As an anthology, the four Gospels reveal two complementary responses to the person of Jesus Christ. Some people are inexplicably drawn to Jesus while others are just as inexplicably repelled by Him.
Philip is an example of the former. He leaves behind his livelihood to follow this itinerant preacher who beckons him to “follow me” (John 1:43). No questions. He just follows.
The crowds and disciples described in John 6:60–66 represent the latter.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:60–66)
Having left their homes to follow Jesus and His teaching, the crowds already know that He preaches like no other rabbi and that He can handle adversity with insight and authority. They have seen Him perform miracles that defy explanation and point to deeper truths about His identity and purpose.
In spite of all of this, when they hear Jesus preach that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are integral to their coming to faith in Him, they leave in droves.
This passage deals with the inner spiritual dynamics of conversion. It is about the spiritual reality of coming to faith, the divine hand behind the act of believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Three Aspects of Conversion
From this passage, we learn about three significant aspects of conversion to Jesus Christ.
First, belief is more than swearing membership to a group. Saving faith is more than saying the right words, more than following Jesus in His teaching ministry and counting yourself as one of His disciples. The disciples who abandon Jesus in John 6 had previously given the impression that they were His followers—they had left their homes and jobs to travel with someone the religious authorities claimed was a fool, or worse, a madman. Even though they had given up so much, they were not ready for the heart of the gospel. Perhaps they accepted the teaching of Jesus the rabbi, but they did not accept the teaching of Jesus the divine Son.
Second, hypocrisy is common in gospel community, even when Jesus is the preacher. The church will always be filled with broken people, some of whom are drawn by the Spirit to repentance and faith, and others who are drawn by their sin to hardness and nominalism. Pastors and church leaders must remember that they are always preaching and teaching to a mixed audience. The best way to serve that audience is to lovingly, confidently, and prayerfully teach the whole counsel of God from the Scriptures.
Third, saving faith is the result of the Holy Spirit’s giving life more than it is the result of collecting empirical evidence. Jesus says: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:62–63). To be sure, Christians should present the gospel in a way that is contextually sensitive, and yes, evangelists should seek to remove any offense that is not intrinsic to the gospel message. But Jesus is saying that He could take to flight before their eyes and His audience would still not believe if the Spirit did not regenerate their hearts and minds. Conversion is the work of the Spirit in attendance with gospel proclamation. Reason, experience, and imagination all play a role in salvation, but if the Spirit does not give life, saving faith will not result.
Comfort and Challenge
We should find comfort in the necessary role of the Spirit in our evangelistic efforts. Many will patiently listen to our gospel message only to politely walk away without a moment’s hesitation. We should always check our hearts and methods when this happens, but we should also remember that people walked away from Jesus as well.
We should be challenged when we realize that a person’s response to the gospel is ultimately out of our hands. Every Christian has someone in their lives who they believe could never come to saving faith. Jesus’ teaching in John 6 is proof that no one can escape the life-giving work of the Spirit if it is willed by the Father. Who are we to doubt the power of regeneration in the lives of those around us?
The Trinity and Evangelism
Last, don’t miss the Trinitarian tone of John 6 and how it helps us keep a balanced view of evangelism and salvation. No one receives the Son unless the Spirit gives life, as it is granted by the Father.
Keeping this Trinitarian foundation in view protects us from two common errors, one that sees conversion as arbitrary and the other that sees it merely as a matter of persuasion. Because the Father directly grants salvation according to His good pleasure, it is the least arbitrary of all human experiences. Because salvation relies on the regeneration of the Spirit, we know that conversion rests on something other than a well-framed sales pitch.
I’ll conclude with a third error that this Trinitarian teaching helps us avoid. Because of the revelation of the Son, we should resist the error that leads us to complacency in evangelism. In His humiliation and exaltation, the Son provided the groundwork for our redemption. As a result, for those who are in Him, there is every reason to proclaim His gospel with confidence in the light of our Trinitarian faith.
This post was originally published on September 8, 2017.