by R. C. Sproul
And Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who 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 the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." And they said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, 'I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus therefore answered and said to them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world."
Years ago, I received a letter from a woman who said she had subscribed for many years to Tabletalk, the devotional magazine published by Ligonier Ministries, and had been reading diligently through the daily devotions. However, she was writing to cancel her subscription. The devotions that year were based on a commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans written by the late James Montgomery Boice. The woman went on to say in her letter that she had read several Tabletalk devotions covering the doctrine of predestination, and she said, "I will no longer read this magazine because I don't believe in predestination." I was sorry to hear she was cancelling her subscription, but I was glad she didn't say she would no longer read Paul's letter to the Romans.
That woman's response to the doctrine of predestination is not unusual, I'm sorry to say. Some people get very exercised about it and refuse to have anything to do with it, while others who struggle with it go the second mile and search the Scriptures to learn whether it is a biblical doctrine. I myself struggled with the doctrine of predestination when I was a young Christian. Even now, I struggle with certain things that are plainly taught in the Word of God. To combat this tendency in my life, when I was in seminary I kept a card on my desk that said, "You are responsible to believe and to teach what the Bible teaches, not what you would like for it to teach." I realize that when there's something in the Word of God that I don't like, the problem is not with the Word of God, it's with me.
I say this by way of preface to the very difficult and profound text we are considering in this chapter, a text that always sends chills up and down the spines of those who love the doctrines of grace. This text includes Jesus' pronouncement that He descended to this world from heaven. Just as manna, which perished, came from heaven, so the living bread descended from the Father's presence. However, not all of those who rushed to listen to Jesus after seeing His miracles, particularly the feeding of the five thousand, were pleased by the content of this discourse. As we will see in the next chapter, many of those who had been following Jesus and had claimed to be His disciples turned back when they heard this speech, which is so manifestly predestinarian, and walked no more with Him.
The Bread of Life
Following the somewhat hasty request of the people in verse 34, "Lord, give us this bread always," Jesus replied, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst" (v. 35). In this, the first of His seven "I am" sayings in the Gospel of John, Jesus made clear that the bread of heaven was not physical bread; rather, it was Jesus Himself. Those who would cease to hunger and thirst needed to come to Him and believe in Him. But Jesus went on to remind the people, "But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe" (v. 36). The people had been exposed to Jesus, they had sat under His teaching, and they had seen His miracles, but they had not yet believed. Why? Simply put, they lacked the ability.
Verse 37 is a crucial text. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out." If we could understand the import of this single verse of Scripture, all of the theological battles of the ages over election, divine sovereignty, and human responsibility would vanish. Jesus spoke here about those who come to Him, respond to Him, receive Him, embrace Him, and place their trust in Him—and about how they are motivated to do that.
With these words, Jesus taught those who were gathered, including His disciples, that there are a number of people whom the Father has determined will come to the Son. They are gifts of the Father to the Son. We will return to this topic when we get into the upper room discourse and the great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, wherein Jesus prayed for those whom the Father had given Him and rejoiced that none whom the Father had given Him would ever be lost.
The deepest theological question that I can think of, the one for which I have no adequate answer, is the question, "Why me?" My students come to me with all kinds of conundrums from theology, but they rarely ask, "Why did God save me?" It sometimes seems as if we're thinking: "Why wouldn't He save me?" Yes, we have little aphorisms such as, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Do we really believe that? Are we really amazed by the measure of grace God has poured out on us? Can we say with John, "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!" (1 John 3:1). I cannot give a single reason under heaven why God would save me other than, as the prophet Isaiah said, that the Suffering Servant of Israel should see the travail of His soul and be satisfied—that God has determined to honor His Son by giving Him adopted brothers and sisters (Isa. 53:11).
In the final analysis, the only reason I am a Christian is that the Father wants to honor the Son. From all eternity, He determined that the Son's work would not be in vain and that He would be the firstborn of many brethren. Therefore, He determined not just to make salvation possible and then step back and cross His fingers, hoping that somebody would take advantage of the ministry of Jesus. No, God the Father, from all eternity, determined to make salvation certain for those whom He had determined to give to His Son.
The Rock of Offense
So our Lord said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me." That's the rock of offense, the stone over which we trip, for that verse suggests that God never intended to save everyone.
A few years ago, my doctor said to me, "R. C., I struggle with limited atonement, with the idea that God did not intend to save everybody. How should I handle that?" I said: "Well, let me ask you a question. When you prescribe a medication for me, do you cross your fingers and hope it will have some healing impact on my life, or do you have a reasonable degree of confidence that the medication you prescribe will actually effect what you intend it to effect?" She said, "It's the latter." I said: "Good. But still, even though you're highly educated and you're a doctor, you're still mortal. You're finite. You don't have omniscience. You don't know for sure that the medication you prescribe will do what you want it to do. I may be in that small number of people who have a violent reaction to that medication, and you don't know that in advance. Nevertheless, you prescribe it with great hope."
Then I said: "But let's think about God. Do you think that when God planned His way of salvation that He just threw some medication out there and hoped that some people would take advantage of it and be healed? Or did He know the effect that it was going to have, since He had sovereignly determined that there were people who were going to be healed by the medicine of His grace, to honor His Son?" She said, "I never thought about it that way."
The vast majority of Christians today are what we call semi-Pelagian in their theology. They read the statement of Jesus this way: "All who come to Me the Father will give to Me." That's Arminianism. We come; we decide. Then the Father recognizes our decision and makes us gifts to His Son. But that's not the way Jesus taught it. Jesus said, "The ones whom the Father has given to Me will come to Me—every one of them."
We must not overlook the final part of this statement: "… the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out." Jesus said: "All whom the Father gives Me will come to Me, and when they come to Me they will never be sent out; they will never be separated from Me. They are Mine forever." Jesus wasn't teaching only the doctrine of unconditional election or irresistible grace. Here He was setting forth the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, or the preservation of the saints. Those who are truly saved will continue in that condition, for Jesus will not let them fall away. In his first epistle, John writes, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us" (1 John 2:19). What is John saying? Speaking of some church members who had left the fellowship, he asserts, "If you truly have it, you never lose it; and if you lose it, you never truly had it." In short, those who are saved cannot be separated from the Savior.
The Essential Condition
Then Jesus expounded this theme even further: "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (vv. 38–40). It is God's will that those whom He has given to the Son—whom the Bible over and over again describes as the elect, or those who are called and chosen by God—should not be lost but have everlasting life.
It was at this point that Jesus' hearers complained. Puzzled, they asked: "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, 'I have come down from heaven'?" (v. 42). Notice that they were wrestling with His statement about His origins and apparently had not heard His dramatic words about salvation. Because He was familiar to them, they had difficulty getting past His statement that He had come from heaven.
Jesus responded with a stern admonition: "Do not murmur among yourselves" (v. 43b). Then He gave a statement that both reiterated what He had already said about salvation and expanded upon it: "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day" (v. 44).
This astonishing pronouncement is what is called a universal negative proposition. Jesus began with the words "No one," which meant "No person" without exception. He then added the word "can." This word has to do with ability, but since Jesus had already made clear that He was talking about something "no one" is able to do, He was speaking of an inability. He was about to declare that there was something no one was capable of doing. What was it? "Come to me." In short, Jesus said no one, no human being, was capable of coming to Him. All people are infected with a moral inability as a result of their fallen condition.
That doesn't mean no one ever will come to Jesus. It can happen, but Jesus' next word, "unless," indicated a necessary condition, a sine qua non, something that must take place before the desired result can happen. What is this necessary condition? "… the Father who sent Me draws him." Jesus said, "No one has the power or the ability to come to Me unless the Father draws Him."
The understanding of this verse in the Protestant church has been largely colored by semi-Pelagianism, specifically the word draw. When we talk about drawing people, we tend to think of flies and honey, of trying to woo, entice, or persuade. But the Greek word translated here as "draws" actually means "to compel." So why isn't that word used in our English Bibles? It is for the same reason people walked away when they heard Jesus give this teaching originally—the translators don't like it. Jesus simply wasn't saying, "No one will come to Me unless the Father woos them to Me." No, His meaning was much stronger. He used the same Greek word that is used in the book of Acts when Paul was seized and dragged out of the temple at Jerusalem (Acts 21:30). We can be sure those angry Jews did not try to woo Paul to come with them.
I once took part in a public debate with the head of the New Testament department at a Midwestern seminary. We were debating the doctrine of election, and we eventually came to this text. I pointed out to him that the Greek word translated as "draws" actually means "compel," not "entice" or "woo." In response, he quoted an obscure text from the secular literature of ancient Greece wherein the same Greek word was used to speak of drawing water out of a well. He said, "Now, Dr. Sproul, when you get water out of a well, do you compel it or drag it out of the well?" Everyone in the audience roared, so I said: "Well, you've got me there. I didn't even know that text existed in classical Greek. But let me ask you, how do you get water out of a well? Do you stand up there and look down and say, 'Here, water, water, water'? Do you woo it up? Of course not. The water is inert. You have to go get it. It's not able, unless the well is an artesian well, to come up out of there for you."
Jesus said that we are so corrupt, that our hearts have been so hardened toward the things of God, that we cannot respond to God and come to Him on our own. This is exactly what He told Nicodemus when He said, "Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Here is another universal negative proposition with a necessary condition—the new birth. Jesus said: "You can't even see the kingdom of God unless God the Holy Spirit changes your heart of stone into a heart of flesh." In our natural state, we are completely unwilling and morally incapable of coming to Christ. If the Father wants us to come to Christ, He must effectually draw us to His beloved Son.
If you are a Christian, that's exactly what He did for you. He brought you to the bread of life, to the bread who came down from heaven. Please don't despise the marvelous work of grace God has done in your soul. Please don't take credit for what God has so mercifully done for you by working in you, by removing the blinders from your eyes and the wax from your ears, by giving you the capacity to hear the Word of God and to see the sweetness and the loveliness of the Savior. Consider anew the wonderful news that the Father has given you to His Son and has drawn you to Him.
Sproul, R. C. (2009). John (pp. 113–119). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
Source: John: An Expositional Commentary, by R. C. Sproul