As we approach the end of our journey through the TU[D]IP, we come now to the fourth petal of our lovely flower: Irresistible Grace. This doctrine identifies the essence of God’s sovereignty as it relates to the individual salvation of sinners. It refers to the sovereign work of God to effectively call individuals to himself by the power of his Holy Spirit. This happens when the Holy Spirit causes regeneration to occur. As is the case with the other doctrines of grace, this teaching cannot be accepted on the grounds of logical consistency alone (although it is logically consistent); and it further cannot be merely alluded to in scripture. A doctrine with such grand claims needs to be explicitly taught in scripture, or else we would be audacious to make it so central. Fortunately for sinners, this glorious truth is perhaps one of the most explicit soteriological teachings in the whole Bible.
What Do We Mean By “Irresistible”?
Some may object to this doctrine on the basis of this simple observation: grace is resisted. Every single day. The presence of God in the garden of eden was a gracious gift that Adam and Eve participated in; their sin was a resistance of that grace. The Law was a gracious gift from God–he didn’t need to communicate to Israel what his holy standard was; but he did, and they rebelled in resistance of this grace. God graciously gave prophet after prophet to his people, urging them to repent; yet the resistance of this grace was made manifest in Israel’s resolute rebellion. In fact, just before he was martyred, Stephen criticizes his Jewish audience for following in their daddies’ footsteps in this resistance, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit of God. As your fathers did, so do you.” (Acts 7:51) And later, Paul will go on to explain that God’s wrath is vindicated by virtue of the fact that his truth–graciously communicated through creation–is suppressed (Romans 1:18-20).
Of course the grace of God is resisted by man. No Calvinist will ever say that God’s grace is never resisted. In fact, the Calvinist will insist that God’s grace is always resisted; until that resistance is overcome. That’s what makes this grace so spectacular; it overcomes our sinful resistance. Irresistible grace is the glorious truth that God’s grace extends to the inner-working of the heart; that he not only graciously offers us peace with him, but he also graciously gives us the desire for peace. Given the nature of our rebellion, this is precisely the kind of grace necessary in order for us to be reconciled to God. This is essentially what the New Covenant is all about (Jeremiah 31:30-34, 32:39-41, Ezekiel 36:26-27). “I will put fear of me in their hearts,” God says, “that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:40b) Did you catch that? Why will God’s people not turn from them? What will it take to keep them from doing the only thing they have consistently been doing from day one? God will put a fear of him in their hearts! In Ezekiel he goes a step further; not only will God put the fear of him in his people’s heart; he will give them an entirely new heart–one that has his Holy Spirit as its resident. He says, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27) God is certainly gracious to offer himself to a rebellious humanity time and time again. He is gracious to give them a creation that speaks of his grandeur (Psalm 19:1-6). He is gracious to give them a Law that speaks of his holiness (Psalm 19:7-11). But all of this grace can be resisted by a rebel; and as long as a rebel’s heart is oriented towards rebellion, all of this grace will be resisted. Irresistible, heart-reorienting, desire-replacing, regenerating, Holy Spirit wrought grace is the only kind of grace that make these other graces anything more than indictments to justify God’s wrath towards rebellious man.
Irresistible Grace In the New Testament
At this point, I think it would be beneficial for us to simply examine some of the explicit mentions of irresistible grace. I would like to look specifically at 10 passages (I will try to be brief in my description of these passages).
- John 1:11-12 – “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Notice the description of the children of God here. Those who believe in the name of Jesus, and thus have the right to become children of God, are those who have been born of the will of God. Lest we think that John is communicating the reverse (namely, that being born of God is the effect of believing unto adoption, rather than the cause), John explicitly says that this sort of birth happens independent of the will.
- John 3:1-15 – In this familiar episode, Nicodemus comes to Jesus to show him honor (v. 2). Jesus replies by telling Nicodemus how he might see the kingdom of God; namely, by being born again (v. 3). Nicodemus sees this as a difficulty; seeing as how he is a grown man, and his birth happened a while back (v. 4). Jesus clarifies this whole “being born again” business, saying that the new birth he is describing is a Spiritual kind; of “water and Spirit” (v. 5-7). He then goes on to say this about the Spiritual new birth: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (v. 8) In other words, you have about as much control over this Spiritual birth as you do over the wind; it is the Spirit’s prerogative to go where he wishes, to stir whom he wishes, to remake whichever heart he wishes. Nicodemus is flabbergasted by this statement (v. 9), and Jesus is flabbergasted by Nicodemus’ ignorance of a teaching that should be apparently obvious to a teacher of the Old Testament (v. 10).So we should ask the question: why is Jesus surprised by Nicodemus’ surprised reaction? Apparently, Jesus thinks that a sovereign new birth, of “water and Spirit”, should be obvious to anyone who has an authoritative working knowledge of the Old Testament. So where in the Old Testament do we see such a description? The answer is Ezekiel 36:25-27, in which God promises the New Covenant which will entail a sprinkling of water for purification, and the deposit of God’s Holy Spirit. So from this passage, Jesus teaches us that the application of the New Covenant comes in the form of a new birth, initiated sovereignly by the Holy Spirit.
- John 6:35-65 – This is a heated scene following Jesus’ miracle in which he feeds the five thousand. Here, Jesus offends the entire crowd by claiming to be the bread of life. What I wish to point out from this passage is what Jesus has to say about those who will respond to him; he says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 44) He then asserts that this reality is precisely what was taught by the prophets, quoting from Isaiah 54:13 and Jeremiah 31:33 (again, a passage describing the New Covenant); these prophets, he believes, confirm the teaching that “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (v. 45) Who comes to Jesus? Those who have been drawn by the Father; those who have learned from the Father. Later, when Jesus is clarifying this to his disciples privately, he tells them that disbelief is directly linked to the Father’s lack of drawing; that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (v. 64-65)
- Acts 16:14 – “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” In this passage, we are told of a woman named Lydia, who was a “worshiper of God.” This title doesn’t signify that she was saved, but that she was a Gentile convert to Judaism. However, she would be saved and baptized upon hearing the gospel explained to her by Paul. How would she be saved? Luke tells us, “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
- Romans 8:30 – “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The link of this glorious chain I would like to pay special attention to is the second: called. Sandwiched between predestined and justified, this calling is necessarily an effective, sovereign call of God. This is to be distinguished from the general call of the gospel for the world to repent and believe; many individuals who receive this general call will not practice saving faith, and will thus not be justified, which means that they had not been predestined. In this verse, those who are called will necessarily practice saving faith leading to justification, because they have been predestined for glorification, and justification from effective calling is the only way for them to get there. This is the lovliest form logic in Paul; unambiguous and rock-solid.
- 1 Corinthians 23-24 – “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and wisdom of God.” So Paul preaches (or, calls) Christ crucified, and its received as a stumbling block and folly to Jews and Greeks. But to Jews and Greeks who are called, Christ is the power (rather than stumbling block) and wisdom (rather than folly) of God. Here too, God’s effective calling is distinguished from the general gospel proclamation.
- 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 – In this passage, Paul says that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing by the god of this world; they are kept from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. But for those who are saved, “God has shone in our hearts to give light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In the same way that God said, “Let there be light!” in the creation of the world, so too God says “Let there be light!” to the sinner’s heart. This is regeneration. This is sovereign, irresistible grace.
- Ephesians 2:1-10 – This is a very familiar passage that describes the story of every sinner saved by grace. By birth, we find ourselves dead in our trespasses; children of wrath. And in verse 4, God sovereignly intervenes with rich mercy and grace. Notice the imagery here; salvation is a transition from death to life. This means that we are, by definition, the passive party here. A dead person can’t possibly be an active participant in the miracle of his own resurrection; action is the fruit of resurrection.
“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Hairs have been split over whether the “this” in verse 8 refers to grace or faith; but that description is a non-sequitur. It’s all grace. The faith is grace. This is why we can’t boast in our salvation! This is why Paul pauses halfway in his description of how God saved us to remind us, by grace you have been saved (v. 5b).
- Colossians 1:12-14 – “giving thanks to God, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Notice the action statements attributed to God here. He is qualifying. He is delivering and transferring. And what are we doing? Being qualified, being delivered, being transferred. What we are told is that one moment we are in darkness; and the next, we ar in the kingdom of Jesus.
- Titus 3:4-7 – “But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Again, notice Paul’s description here; God is active, we are passive–he saved us. We are told that his mercy is manifested “by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.” This salvation is the opposite of our works done in righteousness, it is according to his own mercy.
I once heard a gospel invitation that went like this, “God is a gentleman. He won’t force you to do anything. He doesn’t demand for you to come to him; he wants you.” Although it is certainly true that Jesus does want us, is this really the best way to describe God’s saving work? As a gentleman who doesn’t demand anything? That doesn’t sound like the King of kings and Lord of lords, who will have every knee bow before him, and every tongue confess that he’s Lord. Or as a trembling, shaking, love-struck admirer who is eagerly waiting the response of his crush? Part of what lies behind such gospel invitations is the criticism that irresistible grace is tantamount to spiritual rape. “If he comes and overpowers our will” it is reasoned, “then we are forced to do what we don’t want to do.” But that’s not an accurate description of irresistible grace. We’re not talking about a love-struck admirer who will overpower and dominate the object of his admiration in rape. We’re talking about a liberator, who breaks into a prison and brings the captives to the light of day. We’re talking about a physician, who heals the sick of their life-long chronic infirmities. We’re talking about a God, who breathes life into a corpse. Did Lazarus feel violated when those words, “Lazarus, come out!” spoke life into his rotting body? We were blind, and the irresistible, gracious regeneration is the salv that gives us vision. We were dead, and the sovereign, effective call of God brought us to life in Christ. The irony is that non-Calvinists resent the doctrine of irresistible grace because they feel that it violates our freedom, but irresistible grace is actually the very thing that gives us freedom.
Transition from Wrath to Grace
Before we move on to the final point of Calvinism, it is important to pull things into perspective. Thus far I have spent a great deal of time to describe the bigness of God in salvation. I’ve described how man is totally unable to desire God in his deprived condition, that God has elected a people for his own possession from the foundation of the world, that he has purchased them with his own blood, and that he will irresistibly call them back to himself by those means. This is important, lofty theology. However, in describing salvation like this, there is a danger in blurring the lines of salvific history. Somehow, regardless of the fact that those who have been predestined from the foundations of the world to be justified by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross are at one point, genuine objects of God’s wrath. Christians aren’t converted in eternity past, they’re converted when they demonstrate the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives by professing faith in Christ alone. This is a seemingly paradoxical reality; that someone predestined to grace before time can be an object of wrath in time. But it’s true, and finite cognition must bend a knee to infinite wisdom. This mystery must never lose its potency; we were once dead, and God has made us alive.