As we approach the end of our journey through the TU[D]IP, we come now to the fourth petal of our lovely flower: Irresistible Grace. This doctrine identifies the essence of God’s sovereignty as it relates to the individual salvation of sinners. It refers to the sovereign work of God to effectively call individuals to himself by the power of his Holy Spirit. This happens when the Holy Spirit causes regeneration to occur. Fortunately for sinners, this glorious truth is perhaps one of the most explicit soteriological teachings in the whole Bible.
What Do We Mean By “Irresistible”?
Some may object to this doctrine on the basis of this simple observation: grace is resisted. Every single day. Of course the grace of God is resisted by man. No Calvinist will ever say that God’s grace is never resisted. In fact, the Calvinist will insist that God’s grace is always resisted, until that resistance is overcome. That’s what makes this grace so spectacular; it overcomes our sinful resistance. Given the nature of our rebellion, this is precisely the kind of grace necessary in order for us to be reconciled to God. This is essentially what the New Covenant is all about (Jeremiah 31:30-34, 32:39-41, Ezekiel 36:26-27). “I will put fear of me in their hearts,” God says, “that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32:40b) Did you catch that? Why will God’s people not turn from them? What will it take to keep them from doing the only thing they have consistently been doing from day one? God will put a fear of him in their hearts! In Ezekiel he goes a step further; not only will God put the fear of him in his people’s heart; he will give them an entirely new heart–one that has his Holy Spirit as its resident (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Irresistible Grace In the New Testament
At this point, I think it would be beneficial for us to simply examine some of the explicit mentions of irresistible grace. I would like to look specifically at 6 passages.
- John 1:11-12 – Notice the description of the children of God here. Those who believe in the name of Jesus, and thus have the right to become children of God, are those who have been born of the will of God. Lest we think that John is communicating the reverse (namely, that being born of God is the effect of believing unto adoption, rather than the cause), John explicitly says that this sort of birth happens independent of the will.
- John 3:1-15 – In this familiar episode, Nicodemus comes to Jesus to show him honor (v. 2). Jesus replies by telling Nicodemus how he might see the kingdom of God; namely, by being born again (v. 3). Nicodemus sees this as a difficulty, seeing as how he is a grown man, and his birth happened a while back (v. 4). Jesus clarifies this whole “being born again” business, saying that the new birth he is describing is a Spiritual kind; of “water and Spirit” (v. 5-7). He then goes on to say this that you have about as much control over this new birth as you do over the wind; it is the Spirit’s prerogative to go where he wishes, to stir whom he wishes, to remake whichever heart he wishes (v. 8). Nicodemus is flabbergasted by this statement (v. 9), and Jesus is flabbergasted by Nicodemus’ ignorance of a teaching (v. 10). So we should ask the question: why is Jesus surprised by Nicodemus’ surprised reaction? Apparently, Jesus thinks that a sovereign new birth, of “water and Spirit,” should be obvious to anyone who has an authoritative working knowledge of the Old Testament. So where in the Old Testament do we see such a description? The answer is Ezekiel 36:25-27, in which God promises the New Covenant which will entail a sprinkling of water for purification, and the deposit of God’s Holy Spirit. So from this passage, Jesus teaches us that the application of the New Covenant comes in the form of a new birth, initiated sovereignly by the Holy Spirit.
- John 6:35-65 – This is a heated scene following Jesus’ miracle in which he feeds the five thousand. Here, Jesus offends the entire crowd by claiming to be the bread of life. What I wish to point out from this passage is what Jesus has to say about those who will respond to him; he says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 44) He then asserts that this reality is precisely what was taught by the prophets, quoting from Isaiah 54:13 and Jeremiah 31:33 (again, a passage describing the New Covenant): these prophets, he believes, confirm the teaching that “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (v. 45) Who comes to Jesus? Those who have been drawnby the Father; those who have learned from the Father. Later, when Jesus is clarifying this to his disciples privately, he tells them that disbelief is directly linked to the Father’s lack of drawing: “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (v. 64-65)
- Acts 16:14 – In this passage, we are told of a woman named Lydia, who was a “worshiper of God.” This title doesn’t signify that she was saved, but that she was a Gentile convert to Judaism. However, she would be saved and baptized upon hearing the gospel explained to her by Paul. How would she be saved? Luke tells us, “the Lord opened her heartto pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
- Romans 8:30 – The link of this glorious chain I would like to pay special attention to is the second: called. Sandwiched between predestinedand justified, this calling is necessarily an effective, sovereign call of God. This is to be distinguished from the general call of the gospel for the world to repent and believe; many individuals who receive this general call will not practice saving faith, and will thus not be justified, which means that they had not been predestined. In this verse, those who are called will necessarily practice saving faith leading to justification, because they have been predestined for glorification, and justification from effective calling is the only way for them to get there. This is the lovliest form logic in Paul: unambiguous and rock-solid.
- Titus 3:4-7 – Again, notice Paul’s description here; God is active, we are passive–hesaved us. We are told that his mercy is manifested “by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.” This salvation is the opposite of our works done in righteousness, it is according to his own mercy.
I once heard a gospel invitation that went like this, “God is a gentleman. He won’t force you to do anything. He doesn’t demand for you to come to him; he wants you.” Although it is certainly true that Jesus does want us, is this really the best way to describe God’s saving work? As a gentleman who doesn’t demand anything? That doesn’t sound like the King of kings and Lord of lords, who will have every knee bow before him, and every tongue confess that he’s Lord. Rather, it sounds like a trembling, shaking, love-struck admirer who is eagerly waiting the response of his crush.
Part of what lies behind such gospel invitations is the criticism that irresistible grace is tantamount to spiritual rape. “If he comes and overpowers our will” it is reasoned, “then we are forced to do what we don’t want to do.” But that’s not an accurate description of irresistible grace. We’re not talking about a love-struck admirer who will overpower and dominate the object of his admiration in rape. We’re talking about a liberator, who breaks into a prison and brings the captives to the light of day. We’re talking about a physician, who heals the sick of their life-long chronic infirmities. We’re talking about a God, who breathes life into a corpse. Did Lazarus feel violated when those words, “Lazarus, come out!” spoke life into his rotting body? We were blind, and the irresistible, gracious regeneration is the salve that gave us vision. We were dead, and the sovereign, effective call of God brought us to life in Christ.
Imagine you’re sitting in a pitch black room, holding on to what you believe to be a treasure chest, but is actually a box full of garbage. Sovereign regeneration is King Jesus turning the lights on, opening the door, and bringing you to himself, where there is actually “the fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore,” (Psalm 16:11). That’s not violation, that’s liberation. The irony is that non-Calvinists resent the doctrine of irresistible grace because they feel that it violates our freedom, but irresistible grace is actually the very thing that gives us freedom.