by Shawn Lazar
A popular confusion about the condition of salvation comes from a misreading of John 6, where Jesus says,
“If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world…Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:51-56).
Christians in sacramental churches have taken Jesus to mean you must partake of the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) in order to be saved. It is not enough to simply believe in Jesus; you must also eat and drink the sacramental bread and wine in order to be saved.
For example, here is a typical statement from an Eastern Orthodox Church:
The tradition of the Church and the Bible are absolutely insistent on the necessity of the Sacraments for life in the Church and the salvation of individual persons…So also, the Eucharist is essential for salvation. Jesus declared “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56, emphasis added).
Based on John 6, they teach that taking the Eucharist is a condition of salvation. But is that what Jesus really meant?
No. Really, there shouldn’t be much confusion here. “Eating” is a well-known Biblical figure for “believing.”
Believing in John 6
John’s Gospel consistently teaches that believing in Jesus is the condition for having everlasting life.
A typical passage would be John 3:15-16:
…whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Whoever believes in Him has everlasting life. That’s very simple and very clear.
It is also clear in John 6, where Jesus also emphasizes faith for eternal life. To wit,
Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:28-29, emphasis added).
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:35-40, emphasis added).
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life (John 6:47, emphasis added).
If you were listening to Jesus that day, you would have noted His consistent and repeated emphasis on believing in Him. And what do you get if you believe in Him? Everlasting life.
Using Figures for Faith
The verb believe appears 100 times in John’s Gospel. That’s quite a lot. It can get repetitive. So, like any good speaker or writer, John and Jesus used variety in their teaching, and occasionally used metaphors and figures for believing.
So, for example, in John 3, Jesus used the illustration of the Israelites “looking” at the bronze serpent as a figure for believing in Him.
In John 4, Jesus used the metaphor of “drinking” water, to mean believing in Him.
And here in John 6, Jesus uses the figure of “eating” and “drinking” to mean believing. As Leland Ryken explains, “eating” is a well-known Biblical figure for believing:
Assimilating religious knowledge and growing spiritually from it are likewise compared to a process of eating and digestion. Paul fed immature Christians with ‘milk’ because they were not ready to digest solid food (1 Cor 3:1 and 2), and Hebrews 5:11-14 repeats the image. Similarly, Peter enjoins his audience to ‘long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation’ (1 Pet 2:2, RSV). God’s true shepherds feed the people with knowledge and understanding (Jer 3:15). Conversely, the absence of hearing the words of the Lord is a famine on the land (Amos 8:11). Assimilating folly or falsehood is likewise pictured as assimilating food into the body (Prov 15:14). In its ultimate metaphoric reaches, to eat is to participate in God’s salvation in Christ (Leland Ryken, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998], 227).
Sacramental churches that use John 6 to teach you must partake of the Eucharist to be saved are misinterpreting Scripture and confusing people about the condition of salvation.
First, it is important to point out the Lord’s Supper is not even mentioned in John 6. Actually, it had not even been instituted yet at that point of Jesus’ ministry. If Jesus had been talking about the Lord’s Supper, no one would have understood the reference.
Second, as we’ve seen, John 6 emphasizes the only condition having eternal if is to believe in Him for it. “Eating” is a well-worn figure for “believing,” the importance of which Jesus emphasizes again and again throughout the chapter. If you believe in Him, you have everlasting life at that moment, and you can never lose it. You are born again in a moment of faith, not over a lifetime of taking the Eucharist as often as you are able.
In sum, John 6 does not teach sacramental salvation. It does not teach there is a second condition, besides faith, for receiving eternal life. In fact, it emphasizes that there is only one condition: to believe in Jesus.