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Irresistible Grace

by Tim O'Hearn

In The Princess Bride the character Vezzini often uses the word “Inconceivable.” At one point Inigo Montoya replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Many articles have been written to refute the Calvinist doctrine of Irresistible Grace. In many cases, Reformed scholars will reply with some form of Inigo Montoya’s line. Irresistible doesn’t mean what you think it means. To that end, we must look at what they think it means before we can make arguments for or against the doctrine.

As with Limited Atonement, Calvin did not use the term irresistible. Rather, he spoke of effectual grace; that is, grace that accomplishes faith in the elect. The term irresistible is a shortcut for what he taught.

Most articles opposing Calvinism make the argument that if grace is irresistible that means God forces man to believe whether he wants to or not. While that seems to follow some of the other points of doctrine (unconditional election, and the underlying doctrine of specific predestination), Reformed writers say that this doctrine does not mean that God drags sinners kicking and screaming into salvation. In fact, the doctrine is not aboutCalvin’s view is that grace is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s will to man. who is saved and who is not; it is about how those who are to be saved are saved.

The important word is not “irresistible” or “effectual;” it is “grace.” The doctrine concerns itself with how grace works within a person to bring about and grow faith.

Irresistible Grace

Grace, according to Calvin, is that which is given by God that allows man to recognize his sinfulness and to know the mysteries of God. He calls it “preventive grace,” using the adjective in the sense of his day, not ours; preventive grace being that which comes before the will to do good.

The Apostle’s doctrine is not, that the grace of a good will is offered to us if we will accept of it, but that God himself is pleased so to work in us as to guide, turn, and govern our heart by his Spirit, and reign in it as his own possession. (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 3)

He also speaks of “effectual grace;” grace will achieve its work. Since the work of grace is to turn the will, then those to whom grace is given will necessarily have their wills changed. In this sense, then, grace could be called irresistible; if we are among those given grace (the elect), then we will choose to turn our will toward obedience.

And the only meaning which can be given to our Saviour’s words, “Every man, therefore, that has heard and learned of the Father, cometh unto me,” (John 6:45), is, that the grace of God is effectual in itself. … Men are indeed to be taught that the favour of God is offered, without exception, to all who ask it; but since those only begin to ask whom heaven by grace inspires, even this minute portion of praise must not be withheld from him. It is the privilege of the elect to be regenerated by the Spirit of God, and then placed under his guidance and government. (Institutes, Book II, Chapter 3)

Lest one ask whether Adam could have made a free-will choice not to sin, Calvin (paraphrasing Augustine) says that Adam had the power to resist temptation if he had the will, “but he did not will to have the power.” We are better off than Adam because God gives us grace so that we have both the will and the power.

This doctrine is a logical extension of the earlier points of Calvinism. If man is totally depraved he cannot will to know God. If there are to be those who have the will to follow God, then that election is entirely from God. If God elects those who will be saved, then he must provide a means by which they are enabled to have that will. That means is grace, effectual in its work among those elect to whom God gives it.

It should also be pointed out that grace is not faith. Grace produces faith. “By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8) Faith is the means by which grace saves.

Calvin’s view, then, is that grace is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s will to man. Without this grace, sinful man cannot know God except as they are given a measure of grace that makes them uncomfortable by a knowledge of sin without the conviction of the salvation through the death of Jesus. (He must posit this ephemeral grace to justify that some of the reprobate have an awareness of their sin.) Thus grace, and therefore the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, precedes salvation.

The Biblical View

Given the Calvinist definition of grace, does the Bible support the same conclusion? That is, if grace guides our heart, and therefore having the work of the Holy Spirit must be the Holy Spirit, does the Bible teach that the gift precedes salvation? This is a basic tenet of at least some descendants of Calvinist thought. The Baptists at least, and possibly some other groups (including, recently, a few in the Church of Christ), contend that one must be saved prior to immersion because the gift precedes the act. Baptism may be essential, just not essential for salvation. What, though, does the Bible say?

Peter says “baptism doth also now save us.” (1 Pet 3:21) The Calvinist response says that he goes on to say it is “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Since, in their view, one cannot have a good conscience unless they are among the elect and have been given the grace to understand their sinful state, then Peter must be saying that the good conscience is actually the saving force that sees its culmination in baptism. That might be an acceptable argument were it not for other scriptures.

This same Peter, in his first sermon after the ascension of the Christ, says “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38) If the grace of God is only given to the elect to bring them to salvation, then Peter would have said “for you have received” (past) rather than “ye shall receive the gift” (future).

But if Peter says baptism (immersion) saves, and Paul says “you are saved by grace,” which one is right? Obviously, both are right. Grace is a driving force in salvation, which is not a one-time event but a lifetime process. Faith is the effectuator of salvation, and it is triggered by our submission to the reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. (Romans 6) When we die to the old man we are clothed with Jesus (Gal 3:27), and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us in the way which maintains that salvation.

Faith is the gift of God. (Eph 2:8) Even if one were to accept the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election (which have been refuted in earlier articles), one would think that the Reformed view would talk of effectual, preventive, or irresistible faith rather than grace. While the two are interconnected, they are not the same thing. Even those who define grace as “unmerited favor” imply that grace is a gift of God. It is not. Therein lies the essential error of preventive grace; it defines grace wrongly.

So what, then, is grace, if not God’s gift? The Greek word commonly translated grace does not bear the meaning of a gift. It is favor or pleasure. It is a characteristic of God, not something he gives. Adding, as some do, the qualification of “unmerited” is unnecessary. God is love. He looks upon us with favor, which is necessarily unmerited because we are all sinners.

If Calvin and his followers were to accept this definition, and it should be noted that Calvin never specifically defines what grace is, then they would be faced with two choices. The one that they would accept is that God only has favor to certain people, the elect. He looks at everyone else with disfavor. The problem with that is that it says that God has two essential, unwavering, and mutually exclusive attributes. God is love and unlove at the same time. The other choice is that God looks on everyone with favor, just as most parents look on all their children with favor, but does not condone the actions of every person. We condemn Jacob for showing favoritism toward Joseph, but taking the former view we would also be condemning God.

But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.Grace is a characteristic of God; faith is the gift. (Rom 5:15; most modern translations read “the gift by the grace of one man, Jesus Christ”)

The gift, life (and by extension, salvation), comes through the grace of God and of Jesus, which incidentally implies that Jesus is God. The grace is that which caused Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin. It is not the sacrifice itself, nor is it something resulting from that sacrifice. God’s gift to man is not grace but salvation.

What, then, of the passages where James and Peter quote the proverb that God “giveth grace to the humble”? If grace is an attribute of God, it can also be an attribute of man. This is not in the sense of that which leads us to salvation, but in the sense that other people look favorably on us. Thus those of humble estate often need a greater measure of this characteristic. It does not mean, however, that they are any more inclined toward salvation.

The formulation of Calvin’s doctrine of preventive grace was a reaction to Arminius’ doctrine of prevenient grace. Under the former, grace is given to the elect to lead them to salvation. Under the latter, grace is available for all who choose to receive it. Perhaps both were wrong. If grace is an attribute of God, rather than a gift given by God, then it is always there. It is neither something given by God to the elect, nor something people can choose to receive or reject. It just is. It is rather the gift that comes from that grace that can be received or rejected, given to a few or available to many.

The Calvinists sometimes argue that “irresistible” doesn’t mean what we think it means. Perhaps we should say the same for grace.