In the doctrines of grace, the concept of “irresistible grace” is often caricatured and disparaged.
Now, I don’t like it when biblical doctrine is misrepresented, caricaturized, trivialized, straw-manned, mocked and ridiculed.
It is caricatured in that many people picture God as dragging unwilling sinners kicking and screaming into the Kingdom. Election has set things in stone, and God’s going to get his way by sheer power. “God has chosen you, and you’re going to heaven whether you like it not!” Worse, and more disturbing is the idea that there would be this poor sinner, grasping desperately for the gates of heaven, but being rejected because “you’re not one of the elect.”
It is also disparaged because irresistible grace doesn’t seem to jibe with experience. We have all heard people testify of their faith story and tell of extended time resisting the gospel call before finally coming to faith in Christ. Indeed, even pre-conversion Paul (as Saul) is told by the Lord, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Apparently, even as dramatic as Saul’s conversion was, there was some time before when God was drawing him, convicting him, and Saul was fighting it like a stubborn ox would kick against the cattle prods used to drive it.
I suppose for this reason, I have tended to avoid using the word “irresistible grace” and instead have employed “effectual grace” – meaning that God’s operating grace toward his elect ultimately has its desired effect. However, interestingly enough, the debate at the Synod of Dort (1618) – where the ideas of Jacobus Arminius were put forward and ultimately rejected – centered around the very verbiage of “resistible”/”irresistible.”
To Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants, God’s operational grace is necessary for salvation but not sufficient. “Regenerate man cannot, apart from the prevenient or assisting, awakening, consequent and cooperative grace, think, will or do the good…All good works or activities which can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ” (The Remonstrance of 1610, appendix C). But the document goes on to say, “But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51) and elsewhere in many places.”
In Arminian theology, there is a sense in which a person may be regenerated by the grace of God but may still resist the Holy Spirit and in the end, reject salvation.
What shall we make of Acts 7:51, where Stephen cried out, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit”? Is this evidence of a regenerated person still being able to resist the gospel call and reject salvation? I think not. Yes, they were resisting the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean they had first been regenerated. Stephen calls them “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” These people were not the recipients of God’s special grace; they were still in their sins.
There is a ministry of the Holy Spirit that falls short of regeneration, whereby he convicts sinners. “And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 16:8). This conviction is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel (which includes God’s law and its demands). Sinners may feel a subjective sense of conviction. This is the work of the Spirit in the Word and the gospel. This, of course, may be resisted. Stephen indicates as much when he accuses them of being like their fathers, who rejected every prophet. This is Saul’s story, who “kicked against the goads” of the Scriptures he knew so well. This is anyone’s story, who fought against the gospel they heard preached before finally coming to faith.
In the Reformed view, this general gospel call is accompanied by the special call of the Holy Spirit to God’s elect. Within the preaching of the Word, the Spirit calls to the elect and says, “Come.” And just as Jesus’ call to Lazarus – “Come forth!” – created life in his dead bones, so too does the Holy Spirit regenerate the soul, so that the person is made alive and made willing to believe.
This work is “effectual,” meaning, it effects the change for which it is intended. “Those whom he called he also justified” (Rom. 8:30). In that sense, it is not resistible; it is an effectual work of God. Now, this leads us to the image of the sinner being dragged against his will to God. This is not the case. When a sinner is regenerated by God, he is given life whereby he willingly trusts in Christ.
The Canons of Dort affirmed this in strong terms: “All in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”
I certainly understand that historically, the debate centered around the terms “irresistible” and “resistible.” Because these words are subject to misunderstanding and caricature, it is perhaps best to substitute “effectual.” But we do not need to shy away from the biblical teaching that when God calls his elect, they are “certainly, infallibly, and effectually” made alive and brought to faith in Christ.
To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen!