Irresistible Grace

Part 4 in a 5 part series. View series intro and index.

The doctrine of irresistible grace can be confused to mean that Reformed theologians think the Holy Spirit’s influence cannot be resisted. That is clearly not taught in Scripture. In Acts 7:51, Steven said, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” Paul even says that people can quench the Spirit in Ephesians 4:30 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19. Certainly we can say no to the Holy Spirit. For someone who never knows Jesus, they are kept in sin all their life and continually say no to God by nature and choice. They are solely responsible for their eternity.Instead of saying the Holy Spirit’s influence cannot be resisted, this doctrine means that the Holy Spirit can overcome any resistance to make his grace irresistible in a person’s life. Irresistible grace means that, when God wills, he will overcome the sinful nature of man and draw people to himself. God is the only Sovereign in the universe and no one can do anything that would frustrate him or cause him angst. If the doctrine of total depravity is true, then we can do nothing to pursue God. Remember, that doctrine says we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5); it says our default position is to be a rebel to righteousness. So, if total depravity is true, then we need an irresistible wooing by God to cause us to be born again.

It is true that God continually calls all people to himself to be saved. But, he does not do this in the same way for everyone. Common grace is what everyone gets from God. Common grace gives people the ability to hear the gospel call to repentance and faith. Not everyone believes though. What is the reason? It is because when God calls someone with saving grace he is putting in them a new heart, new mind, new spirit, and new desire. This idea is presented throughout the Bible.

John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” It is true that God draws all men, but not in the same way. The context of this passage is eternal life and being saved from sin, death, and hell. Jesus says in verse 47, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Believing is contingent on drawing and the “coming to Jesus” in this passage is salvation. Later in the same chapter, it says, “‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Notice two things here: Coming to Jesus is a gift. And Jesus explains why some people don’t come to him: because it wasn’t granted!

In Matthew 11:25-30, we see a similar teaching from Jesus. He said, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” We know that the Father reveals the Son to people who do not become Christians. So, we must say that is an entirely different revealing. This is a saving, irresistible grace revealing that causes people to be born again.

Someone might say to me, “Why do we preach the gospel to people then?” The reason we preach is two-fold. First, Jesus commands us to. Secondly, because of the good news of Jesus, everyone gets the free offer of the gospel because we do not know who is being influenced in an irresistible way by the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 1:23-25 shows this: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” There are two kinds of call in these verses. We see that some will stumble over the Christ and call him foolish-this is the first call, the general call in preaching. Yet, others who are being irresistibly influenced by God will call Christ the power and wisdom of God-this is the second call, the saving call of God in a person’s heart.

Paul expands on this in 2 Corinthians 4:4-6. “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Men and women are blind to the gospel and need a miraculous event to make them see Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is God who “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge” of who Jesus is.

The last example comes from Acts 16:14 when Lydia became a Christian. Luke writes that “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Paul gave the general call in preaching the gospel and God gave the saving grace call in Lydia’s heart so she would be born again. This passage makes no mistake: God gets the credit in salvation-from start to finish.

The theme of irresistible grace, as well as the other doctrines of grace in Reformed theology is the fact that Jesus is central and he deserves all the glory. I’ll leave you with an illustration that will hopefully point you to the glory of God in salvation.

Imagine that you cannot swim and you dive into the deep end of a pool. You cannot get to the ladder on the side of the pool and start to get nervous as you sink toward the bottom. You begin drifting downward; and now you are shouting, “HELP! HELP! HELP!” You flail your arms, hoping the lifeguard will see you. But in a moment, you are sinking toward the bottom, choking on the chlorine water. All the while, you are yelling under water for help and kicking your legs trying your hardest to get up. Then, out of nowhere, the lifeguard dives down and despite the depth and darkness of the water in the pool, despite your helplessness as someone who cannot swim, he holds you tight and swims to the surface. It was the lifeguard that saved you. Not your yelling and kicking. Those things simply got you connected to the lifeguard. It demonstrated faith that he would come save you. Now, imagine that after the lifeguard pulled you on the cement and you are breathing normally, you look at him and say, “Thanks for saving me, but my kicking and screaming for help saved me, too. I’m glad you were able to help me get above the water.”

Wouldn’t this be an utter travesty? Wouldn’t this be so defaming and insulting to the lifeguard? He did all the work! So it is with people who think that they were able to get to Jesus apart from a supernatural calling of the Holy Spirit in their life. The Spirit will overcome all resistance to save those who are called by God to salvation. Those who are irresistibly called are those who know they are drowning and demonstrate faith by believing Jesus and trusting that God will save them when the kick and scream for help.