Today’s blog continues a short series on the doctrines of grace. The purpose of this blog series is to give a brief primer on reformed theology, though not as brief as in the article “Is Veritas Church Reformed?” Ultimately, we believe that right thinking and right affections lead to right living. In order for us to live faithfully for Christ, we need to think rightly about God, and we need to use our affections for God. We want to view everything (and we do mean everything) through the lens of scripture.
In Calvinistic thought, it’s often useful to use an acrostic to remember the “five points” of Calvinism: TULIP
T– Total Depravity
U– Unconditional Election
L– Limited Atonement
I– Irresistible Grace
P– Perseverance of the Saints
Today we look at the fourth point of the acrostic, Irresistible Grace.
Irresistible Grace is the doctrine that God ensures the salvation of the elect, overcoming their resistance to God so that they come to love and know God (regeneration).
Irresistible grace is a function of election. If a person is elect, they will come to Jesus because the saving grace of God is irresistible. This is in contrast to common grace, which is the goodwill of God toward his creation. Common grace is active but also resistible. Men choose their sin and God may hand them over to it completely before they die in complete rebellion against him. Irresistible grace is active and irresistible. Men who are elect are compelled to love God through the work of the Holy Spirit, which applies this grace to the heart of believers.
Irresistible grace is a consequence of the doctrine of Total Depravity. It is shown in scripture that all men are dead in their trespasses, and therefore are unable to exercise goodwill toward God. Because of their blindness and hardened hearts, God must change them. Irresistible grace is how God accomplishes this task.
We previously noted that prior to Jesus raising him, Lazarus was dead, and an odor was present (John 11:39). This reinforces the deadness of the man in the grave. Likewise, in scripture, the natural man is said to be dead in his trespasses (Ephesians 2:1-7). The doctrine of Total Depravity says that men cannot raise themselves to eternal life and that Jesus must do it. The doctrine of Irresistible grace says that Jesus does raise men to eternal life.
What does Irresistible Grace mean?
There are some misunderstandings regarding Irresistible Grace that we should clarify:
Irresistible grace does not mean:
- all God’s grace is irresistible. This is obviously untrue; common grace can be resisted. We even see that people are able to resist the Holy Spirit’s general call to mankind toward repentance (Acts 7:51).
- that even Christians can’t resist the will of God. Any time a Christian sins, they are still resisting the preceptive will of God by virtue of their sin.
- that God violates the free agency of human beings in the act of regeneration. This excerpt from John Piper’s article “What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism” is helpful:
“It should be obvious from this that irresistible grace never implies that God forces us to repent or believe or follow Jesus against our will. That would even be a contradiction in terms because believing and repenting and following are always willing, or they are hypocrisy. Irresistible grace does not drag the unwilling into the kingdom, it makes the unwilling willing. It does not work with constraint from the outside, like hooks and chains; it works with power from the inside, like new thirst and hunger and compelling desire. “(http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism#Grace)
Irresistible grace does mean:
- if God has determined to save a person, he changes their desires so that they freely love Christ and come to him.
- if God has determined to save a person, God’s beauty becomes irresistible to that person by the work of the Holy Spirit.
- all true believers of Christ are preserved in Christ by the work of irresistible grace as applied by the Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of perseverance (or preservation) of the saints, the P in TULIP.
Does scripture support Irresistible Grace?
Irresistible grace is found all over in scripture, but most strongly in the gospel of John. Let’s look at chapter 6.
John 6:37-40 – All that the Father gives to Jesus come to him, and Jesus loses none that he is given.
John 6:44 – No one comes to Jesus unless the Father draws him.
John 6:64-65 – Jesus says that some do not believe in Him precisely because they have not been granted it by the Father.
John 6:67-69 – Jesus asks the disciples if they want to go away. Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Holy One of God, responding to Jesus’ question with “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
We see in the second half of John 6 the implications of Jesus’ words in the culmination of Peter’s confession in John 6:68. Specifically, we see Jesus asking the rhetorical question of the disciple’s desire. Next, we see that Peter’s desire was to stay with Jesus, because Jesus has the eternal words of life. Peter’s desires were different from the response of the other disciples (John 6:66) who left after Jesus’ hard words. What made Peter different? Even if Peter had wanted to leave, he couldn’t, because he recognized Jesus as Savior in that moment. Jesus’ presence was irresistible. So too is Jesus’ presence, mediated by the Holy Spirit, irresistible to the Christian.
Since we are all dead in trespasses (Ephesians 2:1-7), God must do the work. When God does the work, he overcomes our resistance so that we love him and believe. In this sense, the work of the Holy Spirit is irresistible. We may fight, and try to claw our way out of it, but if God so desires you to meet Jesus in a saving manner, he will make sure it happens. And when it happens, you will not be forced into it. You will want to meet Jesus. You will want to know Jesus. You will want to love Jesus (1 John 4:19). It’s that sort of irresistible, the same way that a deer pants for water in its thirst and is drawn to the river.
Irresistible Grace vs Prevenient Grace
In Arminianism, the grace of God that enables a Christian to come to faith is called prevenient grace. Since classical Arminianism agrees with the doctrine of Total Depravity, but also an unlimited atonement with the possibility of application to all men for all time, there must be a preservation of the natural human will so that a man can freely choose or reject Christ. This would be accomplished by so-called prevenient grace, since it enables a man to choose Christ. Simply put, prevenient grace posits that there is an island of the will which, by the grace of God, is untouched by sinful nature. However, this doctrine is already on thin ice.
We can look at the narrative regarding the raising of Lazarus. Interestingly, there seems to be no resistance from Lazarus when Jesus calls him to life. Jesus calls, Lazaraus responds. In all the accounts of the effectual call (the preaching of the gospel accompanied by belief in Jesus Christ), we see Jesus initiating, and the believer responding. Prevenient grace leaves possibility of belief without the effectual call of the gospel. This is in direct opposition to Romans 10:14, which states that in order to believe in Christ you must hear of Christ. Salvation is always accompanied by the preaching of the Word. Therefore the logical conclusion of prevenient grace ignores the biblical account.
Also implicit is the idea that saved men can resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and thereby fall from grace and die in unrepentant rebellion. This is untenable for many reasons; we will look at a few examples to see why:
John 6:37-40 – Jesus loses none that he is given.
1 John 2:19 – It is impossible for a Christian to finally depart from Jesus. If a professing believer walks away from Christ, they were never a true believer.
1 Corinthians 1:6-8 – Jesus sustains believers to the end until they are guiltless.
In short, prevenient grace is a deficient formulation because it ignores certain scriptures in favor of maintaining a theological presupposition that isn’t supported by the word of God. A good resource on this can be found here.
What about the rebellious Christian?
Some detractors of irresistible grace will appeal to circumstance of the rebellious person who proclaims Christ yet continues to disobey and rebel against God and his commandments. Oftentimes, they will use verses such as Hebrews 6:4-6 as prooftexts against irresistible grace. If God’s saving grace can be finally resisted, then we cannot say it is irresistible. That particular debate focuses on whether or not a Christian’s faith can be preserved, so we will look at this in the next article, on “Perseverance of the Saints”.
In soteriology (the logic of salvation), Irresistible Grace comes as another crashing wave in a cascade of scriptural truths. It is typically presented fourth in the “Five Points of Calvinism” because it is subservient to election. While it is logically consequential, every Christian has felt its effect when they repented of their sin and turned to Christ, possibly before recognizing the nature of the atonement on their behalf, and possibly before recognizing the full depravity of their sinful nature. Irresistible grace is at work every time a person forsakes their sin and turns to the cross. Since it is by the grace of God that a Christian is kept in Christ, the irresistibility does have one major implication, referred to as “Perseverance of the Saints”, the P in TULIP. We will look at this in our concluding article on the Doctrines of Grace.