A Southern Aphorism John 6:35-51


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John 6:35-51

We are in the midst of the Lord’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  The theme of this great discourse, as we said last week, is faith in Jesus Christ.  Last Lord’s Day morning we considered from vv. 25-40 the nature of this faith, what John means when he summons us to believe in Jesus Christ. Today, from the verses we have read, we have before us another question concerning this faith:  viz.  where does it come from, how does a man or woman, boy or girl, come to possess it in his or her heart?  Many people, of course, do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord says here they must.  Why do some believe when so many do not?  That is our question because that is a question that Jesus set out to answer.

And it is a fact of life that we are considering, a most important, weighty, and, to be sure, a most solemnizing fact.  What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison.  What John Bunyan called “that blessed sixth of John”, this text that brought so much light and peace into his soul early on in his Christian life, was the very discourse that provoked many of the Jews to turn away from Jesus as we will read in v.66.  A Nobel laureate said recently at a conference on Intelligent Design that he found it “contemptible” for anyone to depend on the Bible as an authority.  [Touchstone (July/August 2000) 10]  And yet countless highly educated and sophisticated people do, who shake their heads in wonder at Nobel laureates who simply don’t get it.

There are people in the church today – not even in the world – Episcopalian bishops and Presbyterian ministers among them, who, if the truth be told, have nothing but contempt for the doctrine that Jesus teaches here in the Bread of Life discourse.  The idea that one must believe in Jesus to be saved, that there is a great division to be made between human beings at the judgment day based on whether or not a man or woman is a Christian, they regard as a doctrine so primitive, so barbaric, so discriminatory, so patriarchal, so puritanical that no intelligent person should be tempted to believe it for a moment. And yet, the same words are regarded as life and salvation to multitudes of Christian people around the world.

And, of course, we encounter that same separation between those who embraced Jesus Christ and those who repudiated him and his message already in the gospels, indeed right here in John 6.  How are we to explain this difference between people, this critical difference?  Why do some believe and others do not.  It is a very important question and Jesus did not dodge it.  He faced it openly.

Obviously it was an important question at the moment because when Jesus appeared to Israel most people, even among those who witnessed his miracles, did not believe in him.  Did that mean, as it might seem to many to mean, that the Lord was a failure because he could not convince Israel that he was her Messiah?  Did the failure of Israel to believe cast doubt on the claims that the Lord Jesus was making for himself?   And does the fact that today many more people in the world are not Christians than are – even perhaps in the membership of the Christian church itself – mean that there is reason to doubt that Jesus really is the Savior of the world?

The discourse begins with the notice that many Jews in the crowds that came to hear Jesus and see him perform miracles did not believe, not really.  That is the point of the exchange in vv. 26-27 that we read last Sunday. Then, later, at the very end of the discourse, in verses we have not yet read, we get the same point made still more explicitly in vv. 64 and 66.  There were those who did not believe in him – many among the Jews, even one among his own twelve disciples.  The discourse begins with a statement about people not believing in Jesus and ends with a statement about people not believing in Jesus.  Those statements serve as an inclusio.  An inclusio, you remember, is the statement of a theme at the beginning and the end of a writing or document or section by which the reader is alerted to the theme of the material in between.  In other words, just as faith is the subject of this discourse, so is unbelief.

And throughout the discourse the Lord Jesus raises the issue of the unbelief he encounters among the people.  He does so explicitly in v. 36:  “still you do not believe.”  In v. 43 there is a similar point made.  They are grumbling over what Jesus has said about himself.  They are expressing their skepticism and it is a hostile, defensive skepticism.  There is scorn in their tone as they talk together in v. 42 about what Jesus has said in his speech.  We will get the same thing again in v. 52 and in v. 60.

What then does the Lord say in explanation of this?  How does he account for the unbelief of so many and the true and living faith in him on the part of others?

Well, in v. 37, right after his statement that many did not believe in him, he says that the Father has given to Jesus a people and that all of those people will come to him and be saved.  The second half of v. 37 individualizes the Lord’s point.  All that the Father gives to Jesus will come to Jesus and whoever comes to Jesus (by reason of being given by the Father to the Son) the Lord Jesus will preserve and keep to eternal life.  That point is made again in v.39.  The Lord Jesus came into the world to save a people given to him by his Father.  These, everyone of these, he will in fact save.

Then, again, in the famous v. 44, again immediately following upon another statement of Jewish unbelief, the Lord makes the same point even more explicitly.  In responding to the Jews’ refusal to receive him the Lord says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  There you have the same points again.  The Father has given his Son a people to save and those people will be believe and Christ will see to it that they will be saved to the uttermost.  And in v. 45 the Lord explains how the Father “draws” men to the son.  They are “taught” by God, they are given an internal illumination, by which they come to see the truth and embrace it.  They are made willing to hear the Word of God and believe it.  As Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan put it, the Father implants in their souls “an instinct for Christ.”

Now, as you can well imagine, there have been many efforts over the centuries to dilute the strongly predestinarian tone of these verses, to dilute the force of the Lord’s claim that the explanation of anyone’s salvation lies finally in the will and the power and the action of God himself.

  1. Some have argued, for example, that Jesus means that all men will be drawn to God. The drawing he speaks of in v. 44 is given to all men indiscriminately.  The drawing does not explain why one man believes and another does not because it is given to all men without exception.  They often point to John 12:32 where the Lord speaks of “drawing all men to himself.”  But the context there indicates that the Lord is speaking of “all men without distinction” not “all men without exception.”  He will draw Gentiles as well as Jews.  Taking v. 37 and v. 44 together it is clear that this “drawing” the Lord here speaks of, the drawing by which a person “comes to” the Lord Jesus cannot be reduced to some general grace, what theologians have called prevenient grace dispensed to every individual.  This drawing is selective, given to some and not to others, otherwise the negative note in v. 44 is meaningless.  No one can come, no one will come unless the Father draws, and that is why so many Jews continue not to believe.  [Carson, 293]
  2. Others have tried to argue that this drawing is not irresistible. God draws men, but they may refuse to be drawn.  William Barclay, a popular commentator of a previous generation, wrote on this text, “God can and does draw men, but man’s resistance can defeat the pull of God.”  But that is not the way the word is used in the NT.  In no case is God’s “drawing” of men unsuccessful.  [In Morris, 371n]  And it is certainly not here in John 6; that is the Lord’s whole point.  He is explaining why people believe and do not believe.

Of course, this is not the only place in the Gospel of John where we find strong statements of divine sovereignty and the sovereignty of divine grace.  The book began with such a statement.  Those who received Jesus Christ, John says in his opening summary, those who became the children of God, were “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, nor a husband’s will, but born of God.”  [1:13]

And in his famous conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, the Lord made a point of saying again that spiritual life must begin with a new birth, which is a powerful working of the Holy Spirit.  No one controls his own birth, neither is he in control of his rebirth.  God brings it to pass.  And there will be much more of this as the Gospel proceeds:  striking statements in John 10, for example, and as well in the Lord’s great prayer in John 17.

John is not embarrassed by this theme, any more than was the Apostle Paul.  He has a number of the most emphatic statements on the divine sovereignty in salvation that can be found in the Bible.  There is a people God has chosen to save, Christ came into the world to save them, God’s grace calls those people and no others to faith in the Son of God, and his life and death and the following ministry of the Holy Spirit in their hearts secures their salvation from beginning to end.

Unlike many theologians and philosophers through the ages, John does not think that this emphasis in any way conflicts with his equally strong emphasis on human responsibility.  In 5:40 he can excoriate the Jews for not coming to the Lord Jesus to have life.  He can summon his readers “to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” in order that they might be saved.

He speaks with equal ease of the responsibility of men and women to believe in Jesus, their culpability if they do not, on the one hand, and the sovereign decision and working of God that accounts for the faith of those who believe in Jesus and are saved on the other.  Divine sovereignty and human responsibility go together.  A great mystery, to be sure, but it is perfectly clear that that is what John’s words mean!  And not just here but in many places.

As Augustine explained centuries ago, “The grace of God does not take away the human will, but changes it from bad to good, and assists it when it is good.”  [NPNF, v, 461]

And here we find Jesus himself saying that the ultimate explanation for faith and salvation lies in the election and the sovereign working of God, bringing some men to faith and leaving others in their unbelief.  A hard saying, absolutely.  A true saying, of course.  And we all know it, at least when we are on our knees.  When there is someone we love who does not believe in Jesus, what do we do?  Do we not, as all Christians before us, lift up our hearts and voices to God and plead with him for the salvation of our parents, or our children, or our friends?  And do we not in that prayer give away the fact that we believe that God holds the issue of anyone’s salvation in his own hands?  Of course we do, the law of prayer is the law of belief.  What we say to God shows us what we truly believe and understand about salvation.

And why do we know in our hearts that it all is of God?  Because we know ourselves and we know the power of our unbelief and we know for a certainty that our being a Christian cannot be explained by our goodness or our intelligence or our common sense or our love of the truth.  There are many unbelievers we know who exceed us in such things but have never come to Christ.  There are people we love who we think must surely believe in the Lord Jesus but they do not and in some cases, alas, they never will.  No, it does not lie in us, it cannot lie in us, the reason why we are Christians and others are not.

As Pascal put it, “To make a man a saint, grace is absolutely necessary; and whoever doubts this does not know what a saint is, or what a man is.”

Here is Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century, one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christendom, reflecting on his own coming to faith in Christ at 16 years of age.

“Well can I remember the manner in which I learned the doctrines of grace in a single instant.  Born, as all of us are by nature, [someone who believed in the power and the independence and the goodness of my own will]…I did not see the grace of God.  When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me.  I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this.  I can recall the very day and hour when first I received those truths into my soul – when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man – that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God.  One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon…  The thought struck me, ‘How did you come to be a Christian?’  I sought the Lord.  ‘But how did you come to seek the Lord?’  The truth flashed across my mind in a moment – I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him.  I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray?  I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures.  How came I to read the Scriptures?  I did read them, but what led me to do so?  Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make it my constant confession, ‘I ascribe my change wholly to God.’”  [Autobiography, i, 165]

And so it was in the days of the Lord’s ministry.  There were many who heard that magnificent teaching, saw his miracles, saw him with their own eyes give sight to the blind, heal lepers, raise the dead, drive out demons, but they would not believe in him.  He made no sense to them.  He was not attractive to them.  He offended them.  They didn’t like him or what he said.  His miracles may have amazed them but they their hearts remained cold.

But there were others in those days upon whose dark hearts broke the most glorious morning sun.  They realized, in a moment of brilliant recognition, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, that he had come into the world as the long-promised Messiah, that he and he alone could carry them to heaven.  The believed in him, they began to follow him, they changed their lives root and branch to serve him, and many of them suffered terribly for that loyalty, but they didn’t mind.  Why?  Because they knew for a certainty – what the rest refused to believe – that Jesus Christ was the Lord and Savior of mankind

How is this to be explained:  the stubborn refusal to believe on the part of so many, the glad embrace of Jesus Christ on the part of so many others?  Jesus tells us.  It is the Father’s choosing of a people, his illuminating their otherwise darkened hearts, his overcoming their willful rebellion against him and hatred of the truth and the light, and drawing them powerfully, inexorably to Christ, who can and will save them and bring them to heaven at last.

And that is the explanation still today.  One man hears the gospel and knows it is true as surely as he knows he exists.  It breaks his heart and heals his heart at one and the same moment.  He sees Jesus Christ and knows him instantly as the Son of God.  Another man, no worse, hears the same message and yawns or, perhaps, gets red in the face with anger as the Jews often did.  He resents the implication that he is in such desperate need of forgiveness, he resents the Lord’s teaching that he cannot save himself, he particularly resents the fact that he must surrender his freedom and independence and conform his life to the will of God.  And so, like multitudes before him, he does not and will not believe.  What is the difference?  God has drawn one foolish sinner and he has not drawn another.  That is the difference; that is always the difference!

Hard truth? Surely.  Questions rising in the mind?  Surely.  Mystery here?  Surely.  But the Lord is less interested in our text in dealing with the mysteries and the problems than he is in stating the fact as an explanation of what happened in his day and of what happens today. And it is a most important fact – the explanation of the single most important thing that ever happens in this world, the salvation of a lost soul.

I entitled this sermon “A Southern Aphorism.”  What aphorism did I mean?  This one:  When you find a turtle on top of a fence post, you know it did not get there by itself!  And, so in the world of salvation.  When you find a foolish, rebellious, sinner who loves himself and his sin with a passion, who hates God, if the truth be told, and wants nothing to do with him, and whose entire nature disposes him to reject the gospel of Jesus Christ, — by nature, birth, upbringing, disposition and conviction is just like these Jews who gnashed their teeth at Jesus Christ – I say, when you find that sinner confessing his sins to God, without extenuation or mitigation, pleading with him for forgiveness through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, when you find that sinner counting on the mercy of God and loving God and praising his grace in Jesus Christ, when you find him eager to forsake all his sins and live that life only that pleases the Lord, I say, you know that man did not get on that fence post by himself!

There is something to ponder as you lie awake at night.  Of all mankind, of the vast multitudes of human beings, no less worthy than you, he gave you to his son, he drew you to Jesus Christ.  We are talking, after all, of heaven and hell, life and death, eternal joy and the wailing and gnashing of teeth.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  If that doesn’t from time to time send you into a cold sweat you are not thinking rightly about your life and your salvation.

And if it doesn’t time after time make you click your heals with love for God and with the joy of your salvation – that he should have loved you, given you of all people to his Son to save, that he should have drawn you to Christ – I don’t understand you.

How great this doctrine makes God and Christ appear in a believer’s heart.  How it settles the conviction of the heart, that most important conviction, that in all of our lives and in all of our salvation we are finally and absolutely in God’s hands!

Back in the 17th century they thought long and hard about these greatest of all things and were concerned to inscribe these convictions in the hearts of all true Christians.  They wrote a prayer for new converts, brand new Christians to say to God, a prayer that not only said the right things, but taught young Christians what the right things to think and say were, and how they ought to think about their salvation.  It is a prayer that faithfully represents the Lord’s own teaching about salvation in this great discourse we are reading.  Make it your own prayer this morning.

“I could never have sought my happiness in your love, unless you had first loved me.  Your Spirit has encouraged me by grace to seek you, has made known to me your reconciliation in Jesus, has taught me to believe it, has helped me to take you for my God and portion.  May he grant me to grow in the knowledge and experience of your love, and walk in it all the way to glory.  Blessed forever be your fatherly affection, which chose me to be one of your children by faith in Jesus:  I thank you for giving me the desire to live as such.  In Jesus, my brother, I have my new birth, every restraining power, every renewing grace.  It is by your Spirit I call you father, believe in you, love you; strengthen me inwardly for every purpose of my Christian life; let the Spirit continually reveal to me my interest in Christ, and open to me the riches of your love in him; may he abide in me that I may know my union with Jesus, and enter into constant fellowship with him; by the Spirit may I daily live to you, rejoice in your love, find it the same to me as to your Son, and become rooted and grounded in it as a house on rock; I know but little – increase my knowledge of your love in Jesus, keep me pressing forward for clearer discoveries of it so that I may find its eternal fullness; magnify your love to me according to its greatness, and not according to my deserts or prayers, and whatever increase you give, let it draw out greater love to you.”

There is a man, a woman, who knows that if you find a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.  And when the turtle is a dead, lost sinner, and the fence post is the family of God and heaven, that is an extraordinary thing to know!

“…who loved me and gave Himself for me!”