Saturday, December 15, 2007

Revisiting John 5:40

Recently, I was in a discussion with a friend (who claims to hate me, in a good-natured way, of course) who proposed that John 5:40 is the death knell of Calvinistic soteriology. I mentioned this claim in an earlier post.

[For the record, I do not hate Ben (Kangaroodort) although I do have a big, big problem with his anti-biblical soteriology, and I in fact pity him for his choice of NFL teams.]

Here is the verse, in the NKJV: “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (This is Jesus speaking to the Jews who sought to kill Him.)

Ben says this proves Calvinism is wrong. He is fairly certain that the “life” mentioned there must necessarily include Regeneration. He thinks that if I would simply read the text, I’d see that as an inescapable conclusion.

Spiritually dead people have to come to Jesus (i.e. believe in Him) in order to be regenerated. Ben sees that as straightforward, if only we Calvinists would read what the Bible says there.

But after pondering this for some time, both during and since our discussion at his blog, I am left where my objection began. That is, what is the textual evidence for the notion that the “life” of John 5:40 includes Regeneration? (And right here is where we may need a whole ‘nother discussion on what constitutes evidence…)

There are other options for what “life” might mean. It may be synonymous with “salvation,” which I think is not uncommon in John’s writings. Or, it may have to do specifically with “eternal life,” the glorified life post-resurrection.

In fact, I’d propose that this latter idea is suggested strongly by the context of the rest of John chapter 5. (See especially verses 24-26, and 29.) In fact, in the verse right before the one in question (v.39), it is “eternal life” that is expressly mentioned as that which the Jews have missed in their rejection of the Scriptures’ teachings about Jesus.

This does no harm to Calvinism. Every Calvinist would say that a person has to believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life.

But Ben’s contention is that regeneration must be included in that concept because it is the starting point of eternal life. Can’t have the everlasting life in heaven without first being regenerated, after all. So, then, you have to come to Jesus to be regenerated, since it is the beginning point of that eternal life.

A couple of problems with that:

1. It still doesn’t answer the question, Who will come to Jesus to be regenerated? How does a spiritually dead person decide to get resurrected? Ben believes in the doctrine of Total Depravity. I think he’d say, no spiritually dead person would choose to believe. But as an Arminian, Ben believes in Prevenient Grace. According to this doctrine, before any sinner may savingly believe in Christ, God must first grant a gift of grace that allows that sinner to overcome his totally depraved nature and make that decision from something like neutral ground.

In short, Arminian Ben sees the same dilemma the Calvinist does, in that no carnal man will or can receive the things of the Spirit (specifically, the Gospel of Christ.) Where the Calvinist solves this dilemma with the doctrine of Regeneration, the Arminian solves it with resistible Prevenient Grace. The two different doctrines accomplish the same thing: they allow the sinner to obey the demands of the Gospel.

Now, here’s the catch for Ben. If John 5:40’s “life” must include Calvinistic regeneration (since that is the starting point of life in Christ) then why does Prevenient Grace get a pass? Doesn’t the Arminian process of receiving eternal life in Christ begin with Prevenient Grace? If so, then it is just as rightly included in the “life” of John 5:40 as the Calvinist’s doctrine of Regeneration. That is, they both stand at the beginning of the sinner’s experience of new life in Christ.

So, if John 5:40 means that you have to come to Christ to be regenerated, then it must also mean that you have to come to Christ to receive Prevenient Grace.

2. Another problem with saying that Regeneration has to be included in any thought of eternal life, is this: why stop there? I mean, why not go back farther?

You have to be alive in the flesh before you can be made alive in the Spirit, right? So why not include fleshly life in the “life” of John 5:40? You can’t enter into eternal life by faith while you’re physically dead any more than you can believe without being regenerated. So, surely physical life stands just as vitally at the starting point of life in Christ as Regeneration does. Why include one and not the other, aside from the fact that it seems to help your argument?

Or why not go all the way back to God’s foreordination before the foundation of the world? Calvinists would say Regeneration only happens because Predestination has already happened long ago, so why not extend the line back to the real, genuine beginning of life in Christ? So then, Jesus would be saying, “You refuse to come to Me, that you may be predestined.”

So this is what I see as the conclusion of the matter, though I am certain others will disagree with me. As a Calvinist, nothing that John 5:40 says conflicts at all with what I believe is Biblical soteriology. I believe you must come to Jesus to have life. And, ta-da! I remain a five-pointer.

The only way this verse is a challenge to Calvinism is if you force two things into the text: First, you must force it to include Regeneration when it speaks of eternal life. The problem is that there is no good reason to force it that way, and no reason to stop there and not include earlier necessities like Predestination. It can be read in a perfectly harmonious, straightforward manner without that. Second, I think you must conflate Regeneration and Justification. If the two are separate things, this supposed hurdle for Calvinism proves to only be about ankle-high.

18 comments:

Eloquorius said...

Gordon,

I would respectfully suggest that you’re going about this by focusing on the wrong word. Personally, I see “life” throughout the John 5:19-47 discourse as meaning “eternal life.” That’s not the issue for this debate. The issue is Arminian squirming on the word “will” in verse 40. They want “will” to mean “inate ability” due to prevenient grace, but that’s not supported by the textual evidence. The verb used – “thelete” from “thelo” – is in present tense indicative mood. Simply put, the statement is one of present fact. But what fact? One of internal ability? No. Thelo connotes intent or desire. Thus a literal translation of “Kai ou thelete elthein pros me” (Nestle-Aland source) could be, “And [you] not desire to come to me” I don’t see Jesus making a statement in their abilities to come to Him (i.e., prevenient grace) but rather simply statement revealing that the teachers of the Law still have no intent on coming to Him. He’s stating fact, not commenting whether or not they have the natural ability. This is supported, I believe, in verse 21 where the same verb is used for, “gives life to whom he will.” One cannot read that to say, “so also the Son gives life to whom he [the free-will ability] to give it.” Thus if you understand verse 21 to read, “gives life to whom he desires/intends” then such understanding is totally in line with the understanding that we are saved according to the desire of His will (“will” as in “desire” or “intent”, not ability).

But throughout John 5:19-47 “life” is used 9 times, verse 40 being the last use. Now, the first eight uses clearly mean eternal life:

v. 21: Through regeneration: “raises the dead and gives them life”;
v. 24: Says “eternal life” wherein the one who is alive has “passed from death to life.”
v. 26a: Says, “For as the Father has life in himself” (i.e, “For as God is alive eternally”)
v. 26b Says, “so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” Again, we’re talking eternal life.
v. 29: Juxtaposes “resurrection of life” to “the resurrection of judgment”
v. 39: Clearly uses the “eternal life” wording.

So with eight of eight uses referring to eternal life, the argument that suddenly Jesus means some other kind of “life” (the kind the Pharisees don’t have) is really a hard case to make.

Finally, one could also assert that verse 40 is a prophetic announcement, too. Jesus was correct in stating that the Pharisees are dead, will not come to Christ, but will “receive another [who] comes in his own name.” (v. 43) Depending on your eschatology, this could be a reference to the Jew's rejection of Christ and future acceptance of the man of lawlessness (false Christ) in the end times.

Bottom line: Jesus is talking a present factual state of intent, not ability. THAT is the sneak play the free-willers a getting away with.

gordan said...

I would respectfully and thankfully take that on board.

I kind of argued that point (I think) in another place, that just because the Jews refused to come to Jesus to receive His gift of life, is no indicator of ability, but a statement of fact. They refused. It really doesn't touch on what their capabilities were.

J.C. Thibodaux said...

The context of John 5:24 and on speaks both of spiritual life and the resurrection. In verse 25 He states,

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

Please note that this is what is now occurring, which is compared to rather than equated with the future resurrection spoken of in verses 28-29. Now if 'hearing' simply refers to physically hearing the gospel message, then would not all who hear the gospel be alive? But if hearing refers to heeding the call, and those that hear already have spiritual life, then why are they dead and in need of life? Hence, those that hear are the spiritually dead that come to Christ and are given life by Him.

As to the objection you raised to prevenient grace, God's grace is what draws us to life in Him, but grace is not synonymous with spiritual life. To say that they were the same would be to say that anyone who had ever experienced grace has already had life, but many people have felt the grace of God, yet still resisted the Holy Spirit and never known life in Him.

Ben said...

I thought that John 5:25 is to be taken as part of John5:25-29?

gordan said...

JCT,

That about the dead hearing is really not troublesome for the Calvinist. I think most of us believe that the grace of spiritual life most often comes by the means of Spirit-empowered preaching of the Word of God.

So, the dead hear the Word and are raised by it. Note the context is the raising of Lazarus: he heard the call and was raised. Most of us find it hard to see anything active in this on the part of dead Lazarus. Just as he experienced a physical resurrection in response to the Word of the Lord, that's how we are raised to new life in the Spirit. I guess you're proposing he could've chosen to remain dead?

I don't see how this argues against monergism at all: rather, it greatly reinforces it.

Just as all the energy that raised Lazarus was foisted upon him (with, apparently, no regard to how he felt about it at the time)so the elect are raised in response to the Word. I'm saying we Calvinists generally (I think) see the preaching of the Gospel as the means to regeneration and subsequent justification, etc. Faith comes by hearing, and all that.

Please correct if I've misunderstood your objection on this point.

kangeroodort said...

Hey Gordon,

Just noticed your post. I did respond to you in the combox at AP concerning the last comment you left there, just so ya know.

I will be away from the computer until the 28th, so I will address your new rant then.

Recently, I was in a discussion with a friend (who claims to hate me, in a good-natured way, of course)

What are you referring to here? Are you talking about the comment I left a incrediblog?

Would you mind doing me a favor? Could you let me know when you devote a post to me or some argument I have made so that I can attempt to address it? I would really appreciate it.

Have a merry Christmas!

God Bless,
Ben

gordan said...

Ben, yeah, that comment at Incrediblog was what I was thinking about. You'll note I did reference it in a tongue-in-cheek way.

I am sorry about not notifying you. It honestly was on my mind to do that, and then I didn't. I will do better here on out.

Ben said...

Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox
consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. That
I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word "grace," I mean by it
that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. I affirm, therefore, that this
grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the
affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good. (Works of Arminius Vol. 2, Letter to Reader on Grace and Free Will)

This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out
of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and
power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according
to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the
assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself,
either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated
and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the
Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform
whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider
that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good,
but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace. (Works of Arminius Vol. 1, My Own Sentiments on Predestination III. The Free-Will of Man)

It seems from the above quotes that Arminius himself believes in regeneration preceding faith. Unless one needs a super duper decoder ring that will show that Arminius didn’t really mean what he wrote.

J.C. Thibodaux said...

Gordan,

My point was that if Christ were speaking merely of hearing Spirit-empowered preaching of the Word of God, then all who heard it would be saved. Since not all who hear receive, that interpretation is rife with difficulties. The context of Christ's words in John 5 btw was not concerning Lazarus, who doesn't show up until 6 chapters later, but a comparison between the physical resurrection when He returns and the spiritual life imparted to those who hear the word now. I wasn't arguing monergism in general, just the life before faith in Christ issue. The scriptures are clear that he who has the Son has life, he who has not the Son does not have life (1 John 5:12), and there is no scripture that states anything about needing to be spiritually alive before believing or having life apart from Jesus. Frankly, I don't see why regeneration prior to faith (especially with scant to no scriptural support) is so important to a monergistic system of belief in the first place, since an irresistible grace would render it redundant.

Ben said...

Would you ask a blind man to see before his eyes were opened or a deaf man to hear before his ears were opened? I doubt it.

Why would you say that a bad tree can bear good fruit when our Lord said the opposite?


it is necessary for him to be regenerated
and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the
Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform
whatever is truly good.
Arminius. That seems like a good enough reason to have regeneration precede faith.

gordan said...

JCT,

Color me embarrassed with the Lazarus thing. Got my resurrections conflated. There is no excuse for me.

You wrote: "The scriptures are clear that he who has the Son has life, he who has not the Son does not have life (1 John 5:12)"

Yes, I completely agree with that. But that verse has nothing to do with explaining how he got that life. It is descriptive and explains a corollary, but it does not speak of causation.

That is, the verse answers the question: Who has eternal life?

A very major thrust of 1 John is to distinguish false faith from true faith, false teachers from true ones. And that is what this verse does. Who is genuine and thus has eternal life? The one who has (believes in/preaches/clings to/trusts in) the Son.

The one who does not have the Son is the false one, the one without genuine life, either in himself, or to offer in his teaching.

The verse doesn't teach that the spiritually dead man reached out somehow and appropriated the Son to himself, thus receiving life.

rpavich said...

Eloquorius,
Nicely done; thanks for the hard work on this one.

bob

J.C. Thibodaux said...

Hey Mafia guys, hope you had a good Christmas.

Gordan,

The difficulty you run into is that if 1 John 5:12 is indeed a corollary, then the implication of regeneration prior to believing in Christ is that if someone were regenerated prior to saving faith, he or she would have life apart from Christ. Hence, we would have people who don't have the Son having life apart from believing in Him.

I've heard some try to work around that difficulty by claiming that regeneration precedes faith only logically, not chronologically (i.e. regeneration, faith, and life in Christ all occur in the same instant of time, regeneration producing faith instantly), though this concept doesn't really help the case either, as Christ Himself is the the very source and substance of spiritual life, necessitating that having and being in Christ precede being made spiritually alive.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

The context here is clearly spiritual life that frees those who believe from the carnal mind, yet it is not apart from Christ, or prior to Christ, or even contemporaneous to Christ, but in Christ.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:11)

The spiritual life saints receive is in and of Christ, and comes through faith in Him, not merely coincident to receiving Him, therefore one who is not in Christ by faith is not spiritually alive. Along with Christ's words in John 5, "those who hear Him shall live," the pronounced scriptural dichotomy of life and death drawn between those who believe and those who do not (e.g. those that don't believe are condemned already and have no life in them), and the lack of any concrete biblical reference for the idea of spiritual life prior to Christ, it constitutes a rather solid case that life comes by faith in Christ, not before.

kangaroodort said...

Hey Gordan,

Here is the link to my response over at AP. It's a little rougher than usual but I thought you kinda deserved it this time.

I also figured since you were so talented at dishing it out, you could probably take it just as well.

Hope you had a very Merry Christmas.

With much Love and Hate,
Ben

PS Maybe the Cowboys and Steelers will meet in the Superbowl. Then we can really talk some smack! :)

kangaroodort said...

Sorry...forgot to include the link:

http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/12/gordan-takes-another-shot-at-john-540.html

kangaroodort said...

Ben,

You wrote:

It seems from the above quotes that Arminius himself believes in regeneration preceding faith. Unless one needs a super duper decoder ring that will show that Arminius didn’t really mean what he wrote.

You might be interested in this quote:

"Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification of the new man, as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith. For Christ becomes ours by faith, and we are engrafted into Christ, are made members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones, and, being thus planted with him, we coalesce or are united together, that we may draw from him the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, by which power the old man is mortified and we rise again into a new life. All these things cohere together with each other in a certain order,and must thus also be considered, if any one be desirous of knowing them not confusedly but distinctly, and of explaining them well to others." [Works Vol.2 pg. 233, Wesleyan Heritage Collection].

Perhaps that will serve as your decoder ring.

Ben said...

Kangaroodort,

Thanks for your trying to clarify, but I believe that GODISMYJUDGE has answered it. It seems that Arminius believed in progressive regeneration. That being the case, I can not accept that as truth. Now if you see it the same way that Arminius did then so be it. It is good to be passionate about your beliefs and if you believe this to be sound and Scriptural teaching than by all means hold to them.

Ben said...

Kangaroodort,

BTW, if you do not hold to the same view as Arminius on progressive regeneration then the quote you provided does nothing to answer the quotes that I provided straight from the Works of Arminius himself. It would make him, Arminius, seem contradictory and confused. Seeing as he was neither, but rather a very intelligent and thoughtful man, we must find a way to reconcile ALL of his writings on this. As I stated previously, GODISMYJUDGE has shown that Arminius viewed regeneration as progressive rather than a one time event as a Calvinism teaches. If one sees it as such then the quotes that I provided and the quote that you provided are easy to explain and defend. If however you do not hold to progressive regeneration as Arminius taught then you are not following his teachings and perhaps are not the Reformed Arminian that you claim to be. Perhaps Finney would be closer too your view on these things rather than Arminius.