In John 6, Jesus makes a number of startling claims. He’s in the middle of a dialogue with a crowd of Jewish people who were denying the claims he was making about himself. Specifically, they struggled to accept that he truly had “come down from heaven” (6:41-42). In response to their unbelief, Jesus says, among other things:
“Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out” (6:37).
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:44).
“He said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father'” (6:65).
Why does Jesus tell these people that only those who are drawn by the Father can come to him? Here I’ll do my best to briefly summarize two possible views on this topic.
Option 1: Unconditional, Individual Election
Here’s one way we could interpret Christ’s statements: We could see John 6 as teaching that God already decided (unconditionally) that certain people would believe and be saved — and only those people will come to Jesus. Calvinist interpreters, in particular, look to John 6 as a foundational passage for this doctrine of unconditional election. On this reading, people only choose to believe in Jesus because God the Father, before time began, predestined them to do so. And then, at some point during their earthly life, he draws them irresistibly to Jesus.
Among the details in the passage that might support such a reading are: 1) the intense emphasis on the inability of many in Jesus’ audience to accept his teaching, 2) the fact that Jesus’ words focus on individuals, and 3) the Greek term for “draw” (helkō), which in many contexts refers to a strong action like drawing in a net of fish (John 21:11) or actually dragging someone (Acts 16:19).
On the other hand, reading John 6 as a timeless affirmation of unconditional election does involve a few difficulties. One is the fact that elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that every person’s eternal destiny will be based on whether or not they choose to put their faith in him (John 3:18; 5:24). Another is the question of how the “drawing” in John 6 relates to Jesus’ “drawing” (same Greek word) of all people in John 12:32.
We’re also told in John 3:16 that God loves the whole world (specifically referring, in John’s writings especially, to the world of unbelieving humanity). Holding to a doctrine of unconditional election raises the difficult question of how exactly God’s love extends to the unbelievers he chooses not to draw.
There have, of course, been numerous thoughtful answers to these questions by Calvinist scholars. Many of them point out that no one would choose salvation unless God first overpowered their rebellious wills, and that his decision to leave some in their sins is to display his just wrath against sin. This is all so that salvation is completely by God’s grace.
Option 2: The Drawing of Faithful Jews to Jesus as Their Messiah
Another way we could interpret John 6 is to see it as describing a unique situation in history — namely, the transfer of faithful Israelites under the Mosaic Covenant to their newly-arrived Messiah, Jesus. On this view, the people whom the Father was drawing to Jesus on that particular occasion were those Jewish people who were already faithfully responding to God’s revelation through the Torah and the Prophets.
Right after Jesus says that no one can come to him unless the Father draws them (6:44), he immediately gives an explanation of what he means: “It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to me ” (6:45, emphasis added).
Notice the parallel: the Father’s action of drawing people to Jesus is tied to the people’s action of heeding the words of the prophets. So the way Jesus himself explains it, God had already been preparing his people for their Messiah through the proclamation of his word. Those who were being drawn were those who were heeding what the Spirit of God was saying through the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus.
The problem is, not everyone in Israel was responsive; the majority were not receptive at all. But there was a faithful remnant — we see this exemplified in the disciples (well, except for Judas!) who remained with Jesus because they understood he had “the words of eternal life” and believed (6:68).
This minority of faithful Jews were the ones the Father drew to their Messiah. He ensured that no one who was responsive to his word missed out on its fulfillment in Jesus. Thus, when we read John 6, we shouldn’t see Jesus as offering philosophical speculations about eternity past; rather, he was addressing the issue of how only those who were receptive to the Father under the Old Covenant would be receptive to their promised Messiah, Jesus, now that he was finally on the scene.
John’s Gospel in particular is concerned with the question, “Now that the Messiah has come, why did so many Jewish people reject him?” This is a very important topic for John, as he makes clear in his prologue: “he [Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). On the other hand, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12).
With the arrival of Messiah, a massive shift in history was taking place. God was drawing the faithful remnant of Jews to their Messiah. Related to the salvation of the believing remnant of Israel was the full inclusion of Gentiles, too, into God’s community. This is why Jesus later stresses that he has “other sheep that are not of this fold,” and he “must bring them also” (10:16). This refers to God-fearing Gentiles — those who, like the remnant of Israel, were already being taught by the Father and learning from him through the Jewish Scriptures.
Later on in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he will draw “all people” to himself when he is “lifted up” (12:32). In other words, through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, the drawing activity of God through his Word/Messiah would be radically extended to include the entire Gentile world (see also the “mystery” Paul refers to in Ephesians 3:1-13). 
In my opinion, this view does a better job of situating Jesus’ teaching firmly within its first-century Jewish context, and better accounts for how John’s Gospel describes the seismic salvation-historical shift that took place in Jesus’ ministry. That’s not to say it’s unquestionably the right view — one could still debate whether God decreed that the remnant would be receptive to the word, and of course other passages that touch on election/predestination have to be considered. But it does mean that John 6 can be faithfully interpreted in a way that coheres with a conditional view of election, without doing injustice to the text.
No matter which of these two views you end up taking, they both affirm that God is the one who has made salvation possible — a salvation found only by his grace through Jesus Christ. Faithful Christians can (and should) continue to test their interpretations against Scripture, and hold those interpretations with a gracious and humble attitude.
Obviously, discussion about the interpretation of John 6 will continue. But I know that some people in my particular circles (within American evangelicalism) have only ever been exposed to Calvinist readings of John 6, so at the very least I hope this post will present a viable alternative they may not have considered.
What do you think? Which reading do you prefer, and why? Are there some aspects of the alternative view that you hadn’t considered? Let me know in the comments.
I close with this nice quote from Gerald Borchert’s commentary on John:
“Salvation is never achieved apart from the drawing power of God, and it is never consummated apart from the willingness of humans to hear and learn from God. To choose one or the other will ultimately end in unbalanced, unbiblical theology. . . . Rather than resolving the tension, the best resolution is learning to live with the tension and accepting those whose theological commitments differ from ours.” 
For more on the topic of election/predestination, check out my previous posts:
– Calvinism & Arminianism: What I Wish Everyone Knew About the Debate
– Recommended Resources on Calvinism & Arminianism
See you down the path.
 This statement in John 12 cautions against seeing the “drawing” activity of God as something that leads irresistibly to salvation, since not everyone among the Gentiles will inevitably be saved.
 Gerald L. Borchert, John 1-11, NAC vol 25A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 268-69.