Palmer:
Only those whom the Father gives to Christ can come to Him. Salvation is entirely in the hands of the Father. He it is who gives them to Jesus to be saved. Thus, salvation depends entirely on the Father giving some to Christ. This is nothing else than unconditional election.2
At first glance, this view may seem like the proper teaching of Scripture. However, upon closer examination, several difficulties in the Calvinist interpretation present themselves. Let us take a look at some of these objections.
The context of John’s Gospel. Firstly, there are at least seven other verses in John’s Gospel which speak of the Father giving individuals to the Son (Jn. 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 12, 24). When we compare these verses with each other, we discover that the ones whom the Father gives are not the elect of past and future ages, but, rather, these are those for whom the Lord prayed, to whom the Lord taught the Scriptures.
Faith: before or afterwards? Secondly, do those who are given to the Son have faith in God prior to being given or afterwards? Scripture seems to indicate that those who are given to the Son already belonged to the Father and have faith prior to being given to the Son (Jn. 6:45). There is not one verse in all of the Bible which indicates that God grants salvation to anyone apart from faith in Christ. “All those who the Father gives Me” were those who had faith in Christ. Faith in Christ is the key to understanding this section in John’s Gospel. Well-known Calvinist author and lecturer R. C. Sproul, Sr. writes,
This qualifies His statement about what the Father has given Him that would never be lost. It is believers that are given to Christ by the Father, and these believers will never be lost. This affirmation builds on what Jesus declared only moments earlier” (Jn. 6:36-37).3 (Emphasis mine.)
Moreover, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, in His high priestly prayer, teaches that before individuals were given to Him, they were believers. In John 17, we read, “They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word” (v. 6, nkj).
Shepherd care or election? Thirdly, regarding the individuals that were given by the Father, were they given in the sense of election, or were they given for the shepherd’s care and spiritual protection? It seems that these given ones, the majority of which already knew God, were given to the Son primarily for keeping or spiritual protection.
In the Old Testament, especially in Psalm 121 and Ezekiel 34, we have many rich images of the guiding, keeping, and “watchman” ministry of God over Israel. In Psalm 121, the words “keep” and “preserve” are each used three times. “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved, He who keepeth thee will not slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy Keeper…The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil, He shall preserve thy soul” (Ps. 121:3-8). This keeping work of the Father in the Old Testament is given to the Son in the New Testament.
John 17 is a very interesting passage in this regard. In our Lord’s high priestly prayer, He prays, “…these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those Thou hast given Me…while I was with them in the world, I kept them in Thy name; those Thou gavest Me I have kept” (Jn. 17:11-12). In these verses, the Lord is returning the ones He has kept back into the Father’s spiritual care. Now, this language would be indeed strange if the giving by the Father meant election to salvation; but, if it were primarily for special spiritual care while He was on earth, it makes perfect sense. It seems that the Father gave to the Son the special role of “Shepherd Keeper” while He was with His disciples in the world. Even the moderate Calvinist, the late James Montgomery Boice, makes this same point:
But God does keep us. That is the point of these verses and the object of our Lord’s petition. While He was here, He kept those whom God had entrusted to Him, and He kept them well. None was lost. Now He is about to return to the Father, and therefore, He recommits those whom He had cared for again into the Father’s keeping.4
We would suggest that the giving work of the Father and the keeping work of the Lord Jesus Christ do not refer to divine election or irresistible grace but to the vital shepherd care of the Lord Jesus Christ for His disciples.
The case of Judas Iscariot. Fourthly, if, according to Calvinism, the giving of some to the Son is essentially the same as election, and if the elect can never be lost, then how are we to understand the situation of Judas Iscariot, of whom the Bible says he was “given” by the Father but was also lost (Jn. 17:12). The Father’s giving of some to the Son must be something less than sovereign divine election to salvation. Theologian Dr. Lawrence Vance explains that the giving of the Father does not meet the biblical standard of divine election:
That this will of the Father was not a sovereign, eternal decree is apparent from the fact that one of those given to Christ was a devil (Jn. 6:70) who was lost (Jn. 17:12)…5
Before we move on from this point, we need to look more closely at a detail concerning Judas. In this regard, how do we reconcile the fact that Judas, a “given one,” was lost, with the words of the Lord Jesus that state that none of the given ones shall ever be lost? The Lord stated, “…that of all that He hath given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (Jn. 6:39); and “Those Thou gavest Me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn. 17:12).
How is it that Judas is lost, considering what the Lord says about keeping all those given to Him? This is important because it touches on the doctrine of eternal security. We would suggest that Judas was “given” but did not know Christ as Savior.
Judas is an example of one who was a follower of God, like many others in Old Testament, but did not come to know Christ as his Savior. The Father gave him to the Son, but he was not regenerated and later ended his life without faith in Christ. When we consider the case of Judas Iscariot, it causes us to dig a little deeper to discover the difference between one who was given to Christ and one who was saved through the finished work of Christ.
Many Calvinists have long argued that John 6:37 is one of the best descriptions of Calvinism in the Bible. But when this verse is examined within its context, along with other relevant verses in John’s Gospel, it does not support the Calvinist viewpoint. It is speaking of shepherd care, not election to salvation.
1. James White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), p. 155.
2. Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1979), pp. 27-28.
3. R. C. Sproul, Loved by God (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2001), p. 123.
4. James M. Boice, Gospel of John, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), p. 392.
5. Lawrence Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 1995), p. 342.