John 17 and Election
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
- John 15:16 (ESV)
One of the most common passages that Calvinists will often use in their defense of unconditional election is found in John 17. In fact, Bruce Ware, in his defense of unconditional, individual, and infralapsarian election in the book Perspectives on Election, quotes John 17 as proof positive that God has sovereignly and gracefully chosen individuals by His choice and grace. Ware points to passages in John 17 such as John 17:2, 6, 9, 24. Ware sees John 17 as a strong Calvinist argument for both a limited atonement (the fact that Jesus prays only for the elect) and for unconditional election.
Yet does John 17 teach what Ware and many other Calvinist believe and that is that Jesus is praying for the disciples (and for all disciples) and that Jesus has in mind unconditional election to salvation? I believe the chapter deals with God’s election but I believe that this election is an election to service of the Apostles. The only time that Jesus deviates from the Apostles is in verse 20 but Jesus’ focus in prayer here is on unity and not election (vv.20-23). When Jesus refers to those whom the Father has given Him, the context demands that these are referring to the Apostles whom He had chosen (John 15:16; cf. Luke 6:13). Jesus did in fact choose them by His own choice apart from their works and this choice was unconditional. Yet what did Jesus choose them for? Salvation? It seems the context is service and not salvation. Jesus wants to give the Apostles eternal life (John 17:2, 24; cf. John 6:39).
In fact, Bruce Ware skips over John 17:12 which clearly shows that Jesus has chosen these men for service and not salvation. In this case, Judas was chosen by the Father and given to Jesus as an Apostle yet he perished. Judas was chosen for service (apostleship) but he did forfeit eternal life. This would run contrary to the Calvinist interpretation that salvation is what Jesus has in mind if in fact Judas lost his salvation which Calvinism denies is possible.
I believe it is best to simply read John 17 as it is written with Jesus praying for His Apostles. Why should we try to read into John 17 something that is not clearly stated and that being that this portion of Scripture is Jesus acting as High Priest and praying for the elect (Hebrews 7:25)? John 17 is a wonderful chapter that gives us a unique picture into Jesus’ prayer life but I don’t believe the Calvinist has a strong argument for unconditional election in John 17. There are simply too many holes in their exegesis and the strength of the passage (John 17:12) shows that the choosing here is unto service and not to salvation.