I should tell you now that we will consider part of our text twice, this morning and, again, with the rest of the paragraph, next Lord’s Day, God willing. If I may say so, we will consider this morning the teaching in this text about salvation and next Lord’s Day morning its teaching about Jesus Christ. Or, to put it the way theologians might, there is both soteriology and Christology in this text, and we will consider both. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that those are two entirely different subjects. The Bible’s teaching about Jesus Christ is the foundation of its teaching about salvation. Our soteriology flows out of our Christology. This is what the great Athanasius saw in the controversy about the doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ in the 4th century: if you get that wrong, if you see him as anything less than true man and true God, you must end up with a different understanding of salvation.
v.22 The Feast of Dedication is what we know as Hanukah and it was the celebration of the deliverance of Jerusalem in 164 B.C. by Judas Maccabeus and his guerilla fighters and the purification of the temple that followed. It was also called the Feast of Lights because it was the custom of the Jews to light lamps and candles in their homes to celebrate this feast. This historical detail – that the Lord Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication – is, by the way, an interesting part of the argument for celebrating a feast, such as Christmas, that is not specifically ordered in the Word of God. The Feast of Dedication, of course, was not authorized in the law of Moses, but it was an appropriate celebration of God’s deliverance of his people and Jesus participated in it! It was winter, actually the month of December.
v.24 What follows will demonstrate that these folk are not really interested in illumination or understanding. They want Jesus to make a clear-cut claim that they can then attack him for.
v.25 The Lord was unlikely to give them the answer they were looking for. He has veiled his claims to them all through the ministry to this point. He was willing to tell the Samaritan woman straight out that he was the Messiah and he did tell his inner circle of disciples in unambiguous speech that he was the Christ, but these Jews had such a false understanding of the Messiah – who he would be and what he would do – that he couldn’t announce himself to them in plain terms – they would have completely misunderstood the claim he was making – and, what is more, he knew that they wouldn’t believe in him anyway. But all through the Gospel he had done enough and said enough to bring an honest heart to the recognition that he was the Messiah and the Son of God.
v.27 The point made in the previous paragraph is made again, this time both positively and negatively. The sheep hear the Lord’s voice and follow him; those who are not his sheep do not and will not.
v.28 He has already said this in v. 10 and in v. 9 said the same thing in other words, “he came to give salvation to his sheep.”
v.29 Just as he said he performed his miracles in his Father’s name in v. 25, so, here, he gives life to his sheep in obedience to his Father’s will and in fulfillment of his Father’s purpose. The Father gave to his Son the people he came to save and the Father stands behind the work of his Son and guarantees it. If the Son and the Father are one in this work, then, obviously, it cannot fail.
Our Lord was a polemicist. He was a master polemicist. He was constantly embroiled in theological debate, often at his own instigation and often at the instigation of others. He was always asserting the truth and defending it, even when to do so complicated his life, even when to do so placed his life in danger. Here he spoke the truth, unwelcome as it was, and the Jews picked up stones to stone him because his denial of their cherished but absolutely false religious opinions.
Nowadays, of course, controversy has a bad name. Dividing men over questions of religious doctrine seems absurdly old fashioned to many people today. Why can’t men just love one another? Why can’t we all just get along with one another, as Rodney King asked in the midst of the Los Angeles riots. Imagine a world without religion, sings John Lennon in his famous song, assuming that all would be so much more peaceful and harmonious.
To be sure, controversialists have often rightly given controversy and polemics a bad name. They have filled their debate with personal animus and unkindness and disrespect. They have driven men apart needlessly, not by the truth itself but by the miserable way in which they spoke the truth or defended it. There was an English bishop, by the name of John Bale, in the days of the Reformation, who defended the reformation faith with such bitterness and coarseness against its detractors that he came to be known as “Bilious Bale.” In the days of the Great Awakening Augustus Toplady and John Wesley’s arguments over doctrine were so contentious, so ill-tempered that Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote about them, “Never, I regret to say, did an advocate of truth appear to me so entirely to forget the text, ‘In meekness instructing those that oppose [him]…” We have such controversialists today, in politics, in the academic world, and in the church, alas. Men whose defense of what they see to be right is so full of themselves, so animated by bitterness, so arrogant, so unkind, so harsh, that it is frankly impossible to imagine them ever persuading anyone who did not already to agree with them about anything.
Jesus was a controversialist, a polemicist, but not of that kind! He never engaged in controversy unnecessarily. We see him avoiding it at many points in the Gospels. He could be exceedingly blunt, without a doubt, but he never descended to personalities. You will still sometimes hear people say that the Lord himself was uninterested in contentions about the truth. Instead he sought to win the world with love and to prepare his church for life in the world by the example of his love. An English professor of the late 19th century [Prof. John Stuart Blackie] expressed this sentiment in verse.
Creeds and confessions? High Church or the Low?
I cannot say; but you would vastly please us
If with some pointed Scripture you could show
To which of these belonged the Savior, Jesus.
I think to all or none. Not curious creeds
Or ordered forms of churchly rule he taught,
But soul of love that blossomed into deeds,
With human good and human blessing fraught.
On me nor priest nor presbyter nor pope,
Bishop or dean, may stamp a party name;
But Jesus with His largely human scope
The service of my human life may claim.
Let prideful priests do battle about creeds,
The church is mine that does most Christ-like deeds.
Well, on the face of it that is pure nonsense. The Lord had a creed. A primary article of that creed was that he was the Son of God and that he was equal with God. Another article of his creed was that God had a people and that Christ had been sent to save them. When he made public those articles of his creed the Jewish religious leaders took up stones to stone him. Churchmen took up stones to stone him because his doctrine was the reverse of theirs at a key point. He was quite willing to put an issue of faith and doctrine sharply, however impolitic that may be today. And then he urged his followers to contend for the faith that he had once and for all delivered to the saints.
Why? Why did Jesus divide people as he did? Why couldn’t he have left some of these contentious doctrines to the side and stressed those points about which he and the Jewish leadership were in agreement. There were many such points after all. Both sides had the same doctrine of God in many particulars, they had the same loyalty to the Scripture, they both revered the law of Moses, and so on. The Lord was a Pharisee in regard to the doctrine of the resurrection of all men at the end of the age.
Well, clearly, he pressed home points that were bound to provoke a negative reaction among many who heard him precisely because they were so essential to a proper grasp of the truth and of the way of salvation. As he puts it here, eternal life hangs in the balance. This is truth that men must know. These are errors that will kill them forever.
And what is that truth here. Well, the Lord puts it plainly. The salvation of God, the real salvation, the salvation that actually exists, the one way that sinners can be given peace with God and hope of eternal life, is a salvation that God and Christ together give freely to men. It is their salvation, a divine salvation, in plan, in execution and in application. And for that reason it is certain, sure, and indestructible. It does not partake of that uncertainty that must be a feature of any idea of salvation that depends upon a man or woman’s faithfulness or obedience. Hear that certainty, the assuredness in the Savior’s voice:
“My sheep listen to my voice and they follow me…”
“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish…”
“No one can snatch them out of my hand…”
“My Father who has given them to me is greater than all…”
“No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand…”
But that is still not all. To make the point more absolutely irrefutable, the Lord puts the same in the negative. He looks at the Jewish religious leaders and says, “You are not my sheep.” You don’t believe in me, you don’t listen to my voice, you don’t follow me, you don’t accept the evidence of your eyes and the implication of my miracles because you are not my sheep. If you were my sheep, you would believe and you would follow me.
And there is the rub, precisely because the Lord’s putting his teaching in the negative form makes so unmistakably clear the meaning of what he said in the positive form. Tell people that the Lord loves his sheep or that his sheep listen to his voice and the take no particular offence. Hear him tell others that they are not his sheep and, suddenly, it all becomes clear what the Lord is saying! The Lord Jesus was a predestinarian! He was as much a predestinarian as the Apostle Paul. The point is put here as baldly as it is put in Romans chapter 9, where Paul speaks of the Lord having mercy upon whom he will have mercy. If we may put the point in the form of a crude anachronism, we might say today that the Lord Jesus was an Augustinian or a Calvinist. His doctrine of grace and salvation was the doctrine of Augustine and Luther, of Calvin and the Puritans, of Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon.
And what is that doctrine: that salvation from first to last is the plan and the achievement and the gift of God and the work of Jesus Christ. We do not contribute to it one single thing except the sin and guilt from which we are redeemed. It does not depend on us. It is grounded in God’s immutable and sovereign love for his chosen people. It is secured by the righteousness and the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is put into the active and conscious possession of people by the working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Left to himself or herself, no one would ever embrace this salvation, no one would ever believe in Jesus Christ. As Jesus said in his “Bread of Life” sermon, “no one can come to me unless the Father who is in heaven draws him.” We might have expected that the Lord would have said, “you are not my sheep because you do not believe.” But he did not say that. He said, “you don’t believe because you are not my sheep.” In other words, even our believing in Christ, even our faith by which we obtain our salvation, came to us because God had made us his sheep and Christ had died for us as his sheep. The Jews did not believe this. They talked about God’s grace and mercy, to be sure. But they meant something else by it. In the matter of salvation they held to cooperation, God did his part and man his, but man’s part made the difference at the end. This the Lord here is categorically denying. One can talk accurately about how salvation occurs, and never once mention what a man does! At bottom it is all of God! True, the sheep follow their shepherds voice here. But that is because they’re sheep. That’s what sheep do. There are no sheep of this shepherd that do not follow his voice!
Here the Lord Jesus puts it as plainly as words allow. If a person is not God’s sheep, he will not believe and will not be saved. That is difficult for us to hear. You can hear the beginning of the outcry already. That would not be fair for God is not treating everyone alike. That is not right because it takes away man’s free will to say that God decides who will be saved. This turns a man into a robot, they will say. I can hear folk raising those objections even as I hear the Lord Jesus speak here about his sheep and about the religious leaders who opposed him not being his sheep. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 9, reminds us that men will always object to this doctrine on those very grounds – that it seems to render God unjust and seems to nullify the freedom of the human will. But, then, that is our point. If your doctrine is not subject to those objections; if people do not object to it for those reasons, then, obviously, it is not the doctrine taught in the Bible! Not the doctrine Jesus taught.
And, to be sure, there is a great deal more to be said about all of this. More to be said about man’s freedom, which is real; more to be said about God’s justice, which is real; more to be said about man’s own love of sin and determined unbelief; more to be said about his distaste for the gospel and for the law of God; more to be said about his invincible disinterest in submitting himself to God; more to be said about God’s love for the world and about how he does not desire the death of the wicked but that all men should come to repentance; more to be said about the connection made between a man or woman exercising responsible choice and the outworking of his or her salvation. Much more to be said. But the Lord does not say it here.
Here he is interested in telling us that salvation is his work and his gift and that of his Father in heaven and, because it is, it is something of which we can be absolutely sure and confident. “He who began a good work in you shall perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” What are those verses but Paul’s way of saying what Jesus says here. Paul is known as the great teacher of predestination and sovereign grace, of election and salvation by grace alone, but he added nothing to the teaching of our Lord and Savior. You don’t get anything in Paul and you don’t get any stronger statement, than you get in the Gospels in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Remember our Savior’s many statements like this one:
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have
hidden these things – he is talking about the way of salvation and
and his own identity as the Son of God – from the wise and
learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this
was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me
by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no
one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son
chooses to reveal him.” [Matt. 11:25-27]
Over and again he speaks in such ways, simply, categorically declaring the salvation of any particular sinner to be God’s will and Christ’s work. That is what he is telling us here. And lest we mistake his message, he puts it in a polemical form, and lets us hear him say to the religious leaders, “not only do my sheep hear my voice and follow me…you don’t hear it and don’t follow because you are not my sheep!” Faith is not the cause of our salvation, it is the proof of our salvation. You must be a sheep of God or you will never believe. If you believe it is because you are among his sheep.
Are there difficulties here? Of course there are. But it is striking that the Lord does not raise them or discuss them or hurry to assure us that there is some simple answer to the question rising in your mind when he turns to the religious leaders and tells them that they don’t believe because they are not his sheep. He wants us to hear him say what he said because he wants us to know the implications of that, he wants us to understand the character of salvation as a divine work and a divine gift. Because only in that way can we be absolutely sure that our salvation will not slip through our fingers. As Toplady has it:
If ever it should come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day.
And you would! And I would! I tell you, if your salvation depended in any part — any part; the smallest part — you would not make it to the promised land. I tell you on the authority of the Word of God, you wouldn’t make it!
The Lord Jesus seems to be telling us that this certainty, that assurance, this knowledge that the gift of eternal life is irrevocable because it is God’s gift and Christ’s achievement and not at all ours, is worth all the argument and all the strain on Christian fellowship that this doctrine has produced through the ages, and is worth all the scorn of the world through the centuries since the Lord Jesus first uttered these words in Solomon’s Colonnade.
For someone who takes sin and damnation, salvation and heaven for granted, this seems a small thing, not worth arguing about. But, if one feels the terrible force of those realities and reckons with his own deep and abiding unwillingness to do the will of God, the difficulty it is for him really to believe and to continue to believe the promises of God, it is life itself to know that salvation is God’s gift, Christ’s achievement and so must be as certain for his people as God is faithful, just, and powerful.
“We say,” said Charles Spurgeon, “that Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.” As Toplady beautifully puts it in his hymn.
“Payment God cannot twice demand –
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again from mine.”
I say, for someone who desperately wants eternal life, nothing is more wonderful to know. For those who don’t care, well, they are not Christ’s sheep; or, they are but he has not yet spoken to them and they have not yet heard his voice and begun to follow him.
But this is a vulnerable doctrine. It is disliked by men because it makes God very great and they very small in the most important matter of all. It makes them utterly dependent upon God and his grace and takes their future, their destiny, as it were, out of their hands. What is more, it is a great mystery, and men and women naturally resent being told things that are beyond their grasp, that they cannot explain or understand. And so men are always attacking this doctrine that Jesus taught, even in the church they attack it. They prefer a message that not only lies entirely within their grasp, but leaves the great issue finally in their own hands.
Listen to this praise song from Maranatha Music, entitled “You are my Wholeness.” One of you gave me a copy of this after having heard it sung in a church service somewhere. The second and third of three verses read as follows:
And in You I find true friendship
Yes, Your love is so free of demands
Though it must hurt You so,
You keep letting me go
To discover the person I am.
And like a father You long to protect me
Yet you know I must learn on my own
Well I made my own choice,
To follow Your voice
Guiding me unto my home.
But that is not the way we are to think about our salvation. That is not the way anyone would think who was listening carefully to the Word of God. Our salvation is our Shepherd’s doing, not ours. We follow his voice because we are his sheep. He has other sheep that are not of that sheep pen and they too will hear his voice and follow him. The shepherd’s voice is not “Yoo-hoo!” It is “Come! Come here; Come now!” The Father does not wait in hope that his sheep might choose him, he has chosen them and they will hear his voice because it is the voice of Almighty God who is greater than all! And they will remain in his salvation not because they decide to but because he has them in his hands!
Salvation that was really such as described in that song – a well-meaning God (“You long to protect me, yet you know I must learn on my own”) and a sovereign human will (“I made my own choice to follow your voice”) – could not be counted on at all. It would depend upon my choice and my faithfulness to God, broken reeds if ever there were broken reeds.
“Eternal life!” That is what he says he gives his sheep, gives and will never take away. If only we could grasp with true understanding the glorious future that is set before us in those words “eternal life.” We have, these days, only a faint belief in the life to come. Our eyes are dim and we cannot see the city that has foundations. But if we could see it, really see it, see it well and clearly, how unbelievably thankful we would be that God has promised this to us and Christ has guaranteed it by his life and death!
There is a great deal in the Christian faith that we cannot get to the bottom of. We are talking about the ways and the will of Almighty God who is far, far above us. We must humbly adore what we cannot comprehend and believe, as we have every reason to believe, that the Judge of all the earth does right. Our Savior, as a man, did this very thing. As we read before, when speaking of God’s sovereign and discriminating grace, he looked heavenward and said, “Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” It should be our ambition to be great believers rather than great thinkers, to be child-like in our faith. What the Lord has said is true and must be true. And he would not have told us what he did if it were not imperative for us to know it.
We need to know nothing so much as that our salvation, our hope of eternal life lies utterly and entirely with God. We do not deserve salvation. The angels who fell were lost forever when they fell. There was no redeemer sent for them, no great suffering born for their guilt by another on their behalf. No shepherd laid down his life for them. No wonder the elect angels, those who were kept from falling, as Peter says, “long to look into these things.” That the Son of God himself should have gone to the world as a man to live, to suffer, and to die, for the salvation of mere men. It is the most astonishing, wonderful, amazing, breathtaking thing that has ever happened or ever shall happen. We understand so little about this. Only enough to know that our salvation, from first to last, is God’s free gift to us. Why he gave it to us we cannot say. We will never be able to say. That he gave it to us we know and we will know it forever!