In truth, we deserve nothing but condemnation for our sins against our Creator God. Yet, the doctrine of election teaches us how God has made a way of eternal salvation, and for those who have been given life to believe, there are few doctrines more sweet and sobering. Such sweetness does not eliminate the challenge presented by this doctrine, but hopefully in this extended meditation on John 6 you can see what Jesus is saying, what God is doing, and what John’s Gospel is calling us to do—to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he has revealed to us the Father and the Father’s eternal plan for salvation.
A number of years ago, I preached a sermon Titus 1:1. In that passage, Paul says, he is “an apostle Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth.” In that sermon it would be impossible and unfaithful to ignore the word “elect” (eklekton) and the way in which Paul labored for the faith of the elect.
And yet, despite the clear presence of the word in the text and its relationship to faith, truth, and Paul’s gospel ministry, my exposition initiated a cascade of events that resulted in my eventual resignation from my pastoral office. Such is the antagonism against the doctrine of election, which has often been flown under the banner of Calvinism.
In more recent days, I preached a series of messages from John 6, a passage that also touches the doctrine of election. And in these messages, preached in a church where the doctrines of grace are not eschewed but embraced, I was able to show from Scripture what Jesus says about God’s sovereignty in salvation.
In what follows, I want to bullet point some of the key truths uncovered in John 6 with respect to the doctrine of election. In many other articles, I have written how evangelism and election relate, what Scripture says about election, and what hyper-Calvinism really is. In this article, however, I want to stick to Jesus’s words in John 6—a passage where our Lord teaches about the ways God brings salvation to his elect, while passing over others.
Admittedly, this passage is a hard saying (v. 60) and election is a hard doctrine, but it is a true doctrine and one worth pondering. So, with the goal of understanding what Jesus says in John 6, let me offer nine truths about the doctrine of election.
Nine Truths about the Doctrine of Election
Before getting into the text, here is an outline of the nine points. Because what follows is rather long, you might consider picking which point is most interesting (or troubling) and starting there.
- Election depends on the God who selects, not mankind who seeks.
- Election is ordained in eternity and revealed in time.
- Election in time mirrors God’s election in eternity.
- God’s election results in faith, not the reverse.
- Election does not deny the universal offer of Christ; it secures a positive response.
- Election depends on the will of God, not the will of man.
- The election of God’s people ensures that he will bring the gospel to them.
- Election directs Jesus’s ministry, and ours.
- Election is for the glory of God, not the glory of man.
1. Election depends on the God who selects, not mankind who seeks.
In John 6, we learn that Jesus is not compelled to save because some seek him; he is compelled to save because God sent him to save a particular people (i.e., the elect). This point is seen a few ways.
First, Jesus knows who are his. In John 6:37, he describes a people whom the Father has given him. These are the ones who will come. This language of “given ones” is Jesus’s way of identifying his sheep. Throughout John, the elect are described by this phrase—the given ones (see e.g., John 6:39; 10:29; 17:6–9, 11–12, 14, 24; 18:9). So Jesus does not randomly seek people to save, because in eternity past the Father already gave him a people to save. These are the ones who will come to him, and these are the chosen ones he has come to save.
Second, Jesus knows why people seek him. As John 6:26 declares, the crowds seek Jesus to fill their stomachs. Clearly, not all seekers seek from pure hearts. Jesus know this and shows, by the end of John 6, how many would-be seekers are not true seekers.
Third, Jesus knows who will not believe. In John 6:64, John writes, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.” This is a remarkable truth. As Jesus looked at a sea of humanity, he could see the heart of everyone before him (cf. John 2:23–25). And in his ministry, he spent as much time revealing unbelief in those who would not believe (cf. John 7:7), as he did producing faith in those who would. Perhaps, this approach to ministry seems foreign to our consumeristic minds, but read John 6 again. In John’s evangelistic Gospel (see 20:31), we will find an approach to evangelism that depends on God’s will, not appeals to man’s will.
In sum, Jesus is not the Savior of an unknown humanity, he is a Savior for all those whom the Father gave him before the world began.
2. Election is ordained in eternity and revealed in time.
As noted in Truth #1, Jesus works to expose the real condition of the heart. For instance, in his discourse with the crowds, Jesus brings his seekers to a place of grumbling (v. 41), disputing (v. 52), and leaving (v. 66). In this way, he shows the crowds that they are not truly seeking seek him. And he does this because he knows who will not believe.
Conversely, because he knows who will believe, he says and does everything for his elect, so that they would confess him as their Lord and Christ (v. 67). Remarkably, Jesus does not fear losing the ones God has given to him. Instead, he opens the door for them to leave and he challenges his elect to profess their faith—which they do. In John 6:67–69, we read this exchange,
So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Indeed, the elect of God are unknown to the world until they are revealed by enduring faith.
To put it doctrinally, election is something God does in eternity past, which is then revealed in time. And because God has decreed the end from the beginning and everything in between, the result of Jesus’s word ministry perfectly matches what God ordained.
3. Election of the Twelve reflects, but does not reveal, God’s election in eternity.
The last statement in John 6 is one highlighting the divide which still stands among the Twelve.
70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
Most directly, Jesus says to the Twelve, that he has chosen them. In context, Jesus’s words reply to Peter’s great confession (vv. 68–69), but they also explain why Peter confessed faith in Christ. When all the crowds departed, Peter remained with the Twelve because Jesus choose them. In other words, the ultimate efficacy of their discipleship was not their human will. It was Jesus’s divine choice.
Still, Jesus admits that one of his chosen ones, Judas, remains a son of perdition. As it will be revealed, God’s choice of Judas is different than that of Peter. For instance, Jesus prays to protect Peter from Satan’s sifting (Luke 22:31), but Jesus permits, even sends, Judas to follow his Satanic heart (John 13:2, 27). In short, the difference between Peter and Judas is ultimately up to God, not man. And this divide in the Twelve, like the divide between the Twelve and the departing crowds, reflects the eternal choice of God’s elect.
That said, we need to see a difference between the Father’s choice in election and Jesus’s choice of the Twelve. In other words, when Jesus speaks of the election of the Twelve, he is not describing the same reality as the Father’s election. Jesus chose Judas to be one of the twelve, but he chose him knowing that he would betray him. Hence, Jesus chose Judas for betrayal, not belief. Judas’s betrayal would be a result of his own choosing, when he followed the ways of Satan instead of Christ.
Christ’s of him then is not in opposition to the Father’s will. His choice is something different than the Father’s election unto salvation. Jesus’s choice of the Twelve was a choosing for service, of which eleven disciples were also appointed to believe in Christ, but one wasn’t. And this bifurcation in the Twelve indicates a difference between the Son’s choice and the Father’s.
To make the point finer. This does not mean that the Father and Son have two different elections; it means that Jesus’s election of the Twelve reflects God’s will to ordain some to life and service, while for others he orders their lives to glorify him in their unbelief. As Proverbs 16:4 states, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” In short, Jesus choice of the Twelve reflects God’s sovereign decree for the elect and the non-elect, not God’s choice of the elect only.
In the Trinitarian theology of John, this is fitting. Jesus does exactly what he sees the Father doing (5:19) and that activity of the Father includes judgment and salvation (5:19–30). Sublimely, God is sovereign over salvation and judgment. And though the process by which God brings salvation to the elect and judgment to unbelievers is not the same (i.e., he condemns unbelievers for their sins in the body, not for being non-elect), the cosmic reality remains: God has declared the end from the beginning and he has determined the eternal reality of every creature.
In Christ’s choice of the twelve, we see this. His election of the eleven who believe on him and the one who will betray him, depicts the universal reality that God has made vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath and all the creatures in his world will ultimately render him the glory for which he created them (cf. Rom. 9:19–23).
4. God’s election results in faith, not the reverse.
As Jesus says in John 6:29, Jesus says that faith is not the work of man, but the work of God. Or to say it differently, faith is the fruit of God’s gift of eternal life (v. 47). Negatively, then, faith is not what man does to get God. But positively, faith is the work of God in man.
Man must believe in the Son to be saved, but faith in the Son comes from the Father (vv. 44, 65) by means of the Spirit (v. 63). And because the Father, Son, and Spirit planned salvation before the world began, we can say with confidence, election results in faith, not the reverse.
Even more concretely, John 6:47 leads us to see that faith comes from people who have received the gift of eternal life (“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life”). And as John 6:54 indicates, feeding on Jesus is only possible for those who have received eternal life (“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”).
Indeed, Jesus says you must eat of his flesh to have eternal life (v. 54), but such a participation in Christ will only come if God has granted life (cf. 1 John 5:1).