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Why Foreign Missions? 17. John’s Mission Theology: Mission Derives From Divine Love, not Divine Fiat

Why Foreign Missions?  17.  John’s Mission Theology: Mission Derives From Divine Love, not Divine Fiat

The following, lengthy study addresses the age-old question of election and free will in John’s Gospel.  The purpose of this study, though, is to show that mission in John’s Gospel derives from John’s theology of divine love and not from some theology of sovereign election.  John does have a theology of election, but it is not what many have thought.  It is not a salvific election: that God saves by electing some and not others.  His election theology is, like mission, a sub-category of his theology of divine love.  That is, they must be understood in terms of John’s theology that God has revealed his identity as a merciful, faithful, and loving God in Jesus Christ.  If we follow John’s thought on this, rather than insert verses from his Gospel into our own systematic theologies, we will rightly understand the place of mission and election in John’s theology.

Views on divine election and human choice have divided Christians at least since the time of Augustine and Pelagius.  The internal dispute in the Reformed tradition over views expressed by Arminius spilled over into wider debates among Protestants in the 16th and early 17th centuries.  Yet John Calvin had already articulated his views on divine sovereignty and election in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.21-24), and he focused on John’s Gospel in part of his argument (III.22.7-8).  I do not, however, believe that this sort of approach to Christian theology, particularly a mission theology, is correct.

In what follows, I will lay out the view that I wish to dispute as it appears in John Calvin.  I will then suggest a different way to understand John’s theology on this issue of election.  The age-old theological debate over the will of God and the will of humanity will not be resolved in this study, but perhaps there is some hope that the real concern of John can be identified and located in the right place in John's thought.

John Calvin’s View and Use of John and Augustine

John Calvin expresses his doctrine as follows:

When he is pleased to save, there is no free-will in man to resist. Wherefore, it cannot be doubted that the will of God (who has done whatever he has pleased in heaven and in earth, and who has even done things which are to be) cannot be resisted by the human will, or prevented from doing what he pleases, since with the very wills of men he does so." Again, "When he would bring men to himself, does he bind them with corporeal fetters? He acts inwardly, inwardly holds, inwardly moves their hearts, and draws them by the will, which he has wrought in them." What he immediately adds must not be omitted: "because we know not who belongs to the number of the predestinated, or does not belong, our desire ought to be that all may be saved; and hence every person we meet, we will desire to be with us a partaker of peace. But our peace will rest upon the sons of peace. Wherefore, on our part, let correction be used as a harsh yet salutary medicine for all, that they may neither perish, nor destroy others. To God it will belong to make it available to those whom he has foreknown and predestinated" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.23.14).[1]

Calvin references John’s Gospel and Augustine in the following quotation, thus showing that he believes that his view on election is Biblical and Augustinian:

God, however, teaches his elect effectually when he brings them to faith, as we formerly quoted from the words of our Savior, "Not that any man has seen the Father, save he which is of God, he has seen the Father," (John 6:46). Again, "I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world," (John 17:6). He says in another passage, "No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him," (John 6:44). This passage Augustine ably expounds in these words: "If (as Truth says) every one who has learned comes, then every one who does not come has not learned. It does not therefore follows that he who can come does come, unless he have willed and done it; but every one who has learned of the Father, not only can come, but also comes; the antecedence of possibility the affection of will, and the effect of action being now present," (Augustine, de Grat. Chr. Cont. Pelag., Lib. 1, c. 14, 31).

Calvin’s approach to this subject is bound up with the theological issues of his day—the semi-Pelagianism of 16th century Roman Catholicism and the Protestant response that salvation is by grace through faith.  Calvin, and other Reformers such as the Augustinian friar and scholar, Martin Luther, were able to turn to Augustine to challenge the view that salvation was by human works in any form or fashion.  Scripture, with its references to ‘foreordination,’ ‘predestination,’ ‘divine Sovereignty,’ and ‘election’ seemed ready to hand in the 16th century arguments as well.

And so it is, as long as theology is approached from the question of ‘the will’—God’s will or the human will.  Is this, however, the lens through which to view Scripture?  The contextual nature of Scripture and the contingencies of various genre should warn the interpreter not to package a selection of their own verses too quickly under one label, such as ‘election.’ 

Job, for example, is concerned with the problem of suffering, and God’s sovereignty (ch. 38) is given as the answer.  It is, however, more a view of sovereignty in terms of not questioning divine wisdom (that God’s goodness should be acknowledged even in the face of suffering, since humans are not so wise as to understand what God is doing) than of sovereignty in terms of divine fiat (that God does whatever he wants to do).  Thus the interpreter of Scripture has to pay close attention to the context of statements and not amass individual verses into a theological system that is framed around a single doctrine, such as the doctrine of divine sovereignty.

So, what might be said of John’s Gospel on this issue?

Divine Identity and Relationship in John’s Gospel

I intend to make a single suggestion here, rather than address the large questions before us in detail.  My suggestion is that John’s theology is less a theology of divine sovereignty than of divine revelation.  More specifically, John’s theology is a theology of God revealing his identity through Jesus and, in particular, through what Jesus does.  Even more specifically than this, John’s theology is a theology of God revealing his identity in Jesus as one full of grace and truth. This requires a redirection for many interpreters.  John is not a sourcebook for quotes about salvific election that apply to later theological debates about divine sovereignty.  John has his own agenda, and it has to do with God’s revelation of his divine identity in Christ Jesus, with whom the father is intimately related (Jn. 1.18; Jn. 17) and with whom the disciples are now intimately related.

In a previous study (15), God’s revelation in Jesus of his ‘grace and mercy’ was discussed with regard to the Old Testament phrase ‘hesed we’emeth.’  This phrase, I noted, appears several times in the Old Testament to emphasise the depth and faithfulness of a relationship, particularly God’s covenant relationship with his chosen people, Israel.  The foundational narrative for this can be found in God’s self-revelation to Moses after Israel had broken the commandments and Moses had broken the tablets on which the commandments were written.  Instead of breaking off the relationship with Israel (Ex. 33), God reveals to Moses that he is gracious and forgiving, committed even to a faithless people (Ex. 34).

I would suggest that election in John’s Gospel is a function of this revelation of God’s identity, his character.  Election is not so much a function of divine sovereignty but of what God will do because of who he is as the one who is faithful to an unfaithful people with whom he is in covenant relationship.

If this sounds too theoretical, it is better stated by Paul in 2 Timothy 2.10-13:

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.  11 The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us;  13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful-- for he cannot deny himself.

God’s identity and his relation to his people is foremost, not a reflection on divine sovereignty.  Moreover, human response is not a matter expressed in terms of the freedom of the will but in terms of the relationship that humans have to God. 

This is also true of John’s Gospel.  For example, believing can also be expressed as believing not a set of doctrines but Jesus himself and as receiving Jesus:

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (Jn. 1.12-13).

The text offers hope after Jn. 1.11, which states that ‘his own did not receive him’, for those who received or believed in him were given power to become children of God (v. 12).  V. 13, then, states what we later read in Jn. 3—to be born of God is to be born from above.  This is not taken to be purely a divinely sovereign act, however, since belief is prerequisite.  Again, this is stated in Jn. 3.  Jn. 3.16 states that ‘whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’  So, to be born of the will of God (1.13), or to be born not of the flesh but of the Spirit (3.6) contrasts human and Spiritual birth, not human versus divine will.  Belief is required (1.12; 3.15-16, 18) and is a relational concept in John’s Gospel.  One does not simply assent to a collection of propositions but one believes in a person, in Jesus.

Salvation is Not Independent from Human Response: ‘Belief’ is the Key Term to Express This

Belief is the appropriate, relational response to God’s revelation of his grace and truth in Jesus Christ.  This is repeated again and again, such as in the final sign of raising Lazarus from the dead, where God’s grace and truth are revealed as giving life to dead Lazarus:

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,  26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"  27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (Jn. 11.25-27).

This quote shows that belief entails recognizing not only Jesus for who he is but also his mission, what he has come into the world to accomplish.  His mission comes to its climax on the cross (Jn. 19.30)—his death for sins.  This, in turn, requires believing that the world needs to be saved from sins—a polemical point for the Johannine community as some deny that they have sinned (1 Jn. 1.8-10).

Belief is the key way in which John’s Gospel speaks of how one comes to be saved.  For example, John 6:47 states,  ‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.’  Jn. 3.16 states the same thing, ‘whoever believes… will have eternal life.’

Human Sinfulness Cannot Be Overcome by Humans

Human sinfulness is assumed throughout John.  John states that Jesus knows what is in the human heart—its sinfulness (Jn. 2.25).  The ‘world’ in John’s Gospel is also viewed negatively; people in the world do not receive the light of Christ (Jn. 1.11) because they love darkness more than light (Jn. 3.19).  The reason for their love of darkness is that their deeds are evil and they do not want them exposed by the light (Jn. 3.20-21).  Jesus’ coming into the world is to save the world from sin: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1.29).  That Jesus’ death is not conceived as a limited sacrifice, a death for only those who are to be saved, is clear from the following quote from Caiaphas, the high priest:

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."  51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation,  52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God (Jn. 11.50-52).

This passage is particularly clear when one understands the Old Testament background to it: Jesus is restoring Israel from captivity, a captivity that was a result of their sinfulness.  Thus an excellent metaphor for salvation is the restoration of Israel from captivity.  Jn. 11.51 applies Jesus’ death to this restoration of Israel, since he will die for the nation’s sins (cf. Is. 53).  From John’s Gospel, we learn that the Jews did not receive this death.  So, while Jesus’ death was for the nation, the nation was not saved.  Jn. 11.52 extends Jesus’ restoration beyond Israel to the world as well, insisting that non-Jews are also God’s children.  In other words, Jesus’ death is a death to restore the whole world from sin. This understanding of the cross is reiterated in John 12:31-32:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 

The obvious must be stated: not all are restored or saved or drawn to Jesus.  People must respond to Jesus in faith to be restored.  Thus Jesus says,

While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light" (Jn. 12.36).

The language of universality has to do with the scope of Jesus’ mission: He dies for the world in its sinful state.

Salvation, then, requires a dealing with sin.  Two things need to be said about this.  First, as already noted, Jesus’ death deals with sin: He is a sin offering.  Second, whenever Jesus’ death is considered in John, it is considered in universal terms and not in a limited way, as though he dies for the sins of an elect few.  He has a worldwide mission.  If Jesus dies for the sins of the world, why are not all saved?  The answer is simple: people must receive what Jesus offers.

Juxtaposition of Divine Sovereignty and Human Choice

Divine love (a relational notion) results in Jesus being given authority, and yet human responsibility is not overshadowed by this authority.  In this regard, note Jn. 3.35-36:

The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.  36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.

This juxtaposition is expressed again in John 6:39-40, this time in terms of divine will and human belief:

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.  40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."

Primacy of a Relational Framework for Theology

We do not have here a clash of ‘wills’—divine sovereignty and human choice.  Rather, we have God’s will being what God does because of his faithfulness in his relationships to grant his people eternal life.  Those who receive this relationship by believing in Jesus are the recipients of God’s grace.

John does not work out a theology of divine sovereignty that chooses to save a few by grace while all could have been condemned justly for their sinfulness.  Rather, he works out a theology that starts with love: God loves the world, so he acts to save.  If God acted sovereignly first, one would expect to read that he chose to save some by his sovereign will.  But we rather read that he acted by sending Jesus into the world to save the world (3.16): Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (1.29); he is the Saviour of the world (4.42).  A theology that prioritizes God’s sovereignty perhaps inevitably becomes a theology that struggles to understand the love of God.  For John, at least, love (God’s ‘grace and truth’ or ‘mercy and faithfulness’) is the starting point for theology.  A long quotation from 1 John 4 (the theology of love continues into ch. 5) expresses this clearly:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  9 God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  19 We love because he first loved us.  20 Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (1 John 4:7-21 ).

Testimony is a Key to Belief in John

One might wonder whether a case may be made to argue that, while belief is a prerequisite to salvation, it is a divinely engendered belief, which would bring a theology of will into the forefront.  Does God cause his elect to believe?  John’s understanding, however, is that belief is engendered through testimony, as in John 4:39:

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done."

Thus a progression from knowing God’s gift and knowing Jesus to asking for living water to receiving it (Jn. 4.10) relies upon faithful testimony that can engender belief.  While miraculous signs play a role in leading people to belief, testimony is much preferred (Jn. 4.48; 20.29).  The fact that testimony and belief are significant points to the human role in salvation.  Human refusal to believe results in not receiving the life that Jesus offers (Jn. 5.40).

Jesus himself offers the greatest testimony.  He is the conduit or ladder from heaven that reveals the identity of the Father (1.51).  Thus receiving his testimony, believing, results in salvific life:

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life (Jn. 5.24).

What, then, is required of people to prepare them for the testimony that must be believed?  The answer is clear and simple: not seeking glory from one another but the glory that comes from ‘the one who alone is God’ (Jn. 5.44).  In this, Jesus shows the way, for he did not seek glory from other people (Jn. 5.41).

Yet Jesus is more than a conduit of revelation; he is the Word itself.  Thus people are not only to receive his testimony but to receive him.  In Jn. 6, this is stated eucharistically: Jesus is the bread from heaven that must be consumed.  This claim points to Jesus’ sacrifice while it also entails a reception of him that is so complete that it is described in the language of consumption (6.51-58).

Foreknowledge and Divine Initiative

There is, to be sure, a dimension of a theology of the will in all this—it just needs to be placed in the proper context of John’s theology, not later theological debates.  John distinguishes, then, between a human freedom and a divine election in salvation.  Both are true, and this cannot be resolved in denying the one or the other.  

One way to reconcile the two convictions is to do so in terms of God’s foreknowledge: Jesus knows those who are going to come to belief and those who are not.  John 6:64 states this explicitly:

But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.

The very next verse, however, denies that human will alone can gain access to the Father:

And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father" (Jn. 6.65).

Yet this is not a straight-forward verse to prove divine election.  Rather, in context the point is that sinful flesh cannot gain salvation: it is only something that can be given by the life-giving Spirit who comes in the words of Jesus (Jn. 6.63).  This is repeated elsewhere in John: it is not human will or flesh but only God who can save (Jn. 1.13; 3.6-7). 

Relationship of Familial Love or a Sovereign Will of Cause and Effect?

When John’s Gospel wants to emphasize that salvation is something God gives—that it is beyond human understanding and doing—the focus is on the work of God.  Belief, then, is necessary but not sufficient for salvation: it is rather to be understood as a receptivity to the salvation that God—the God who shows covenant fidelity--is working.  Jesus is the salvation of the Father; belief in him is not salvation but a reception of the  salvation that he works (Jn. 6.29).  This perspective is stated again later:

This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you (Jn. 14.17).

One can receive the Spirit of truth once the Spirit abides within.  A statement of fact is being made: Spiritual people can understand things of the Spirit.  No point is being made in Jn. 14 about how this comes about.  Anyone who would press Jn. 14.17 (‘only those in whom the Spirit decides to indwell can understand the truth’) to indicate a divine, saving election has to reckon with a statement only a few verses later quite to the contrary:

Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them (Jn. 14.23).

This verse could be taken to mean that the human response to Jesus of love and obedience is followed by God’s response of love and of the Father and Jesus coming to dwell with them.  It is best (since things are said both ways) not to read into these verses an order of salvation but rather a statement of the kind of relationship that Jesus offers to his disciples.

The Order of Salvation?

The same perspective occurs elsewhere, where awareness of need precedes belief and belief precedes reception of the living water, that is, the Spirit, who is elsewhere equated with eternal life (Jn. 4.14):

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,  38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'"  39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified (Jn. 7.37-39).

The Spirit, then, is who God gives based upon Jesus’ glorification, that is, his death that reveals divine glory (cf. Jn. 8.28).

For the metaphors of ‘light’ and ‘following,’ as with those of ‘thirst’ and ‘living water,’ a response precedes receiving the light of life:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (Jn. 8.12).

There is every reason to hear these words in terms of an open invitation to follow and a requirement to follow in order to receive the light of life.

Belief is not, however, the only aspect of response.  They must also continue in Jesus’ word as disciples, which will result in knowing the truth that sets people free:

As he was saying these things, many believed in him.  31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;  32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn. 8.30-32).

In the same context, Jesus says that those rejecting him do so because it is in their nature to do so as children of the devil.  This sounds as though there is no choice involved.  But part of the same sentence mentions choice: choice seems to be what leads to having the devil as one’s father:

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires (Jn. 8.44).

John’s view of human sin is consistent: the whole world is sinful: sin is the human condition.  Choosing to sin has become natural: what we choose confirms our condition.  But this does not mean that people cannot respond to the light.

The logic of human sin helps us to understand the logic of ‘hearing,’ that is, obedience, the opposite of sin.  In the NRSV translation of John 8:47, we read, Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’’  The words themselves could be read, ‘Those who are God’s by his sovereign choice will hear the words of God, and those whom God has not chosen are not from God.’  However, they could equally be understood to say, ‘A child of God obeys God’s words; that is why you do not obey, since you are not a child of God.’  This is the same logic as Jn. 8.44.  A child of God will obey God: obedience will confirm our being his children.  Disobedience confirms that we are not his children.  The text is not addressing a question of salvific election but is explaining the logic of the relationship between being a child of the devil or of God and the behaviour that inevitably results.  The point is stated again:

Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death" (Jn. 8.51).

Jesus is challenging his hearers to keep his words rather than act out of human nature and reject truth.  If they do so, they will never see death.

Warning and Responsibility

Jesus’ warning of death or offer of life, to be a real warning or offer, requires that people actually have a choice:

I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he" (Jn. 8.24).

Human and Divine Levels: Being Fed, Seeing Signs, Remaining Blind, Hardening of the Heart vs. a Revelation From Heaven

Another important passage that seems to raise the prospect of divine election is John 12:37-40:

Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.  38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"  39 And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,  40 "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn-- and I would heal them.”

This passage comes in the context of passages that suggest human responsibility, as v. 37.  Jn. 12.42 states that many authorities did believe in Jesus.  So, what does the quote from Isaiah 53.1 in Jn. 12.38 entail here?  The point must be a very Johannine point that distinguishes a response based on signs from a response based on faith.  Jesus opposes a response that operates only at the human level and not at the spiritual level, if it can be stated in this manner.  As Jesus says, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe" (John 4:48).  The point of the story about the sign Jesus performs in healing the royal official’s son is that the official was far away from Capernaum when Jesus healed his son and therefore he had a belief that was not based on signs.  What is stated in Jn. 12.37 is that, even in the presence of signs, people did not believe in Jesus.  

This is the problem with signs.  A similar point is made when Jesus encounters the miraculously fed crowd once again:

Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal" (Jn. 6.26-27).

Thus, whether people only want to be given more food or whether they also want to see signs, they are working on a purely human level.  What is required is of a different order.  Jn. 12.39f quotes Isaiah 6.10 to state that any response that is not true belief is insufficient and, instead of leading to faith, will lead to further myopia or hardening of the heart.

Loving Protection

In Jn. 10, Jesus affirms that his sheep follow him (v. 3), leaving one to suspect that they are passive in the process of salvation.  Jesus says, ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture’ (John 10:9).  This conceivably could be read as a mere statement of fact, but only a prior theology restricting salvation to a chosen few would be inclined to do so.  The more natural way to read the passage is as an invitation, thus calling hearers to respond.  So, when we read a few verses later, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…’ (John 10:14), what is in view is not elected sheep but protected sheep, as the context clearly states.  And the context is contrasting the lack of protection that hired hands give the sheep and the life-giving protection that the good shepherd gives.  The point is that Jesus loves his disciples so much that he would—and will—die for them, and they, in turn, know him and follow him.

Thus Jn. 10 has in mind a theology of love rather than of salvific election.  In view is the intimate, caring relationship between the good shepherd and his sheep.  In the context of a theology of love, the following restatement of what already has been said in Jn. 10 is read differently:

… but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand (Jn. 10.26-29).

This is also a restatement of what Jesus said in Jn. 8, discussed above.  The statement here is a statement of the facts of the relationship, not a description of how people are saved.  The context is one of opposition to Jesus and persecution of his followers.  In this context, Jesus assures his disciples—the sheep—that they will not be snatched away from him by the leaders of Israel.  This context is a long way from 16th century debates over salvific election.

Abiding in Love Includes Obedience

Keeping commandments goes with abiding in Christ’s love:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love (Jn. 15.10).

One could read this as a prerequisite, which is probably the more natural reading of the passage.  If so, not keeping Jesus’ commandments will mean a failure to abide in his love.  It is just possible that the meaning is weaker than this, though: those who keep Jesus’ commandments are those who abide in Jesus’ love.  Even so, it is inconceivable that one could abide in Jesus’ love and not keep his commandments.  Perhaps more important than this point is the language of love instead of election.  John’s emphasis is decidedly on the loving relationships of God, Jesus, and the disciples.  This changes the way things are conceived: it is not a juridical notion but a relationship.  In a juridical theology, one struggles to understand how someone who is justified even while a sinner is therefore required to pay attention to ethics.  Alternatively, the perspective of love can only conceive of obedience to Jesus.  Thus we read:

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you (Jn. 15.12-14).

Chosen in Mission

Even so, we meet this statement a few verses later:

You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name (Jn. 15.16).

The context of this passage makes it clear that the passage is not thinking of soteriology—salvific election--but of mission.  The disciples have been chosen for mission, and this is not something that they themselves chose.  That this seems to be the emphasis in chapter 15 can be seen from the emphasis at the beginning on an abiding in the vine that will bear fruit, and from the last sentence of the chapter that states, ‘You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning’ (Jn. 15.27).

Jesus’ Prayer of Advocacy: Authority and Divine Sovereignty over against Context (Persecution, Testing, Trial) and Chosen in Mission and Salvation

John 17:2-3 states: 

… since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

On v. 2, Beasley-Murray writes, ‘’Divine election and human responsibility are variously expressed in the Gospel (see esp. 6.37, 39-40, 44, 64-65; 12.37-42) and they are to be held together as truly as God’s sovereignty and human freedom must be so held.’[2]  Here we see that Jesus has authority over all flesh, but that does not mean that all are given eternal life.  This is equivalent to his being the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1.29), but that does not mean that all are saved.  The additional piece in each case is, on God’s side, his ‘giving’ Jesus Christ certain ones  (so also v. 6) and, on the human side, their believing, choosing, receiving, and so forth.

There is a very contextual side to this prayer in Jn. 17, which is so often read with reference to a theology of salvific election.  V. 12 indicates that the guarding of the disciples was during Jesus’ lifetime, and the purpose of the prayer is to ask for a continued protection for the disciples (v. 15).  That the disciples are a particular group in mind as ones given Jesus by the Father is clear from v. 20: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,…’

It is therefore possible to distinguish an elected group of missionary disciples given divine protection through the attack on Jesus and his disciples that leads to Jesus’ death, and others who will come to faith through these disciples by means of their believing.  This seems to be the parallel thought in John 6.  After Jesus asks the disciples if they too will leave him, Peter asks ‘To whom can we go?’  Then Jesus replies, ‘"Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil"’ (Jn. 6.70).  When the point is made in John’s Gospel that Jesus’ disciples were kept, the idea is sometimes expressed in conjunction with a note that Judas did leave.  The idea, then, has a context of persecution and testing, particularly at the time of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus.  This is clearly stated in John 18:8-9:

Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go."  9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, "I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”

In this light, the ‘keeping’ of Peter, despite his denial of Jesus, is important.

Yet Jn. 17.2 suggests that a protection of missionary disciples and the giving of eternal life to those God gives the Son are related ideas.  There is also a blurring of the special group of disciples with those who believe such that it might be said of both groups that they are ‘given’ to the Son by the Father and that they ‘believe’.
Finally, in Jn. 17 we learn of the relationship between being ‘kept’ and divine advocacy.  Jesus prays that his disciples would be kept from evil (v. 15).  While on earth, he protected them in the Father’s name (v. 12).  And Jesus will pray to the Father to send the Holy Spirit, another divine advocate, to be present with the disciples once he departs (Jn. 14.16ff).  His protecting presence will entail, as Jesus’ protecting presence entailed, a teaching and reminding (14.26) and a bearing witness on Jesus’ behalf (15.26) in three ways: (1) that the world is sinful in not believing in Jesus, (2) what righteousness is (since Jesus will not be present to show them), and (3) about judgement, showing that the ruler of this world has been condemned (Jn. 16.8-11).  All this shows that salvation is not to be reduced to a decree of divine will, but is about divine presence.  Theology is not to be reduced to doctrine for John, but doctrine has to do with relationships.  Thus, when a doctrine of ‘election’ is worked out as a means of salvation and as a result of God’s sovereign will, it lacks the relational dimension that is so crucial to John’s theology.

God’s Sovereign Control

That said, sovereign design and complete authority of God is a theme in John’s Gospel.  Nothing happens that is not under God’s control.  This is particularly so when Jesus seems, to all appearances but not in fact, to lose all power and control at the time of his arrest and crucifixion.  The truth is expressed several times, such as in this exchange between Pilate and Jesus during his trial:

Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?"  11 Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin" (Jn. 19.10-11).

This seems to entail, once again, the notion of human choice and responsibility and divine sovereignty and control.  Pilate thinks he has power, but he is doing only what is permitted him.  In fact, as the following verses show, he has no power to stop Jesus’ crucifixion.  Even so, his complicity means that he has acted sinfully.  Judas, on the other hand, handed Jesus over, and Caiphas handed Jesus over to Pilate.  The assumption seems to be that they had freedom over their actions, a freedom and responsibility that operates within the sphere of God’s plan.  One might say, ‘God’s will is done, and people do what they will.’


This lengthy examination of the topic of election in John’s Gospel is relevant for mission theology.  For some, evangelism is a matter of calling out those whom God has already elected or bringing to light the elect for whom Jesus chose to die.  John’s Gospel has been used to put forward such notions, given the numerous texts that can be collected into such a theological system.

My argument is that this theological system can only be maintained as long as texts are pulled out of context and, especially, John’s Gospel is read from a later theological debate about free will rather than about God’s identity and relationship.  Election is a doctrine that belongs in a discussion about God’s covenant relationship with his people, not in a doctrine about salvation.  God elects a people for a purpose, not for salvation.  His relationship with this people involves mercy and forgiveness, even his own suffering.

Thus John’s theology is better understood in terms of God’s love, and election is a sub-category of this divine love.

Mission, too, is an expression of divine love.  God loved the world in this way: He gave his only-and-beloved Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3.16).

[1] Trans. Henry Beveridge; available at, accessed 14 October, 2008.
[2] George Beasley-Murray, John (Word Biblical Commentary; Waco, TX: Word Pub., 1987), p. 296.