Are you sure that you’re saved? Are you absolutely certain that when you die, you’ll go to heaven? How can we know for certain? And if you are sure, what is the basis for your certainty? These questions have been hotly debated in the church for the last 2000 years—and especially for the last 500 years. These questions and the answers that we’ve come up with for them are quite possibly the primary reason that there are so many denominations in the church today. And much of the debate hinges around Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel passage.
In the first half of chapter 10, Jesus introduces the illustration of the good shepherd. Shepherds were everywhere in first-century Israel and Jesus’ listeners would have had no problem picturing a shepherd with his sheep. All over Israel there circular stone pens where sheep were herded each evening. There was only one opening in the pen and it had no door—the shepherd would lie across the opening, serving as a human door—he was there to protect the sheep, to keep them safe.
So when Jesus tells them that He is both the door to the sheepfold and also the Good Shepherd, this would have made perfect sense to the crowd listening to Him. And surely they would also have been remembering the words of King David, words that were just as beloved 2000 years ago as they are today: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23).
Jesus wants them to remember these words—and He wants them to understand that He is the Good Shepherd that David was describing. And that David’s words describe the abundant life that Jesus came to bring. A life where we need fear nothing, not even death, as long as we have the Lord as our shepherd. And then He says, in v14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (10:14).
Then John tells us, “there was again a division among the Jews because of these words” (John 10:19). Many—not just a few, but many—thought He was crazy. The ones who thought He was crazy were the ones who didn’t believe His words—didn’t believe that that Jesus was the Good Shepherd. They didn’t believe that He had come from the Father.
And then we come to this morning’s passage. It’s the time of the Feast of Dedication, so we know that a couple of months have passed since v21. Jesus has returned to Jerusalem; He’s “walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon” (10:23). Solomon’s Colonnade was part of the temple complex, but not actually a part of the temple—because Gentiles were allowed here, but never in the temple itself. So Jesus’ departure from the temple at the end of chapter 8 was final.
And once again, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of Jews. A crowd who’s been thinking about everything Jesus said earlier—thinking about His words, talking about them, arguing about them. So they come to Him now and they want to know: “Who are you? If you’re the Christ, just tell us. Tell us plainly.” And Jesus says, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (10:25-26).
This is anything but plain. But with the words, “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep,” Jesus has created one of the greatest controversies in all of church history. What exactly is He saying here? If Jesus’ sheep hear His voice and know Him, but other sheep don’t know His voice and so don’t follow Him, does this mean that it has been predetermined who’s in and who’s out? Are there people in the world who are condemned to hell before they’re ever even born? Has God predetermined who gets to be among Jesus’ sheep and who doesn’t? And if He has, how do we know which group we’re in?
The church has been trying to answer these questions for 2000 years. The Roman Catholic church decided to largely ignore these words and just focus on doing good works as the path to salvation. But with the Reformation of the 16th century, the debate was reignited, finally settling into two main camps: the first, known as Calvinism, named after reformer John Calvin, believes that God, in His infinite wisdom and justice, has predetermined the eternal destiny of every person who would ever live. Churches that are known as reformed hold to Calvin’s view of predestination—at least traditionally they did.
The opposing view, often referred to as Pelagianism or Arminianism, allows more room for human will, and gives greater responsibility for salvation to mankind. This view believes essentially that man must play a part in his own salvation. This is why these branches of the church practice what they call “believer’s baptism” rather than infant baptism. They believe that we must make a choice to follow Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
There is, however, a third point of view that is often ignored—this is the viewpoint of Martin Luther. And while Luther didn’t get everything right, I think this is one thing that he got very right. It’s the primary reason that I’m a Lutheran. We hear the word predestination and we think of the Calvinist doctrine of double-predestination—the idea that God has chosen some to be saved and chosen others to be damned. Or, that God has chosen some to be saved and others He has not so chosen. Luther called this a “vicious statement,” stating further that if we’re predestined before birth, it doesn’t matter what we do or how we live. But his most compelling argument is that if this were true, who needs Jesus? Luther said, “if this (predestination) is true, then the incarnation of the Son of God, His suffering and resurrection, and all that He did for the salvation of the world are done away with completely.”
Luther most certainly did believe in predestination; what he did not believe in was double-predestination. He believed that all of us—every single person who has ever been born into the world—has been predestined for heaven. He believed that faith is received through God’s Word and God’s Sacraments—and that these are the things by which Christians are kept in faith and prevented from falling away. And, as such, he believed that predestination cannot be considered apart from them.
Luther believed that we must rely on Scripture alone—not on our own ideas, our own reasoning. And this is exactly what Jesus is teaching in this morning’s gospel passage. “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal live and they will never perish, and no one will 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 the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (10:25-30).
Some of the people believed Him—others did not. Because what Jesus was saying didn’t make sense to them. They didn’t understand it. He didn’t act the way they thought the Messiah should act. He didn’t do what they thought the Messiah should do.
Those who believed in Jesus believed in Scripture. They believed in the words of John the Baptist, who had prepared the way. That’s what we as Lutherans do: we look to God as revealed in Christ—we don’t speculate about unrevealed aspects of God’s will. We affirm what we see affirmed in Scripture. Scripture tells us that Christ died for the whole world in John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”. It’s written in God’s Word—so we believe it. Scripture tells us that God desires all people to be saved: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). So we believe it. It further tells us that God has predestined those who will be saved: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:3-6). So we believe it. Scripture also tells us that not all people will be saved: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41). This we also believe. We accept the seeming paradox, that an almighty God who predestines believers to be saved and who earnestly desires the salvation of all will nevertheless see some not saved.
And we understand that this passage in John’s gospel isn’t primarily about knowing who’s in and who’s out. it’s about giving us a picture of the character of our God. Jesus tells the Jews that they don’t believe Him because they’re not among His sheep and John tells us that “the Jews picked up stones again to stone him” (10:31). This is the second time they’ve wanted to stone Jesus—the first was at the end of chapter 8. At the beginning of that chapter, John gave us the story of the woman caught in adultery—the Jews were, finally, unwilling to stone her, but at the end of the chapter, they were very willing to stone Jesus—who was completely without sin.
On the first occasion, John tells us that Jesus “hid himself and went out of the temple” (8:59). Now, the Jews are standing there with stones in their hands (or maybe not because the stones they used to kill people were large and heavy)—and Jesus calmly continues to talk to them. Continues to try to bring them to faith—even though He Himself has just said that they weren’t among His sheep.
This is what Jesus is teaching in this passage. God never gives up. He’s never willing to walk away from us, to write us off—even when we’re doing our best to destroy Him. God will never abandon us, Jesus will hold onto us through all things—He never lets us go. Whether you’re a child afraid for your safety at home or a police officer who never knows what will happen when answering a call or somebody afraid of losing your job or if you’re a retiree trying to figure out how to live out these years of your life when you have no job to go to, or if you’re struggling with the grief of losing a loved one or shattered by the disintegration of a relationship—no matter what’s going on in your life, no matter how life has conspired to make you feel unsafe or unworthy, God’s undying, unconditional and unyielding love will never ever let you go. This is the message that Jesus is sharing in this passage. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” No one. No matter how difficult or stressful or scary your life is, nevertheless God chooses you, loves you, and will hold onto you through all your life and even through death.
Nothing will prevent that. Not government that tries to remove God from our schools and businesses and even from the government itself.
And now, as we reach the end of Jesus’ public ministry in John’s gospel, we see the evidence of the power of God’s Word. Jesus leaves Jerusalem and returns to the Jordan river, to the place where His public ministry began—and to “the place where John had been baptizing at first” (10:40). And in that place, “Many came to him. … Many believed in him there” (10:41-42). Believed in Him because John had previously testified of Him. Back in chapter 1, the apostle John wrote that John the Baptizer “bore witness” (1:32). Bore witness that Jesus “is the Son of God” (1:34).
John performed no miracles—all he did was preach God’s Word.
And now, when Jesus returns three years later, people remember the Baptist’s testimony—surely they’ve seen or heard Jesus preach, perhaps even seen Him perform miracles. But because John testified to the fact that Jesus was the Son of God, they believed. Believed because, they said, “John did no sign, but everything John said about this man was true” (10:41).
John the Baptist was faithful to the work that God had given him—the work of testifying to the truth about Jesus, of preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry. He was beheaded as a result of his faithfulness, but his work bore great fruit. Fruit that is being realized now as many come to believe in Jesus at the end of His ministry—believe because of John the Baptist’s testimony.
This is why Jesus calls us to be fishers of men. This is why He calls us to share God’s Word, to invite others to join us in worship, this is why it’s so important that we gather together to hear His Word, to share the Sacraments.
Who will believe in Jesus because of your testimony?