Revised from original article printed in PCC Bulletin vol. 2, no. 20 dated 12 Nov 2000
Calvinistic theologians generally distinguish between the external call of the Gospel and the internal call of the Word and Spirit. The external of the Gospel is given in the preaching of the Gospel and calls all without exception to repent of sin and believe in Christ. This call is resistible, and thus the Lord teaches: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14; cf. Jn 8:43-44a). On the other hand, the internal call is given only to the elect. This call, which is referred to in Romans 8:30, involves the planting of spiritual ears in the heart by the Holy Spirit, and is therefore always efficacious. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of this effectual call thus:
All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.WCF 10.1
When the Calvinist speaks of Irresistible Grace, he is referring to the nature of this efficacious call.
1. Controversy with Arminians
We are plucking the petals of TULIP one by one in order in our discussion of the 5 points of Calvinism. This acronym order beautifully shows the work of the Triune God in our salvation: The Father electing unconditionally, the Son dying for the elect, and the Holy Spirit quickening the elect who are by nature dead in sin, and planting spiritual ears so that they may respond to the Gospel.
However, this may not be the best order to discuss the subject because the doctrine of Irresistible Grace follows logically the doctrine of Total Depravity. In the Remonstrantia, the Arminian expression which corresponds to this doctrine is found Article IV, which immediately follows Article III on Freewill or the ability of man (antithesis of Total Depravity). The fathers of Dort, when drafting the Canons, which follows the order of the Remonstrantia, found it necessary to treat the two articles together, viz. Head III & IV: “Of the Doctrine of Man’s Corruption, and of the Method of His Conversion to God.” This is because it is quite impossible to know how the Arminians differ from the Calvinists in the third article without bringing in the fourth article. In the same way, we cannot get a full picture of Total Depravity without at least some reference to Irresistible Grace.
The reason for this, is that the Arminians also claim to hold to Total Depravity and that without grace not one may be saved. Thus, a Calvinist reading the third article of the Remonstrantia by itself will probably agree with it wholeheartedly. It is only when we begin to discuss what grace is and does, that we begin to see where the two systems differ. When the Calvinist speaks about grace in the salvation of sinners, he is referring to God sovereignly and monergistically changing the heart or nature of the sinner so that his will which is bounded to his inclination which is hitherto dead to sin, is now made alive and freed from the bondage of sin to embrace Christ (see Canons, Heads 3 & 4, art. 11). Arminius, on the other hand, writes: “grace is so attempered [sic] and commingled with the nature of man, as not to destroy within him the liberty of his will, but to give it a right direction, to correct its depravity, and to allow man to possess his own proper motions” (Works 1.628-9).
One way of looking at the difference is that Calvinists believe that grace is particular and monergistic: that it proceeds from the fountain of God’s electing love and sovereignly brings about regeneration and conversion; whereas Arminians holds that grace is universal and synergistic: that it proceeds from Christ’s death for the world and co-operates with the free-will of man to effect faith and regeneration.
Another way of looking at the difference is as proposed by Arminius himself when he quite rightly asserts: “The whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, ‘Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’” (Works 1.664). We would of course not say that God’s converting grace is an “irresistible force,” which is an Arminian caricature to suggest that Calvists believe that the elect are forced into the kingdom kicking and screaming. But it is fair to say that the difference is whether grace is resistible or irresistible, or whether grace properly denoted is necessarily efficacious or not. Thus the fourth article of the Remonstrantia insists that grace “is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost, Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.”
We will have to examine the Scripture cited as well as others cited by Arminius, but before we do so, it is useful, I believe to think for a moment what the Arminians are essentially saying. They are saying that when the Gospel is preached, the Holy Spirit tries His best to woo the hearer to believe, but that ultimately, it is the hearer who finally decides if he wants to believe. If the hearer refuses to believe, there is nothing the Holy Spirit can do about it. In this way, whether we profess to hold to Unconditional Election or not, we will have to conclude that God’s grace can be rejected and His will can be frustrated.
2. Verses that seem to Suggest “Resistible Grace”
Although the Remonstratia asserts that “it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost… in many places,” it does not give any specific examples. Arminius, however, lists three classes of verses, viz: (1) such as teaches that grace is capable of “being resisted”—Acts 7:51; (2) such as teaches that grace can be “received in vain”—2 Corinthians 6:1 and (3) those that suggest that “it is possible for man to avoid yielding his assent to it; and to refuse all co-operation with it”— Hebrews 12:15; Matthew 23:37; Luke 7:30 (Op. Cit., 1.629). These verses must be examined. But once again in the interest of space, we will not quote the all the verses in full, but request the readers to check them up in the Bible.
This verse does indeed teach that the Holy Ghost can in some sense be resisted. Firstly, He is resisted when the hearers resist the Holy Spirit speaking to them by the prophets, apostles and ministers of the Gospel. Secondly, He is resisted when the hearers resist the convictions and dictates of their own conscience when their minds are in some sense irradiated with some sparks of truth by the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 6:4 and Calvin in loc).
In other words, the resistance against the Holy Spirit that this verse speaks about is resistance to the work of the Spirit in the external call of the Gospel, which no Calvinist will deny is possible. But the external call for the reprobate, in the final analysis, can hardly be regarded as grace, for to these God “designs the call to be a savor of death [cf. 2 Cor 2:16], and the ground of a severer condemnation” (ICR 3.24.8).
Thus we are convinced that Acts 7:51 should not be read as suggesting that the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration can be resisted.
2 Corinthians 6:1
Again, this verse does not refer to the regenerating work of the Spirit in the heart of sinner, rather, it refers to the preaching of the Gospel (cf. 2 Cor 6:2). The offer of the Gospel is here denoted “grace of God” simply because it is a presentation God’s grace. It may be argued from what we have said regarding Acts 7:51 that it seem incongruous to call the preaching of the Gospel “grace of God.” But we must remember that the primary purpose of the Gospel is for salvation rather than condemnation (Jn 3:17). Moreover, as Paul is addressing the members of a church of Christ, it is perfectly natural that he speaks of the Gospel in the designation as it appertains the better part of the congregation, namely the elect. In other words, the Gospel to the church viewed organically (as a whole) is the offer of God’s grace, and the reprobates are those who would receive the “grace of God in vain.”
In this verse, it is unlikely that the phrase “grace of God” refer to the Gospel. Rather it probably refers to the work of grace pertaining to regeneration and conversion. Albeit, the apostle is not writing to an individual but to a body of believers with the possibility of false professors being found in it. Again with the principle that the whole is to be known by the better part together with judgement of charity (Heb 6:9), the congregation as a whole may be regarded as having received grace. But ultimately, those “fail of the grace of God” were never, in the first place, recipients of grace (cf. Mt 24:13).
This verse is used to show that Christ desired the salvation of the Jews, but his desire is frustrated because they refused to come to him. Arminius used it to show that the grace of God can be frustrated. But this interpretation could only stand if in the Lord’s statement, “Jerusalem” refers to the same group of people as “thy children.” But a plain reading of this verse would show us immediately that this is not the case. Although “Jerusalem” as a city is personified in the Lord’s statement, his statement can only be understood substantively if we view it as being received by the religious and political representatives of city. In other words, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” would refer to the leaders while “thy children” would refer to the (elect) citizens in the city. The resistance to being gathered under the wings of Christ come not from those whom Christ desired to gather, but from the opposition of the leaders of the city. Whatever, we may derive from this verse, it certainly does not mean Christ desire the salvation of everyone in Jerusalem much less the world.
Here, “the counsel of God” must surely refer to the revealed will of God, rather than the decretive will of God since the latter cannot be known, much less rejected. Therefore, this verse again furnish no prove that God’s grace is resistible.
3. Irresistible Grace Proven
In order to prove Irresistible Grace, we need only to prove: (1) that the natural man will not choose Christ; (2) that regeneration is wholly a work of the Holy Spirit without any co-operation from the sinner; and (3) all who are elect will come to Christ.
a. The Natural Man will not Choose Christ
If the natural man is able, by prevenient grace (grace prior to regeneration), or otherwise, to choose Christ, and all who comes to Christ comes through co-operation with prevenient grace, then it must follow that the grace that leads to salvation is resistible. On the other hand, if no one,—whether elect or reprobate,—has any ability to choose Christ, and yet the elect are saved, then it must follow that the grace of conversion is particular and irresistible.
When we examine the Scriptures we find that it is indeed true that the natural man cannot choose Christ. We have seen this fact more or less when we examined the doctrine of Total Depravity, so we will simply highlight some verse from Scripture here. First the Lord says: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (Jn 6:44a). The word translated draw (ἑλκύω) is never used to mean “persuade” or “woo” or “co-operate with.” In the eight times it is used in the New Testament, it is used in a different context with John 6:44. In these instances, the word is used to describe the drawing of a sword (Jn 18:10); the dragging up of a net (Jn 21:6, 11); dragging a person by force (Acts 16:19; Acts 21:30; Jas 2:6). In none of these cases do we find the object being drawn co-operating. So, it is quite clear that when the Lord say “except the Father… draw him,” He is referring to a sovereign work rather than simply moral persuasion.
Although man is a free agent, His will is bounded to his inclination which prior to regeneration “loved darkness rather than light” (Jn 3:19). His will is taken captive by Satan, and he cannot but sin. Paul express this fact when he suggests that in our unregenercy, we walked “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience…, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath…” (Eph 2:2-3).
b. Regeneration is Wholly a Work of the Spirit
The grace of regeneration can only be resistible if it is received synergistically: through the co-operation of the will of man and of God. But we find in the Scripture, that this is not the case. Regeneration is always portrayed as a wholly and sovereignly the work of the Spirit. This fact is taught very powerfully and clearly in the Scriptures by using several metaphors to describe regeneration.
The Lord himself used the metaphor of childbirth and blindness when He told Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). One who is not born again is blind in his heart (Eph 4:18) cannot see the kingdom of God (with spiritual eyes), and so there is no way for him to enter into it. But just as a baby is totally passive in childbirth so is a man being born again by the will of God through Spirit of Christ (see Jn 1:12-13). The new-birth or regeneration, in other words, is monergistic. It is totally the work of the Spirit with no contribution from man. Similarly just as a blind man cannot help his own blindness, a spiritually blind man cannot help himself, but needs the healing of the Lord (through regeneration).
Another metaphor, which is used both by the Lord and the apostle Paul is that of resurrection from the dead. The Lord says: “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will” (Jn 5:21; see also John 5:24-25). Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (Eph 2:4-5; cf. Col 2:13).
This metaphor is especially important because it shows us that the unregenerate person is not as Arminius claims him to be: a beggar who is able to extend his hand to receive alms. Arminius had argued that such a stretching out of the hands to receive the gift does not at all make the gift less than a ‘pure gift’ (Works 2.52). But the fact is that the Scripture tells us the sinner is dead. He has to be made alive. Before he is made alive, he contributes precisely nothing to the receipt of the gift.
Indeed, Paul goes on to say that even our faith is a gift of God: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Of course, faith is not something that can be poured into the heart, and so it must be a gift by way of spiritual resurrection, or effectual calling.
Yet another metaphor of regeneration is that of heart change representing a total change in nature. This is particularly used by the Lord through Ezekiel and Jeremiah, for example, He says through Ezekiel:
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.Ezk 11:19-20; cf. 36:26-27; Jer 31:33
Notice how the words “I will” is repeated and emphasised to indicate that the change will be effected by God sovereignly, without any co-operation from the sinner.
In the same vein of thought, in the New Testament, Luke uses the idea of an opening of the heart to describe the conversion of Lydia: “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14). Notice the order: The Lord opened her heart, and then she attended to the Gospel. Again, it should be noted that this change of heart, which results in repentance and faith is not something that is self-generated, but is granted sovereignly by God (Acts 11:18; Phil 1:29; 2 Tim 2:25-26).
So great is this change in heart or nature, that the Scripture speaks of the regenerate as being a “new creation”: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17; see also Gal 6:15).
If we examine all these instances of Scripture without bias, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the regenerating grace of God is wholly the work of the Spirit without any co-operation from sinners. If that is so, then, it necessarily follows that the grace of regeneration is irresistible: there is no room for co-operation, much less resistance.
c. All the Elect Will Come
Yet another argument for the particularity and efficacy of grace of regeneration is the fact that all who are elect will be saved. In other words, all whom God intends to save will be irresistibly drawn to Christ. Again, this is clearly taught in the Scripture.
First, the Lord says: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn 6:37). In other words, all who are elected will come.
Luke, writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, affirms this fact when he described the conversion of the Gentiles in these words: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
The apostle Paul puts it in another way when he paints the order of salvation as an unbroken chain of God’s work beginning from election (foreknow) to calling to glorification:
“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified”.Rom 8:29-30
Notice how Paul speaks about the certainty of glorification for all the elect. If all the elect will definitely attain unto glorification, and the grace of God is only for the elect, then it follows, once again, that the grace of conversion is irresistible.
I believe we have proven beyond doubt that the grace of God in conversion is irresistible. Many Calvinists today talk about common grace. I have no great difficulty with the thought if by it is meant that God sends the rain and the sunshine on all without distinction (Mt 5:45). However, we must be careful not to extrapolate from there that God therefore desires all to be saved; or that common grace is prevenient grace which so assist, awake, follow and co-operate with the unregenerate without distinction so that all who comes under the preaching of the Gospel is able to exercise faith unto salvation without being irresistibly drawn by Christ. Such a doctrine is inherently Arminian.
One of the most powerful illustration of salvation is entering a door: “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved” (Jn 10:9).
Hearing the outward call is like seeing the door to salvation, but left to ourselves, we would refuse to enter it. The world and sin seem to have so much more to offer. But when the Holy Spirit grants us a new birth, we find the door compellingly attractive, and we enter into it willingly. No; we are not dragged through the door kicking and screaming, we enter in willingly, our hearts having been changed. We enter thinking that we have found the door. But once we enter the door, we discover that written at the back of the door are the word: “You have not found me, I have found you.” It was the Father who marked us out from eternity in the first place; Christ had in the second place paid for our sin; and the Holy Spirit had made us alive, and implanted spiritual ears and eyes to see the door and to behold the majesty and greatness of the King.
Calvinism alone is true to the Scripture and highly exalts the sovereignty and glory of God. Arminianism exalts human free will and leads to humanism and liberalism. Arminians have also no real argument against the soteriology of Roman Catholicism (which is Semi-Pelagian or Arminian) or even those who hold to Baptismal Regeneration (which is founded on the premise that faith precedes regeneration and therefore it is not wrong to add baptism before regeneration).