DOCTRINES OF GRACE: TIP TOE THROUGH THE TULIPS "I" (5 of 6)
by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)
This term summarizes what the Scriptures teach about the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of sinners. It is the “I” in the TULIP acronym that is used to describe the five points of Calvinism (also referred to as the doctrines of grace).
Simply put, irresistible grace refers to the Scriptural truth that whatever God decrees to happen will surely happen, including the salvation of individuals. The Holy Spirit will work in the lives of the elect so that they will unavoidably come to faith in Christ. The Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit does not fail in bringing those sinners who He personally called to salvation in Christ (John 6:37-40). At the core of this doctrine is the answer to the question: Why does one person believe the gospel and another does not? Is it because one is smarter, more talented, or has some other characteristic that allows them to realize the significance of the gospel message? Or is it because God does something unique in the lives of those who He saves? If it is because of what the person who believes does, or is, then in a real sense they are responsible for their salvation and has a reason to boast (or brag). However, if the difference is that God alone does something unique in the hearts and lives of those who believe in Him and are saved, then there is no basis or reason for boasting (bragging) and salvation is truly and completely a gift of grace. Of course, the answer from Scripture for these questions is that the Holy Spirit does do something unique in the hearts of those who are saved. Scripture tells us that God saves people “because of his mercy...through the washing of rebirth (regeneration) and renewed by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, NIV). In other words, those who believe the gospel and are saved are able to do so because they have been transformed by the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of irresistible grace recognizes that the Scriptures describe natural “man” as “dead in his trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13), and, because “man” is spiritually dead, “he” must first be made alive, regenerated, in order to understood and respond to the gospel message. An illustration of this is found when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In John 11:43, we see that Jesus told Lazarus to “come forth” and that Lazarus came forth out of the tomb. What had to happen before Lazarus, who had been dead for several days, could respond to the command of Jesus? He had to be made alive because a dead man cannot hear or respond. The same thing is true spiritually. If we are dead in our sins, as Scripture clearly teaches, then before we can respond to the gospel message and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we first have to be made alive.
Remember Jesus telling Nicodemus in John 3:3 that one must be “born again to see the kingdom of God”? John 1:12-13 tells us that being born again is not the result of something we do but is a sovereign act of God. Just as Lazarus could not bring himself back to life or respond to the command of Jesus without being brought back to life, neither can sinful humanity. Ephesians 2:1-10 makes it quite clear that while we are still dead in our trespasses and sin God makes us alive. Scripture is also clear that the act of being born again, regenerated, is a sovereign act of God. It is something He does which gives us the ability to believe the gospel message, not something that comes as a result of our belief.
The reason this doctrine is called “irresistible” grace is that it always results in God's intended outcome, the salvation of the person it is given to. It is important to realize that the act of being regenerated cannot be separated from the act of believing the gospel. This is clearly shown in Ephesians 2:1-10. There is a definite connection between the act of being made alive by God (Ephesians 2:1, 5) and the result of being saved by grace (Ephesians 2:5, 8). This is because everything related to salvation, including the faith to believe, is an act of God's grace. The reason God's grace is irresistible and always brings about the desired result is that God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into” His kingdom (Colossians 1:13, NIV). Or, as Psalm 3:8 puts it, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
To understand the doctrine of “irresistible grace,” it is important to realize that this is a special grace given only to those God has chosen for salvation (His elect) and is different from what is known as “common grace” which God gives to both believer and unbeliever. While there are many aspects of common grace, including life and everything that is needed to sustain it, common grace is what is often referred to as the “outward call of God.” This is God's revelation of Himself which is given to all humanity through the fact of creation and their consciences. It also includes the general call of the gospel that goes out anytime the gospel message is preached. This call can be resisted and rejected by those who hear it (Matthew 22:14; Romans 1:18-32). However, God also gives an “inward call” which always results in salvation. This is the call of God that Jesus refers to in John 6:37-47. The certainty of this inward call is seen in John 6:37: “All that the Father give me will come to me, whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (NIV). John 6:44 helps to solidify this: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (NIV).
Other passages where irresistible grace can be seen include 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Acts 13:48; 16:14 and Romans 8:30. In 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, after explaining why some people do not believe the gospel (it is veiled to them and their minds have been blinded toward it), Paul writes: “For God, who said 'let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6, NIV). The God who said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) is the same God who gives the light of salvation to those He chooses. The same truth is seen in a different way in Acts 13:48. Here it says that “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (NIV). God saves those He chooses to save; therefore, His saving grace is always effective (efficacious). In Acts 16:14, we have another example of God's irresistible grace in action. The Lord opened the heart of Lydia “to respond to Paul's message” (NIV). And in Romans 8:29-30 we see that everyone God calls to salvation (the inward call) will be saved (justified).
A common misunderstanding regarding the doctrine of irresistible grace is that it implies people are forced to accept Christ and are dragged into heaven “kicking and screaming.” Of course, neither one of these is a true description of the doctrine of irresistible grace as revealed in the Scriptures. In fact, the core of irresistible grace is the transforming power of the Holy Spirit where He takes a person dead in trespasses and sins and gives them spiritual life so that they can recognize the unsurpassed value of God's offer of salvation. Then, having been set free from the bondage of sin, that person comes to Christ willingly.
Another misunderstanding regarding this doctrine is that it teaches the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted at all. However, that is not what the doctrine teaches because that is not what the Scriptures teach. God's grace can be resisted, and the Holy Spirit's influence can be resisted, even by one of the elect. However, what the doctrine does rightly recognize is that the Holy Spirit overcomes all such resistance and that He will draw the elect with an irresistible grace that makes them want to come to God and helps them understand the gospel so they can, and will, believe it.
The doctrine of irresistible grace simply recognizes that the Scriptures teach God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance when He wills to. What God determines (decrees) will come to pass. This can be seen all throughout Scripture. In Daniel 4:35, we see that “HeGod does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back His hand” (NIV). Psalm 115:3 declares, “Our God is in the heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (NIV). God's grace in salvation is irresistible because when God sets out to fulfill His sovereign purpose, no person or thing can resist Him successfully.
The doctrine of irresistible grace accurately summarizes what the Scriptures teach about the nature of saving faith as well as what must happen to overcome humanity's depraved nature. Since in our natural state we are dead in trespasses and sins, it stands to reason that we must be regenerated before we can respond to the outward call of the gospel. Until that takes place, we will resist the gospel message and the grace of God; however, once one has been “born again” and has a heart that is bent toward God, the grace of God will irresistibly draw them to put their faith in Christ and be saved. These two acts (regeneration and faith) cannot be separated from each other. They are so closely intertwined that often times we cannot tell them apart.