A Quick Word Study from John 6:44

This brother over at The Everyday Christian is working his way through the TULIP tenets and, in his discussion of Unconditional Election, he mentions that he is wrestling with John 6:44. This verse is often discussed in this context, specifically because of the (English) word draws. To draw someone or something in English implies either an attraction or a compulsion in the form of forcibly pulling the object toward a target location. To derive meaning from our Bible, especially where there can be multiple meanings, we must turn to the original Greek.

Here is the verse in English:

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. (NIV)

And now in Greek:

οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐλθεῖν πρός με ἐὰν μὴ ὁ πατὴρ ὁ πέμψας με ἑλκύσῃ αὐτόν, κἀγὼ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ.

And here is the Greek with the English translation beneath it:

οὐδεὶς    δύναται      ἐλθεῖν πρός με ἐὰν μὴ ὁ     πατὴρ ὁ    πέμψας με                ἑλκύσῃ            αὐτόν, κἀγὼ

No one  can [to]      come    to me unless         Father       having sent me      should draw        him     and I

ἀναστήσω       αὐτὸν    ἐν τῇ     ἐσχάτῃ    ἡμέρᾳ.

Will raise up   him       in the     last         day

The word we are most interested in is helkō.  [Kittel – Theological Dictionary of the New Testament] The basic meaning is to draw, tug, or in the case of persons, compel. The Semitic world has the concept of an irresistible drawing to God ( ie: Hos 9:7)  Here it expresses the force of love. This is the point in the two important passages in John 6:44 and 12:32. There is no thought here of force. The term figuratively expresses the supernatural power of the love of God or Christ which goes out to all but without which no one can come. The apparent contradiction shows that both the election and the universality of grace must be taken seriously; the compulsion is not automatic.

[Bauer: Danker – A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature] Bauer lists three meanings:

  1. To move an object from one area to another in a pulling motion – draw with implication that the object being moved is incapable of propelling itself or in the case of persons is unwilling to do so voluntarily, in either case with implication of exertion on the part of the mover (cf: James 2:6, Acts 21:30)
  2. To draw a person in the direction of values for inner life. This is the usage in John 6:44 and 12:32 – Well testified outside of NT
  3. To appear to be pulled in a certain direction

[Louw-Nida – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains] LN leans toward the use of force, but there is little testimony about alternative usage.

My purpose here is not to reinforce my chosen interpretation of this key word in the verse. Theologically, we must place this word into its immediate context, the context of the book of John, and then the New Testament as a whole in order to decide which of the possible translations is most appropriate. In this verse, the theologian is faced with this question: does God draw persons to himself by force or does He move them toward himself by His love?

Updated 08/21/07:

See this brother’s discussion of this important verse in the post “Does John 6:44 Teach Irresistible Grace?

8 thoughts on “A Quick Word Study from John 6:44”

  1. Pastor Warren,

    Thank you for the Greek word study on draw. One day I am going to have to begin learning Koine Greek.

    The question that comes to mind is why do the English translators not use the word compel? Seems that would be a clearer representation of the original meaning of the text.

    Thanks again

  2. Glad you found it helpful. Your question is interesting and one I did not think of. There are other words for drawing in (as in fishing nets) and yet this same word can find its way into that context as well.

  3. I’m inclined to believe that God ‘compels’ the elect to come to Christ (as in the parable of the Wedding Banquet Mt 22), but I am not of the belief that God forces people to come – in other words, that the Spirit drags people kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God against their wills, or that God somehow believes ‘for us’ – we actually ‘do’ the faith, if that makes sense. I think that upon regeneration we are compeled to come to Christ because of the love and mercy provided.

  4. This is great, working through these things like this.

    A couple of observations. Though BDAG is the standard in many ways, when one looks at the various uses of elko in contemporary Jewish literature, you do find the suggestion of force if not the outright statement of it. In Acts it is used forcefully. Obviously the John 12:32 use appears to be very clear in its assertion of the inefficacy of Jesus’ ability to draw, but only if we say that it always means or always doesn’t mean force, which in many contemporary works is does and doesn’t. For instance, Josephus uses it when something is being weighed, gravity pulling it down. This is neither against the will or commensurate with the will of the object for the object has no will in this matter. Several of Philo’s uses of it are quite graphic in illustrating force. As well there are a variety of uses of it in the LXX, in the various Maccabees some are as coordinated as a general bringing along his forces and some as forceful as the same general dragging the prisoners.

    So the word is flexible, and I think that to say that it never means to force is overstating the matter a bit.

  5. I realized after thinking about it that though elko is important to Sproul, it seems as though the oudeis is quite comprehesive and just as important in proper interpretation fo this pericope, if not more important. Even if the form of elko here has no sense of force to it, which again I think is an unwarranted conclusion, the introductory pronoun seems to highlight the fact that, without elkusae (even a nice, enticing elkusae), oudeis comes to the Father.

    Just thought of that while looking at the rest of the passage.

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