Beware: Straw Men Abound
Every now and then, I will be publishing my responses to correspondence that I have received, asking for clarification in regard to certain issues. Though any information regarding my respective correspondents will be removed for the sake of privacy, and there may be some editing involved for the sake of clarity, what I publish here is for all intents and purposes that which I originally wrote.
Below is one such response. I was asked about an article by someone named Wayne Jackson entitled “Does John 6:37 Teach Calvinist Predestination?” I trust that what follows will be helpful. I provide this response not because Mr. Jackson’s article is in any way novel or persuasive, but because it is, unfortunately, typical of that which is all too commonly found on the internet.
Statements from Mr. Jackson’s article will follow his initials, (WJ:), and will be bolded and italicized. My responses will follow my initials, (JMH:), in a normal font.
WJ: “Please explain John 6:37. Who are those ‘given’ to Christ? Does this mean that they were selected by God before the foundation of the world, and are ‘elected’ — irrespective of their personal obedience?”
The passage under consideration reads as follows:
“All of those whom the Father gives me shall come unto me; and him who comes to me I will in no wise cast out.”
First, the Bible student needs to remind himself of this premise. The Scriptures are the inspired word of God (1 Thes. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Coming, then, from Jehovah as the ultimate source, they do not contradict themselves; instead, they are perfectly harmonious (Dt. 32:4; 1 Cor. 14:33a). When one encounters a passage, therefore, that may appear to conflict with plain-spoken texts contained elsewhere in Scripture, he must look carefully at the more obscure text and determine if there is a reasonable way to bring it into harmony with the other.
Having said that, let us further emphasize this point. No sacred text must be viewed in any way that would negate the following fundamental truths.
JMH: Indeed, the Bible is the inspired word of God, and therefore, it will not contradict itself. The scripture, properly understood, will harmonize. But the author goes beyond this basic and foundational truth. His primary point goes far beyond this. He is actually saying that we need to look at a given text while presupposing other assumptions concerning what Scripture teaches elsewhere. But as becomes evident in the rest of his article, those assumptions are not proven, but merely asserted.
As the author asserts those presuppositions, he will seek to provide verses that supposedly prove them. The reader, then, needs to determine whether or not the passages he gives actually do support the presupposition.
Let’s examine them, and see.
WJ: 1) Man has been given free will
37“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.
JMH: So, does this teach that man has been given free will? Pay close attention to what the verse actually says. Every time this verse is used to argue against a Calvinistic understanding of election, it is misinterpreted. In fact, it must be misinterpreted in order to be used in that way.
The assumption is that those who Jesus wanted to gather are the same ones that are unwilling, as if Jesus is speaking of only one group of people. But if one reads closely, it is clear that Jesus is speaking of two different groups of people. There is “Jerusalem” and there is “your children”. Jesus is addressing “Jerusalem”. “Jerusalem” is not to those that He wanted to gather. He speaks of gathering Jerusalem’s “children”. He doesn’t say that he wanted to gather “you”, but “your children”. This should be easy to see, and yet it so often overlooked. I am not my father. Jerusalem is not “your children”.
With that understanding, let’s ask the question: What does this say in regard to free will? The answer is: Nothing.
Not one word is said concerning the will of “your children”, free or otherwise. It is “Jerusalem”, the Jewish leaders, who are unwilling. But even this tells us nothing about the nature of their will, only the object of their will. They were unwilling, but their unwillingness had nothing to do with themselves, but with their children. They were unwilling that the “children” be gathered. Jesus is not talking about free will. He’s talking about the fact that the religious leaders of Jerusalem are opposing Him.
WJ: John 5:39
39“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me;
JMH: There’s really not much to say in this regard. Remember, this is a reference that the author gives in order to support his contention that the Bible teaches that man has free will. I will leave you to answer the question: What does this verse say about free will? I can’t find it.
WJ: John 7:17
17“If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.
JMH: Does this verse teach free will? It certainly makes a statement concerning what will be true “if” someone is willing. But that doesn’t say anything about why someone might be willing.
This is an issue that will recur throughout this article. The author simply does not understand the position against which he is writing. To say that Scripture does not teach free will is not to say that man has no will.
Let me say that again, because this is so important, and it is a misunderstanding that I see over and over again, often from people who should know better. Norman Geisler made this same error in his book, “Chosen But Free” (see my critique of Geisler’s book elsewhere on this site or google it. It’s found in a number of places around the internet). Geisler wasted a great deal of time arguing that the human will is not destroyed in the fall. That is the epitome of a straw man argument. I know of no reformed writer who ever said such a thing. The question is not whether man has a will, but how that will has been affected by the fall.
Neither does the reformed position ever assert that no one ever wills to come to Christ or “do His will”. The question is: Why does someone will to come to Christ? Paul says that no one understands and no one seeks God (Rom. 3:11). How then can anyone come to Christ? That’s the question. That’s the issue. This text doesn’t prove free will. It doesn’t even address the real question.
WJ: Revelation 22:17 (New American Standard Bible)
17The Spirit and the bride say, “Come ” And let the one who hears say, “Come ” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.
JMH: Once again, we don’t have a word about free will. We find a clear statement made that if one is thirsty and wishes to take the water of life, they are invited to come. But not a word is said about who may or may not be thirsty, or why one may or may not wish to take the water. Once again, the question is what lies behind the “wish”, and this verse does not address that question.
I would encourage the reader to consider the following verses which, though not an exhaustive list, will set forth the biblical understanding of the will, which, as the reader will note, is anything but “free”: Rom 3:10ff., 1 Cor. 1:18-2:14, John 3:1-8; Eph. 2:1-5; Rom. 8:7; Matt. 11:27: 2 Cor. 2:14; John 6:44.
WJ: 2) His salvation is dependent upon his personal acceptance of divine grace, in obedience to the requirements of the gospel of Christ
2 Thessalonians 1:7-9
7and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,
Hebrews 5:8-9 8Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.
9And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,
1 Peter 4:17
17For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
JMH: Here again is an example of his lack of understanding of the position he’s arguing against. Apparently he thinks that Calvinists believe that people are saved apart from the exercise of faith. I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but one must wonder if Mr. Jackson ever heard of the Reformation , the central focus of which was justification by faith alone.
WJ: To suggest that God, before the world’s foundation, chose certain ones to be saved, and others to be lost, independent of a personal reception of truth, is a doctrine that cannot be sustained by the Scriptures — regardless of the number of sincere people who subscribe to it.
JMH: This is going to get repetitive. This statement once again demonstrates that the author of this article does not understand the position that he seeks to refute. First, Scripture never teaches that God chooses anyone to be lost. Election is unto salvation. Also, as mentioned above, in all my readings of Reformed theology and my listening to reformed preaching, I have never yet heard anyone say that one is saved or lost “independent of a personal reception of truth”.
One of the problems with these kinds of articles, and they are, unfortunately, all over the internet, is that there are never any references given. Who is being referred to? Is there a theologian, pastor, or Bible commentator who has written this somewhere? We don’t know because there is no quote, or footnote, that would tell us. Meanwhile, as I read this article, I do so in the knowledge that the entire focus of the Reformation is justification by faith alone. In other words, by “a personal reception” of truth. I must wonder, therefore, whether the author of this article is in the least bit familiar with the position that he is criticizing. So far, the answer seems to be that he is not.
So the article has barely begun, and already he has used Scripture to support statements that it does not support, and he has misrepresented the position which he is seeking to critique.
WJ: (3) When did the “giving” take place? The idea that believers were unconditionally “given” to Christ, in the eternal counsel of God before the foundation of the world, is negated by this very passage. The verb “gives” (didosin) is a present tense form, indicating action in progress; the Father, at that very time, was in the process of giving certain ones to his Son. This passage cannot possibly be employed, then, to establish a “done-deal” gift back in pre-world eternity. As Reynolds noted, “‘The giving’ implies a present activity of grace, not a foregone conclusion” (17, p. 201).
JMH: The author is referencing John 6:37, and once again, demonstrates that he simply does not know the position that he seeks to critique. No one says that the father “gave” anyone to the son before the foundation of the world. That’s not what Jesus says in this verse. There is a difference between the eternal decree of God and the application of that decree. Eph. 1:4 makes it clear that we were chosen before the foundation of the world. But John 6 is not speaking about the decree, but the application of the decree.
The issue is not the timing of the giving but the fact of the giving. Jesus is teaching that there are those whom the Father is giving to the Son. And here’s the point: Jesus says that every person, “all those” that the Father gives to the son, “will” come to Him. That’s the issue that he should be dealing with. If all that the father gives will come, but not everyone comes, is it not inescapable that not everyone is given?
WJ: (4) In what sense did God “give” people to his Son? The terms “gift” and “given” are frequently employed idiomatically in the Scriptures to denote divine favor as expressed in Heaven’s redemptive work on man’s behalf — without there being any inclination of an “unconditional election.”
For example, David prophesied that Jehovah would “give” the “nations” (Gentiles) to Christ as an inheritance (Psa. 2:8; cf. Acts 4:25-26). Surely no one will contend that all Gentiles were unconditionally predestined to salvation irrespective of their response to divine truth. Even the most cursory examination of the book of Acts, from chapter 10 onward, reveals that the Gentiles were admitted into redemptive favor by yielding to the requirements of the gospel. Salvation was not as a consequence of an eternal decree independent of human obedience (cf. Acts 10:34-35,43; 11:14; 15:8-9; 1 Pet. 1:22-23).
JMH: Again, he’s making arguments that simply do not address the real issues, and he makes assertions without proving them. For instance, he asserts that the terms ‘gift’ and ‘given’ are “frequently” used idiomatically in the Scriptures. But isn’t there something missing from that statement? Beyond the question as to whether or not those terms are used idiomatically, “frequently” does not mean “always”. And yet, we find not even an attempt to demonstrate that it is being used idiomatically in John 6. That would seem rather important.
But there is more that is missing. In his reference to Ps. 2:8 in regard to God giving the nations to Christ, he makes the point that “no one will contend that all Gentiles were unconditionally predestined to salvation irrespective of their response to divine truth.” Well, we’ve already pointed out the straw man argument reflected in the phrase “irrespective of their response to divine truth”, but what about the primary point he’s trying to make here? The contention that “nations” is synonymous with “all Gentiles” belongs to the author alone. Scripture never equates “nations” with “all Gentiles”. It is not all Gentiles that will be saved, but rather, Revelation says that God will save a people “out of” every nation, tribe, people, and tongue.
Rev. 5:9 And they sang a new song, saying, ” Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
Rev. 7:9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;
Here’s why Ps. 2:8 cannot be used as a parallel to John 6:37. John 6:37 has a specific assertion attached to it. All those who are given will come. So will the nations, of Ps. 2:8, although it is not specifically stated. The only way that he can avoid this is to say that God gives the nations, but that doesn’t really mean that the nations will actually come. But he can’t even say that about John 6:37 because Jesus was so emphatic about it.
WJ: (5) What relationship is there between the “giving” and the “coming” in John 6:37? There is a significant connection. The “giving” represents what God has provided in the great plan of human salvation; the “coming” represents the acceptation of that plan as manifested in the sinner’s obedience.
The subsequent context affords a wonderful illustration of this — with slightly different imagery, but with corresponding thought. Note the language of verses 44-45.
“No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every one who has heard from the Father, and has learned, comes unto me.”
In this passage, God’s “drawing” is parallel to his “giving” of verse 37. And yet, clearly in vv. 44-45 the drawing is accomplished by hearing his word, learning, and coming to the Lord. Jehovah provides the redemptive information, but humanity must access it. By a comparison of these passages, therefore, one may logically conclude that this is how men are “given” to Christ as well. As Bloomfield once observed, “The term [gives] therefore (here and at ver. 39 and 65) must signify something compatible with the free agency of man” (I, p. 363).
JMH: We need to be careful here, and note what the author is doing. I’ve been making the point throughout my response that the issue in John 6:37 is that those who are given will come. The emphasis in the verse is on the fact that there are no exceptions to this. But the author will not deal with the verse as it stands. He is forced to leave the text under discussion and jump over to another passage. But even at that, he finds no help, for the passage he goes to is just as emphatic on the same points.
He continues to harp on this straw man about the necessity of humanity accessing redemptive information. He can argue about that all day long, but he’s only arguing with himself. He continues to avoid what the text actually teaches.
I’m actually quite surprised that he goes to vv. 44-45, since these verses simply reinforce v. 37 from a different angle. Just read the words, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
Did you catch that? For all the talk about free will, Jesus doesn’t speak about will, but about ability. No one “can” come. No one is “able” to come. So how is it that some do come to the Savior? Those who do come are drawn by the Father. If one is not drawn, one cannot come. They are unable.
Now, let’s not stop there. Just a bit more to answer…
WJ: When former Baptist minister Robert Shank issued his book, Life in the Son, it produced shock waves among Calvinists. Professor William Adams of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary characterized the book as “one of the most arresting and disturbing books” he had ever read (p. xiii). In this instructive volume, Shank has a special Appendix, “Whom Does the Father Give to Jesus?” in which he discusses this very passage. Therein the author fires this parting blast:
“There is nothing about God’s gift of believers to be the heritage of the Son who died for them which somehow transforms the Gospel’s ‘whosoever will’ into a ‘whosoever must’ and a ‘most of you shan’t.’ There is nothing about it which binds men in the strait jacket of an antecedent decree of positive unconditional election and reprobation, while insisting that they are ‘free’” (p. 339).
(6) Our final question is this: “What is the meaning of the affirmation, ‘I will in no wise cast out’?” Some allege it suggests the dogma of the impossibility of apostasy, i.e., that no one “given” to Christ in the eternal scheme of things could ever be lost. The child of God, therefore, can never fall from grace — or so it is claimed.
The passage does not even remotely suggest this pernicious doctrine. Even Albert Barnes, who subscribed to the Calvinistic doctrine of the impossibility of apostasy (see his comment at Matthew 7:23), conceded the following, with reference to John 6:37b. “This expression does not refer to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, but to the fact that Jesus will not reject or refuse any sinner who comes to him” (pp. 246-247).
JMH: If you can understand what Shank says above, you’re doing better than me…and I’ve already read his book. But you don’t even have to really understand what is being said to understand what is not being said. What you don’t find in what is written above is a positive explanation of what Jesus does mean. Nor do we find anything more than a bare assertion concerning what he cannot mean.
But I’ll simply take us back to the text. What is said in the text? Let’s take it step by step:
1) No one can come to me (Jesus)
2) No one can come to me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.
3) And I will raise him up on the last day.
Now, who is the “him” who Jesus will raise up on the last day? It’s just basic grammar, isn’t it? The antecedent of “him” who will be raised up must be the same “him” whom the Father draws. One really can’t get around it. Not to belabor the point, but neither the author of this article, nor Shank, whom he quotes, even try to get around it. They simply ignore the actual text, and continue to make undefended and unproven assertions.
WJ: This admission, combined with the scriptural declarations that God wants all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), and that “whosoever will” may come to Christ, are death blows to the theory that some were chosen by God for salvation, and others for damnation, before the world began. Perhaps no dogma has ever been so misguided.
JMH: I’m not sure what “admission” he’s talking about. Not only does the author not know the position which he is trying to argue against, but he is also apparently ignorant of the people he quotes. Albert Barnes was, indeed, a Presbyterian, but he was no Calvinist, unless one wishes to expand the definition of the term beyond the point at which it actually defines anything. Barnes was the subject of at least one heresy trial and was suspended from ministry in his presbytery. He was a leader in what was called “New School” Presbyterianism, which was basically a group of Presbyterians who denied the specific tenets of reformed, or Calvinistic, theology, and hence, Presbyterianism. So in Barnes, Jackson is not quoting a Calvinist making an “admission”. He’s simply quoting someone else who took the same position that he does. I’m not sure what that proves, exactly.
Barnes, Albert (1954), “Luke — John,” Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker).
Bloomfield, S.T. (1837), The Greek Testament with English Notes (Boston: Perkins & Marvin).
Reynolds. H.R. (1950), “The Gospel of John,” The Pulpit Commentary, H.D.M. Spence, Joseph Exell, Eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Shank, Robert (1961), Life in the Son (Springfield, MO: Westcott).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife and life-long partner, Betty.
JMH: As I close, I’ll just point out a couple of things in regard to the author and his sources.
First, his sources. Note that the most recent work that he quotes is 50 years old. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with older works, depending upon what they are. I quote from dead guys all the time. But there are some books that are old and timeless, and there are others that are old and out of date, such as Bloomfield’s Greek Testament with English Notes. I could give you a list of a hundred reference works on the Greek NT and Bloomfield wouldn’t even make the list. Having said that, the only thing he said about the Greek had to do with the Present Tense. But it does tell me that he doesn’t know the most basic principles of the Greek language. No one who knows Greek would feel the need to either quote a source or even provide a source in regard to the Present tense. It is pretty much what you would learn immediately after the Greek alphabet. The fact the he uses Bloomfield as a source simply reinforces the conclusion that he does not know Greek himself. No one who actually knows enough Greek to use Greek lexicons, dictionaries, etc., would need to go back to a work published in 1837.
There are some books that are appropriate sources and there are others that were not intended for that particular purpose. His use of the Pulpit Commentary is an example of this. The Pulpit commentary is what you might expect. It was a commentary written to assist pastors in their pulpit ministry. That means that it is not a technical commentary, dealing with the specific linguistic issues of the Greek, nor is it a theological commentary which is targeted at the theological issues raised by the text. It is much more of a devotional commentary with preaching helps and illustrations and such. Like Bloomfield, this work was also published in the late 1800’s.
In regard to the man himself, he’s simply not familiar with the positions which he seeks to criticize. Instead, it seems as if he is responding to what he has heard about those positions second hand. I would also note that all we’re really told about him is that he’s written some articles and some books. There’s not a word about any kind of academic background or qualifications, and his books are, as far as I have been able to track them down, all self-published.
None of that means that he’s a bad guy. None of it even means that he is necessarily wrong. But it does mean that we need to be careful about how much weight we give to his writings.
The problems we find in Mr. Jackson’s article are problems commonly found in critiques of Calvinism. In closing, let me enumerate a few.
1. Mr. Jackson evidences a lack of familiarity with what Reformed theology actually teaches.
2. Mr. Jackson’s lack of familiarity with Reformed theology leads him to argue against positions that no actually believes. i.e., His accusation that Calvinists believe that people are saved, “independent of a personal reception of truth.”
3. Mr. Jackson all too often demonstrates a lack of facility with the text of Scripture. i.e., His treatment of Matthew 23:37, which completely ignores the distinction between “Jerusalem” and “your children”.
4. Mr. Jackson often fails to give coherent, positive explanations of texts. This is seen in his quotation from Robert Shank, in which Shank tells us what he thinks John 6:37 does not mean, but we never get an explanation concerning what he thinks it does mean.
Proverbs 18:17 is a verse which everyone who is concerned with truth should memorize…
“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.”
As followers of Christ, we need to be discerning. And in order to be discerning, we need to know how to read closely, carefully, and critically. We must not simply accept what anyone says until we have examined him.