Is Following Christ a
Condition of Eternal Life?
by Bob Wilkin
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone 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 My Father's hand. I and My Father are one.
Eternal security is the biblical doctrine that once one comes to faith in Christ he is secure forever. Once saved, always saved is the way some put it.
In the verses before us Jesus affirms that He gives eternal life to His sheep. That His sheep will never perish. Never. That no one can pluck His sheep from His hand—or from His Father's hand.
One of my professors from my seminary days, Dr. Charles Ryrie, says this about eternal life: "If we could lose eternal life, then it has the wrong name. Eternal life is eternal."
All of this is comforting. Yet what about verse 27? There Jesus says that His sheep follow Him. Listen to what some Commitment Salvation teachers say about that:
Jesus was strong in cautioning against presumption. He let no one think that he could presume to be a Christian while at the same time disregarding or disobeying His teachings. He said, "My sheep listen to my voice…and…follow Me" (John 10:27). If we are not listening to Christ and are not following Him in faithful obedience, we are not His.(James Montgomery Boice, Christ's Call to Discipleship, p.166)
Who are the true sheep? The ones who follow. Who are the ones who follow? The ones who are given eternal life.
Faith obeys. Unbelief rebels. The fruit of one's life reveals whether a person is a believer or an unbeliever. (John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus, p.178)
It is clear from these quotes that from the commitment salvation viewpoint Jesus' words are actually as much as a warning against presumption as an encouragement of eternal security. After all, how can one gain comfort from eternal security if it linked to his own faithfulness? Logically one could never be 100% sure that he is eternally secure if following Christ is the test. One would forever wonder if he is doing a good enough job of following Christ.
What, then, did Jesus mean when He spoke of His sheep following Him?
When He said that His sheep follow Him, Jesus did not mean that all believers always live godly, obedient lives. Nor did He mean that all believers live fairly good lives much of the time. He wasn't talking about lifestyle issues at all.
The reference to following Him, like the reference to sheep, is a figure of speech. He was not talking about literal sheep which physically follow a literal shepherd. Instead He was illustrating salvation by picturing Himself as the Good Shepherd and believers as His sheep. Following Him is a figure of speech which signifies our response of believing in Him. This is evident from the preceding context. In verse 26 Jesus rebuked His Jewish audience for their unbelief: "But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you." His very next words were "My sheep hear My voice and…follow Me." The unbelief of His Jewish audience is set in contrast to His sheep following (i.e., believing in) Him.
The picture of sheep hearing their shepherd's voice and following him is a picture of childlike faith. In his book The Gospel Under Siege, Zane Hodges says concerning that illustration, "That is to say, they [the sheep] commit their safety and well-being to the Shepherd who has summoned them to do so" (p. 44). He goes on to say that this is clearly an act of faith, not discipleship.
Hodges points out two other points which further prove that the figure refers to faith in Christ: the sequence of the coordinate clauses and the analogy of John 5:24.
The verses in question have five clauses joined by the word and. A definite progression is evident. The sequence of the clauses shows that "following Him" is the condition—not the consequence—of eternal life. Jesus did not say, "I give them eternal life and they follow Me." Instead He said, "They follow Me and I give them eternal life." Since faith in Christ is the sole condition of salvation in Scripture and in John's Gospel, "following Him" must be a figure for faith in Christ.
In addition, John 5:24 is parallel to John 10:27-28. Both refer to hearing, believing, the giving of eternal life, the guarantee against eternal judgment, and the promise of the permanence of the relationship. The only difference between the two verses is that in John 10:27 believing is expressed by means of the figure of sheep following a shepherd.
Jesus Christ guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him. We are in good hands with Christ. No one can pluck us out of His hands. He has such a good grip on us that we couldn't get out if we wanted to. It is a done deal. Regeneration is permanent. There is no undoing the new birth. Once we come to trust in Christ alone as the One who paid the full and complete payment for all our sins, we have ETERNAL life. We will never perish.
The love of Christ constrains us to serve Him. Gratitude is a powerful motivator. Oh, how I long to please Him who freely gave me the greatest gift I will ever receive—eternal life.
Bob Wilkin is the Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society.