August 11, 2005

John 17:9 and Decretalism

I was in a discussion in another forum with a person who is bordering on Hyper-Calvinism. He continually brought up the John 17:9 passage, so I decided to address it. Here's what I posted:

Theological Presuppositions Addressed

Your assumption is that "world" in John 17:9 means non-elect. You would have the passage read, "I am praying for my elect, but I am not praying for the non-elect." Why must it mean this? Well, for one thing, it might be said by some that Jesus is now praying according to his divine nature, and cannot pray for what does not come to pass. Decretalism is read into this entire passage so that Jesus can't pray anything that is ineffectual. This is an unbiblical assumption. For, consider the following:

1) Jesus could pray for the forgiveness of the guilty people below him at the cross. "Father, forgive them...," etc. If you do not accept this as textually reliable, we can still know that it was the Spirit of Christ moving Stephen to pray for his persecutors (Acts 7:60), and Paul to pray for Israel's salvation (Rom. 10:1).

2) Jesus could pray in Gethsemene for the cup to pass from him.

3) Jesus could pray that part of the "Lord's prayer" that says, "Thy [revealed] will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

4) All the members of the Godhead could wish for and pray for the following:
NKJ Deuteronomy 5:29 'Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!
5) Jesus does pray that the world may believe and know in John 17:21, 23. More on this later.

All of this accords with God's revealed or preceptive will, which you so easily overlook. The special prayers for believers in John 17:9 are effectual as they correspond to God's decree, but it does not follow that he could not pray for things that are ineffectual with reference things that accord with God's revealed will. To use this one passage to argue that Jesus could not pray for the salvation of the non-elect undermines the biblical teaching regarding God's preceptive will.

Another faulty assumption is that Jesus' prayers must be consistent with the Father's will (in the sense that it can be only decretive), therefore "world" must either mean elect or non-elect, depending on your reading of the various contexts, since what he prays is always effectual and decretive. This is the old "contradiction within the Trinity" objection.

What you forget is that each person of the Trinity possesses all the properties of the Godhead (except those properties that properly distinguish them from one another), therefore each person has a decretive and preceptive distinction in their volitions. Jesus' prayers were always holy and righteous, and therefore were consistent with the Father's preceptive will. But we see him also submitting to the Father's ultimate decree as well (the secret will). Jesus and the Father could both pray for and wish for certain things that do not come to pass (according to the preceptive will), but what the Godhead has determined to come to pass will in fact come to pass (according to the decretive will). Each person of the Godhead desires our obedience, but they have not purposed that we shall always obey.

Exegetical and Theological Observations
NKJ John 17:9 "I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.
The idea of being "given" to Christ here (but not necessarily in all contexts) has to do with history and not eternity. Although it is true that the elect were decreed to be given to Christ from eternity, that is not the point of this passage. The disciples here were manifestly given or actually given to Christ when they believed. They were really, actually, or vitally united to him through faith. This is unity the passage is referring to. The preoccupation with eternal, pre-temporal decrees over what happens in time is typical of both High and Hyper-Calvinism. The focus of this passage is on what actually happens in time, with His disciples.

The proper distinction in John 17:9 with regard to the "world" and those "given" is not between non-elect and elect, as abstract classes, but between believers ("elect" in that sense) and non-believers (the "world"). Jesus could pray for things for believers that he could not pray for non-believers. The "world" in this context refers to that mass of lost humanity (made up of both elect and non-elect) who are in systematic opposition to God. They are hostile to God, abide under his wrath, and are under the sway of the wicked one. Even the elect, when they are in an unbelieving state, are in this category.
NKJ Ephesians 2:3: among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
Further, as Norman Douty (in For Whom Did Christ Die?) observes, Jesus did pray for the world indirectly. Douty says, "As a matter of fact, Christ indirectly prayed for the world in this same chapter: “that the world may believe that Thou didst send me” (v. 21); and “that the world may know that Thou didst send Me” (v. 23)." Douty also rightly remarks on this passage: "Christ’s actual intercession is not to be correlated with His provisional atonement, but only with His atonement as applied through faith. He prays, not for all for whom He provided atonement, but only for those who have received it."

The strange thing is that you will switch the meaning of "world" in these later verses (verses 21 and 23) to mean the elect, but in verse 9 you think it must mean the non-elect, because your system says so, not the text. I find it curious that the High's and Hyper's will have to change either the meaning of "world" (John Gill's move) or of "believe" (John Owen's move) in the surrounding verses. I think this exposes some of system-driven hermeneutics. For example, "world" in verse 9 they take to be functionally equivalent to the non-elect, but will then possibly (if they follow Gill) change it to mean elect in verse 21. If they do not follow that maneuver, they have to change the idea of "believe" in verse 21 to mean mere mental assent (or demon-like faith, so to speak, James 2:19) that brings judgement (Owen). This is also very awkward since they will take "believe" in verse 20 to mean an evangelical, or saving faith! There is either an equivocation on "world" (Gill) or "believe" (Owen) in the context in order to preserve a system.

My interpretation of "world" in this context is consistent. I take it to reference that mass of lost humanity still in sin and under the wrath of God, which is inclusive of both the unbelieving elect and the non-elect. They are all equally lost or "children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3). These lost humans are excluded from the special intercessions of Christ that pertain to believers alone since they are in unbelief.

C. K. Barrett, in his commentary on John's Gospel, observes:
It must be emphasized once more that John, having stated (3.16) the love of God for the κόσμος, does not withdraw from that position in favour of a narrow affection for the pious. It is clear (see especially v. 18) that in this chapter also there is in mind a mission of the apostolic church to the world in which men will be converted and attached to the community of Jesus. But to pray for the κόσμος would be almost an absurdity, since the only hope for the κόσμος is precisely that it should cease to be the κόσμος (see on 1.10)...

The world cannot be prayed for because, as the κόσμος, it has set itself outside the purpose of God. The disciples on the other hand belong to God as they do to Christ.
C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978), 506.

Leon Morris describes the situation in the same way:
He makes a distinction between the little band of disciples and the world. His prayer is not for "the world". This does not mean that "the world" is beyond God's love. Elsewhere we are specifically told that He loves it (3:16). And throughout this chapter it is plain that Jesus came with a mission to the world, and that the disciples were now to carry it on. A little later Jesus prays that the disciples may do certain things "that the world may believe..." (v. 21), and "that the world may know... (v. 23). The world is to be reached through the disciples and it is for His agents that Jesus prays. But He could scarcely pray for "the world" as such. As "the world" it was ranged in opposition to God. Its salvation lay precisely in its ceasing to be "the world". Prayer for the world could only be that it be converted and no longer be the world. But that would be a different prayer. We see it for example in His prayer for those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). Now He prays rather for the little group of His friends. Notice that they are again described in terms of their relationship to the Father. They have been "given" to Christ. They belong to the Father.

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