When teaching on John 6, John Piper asserts that God, by a sovereign and effectual act of the Spirit, regenerates some people which decisively causes them to come to saving faith. Piper puts it this way,
The teaching that I want to try to persuade you is biblical and, therefore, true and precious is that the new birth is the result of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit preceding and enabling our first act of saving faith. We do not cause our new birth by an act of faith. Just the reverse: the cry of faith is the first sound that a newborn babe in Christ makes. Regeneration, as we sometimes call it, is all of God. We do not get God to do it by trusting Christ; we trust Christ because he has done it to us already….
So he says in John 6:43, 44, “Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” No one can come to Jesus unless drawn by God. The natural man cannot submit himself to God until a supernatural work of grace is done in his life, called “new birth” in John 3 and the “drawing of God” in John 6….
Therefore it follows that saving faith does not precede and cause the new birth. But rather God the Father, by the agency of his Holy Spirit, regenerates freely whomever he pleases and by this draws a person to the Son enabling him to believe in the Son and be saved. This is “prevenient grace”—the gracious work of God preceding and enabling the act of faith. It is “irresistible grace.” There are divine influences which can be resisted, but there are also those which cannot be. <link>
Piper uses John 6 to suggest that mankind is in such a condition from birth that they must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit in order to believe divinely revealed truth. But what about people in the Old Testament? Piper would have to assume that they were born in this same disabled condition, right?
What, if anything, changed about the role of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost? How did the Holy Spirit work in the lives of those who came to faith before Christ died and the Holy Spirit came down like fire? Was He actively regenerating (effectually drawing) a preselected few as Piper dogmatically asserts in his soteriological teachings on John 6? Did the role of the Holy Spirit change in any way from the Old Testament times to the New Testament times with regard to soteriology? Should the fact that John 6 took place prior to the resurrection and Pentecost affect our understanding of the passage?
In other words, was Enoch, Lot, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Rahab, Ruth, David and the rest of the Old Testament saints effectually regenerated by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit so as to effectually cause them to believe in God’s revealed truth in the same way Piper supposes the elect are today? If we are going to interpret John 6 as addressing an overarching ontological reality of fallen men’s need to be “regenerated” in order to believe in truth revealed by God, then what other option is there than to conclude that the OT saints were effectually impacted by the Holy Spirit so as to decisively cause their faith?
John 7:39 clearly states, “The Spirit was not yet given because Jesus was not yet glorified,” which indicates that the role of the Holy Spirit would change at least in some respect after Christ was raised up (see John 12:32). What kind of change would occur after the coming of the Holy Spirit? John Piper confesses confusion on this point as reflected in this response to a question about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament:
The relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant is complex and I do not have all the intricacies worked out yet. The work of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost is part of this problem…
The hardest verses for me are John 14:16ff, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another helper, that he may be with you forever, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it does not behold him or know him, but you know him because he abides with you and will be in you.”
Also 7:39 is especially troublesome: “the Spirit was not yet given because Jesus was not yet glorified.” I’m not at all sure I understand John’s pneumatology (especially 20:22), but I suspect the key to it is found in the identification of the earthly Jesus with the Holy Spirit: “He is with you but will be in you” (14:17 cf. 6:63).
Since the Spirit which Christians enjoy is known to be the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9), perhaps John thinks it inappropriate to think of the Spirit in this sense as having come. Theologically I would ask who the agent is in accomplishing the “drawing” of 6:44 and the enabling of 6:65? Do we postulate that God the Father works directly without the agency of the Spirit? Or can we not suppose that the Spirit was redemptively at work during Christ’s earthly ministry and that the Spirit which has not yet come is that particular manifestation of the Spirit which will equip the apostles uniquely for calling to remembrance all things (14:26) and guiding into all truth (16:13)?
These are just gropings. I do not have the problem of Johannine pneumatology solved. <link>
When responding to a fellow brother’s pressing question, Piper humbly admits his own confusion and even speculates about the unique role of the Holy Spirit with regard to guiding the apostles during His earthly ministry (which ironically sounds a lot like our interpretation of John 6…see HERE). Yet, when teaching the TULIP systematic out of John 6, Piper dogmatically asserts, “God the Father, by the agency of his Holy Spirit, regenerates freely whomever he pleases and by this draws a person to the Son enabling him to believe in the Son and be saved… It is ‘irresistible grace.’ There are divine influences which can be resisted, but there are also those which cannot be.”
How can it be dogmatically presumed that the Holy Spirit is effectually regenerating (i.e. “drawing”) preselected individuals prior to Christ’s death and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost given Piper’s own concessions above? John Piper’s “problem of Johannine pneumatology” is created by the soteriological presumptions he brings into the text, not by a lack of clarity on the part of the apostle John.
The Provisionist/Traditionalist’s interpretation of John 6 does not have this problem because we do not assume that mankind lost the moral ability to willingly respond to God’s clear revelation due to the Fall, especially revelation brought by the Incarnate Word of God Himself! There would be nothing preventing the natural man from understanding and believing Jesus’ teachings from our perspective.
We believe that those who have listened and learned from the Father would be ready to follow His Son (John 6:45), and those who have continually refused to listen and learn from the Father would certainly have grown hardened in their rebellion and thus be unwilling to follow His Son, like good sheep (John 10:25-27).
John 6 must be understood within its immediate context. Jesus is only revealing His identity to His closest followers and strategically hiding the truth from the rest (Mk 9:9; Mt. 16:20; Mt. 11:25). We must understand that Jesus is using parabolic language to blind the self-righteous Jews of that day from recognizing Him as their long-awaited Messiah (Mk 4:11-12, 33-35). That, and that alone, is the reason His Jewish audience was incapable of coming to Him in faith (John 12:39-41). There is absolutely no reason to believe that all of fallen humanity is born morally incapable of responding positively to God’s own Holy Spirit wrought appeals to be reconciled from that fall. That imposed doctrine creates Piper’s confusion and contradictions represented above.
If it is true that all people are born morally incapable of willingly responding in faith to God’s revelation, there would be absolutely no rational reason for Christ to use parabolic language in order to hide the truth from the Jews of his day, as reflected in the passages below:
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9).
“Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Matt. 16:20)
“But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was” (Mark 3:12).
“Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30).
“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ …With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.“ (Mark 4:11-12; 33-34).
“He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet: “ ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:23-28)
What purpose would the parables of Christ serve if Piper’s teaching on “Total Inability” is valid? Jesus uses of riddles would be as senseless as putting a blindfold on a corpse. And why tell them to keep His identity hidden if they were morally incapable of believing in Him unless first regenerated anyway? <More on Jesus’ strategic use of parables can be found here.>
“Text without context is a pretext for proof-text.”
Context tells us the history, the setting, the audience and thus helps understand the intention of the author. The grammar can inform us of what interpretations are allowed, but the author’s intent is best discovered in the overall context.
The sixth chapter of John is one of the top three most contested passages in all of scripture regarding the doctrine of salvation (along with Rom. 9 and Eph. 1). So, as students of scripture lets put our hermeneutical training to work and answer the major questions about the context of this hotly contested chapter:
1. What is the context?
2. Who is the audience?
3. What is going on at this time?
The audience is a bunch of unbelieving Israelites looking for free food (vs. 25-31) and the twelve apostles (vs. 70). What do we know about the Israelites of this day?
- They have “become calloused…Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Acts 28:27). They were not born calloused, but over time they had grown hardened in their religious self-righteousness which prevented them from hearing, seeing and responding to the revelation of God.
- They are being ‘judicially hardened’ (or ‘cut off’ or ‘sent a spirit of stupor’) so as to seal them in their calloused condition. Why? To accomplish a greater redemptive purpose through their rebellion (crucifixion, ingrafting Gentiles into the church — Rom. 9-11).
- Jesus is not attempting to “win them over” or have them come to faith in great numbers as we see in Acts 2 when Peter preaches. In fact, in support of God’s judicial hardening of Israel, we see Jesus actively instructing his apostles to not tell others who he is yet (Mt. 16:20). Jesus purposefully speaks in parables in order to prevent their coming to faith and repentance (Mark 4:11-13; Matt. 13:11-15). If anything, Jesus is actively provoking the Jews with very difficult teachings. In this chapter, he tells them to eat his flesh and drink his blood without explanation (vs. 51-52). Clearly, He is not attempting to persuade this audience to stick around. He is provoking them purposefully (1 Cor. 2:6-8).
Is this contextual information relevant when attempting to understand the author’s intention with regard to the natural inability of mankind from birth? I certainly would think so given he is addressing a large group of people nicknamed “the elect of God” who are being actively blinded by God from seeing the truth (albeit temporarily and for a redemptive purpose). <see John 12:39-41>
Notice, the judicially hardened Jews are not the only ones present when Jesus is speaking in John 6. The twelve apostles are also in the audience and in fact, they are the only ones who stick around after Jesus is done provoking the crowd with a “cannibalistic” sounding message (vs. 66-67).
Why didn’t the twelve leave too? It is almost as if they were “drawn to him” through persuasive teachings and miraculous signs. Remember, unlike the other Israelites in the audience, they had watched Jesus walk on water, control the weather, heal the blind, feed the masses and had personally explained to them the meaning of the mysteries that the world had not yet been given (Eph. 3: 1-13). [Note: nothing is mentioned in the text of God using an inward, irresistible calling or work of regeneration to convince his apostles. Thomas is shown the scars in order to be persuaded. Jesus clearly indicates his signs are meant to help their unbelief.]
Those Jesus are entrusting with the truth from Israel are only a select few at this time while He was “down from heaven” (see Acts 10:40-43). The rest are being hardened in their already calloused self-righteous stubborn condition…NOT a condition from birth due to the Fall (as Calvinists impose onto this text), but a condition which was a result of their own free rebellion. A condition God is using to accomplish a greater redemptive good for all.