Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can Grace be Irresistible and Still be Grace?

The fourth petal of the Calvinist TULIP is perhaps the most difficult to understand, or to debate.  The difficulty lies in the fact that the doctrine is based almost entirely on inference from Scriptures dealing with other matters (for example: the resurrection of Lazarus), and upon a logical progression from the other tenets of Reformed theology.   Add to this the fact that the doctrine, as with many matters of the faith, is often described in terms that seem to echo the truth of Scripture, leading many to confusion as to what the “I” in the TULIP, Irresistible Grace, actually proposes.  Further compounding the issue is the fact that not all Reformed theologians are in complete agreement concerning what Irresistible Grace is and how it works.  In fact, Sproul devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his book What is Reformed Theology? without ever actually defining the term (though one can pull the definition from the context and from the many quotes offered by Sproul on the subject)!  I will therefore attempt to provide a fair and concise statement of the doctrine here:

The doctrine Irresistible Grace states that God, in His sovereignty, causes all whom He has predestined to salvation to be irresistibly drawn to Christ, so that none of those whom He elected before the foundation of the world shall fail to exercise faith in the Savior and be lost.

The doctrine flows from the dual pillars of Unconditional Election and Total Depravity.  For election to be truly unconditional, the Calvinist argues, then grace cannot be resistible; otherwise election would actually be conditioned upon the faith response of the believer.  Since we know, the Calvinist continues, that the unregenerate is dead in his sins (as dead as was Lazarus in the tomb), and therefore as unable to respond to the Gospel as a corpse would be, the unbeliever must be made alive by a sovereign act of God before believing in Christ.

At the heart of the doctrine is the mystical idea that before the elect can believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit must replace that person’s heart, will, and thought processes with a new heart, will and thoughts attuned to and receptive to the Gospel of Christ.  This process is variously described as “quickening,”  “making alive,” or “regeneration unto faith.”

In explaining this, Sproul recounts a the story of a lesson given by John Orr that stunned young John Gerstner and changed his way of thinking about the Christian faith:

During one lecture Orr wrote on the blackboard in large letters: Regeneration precedes faith. These words stunned Gerstner.  He was sure his professor had made a mistake and unintentionally reversed the order of the words.  Did not every Christian know that faith is a necessary prerequisite for regeneration, that one must believe in Christ to be born again? (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, P. 179)

What a pity that Gerstner was ultimately swayed by the persuasive arguments of his professor!  For he had hit upon an issue that Calvinists to this day have failed to satisfactorily explain:  How can one be reborn before believing when the agent of that rebirth is given only to believers?  Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike agree and the Scriptures affirm that the agent of rebirth is God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit:

John 3:1-5 (NKJV)

1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

When Nicodemus asks of Jesus “How can a man be born again?” Jesus responds that the new birth can only be accomplished by the Sprit.  Reformed and non-Reformed theologians alike affirm that the Spirit in question here is none other than the Holy Spirit, for only God can grant new life (See Titus 3:5). And yet, what does the Scripture have to say concerning receipt of this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit?

John 7:39 (NKJV)

39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Ephesians 1:13 (NKJV)

13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,

Acts 2:38 (NKJV)

38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

All of the passages above, when read impartially, indicate that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to believers, making faith, properly placed, a precondition for receipt.  Ephesians 1:13 in particular, makes it abundantly clear that faith placed in Christ logically, if not temporally, precedes the gift.  Sproul and others attempt to explain away this apparent contradiction between the progression described by the Calvinist petal of Irresistible Grace and the progression of hearing, believing, and receiving new life in the Spirit described in Scripture by explaining that the progression described by Calvinism (receiving new life, hearing, believing) is only a logical progression, and that in reality these things happen simultaneously (Sproul, What is Reformed Theology, P. 95).  This is an unsatisfactory explanation, as an unbiased reading of passages like Ephesians 1 clearly indicate a reverse logical order to that proposed by the Calvinist system.

One of the core issues with doctrine of irresistible grace is that the doctrine necessarily minimizes the importance of correctly apprehending and transmitting the Gospel.  Calvinist apologists will vehemently disagree with this assertion but the Scriptures speak of the new birth, regeneration, and being made alive as tantamount to eternal salvation.  Christ told Nicodemus that one must be reborn to see the Kingdom of God.  Ephesians 2:1 contrasts being dead in our trespasses with being made alive in Christ.  In the Calvinist system, the new birth must logically precede understanding and receiving the Gospel. We might well ask, “if a person has already been reborn, made alive in Christ (and in fact must be, before understanding the Gospel), then transmission of the Gospel becomes rather incidental to receipt of the Spirit or eternal life, doesn’t it?”  Yet the Scriptures assert faithful transmission of the Gospel to be essential.  Jude, Paul, John devoted a fair amount of their writings to this very subject (see Romans 10, Galatians, 1 John, Jude).  The Scriptures make it clear that without apprehending and receiving the Gospel (and not just any Gospel), there is no Spirit; hence, no life. Acts 19 provides a perfect illustration of this principle:

Acts 19 (NKJV)

And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?”
So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all.

When Paul questioned the Ephesian elders, he asked them whether they had received the Holy Spirit when they had believed.  When they answered “no,” Paul immediately perceived that something was amiss and got right to the heart of the matter:  Into what were you baptized?  The elders had not received the Spirit, because the Gospel they had heard was incomplete – they had not heard that the one for whom John was preparing the way had already come and fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.  Nowhere do the Scriptures indicate that faith and regeneration are granted in a mystical pre-conversion experience.  Instead Paul exhorts us in Romans 10 that faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word.  We know Paul believed this to be true, because we read how he spent week after week reasoning with his listeners from the Scripture (Acts 17) and persuading them of the truth of the Gospel (Acts 18).

In fact, numerous passages of Scripture exhorting us to “choose whom we will serve,” (Joshua 24), repent (change your mind - Acts 2), and believe (Acts 16, many passages in John and elsewhere) fail to make any sense in the context of Irresistible Grace.  If  regeneration precedes faith, then the elect need no persuasion or exhortation; furthermore, no amount of persuasion will sway the unregenerate.  Yet God repeatedly commands man to choose:

Deuteronomy 30:15-19 (NKJV)

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, 16 in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, 18 I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;

Joshua 24:14-15 (NKJV)

14 “Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! 15 And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

When God spoke to the children through his servants Moses and Joshua, He placed before them choices– one with incomparable rewards; one with terrible consequences. 

Was this choice merely an illusion?  Is God a mean trickster, holding out hope of salvation and calling “come and get it” to a world full of hog-tied sinners?  And if some before the fulfillment of the Promise would resolve to  love God and follow His commands (albeit far from perfectly), is it really so impossible that those fortunate enough to be born in the age of grace would of themselves choose simply to believe and trust in Christ?

Calvinists will, of course, respond that the “Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing…” but this is a cop-out.  If Reformed apologists make this argument, it is incumbent upon them to prove that the propositions of Calvinism really are the Gospel.

A few of the more common arguments levied against those who deny the doctrine of Irresistible Grace are presented with short rebuttals below:

Denying Irresistible Grace is denying the sovereignty of God.

As has been discussed in an earlier installment of this blog, denying Irresistible Grace denies only the Calvinist definition of sovereignty – a rather unique definition found nowhere in the realms of political science or philosophy and expressed nowhere in Scripture.  The Scriptures are clear that God declares the end from the beginning, that He arranges events according to His will, and that He accomplishes what He purposes (Isaiah 46).  What the Scriptures do not assert is that God decrees, ordains, and causes every last event in every person’s life; yet this and nothing less, the Calvinist insists, is the definition of divine sovereignty.

Denying Irresistible Grace is denying the work of God in salvation.

It is difficult to see how this could be the case, when many who would deny the doctrine of Irresistible Grace (as defined by regeneration preceding faith) would affirm without hesitation that:
  • Only Christ lived the sinless life we could not live (2 Corinthians 5:21),
  • Only Christ could atone for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2),
  • God Himself provided the testimony about Christ (2 Timothy 3:16), and
  • God blessed the Scriptures with the power to change hearts and minds (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12)

Would we say of a juror that became convinced by well-prepared, well-reasoned arguments of a lawyer that he helped the lawyer win the case?  And yet the juror was free to accept or reject the reasoned arguments of the lawyer.  The Bible is clear on the distinction between faith and works (of the Law - Romans 3:28, or otherwise – Romans 4:5), and that they are not the same thing.  Why then, does the Reformed apologist insist upon treating faith as if it were a work of cooperation, unless irresistibly forced upon the elect by God, in the context of this argument?
What about Ephesians 2:8-9?  Isn’t faith a gift from God?

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV)

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

The English renderings of Ephesians 2:8-9 have an unfortunate structure that makes it seem as if the word faith in Verse 8 is the noun referred to by the pronoun this in Verse 9.  A number of teachers have latched onto this structure and incorrectly asserted that this passage proves Irresistible Grace.  A survey of the modern apologists for Calvinism, though, reveals that they shy away from this verse as a proof-text for Irresistible Grace.  Why?  It has been shown by grammatical analysis of the Greek, that the neuter pronoun form rendered “this” cannot possibly refer to the words “faith” or “grace,” both being feminine.  “This,” therefore, must refer to the noun salvation, or to the general process of salvation by grace through faith.  MacArthur tacitly acknowledges this in his study commentary without acknowledging the grammatical contradiction, in trying to keep the verse as a (weak) argument for Calvinist theology:

“This” refers to the entire process of salvation, not only the grace but the faith.  Although men are required to believe for salvation, even that faith is part of the gift of God, which saves and cannot be exercised by one’s own power. (John MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, Commentary on Ephesians 2:8)

Notice how MacArthur’s argument is constructed to make it appear that if one disagrees with the doctrine Irresistible Grace, he must be claiming that humans are saved by their own power.  This brings us to the next common argument:

Men can choose to have faith?  Isn’t that Pelagianism?

A disturbing trend among Calvinist apologists is the tendency to smear those who disagree with their position by naming them Pelagians or semi-Pelagians.  Pelagius was an early church philosopher who proposed the very humanistic view that people are not born tainted by sin, but are born with the ability to keep the Law of God, should they so choose.  Pelagianism and the later semi-Pelagianism, which proposed that man may seek God, unaided by grace, thereby initiating and cooperating in salvation, are both rightly condemned as heresy (See Romans 3:11, 1 Corinthians 15:21, Romans 5:12-21).  Many Bible teachers opposed to the Calvinist system of theology agree that the spirit is responsible for "quickening" the heart via the inspired Word (see Romans 1:16, Romans 10), but that people are nevertheless given freedom to harden their hearts against the Word. Those who believe the Word and receive Christ are regenerated - given a new nature.  God gets the credit for the elect, while the blame for rejecting Christ falls squarely on those who hardened their hearts against the Word, as it should.  In short:

  • The Word is given by God
  • The Living Word is God, in the person of Christ
  • The work of redemption was finished by Living Word

Therefore the "credit" for salvation goes to God.  There is no reason why freely receiving and believing the testimony given by God about God means that God must share the credit with us for our salvation (or why God should get the "credit" (blame) for those who reject the Word).

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the doctrine of Irresistible Grace lies in the way it has been used to support and defend the twisting of the simple good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone into bad news of salvation through faith, plus sincere commitment to a life of perseverance in obedience and good works and a willingness to forsake all (family, friends, money, country) for Christ.  Though Calvinists readily concede that such commitment is impossible for the unregenerate, they maintain that the call to faith so-defined is appropriate in the light of the “revealed truth” that men are regenerated unto faith by God.  More on this in our next installment…

A final word about Irresistible Grace:

Many testimonies, including that of famed preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon, allude to the fact that the converted heard the Gospel many times before, but it was only at the time of their conversion that it felt like the "light came on" and they were irresistibly drawn to receive Christ.  While there is no doubt that these testimonies are true, the idea that the Spirit was somehow present at the time of conversion and absent at other times is very subjective.  

In the first place, there are many areas of study and debate in which the holder of a position may have been exposed to an opposite view 10, 50, 100 times before some final bit of evidence or information clicks into place for the debator to cause him to change his mind.  Spurgeon himself relates that it wasn't until hearing the Gospel preached that the Word came alive for him in a way that would soften his heart to the calling of the Lord (Charles H. Spurgeon, My Conversion, P. 32).

In the second place, the Lord promises that, wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is there (Matthew 18:20), so we can be assured that the Holy Spirit is present and working whenever and wherever the Gospel is being faithfully preached.  This means, of course, the Holy Spirit is at work in the conversion of the believer, but this is very different from saying the Holy Spirit regenerates some unto faith apart from hearing, while leaving others to eternal condemnation.

In the third place, there is no denying that the Lord arranges circumstances to suit His own purposes, and that those who come to the Lord in the grip of such circumstances feel that they were irresistibly drawn.  If this is what is meant by Irresistible Grace, then we cheerfully acknowledge this doctrine as Biblically sound.  But this is very different from saying that the Lord replaces the heart of the unbeliever to make him a believer.  The Bible does not promise a new heart to unbelievers that He has chosen from before time; rather God promises to replace the heart of all who believe and trust Him.  In Ezekiel, the Lord foretells that He will give Israel a new heart, not for her sake, but for the sake of His own name.  And yet when we examine who will receive a new heart and when, we see that it is only when they return to the land and cast away the detestable things (beliefs), and only promised to those who cast away those abominable beliefs.  When we read Romans 11, we see the mechanism of this restoration:

Romans 11:11-15 (NKJV)

Israel’s Rejection Not Final

11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. 12 Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

In the final analysis, God's grace is indeed irresistible to those who have come to a real understanding of their plight, and of the salvation freely offered by Christ.  When those who have come to understand their awful disobedience and the penalty that comes with it hear the Gospel and grasp desperately for this lifeline, we can indeed speak of a collision of the Word and the Spirit in the heart of the converted, but this is very different from speaking of a forced regeneration apart from the willingness of the unbeliever and apart from the conviction of God's Holy Word.

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