John 12:24-25: The Corn / Grain of Wheat Dying in the Ground: A Second Blessing?
Various Keswick and Higher Life authors employ John 12:24-25 as a text about how to obtain a second blessing or the Higher Life. Supposedly when a believer becomes like the grain or corn of wheat that does not just exist, but goes all the way in full surrender to "die" to self, then the Higher Life is entered into. Is this the teaching of John 12:24-25? The text reads:
24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. 25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
The text is employed for post-conversion growth in sanctification or power for Christian ministry by Keswick leaders such as Watchman Nee (see The Release of the Spirit; cf. pg. 83, The Latent Power of the Soul, Nee; pg. 183, Against the Tide, Angus Kinnear. Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1973; for other Keswick leaders, see pgs. 274-280, Keswick’s Authentic Voice, ed. Stevenson; pg. 201, The Keswick Convention: Its Message, its Method, and its Men, ed. Harford). The Keswick misinterpretation of John 12:24 follows the view of Hannah W. Smith, who ties John 12:24 into Romanist mysticism, deification, and a rejection of the total depravity of man:
I see your difficulty in regard to that pessimistic view of human nature, and I don’t agree with it anymore than you do. That was the old-fashioned theology[.] . . . [What] attracted me . . . was the profound philosophy . . . concerning the death of the selfish life in us. . . . [W]e are created human beings but are called to become divine beings. It is a question of moving out of a lower form of being into a higher. It is as if the choice were deliberately put before a monkey whether he would like to become a man. He is good enough as a monkey perhaps, but if he is to develop into a man he must consent to let the monkey nature die and must receive the man nature in its place. He must lose his own lower life in order to find his own higher life. . . . . We are good enough perhaps as human beings . . . but we want to be more than human, we want to become “partakers of the Divine nature,” and the only way out of one life into another must be by the way of death and resurrection. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone.” . . . Fenelon’s whole teaching is to show us how to let the lower life die, and the higher life take its place. Doesn’t this give you the clue? And doesn’t it also answer your question as to what the “Higher Life” so called is? It is the divine life lived out practically, to put it in short. I’ll send you my “Christian’s Secret,” which . . . contains my “views” on the subject. (Letter to Mary, October 9, 1881, reproduced in the entry for October 30 of The Christian’s Secret of a Holy Life, Hannah W. Smith, ed. Dieter)
Certainly believers should surrender in ever fuller ways to God, but John 12:24-25 does not deal with this truth, but refers to the moment of repentant faith and conversion. The Keswick Higher Life theology of Hannah W. Smith and those who followed her is entirely absent from the passage. Hannah Smith’s rejection of total depravity and acceptance of Roman Catholic mystical quietism and deification are in the sharpest conflict with the entire Bible. The parallel in Mark 8:34-38 to John 12:24-25 is decisive.
Mark 8:34-38 teaches that one who does not become a disciple of Christ will be eternally damned. In v. 34, denial of self and taking up the cross is a representation of the sinner’s coming to the point of saving repentance, with a resultant lifestyle of continued following of Christ. As already indicated above, Christ’s call to sinners to “follow me” (v. 34) was a call to discipleship, since the Lord’s “disciples follow him” (Mark 6:1; Matthew 8:23; Luke 22:39; John 18:15; 21:20). One who was bearing a cross in the land of Israel in Christ’s day was on his way to the shameful and extremely painful death of crucifixion (John 19:17); thus, repentant faith in Christ involved losing one’s life, that is, turning from his own way of living, exaltation of self and comfort, to surrender to Christ as unconditional Lord (Mark 8:35). The person who wishes to continue to live his own way, to “save his life,” will eternally lose “both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, 39), while one who turns from his own way, denying himself, taking up the cross, and losing his own life for the sake of Christ and the gospel, will save his life or soul (pseuche) by receiving eternal life. “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:25). To encourage the lost to give up their own way and surrender to Christ’s Lordship for salvation, Christ reminds them that it profits them nothing if they would gain the whole world, but lose their souls (Mark 8:36-37). Those who, rather than being ashamed of their sins (Romans 6:21; contrast Romans 1:16; 2 Timothy 1:8, 12, 16) are ashamed to follow Christ and His Words in the evil and adulterous world will have Christ be ashamed of them at His return and be damned—for Christ is “not ashamed to call [true believers] brethren” (Hebrews 2:11), and “God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16; Luke 9:26). No text in Scripture indicates that God will be “ashamed” of His people—He is not ashamed of them (Hebrews 11:16). Mark 8:34-38 clearly teaches that all saved people are disciples, and that one who refuses to become Christ’s disciple will face an eternity in hell.
Mark 10:13-31 exemplifies the teaching of Mark 8:34-38. Christ told a man who wanted to “inherit eternal life” (10:17) to “take up the cross, and follow” Him (10:21). He refused to do so, because he was unwilling to forsake his riches, and so he did not inherit the kingdom of God (10:22-24). Indeed, the Lord Jesus taught that fallen man’s attachment to sin is so strong that nobody will come to repentance and be saved apart from God’s supernatural working (10:25-27). Those who do leave all to forsake all to follow Christ (10:28-29) become God’s “children” (10:24) and will “receive . . . in the world to come eternal life” (10:30), having come to Christ as Lord and Savior with the faith of a little child (10:13-16). Matthew 19:16-30supplements the record in Mark, indicating “eternal life” (19:16) is promised to those who “come and follow” Christ (19:21). Those who forsake all “inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Similarly, in Luke 14:15-35, Christ teaches that “whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath” (14:33, 26) to “bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (14:27, 33); those who refuse to put Christ before property (14:18-19) and people (14:20, 26) will not “eat bread in the kingdom of God” (14:15), but be “cast out” (14:35) of the eschatological feast of the saints (14:24) into hell, while God rejoices over the repentance and salvation of those who become disciples in the way people rejoice over the recovery of a lost sheep, coin, or son (Luke 15). Parallel passages confirm the plain teaching of Mark 8:34-38—disciples get eternal life, and those who do not become disciples are damned. This fact requires the identification of believers and disciples as a single class, the people of God.
John 12:24-25 does not teach, as Hannah Whitall Smith and many Keswick writers following her affirmed, that by a post-conversion act of surrender one enters into the Higher Life. On the contrary, it teaches that saving conversion involves giving up one's own way for Christ's way and surrender to Him as Lord. Through that response of saving faith, the true child of God will bring forth spiritual fruit, a holy life and good works.