This is a popular text that I believe is a great starting point in the discussion of God’s effectual work. It is in the Gospel of John 6:44.
I was talking about this verse with someone last night. And I pointed to this verse to help this person understand why I held the view that man has no ability to come to God on his own. That is another way of saying that man possesses an “inability”. The person challenged my understanding of the verse so now I would respond at length to demonstrate that if you want to hold to a view of Prevenient Grace or that all humanity possess an ability, this isn’t the place to look.
First we look at this in the Greek: John 6:44 οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐλθεῖν πρός με ἐὰν μὴ ὁ πατὴρ ὁ πέμψας με ἑλκύσῃ
αὐτόν,κἀγὼἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ.
translated in the ESV as John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. The word addressing ability in this text is the word δύναται dynatai, “can”. It is the present middle indicative, 3person singular of dunamai “to be able”.
Dunamai is one of those words that first year greek students learn rather quickly. It’s not everywhere but it is a high frequency verb. The definition in BDAG, “to possess capability (whether because of personal or external factors) for experiencing or doing something, can, am able, be capable.”It looks like a quick and shut case. But this can be detailed out a little more.
DA Carson’s commentary The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary) writes that the thought of v. 44 is the negative counterpart to v. 37a. (John 6:37 ESV All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.) In one sense v.37 says that all that the Father gives to the Son will come. But in v.44 Jesus clarifies that no-one “can” come unless there is an action that happens to them. This action is the drawing of the Father. Carson rightly concludes that this proves the “drawing” of the Father cannot be reduced to what is referred to as prevenient grace (a grace that is dispensed to every individual). It is a selective process. A drawing not to all persons but to all people. Not to every individual but without distinction of ethnicity to every tribe and language.
Leon Morris in his commentary The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) notes that Jesus is repeating the saying of v.37 but with a stronger form. At first there is a statement that all the Father gives will come but now there is a clarification that no one “can” unless the Father draws him. Morris rightly says “They think that they come or that they can come to Jesus entirely of their own volition. Jesus assures us that this is an utter impossibility.” And later again he says “The impossibility was implied in the former statement, but it is explicit here.”
Lastly, in RC Sproul’s commentary John (St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary), he labels this as a universal negative proposition with a necessary condition. That means that Jesus is saying “no one, no human being was capable of coming to him.” But the critical word is “unless”. This indicates that necessary condition that must happen for someone to come to Christ. The Father must draw that person. Our hearts are so hardened to God that we cannot come to him unless there is a supernatural work that happens to our hearts. We must be born again to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3) and this is a work of God, “…that you believe in him whom he has sent.”