4. Irresistible Grace – Calvinism

Grace According to Calvinists

Calvinists do not deny that God’s grace is given to the non-elect. Everything good is from God. Jesus said that God makes the sun to shine on both the wicked and righteous. Everything good in this world is because of the grace of God. However, Calvinists distinguish between what they call “common grace” which affects all, and a special grace that leads to salvation. God allegedly gives grace leading to salvation only to the elect. This special grace is “irresistible” according to Calvinists. If God has elected certain individuals to be saved based on His sovereignty, what man can resist His will? God will ultimately cause that person’s will to conform to His. Calvinists believe God not only offers His grace to the elect, but overpowers and manipulates their will, making His grace “irresistible.” He also withholds saving grace from the non-elect. Consequently, the elect, on whom God bestows “irresistible grace,” cannot help but believe and persevere in their faith. Those who do not receive this special grace are beyond any hope of salvation from the moment of their birth.

The passage of Scripture most heavily relied upon to establish “irresistible grace” is John 6. Calvinist, Dr. John Murray, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, explains: “This constraint has been called “efficacious.” No other inference could reasonably be drawn from John 6:44, 45. Jesus is speaking of coming unto him, that is, of the commitment of faith and of the impossibility apart from the Father’s drawing. In making the exception it is surely implied that when the Father draws the exception occurs— the person drawn does come. Furthermore, it would offend against all that may be conceived as to the nature and intent of the Father’s drawing and giving in terms of verses 44, 65 to think of these actions as ineffectual. But John 6:37 puts this beyond all question: “All that the Father giveth me will come to me.” Jesus does not say: all that the Father giveth me are brought to me.

He uses the term that denotes motion on the part of the person—”will come to me.” Coming to Christ is the movement of commitment to Christ, coming that engages the whole-souled activity of the person coming. It is not that he may come, not that he has the opportunity to come, not that he will in all probability come, and not simply that he is empowered to come, but that he will come. There is absolute certainty. There is a divine necessity; the order of heaven insures the sequence. It is a moral and spiritual impossibility for a person to come to Christ apart from the Father’s drawing. What we find now is that it is a moral and spiritual impossibility for the person given by the Father to the Son not to come. There is by Jesus’ verdict the invariable conjunction of these two diverse kinds of action—”all that the Father giveth me will come to me.” There is invincible efficacy in the Father’s action and this means grace irresistible.”1

Grace According to Arminians

Clement of Rome, disciple of Paul’s and bishop of Rome while John was still alive, expressed our view with these words. “Let us look stedfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted unto Him.”2 

Dr. Murray claims that no other inference can be drawn from the following verses except that God’s drawing grace will succeed always, resulting in the eternal salvation of the one drawn. At PFRS, we take exception to that statement. The problem with the Calvinist’s approach to John 6 is their failure to understand that God was doing something unique and temporary with Israel during Jesus’ public ministry — something that ended at the cross. The mistake is to apply a truth that is limited to a temporary circumstance, making it a universal principle applicable to all people of all time. 

While John 6 indicates God was at that time drawing only a small number of Jews to faith in Christ, Jesus predicted a time when ALL would be drawn to Him — when He would be “lifted up.” “‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (John 12:31-33). The partial drawing of some Jews certainly was the case in John 6, and throughout Jesus’ public ministry. In contrast, Jesus clearly stated that after the cross the situation would dramatically change. The same Greek word for “draw” is found in John 6:44 and John 12:32. When John wrote his Gospel after the crucifixion, he plainly indicated that Christ, in whom was life, came for all men. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:4-9). 

The words of Jesus to the Jewish crowds in John 6 applied to a unique situation. God was dividing Israel into two camps. One camp was destined to crucify Him, the other to be evangelists to the Gentile nations. But, after the crucifixion, Jesus would draw all men to Himself. Ignatius, disciple of John and Bishop of Antioch, wrote, “‘If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto Me.’ The Word therefore did dwell in flesh, for ‘Wisdom built herself an house.’ The Word raised up again His own temple on the third day, when it had been destroyed by the Jews fighting against Christ. The Word, when His flesh was lifted up, after the manner of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, drew all men to Himself for their eternal salvation.”3  For further treatment of John 6, please see our article John 6.

Scripture indicates that the grace leading to salvation is “resistible.” It also plainly states that it is shown to everyone. Paul wrote to Titus, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11). Calvinists frequently claim that the word “all” in such verses does not mean everyone, but can refer to all the elect. It is true that “all” is sometimes limited by the context. However, in this case, “all” is an adjective modifying “men” (anthropos). When “all” is used without modifying a specific noun, it may be limited by the context. That is, its antecedent might be stated elsewhere in the passage or even be implied but not stated. However, when it modifies a particular noun in a specific clause, it cannot be limited by the general context. It is limited only by the noun it modifies. The Greek word “anthropos” (men) refers to humanity, not the “elect.” Therefore, the passage cannot rightly be limited to the elect. It refers to everyone.

There are two facts we can conclude from Titus 2:11. The first is clearly stated. God’s saving grace has been shown to every individual. The second is a necessary inference. Since not all on whom God shows the “grace that bringeth salvation” are saved, God’s saving grace cannot be “irresistible” or always “effectual.” It is effectual only on those who respond positively. It is not effectual for those who resist. The same “grace of God that bringeth salvation” was shown to the men Steven addressed in the Sanhedrin. “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.” (Acts 7:51).

Paul left no doubt that even those who end up being damned are drawn by God toward repentance. “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” (Rom 2:4-5)Paul’s words were addressed to those being drawn by God’s grace to repentance. God’s goodness “leadeth thee to repentance.” Yet, according to Paul some of them will not be saved, but instead “treasurest up” to themselves “wrath.” Obviously, in this passage God’s persistent and longsuffering goodness drawing them to repentance certainty could be and is “resisted.” God’s longsuffering goodness towards these people, leading them to repentance, is certainly not “effectual” in this case because they end up being damned.

While Calvinists believe that “irresistible grace” not only brings a person to believe the Gospel, but also continues to guarantee their final perseverance throughout their Christian walk. It is the cause of their perseverance. Arminians point out that God’s saving grace is not only resisted by most unbelievers, but is sometimes resisted even by believers. This resistance is ultimately the cause of their permanent falling away from the Faith. Paul pleaded with some of the Corinthians, who were on the verge of forsaking their faith, “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” (2 Cor. 6:1). To the Hebrew believers Paul warned, “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29).And again,  “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.” (Heb. 12:15). These passages, and many others, prove that all unbelievers resist God’s grace, as well as former Christians.

The Calvinism – Arminianism debate hinges on one question. Everything else is an attempt to harmonize the biblical data with the answer to this question. Who makes the decision regarding salvation — God or man? “Provision” is not at issue. That is God’s alone. “Power” is not at issue. It is all of God. The Calvinist says God alone makes the “provision” for a few. He alone has the “power” to save. And the choice is His alone. The Arminian says God made provision for all. The power to save is God’s alone. The choice is mans’ only when God enables him to choose, and provides him with what is necessary to believe. His choice is between continuing to resist God’s grace, or to stop resisting God’s grace.

The Calvinist claims that any effort on man’s part, no matter how small, constitutes “works,” making man responsible for his own salvation. This has been the main reason for Calvinism’s wide acceptance among Evangelicals. However, it is a false premise, and leads to false conclusions.

The whole issue really revolves around “resistance.” Arminians agree that man is totally incapable of saving himself. We agree that man is even incapable of contributing to his own salvation in the slightest way. We will go so far as to say that man cannot even choose of his own free will to receive the gift of God unless God first enables him to do so. However, we also believe that God gives all people this ability through the power inherent in the Gospel, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit’s drawing all men. The issue then is whether or not man resists the Holy Spirit until He draws them no more, or whether they stop resisting the Spirit at some point, and God saves them.

Let’s use the example of a drowning man who cannot swim. This analogy has commonly been used in the Calvinism – Arminian debate. Calvinists falsely portray the Arminian position as God’s throwing man a life preserver, and man’s reaching out to grab it, and clinging to it by his own strength. Consequently, man must ACT on his own behalf (reaching for the life preserver), and continuing to act in cooperation with God’s pulling him to safety (by continuing to cling to it). Man’s own strength in reaching for the life preserver, and holding on to it, contributes to his being rescued. This might be a true representation of Pelagianism or even semi-Pelagianism held by Catholics, but not consistent Arminianism. It is a false analogy.

The true analogy would be that Jesus jumps into the water to save the drowning sinner. He swims to Him, reaches out and grabs him. He repeatedly shouts to him to stop struggling, and He will save him. He continues to warn him that his own struggling will make it impossible to save him. And He continues to grab hold of the man, attempting to pull him to safety. The drowning man can either continue to struggle to save himself, resisting Christ’s persistent and longsuffering efforts to save him, or he can trust Christ, stop resisting and fighting against the water, and allow Christ to pull him to safety. If he stops fighting and resisting, and relaxes, trusting Christ to save him, he will be saved. If he persists in his own struggle, he will drown.

“Resistance is futile” only in the sense that resistance necessarily leads to damnation.

Copyright © Tim Warner – Revised 06/2004 Notes:

Next 5. Perseverance of the saints

1. Murray, John, Irresistible Grace, http://www.the-highway.com/Irresistible_Murray.html
2. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, vii
3. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrneans, iii

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