The following is part of a series of blogs written for the Covenant Reformed Church website.
In the simplest of terms the doctrine of irresistible grace, or better effectual calling, points to the clear biblical reality that Christians cannot take credit for their salvation. Since we are totally depraved and totally unable to come to Christ on our own, we are in need of outside help to do so. Those who come to faith in Christ are not more intelligent, more spiritually aware or religiously harder working people than those who don’t come to faith. God’s grace alone is what determines who comes to faith in him.
The Father draws, and the Holy Spirit regenerates, every one of God’s chosen people, enabling them to believe. Thus the new birth or being “born again” precedes faith and, in fact, makes faith possible. This runs contrary to the typical way in which we think of ‘being born again’ (Thanks Billy Graham!) but it is the biblical way of thinking about our new birth. Jesus articulates this order clearly in John 1:12, “But to all who redid 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.” Jesus expands these realities to Nicodemus in John 3:1-15, reminding him that the work of the Spirit in regeneration creates within God’s elect a new heart that enables them to freely and willingly believe in Christ as Saviour. John reiterates this reality in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” What is clear in Scripture is that for us to be saved, the sovereign work of God must overcome the rebellion of our heart and bring us to faith in Christ so we can be saved. We see this laid bare in the life of Lydia in Acts 16:14, of whom it is said, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
Does this mean that people are saved against their will?; that they are dragged into the kingdom? No. D. A. Carson says, God does not force people “against their will, squealing and kicking as it were” to believe in him. Not at all. This doctrine emphasizes that “it is God’s choice of the sinner, not the sinner’s of God, that ultimately and fully causes salvation, since the sinner’s very willingness to put faith in Christ is solely a gift from God that was purchased at the cross. (Blum)
God draws people to himself
John 6:44 — Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” This drawing is the sovereign work of grace without which no one can be saved from their rebellion against God. Again some say, “He draws all men, not just some.” But this simply evades the clear implication of the context that the Father’s “drawing” is why some believe and not others.
John 6:64-65 — Jesus says again, “But there are some of you that do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that should betray him. And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.'” Notice two things about his words:
- Coming to Jesus is called a gift that is “given” to some and not to others.
- The reason Jesus says this, is to explain why “there are some who do not believe.” We could paraphrase it like this (Piper): Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas would not believe on him in spite of all the teaching and invitations he received. And because he knew this, he explains it with the words, No one comes to me unless it is given to him by my Father. Judas was not given to Jesus. There were many influences on his life for good. But the decisive, irresistible gift of grace was not given.
God’s grace can be, and often is, resisted
In Acts 7:51 Stephen says to the Jewish leaders, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit as your fathers did.”
Paul speaks of grieving and quenching the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19). God gives many entreaties and promptings which are resisted.
In fact the whole history of Israel in the Old Testament is one protracted story of resistance, as the parable of the wicked tenants shows (Matthew 21:33-43; cf. Romans 10:21).
The clearest text that offers an explanation of why some resist and some come to faith is 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jew and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Notice the two kinds of “calls” implied in this text. (cf. Piper)
- The preaching of Paul goes out to all people, this is what is called the general call of the gospel. In it salvation is freely offered to all who will believe. But this, more often than not, falls on un-hearing ears.
- Paul refers to another kind of call. He says that among those who hear there are some who are “called” in such a way that they no longer regard the cross as foolishness but as the wisdom and power of God. What else can this call be but the irresistible call of God out of darkness into the light of God? If ALL who are called in this sense regard the cross as the power of God, then something in the call must effect the faith. This is irresistible grace.
Two potential objections (cf. Piper; et. al.)
Objection #1 – “Yes, the Holy Spirit must draw us to God, but we can use our freedom to resist or accept that drawing.”
Put simply, no. Outside of Christ all people are dead in trespasses and sins. We cannot make create new spiritual life with in us anymore than we can resurrect ourselves if we were physically dead. Thus coming to faith without the inner call, drawing and regeneration of God is impossible. We must be born of God. Then, with the new nature of God, we immediately receive Christ. The two acts of regeneration and faith are so closely connected that in experience we cannot distinguish them. “God begets us anew and the first glimmer of life in the new-born child is faith.” Thus new birth is the effect of irresistible grace, because it is an act of sovereign creation — “not of the will of man but of God.”
Objection #2 – God draws all men to himself, not just some
There are three passages that are often cited when this objection is raised. We dealt with two of them in a previous blog (2 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9). There is one that we haven’t yet dealt with, John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Does this not mean that God calls ALL people (individually) to come to salvation?
The context provides us with the answer. If you look back into John 11:50-52, Caiphas the High Priest prophesies that Jesus will die for the Jews AND the Gentiles. In that context “all” refers to all people without distinction, and not all people individually. So, to put it succinctly, in John 12:32 Jesus is saying that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all the people of God to himself (cf. John 6:44, 64-65) from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. (cf. Revelation 5:9)
Soli Deo Gloria