Election is one of the issues that I continually return to. On my computer I have well over one hundred thousand words that I have written on the subject of election at some stage or other (from discussion lists, e-mails, personal notes, unposted blog posts, etc.). Unfortunately there is so much material that I just can’t bring myself to put it all together into some sort of coherent whole. Every once in a while I will just drop some thoughts on the subject, drawing on some of the material that I have amassed on the matter (some of you will have already seen this material at some time or other).
This time my thoughts are on the subject of election in John’s gospel. John’s gospel has a rich seam of ‘prooftexts’ for a view of election that sees God as eternally electing particular individuals and ensuring that they will never apostatize. Over the past few years I have become convinced that a close reading of John’s gospel itself just will not support the theology of election that has been drawn from these prooftexts.
John presents us with a theology in which everyone who genuinely comes to Christ comes because the Father has given that person to Christ. They are given by means of the Father’s sovereign work in drawing the person, not because the Father foresaw the person’s own individual decision. Christ will not turn away or cast out any who are given to Him by the Father.
All of those who have been entrusted to Christ’s care by the Father — head for head — will be raised up on the last day. Christ is the good Shepherd. He lays down His life for the sheep. He will not allow anyone to snatch the sheep from His hands. He will go off in search of the wanderer in order to bring that one back to Himself. Even when the sheep are to be scattered, He will pray for those entrusted to His care that their faith would not fail.
These words teach us that, as long as our lives are in Christ’s hands, we are as safe as we could be. However, these verses are part of a bigger picture in which the Father does not merely give people into the care of His Son but also removes people from the care of His Son. The teaching of John 6:37ff often seems to be held at the expense of the teaching of such passages as John 15:1ff.
John 15:1-2 teaches us that the Father (the vinedresser) takes away from Christ (the vine) branches that consistently fail to bear fruit. Whilst there is good reason to believe that the Father is patient in this process and generally waits for some time before removing a branch, we cannot deny that branches that have been ‘in Christ’ are genuinely removed.
How does this fit in with the teaching of passages such as John 6:37ff.? It is not that difficult to reconcile the teaching of these different passages when we step back from certain assumptions. For example, John’s gospel does not give support to the idea that the Father’s giving of people to Christ is something that takes place in ‘eternity past’. The Father’s giving of people to Christ is an occurrence in human history.
How then do we reconcile the teaching of these different passages? The Father is the One who entrusts people to His Son; the Father is also the One who removes people from His Son’s care. Christ does not lose anyone who has been entrusted to Him by the Father. No one snatches these people from the Son’s hands. It is not the Father’s will that any person He has entrusted to the Son should be lost and the Son does not fail to fulfil this. He guards, preserves and prays for all of those who have been given to Him by the Father. However, the fact that the Father can remove people from Christ’s care should never be forgotten. It is not Christ who removes people from the vine, but the Father, the vinedresser.
This is a robustly ‘ecclesial’ doctrine of election. Those who have been given to Christ by the Father are not the elect from eternity past (presuming, for the sake of argument, that such a group even exists) but those who have been brought into union with Christ in history. Amongst this number there are those who will not persevere in union with Christ and will be removed by the Father. When Christ lays down His life for the sheep He is not laying down His life for the elect from eternity past. Rather, He dies for those who have been given to Him by the Father. This group is the Church, understood as the community of disciples, to which more will be added in the future and others removed.
The group of those that have been given to Christ by the Father is not a static and unchanging number. This is implied in a number of different places. For example, in John 17:20 we see an implied contrast between the ones who have been given to Christ by the Father and those who will believe on Christ through their word (perhaps implying that they are yet to be given to Christ by the Father).
I believe that the Johannine picture of election is far more complex than that which many people hold and many others react to. As Peter Leithart points out, the Johannine picture of election is one in which apostates are just as chosen as anyone else. The Johannine doctrine of election is one in which Judas is just as much one ‘given’ to Jesus by the Father as John himself is (John 17:12).