Having launched a full frontal assault on the traditional Reformed reading of Jn 6, Paul Owen continues his assault with a follow-up attack on Jn 10.
Notice the emerging pattern. Reformed theology is no better than Reformed exegesis. Calvinism rises and falls on exegetical theology. I don’t mean that Calvinism has to get it right on every single verse. But Calvinism has a hermeneutical take on how to approach certain passages. There is more to Calvinism than Reformed theology. There is also a Reformed theological method which supplies the theology.
Reformed theological method is founded on taking certain blocks of Scripture like Exod 4, 7; Isa 40-48; Jn 6, 9-12, 17; Rom 1-11, Eph 1-2, and Gal 1-4 as a framing device. If you want to dismantle Reformed theology, the way to do it would be to dismantle this hermeneutical framework.
Now, the issue here is not whether someone has the right to critique Reformed theology. Calvinism is fair game. Let them take their best shot. We don’t expect to get a free pass.
But there are two especially insidious features in Dr. Owen attack: on the one hand, he’s pretending to be something he is not. On the other hand, he is redefining Calvinism to co-opt Calvinism for his own cause and evict those who subscribe to traditional Reformed theology and traditional Reformed theological method.
Dr. Owen has gone into business for himself. But he wants to retain the old trademark.
Critics like to make snide remarks about the “truly Reformed,” but there is such a thing as the truly Reformed, just as there is such a thing as truly Lutheran: WELS and LCMS are truly Lutheran, while the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation are not.
To draw this distinction is not to take sides or render a value-judgment on who’s right and who’s wrong. But theological traditions, precisely because they’re traditions, have certain boundaries. An amil cannot be a fundamentalist. A theocrat cannot be an Anabaptist. A paedobaptist cannot be a Baptist.
1. Who are Christ’s sheep? Clearly, they are those who belong to his flock, the Church. The term “sheep” is not normally used in the Bible to describe a particular group of people who are secretly predestined to glory, but with respect to the entire people of God. When Jesus commissions Peter to be the shepherd of his sheep in John 21:16, 17, he is not telling him to shepherd only the elect, but the whole Church of God.
i) There is a contrast, in Jn 10, between the sheep and the goats (v26). So Jesus is using the term to designate a particular group, as over against those who “do not believe because they don’t belong to the flock.”
ii) The Good Shepherd discourse was addressed to the OT covenant community. It is targeting Jewish unbelievers (vv1,10,22-42) in contrast to Messianic Jews (vv1-21). So it does not apply to the covenant community as a whole. To the contrary, ethnic Jews who don’t follow Jesus are excluded from the flock. Indeed, his very discourse provokes a division within the audience (vv19-21).
iii) A mark of the sheep is that they follow the Good Shepherd (vv3-6,27). They are graced with spiritual discernment. This sets them apart from nominal believers.
iv) There is a reciprocal relation between the sheep who know the shepherd and the shepherd who knows his sheep (vv14,27). This does not exist in the case of the reprobate.
v) The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name (v3). This is not corporate election.
vi) The Good Shepherd dies for the flock (vv11,15). Dr. Owen’s interpretation entails a denial of special redemption. As he would have it, Christ dies for the sheep and the goats alike.
vii) The Good Shepherd grants eternal life to the sheep (vv10,28). The Good Shepherd does not grant eternal life to the reprobate.
viii) The Father and the Son preserve the sheep from apostasy (vv28-29). This is not true of the reprobate.
ix) Did St. Peter shepherd the whole church of God? Did the entire church terminate once Peter was martyred in the seventh decade of the 1C?
In view of the parallels between 20:21-23 and 21:16-17, is it not sounder to see in this commission an evangelistic outreach to the future church (16:8-11; 20:21)? The missionary niche would not be the visible church, per se, but those given by the Father to the Son (chap. 17).
So Christ’s sheep are those to whom the grace is given to be brought to believe in Christ and enter the Church. This is precisely the point of verse 27. Others are outwardly called, but do not receive the special call of the Spirit which results in conversion. Only this latter group constitutes Christ’s sheep. So what Jesus is saying in verse 26 is that some do not believe, because they do not belong to that number to whom it is granted to enter the Church through faith in Christ. It is the same point as was made earlier in 6:44.
The group in v27 are not sheep, do not belong to the flock. Hence, the term in Jn 10 does not designate the visible church in toto.
2. But does this mean that none of Christ’s sheep can ever perish? Verse 28 certainly appears to say so, but only if one isolates this promise from the entirety of John’s gospel. If one reads verse 28 within the broader picture of Johannine soteriology, it becomes clear that: 1) some of those who come to be “in Christ” (15:2) later fall away and are destroyed (15:6); 2) some of those to whom it is granted by the Father (6:65) to believe in Christ (8:31) later fall away (6:70); and 3) some of those who are given to Christ by the Father later fall away (17:12). So the promise of John 10:28 is clearly a conditional promise, which assumes the perseverance of the saints (a perseverance which is not in fact given to all of Christ’s sheep, but only those secretly predestined to glory).
i) Dr. Owen is propping up one false interpretation with another by building on his false interpretation of Jn 15, which I’ve already dissected.
ii) The promise is conditional, but the assurance is not, for the point of vv28-29 is that to be a sheep is to be blessed with the grace of perseverance. That’s part of the package.
3. So does this amount to an agreement with Arminianism? By no means. For most modern Arminians, the grace which precedes faith is only a pre-regeneration, assisting grace, which any person can choose to reject, or cooperate with. In my view, it is the grace of initial regeneration which brings people to faith, though this faith may or may not be permanent. This grace is not universally given, but is only given: 1) to the secret number of the elect; and 2) to others who also belong to the open number of the elect, and to whom, in the providence of God, the grace is given to “taste” the benefits of Christ’s redemption for a season, though such benefits are in the secret council of God purchased for the eternal benefit of those who are secretly predestined to glory.
i) Pay close attention to what Dr. Owen is saying here. You can be regenerate and still be lost. This runs counter to the doctrines of grace.
ii) Contrary to Dr. Owen, you don’t need prevenient grace to be a nominal believer. That’s something the natural man can do in the flesh.
Let us take stock of where we stand. In order for Dr. Owen to expand and extend the promises to the visible church, he must deny classic Reformed prootexts for election, special redemption, and perseverance.
That’s the price you pay for the Federal Vision. At his spiritual inflation rate, everyone is a millionaire in Confederate currency.