I had an exchange with a Calvinistic friend recently where he said, “Leighton, when will you accept the fact that we are born again by God’s will, not free will?!” Then he emphatically read John 1:13 to support his assertion:
“…he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
I took some time to explain to him that we, as Traditionalists/Provisionists, also believe that men a born again by the will of God. We just do not believe that decision of God is made for no apparent reason before the creation of the world (i.e. unconditionally). Instead, we argue that new life comes to those who believe upon Christ (John 20:31; John 5:40), and that anyone can come to Him in faith due to His gracious provisions (John 1:9).
This passage often comes up in the debate over Calvinistic doctrine. It typically begin with the non-Calvinist referencing John 1:12 to emphasize man’s responsibility to “receive Him” so as to be given the right to become a child of God.
John 1:12: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,”
For instance, one non-Calvinist wrote this argument to a Reformed Baptist minister, John Samson, of reformationtheology.com:
“It is clear that belief comes first, THEN they receive the right to become children of God. He gave the right to become children of God to those who believe. He did not make those who are already children of God believe. You have reversed the passage. But not only that! He only gave the right to become children of God to those that believe…”
Samson cordially defended his Reformed perspective, saying in part:
“…The very next verse (V.13) of John chapter one actually qualifies the statement about how be become adopted children of God in verse 12. It does this by asserting that this gift does not come about by the will of man but through the new birth or regeneration.
Let’s read the whole thing in context:
“He [Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1: 11-13).
In other words, we all believe the gospel unto the adoption of God’s children because of the grace of God in regeneration, not because man exercised his unregenerate will. We were born of God, not by the will, but by the Spirit.” – John Samson (emphasis added by Samson) <link>
This response aptly represents most Calvinist’s interpretation of this passage including the Calvinistic brother in my recent exchange, but is this what the apostle John actually had in mind when it was written in the 1st century?
Let’s explore a little deeper
First, the text says that “He came to His own,” and most commentators agree that “His own” is a general reference to the nation of Israel, the lineage through whom Christ came. We must recognize the contrast between those who rejected Christ (the elect nation of Israel, generally speaking) and those who did receive or believe in Him (the non-election nations, or Gentiles, generally speaking). This narrative reflects on a similar dichotomy painted by the apostle Paul in Acts 28:23-28:
They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. 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 [Israel’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!”
Just as the apostle John sets up a dichotomy between those who rejected the Messiah (Israel) and those who received Him (Gentiles), so too Paul draws on this same generalized contrast between these two groups of people (Israel who has “become calloused” and the Gentiles who “will listen.”)
John’s point is that God has granted the immoral barbarian Gentiles the RIGHT to be children of God through faith in Christ, though it was believed by many in the first century that this RIGHT was reserved for those of the circumcision alone (Israel).
The Calvinist misinterprets the apostle’s reference to the “will of the flesh,” by applying it to our hyper-individualized modern soteriological conflict over the nature of man’s free will, while ignoring the obvious Jew/Gentile context of the first century.
Samson takes the apostle to mean something like, “Man’s libertarian free will has nothing to do with whether or not they will be born of God,” when clearly that is not the issue the apostle is attempting to address.
Instead, it is quite obvious from this context that the three points the apostle John lists here are in reference to the misconceptions of what Israelites perceived as their given covenantal “RIGHTS” as direct descendants of Abraham:
- not of blood = being a descendant or blood relative of Abraham (Rom. 9:7)
- nor of the will of the flesh = being one who “pursued” or “ran after” the law so as to merit righteousness (Rom. 9:31)
- nor of the will of man [husband’s will] = by the will of another, such as the will of one’s husband or the patriarchal head, a significant relationship in Jewish custom (1 Peter 3:1 & 5-6)
The apostle is knocking the legs out from under those Jews who think they have the RIGHT to be God’s child because of who their granddaddy is (blood), their law keeping efforts (fleshly running), or by patriarchal headship (husband’s will). John is not attempting to make a soteriological stance on the nature of man’s free will or responsibility in light of the gospel appeal. However, in another passage Paul does teach us a little more about these matters,
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. (Rom. 9:30-32)
Notice that Paul is not denouncing the pursuit itself. He is denouncing the manner or motive of that pursuit. Is righteousness being pursued by works or by faith? Are you running after the law or are you running after Christ? People are responsible to will and to run (1 Cor. 9:24; 2 Tim. 4:7), but if they do so according to the law and the flesh they will never finish the race. They will not attain their goal. If, however, they pursue righteousness by faith in the only righteous One, they will attain it by grace.
Calvinists have mistakenly applied the scripture’s teaching on man’s inability to attain righteousness by means of the law as proof for their erroneous claims that mankind is born morally incapable of attaining righteousness by faith (i.e. “Total Inability” – Calvinist’s belief that man’s morally incapacity of fulfilling the law’s demands equals man’s moral incapacity to trust in the One who fulfilled that law in our stead).
Calvinists seem to think that a man’s inability to “climb a rope to heaven” (works salvation) equals man’s moral incapacity to confess those inabilities and place their trust in the only One who can successfully climb that rope in our stead (to let go of the rope and trust Christ to carry you). This moral incapacity to trust in Christ due to the Fall of Adam is simply never taught in the pages of scripture. Nothing in the Bible remotely suggests that the Fall has made mankind morally incapable of responding to God’s own life-giving, inspired, gospel appeal to be reconciled from that Fall!
All agree that we must be born of God to be saved, but no scripture ever teaches we must be born again in order to gain the moral capacity to believe the gospel. We are not given a new heart so as to confess we use to have a bad heart. That is simply getting the proverbial cart before the horse. <more here> In fact, the apostle John clearly states that God gives new life “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name,” and not to a group of very fortunate individuals chosen for no apparent reason before time began (i.e. “Unconditional Election”).
 “as many as received Him” – This phrase is equivalent to the pronouns whoever (Webster = “Any one without exception; any person whatever”) or whosoever (Any one; any person whatever) which fling open the door of salvation to both Jews and Gentiles. Sadly this was a truth the Jews had a difficult time accepting in the early church (cf Acts 11:11-3, 15:1, 21:20-23, Gal 2:12-14) for they felt that they had special benefits based on their physical (ethnic) lineage (Abraham, Moses, circumcision, etc). This open invitation (so to speak) is similar to Paul’s declaration (quoting the OT prophet Joel 2:32) that “Whoever will call upon the Name of the LORD (Jehovah) will be saved (cf will be “born of…God” = Jn 1:13).” (Ro 10:13). It follows that calling upon His Name is one aspect of receiving (and believing in) Yeshua the Messiah. It should be noted that throughout Scripture until the very end of His revelation, this “as many as” attitude reflects the Father’s heart toward His rebellious creatures, John recording And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Rev. 22:17)
Dr. Bob Utley on “as many as received Him” – This shows humanity’s part in salvation (cf. v. 16). Humans must respond to God’s offer of grace in Christ (cf. Jn 3:16; Ro 10:9–13; Eph. 2:8–9).
“Received” is aorist tense (at a moment in time, the moment we believed in Jesus) and active voice which implies that this receiving is a volitional choice, a choice of one’s will to believe.
“Received” (2983) (lambano) speaks of a literal taking hold of, obtaining or grasping. John often uses the terms accept/receive (lambano) in a theological sense – (1) Of receiving Jesus, negatively (Jn 3:11, 3:32); positively (Jn 1:12; 3:33; 5:43; 13:20). (2) Of receiving the Spirit, negatively (Jn 14:17), positively (Jn 7:39). (3) Of receiving Jesus’ words, negatively (Jn 12:48), positively (Jn 17:8)
Easton’s Bible Dictionary – Vine on John’s selection of lambano instead of paralambano (as used in John 1:11) – lambano, a simple but spontaneous acceptance from individuals, whether Jews or Gentiles, and so a simpler verb than that used before of the Jewish nation. Web Site: http://www.preceptaustin.org/john_112_commentary
 This Jew/Gentile dichotomy is also seen in the parable of the Wedding Banquet recorded for us in Matthew 22:1-14 and again in Romans 11:30-36: “For just as you (Gentile believers) once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their (Israel’s) disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you (Gentiles) they (the believing Jewish Remnant) also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. (Jews and Gentiles) Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”
 Dr. James Leo Garrett wrote, “From Augustine of Hippo to the twentieth century, Western Christianity has tended to interpret the doctrine of election from the perspective of and with regard to individual human beings. During those same centuries the doctrine has been far less emphasized and seldom ever controversial in Eastern Orthodoxy. Is it possible that Augustine and later Calvin, with the help of many others, contributed to a hyper individualization of this doctrine that was hardly warranted by Romans 9–11, Eph. 1, and I Peter 2? Is it not true that the major emphasis in both testaments falls upon an elect people—Israel (OT) and disciples or church (NT)?” James Leo Garrett Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical Historical, and Evangelical, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 500
 “The right” – When we believed in the Word, the true Light, we in turn received the privilege of access to God’s family. Paul goes a step further in Romans 5:1-2 explaining what happens when we were justified by faith (received and believed in Jesus) – “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom also we have obtained our introduction (prosagoge) by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom. 5:1-2)
Dr. Bob Utley on the right (exousia) – This Greek term can mean (1) legal authority or (2) right or privilege (cf. Jn 5:27; 17:2; 19:10, 11). Through Jesus fallen mankind can now know God and acknowledge Him as God and Father.
“To become” (1096) (ginomai) means to come into existence, to cause to become or come into being and signifies a change of condition, state or place. Ginomai is the root of the verb gennao (used in Jn 1:13) which means to beget, to give birth, to produce offspring (cp our English word – “gen”-erate). Ibid.