One of the most prevalent examples of a Greek word study gone wrong is what James Barr called, “illegitimate totality transfer.” In this example, the entire semantic range of a term is applied in the use of that term in a specific passage. This fallacy causes far more confusion than help. Examples of this error are routinely found in the pulpit, when a preacher will appeal to the underlying Greek term in a passage, and then proceed to list every gloss they happened to read out of a lexicon or computer program as being intended in the passage. Now we would never do such a thing in English. For example, when someone uses the word “draft” in a sentence, we do not think they mean “a current of air,” “a version of a document,” and “a selection to military service,” all at the same time. We immediately sort out the meaning they intend based on context.
One example where this error is on full display is the use of the Greek term ἑλκύω (ἕλκω) in John 6:44. Here Jesus declares, “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 verb “draws” is ἑλκύω and it is found six times in the New Testament (the older form ἕλκω is used twice – Acts 21:30; James 2:6). In four of the uses of ἑλκύω, it is used in a literal manner and twice in a metaphorical or figurative way (John 6:44; 12:32). In the four literal uses, two are of hauling a net full of fish out of the water (John 21:6, 11), one where Peter draws a sword to cut off the right ear of Malchus (John 18:10), and one where Paul and Silas are dragged into the market place (Acts 16:19). It is these particular literal uses that are often used to interpret John 6:44. It has been sadly stated too often that God drags his elect to salvation. In other words, because they see a literal, physical use of a particular Greek term meaning “to drag,” they assume that the word has that meaning in all uses, including metaphorical ones! This philosophy for understanding word meaning is erroneous as a cursory view of BDAG would demonstrate, as well as how Webster’s dictionary would show in English. Here is just one example: “Though the elect may try at first to resist God’s drawing, He drags us, against our fallen wills, to Jesus. God overcomes our natural enmity toward Himself and guarantees that His elect people will choose to follow Christ.” While I believe firmly in unconditional election, the first part of this comment has conflated literal and metaphorical uses a word that all languages understand, as well as having ignored the context of a passage for determining what a term means based on how its used. And anyone who loads up ἑλκύω (or any word) with the entire semantic range of a word has committed the error as well.
John 6:44 is the negative counterpart to John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Notice that Jesus says the elect “will come to me.” It isn’t against our will. And secondly, the context after John 6:44 explains how this happens. Jesus says in the very next verse that the elect “come” to him because they are prepared by God in fulfillment of Scripture:
“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me” (John 6:45).
God does bring us to himself in salvation. It is a complete work of grace. But let’s be careful of how we say God does it. The idea of God saving us against our will by saying “he drags us, against our fallen wills,” isn’t quite lexically true nor does it appreciate the context of the passage. Rather, let us give God the glory for preparing us to come to him willingly. This doesn’t weaken election in any way.
D. A. Carson is correct: “When he compels belief, it is not by the savage constraint of a rapist, but by the wonderful wooing of a lover” (The Gospel According to John. PNTC, 293).