Who Are the People the Father "Gave" Jesus?


In John 17:2, 6 Jesus mentions those “whom the Father gave Him.”

This page will examine exactly what that means, in the context of Calvinism, predestination, and free will.


Foreword: On Calvinism, predestination, and free will


In theology, the idea of salvation being all about God’s choice (completely ignoring our choice) is usually discussed in terms of so-called “Calvinism,” with this idea in particular called “predestination.” The idea that God specifically predestined some to heaven and some to hell is called “double predestination” (at least by those of us who disagree with it). The double bit comes from acknowledging explicitly the logical complement of God predestining some for heaven—that He must then also predestine some for hell simply because He does not predestine them for heaven. That is, if God chooses to save some arbitrarily, it also means that he chooses to damn others arbitrarily (well, to be precise, He condemns them on the basis of their unbelief—which He doesn’t actively coerce within them—but more the operative point is that He arbitrarily decides not to save them by irresistibly drawing them to Himself as He does the elect). Yet, apparently, some parties try to wriggle out of the second bit somehow, and just make it about God saving people.

Even people in the Reformed camp (those actually themselves teaching double predestination) point out the irrationality of arguing for so-called single predestination, which only focuses on the saving bit. For example, R.C. Sproul of Ligonier. On that page, Sproul does also make the point that the traditional Reformed view of double predestination only makes the positive side irresistible (i.e., coerces man’s will therein), not the negative. Put more simply, God is only the author of salvation; when human beings sin and choose unbelief, it is not because “God made them do it.” Under Sproul’s view, this makes God’s actions “asymmetric”—God positively and actively intervenes in the lives of the elect to bring them to salvation, but does not positively and actively intervene in the lives of the reprobate to bring them to sin and unbelief.

By way of contrast, those of us who do not believe in any form of arbitrary predestination at all (such as myself) do still believe that God is the one who brings the elect to salvation (on His power, and through the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf—not on account of our own works), but that our free will is in fact a critical component. Put succinctly, God chooses all who choose Him; His election of us specifically is conditional upon our individual choice.

There is still “predestination” in this, the point is just that it isn’t arbitrary, but conditional upon our choice. God is outside spacetime, and knows who will choose for Him before they even exist. These people—who both sides in the debate call “the elect” because scripture itself uses that language (cf. Matthew 24:24; Luke 18:7; Romans 8:33; Titus 1:1; etc.)—were known by God and worked into His plan from the very beginning. But they are not elect because God grabbed them by the coat and made them elect—as if by dragging them kicking and screaming—but they are elect simply because God foreknew their free will choice for Him.

Believing in free will does not mean that we believe that we save ourselves

A straw man that some Reformed folks might throw up is something like “But you are arguing that humans can save themselves—how arrogant!” No… not in the least. Even believing in free will, we are still in great need of a savior, and if God didn’t do all He had in judging Jesus Christ in our place upon the cross, every single one of us would be damned with no hope of saving ourselves on our own power. We cannot work our way into heaven in the slightest… and that is not what believing in human free will means. Believing in human free will just means that we think the elect believe not because God brainwashed them into believing, but because they make a choice to do so, without any pressure from God.

First of all, we only have free will (the very image of God, cf. Genesis 1:27) because God gave it to us; the ability to have a will and to choose is what makes us “godlike”, and distinct from the animals. So if we only have the ability to choose because God created us as possessing the ability to choose (not due to any action on our part), how then can we be said to save ourselves, when our very salvation is contingent upon this ability to choose?

Secondly, we would not even know of our need to turn to God if He did not make it clear through natural revelation (compare Psalm 19 and Romans 1)—if He did not first call all of us to Him. If the testimony and warnings of natural revelation are like signs warning of a washed-out road ahead, then we only turn back because God put up those signs. Otherwise all of us would simply rush headlong into our doom, none the wiser. This too is worked entirely by God’s hands, not our own.

Thirdly, even if we want to heed the signs, we still have need of instruction in what to do next to solve our terrible dilemma (namely, that we are sinful beings, that death is inescapable, and that we will face a Perfect God when we die). This is so-called special revelation: specific knowledge of Christ that God provides to all those who truly heed the warnings of natural revelation in their hearts. If God did not tell us how we might be rescued from our plight (that is, by believing in Christ), we would still be helpless to escape our destruction. Even if Christ had died for us already, we wouldn’t be able to lay hold of that means of escape if God didn’t Himself point it out to us, because we are too blind on our own to see it. Again, all God, none us.

Finally—and most importantly—we cannot actually solve even the tiniest bit of the dilemma on our own power. We are not lambs without blemish; we are not even qualified to pay for our own sin, since we are unworthy sacrifices! Because of this helplessness, 100% of the “payment” for our salvation comes from God, not ourselves. This means we are only saved because God did absolutely everything needed for us to be saved (that was the cross, upon which Jesus paid for the sins of “the world” = of everyone who ever has or ever will live—compare John 1:29; John 3:16-17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14; and also see Romans 3:25-26 for more on the idea of pre-cross sins still being paid for through the blood of Christ, but just “on credit”).

So no, believing in free will does not mean we believe we save ourselves. Not in the least. Our non-meritorious faith does not bring about our own salvation on its own. It is merely us choosing to grasp the rope that God has thrown down into the pit to save us, instead of stubbornly refusing to grab ahold of it due to the fact that it is God on the other side of that rope.

The family of God in eternity will be self-selected

God reaches out to all and calls all to believe, not only those whom He foreknows will actually respond; because Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world, every single human being who has ever lived has been given all they need to be saved, if only they would “not say no”. It’s just that most people choose not to respond positively to that call… due to their free will. And so if they won’t choose God, God won’t choose them either (even though He greatly wishes for them to be saved too—cf. 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4), and they will thus not number among the elect.

And so it is that the family of God in eternity will be self-selected, a group of people who esteemed God over the world, who chose to love Him despite the fact that doing such earns us the world’s hatred and a life of suffering for His glory.

So… back to those the Father “gave” Jesus in John 17

Maybe that preamble seemed overly long and a bit irrelevant, but it was all so I could now simply say:

God gives all those to Christ whom He foreknew as believing in Christ.

That really is all there is to it, no Calvinism necessary. This concept works with human free will just fine, it just requires one to acknowledge God’s foreknowledge, exactly as the Bible itself does.

Eisegesis, exegesis, and Calvinists

This passage in John 17 serves as an excellent showcase of the tendency some Calvinists have to engage in eisegesis. You may be more familiar with the term exegesis. These words have to do with our approach to interpreting the Bible—the process by which we settle upon its meaning.

Put simply, when we interpret, we must always focus on what the text actually says—taking things out of it (hence ex-), not reading them into it (hence eis-). If we have presuppositions, we must acknowledge them and not use the passages to circularly prove them.

And this is where certain Calvinists fail here. If you presuppose double predestination, nothing will inherently stop you from interpreting those God gives to Christ here as people God has arbitrarily chosen to give eternal life to. It is textually allowable; it does not engender a logical contradiction to interpret that way in this particular passage.

The point is, it is also textually allowable here to take the elect given to Christ as those God has foreknown as believing based upon their own free will choice. And that is exactly why using this passage as “proof” of double predestination is complete nonsense. (To be clear, this particular passage also cannot be used as proof for my position either, as both interpretations work fine textually in this specific place). For either side, if you use this passage in John 17 as a proof text, you are assuming the very position you say you are proving!

This split holds absolutely everywhere. Consider John 3:16, a very famous verse to be sure. Calvinists will say that the people who believe and therefore have eternal life have just been irresistibly called by God. The rest of us, myself included, will say that believe just means believe and that there is nothing else “there” in this verse. The thing is, the verse hardly says “double predestination is a false doctrine!”… and thus we end up right back at this problem of eisegesis.

Here’s the thing though: no matter how many verses you look at (interpreting scripture with scripture, as we are supposed to—that is essentially the cornerstone of hermeneutics), you will not find any that directly teach double predestination, the idea that God arbitrarily chooses some people but not others. There are a number of places in scripture that can be made to “work” with such an idea—such as the one we have just gone over above—but none of them actually logically mandate the position, leaving it only ever as a complete assumption.

Now, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t here provide some direct scriptural evidence for the opposing position I’m putting forward, yes? Turnabout being fair play and all that. Well, what about Romans 8:29-30?

Romans 8:29-30 | NIV84

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

It is my opinion that Romans 8:29 is plenty clear about what is going on here. Calvinists still disagree (pointing out, for example, that the verse says just “those God foreknew” and not “those God foreknew [as believing in Jesus Christ of their own free will]”), but one reaches a point where the burden of proof falls squarely upon those who object to what is by far the most straightforward way to take the text. That is to say, I have never come across a single convincing explanation for what sense it makes for “foreknew” to be in this progression of “foreknew, predestined, called, justified, glorified” if those God would foreknow are the very ones He Himself arbitrarily predestined. If He’s the one doing the predestining, then what reason would He have for foreknowing before predestining? Since human free will wouldn’t matter anyway, there would be nothing to foreknow.

The straightforward reading of this passage logic-wise is that God predestines all those whom He previously foreknows (i.e., He foreknows before He then predestines, in the sense of “first this… then this… then this”). The logical causality is clearly in that direction; that is, the predestining does not come logically first (as the Calvinist position would require), but logically second. Just as God calls (in a salvific sense here—contrast the fact God does actually “call” the entire world in the sense of natural revelation) all those He predestines, justifies all those He calls, and glorifies all those He justifies.

This is therefore the passage, in my opinion, that one ought to base one’s rejection of double predestination on, not John 17. Because while both positions might work relatively OK in John 17 textually, only one works acceptably here in Romans 8:29-30. Otherwise, we read our assumptions into the Bible when interpreting, and fall into eisegesis rather than exegesis.