Well, let me think about that for a second. Okay, no, he wasn’t a Calvinist. That’s a bit of an anachronism. Still, when I want to read a biblical author that declares the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, including our own faith and salvation, there is no better place to go than the gospel of John (with the possible exception of Romans).
But as much as I love to read of God’s absolute sovereignty in Romans, here’s what I so love and cherish, as a pastor, about the Gospel of John: When you read Romans, you know you’re reading about God’s absolute sovereignty over all things for his own glory. It’s obvious. Romans is a dense theological treatise, written to a reasonably well-educated bunch of people. When you’re reading it, it’s not likely that you’re going to make a mistake about the genre of what you’re reading. No one is going to pick up Romans and get the impression that they’re reading a narrative or a biography.
But John is much more insidious (if I can use that word positively). John will make you think you’re reading a story about some sheep and a shepherd, about knocking back a few too many at a wedding shindig in Cana, about a master washing his followers’ feet, about a nice guy who prays a lot. But that’s where you’re wrong.
Well, you’re not wrong. John does talk about all those things. But just below the surface, John is declaring the absolute sovereignty of God over all things just as powerfully and compellingly as Paul is. You just have to pay closer attention in order to see it when you’re reading John. John was the first biblical author I preached as a pastor because I wanted to give my flock a rich and deep vision of the power and glory of God without really letting them know that that’s what I was doing, because I was mainly talking about shepherds and sheep, vines and wine, light and darkness.
One of the most obvious places we see this sort of thing is in John 10:25-29: “25 Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.'”
Within the veil of agrarian language, in these five verses, are powerful statements about unconditional election (v. 26), irresistible grace (v. 27) and, most pertinent to this discussion, the doctrine of the preservation and perseverance of the saints (v. 29). Let me make three brief observations from v. 29:
First: Jesus says it is the Father who keeps us in his hand. It is the Father who refuses to let us go. The person, emotion, experience, circumstance, sin, demonic force, devil, etc., who would aim to snatch us out of the Father’s hand—who would have us foresake the Father and reject our faith—is not contending with our will, but with the Father’s great hand. You are not as strong and as faithful as you think you are, friend. If you knew the forces aligned against you, that seek the destruction of your faith, you would not believe that you are strong enough to keep yourself in the Father’s hand even for one day and you would be right. Only the Father’s powerful grasp can and does keep genuine believers in his hand.
Second: Nothing can snatch us out of his hand. Arminians are quick to want to insert an exception into Jesus’ statement along the lines of: “Well, sure, nothing else outside of our own free decision can snatch us out of the Father’s hand. If we want to remain with him, we can and he will help us do just that.” That’s close to a plausible reading, but not quite. The Greek word beneath “no one” in v. 29 is oudeis, and it is universal. It means “no one,” or “no person.” To argue that we ourselves, as believers, are not included in this statement is to disagree with the text itself. To argue that this statement still allows that believers can remove themselves from the Father’s hand is, in essence, to say to Jesus, “You really don’t mean what you say you mean.”
Third: Any statement, then, regarding whether or not a genuinely converted believer can fall away from the faith is a statement about God’s power. Jesus doesn’t include any extraneous words in v. 29. He includes the phrase, “My father…is greater than all” for a reason. God’s ability to keep his chosen ones in his grasp demonstrates his power and sovereignty. If we can bring ourselves into his grasp and then, by our own simple act of choosing, elude his grasp in spite of his desire for us, then God is a lesser God. He is not mighty enough to overcome our corruption and save us ‘to the uttermost’ (Heb. 7:25).
It may be helpful to close with a question. While it is a subjective question, it’s helpful nonetheless. If God means to be worshiped and glorified (Calvinists and Arminians agree on that), which understanding of him makes one want to worship him more? Would you more passionately worship, glorify and treasure a God who holds us in an open hand and is grieved, but willing, to let us jump out of his gracious hand and into eternal agony? Or, is He more worthy of worship, glory and adoration who brings his chosen people to himself and exerts his power and authority, as a good shepherd, to keep his beloved sheep in his fold for their eternal good?