What is the meaning of ‘draw’ in John 6:44?
(image courtesy publicdomain)
By Spencer D Gear
How are people drawn to Christ in Sierra Leone or North Korea? What happens in certain countries where the open proclamation of the Gospel is prohibited? This has been the burden of short-wave Christian radio stations such as Reach Beyond (formerly HCJB) and Trans World Radio. How can the Gospel reach beyond the human barriers that prevent overt evangelism on the ground in some countries?
How does God draw people to salvation? Is this by an irresistible grace of election over which they have no say? Do some people choose to respond in faith or is that forced on them by God (irresistible grace)? Or does it involve God’s drawing and human beings agreeing to co-operate with God by responding in faith?
Join a discussion on a Christian forum and you’ll see the heat – and not light – that this discussion often brings. I was involved in such a dialogue. There was quite a bit of banter between Calvinists and non-Calvinists (including Arminians) about the meaning of ‘draw’ in John 6:44. This verse states:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day (ESV).
A Calvinist wrote: ‘I never said it meant drag. But it doesn’t mean to woo or lure or whatever you think it means’.
A non-Calvinist response was: ‘Well when you use those words, of course not. What it conveys is seen in the metaphorical use of [the Greek] helko, to signify “drawing” by inward power, by Divine impulse. Not against our will, but in empathy towards our inner heart’.
What is the demonstration in Scripture?
To try to make headway through this sometimes antagonistic theological jungle, I replied:
The focus on the etymology of the Greek, helko, gets our discussion into this kind of bind. John 6:44 makes the teaching clear:
This drawing is by the power of God with the specific purpose of moving the sinner’s inner being (heart/soul) to move from darkness to light and into God’s eternal life. No human being can do this by himself/herself. God’s divine power does the drawing. If that does not happen, no salvation will take place.
However, the book of John clarifies that this is not for a select few. What does John 12:32 declare? These are the words of Jesus, ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (ESV). So the drawing of John 6:44 and the drawing of John 12:32 demonstrate that it applies to all human beings, not a select elect.
We know from Romans 1:16 that it is the gospel that is accompanied by God’s power ‘for salvation to everyone who believes’. So, people are the ones who make the decision to believe, to have faith in Jesus.
(image courtesy shutterstock, public domain)
But we know from Matthew 23:37 what Jesus’ view was:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! (ESV)
Thus we know that God’s moving and drawing of all human beings is NOT irresistible as this verse affirms, ‘And you would not’. All human beings have the power to resist God’s drawing. This means that it cannot be an irresistible ‘dragging’ into the kingdom of God.
I’m pleased it is this way. There are decided disadvantages against a faith that compels people and does not allow them individual choice. See my article, What is the nature of human free will?
God does the drawing
It must be emphasised that there will be no kingdom salvation for believers without God doing the drawing and human beings responding. This is not Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism.
Pelagius (ca 360-420), the originator of Pelagianism, was a British monk and theologian who went to Rome about AD 400 in the time of St. Augustine of Hippo who died in 430. Cairns explained that Pelagius’s beliefs were that
each man is created free as Adam was and that each man has the power to choose good or evil. Each soul is a separate creation of God and, therefore, uncontaminated by the sin of Adam. The universality of sin in the world is explained by the weakness of human flesh rather than by the corruption of the human will by original sin. Man does not inherit original sin from his first ancestor, although the sins of individuals of the past generation do weaken the flesh of the present generation so that sins are committed unless the individual wills to cooperate with God in the process of salvation. The human will is free to cooperate with God in the attainment of holiness and can make use of such aids to grace as the Bible, reason and the example of Christ. Because there is no original sin, infant baptism is not an essential element in salvation.
Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo, opposed what he believed was a denial of the grace of God by insisting that regeneration is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit. Man was originally made in the image of God and free to choose good and evil, but Adam’s sin bound all men, because Adam was the head of the race. Man’s will is entirely corrupted by the Fall so that he must be considered totally depraved and unable to exercise his will in regard to the matter of salvation. Augustine believed that all inherit sin through Adam and that no one, therefore, can escape original sin. Man’s will is so bound that he can do nothing to bring about his salvation. Salvation can only come to the elect through the grace of God in Christ. God must energize the human will to accept His proffered grace, which is only for those whom He has elected to salvation.
According to Stephen Filippo, because Pelagius
promoted moral fervor, there was an inherent danger in it: self-reliance, not God-reliance, based upon an inadequate understanding of human nature. Pelagianism stressed complete human autonomy and freedom of the will before God. Pelagius posited three elements to any moral action: 1. that we must be able to do it, 2. that we must be willing to do it, and 3. that the action must be carried out. Or the three elements can be described as possibility, will, and action. Possibility is a natural gift from God alone, but the other two, since they arise from man’s choice, are from man. For instance, God has freely given us the gifts of speech, sight, hearing, etc., and the power to speak, see hear, etc., yet whether or not these are put to good use is left entirely up to the individual. Thus, we are entirely free to will and do good or evil. Nor does he separate will from power, finding in the will the power to automatically carry out what it has willed.
(Pelagius, image courtesy Wikipedia)
So, self-reliant, human generated salvation of Pelagianism is contrary to Scripture and so is false teaching.
What about semi-Pelagianism that has often been associated by monergism with Arminianism. The Calvinistic website, CARM, gave this definition, ‘Monergism is the teaching that God alone is the one who saves. It is opposed to synergism which teaches that God and man work together in salvation. Cults are synergistic. Christianity is monergistic’. While this accurately describes monergism, it is a false representation of synergism. Synergism is associated with Arminianiam, which is main-stream Christianity.
is tied inextricably to the teachings of Gallic monastic critics of Augustine and most importantly (prototypically) John Cassian. Cassian and certain other Gallic monks (“Masillians”) argued that although God may initiate salvation with grace, for many people the initiative is theirs toward God. That is, God waits to see the “exercise of a good will” before responding with grace. This is what was condemned (along with predestination to evil) at Orange in 529.
“Semi-Pelagianism,” then, is the view that “the beginning of faith may have its source in the human agent, although it will not always have its source there.” Furthermore, to compound Cassian’s non-Augustinian view of free will and human initiative in salvation, he taught that “the free will, even in its fallen condition, is not totally unable to will the good” and “the emphasis [of Cassian’s doctrine] falls on vigilance, unceasing struggle, in the attainment of salvation”.
(Weaver 1996, cited in Olson 2013a, emphasis in original)
Roger Olson’s further explanation of semi-Pelagianism was:
“Semi-Pelagianism,” then, is the view that “the beginning of faith may have its source in the human agent, although it will not always have its source there.” Furthermore, to compound Cassian’s non-Augustinian view of free will and human initiative in salvation, he taught that “the free will, even in its fallen condition, is not totally unable to will the good” and “the emphasis [of Cassian’s doctrine] falls on vigilance, unceasing struggle, in the attainment of salvation.”
This is the standard definition/description of semi-Pelagianism. But in some Reformed circles it has been broadened out to include any and every denial of the irresistible efficacy of grace (for the elect). That’s too broad and it departs from historical tradition in identifying what semi-Pelagianism is. That would be like me using “supralapsarians” to describe all denials of free will. I would be quickly challenged and corrected by especially infralapsarians like Sproul.
The Arminian position
As Roger E Olson has indicated with Sproul’s exposition of Arminianism, all too often semi-Pelagianism has been wrongly associated with Arminianism. The Arminian position in relation to the order of salvation is summarised by Olson:
1) God’s electing grace in Christ of all who will believe in him;
2) Christ’s atoning, reconciling death for all sinners;
3) Prevenient grace given by God to sinners through the Word (calling, convicting, illuminating, enabling);
4) Conversion (repentance and faith) enabled by assisting, prevenient grace;
5) Regeneration, justification, adoption, union with Christ, indwelling of the Holy Spirit;
Remember—these are not necessarily chronologically sequential. Especially 3, 4, 5 and 6 may be temporally simultaneous. (Of course, some Arminians will view all as temporally simultaneous in God’s awareness as God does not experience temporal sequence of events).
I recommend the article by Roger E Olson, ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism?‘ (Patheos, March 22, 2013).
The Calvinistic position
A Calvinistic view on John 6:44 is clearly articulated by Calvinistic commentator William Hendriksen:
William Hendriksen (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Here the emphasis is on the divine decree of predestination carried out in history. When Jesus refers to the divine drawing activity, he employs a term which clearly indicates that more than moral influence is indicated. The Father does not merely beckon or advise, he draws! The same verb … occurs also in John 12:32, where the drawing activity is ascribed to the Son; and further, in 18:10; 21:6,11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; and James 2:6. The drawing of which these passages speak indicates a very powerful – we may even say, an irresistible – activity. To be sure, man resists, but his resistance is ineffective. It is in that sense that we speak of God’s grace as being irresistible. The net full of big fishes is actually drawn or dragged ashore (John 21:6,11). Paul and Silas are dragged into the forum (Acts 16:19). Paul is dragged out of the temple (Acts 21:30). The rich drag the poor before the judgment-seats (James 2:6). Returning now to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus will draw all men to himself (12:32) and Simon drew his sword, striking the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear (18:10). To be sure, there is a difference between the drawing of a net or a sword, on the one hand, and of a sinner, on the other. With the latter God deals as with a responsible being. He powerfully influences the mind, will, heart, the entire personality. These, too, begin to function in their own right, so that Christ is accepted by a living faith. But both at the beginning and throughout the entire process of being saved, the power is ever from above; it is very real, strong, and effective; and it is wielded by God himself!
(Hendriksen 1953:238-239, emphasis in original)
It is important to note a couple of Hendriksen’s emphases that throw doubt on his rather adamant interpretation:
- Contrary to Hendriksen, there is not a word here about predestination. That’s Hendriksen imposing on the text. In context this is not about the divine decree to salvific predestination. Faith as a predetermined gift from God is not the subject. The following verses does speak of those who ‘will all be taught by God’ (ESV). The predestination interpretation is Hendriksen’s imposition on the text, especially in light of the use of the same verb in John 12:32, where …
- When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he stated, ‘I … will draw all people to myself’. Hendriksen surely would not want that to mean the teaching of universalism – all people will receive salvation. It can only mean that God in his grace is making the offer to people regarding salvation – all people. But some will not receive it. We know from Romans 10:17 that ‘faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (ESV).
- Hendriksen’s language is that with sinners, ‘God deals as with a responsible being’. That cannot be so if ‘draw’ means ‘dragged’. Responsible human beings cannot be responsible if they are dragged as in the decree of a dictator. There is something fundamentally amiss with this Calvinistic interpretation.
- Another Calvinist, G C Berkouwer stated of John 6:44, ‘This “drawing” of the Father is not at all an act that rules out all human activity; rather, says Kittel, it rules out all that is coercive and magical’.
Robert Shank’s pertinent comment was,
Thus, according to Kittel (and Berkouwer), the “drawing” is a matter of compelling but it is not at all coercive. No explanation is given of how God can compel without being coercive. Obviously, both propositions cannot be true, for they are mutually exclusive. Truth rests with the latter proposition: The Father’s “drawing” is not coercive. And if God does not coerce, it follows that in man’s response to the Gospel, something is left to man’s volition. That this is so is implied in John’s passage. Having asserted that “no man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (v. 44), Jesus immediately declared,
It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught by God. Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (v. 45 RSV).
Robertson comments on verse 45
And hath learned (kai mathen)…. It is not enough to hear God’s voice. He must heed it and learn it and do it. This is a voluntary response. This one inevitably comes to Christ.
Often the Calvinism vs Arminian debate can be buried within a discussion over monergism vs synergism. Why don’t you take a read of Eric Landstrom’s excellent overview: ‘The False Antithesis Between Monergism and Synergism: A Lesson from Historical Theology’.
John 6:44 is not dealing with the doctrine of election or predestination. God’s electing grace is needed for there to be salvation of any kind. However, it is extended to all who hear the Gospel and respond in faith to it. It is not a drawing of compulsion that avoids human responsibility. There can be no salvation without God’s initiative and God’s giving human beings the opportunity to respond in faith to the Gospel call.
The sinner’s inner being is moved by God but there is no salvation without a human response. Romans 10:17 is clear: ‘Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’.
From this assessment, you hopefully will have concluded that I’m a convinced biblically-based Arminian in my theology (Reformed/Classical Arminian). See an affirmation of this position by Seth Miller in, ‘The Foundation of Election: An Overview of Classical Arminianism’. See Roger E. Olson, ‘Is Arminian theology “Reformed”?’
Berkouwer, G C 1960. Studies in dogmatics: Divine election. Tr by H Bekker. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Flippo, S N 2013. St. Augustine and Pelagianism. Ignatius Insight: Ignatius Press (online). Available at: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2008/sfilippo_augustinepelag_jan08.asp (Accessed 5 September 2014).
Hendriksen, W 1953. New Testament commentary: Exposition of the Gospel according to John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Olson, R E 2013a. R C Sproul, Arminianism, and Semi-Pelagianism. Patheos (online), February 22. Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/02/r-c-sproul-arminianism-and-semi-pelagianism/ (Accessed 5 September 2014).
Olson, R E 2013b. An Arminian Ordo Salutis (Order of Salvation). Patheos (online), August 23. Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/08/an-arminian-ordo-salutis-order-of-salvation/ (Accessed 5 September 2014).
Oxford dictionaries 2014. Etymology (online). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/etymology (Accessed 5 September 2014).
Robertson, A T 1932. Word pictures in the New Testament: The fourth Gospel, the epistle to the Hebrews. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
Shank, R 1970. Elect in the Son: A study in the doctrine of election. Springfield, Missouri: Westcott Publishers.
Weaver, R H 1996. Divine grace and human agency: A study of the Semi-Pelagian controversy. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.
 Hammster#561, Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology debate, ‘Why do Arminians’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7820790-57/#post65659060 (Accessed 23 May 2014).
 Ibid., stan1953#564.
 Ibid., OzSpen#567.
 Oxford dictionaries give the meaning of ‘etymology’ as, ‘The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history: the decline of etymology as a linguistic discipline’ (Oxford dictionaries, s v Etymology 2014).
 This is the same word for ‘draw’ as in John 6:44.
 Lifespan dates are from Cairns (1981:137).
 CARM (2014).
 Berkouwer (1960:48).
 Robertson (1932:109).
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 4 June 2016.