This is sovereign grace. What I mean by that is the Holy Spirit spoken of here is God’s Spirit, and God is omnipotent. He is sovereign. He does what he pleases (Psalm 115:3), and nothing can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?” (Daniel 4:35). God accomplishes what he wills. That’s his sovereign prerogative.
And when I say it’s irresistible grace, I certainly do not mean you can’t resist it. Irresistible grace is often laughed out of court by pointing to obvious texts in the Bible that say we do resist the Holy Spirit, and they’re all over the place, right? For example, Acts 7:51 says, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” And then here’s this kook John Piper who talks about irresistible grace. And some might say, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Of course, it’s not irresistible because the Bible says it can be resisted. So stop talking about irresistible grace.”
“If my believing were to depend entirely on me or decisively on me, I would not believe and neither would you.”
Well, no, I’m not going to stop talking about it because all it means is whenever God pleases, he overcomes your resistance. He can let you resist him as long as he wants, but when he decides, he triumphs. He did that for me. If you’re a Christian, he did it for you. He gets all the praise for overcoming our rebellion. We didn’t overcome our deadness, and our rebellion, and our blindness. He triumphed in our lives. We want him to get glory for this. We want to know how secure we are in him.
I think this is the way it works: He can make Christ look so compelling that our resistance is broken, and we freely come to him, and receive him, and believe in him. You were dead and blind, rebellious, a lover of the world. Whether it was 6 years old or 26 or 46 — doesn’t really matter. We were dead. I happened to be 6 when my deadness was conquered. And a 6-year-old is just as dead as anybody. Dead is dead. So the glory of my conversion at my mother’s knee in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1952 was a glorious moment.
I’m not sorry that I don’t have to tell any stories about drugs, or going to jail, or sleeping around before I got saved; I’m glad. And I’m glad for those that get saved out of that, but I was dead and you’re dead apart from God. What God does then is take the blind, dead soul that has zero spiritual light or interest, and he opens the eyes — and what you see is Christ: no longer as foolish, no longer as stupid, no longer as boring, no longer as disinterested, no longer as false. You see him and his cross as compelling, and powerful, and wise, and beautiful, and wonderful. And you cannot not receive him.
That’s what it means to see him as compelling. That’s what I mean by irresistible. At that moment, your resistance is conquered. You were resisting God all your life, until the Holy Spirit opened your eyes and granted you an irresistible sight, which you feel so free when you make that choice. Up until that time, you were enslaved. Up until that moment, you were bound, and dead, and in chains of darkness. And he rips the chains off, and he opens your eyes, and out of freedom, for the first time in your life, you do the right thing. You embrace him. He’s beautiful.
Now, it might help to clarify this a little bit — this sovereign grace, irresistible grace, what the Holy Spirit is doing in raising the dead because he has a free will of his own, and it doesn’t depend first on us. We depend first on him. It might help to look at other passages of Scripture.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)
“No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65)
Someone might say, “I hate to come to Jesus. I’m not coming to Jesus. Jesus is boring, and religious, and I’m having a good time. I’m not coming. So, I can’t come. I hate to come. I won’t come. I can’t come home. How would I come?” The Father opens my eyes and draws me.
As many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)
This means something preceded and made possible my believing that wasn’t me. If my believing were to depend entirely on me or decisively on me, I would not believe and neither would you.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:15–16)
That’s very close to John 3:8. The wind blows where it wills. We don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” In other words, God has a will of his own. We don’t constrain or control God’s will in whom he shows mercy to, in order to overcome their rebellion. He owes that to nobody.
I am so rebellious against God. If he left me totally alone and in darkness forever, he would do me no wrong. Whether you see what the Bible says about your salvation as good news depends, in large measure, on how hopelessly lost you think you are. If your self-understanding is different than the Bible’s, much of what the Bible says about your salvation will not feel like good news.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
So, engage your will. Work. Pick up your Bible, read, and obey. Use your will to do right things, because God is under that willing and doing, making it possible. Those who have believed these glorious truths about the sovereignty of grace in church history have not been passive people.
“Faith is the free act of the soul that has been given life and eyes to see the compelling beauty of Jesus Christ.”
If you ever get the notion that people who believe what I’m teaching right now from this verse become passive people, watch us. We go to the nations. We live where it’s hard to live. We stay up late and get up early to pursue God’s will. We are not passive. We work while it is day, for night comes when no man can work (see John 9:4). We believe Philippians 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” because — not although — “it is God who works in you.” Because there’s this massive initiative of our great, sovereign, gracious God inside of us. How can we not live with all of our might? So get it out of your head that somehow this truth would produce passive people. It never, ever has.
By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)
So yes, you must believe. You absolutely must believe. And you do believe because God grants faith. God enables faith. Faith is the free act of the soul that has been given life and eyes to see the compelling beauty of Jesus Christ.
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