Answers to Chapter One
Ron Julian has provided the following answers to the study questions from chapter one of The Language of God.
Whether one believes that God sovereignly chooses those who are saved or not, I think most everyone would agree about this much: in John 6:64-65, Jesus is saying that initially everyone is incapable of coming to Him in faith. We can imagine at least two possible ways this passage might be taken, depending on how we understand what it means to be “able to come” to Jesus.
1) Jesus might be saying that, although all people used to be unable to come to Him, now God has granted to all people the ability to come to Him. Evil used to have everyone in its grip so tightly that no one could choose to come to Jesus. Now, however, God has loosened the grip of sin enough so that every person is capable of choosing to come to Jesus. (Of course only some make that freewill choice.) This perspective fits the preunderstanding that God does not foreordain which individuals will come to faith and be saved.
2) Jesus might be saying that, although all people used to be unable to come to Him, now it has been given to some people, the ones whom God has chosen, to come to Jesus in fact. Those to whom this has not been given remain blinded by their own hostility and thus will not come to Jesus, but those in whom God has overcome this hostility will in fact come to Him. This perspective fits the preunderstanding that God foreordains which individuals will come to faith and be saved.
I can imagine two possible approaches to Hebrews 6:4-6, depending on whether one believes that genuine believers can lose their salvation.
1) If we start with the preunderstanding that genuine believers can lose their salvation, then I imagine we might understand Hebrews 6:4-6 in the following way. When I first have saving faith, I am “enlightened” by God, and I taste of the heavenly gift of salvation, and I have the Holy Spirit dwelling in me, and I have begun to understand the Scriptures and I have felt the power of God at work in my soul. However, if I should choose to stop believing, then I would lose my salvation, and these gifts of God would go away, and I would find it impossible to come to saving faith again.
2) However, if we start with the preunderstanding that genuine believers cannot lose their salvation, then I imagine that we might understand Hebrews 6:4-6 differently. The picture with all these phrases would be that I am experiencing the fruits of God’s work only by association. Having joined the community of believers and called myself a believer, I have dabbled in and only “tasted” the gift that God is working among believers; I have only “tasted” His word, and I have seen the power of God at work in others (although I have not really experienced it myself). Being a “partaker of the Holy Spirit” could be understood several ways. Perhaps he means that I have experienced the miracles that the Spirit was working among the first generation of Christians. Or perhaps he means to suggest that even unbelievers can have a work of the Spirit in them that brings them to see more clearly the grace that they ultimately reject. Either way, none of these phrases implies that I was ever truly a person of faith; I had no real salvation to lose.
In terms of the steps described in chapter one, here are a few suggestions as to how we might approach resolving the issues in these passages. It is not my purpose to tell you what I believe the passages mean, or to show you which strategies will actually work. I am going back to the beginning, looking at these passages as if I have never studied them before, seeing possible approaches that might or might not bear fruit.
Gather new information (Language and background studies)
John: There seem to be fairly simple words in this passage, and at first glance it seems unlikely that doing a word study is going to reveal some unusual meaning to them. It might be interesting to find other places where Jesus speaks of “coming” to Him, especially in John. (I want to be careful, though, not to assume that Jesus is always using the word in the same way; there are many, many examples of words being used in different ways, both in the Bible and in language in general.) If one has access to Greek resources, it would nice to affirm that “no one can… unless” is a good translation of the Greek grammar here. Initial impressions can be deceiving, but overall this does not look like a passage that is going to be “cracked” through linguistic or background research.
Hebrews: There are a number of words used in Hebrews 6:4-6 that cry out to be better understood. By that I don’t mean that the meanings of the words themselves are all that difficult; rather, I mean that I would like to understand the connotations of them better. I would like to see other contexts where words like “enlightened,” “tasted,” “heavenly gift,” “partakers,” and “powers of the age to come” may be used. Will these contexts prove anything about Hebrews 6? Maybe not, but they may give me insights into the ways people used these phrases, and that may be helpful. However, I need to be prepared; after further exploring these words, I may find nothing useful at all. Background information also plays an important role in the book of Hebrews. To whom is the letter written, and what are the issues being addressed? These are questions that will not be answered all at once, but I would hesitate to make any judgments about 6:4-6 without getting a pretty good grasp on the background to the letter.
Follow the author’s lead
John: Context would seem to play a key role in two possible ways. First of all, whatever Jesus is saying about being unable to come to Him unless the Father grants it, it must be relevant to the overall context of chapter six. It strikes me that this whole passage has a strong emphasis on the unbelief of the crowd (and the contrasting belief of Peter). Which understanding of the passage makes the most sense in this context? Anyway, this is not the only place in the chapter that speaks of the Father’s role in people coming to Jesus, and we need to look at those as well. It is essential that we start at the beginning of the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd and follow the points that Jesus is making; we want to see if one way of understanding 6:64-65 is more coherent with the overall argument. Secondly, it would be helpful to see if the themes of belief/unbelief and the “gift” of the Father show up in any other parts of John’s gospel.
Hebrews: Context seems critical in this passage as well. What leads up to 6:4-6? Why does it speak of the “elementary teachings about Christ”? Why does verse 4 start with “for”? What is the flow of thought through this passage? How does the analogy of the field contribute to the argument? What role does chapter 6 play in the larger argument of the letter? The letter to the Hebrews is a dense theological argument, and it is very important to try to put that argument together. We cannot do all this in one sitting, but the job requires us to dive in and start tackling these questions. Sooner or later something will start to make some sense.
Imagine all the possibilities
John: This is always tricky; we are asking ourselves to imagine sympathetically the perspective we believe is wrong. This is especially difficult with a hot-button issue like predestination. For example, one who does not believe that God chooses who will be saved might reason like this: “Jesus clearly says in this passage that we must believe in Him to be saved. Believing is something we must choose to do, not God. Therefore, Jesus cannot be implying that God chooses those who will be saved. Any arguments to the contrary are obviously wrong, so I will disregard them.” This attitude ultimately represents a failure to understand the opposite perspective. Those who believe in predestination may be wrong, but one thing I know: they do have an answer to the above objection. Anyone who rejects an interpretation of John 6:65 because they “know” that the other theology is wrong had better first make sure that they understand the theology they are rejecting. Anyone who is serious about wanting to understand Jesus here must make a determined commitment to patiently sort out the theological issues behind this passage. We will not be able to sort it out all at once, but we can commit ourselves to listening carefully to the other side. It comes down to this: if we defend our own interpretation of a passage by knocking down a straw man, a caricature of the opposing perspective, then we are not being intellectually honest.
Hebrews: Again, both sides of the debate on this passage need to guard against unfair caricatures of the other side. If I believe in eternal security, have I tried to “read” the passage in the light of the assumption that we can lose our salvation? Do I understand accurately that theological perspective? The same thing is true if I believe that we can lose our salvation. Do I understand the theological assumptions I have rejected? How would they work themselves out in this passage?
The admonition to seek consistency confronts us with two questions we must always ask ourselves: “Does my interpretation of this passage fit with the rest of the biblical worldview?” and “How does my interpretation fit with the rest of the biblical worldview?” If it is not consistent with the rest of my theology, then where is the problem? If it is consistent with the rest of my theology, then how does it relate? What are the implications of this passage for how I look at the world? So, for example, however I come down on the “predestination” issue in John 6 must ultimately make sense with the rest of the Bible. There are passages that seem to say that it is my choice whether to believe or not; there are passages (such as Romans 9:16-24) that seem to portray God as choosing who will be saved. How does it all fit together? Likewise, whatever I decide about the issue of “losing our salvation” in Hebrews 6 must be coherent with the rest of the biblical worldview. When it comes to salvation, the Bible sounds themes both of warning and assurance. How do they fit together? Time plays a major factor here; sometimes it just takes time living with my worldview to discover whether it is coherent and, if so, how I should live in the light of it.
Be willing to change your mind
I am not going to offer any specific advice here, but only a reminder. Both of these passages deal with issues (i.e., predestination and eternal security) about which Christians often have strong opinions. That is all the more reason we must start out with a willingness to be corrected by the Scriptures. By all means let us hold passionately to the truth; but let us be sure that it is the truth. Let me resolve that if, in the end, it turns out that I have been wrong, I am willing to know it.
Copyright February 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.