Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on John 1:6-13.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:9).
Some have taken the final statement in this verse as an argument against the doctrine of fallen man’s total depravity and his spiritual inability (as in Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:10-12). It has been used by Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians to argue that men have, by nature, the spiritual ability or capacity to choose to believe in God. Some Arminians, like John Wesley, spoke about prevenient grace that comes to all men, before any ever believe. Do they have a point?
Let’s look at how John Calvin interpreted this verse in his commentary. He said there are two possibilities:
First, it may be that the “every man” here refers to “every elect man” or “every saved man” (cf. v. 7). It is restricted, therefore, to those renewed by God’s Spirit and who have become “partakers of the life-giving light.” Calvin takes an example from Augustine, who said there might be a town with one schoolmaster. And that schoolmaster might be called by those who live there “the teacher of all,” even though there are many who do not go to his school. “All” can thus be used in a restricted manner.
Second (and Calvin thinks this option more likely), it might be referring in a more general way to “the peculiar excellence” which raises men above other earthly creatures. So, it refers to the fact that men have, by nature, “reason and intelligence, and that they carry the distinction between right and wrong engrave on their consciences.”
Some wrongly interpret Calvin and Reformed theology’s doctrine of total depravity as teaching that the fall of man has completely obliterated the image of God in man. But that is not what Calvin taught or what Reformed theology holds. Calvin wrote in his commentary on John 1:5 that though in his corrupted and degenerate state man’s light has been turned into darkness, still “amidst the thick darkness of the human mind, some remaining sparks of the brightness still shine.”
But Calvin was no Wesley. Men are not sub-human monsters, but this does not mean that they have adequate spiritual light to experience anything of salvation apart from God’s grace.
But as there are fanatics who rashly strain and torture this passage [John 1:9], so as to infer from it that the grace of illumination is equally offered to all, let us remember that the only subject treated here is the common light of nature, which is far inferior to faith; for never will any man, by all the acuteness and sagacity of his own mind, penetrate into the kingdom of God. It is the Spirit of God alone who opens the gate of heaven to the elect.
Next, let us remember that the light of reason which God implanted in men has been so obscured by sin, that amidst the thick darkness, and shocking ignorance, and gulf of errors, there are hardly a few shining sparks that are not utterly extinguished.
Earlier, in his comments on v. 5 he wrote:
Hence it follows that there is no hope of salvation of men, unless God grant new aid; for though the Son of God sheds his light upon them, they are so dull that they do not comprehend whence that light proceeds, but are carried away by foolish and wicked imaginations to absolute madness.
Even what might seem positive, that bit of remaining light, can degenerate, Calvin says, in unsaved men, “into a thousand monsters of superstition.”
I think it fair to say that Calvin’s overall point on the proper interpretation of v. 9 is that it must be understood in harmony with all of Scripture. What John says here does not contradict what Paul says in Romans 3. God’s word is not contradictory and irrational, because God himself is not contradictory or irrational. Man can only be saved by God’s grace alone.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle
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