In the Bread of Life Discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself to be the “real food” of which all must partake in order to have eternal life. After experiencing a miraculous object lesson, as well as enjoying a satisfying meal, the people eagerly looked for Jesus on the other side of the lake. Motivated by the satisfying meal rather than the significance of the meal, the people are entreated by Jesus to do the work God requires which is to “believe in the one he sent” (6:29). Their spiritual dullness is displayed when they ask for yet another “miraculous sign” (6:30; 34), which Jesus refuses them and, instead, points to Himself (vv. 35ff).
The responsibility of belief, or “coming to Jesus,” rests with the people (6:36), yet those who come to Jesus in faith somehow belong to the Father and are given to Jesus (vv. 37, 39). The question is raised: Is the coming or believing a result of this belonging-to-God relationship? There is a sense in which it can be no other way, for the context indicates that the issue is God’s redemptive purposes (Jn 6:38-40). These purposes can never be thwarted when the entire salvation-historical perspective is in view. It is foreign to biblical thought that one could have such an intimate relationship with the Father and yet never come to or believe in the revelation of His Son.
An even more important question remains. How is this coming/believing accomplished? Jesus emphatically says it is God who enables the coming and believing (6:44, 65). Carson states, “The world chooses, but by itself it cannot (because it will not) choose the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.” The reverse is equally true that the world will not (because it cannot) choose God’s revelation in Christ. There is an ontological problem with all fallen humans, being left to ourselves, that so profoundly prohibits our coming and believing. A seriously wounded animal left to itself is without hope apart from some outside help. Likewise, we must have something happen to our very being which endows us with the capacity to respond in faith. Ought does not necessarily imply can (contra Kant)! Ultimately, the “existence of [the] people of God can be explained only on the basis of God’s plan. . . , will, and action, not from a series of human resolves.”
This in no way removes human responsibility. From the human side, a person still must respond in faith. A condition for eternal life must still be met by everyone. Jesus, many times over, implores that “if anyone eats. . . “ (6:51), “. . . unless you eat . . . and drink. . . “ (v. 53), “whoever eats. . . and drinks. . . “ (v. 54). Again, “whoever eats. . . and drinks. . . “ (v. 56), “. . . the one who feeds on me. . . “ and “he who feeds on this bread. . . “ (vv. 57, 58) is assured eternal life.
So, this belonging-to-God relationship is accomplished by God’s enabling the one who chooses to recognize their malnourished soul. God enables the recognition and the actual coming since, the “Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (6:63). As a result, this recognition and coming indicates that she belongs to the Father.
From the divine side (or God’s vantage point), this belonging-to-God relationship must have existed prior to it becoming manifest in the fabric of salvation-history (cf. Eph 1:4, 11). If not, then in what sense did those who were given to Jesus belong to the Father? It may be true that “every living soul belongs to me [the Sovereign Lord]” (Ez 18:4), but in John this belonging means far more than a generic sense. This a priori relationship is the basis upon which God draws some to Himself. It is important to note, too, that He must have some knowledge of those upon whom He exerts this drawing activity. The alternative is that God arbitrarily draws people, hoping that some will come to Him.
Similarly, God does not decide something and then know it to be true. Nor does He know something to be true and then decide it to be the case. God’s knowing and deciding (or, ordaining) are without respect to time. The actuality of salvation and election takes place within the parameters of time but are known and ordained from all eternity past. For John, the fundamental starting-point of election is found in the relationship the elect have with God. This is against Klein who argues “when Jesus supplies the basis or explanation for their place in that group [viz. those whom God gives to Jesus], it turns out to be their faith.” It is admitted that human faith is necessary to complete the paradigm of election and salvation, but it cannot be the basis for the relationship of the elect. Rather, it is the relationship of the elect to the Father (viz. ownership) which is the ground for belief (cf. 6:44, 65).
This relationship the elect have with God may have existed prior to its manifestation in salvation history, but this does not remove the responsibility to believe. Belief or faith is still essential (8:24). Jesus rebukes the Jews for not believing Him (8:45-46). The a priori relationship and the responsibility to believe reflects both the divine and human side of election and salvation. God may be the ultimate cause of the individual’s salvation, but He cannot be the only cause. “In God’s providential strategy he remains the final cause of everything but makes use of. . . .people as efficient causes to achieve the ends of his preceptive will. Hence in any historical event on planet earth there may be several causal factors.”
D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 167.
Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), s.v. “Elect,” by L. Coenen.
William W. Klein, The New Chosen People, A Corporate View of Election, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 140.
Bruce A. Demarest and Gordon R. Lewis, Integrative Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 318.