Jesus and Foreknowledge of Who Would Believe

Jesus, in declaring Himself as the Bread of Heaven who gives His life for the salvation of the world (John 6:32, 33, 35, 48, 50, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 58), concludes His speech: "'Yet there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus had known [ᾔδει] from the beginning [ἐξ ἀρχῆς] which of them did not believe and who would betray him." (John 6:64 NIV) Here we have a teaching by the apostle John of Jesus knowing actions (unbelief and betrayal), knowing before the actions occur, with the phrase "from the beginning." Let us continue reading.

John records further: "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." (John 6:66 NIV) Turning to His twelve disciples, Jesus asks, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" (John 6:67) To which they reply, through the words of Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68, 69) "Then Jesus said, 'I chose the twelve of you, but one is a devil.' He was speaking of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the Twelve, who would later betray him." (John 6:70-71 NLT, emphasis added) We can easily infer from this text that the referred-to election ("I chose, selected, elected, ἐξελεξάμην, the twelve of you") was not an unconditional election unto salvation, most notably due to Judas' betrayal and subsequent condemnation, or else Jesus miserably fails to save one of His unconditionally elect saints. Let us probe into the foreknowledge of Jesus.

The phrase ἀρχῆς, from the beginning, denotes a reference to time, in the same manner as do the references at Matthew 19:4, 8, ἀρχῆς, from the beginning; Matthew 24:21, ἀρχῆς, since the beginning; Mark 1:1, Ἀρχὴ, the beginning (of the gospel); John 1:1, 2, ἀρχῇ, in the beginning; John 8:44, ἀρχῆς, from the beginning; John 15:27, ἀρχῆς, from the beginning; and the most famous phrase, from Genesis 1:1, taken from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), ἐν ἀρχῇ, In the beginning. At John 6:64, we have the confession that Jesus foreknew "which from among them did not believe" in Him, as well as "who would [in the future] betray Him." After the twelve disciples restate their commitment to Jesus, He then confesses His election of them to be His followers, while also confessing that one among them is inspired of the devil.

I take the phrase "from the beginning" to refer to the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and His subsequent interactions with people, as some claim to believe in Him and commit to following Him. He is alone in prayer to His Father, all night nonetheless, and then the next day begins to summon disciples to mentor, to take along with Him in ministry, and to eventually send them out to make more disciples. (Luke 4:42; 5:1-11; Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:4-8) What, then, do we make of this foreknowledge? Does Jesus' foreknowledge determine reality or does (future) reality determine Jesus' knowledge?

The reason this question is raised is because of a very public promotion of a Calvinistic presupposition to the effect that God is not capable of foreknowing the future: If Jesus merely knows beforehand the unbelief and betrayal of individuals, without determining the same, then such individuals "are by default the sovereigns of the universe, since their wills and actions are ultimate; God becomes a mere servant of the creature, reacting rather than reigning."1 Is this Calvinistic argument accurate, logical, and biblical?

A similar complaint is forged by the Calvinist with regard to salvation: If God allows man to determine his own salvation then God is not sovereign; or, If salvation is determined by man's decision then man saves himself; or, An atonement provided for all is an atonement that actually saves no one in particular.2 These are not only inept arguments against orthodox Arminian or non-Calvinistic theology but are also a contorted narrative in Arminian soteriology. Though they have been answered in full, let me offer a brief response to each in turn: 1) God is the one who sovereignly saves the soul; no one contributes to the saving, regenerative act of the Spirit of God; 2) only God can determine who experiences salvation and He has elected to save the one who will, by grace, trust in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 2:16; Heb. 7:25); 3) that a provision of atonement is rendered and offered to all people in no logical or biblical sense whatsoever expunges a particular application of that atonement by grace through faith in Christ to the believer.


Only our triune God is sovereign. By "sovereign" we suggest a reference to God's governance of the entire universe, including a meticulous involvement of God within the hearts and minds of fallen mortals; God is sovereign over creation, cosmic events in the universe, weather on the earth, and the free actions of fallen mortals. He is not consigned to the exhaustive determining of all events, thoughts, spoken words or actions of all His creatures -- created in His image by His own design and plan -- in order to be considered sovereign. He freely allowed Adam to freely name all the animals. (Gen. 2:19, 20) Adam's freedom does not impugn the sovereignty of God. To suggest that God can only know the future by exhaustively and meticulously predetermining the future, as do Calvinists, is to belittle the sovereignty and almighty nature of God.

Moreover, if God can only know that which He has decreed to take place, then alleged author Samuel, from the book of the Bible bearing his name, is in error, from our perspective. When King Saul was pursuing David, rightful King of Israel, David inquired of the LORD as to whether or not the citizens of Keilah would surrender him to Saul, and if Saul was, in fact, headed toward the town. The LORD answered David, that Saul was coming toward the town, and that the people of Keilah would surrender him to Saul (1 Sam. 23:11, 12). "So David and his men ... left Keilah and kept moving from place to place." (1 Sam. 23:13) Hence God foreknew an event that never took place. But this is a logical impossibility if God can only know that which He has decreed to take place in history.

God's knowledge is exhaustive. Since, as infinite in being, He does not nor cannot learn, then He certainly does not "look down through the corridors of time" in order to gain knowledge of any event, even one's belief in Christ. Arminius insists that God's knowledge and foreknowledge is attributed to an inherent "simple and infinite intuition, according to the succession of order, and not of time."3 In other words, such exhaustive knowledge belongs to God by nature of His essence, or being, and is related to the creation-order4 and not by "peering forward" in time. God is not so weak or threatened by free (or freed) will that He must pre-plan all events in order to know them or be sovereign over them. His foreknowledge is exhaustive and His knowledge, like His sovereignty, is innate.

By this innate exhaustive knowledge, in the eternal mind of God, He knew each and every single person that should ever exist; and, according to Arminius and to Reformed Arminian theology, God innately knew such individuals as either believers or unbelievers before the creation of the universe. He did not learn about their state; before they were ever created, in the eternal mind of God, He viewed each individual in such a manner.5 The issue with Jesus, at John 6:64, is easier to assess, though, since the context demands a temporal (earth-time) and not an eternal (eternal-past) perspective.

Jesus, without causal predetermination, foreknew during His own lifetime, and from the beginning of His ministry and subsequent interactions with people, who really believed and who did not believe and who would betray Him. (John 6:64) If one suggests that this foreknowledge is causal, then we are forced to reinterpret the passage as follows, "'But there are some of you whom I have predetermined not to believe in Me.' For Jesus predetermined from the beginning who they were who should not believe, and who it was that should betray Him." Unfortunately, this is an example of the absurdities to which one is fated if one is to maintain even an attempt at being consistent with the Calvinist scheme.

There is, however, no need for such interpretive absurdities. When a text indicates that Jesus foreknew who would not believe, and who would betray Him, we can interpret such prima facie -- at face value. Hence, when we read that God foreknew His elect, we are not forced to such interpretive contortions of the nature and character of God as to imagine a Divine Being who has predetermined every thought, word, and action of every single person ever to exist, without qualification, including a notion that God cannot know the future without having predetermined every minutiae of our existence -- including our thoughts, words, and actions.6 Moreover, we can assume a vision of God's foreknowledge that maintains His sovereign nature, defending His divine and eternal intellect that possesses no need of "outside" knowledge (knowledge not derived from His own essence).

Furthermore, we are granted the privilege to proclaim a God who genuinely loves each person (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8), who sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die for each person (John 1:29; John 3:14, 15, 16, 17; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15), both of whom sent the Holy Spirit into the world to graciously convict each person of his or her sins, their inherent lack and desperate need of God's righteousness, and the future judgment (John 16:8, 9, 10, 11) -- the same Spirit who graciously enables inherently and totally depraved sinners to freely trust in Christ for the regenerative saving act of God (John 3:3, 5, 8; Rom. 2:5; Eph. 2:5, 8, 9; Titus 3:5). In other words, we can say what the Bible says, in the exact proverbial language that the authors of the Bible use. We are not forced to qualify or to absurdly reinterpret what the authors of the Bible teach regarding God, His knowledge, His actions, His decrees, His atonement, His grace, or His salvation.


1 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 56.

2 Ibid., 269.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XVII. On the Understanding of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:341.

4 "It appears that in order for there to be a stable created environment in which God and creation interact in a purposeful way, only two possibilities exists [really only one]. Either God determines everything, thus assuring the order of creation based on divine predetermination, or God provides for the suitable function of creation by establishing certain moral (internal) and physical (external) ordering consonant with man's power of moral choice. Determining all things necessarily eliminates man being made in God's image (God is not a determined being.)" Hence we are left with only one viable option for a biblical theodicy, having dismissed the other options of a greater-good theodicy, Molinism, and Open Theism, and that theodicy is creation-order. Bruce A. Little, A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2005), 162.

5 Arminius, Works, 2:64.

6 That God is said to have meticulously, exhaustively decreed from eternity past our thoughts, words, and actions is what we refer to as Calvinism 101. John Calvin and Calvinist-Charismatic Baptist Wayne Grudem insists as much in their works. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; see also, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.