Belief and Unbelief

belief-unbeliefThis is a sermon on John 6:41-51, 60-71.  Download sermon outline/commentary and audio.

Jesus came from heaven to give eternal life to the world, but many spiritual seekers and self-described Christians will not believe this hard teaching, but will turn away revealing that God has not granted them spiritual ability to believe in Jesus. Don’t turn back because only Jesus can give you eternal life.

Introduction – Pastor James M. Boice told a story of people constantly asking him which Bible doctrines they need to believe in order to be a Christian, a faithful follower of Jesus. At first, he would answer the question with a list of core doctrines. But soon he realized that the questioners were often looking for a pastor’s permission slip excusing them from believing certain doctrines. So he changed his answer to what Jesus taught his disciples: “All of them!”

The doctrine of Jesus as a God-man come from heaven, who is alone able to give eternal life to the world, is a hard sell. Explaining to people that they are spiritually unable to believe in Jesus for eternal life unless God draws them to Jesus is a teaching that offends many, even many Christians. But once we realize this is exactly what Jesus taught, we are confronted with a decision: either accept these hard sayings and follow Jesus, or reject these hard sayings and thereby turn away from following Jesus.

I. Why do only some believe (or continue to believe) in Jesus?

A. The apparent answer (vv. 41-42, 60-62)

1. Contrary to appearances, Jesus claimed to be a man from heaven come to give life to the world. Five times Jesus said he “came down from heaven” (Jn 6:33, 38, 50, 51, 58). This is the matter in dispute, and it was a hard saying to accept. The people grumbled against Jesus because they struggled with the familiar. How could Jesus say these things about himself when they knew where he came from? They knew his father Joseph and his mother Mary, which made Jesus’ claims seem outlandish (note they were unaware or didn’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin, and the irony that if they believed the reports of his supernatural birth then Jesus’ claims about himself would be germane to the dialogue). Their argument was: “We know Jesus’ parents and family of origin, and knew Jesus since he was a kid. And look what happens when he’s all grown up! He makes ridiculous, extravagant claims about himself. Who does he think he is, expecting us to believe this stuff about him? It’s blasphemy!” Familiarity can breed contempt and unbelief.

How would you respond if one of the boys in this congregation grew up and started making the same kinds of claims that Jesus did? Would you be shocked? Offended? Unbelieving? Why? It seems so unreasonable because you watched him grow up. You know his family. You are confident that you know enough about him that it can’t be true. How dare he treat you like you don’t really know him!

2. Jesus often confronted people with this kind of irrationalism that poses as reason and pressed them toward belief (Jn 4:44; Mt 13:57-58). We also face the choice to believe when confronted with Jesus’ divine origin. That Jesus is the God-man come down from heaven is crucial to his identity and mission as the Son of God (Jn 1:1-2, 14, 18, 45-46; 3:2, 3, 17, 31; 5:36-38; 6:29, 33, 38). You must answer the question: is Jesus the heavenly God-man, or a mere human being just like you? To mangle Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To believe, or not to believe. That is the question!”

B. The theological answer (vv. 43-46, 63-65)

1. No one is able to come to Jesus by faith unless the Father draws that person to Jesus. Coming to Christ in faith for eternal salvation is not a human achievement. It is nothing to boast about to people who don’t believe in Jesus.

This is another hard saying in this passage for Americans and other cultures who idolize freedom and self-autonomy. We don’t like being told that we are unable to do anything. Our culture instills in us the idea that if you set your mind to something (anything!) then you can accomplish it. No goal is too lofty. No accomplishment is impossible. No power is withheld from you. We are told everyone is the master of his own destiny, and that we alone determine what we will do. But Jesus introduces a limitation on libertarian free will: the notion that coming to him in faith is a spiritual ability and power that people who are spiritually dead do not possess. It is out of reach! Jesus says no one (not even one!) has the ability, power, inclination, or desire to come to him in faith unless the Father draws that person to Jesus by changing his heart.

2. Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to Jesus. Every single person who has come to Jesus by faith and thereby obtains eternal life had previously heard from God the Father and learned from God that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I dare say everyone who has been saved by Jesus has a story to tell of how that experience happened in their life, of spiritual awakening, spiritual rebirth, of spiritually sensing the call of God for the first time, of hearing the gospel of salvation in Jesus and believing it, believing him, trusting him, of gladly giving control of one’s life forever to him. All of those who come to Jesus have the common experience of hearing and learning from God, who draws them to Jesus.

II. Why not another interpretation?

Why can’t we simply believe that Jesus means “people do not come to Christ strictly on their own initiative; the Father draws them”? Because this statement doesn’t go far enough. Such a statement leaves room for the very common false teachings of (1) cooperative grace (that God and sinner cooperate to accomplish salvation; the sinner contributes self-autonomous belief, and God contributes eternal life) and (2) initiating but resistible grace (that God gives a prior grace to everyone that is resistible by the sinner’s free will). Let’s examine Jesus’ words more closely and see where they lead us.

A. No: Cooperative grace (Semipelagian “assisting” grace)

Cooperative grace is like God helping those who choose to help themselves, like God tossing a life preserver to a drowning man who is calling for help.

In verse 44, the Greek verb translated “can” is dunamai. It does not mean having permission to do, but “to be able” or “to have power” to do. In other words, Jesus says that no one is able, no one has the power, to come to him unless the Father draws that person to Jesus. No human being has the moral or spiritual ability to come to Christ in faith unless God gives him the desire and inclination to come to Jesus and the ability (power) to believe in Christ for eternal life. The natural fallen hardness of heart in humanity prevents every single person from accepting the free offer of the gospel, unless a special work of God’s grace takes place in an unwilling unbeliever, removing his hard heart of stone and replacing it with a living heart of flesh that is able and willing to believe (Ezek 36:26).

B. No: Initiating but resistible grace (Arminian “prevenient” grace)

Initiating but resistible grace is like God restoring everyone’s free will like Adam possessed in the Garden of Eden, so they have the ability to choose God or reject God, then God throwing life preservers to every single drowning man. But each man still needs to want to be saved to actually be saved. Some will want God and choose to accept the life preserver; others will not want God and choose to reject it.

1. But can a person drawn by God to Jesus resist this drawing? In verse 44 Jesus also speaks of God “drawing” a person. The Greek verb is elkuō, which means to drag, pull, draw, haul, or attract. The drawing of a man is not a drawing by force against a person’s will, but by attracting with unfailing love a person whose obstinate will has been transformed by God. So a converted sinner is not dragged kicking and screaming to Jesus. Rather God performs spiritual heart surgery on the sinner, implanting a new heart that instead of running from Jesus in unbelief runs to Jesus in love and faith.

2. What does Jesus say about the man who is drawn by God? That he will be raised on the last day. This is a clear an unavoidable reference to the resurrection of believers. In other words, Jesus says that all those who are drawn by God will become followers of Christ, persevere in following Christ their whole lives, and will certainly be raised up to eternal life at the resurrection on the last day. No one will ultimately be able to resist the draw of God to Jesus. All who are drawn by God will be raised up to eternal life.

C. Yes: Biblical grace (Reformed “sovereign” grace)

Remember the scene in the movie The Princess Bride when two guys are debating the different states of human death?

“There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do. What’s that? Go through his clothes and look for loose change!” The Bible’s teaching is like God fitting a life preserver around the body of an all-dead man at the bottom of the ocean, dragging him up to the surface, not wasting time with CPR, chest defibrillators, or “chocolate coated miracle pills” to revive life, but instead with divine power reaching down into death and supernaturally drawing the dead back to life. That is the biblical picture of the Father drawing a person to Jesus—drawing a spiritually all-dead sinner out of death into eternal life (cf. Ezek 37).

Christians who believe in cooperative grace, or initiating but resistible grace, can affirm that it is necessary for God to draw sinners to Jesus that they might be saved. But the Bible pushes us further, to affirm that God’s drawing of a person is irresistible (contra the unbiblical teaching of initiating but resistible grace). The Bible also pushes us to affirm that no one can even begin to come to Jesus unless he is sovereignly born again by the unmerited grace of the Holy Spirit (contra the unbiblical teaching of cooperative grace), so there is no sense of cooperation between the spiritually all-dead sinner and God in the act of bringing new life and salvation to that person. Please don’t miss the fact that this is not merely theoretical. If you have believed in Jesus and gained eternal life, then at some point in your life God worked this miracle in you! All who believe and continue to follow Jesus show that once they were all-dead, but now are alive!

III. Why not turn back?

A. Jesus is the only source of eternal life (vv. 47-51)

For the third time (out of 4) in John 6, Jesus solemnly tells his listeners, “Truly, truly, I say to you” (Jn 6:26, 32, 47, 53). Jesus is strenuously pointing us to eternal life. To obtain life we must believe. There could be an exclamation point at the end of verse 48. All of John 6 is an explanation of this truth: Jesus is the bread of life. The simplicity and isolation of these words in one brief sentence should call our attention to believe it. He is the bread of life come down from heaven to give life to the world. He has ascended to heaven to return to his Father. His claim is wonderfully true! The Bible records the eye witnesses who testify Jesus is telling the truth.

B. There is no one else worth following (vv. 66-71)

1. Up to this point, Jesus had been an extremely popular rabbi. Large crowds followed him, and many claimed to be his disciples. But after this account filled with hard teachings, many turned back, revealing their underlying unbelief. Those who heard Jesus divided into two groups: those who continued to follow him, growing in faith and obedience, and those who rejected Jesus because they did not like what they heard. The more people heard Jesus teach, the more divisive he became.

2. So Jesus turned to the remaining disciples (the Twelve) and asked if they wanted to leave with the others. This was the big test. Jesus was providing a convenient opportunity to leave for those who were unwilling to pay the price of being a true disciple. What would his chosen disciples do? Would they prove Jesus’ teaching of irresistible grace by their response?

3. By faith Peter confesses (for himself and for the group) that Jesus has the words of eternal life. They cannot leave Jesus no matter how hard he makes it to follow him. They cannot and will not turn back from following Jesus because they have been drawn by the Father and have come to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God. How could a disciple turn back from following him? Inconceivable! Once a person knows Jesus, no one else can satisfy.

What are the discipleship tests we can derive from John 6?

First test: Is it always easy for you to serve him because you only believe the doctrines that fit your sense of justice? Do you joyfully obey the commands that seem pleasant or tolerable to you, but turn back from the teachings that do not resonate with you, casually disobeying those commands that seem “extreme” or “unnecessary” for an average, respectable Christian? If your way of following Jesus rarely if ever clashes head-on with your emotional make-up and lifestyle preferences, then you should be examining your heart very closely and judging your life strictly.

Second test: Are you following Jesus in a state of ignorant bliss, preferring to rather not know what the Bible teaches about your responsibilities as a disciple of Jesus? Then you need to question which Jesus you are following. A Jesus in your own imagination? A middle-class American version of Jesus? Or the biblical Jesus? How will you know which Jesus you are following if you don’t carefully read the entire Bible and discuss his life and teachings with others who are striving to follow hard after the Jesus of the Bible?

Third test: Are you merely hanging around Jesus and his church? Just staying near Jesus and his followers is not the same as believing and following Jesus. Judas stayed near to Jesus for personal gain, but his lack of faith became apparent when he turned away from Jesus and betrayed him. Many stay near to Jesus and his followers, coming to worship services for status, community, sense of obligation, spiritual therapy, affirmation of belief, approval of family or friends, or even business contacts. But merely staying close to Jesus and the Church is not the same as accepting him as Savior and Lord of your life. It is actually a form of rejecting Jesus, as the example of Judas shows.

Fourth test: Are believing and serving Jesus not always joyful for you. If there are biblical doctrines that rub you the wrong way, seem offensive, or silly, but you pray for God to help you believe and love them, then that is evidence of the lordship of Jesus over you. If following Jesus and obeying his commands are sometimes difficult, even agonizing, for you, because disobedience appears to be the path of ease, comfort, success, happiness, but you choose instead to follow Jesus despite the consequences, relying heavily on his grace to sustain you and give you strength to persevere, then that is evidence the Father has drawn you to Jesus. If you’ve ever been tempted to turn back from Jesus because he presses hard teachings and commands on your life, but the very thought of turning away leaves you with a feeling of despair (“Lord, to whom shall I go?”), then that is evidence you are a true disciple.

Conclusion – “Lord, to whom shall we go?” These are beautiful words that every Christian can adopt as his own when following Jesus seems overwhelming. Make these words your prayer and confession of faith when you’re wrestling with God in the midst of trial, uncertainty, confusion, doubt, struggle, pain, temptation, lethargy, sorrow, etc. They are the path of hope in Christ, who is the living hope for all who continue to believe.

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4 Responses to Belief and Unbelief

  1. We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.

  2. Dorian Christensen says:

    This is the view that God has determined the eternal destiny of every human being. He has chosen some to eternal life to be saved through the finished work of Christ, and foreordained others to everlasting punishment for their sin. Chapter 21 of Book III of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is called “Of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction”.

    • That’s right, Dorian. But the primary question is not whether John Calvin taught this view, but whether the Bible teaches this view. Do you agree this is primary? I’ve tried to make the case that Jesus teaches what has come to be known as the “Reformed sovereign grace” view in John 6. Thanks for commenting.

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