10 Things You should Know about Irresistible Grace
Here we take up the concept of God’s saving grace as irresistible.
(1) Irresistible grace concerns the process by which God brings the elect to saving faith in Jesus. However, we must be cautious lest we reduce the mystery of salvation and conversion to a mechanical sequence that can be monitored with mathematical precision. We must never forget that just as the wind blows where it wishes and we know not where it comes from or where it goes, “so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). If, then, we cannot reduce conversion to a uniform, predictable process (and we musn’t!), we can at least recognize the principles according to which God generally operates in bringing someone to saving faith.
(2) Perhaps the best definition of irresistible grace is the one provided by Bruce Ware. “When Calvinists refer to irresistible grace,” notes Ware, “they mean to say that the Holy Spirit is able, when he so chooses, to overcome all human resistance and so cause his gracious work to be utterly effective and ultimately irresistible. In soteriology, the doctrine of irresistible grace refers to the Spirit’s work to overcome all sin-induced resistance and rebellion, opening blind eyes and enlivening hardened hearts so that sinners understand and embrace the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ” (“The Place of Effectual Calling and Grace in a Calvinist Soteriology,” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, Volume 2, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995], 347).
(3) Irresistible grace in the Calvinistic scheme of salvation is not the same as prevenient grace in the Arminian scheme. Most Arminians agree with their Calvinistic brethren that all humans are born depraved and enslaved to sin, unable to save themselves. But they depart from those of the Reformed persuasion by arguing that God graciously and universally neutralizes the debilitating effects of original sin and restores genuine freedom to the human will, enabling all to believe the gospel, if they so choose.
(4) The grace by which God irresistibly draws or brings the elect to saving faith is not given to all indiscriminately but is imparted only to those chosen by God before the foundation of the world to inherit eternal life. As Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
(5) Irresistible grace is not the same as the “external” call by which God invites all men and women to receive and believe the gospel. The external call may be defined as the presentation of the gospel and offer of salvation to all sinners. This call or invitation to come to Christ to receive the forgiveness of sins is indiscriminate, which is to say it is not restricted to any one group, age, class, or nation. The external call, therefore, is simply the command of God that all men everywhere should repent and believe in order that they might be saved (see Matt. 11:28; 28:19; Luke 24:47; John 16:7-8; Acts 17:30; Rev. 22:17). This call, because it is external only, may be resisted and refused (see especially Acts 7:51; John 16:7-11).
(6) Irresistible grace is operative in what we might refer to as the “internal” call, understood as that summons by which God not only invites a person externally in the gospel, but also internally enables them to respond to it. Thus the internal call is, in a sense, the external call with an added dimension. Attendant with the spoken word of the gospel is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit which irresistibly secures a positive, saving response from the one called. The internal call, because it comes only to the elect, is designed to secure, infallibly and effectively, the saving response which the external call alone could not.
(7) A number of Reformed theologians have objected to the word “irresistible”. A. A. Hodge (son of Charles Hodge) said that “it is to be lamented that the term irresistible grace has ever been used, since it suggests the idea of a mechanical and coercive influence upon an unwilling subject, while, in truth, it is the transcendent act of the infinite Creator, making the creature spontaneously willing” (Outlines of Theology, 452). D. A. Carson agrees: "The expression [irresistible grace] is misleading, because it suggests what the theologians themselves usually seek to avoid, viz. the idea that the inevitability of the coming-to-Jesus by those given to Jesus means they do so against their will, squealing and kicking as it were” (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, 185). In other words, "irresistible grace" is said to imply that the sinner wants to resist but cannot; he is forced against his will to believe what he otherwise would have rejected.
(8) In response to the previous point, it must be noted that all Calvinists concede that inwardly and subjectively, that is, beneath the level of consciousness, the Holy Spirit effects a transformation of the mind and will which inevitably and irresistibly issues in the conscious and voluntary acquiescence of the person to the truth of the gospel. Prior to this effectual transformation, the person is unwilling to believe. Subsequent to it, he is willing to believe and, in fact, does believe.
If God did not at some point make us willing to believe we would forever have remained unwilling and consequently lost. In this sense the grace of effectual calling and regeneration is, properly speaking, irresistible. When we consciously reflect upon and eventually embrace the gospel by faith, we do so willingly, not unwillingly, because antecedent to that decision God in his grace made us willing.
(9) Another way of expressing the truth of irresistible grace is by using the terminology of effectual calling. The primary word for this irresistible and gracious “call” of the elect is kaleo, found some 147x in the NT. It is often (31x) employed as a metaphor for God’s sovereign and effective action of bringing an individual to saving faith in Christ and all its attendant blessings. Of these thirty-one occurrences, twenty-four are in the letters of Paul: Romans 8:30 (twice); 9:11, 24; 1 Cor. 1:9 (called into fellowship with Christ); 7:18 (twice), 21, 22 (twice), 24; Gal. 1:6 (called by the grace of Christ),15; 5:8, 13 (called to freedom); Eph. 4:1, 4; Col. 3:15; 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:7 (called in or for sanctification); 5:24; 2 Thess. 2:14 (called through the gospel); 1 Tim. 6:12 (called to eternal life); 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:15; 2:9 (called out of darkness into light), 21; 3:9; 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:13.
The related noun “calling” (klesis) is used 10x by Paul to refer to the calling of the elect unto salvation. We are to walk worthy of our calling (Eph. 1:18; 4:1, 4; 2 Thess. 1:11). Our calling is high (or upward, Phil. 3:14), holy (2 Tim. 1:9), and heavenly (Heb. 3:1). See also Romans 11:29; 1 Cor. 1:26; 2 Peter 1:10 (in which calling is almost synonymous with election).
There is another noun (kletos) often translated “the called,” that is used 10x, again largely in Paul. In Matthew 22:14 it is used of a resistible, ineffective summons to salvation. Twice Paul refers to himself as one “called” to be an apostle (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1). Believers are “the called of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:6), “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2), and “the called according to God’s purpose” (Rom. 8:28). See also 1 Cor. 1:24; Jude 1; Rev. 17:14.
(10) At the heart of the Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” is the concept known as compatibilism. By this is meant the perfect theological harmony or compatibility that exists between the sovereign, monergistic operation of divine grace and the authentic, morally accountable choices made by those in whom that grace is working. While the grace by which God calls and converts the human soul is truly irresistible, the choice of the elect to repent and trust Christ for salvation is their choice, a true choice, a choice that, although certain, is neither coerced nor compelled. The elect freely come to Christ through the mystery and power of a grace that is always effectual.