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Mastered by Matchless Love

The Sweet Experience of Irresistible Grace

Since the day I became a Christian as a 14-year-old boy, I have never had any reason to doubt the truth to which the expression “irresistible grace” points. I had read the Bible daily from age 9 to age 14, and if one thing was clear to me, it was my inability to trust in Christ. The “grace” I needed was not sufficient grace to enable me to cooperate with it, but irresistible grace that would resurrect me.

But personal experience is no ultimate foundation for a doctrine, and there seem to be many would-be thought-changers sufficiently upset about “irresistible grace” to want to resist it vigorously. Whether they know it or not, they tend to appeal to the same verses of Scripture as the Remonstrants of the seventeenth century (now commonly known as Arminians). Stephen is still believed to have virtually settled the issue since he told the Sanhedrin that they “always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). His words are taken as irresistible proof that there is no “irresistible grace.”

But “irresistible grace” will not go away quite so easily.

What Kind of Grace Do We Need?

I admit to having a mild allergy to the expression “irresistible grace,” and I tend to avoid using it (for reasons that will appear later). This confession is not altogether idiosyncratic, since the Reformed theologians who expounded and defended this doctrine did not much care for the expression either (Francis Turretin described it as “barbarous”). Like the term “Puritan,” it suffers from the deficiency of having been coined by its opponents and therefore defined by them. So, it should not be wholly surprising if Reformed theologians prefer to speak of invincible grace.

But more of that later. First, some foundations.

Our Sinful Nature

Augustinian and Reformed theology has never taught that we cannot or do not resist God. In fact, it holds the reverse: in our unrenewed condition, we all resist, we always resist, we inevitably resist, and we cannot do other than resist.

“In our unrenewed condition, we all resist, we always resist, we inevitably resist.”

This is the big picture traced out in God’s word. It is not only pre-flood man of whom it can be said, “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Paul’s catena of texts in Romans 3:10–18 summarizes the whole Old Testament narrative. He underscores this elsewhere: we are by nature “dead in trespasses and sins . . . following the prince of the power of the air . . . sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1–2). There is nothing in us capable of “cooperating” with “sufficient grace.” The salvation that is ours through faith is entirely of grace; it does not take place by cooperation with grace. In no sense is it our own doing. The “workmanship” we are is entirely his (Ephesians 2:8–10).

Paul cuts his Corinthian theology from the same cloth: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). From head to toe, we are by nature enemies of God (Romans 5:10; 8:5–8; Colossians 1:21).

The same perspective is embedded in the teaching of Jesus, as his conversation with Nicodemus underlines. Without a sovereign, efficacious, irresistibly wrought birth from above (see also 1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18), we are incapable of either seeing or entering the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). We are sin’s slaves; only the Son can set us free (John 8:34, 36).

Paul’s Stunning Testimony

But don’t Stephen’s words suggest that grace is always resistible? And doesn’t the command to believe indicate that we are capable of cooperating with grace? Hardly — for faith is the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us. The promise of justification, says Paul, strikingly reversing the wording we might expect, is “by faith that it may rest on grace” (Romans 4:16). In other words, our exercise of faith is such that it itself is all of grace; according to Ephesians 2:8, the whole reality of salvation by faith is a work of grace, efficaciously accomplished in us by God.

The broader context of Stephen’s words is also illuminating here. Luke links the martyrdom of Stephen to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He probably heard Stephen’s words; he certainly “approved of his execution,” was present at it, and in the aftermath continued “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 7:58–8:1; 9:1). Saul is introduced to us as the quintessential illustration of Stephen’s words about being “stiff-necked . . . uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and therefore always resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51).

What brought about his conversion? Perhaps someone somewhere has preached a sermon titled, “How Saul Cooperated with Grace on the Damascus Road.” But the texts themselves (Acts 9, 22, and 26, and Paul’s later reflections in Galatians 1:11–16) describe a man flattened to the ground and blinded by Christ — “irresistible grace” in capital letters! Are we to say that a Saul of Tarsus needs “irresistible grace,” whereas the average person can come to faith by a less-than-irresistible grace?

God’s Resurrecting Power

Thankfully, as generations of Reformed Christians have acknowledged, a confused head can be married to a cleansed heart and crystal-clear poetry, as in the case of Charles Wesley, who has taught centuries of Christians (of all persuasions) to sing,

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray.
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

It is hardly surprising that John (“Rabbi”) Duncan commented, “I have a great liking for many of Wesley’s hymns, but when I read some of them, I ask, ‘What’s become of your free will now, friend?’”

“The whole reality of salvation by faith is a work of grace, efficaciously accomplished in us by God.”

Lazarus was dead, yet he came forth from the tomb at the command of Christ. He could no more have stayed dead than he could have come to life by cooperating with Jesus. The same is true of those who are dead in trespasses and sins. For Scripture does not portray us as sick people needing medicine; we are spiritual corpses in need of monergistic resurrection.

The problem here is a failure to remember the great maxim of Anselm of Canterbury, which applies to many deviations in doctrine: “You have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin.” Feel its weight, and what is denoted by “irresistible grace” becomes a sine qua non in the application of redemption. For our doctrine here is cut from whole cloth: “total depravity” requires “irresistible grace” rooted in “unconditional election” if the atonement is to be effective and the electing purposes of God fulfilled.

God Calls; We Come

Nothing in this emphasis detracts from the twin facts that we are responsible to believe in Christ, and that we — not God, not grace, not the Holy Spirit, but we — do the believing.

We are responsible to believe. The fact that in ourselves we are powerless to do so does not diminish our responsibility to do so. For our inability is not caused by the absence of volitional powers, but by the way our hearts pervert those powers so that we always resist the Lord until he sovereignly overcomes that resistance.

We are the ones who believe. The doctrine of “irresistible grace” does not mean or imply that God does the believing. True, faith is a fruit of the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8), but we do the believing. Here the exponents of the doctrine must be allowed to state its meaning and theological parameters. This the Westminster Confession of Faith does, affirming that “irresistible grace” (“effectual calling”)

is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (Article 10.2)

Yet, the Westminster Divines also affirm that this effectual call involves God

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. (10.1, emphasis added)

This is in harmony with their earlier statement that the sovereign ordination of God does not make him the author of sin,

nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (3.1)

It is axiomatic to critics of the doctrine of “irresistible grace” that it cannot be harmonized with human freedom and responsibility. But it is one of the curious features of attempts to reject “irresistible grace” on the basis of Scripture. For Scripture itself is a primary illustration of the principle that what can be brought about only by “irresistible grace” (the inspiring of an infallible Bible by a Holy God) is at the same time the responsible activity of individuals (the composition of an infallible Bible by sinful men).

“Only the invincible Spirit who glorifies Christ can bring us to trust him.”

The doctrinal impasse here will never be resolved until it is recognized that undergirding this kind of objection to the irresistibility of grace is usually a basic theological confusion about the way in which God relates to the created order. Absolute divine sovereignty does not destroy the reality of the free actions of men (as the quotations above from the Confession of Faith underscore).

Hesitating over ‘Irresistible Grace’

Why then have an allergy to the expression “irresistible grace”?

Resistance to “irresistible grace” arose first not among Arminians but in medieval theology. There it was already rooted in a faulty view of grace. Grace was seen in virtually substantial terms. It could be infused into a person — hence “infused grace” and seeing the sacraments as “means of grace” (that is, the means by which we “get” grace).

But grace is not an impersonal substance. It is shorthand for “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is not a thing but a Person. And so “irresistible grace,” properly understood, is not a force; it is a Person who proves to be irresistible to us through the work of the Spirit. A comment by John Owen on “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (2 Thessalonians 3:16–18) is apt: “Yea, he makes these two, ‘Grace be with you,’ and, ‘The Lord Jesus be with you,’ to be equivalent expressions” (Communion with the Triune God, 143).

This perspective was part of the theological revolution that took place in the Reformation. In the old medieval theology, the priest administered “grace” sacramentally. It was “infused” at baptism and cooperated with throughout life. In sharp contrast, especially Calvin’s theology put the application of redemption back where it belonged: in the hands of the Holy Spirit. He does not deal in the distribution of a substance but in the glorifying of a Person.

The Spirit so glorifies Christ to us, and works upon and in us, that we find him irresistible. At that point, we realize that we can do no other than to trust him. For trust in another is not ultimately a simple act of volition; it is wrought in us by the trustworthiness of its object. We who resisted Christ find now that we want him — indeed, we must have him. All our opposition is overcome by the Gracious One. The choice is made for us even as it is made by us.

In modern literature there is probably no more famous testimony to this than that of C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy — all the more striking since he would not have described himself as a “Calvinist”:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. . . . The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. (279–80)

Irresistible Spirit of Christ

“Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics,” Herman Bavinck once wrote (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:29). We do not claim to be able to explain how the Spirit works in such a way that he is sovereignly irresistible and yet we come freely. The wind blows where it wills; we see the evidence of its presence. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

In concluding this article, I find myself unexpectedly recalling the 14-year-old boy with whom it began. In the aftermath of his experience of “irresistible grace,” he wrote out and often sang the words of the Scottish blind pastor-poet George Matheson:

Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqueror be. . . .

My heart is weak and poor
Until it master find;
It has no spring of action sure —
It varies with the wind.
It cannot freely move,
Till thou hast wrought its chain;
Enslave it with thy matchless love,
And deathless it shall reign.

My will is not my own
Till thou hast made it thine.
If it would reach a monarch’s throne
It must its crown resign;
It only stands unbent
Amid the clashing strife,
When on thy bosom it has leant
And found in thee its life.

This is the work of the invincible Spirit. Mastered, we come freely, even if the pathway to this freedom is the hard road of reluctance and resistance. For it is not “resistible grace” that overcomes our resistance; nor is “cooperating grace” adequate to subdue us. Only the invincible Spirit who glorifies Christ can bring us to trust him.

For myself, I cannot imagine how I would ever have come to faith without this “irresistible grace” — that is, without the irresistible Spirit of Christ.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.