Skeptical Grumbling and Sovereign Grace
One of the reasons that we preach straight through books of the Bible as our main way of hearing from God in corporate worship at Bethlehem, with occasional topical series thrown in along the way, is that it encourages us to consider all that God has to say in a book of the Bible, rather than just the parts we especially like or the parts that are easier to understand. This means that we inevitably come upon passages that are controversial. That is certainly true about today’s text.
I try not to go out of my way to look for trouble. But when it comes — as it does when this text is quoted — there are reasons for it, and we should face it and learn from it. The controversial verse is John 6:44, and we will spend most of our time trying to understand what Jesus says here and why he says it and what benefit it has for us.
What’s Not Controversial (Among Christians)
In this verse Jesus says, “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). The non-controversial part among Christians is the promise that Jesus will raise from the dead all who come to him. We talked about that last week because it is mentioned in verses 39 and 40. Jesus is reminding them: What is at stake in your coming to me is infinitely important — your future resurrection from the dead.
What Is Controversial
The controversial part is: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” One reason it’s controversial is that, if you simply take the verse as it stands, it could mean two different things.
“Jesus will raise from the dead all who come to him.”
On the one hand, it could mean that no one can come to Jesus without God’s drawing, and God draws everyone, but only some come. So God’s drawing doesn’t cause the coming, it only makes the coming possible. And then the one who comes provides the decisive impulse, or cause.
Or, on the other hand, it could mean that no one can come to Jesus without God’s drawing, and everyone whom he draws does come because God’s drawing infallibly produces the coming. This would mean that the Father only draws some since all don’t come, and that the decisive cause of the coming is God, not man. To try to understand what Jesus really meant, let’s get the context before us.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum (verse 59), and the resistance to his teaching is increasing. Here at the beginning of our text (verses 41–42), Jesus’s audience is grumbling about what he has said:
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus has said in essence in verses 33 and 35 and 38 that he is the Bread of God sent into the world to give life to the world, and if we will come to him and believe on him, and feast on all that God is for us in him, and find our soul’s satisfaction in him, we will live forever and he will raise us on the last day.
But instead of getting more and more clarity and more and more agreement, Jesus is getting more and more resistance. This resistance in verse 41 is called grumbling. And the content of their grumbling is that what he says doesn’t fit with what they think they know about him. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” In other words, he can’t be from heaven, because he’s from earth. We know his parents.
So the words of Jesus about himself collide with human perceptions and human reasonings about what is possible. “You can’t be from heaven, because our eyes and ears and minds tell us you are from earth.” And so they resist what Jesus says. That’s the nub of their grumbling.
Now skip down to verse 47. Here, he reaffirms what has made them grumble in the first place, only he adds one more statement that raises the decibels of their grumbling to the point of disputing or, literally, almost fighting (verse 52).
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.
So far there is nothing new. But then in the last part of verse 51, he says, “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” We will save this for another sermon. But you can see that now he is talking about his flesh (which he hasn’t done until this point), and he says he will “give” his flesh — indicating his sacrificial death. And the grumbling moves to disputing as they say in verse 52, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
But for now let’s go back to verses 43–44 to see Jesus’s response to their grumbling. He says in verse 43–44, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
So the key verse for us (verse 44) is a response to their grumbling and their resistance to what he is telling them about himself. It seems that the more resistant they become, the more explicit Jesus becomes about how impossible it is for them to come on their own. So we have at least two questions to answer: (1) What does Jesus mean by “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”? And (2) why does he say it — especially in response to their grumbling? Let’s take these one at a time.
What Does Jesus Mean?
First, what does Jesus mean by “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”?
“But God’s drawing is decisive. And without, it no one would come.”
If we just stay in the Gospel of John and work our way out from the near context to the farther, what becomes clear is that Jesus means not that he draws everyone and then some of them provide the decisive impulse and come, but that everyone whom he draws actually comes. The drawing is the decisive impulse. We will see it again and again in this Gospel that this drawing is not at all in conflict with our choosing to come and our freely coming because we want to come. But his drawing is decisive. And without, it no one would come.
Consider five passages, which say essentially the same thing and confirm and clarify this understanding.
1. John 6:37
We saw this verse last week. “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37). In the flow of thought here between verses 37 and 44, I don’t think there is any reason to view the Father’s giving people to Jesus (verse 37), and the Father’s drawing people to Jesus (verse 44) as different experiences. I think they are the same.
And Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” — not some of them will come to me, but all of them. So there is good reason to think that verse 44 means, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” because all that he draws, all that he gives, will come to me. The drawing is the deciding cause. Inside our seeing Christ as compellingly desirable is God’s drawing, God’s opening our eyes.
2. John 6:63–65
Here, Jesus explicitly refers back to verse 44 and applies the truth of verse 44 to those who do not come, especially Judas.
He says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Then John inserts, “(For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)” — a reference to Judas in particular. Then Jesus continues in verse 65 by referring back to verse 44. “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”
Notice the logical connection between what Jesus says in verse 64 (“There are some of you who do not believe” — like Judas) and what he says in verse 65 (“This is why — or on account of this, what I said back in verse 44 — no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father”). Because there are unbelievers — like Judas — that’s why I said no one can come without being drawn (verse 44) or being granted (verse 65) to come.
If the Father’s drawing, or the Father’s granting (as Jesus means it in these verses), were something he did for all people, this would seem to make no sense. He would be saying, “I know that there is a Judas among my disciples, and that is why I told you that it takes a universal drawing of everyone for anyone to be able to come.” But a universal drawing of everyone doesn’t explain Judas. What verse 65 is saying is this: there is a Judas among my disciples, and that’s why I made the point that no one can come unless God draws him. God has not drawn Judas in this way. God has not “granted” him to come. He has left him in the rebellion of his greed and stealing and unbelief.
3. John 8:47
“Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” In John 8:47, “hearing the words of God” refers to a hearing with understanding and agreement. It’s virtually the same as responding with faith or coming to Jesus. And the reason, Jesus says, they don’t hear is that they are not “of God.” Being “of God” would refer to the choice of God to draw them. In other words, the decisive cause behind hearing and understanding and believing the words of God is a prior position called being “of God.” In other words, no one can come to me unless they are “of God” — the God who then draws them to me.
4. John 10:26–27
“You do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The decisive cause of whether we believe on Jesus, whether we hear his voice and follow him is: Are we part of his flock? Are we “of God”? There is a decisive act of God to make us part of his flock; and because we are part of his flock, we hear the voice of Jesus and believe. “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (verse 27) is the same as saying: all that the Father gives me will come to me (6:37), and those whom the Father draws come to me (6:44). When we come to Jesus, we come voluntarily and freely. We want to come. And behind that change in us is a decisive work of the Father.
5. John 12:37–40
This passage is the most stunning of all:
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”
This passage cannot mean that God is drawing all men to Jesus in the same way and leaving it with them to provide the decisive impulse. When it says in verse 39, “Therefore they could not believe,” it means God has given them up. And the effect is a hardness of unbelief that, for now, for most of Israel, he does not overcome. As Paul says in Romans 11:25, “A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
If We Come, It Was God Who Drew
So with five parallel passages in my mind (and two of them very close — John 6:37 and 6:65) we come back to John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” And we conclude: If we come to Jesus, it is because the Father drew us — which none of us deserves. And if we don’t come to Jesus, it is because the Father left us in our rebellion — which all of us deserve. And there is no fatalism in the Bible. We are responsible to come to Jesus. He is calling you to come right now.
A Common Objection
Now there is a serious and common objection to this understanding of John 6:44, namely, that Jesus says in John 12:32–33 that, in fact, he does draw all people to himself. “‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
This is too important to squeeze into today’s message. We will take it up next time, Lord willing. I think there is a clear explanation of that text without undoing anything we have seen today. And I want to close with the other question we raised, namely, why Jesus says what he does in John 6:44. Why does he say, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”?
Why Does Jesus Say It?
One clue is that he says it in response to grumbling. John 6:43–44: “Jesus answered them, ‘Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.’” And the content of their grumbling according to verse 42 was, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
“The decisive reason anyone comes to Jesus is that the Father draws him.”
In other words, their perceptions and their reasonings were rising up to resist what Jesus was teaching them — that he was the Bread of God that had come down from heaven. And in essence what Jesus says to them is: you may as well stop this grumbling, because the perceptions and the reasonings of fallen human beings are never the decisive reason anyone comes to me. The decisive reason anyone comes to me is that my Father draws him.
So you would do better to stop grumbling and start praying that God would change your heart and open your eyes and draw you to Jesus. So the reason Jesus speaks this way (in verse 44) is to shake us out of our self-reliant, self-determining, self-exalting, self-absorbed presumptions about what our senses and our reason and our wills can do. One thing is certain: they cannot provide the decisive impulse to come to Christ. Only God can give that. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” We desire, we choose, we come because we want to. But sovereign, undeserved grace is behind it all.
Five Effects of God’s Sovereign, Undeserved Grace
And what is the effect of this teaching on us who have come?
It humbles us — we did not provide the decisive impulse that brought us to Christ. God did. We came because of him. If it weren’t for his drawing, I would utterly lost. God have mercy on me if I am not humble because of this truth.
It fills us with thankfulness — everything I have, including my coming to Jesus, is a gift. Oh how thankful I am for sovereign grace. Aren’t you?
It gives us assurance — for if he drew us to himself freely and omnipotently, then he will keep us to the end. This is the great ground of our assurance. Those whom he called he justified, and those whom he justified he glorified.
From this, we get hope for the conversion of the people we love who seem utterly beyond hope — if conversion is decisively dependent on human character and on decades of habit, we would despair over many sinners. But nothing is too hard for God. When God calls the dead, they rise. When God draws his sheep, they come.
Finally, all glory goes to God, not to us — this is why God saves the way he does. All glory belongs to him. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness” (Psalms 115:1)!
Calling All Sinners
Jesus does not speak mainly to create controversy. He speaks to call sinners to himself, and to humble the proud, and to glorify his Father. This is why he lived. This is why he died. This is why he rose again.
Come to him. Be satisfied in him. Be humbled by him. Give glory to God because of him. Amen.