The Shepherd and the Sheep: Christ as Total Savior in John 10


In Christ's parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10, He instructs us very simply and clearly concerning salvation by grace. It is He, the Good Shepherd, Who does all things necessary for our salvation, for He knows that we have nothing to contribute. Christ is total Saviour; His work is a complete work.

There are five things, in particular, which I would like to draw attention to in this analogy of the Shepherd and the sheep.

The condition of man

But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you.
[John 10:26]

Jesus does not beat around the bush concerning the plight of man. Those outside of Him cannot believe. They do not come to the light, because their deeds are evil; indeed, they love darkness and hate the light (Jn. 3:19-20).

The Bible teaches that man is totally depraved. This does not mean that he is as bad as he can be; nor that none of his works are outwardly moral. Rather, it means that man is estranged from God in every facet of his being. He is corrupted and therefore incapable of true righteousness. We are "by nature children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). This deadness does not mean that we are unable to will anything at all. Rather, it means that we are unable to will anything righteous. So Paul says that we were slaves to sin, but "free" from righteousness (Rom. 6:20).

There are those who say that the doctrine of free grace denies the doctrine of free will. There is indeed a sense in which this is true: man cannot will anything which God does not also will, since the Bible says, "Whatever God pleases He does" (Ps.135:6). God works all things according to the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11).

Yet, in another sense, the doctrine of free grace in no way compromises human free will. The fact is, man is not compelled by anything outside of himself to will only evil. He wills only evil because that is what is in his heart.

Suppose we put a bowl of cockroaches in front of you. Would you eat them? No? Not even once in ten opportunities? I don't think you would. But does this mean, then, that you don't have any free will to exercise, whether you will choose to eat the cockroaches or not? Nonsense! It simply means that it is against your nature to desire the taste of cockroaches.1 If your will could overrule your nature, we would not call it freedom, but insanity.

Even as you are repulsed by cockroaches, so man is repulsed by God. It is against his fallen nature to love Him (Rom. 8:7). As Jesus said, a bad tree cannot bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17-18). God has shown Himself to man, but because God's goodness is foreign to man, he pushes the knowledge of God away (Rom. 1:18-21).

So God judges that man's every intent and thought is continually evil (Gen. 6:5; 8:21).

The freeness of grace

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
[John 10:16]

Christ saw and loved His sheep, while they were still Gentiles, without hope, without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). Even while they were lost and outside of His fold, He had set His purposes upon them, that He would make them His own.

The Bible teaches that God elects men to salvation unconditionally. This does not mean, however, that God saves people and leaves them in their sins, unconcerned about their conduct. It does mean that we are chosen by God, not on the basis of what we deserve, nor by an act of our will, but only by the free choice of God. Here is where we must admit a sense in which man does not have free will. As indicated earlier, man does not have free will in the ultimate sense; although he wills things freely according to his own nature, he can never will and accomplish something which God has not first willed.

God does not freely save and then leave people in their sins: "by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8-10).

Notice several things. Faith is the means by which grace saves us - and yet this whole thing is credited to God. Faith is not something which is just sitting in us waiting to be used; it is a gift. And we are not saved because of our works, or else we would boast, giving ourselves the credit. But we are saved for the purpose of doing good works. Works are the cart that follows the horse of grace. The cart cannot pull the horse; likewise, neither are good works the basis by which we obtain grace.

We are not saved, then, by our works, nor by our faith. But isn't it all dependent on our will? John answered that: those who received Christ were born, "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn. 1:12-13). Paul explains election by pointing to Jacob and Esau. God, before the children were even born, said, "The elder shall serve the younger." He said this before they were born for the very reason that He wanted to show that God's purpose stands on election (that is, His own choosing), rather than on works (Rom. 9:11-12). Even more strongly, Paul writes, "So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16). He calls God the potter and man mere clay with no right to reply against God (Rom. 9:20-21).

Does God save men against their own will, then? Not at all. Rather, when His grace comes, man's will is itself changed: "for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Phi. 2:13).

This unconditional election is above all good news. We all deserve hell. We have already talked about the natural condition of fallen man. A grace that comes in spite of us, not because of us, is good news indeed. This is why Paul blesses, or praises, God when he talks about how the Father chose us before the foundation of the world, "having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (Eph. 1:4-5). It is a cause for rejoicing that we are "predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11), for of our own accord we would never have come to life.

The specific aim of the cross

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep . . . . As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep . . . . Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.
[John 10:11, 15, 17-18]

Jesus lays down His life for the sheep. He did not die to make salvation possible for all, but to make salvation certain for His sheep.

The Bible teaches that the atonement (the work of the cross that makes man and God friendly in their relationship) is aimed at a particular group of beings. This is very offensive to many. They say God would be unjust if He did not give His gifts universally. This is nonsense; God owes man nothing. Man deserves hell and it is only God's great goodness that anyone can be saved.

But all evangelicals admit that the work of the cross is not universal, anyway. The Bible says, "For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham" (Heb. 2:16). The angels who fell with Satan are not offered the benefits of salvation through the cross; therefore, atonement is not universal. Moreover, the aid in question is His atoning death (v. 14), and the object is not humanity in general, but "the seed of Abraham," those who are "of faith" (Gal. 2:7) - a faith which God Himself must supply (Eph. 2:8).

Just before He went to His death, Christ offered His High Priestly prayer. This prayer was totally tied to what Jesus was about to accomplish with His death. And what did He pray? He prayed for those whom the Father had given Him out of the world. He said, "I pray for them. I do not pray for the world, but for those whom You have given Me, for they are yours" (Jn. 17:6-9).

People protest that this limits the work of the cross. However, they themselves severely limit the work of the cross. They say it is universal, but that nonetheless it is, at least in theory, possible that all men would still go to hell. In other words, Christ's death could have been wasted.

To the contrary, the work of Christ accomplishes its purpose; it is not biblical to say that man can thwart the work of God. Christ's death was a payment for sin. If I go to city hall, and pay everybody's outstanding fines, then they are no longer liable for them. They can no longer be punished for withholding payment.

In His cross, Christ definitively paid for sin. If He paid for all men, then all men will be saved. But that is not the case. "God commended his love toward us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. How much more, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from wrath through Him" (Rom. 5:8-9). It was in Christ's death that God's people were reconciled to God (brought into fellowship with Him), and that reconciliation necessarily means certain salvation (Rom. 5:10). Christ laid down His life for the sheep, and it was not a wasted effort. It was effective - but for the sheep, not the goats.

The unstoppable power of grace

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
[John 10:27]

Unlike the Pharisees, who were not of Christ's sheep, and therefore did not believe Him, Christ's sheep hear Him and follow Him. Given what we have seen concerning the nature of fallen man, this can only be explained by a work of God in their hearts. Instead of suppressing the truth, as men are prone to do, the sheep are "given an understanding," that they "may know Him who is true" (1 Jn. 5:20).

The Bible teaches that God's grace is irresistible. This does not mean that man will not attempt to resist it. Nor does it mean that grace will do everything all at once, saving a man the first time he ever hears the Gospel. But it does mean that when God elects someone, He will most certainly save him. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me . . . . no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (Jn. 6:37, 44). Paul writes with certainty, "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son . . . whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Rom. 8:29-30). (It should be noted that foreknowledge is not inactive, like a mere insight of the future; it is active. God saw us before the foundation of the world, and loved us, electing us to life.)

All whom God elects, by His unstoppable Spirit of grace, He takes all the way to complete salvation.

The certain end of God's elect

And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand.
[John 10:28-29]

Jesus gives His sheep eternal life. They will never perish - that is, they will never lose that life. No one and nothing can remove them from Christ's hand or His Father's. Nothing can separate the sheep from the love of God (Rom. 8:31-39).

Christ bases these statements upon the fact that the Father "is greater than all." Thus, the question of whether or not salvation is eternal depends on who is ultimate. Christ argues that the Father is "greater than all;" therefore, the life given to the sheep is eternal. To say that the life is not certain in its "eternality" is to imply that God is not greater than all others. The security of the sheep is entirely founded upon the sovereignty of an almighty loving Father.

This all leads to one obvious conclusion: the Bible teaches the ultimate perseverance of the saints. This does not mean that the elect never sin, or even sin greatly. Nor does it mean that since God has already saved them, He now does not care about their conduct. Rather, it means that although they will most certainly stumble, God's children will come through this life and pass into the next as true believers. This is the meaning of eternal life. If the salvation of the elect can be taken away, it is most certainly not eternal life. And so Jesus says that He will cast out none that the Father gives Him; for "the will of the Father" is "that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day" (Jn. 6:37-39). Notice that Jesus takes responsibility for this. If the elect are not raised in glory with Christ, it means that Jesus has lost His people, against the will of the Father. This cannot happen.

Hear Christ's words again: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (Jn. 10:28). There is absolutely nothing which can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:31-39). As Paul argues so well, if Christ died for us while we were still worthless sinners, how much more will He complete His own work in us once we have been already brought to Him (Rom. 5:6-10)! Christ died to save us, and no man can stop Him from accomplishing that.

It will be granted that such a brief treatment cannot answer every objection satisfactorily. But it is hoped that this will serve to be an understandable, positive introduction to the doctrine of free grace, and will demonstrate that this truth is a source of great comfort and hope for the people of God, who are the sheep of His hand.

How does all this relate to freedom and responsibility? See my brief article, Covenant and Election.


1 Thanks to Douglas Wilson of Credenda Agenda for this wonderfully graphic analogy.

— Tim Gallant

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