“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:44
There are two basic ways to interpret this passage and it hinges on the words “draws” and “them.” Let’s look at the two renderings side by side:
Calvinists: “No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me *drags* him, and I will raise up *him who was dragged* at the last day.”
Traditionalists: “No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me *enables* him, and I will raise up *him who comes* at the last day.”
The Greek sentence structure allows for the author to be referencing “them” who come, not necessarily all those drawn. For instance if the sentence translated in English were structured in this manner the intention might be more obvious:
“Only those drawn by the Father may come, and I will raise up them (those that come) at the last day.”
The confusion over John 6:44 can be clarified by applying the same interpretative principle to another similar sentence:
“No one can join the Army unless they have been recruited, and those who have been recruited will be trained.”
To use the Calvinistic interpretative method on this sentence would suggest that the Army only intended to recruit those who are eventually trained when clearly the Army attempts to recruit thousands who never actually join. The clear intention of this sentence is to presume the recruitment process lead to the joining and eventual training of those in view. Likewise, Jesus could simply be referring to those who do come as a result of God’s enabling. Given that at this time God has not completed His redemptive plan and sent the gospel to the Gentiles, it is safe to say He is not enabling all to come — yet.
Many Calvinists will appeal to the word helko (draw) in the original Greek, which can be understood as “to drag” as in a net of fish being dragged into the boat. But the word can also mean “to lead” or “draw” (see Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).
Even if one were to accept the rendering of the term “helko” to mean “effectually cause” as in “to drag,” the text still does not say enough to necessitate a Calvinistic reading. One could be compelled to come to Christ while he was “down from heaven,” (v. 38) as was Judas (v. 71), without necessarily being saved. Jesus told those who came to Him that they must “count the cost to be his disciple” (Lk 14:25-34) and some who came only followed Him temporarily. One must presume that “coming to Christ” is equivalent to effectual salvation in order to support a Calvinistic interpretation.
THE COMPELLING OF THE TWELVE
The apostles were, in a sense, compelled (convincingly persuaded by external means such as signs and wonders, Acts 10:41) to come to Christ while he was “down from heaven” (v. 38) so as to accomplish the purpose for which Israel was elected — to carry the Word to the world so that all the families of the earth may be blessed (Gen. 12:3; Rm. 3:1-2; 9:4-5). But proof that God has used externally persuasive means (signs, big fish, blinding lights, etc) to ensure His message is delivered does not prove that God internally and irresistibly compels certain pre-chosen individuals to believe their message.
There are a number of ways to take this text without having to conclude that God has salvifically rejected most of humanity before the world began for no apparent reason (i.e. “unconditionally”).
JESUS’ OWN COMMENTARY ON THE VERSE
With all that said, we really do not need to guess what Jesus intended by the use of this term “helko.” He actually gave us His own commentary on what He meant in verse 65 when he said:
“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” -John 6:65 (emphasis added)
Jesus could have clarified His meaning by saying, “This is why I told you no one can come to me unless the Father drags or makes him.” Jesus had the choice of many Greek words that could have clearly indicated that intention, but Jesus said “didomi” which is typically understood as “to grant, permit or enable.” Calvinists often use the term “enable” or “grant” as if it somehow connotes “effectual causation,” but that is simply a systematic presumption they are reading onto these terms. I can enable you to call me by giving you my phone number, but you still have to pick up the phone and dial. Since when does “to enable” necessitate “to effectually cause?”
OTHER TEXTS TO CONSIDER
Additionally, when John 12:32 is taken into account the Traditionalist interpretation makes much more sense:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Calvinists would have to take that passage to mean:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will *drag* all people to myself.”
To avoid a Universalist rendering of this passage Calvinists are forced to wrangle the text to suggest Jesus does not really mean to sound inclusive here, but exclusive (i.e. “I will drag a few of all kinds of people” rather than the idea Jesus clearly expresses elsewhere, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” -John 17:21). One has to virtually ignore the entire context of John 12, and most of the New Testament, to suggest that Jesus was attempting to be exclusive to a pre-selected part rather than inclusive to the entire world.
It cannot be ignored that the audience in John 6 is Jewish. What do we know about the Jews of this day? They have “grown hardened” (ever seeing but not perceiving) “otherwise they might see, hear, understand and turn so as to be forgiven” (see John 12:39-41; Acts 28:23-28).
So, the reason this audience cannot come is not due to some innate fallen condition Divinely imputed to all humanity because Adam sinned as the “T” of TULIP suggests. Does scripture really teach that God “sovereignly decreed” for all people to be born God haters who could only willingly reject His own appeals for reconciliation (i.e. Total Inability)? Of course not!
This audience is being judicially hardened or “cut off in their unbelief” (Rom 11:20). Despite God’s love and longing for Israel (Matt 23:37; Rom 11:21; Lk 19:41-42; Ezk 18:29-31; Hos 3:1; Rm 9:1-3; etc) they had rejected His teaching for so many years that they had grown blinded to it and thus could not even recognize their own Messiah. <more on this point here>
To suggest that the reason most people will refuse to come in faith to Christ is because God salvifically hated and rejected them before the world began is NOT the intention of Jesus or the teaching of Scripture. We cannot conflate the condition of the harden Jews of this day with the natural condition of all people from birth due to a “secret Divine sovereign decree” never expounded upon in this or any other passage in scripture.
One must also consider the fact that when Jesus came onto the scene in the first century world there were those present who had “listened and learned from the Father.” Consider the story of Cornelius recorded for us in Acts 10:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.
Clearly Cornelius is NOT under the curse of Total Inability as described by the “T” of the TULIP systematic as some Calvinists suggest. <see here> He sincerely feared God and worshipped Him faithfully even though he had not heard the gospel appeal or been indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Picking up in verse 29, the text goes on to say:
May I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
Notice that God sees to it that the gospel appeal makes its way to the ears of Cornelius, but not without reason. God had heard his prayers and remember his offering and therefore had the gospel especially sent to him so as to enable him to believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Those who listen and learn from the Father will likewise listen and learn from the Son, as Jesus Himself taught in John 6:45:
It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”
So, why would Cornelius come to Jesus? Because he was chosen before the world began and effectually caused to want Jesus? Or could it simply be because he “has heard the Father and learned from Him?” The Father certainly wants to draw Cornelius to Christ due to the fact that he was already a God fearing man; and how does He do so? By sending him the gospel! The gospel is the means by which all are drawn to Christ. Once He is raised up He commissioned the gospel appeal to be sent to all people and thereby granting all to come to him through faith (John 12:32; Acts 1:8; Rm. 10:12-16).
While Jesus was here in the flesh, however, the gospel had not yet been sent to Cornelius and the other Gentiles. Jesus was specifically coming to “His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). Why didn’t they receive Him?
 Because God salvifically hated them from before the world began–having been sovereignly decreed to be born under the curse of the Fall by which they could only desire to hate God and reject His appeals for reconciliation.
 Because despite God’s genuine love and provision for Israel (Rm 9:1-3; 10:1, 21; Mt 23:37; Ezk. 18:29-31; Lk 19:41-42; Hos. 3:1) they had become calloused in self-righteousness, their consciences now seared, otherwise they might hear, see, understand and repent (John 12:39-41; Acts 28:23-28).
Israel had become like old wine skins that could not take the new wine. This is not describing the condition of all people from birth, but specifically of Israelites who were calloused in their ways. Do not conflate Israel’s hardened condition with the condition of all humanity from birth as the Calvinists do in their doctrine of Total Inability <more on that point here>.
The context here has to do with the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus is claiming that the Jews are rejecting him because (in actuality) they have rejected the Father. So, the context of this passage is not a discussion of whether God has chosen to send the mass of humanity to an eternal Hell, while choosing to arbitrarily save (by compulsion: “dragged”) a few. The context concerns why these particular Jews have not been drawn to Jesus as Messiah and Son, while others have.
And, Jesus asserts here that it is because they have first rejected the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures. Jesus denounces their claim to knowledge of the Father. He asserts that their resistance to the Father & the message of the Scriptures is the reason they have not subsequently been drawn to the Son. The point is made repeatedly. “And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form…” (John 5:37).“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (John 5:39). “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?”(John 5:44). “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46, 47). And, earlier in chapter 5 it is stated the other way around: “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23).
Thus the point is that the Jews who are rejecting him are doing so because they have first rejected the Father. But, Jesus asserts that those who acknowledged the Father were “drawn along” into acknowledging the Son.<link>