When exploring the topic of eternal security, one of the primary passages used to defend and describe the security of the believer is John 10:27-30. In Christian Theology, Millard Erickson writes (page 1003):
Jesus’ words in John 10:27-30 constitute a powerful declaration of security. … Jesus is categorically excluding the slightest chance of an apostasy by his sheep. … All in all, this passage is as definite a rejection of the idea that a true believer can fall away as could be given.
Charles Stanley, in Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure, agrees (page 18):
Think about it. If our salvation is not secure, how could Jesus say about those to whom He gives eternal life, “and they shall never perish” (John 10:28)? If even one man or woman receives eternal life and then forfeits it through sin or apostasy, will they not perish? And by doing so, do they not make Jesus’ words a lie?
Is that the case?
The Big Picture
Our passage does not occur in a vacuum. The context in which it appears is part of a larger narrative in chapters 9 and 10.
In John 9:1 we read that “as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth”. The rest of that chapter describes how this blind man is healed by Jesus and then challenged by the Pharisees. The point of the narrative can be found in this banter between the blind man and the Pharisees (9:29-33):
[The Pharisees insulted him saying,] “We know that God has spoken to Moses! We do not know where this man comes from!”
The man replied, “This is a remarkable thing, that you don’t know where he comes from, and yet he caused me to see! … If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
The question put to the reader is: who is this Jesus who heals the blind? In the dialogue that follows, Jesus uses an analogy of entering a sheepfold to explain who He is to the Pharisees but they do not understand. He attempts to expand on this idea in two different ways comparing himself to the door of the sheepfold and to a good shepherd.
The narrative centering around the man born blind finishes in 10:21. Here we read that after their encounter with the blind man and Jesus the Pharisees are divided. Some conclude that Jesus has a demon, while others wrestle with how that could be. Surely “a demon cannot cause the blind to see, can it?”
John’s Gospel shifts in verse 10:22 to another scene in which Jesus is walking in the Temple. However, the focus remains the same. The question Jesus and the reader are being asked is: are you the Christ? It is in reply to this question that we have our passage regarding security.
My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand.
Who is going to be given eternal life? Who cannot be snatched from the hand of Jesus?
While the characters in the narrative may be different, the the literary flow expects the reader to catch the analogy of sheep being carried over from the narrative about the blind man. Jesus is using imagery that is common in the Old Testament.
When Jesus is telling them that He is the Good Shepard who will not abandon His sheep but instead will lay down His life for them, He was answering their question. He was telling all who would hear that He was the Messiah.
The context and the theme of the book (John 20:31) is telling people that Jesus is the Messiah. Any who place their faith in Him will become part of His flock and be saved.
In 10:27-30 there is an emphasis on the promise to the faithful sheep that their Shepherd cares for them and will protect them – unlike the Pharisees who are supposed to be shepherding the people.
In this passage Jesus uses a double negative followed by an aorist subjunctive when He says “they will never perish”. Erickson (and other commentators and Greek grammars) says that this construct is providing an emphatic denial. Jesus is saying that it is impossible for His sheep to perish.
Jesus also tells us that no one can forcefully take a sheep from His hand.The word translated “seize” or “snatch” carries the idea of being forcefully taken against one’s will (Matt 12:29; 13:19; John 6:15; Acts 23:10). No one and nothing can separate us from God against our will. God is too strong to allow that to occur. His promise to save those who believe in His Son cannot be broken.This is a great and comforting promise to us.
Those who are given eternal life and will not perish nor be seized from the hand of Christ are His sheep. These sheep are described as those who:
- listen to Jesus’ voice
- are known by Jesus
- follow Jesus
The verbs in this passage (listen, know, and follow) are all in the present tense, active voice, and indicative mood. Indicative verbs in the present tense capture a state or action that is considered on-going or progressive from the point of view of the speaker.
When Jesus is describing His sheep it is those who are actively listening to Him and currently following Him. He is not describing sheep who listened and followed Him in the past but now may or may not have gone astray. He is describing those who have an enduring faith.
Evaluating the Views
In the Apostasy Vortex we examined three common views related to apostasy. The table from that post is shown below.
|#||View||Enduring Faith||Eternal Security||Description|
|(1)||Forfeit Salvation||Y||N||A person can be genuinely saved and later commit apostasy resulting in forfeiting their salvation.|
|(2)||Professing Faith||Y||Y||A person who professes faith in Christ but later commits apostasy has shown that they were never truly saved.|
|(3)||Free Grace||N||Y||A person who professes faith in Christ but later commits apostasy is still guaranteed eternal life. They have only forfeited rewards.|
Jesus’ promise to His sheep can be used to support two of these three views.
When Erickson says “Jesus is categorically excluding the slightest chance of an apostasy by his sheep” he may be overstating what is taught in this passage. This passage does not tell us whether a sheep can commit apostasy or not. The context and the grammar do not rule out the possibility that sheep can leave the flock by willfully choosing to reject Christ.
What this passage explicitly tells us is that a secure sheep is one who has enduring faith.
It may also be true that genuine sheep will endure in their faith and thus never perish nor be taken. The sheep who does not endure in faith and commits apostasy would never have been a sheep to begin with (view #2).
However it is also possible to hold the view that sheep can willfully reject Christ and leave the flock and thus perish having believed in vain (view #1). Nothing in this passage precludes this. Nor would this invalidate Jesus’ promise. The promise to never perish is made to sheep who have enduring faith.
What seems clear is that this passage does not teach us is that sheep who do commit apostasy are still secure (view #3). There is no indication that a sheep that no longer listens or follows Jesus should consider themselves securely in His hand. Anyone who can no longer be described as having enduring faith should not assume that they will be given eternal life because of a fleeting profession.
All passages taken from the NET Bible