On several occasions I have been questioned about a verse which seems to say that those seeking the praise of men cannot come to faith in Christ-John 5:44. In context, Jesus was speaking to unbelieving, legalistic, Jews. They were actually seeking to kill Him because He healed on the Sabbath and made Himself equal with God (John 5:18). To this extremely hostile crowd He said:
How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?
Lordship Salvation advocates find in this verse confirmation that only those who are seeking God’s honor and praise can be saved. There are, I have discovered on contemplation, many good answers to their objection.
Men-Pleasing Believers in the Sanhedrin
After speaking of the vast majority of unbelievers in Israel during Jesus’ ministry, John reported:
Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, less they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God (John 12:42-43).
According to Lordship Salvation these rulers didn’t really believe in Jesus. Their faith was somehow substandard, less than saving faith.
Interestingly, they cite John 5:44 to prove their point. However, this is a reversal of the analogy of faith. John 5:44 is more difficult to understand than John 12:42-43. The latter clearly says that many of the rulers “believed in Him.” According to John 3:16 “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Whoever includes the rulers of Israel.
Now it might be possible to argue that loving the praise of men more than the praise of God is different than seeking honor from one another, and not…the honor that comes from the only God. However, the difference in meaning between praise and honor is exceedingly small. Their meanings overlap greatly. Most commentators see them as the same in John 5:44 and 12:43.
The believing rulers who were more concerned about the praise of men than the praise of God prove that John 5:44 does not mean that seeking God’s praise is an absolute requirement for gaining eternal life.
Saul of Tarsus
If Saul had been standing there that day, surely he would have been part of the hostile crowd seeking to put Jesus to death. He openly persecuted the followers of Christ. He participated in the stoning of Stephen. In fact, he came to faith while on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians! Had Saul been in the crowd that day, the Lord’s remarks would have been squarely directed to him as well.
Of course, it is possible to argue that there was some spark in Saul that was different than the other unbelieving legalistic Pharisees. If so, there is no proof of this anywhere in the Book of Acts or in Paul’s own writings. In speaking about himself before he came to faith he said, “I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).
Saul is a prime example of one seeking to please men. He testified of this himself: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).
Whatever John 5:44 means, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible for those seeking honor from men to be saved.
The Philippian Jailer
Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Suddenly an earthquake occurred. All the doors to the prison cells miraculously opened. Their chains fell off (see Acts 16:16-27). The jailer knew he faced a torturous death if even one prisoner escaped. Thinking that the worst had occurred, he “drew his sword and was about to kill himself” (Acts 16:27).
If God had not intervened, using Paul at this very moment, the jailer would have died and spent eternity separated from God. Unlike Lydia whose coming to faith was just reported (see Acts 16:13-15), this was not a God-fearing Gentile. Whereas she was indeed seeking God and His praise, the jailer was a typical pagan about to die.
Paul then said, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). Then came the famous question, “What must I do to be saved?” and the equally famous answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” The jailer came to faith in Christ that day (see verse 34). Yet he was not seeking God’s praise.
That the Philippian jailer came to faith proves that seeking God’s honor is not an absolute prerequisite to gaining eternal life.
The woman at the well in John chapter 4 was definitely not seeking God’s praise. Yet the Lord Jesus initiated a conversation with her and led her to faith in Him (see John 4:1-42). Her regeneration proves that God sometimes saves those who are not seeking His praise.
Was Matthew the tax collector seeking God’s praise? What about Zaccheus the chief tax collector? Or what of the Ephesians who were involved in occult practices to such an extent that they did not give up their magic books until up to two years after they came to faith (Acts 19:10, 17-20)? What of the believers in the church of Corinth who four to five years after their salvation were still carnal (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4)? Many other examples could be given.
In fact, could not the opposite case be made? Is it not true that there are very few examples in Scripture of people who were seeking God’s praise when they came to faith? Of course, Cornelius in Acts 10 and Lydia in Acts 16 certainly come to mind. However, are they not exceptional? While surely there were many more (see Acts 10:35), it is probably not stretching things to say that there are few examples in Scripture of unbelievers who were actively seeking God’s praise.
Before considering what John 5:44 actually means, I must admit I find it refreshing to be in the position of trying to show that not all who come to faith are seeking God’s praise. Reformed Lordship Salvationists normally say that unbelievers are totally incapable of seeking God. Yet those same people use John 5:44 to say that unless unbelievers seek God they can’t be saved. The contradiction is unmistakable. How can they have it both ways? How can seeking God’s praise be a requirement and yet something no one does prior to salvation? How can all who come to faith seek God and yet none who come to faith seek God? I guess this is akin to Lordship Salvation idea of a free gift that costs you everything!
What Is the Meaning of John 5:44?
A careful reading of this verse reveals that it does not say that those seeking honor from men cannot believe. This is a rhetorical question with no answer given. So the answer is left up to the listener/reader to discern.
The simplest harmonization with the facts given above is that seeking men’s praise is antithetical to coming to faith in Christ. It hinders one from believing. It doesn’t absolutely stop the possibility. However, it makes it less likely.
We might say that the more one seeks the praise of men, particularly in a legalistic religious group, the less likely he or she will come to faith. Alternately, the more one is seeking God’s praise, the more likely he or she will come to faith. Indeed, if one diligently seeks God, he will come to faith (cf. Acts 10:35; 17:27; Hebrews 11:6). Did not Jesus say that we were to strive to enter by the narrow way? The wise man strives to find the truth by seeking God’s honor and praise.
I don’t know if any of the unbelieving Jews who heard Jesus’ words that day later came to faith in Christ. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if some did. The fact that they were seeking men’s praise meant that it was unlikely they would come to faith, but yet God in His grace confronts even legalistic men-pleasers with the good news of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
Believer, Seek God’s Honor and Praise
There is a clear application for believers here. Certainly believers, of all people, should seek God’s honor and praise. If an unbeliever is unlikely to believe unless he seeks God’s praise, then a believer is unlikely to live by faith unless he seeks God’s praise. Walking in the Spirit requires that we seek to please God: “If I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
The Lord Jesus is coming again. Believers who seek His praise, rather than man’s, will hear those blessed words, “Well done, good servant.” Believer, if you wish Christ’s approval then, seek His honor and praise now.