Calvinist apologist Matt Slick defines Irresistible Grace as a doctrine that states, “the grace with which God regenerates an individual cannot be successfully resisted by the sinner when he becomes saved.” In other words, we have no free will but to accept God’s grace.
Now, this obviously differs from the Catholic and Arminian point of view. We are not Pelagians, of course, insofar as we also hold that no one can be saved without grace. Man cannot merit anything of himself from God, insofar as all good deeds are ultimately from God through grace. However, man must allow God to work in his life, for we are God’s “fellow workers”, in Paul’s words. (1 Cor. 3:9)
I should note that this differs from Semi-Pelagianism as well. The Semi-Pelagian stance is that man requires the Holy Spirit to become saved but can remain saved without grace. Catholics agree that a Christian can only remain with God by grace, but it is a resistible grace. Without further ado, let us begin:
Objection 1: It is written, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) If salvation is not of your own doing, then God must have saved His children apart from their own choice.
To this I respond that grace is a God’s free gift to us on account of God’s mercy. Faith is, of course, a free choice, but it is not one that can be chosen without the grace of God. In that sense, it is not of our own doing.
Objection 2: It is written, “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day.” (John 6:37-39) If Christ says that all that the Father has given Him will come to Him, the Father determined to give to the Son a redeemed humanity and every human person whom God decided to save from the beginning will, in fact, be saved.
To this I respond that, to quote St. John Chrysostom, “In this place, by the ‘which the Father gives Me,’ He declares nothing else than that ‘the believing on Me is no ordinary thing, nor one that comes of human reasonings, but needs a revelation from above, and a well-ordered soul to receive that revelation.’ And the, ‘He that comes to Me shall be saved,’ means that he shall be greatly cared for.”
In other words, Christ is not saying that man has no free will to resist, but rather that our Lord will not “lose” or “forget” those whom the Father gives Him, such that if a man falls away, he is wholly to blame and not Christ at all. This interpretation is supported by the previous two sentences, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” (John 6:35-36) Hence the main focus of this passage is that Christ will not turn away anyone who comes, not that Christ will prevent anyone from turning away of his own volition.
Objection 3: It is written, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws [ἑλκύσῃ, helkysē] him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:44-45) The Greek term, helkysē, generally has the connotation of dragging. As a consequence, it can be supposed that this drawing cannot be resisted.
To this I respond that it is true that the term frequently means drag. However, the word seems, as in English, to also have the connotation of attract or persuade. For this passage to prove Irresistible Grace, Jesus would have to say that no one leaves the father who is drawn to him. The point is that coming to the Father is a thing of grace, not that such grace is irresistible.
Objection 4: It is written: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30) We do not see free will playing any part in this passage. Therefore, it is completely God’s decision and man is unable to resist it.
To this I respond that Paul is explaining that God’s plan is secure on the objective level, not that a soul has no choice but to follow it on a subjective level. Now, God “foreknew” that those who would be conformable by grace and free will to Himself. These are the “predestined”. Christ then “justified” the predestined elect, having justified all men on the Cross. However, on a subjective level, a man must still, “believe in his heart unto justification”. (see Romans 10:10) Paul calls for “obedience unto righteousness [i.e. justification]”. (see Romans 2:13, Romans 6:16, Matthew 12:36-37, etc.) Finally, Christ glorified all on the cross, in a sense, but nevertheless, we must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17) Thus, if we are finally justified, it is only because Christ already “justified” us on the cross. If we are “glorified,” it is only because Christ already “glorified” us on the cross. Otherwise, one has rejected God’s predestination.
“Who hindered you from obeying the truth?”
According to Galatians 5:4-7,
“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?”
Here, Paul warns that a man can “fall away from grace” by following the Judaizers and blames the Christian for not obeying the truth.
A similar teaching is taught in Hebrews 12:14-16,
“Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fail [Greek: husterōn] to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.”
The greek, husteréo, means to fall behind or to fall short. So this phrase could literally be translated, fall short of the grace of God.
Similar to in Galatians, the author of Hebrews warns Christians not to “sell their birthright” as Esau did and thus forfeit the glory of heaven which is their inheritance as Christians. We are children of God, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17) But there is a condition that we suffer with him, so as also to be glorified with him.
St. Stephen’s Address
But if this is not proof enough, see Acts 7:51, where Stephen says the following,
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.”
I cannot think of any clearer way the Bible could state that grace from the Holy Spirit is resistible. To this, Calvin responds that:
“Neither doth he speak in this place of secret revelations, wherewith God inspireth every one, but of the external ministry.”
In other words, Calvin claims they only resisted the words of the Holy Spirit, since they do not have irresistible grace. However, I do not think this is credible, primarily because Stephen says the Holy Spirit, not the words of the Holy Spirit, making it more likely that he is talking about the power of the Holy Spirit, that is, grace. Besides, if man really has no free will in the matter, he cannot very well be blamed for not resisting the Holy Spirit’s calling. At any rate, these terms are far clearer in my mind than any arguments Calvinists put forth.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”
But if this is not proof enough, see Matthew 23:37-38:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.”
Here Jesus cries to Jerusalem that He is ever calling His people to come to Him as a hen does to her young, but He respects their free will to refuse. It is man’s choice to resist that grace.
Now to this, Calvin responds,
Again, when the sophists seize on this passage, to prove free will, and to set aside the secret predestination of God, the answer is easy. “God wills to gather all men,” say they; “and therefore all are at liberty to come, and their will does not depend on the election of God.” I:reply: The will of God, which is here mentioned, must be judged from the result. For since by his word he calls all men indiscriminately to salvation, and since the end of preaching is, that all should betake themselves to his guardianship and protection, it may justly be said that he wills to gather all to himself. It is not, therefore, the secret purpose of God, but his will, which is manifested by the nature of the word, that is here described; for, undoubtedly, whomsoever he efficaciously wills to gather, he inwardly draws by his Spirit, and does not merely invite by the outward voice of man.
If it be objected, that it is absurd to suppose the existence of two wills in God, I reply, we fully believe that his will is simple and one; but as our minds do not fathom the deep abyss of secret election, in accommodation to the capacity of our weakness, the will of God is exhibited to us in two ways. And I am astonished at the obstinacy of some people, who, when in many passages of Scripture they meet with that figure of speech (anthropopatheia) which attributes to God human feelings, take no offense, but in this case alone refuse to admit it. But as I have elsewhere treated this subject fully, that I may not be unnecessarily tedious, I only state briefly that, whenever the doctrine, which is the standard of union, is brought forward, God wills to gather all, that all who do not come may be inexcusable.
In modern words, what Calvin seems to be saying is that God wills all men to be saved because He preaches to all men, but he does not will all men to be saved insofar as he does not actually give them the grace to be saved. My problem with this is that it seems to me that Jesus is clearly saying almost the exact opposite—How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! In other words, God is still laying the blame on men, which would not make sense if they have no free will in the matter. Jesus is speaking here as God to his children, father to son, saying that he wants to draw them to him, but men refuse and God cannot do anything about it without denying a gift He chooses to give to man, namely free will. At any rate, I think this verse is much clearer than the alleged proof texts for the opposing sides.
If grace were really irresistible, this verse shows us that God does not want anyone to perish. Thus if man had no free will in the matter, everyone would be saved. Scripture is clear here.
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All Scripture verses are from the Revised Standard Version.