Understanding John 6:44
Continuing in our Understanding Series we will examine another passage of Scripture often a source of confusion – John 6:44. Such confusion is not the result of ambiguity or contradiction in the text itself, but rather it is the result of the reader committing what is known as eisegesis – reading a presupposition into the passage.
“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 ESV (emphasis added)
The Greek term ἑλκύσῃ means to persuade, draw, drag and pull; relying on the context of the term and the grammar employed to determine the writer’s intended meaning. In a literal sense this word can mean to pick up and carry, but it can also mean to bring by inducement or allure – to attract.
This passage of Scripture is often a go to proof text for those who come from the Reformed tradition, especially Calvinism. Often, a particular adherent of Reformed theology will insist that there is one universally accepted interpretation of this term, ἑλκύσῃ, and any suggestion to the contrary is the result of ignorance or being lost. However, any student of Calvinism will know there is disagreement among their leading theologians on this very issue.
Disagreement Among Reformed
There is a wonderful article by Ancient Faith Ministries entitled “Does John 6:44 Teach Predestination?” There the author quotes Reformed Theologians and sources such as Charles Spurgeon, Ligonier Ministries and John Calvin himself to illustrate disagreement among Calvinists on what the term ἑλκύσῃ means. There you can find quotes, sources and far more detail than we will go into here.
Suffice it to say, Spurgeon rejected interpreting ἑλκύσῃ as 'dragging' and appealed to mystery relying on Song of Solomon 1:4 to insist it means to 'draw', whereas Ligonier Ministries is adamant on translating it as 'dragging us against our will' referencing Acts 16:19 – taking Calvin’s position to an extreme.
A Problem for Calvinists
When the Reformed insist on applying the literal meaning of ἑλκύσῃ as to 'drag', a problem of consistent hermeneutics arises.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32
Here, in the same Book of Scripture, the same word is used in two similar contexts. If the Reformed insist that ἑλκύσῃ means to 'drag against man's will' to an inevitable salvation, then they find John 12:32 results in Universalism.
To combat this, the Reformed will utilize an inconsistent interpretation, employing the hard literal meaning in one passage while insisting on the soft figurative interpretation in the other - or they will alter the meaning of the term 'all' to mean those "elected to salvation". They must apply this inconsistent interpretation or change the text altogether in order to support their doctrine of predestination without promoting Universalism.
For example, if we apply the inconsistent Reformed interpretation we find:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me [drags him against his will]. And I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:44 (Reformed understanding type A)
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will [drag all the elect children of God] to myself.” John 12:32 (Reformed understanding type A)
While still others among the Reformed faith will understand these passages as:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me [draws him by changing his will]. And I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:44 (Reformed understanding type B)
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will [ineffectually call everyone but only change the will of all the elect] to myself.” John 12:32 (Reformed understanding type B)
By now it should be clear the type of eisegesis one must commit in order to maintain the Reformed understanding of this passage of Scripture.
Outside of Reformed theology there are other definitions for this term and how it should be understood in these passages. Some see ἑλκύσῃ as being akin to αἱρέω, which means to take or to choose; prefer - thus they see it supporting a willful response to God's calling. Some, like John Chrysostom see ἑλκύσῃ not in terms of compulsion, but rather as persuasion. Others still understand the term in light of Jesus’ “fishers of men” metaphor in Matthew 4:19 and thus take it to mean to lure or to woo. All of these understandings also underscore the intent of other passages in Scripture such as 1 John 4:19 - that God's love on full display in Christ is so appealing that it evokes a response.
"We love him, because he first loved us." 1 John 4:19
For example, when we apply this understanding to the text it reads:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me [persuades and woos] him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:44
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will [persuade and woo] all to myself.” John 12:32
John 6:44 in Context
We've examined what the Greek term ἑλκύσῃ means, how it is used in two passages within the Book of John, as well as the Reformed and non-Reformed understanding and finally arrive at the passage's immediate context.
"Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. *All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:35-40
We see here in John 6 that salvation is available to all who come and believe in Jesus, for the will of the Father is that everyone who looks to Jesus should be saved.
*Now the Reformed will often isolate verse 37 and claim this to be a reference to their doctrine of election. However, it must be noted that while Scripture does speak of the elect and election, it does not do so here. Moreover the Reformed utilize extra-Biblical definitions to suit their philosophy, so Biblical election is much different that Calvinist election. The context here shows Jesus is speaking of what is occurring while He has "come down from heaven" and how it specifically relates to the will of God.
Leighton Flowers has a great article on this topic, John 6 - "Down from Heaven" : Why Context Kills Calvinism, and we strongly recommend you check it out.
"It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me-"John 6:45 (emphasis added)
In the verse immediately following John 6:44 we see how God draws all men to Himself, by teaching and speaking and we see who is drawn, those who hear and learn. So it does not require a violation of their will, nor that they be dragged forcefully against their will.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life." John 6:47
What does Scripture say is required in order to believe?
"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Romans 10:14-15
While such an understanding is in harmony with the immediate and broader context within the New Testament, we should not fail to note this is a theme carried over from the Old Testament.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness." Jeremiah 31:3
There are several ways to interpret and understand ἑλκύσῃ, a key term in John 6:44; some require an inconsistent hermeneutic, while others are more in keeping with exegetical respect for the text.
"When an honestly mistaken man hears the Truth, he will either quit being mistaken, or cease to be honest." Unknown