The doctrines of grace: Irresistible grace
As we have seen, the first three doctrines of grace progressed in a logical order. The first (total depravity) highlighted the absolute inability of natural man to contribute anything to his salvation. The second (unconditional election) noted the sovereign initiative of God in providing salvation for mankind. The third (limited atonement) then showed the means by which that salvation is provided.
The fourth of the five points once again follows logically from those preceding it. As Seaton says,
If men are unable to saved themselves on account of their fallen nature, and if God has purposed to save them, and Christ has accomplished their salvation, then it logically follows that God must also provide the means for calling them into the benefits of that salvation which He has procured for them.1
The means that God has provided for calling the elect into the benefits of the salvation he has procured for them is irresistible grace.
We have seen in all three preceding points that the language supplied at the Synod of Dort, while fitting neatly into a memorable acrostic, has provided ammunition for critics of evangelism to attack the system. This is once again the case when it comes to the doctrine of irresistible grace.
Every Christian acknowledges that God calls people to salvation. This is unmistakeable in Scripture. “Those whom he predestined he also called” (Romans 8:30). God not only elected men and women to salvation, but he calls them to it. And that call is extended by grace.
But is this grace, in any sense, irresistible? It can be easily demonstrated that not all those who are called to salvation respond positively. There are those who hear the gospel and yet who resist the call to receive God’s forgiveness in Christ. Calvinism, however, understands that there are two distinct calls to salvation.
The first call is external and quite resistible. A preacher declares the gospel truth to the lost and calls them to believe, to repent of their sins and to receive Christ. This call can be, and often is, rejected by its hearers. It has different results in the lives of different hearers. One thing it does not do, however, is secure salvation. For that to occur, the outward call of the preacher must be attended by a second, inward, call of the Spirit.
It is this second, inward, call of the Spirit that is, Calvinism affirms, irresistible. It is the Spirit who convicts of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:7–8). And when he does so, he does so irresistibly. The gracious call of the Spirit cannot be frustrated by the stubbornness of the sinner.
Is it biblical?
This truth is clearly substantiated in Scripture. Let’s consider a few sample texts.
Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Here we see that the elect (“all that the Father gives me”) will by no means finally reject the Spirit’s call (“will come to me”). And they will certainly find salvation, for they “will never [be] cast out.”
A little later in the same chapter, Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Once again, the text provides evidence of God’s election. It is impossible for people to come to Christ on their own steam. The Father must draw them. And when God draws a man, he will certainly come, for Christ “will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus added immediately after this that “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:46). Note: They must hear the outward call, but they must also have “learned from the Father” in order to come for salvation. But if they have “learned from the Father”—if they have experienced that inward call of the Spirit—they will come.
Paul speaks of those who are “led by the Spirit” as “sons of God” (Romans 8:14). Again, he testified that God called him by his grace to salvation (Galatians 1:15). Peter adds that God calls his chosen ones out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9) and again that he calls his elect into eternal glory (1 Peter 5:10).
One of the clearest examples of the Spirit’s inward call attending the outward call of the preacher can be found in Acts 16:11–15. There, Paul preached the gospel to Lydia, exercising the outward call for her to repent. But it was “the Lord” who “opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” And what happened when the Lord opened her heart? “She was baptised”—evidence that she had believed the gospel.
A necessary doctrine
Arminians believe that men and women can and do resist the call of the gospel. In their thinking, there can therefore be no such thing as irresistible grace.
Calvinism teaches that not only can men and women resist the gospel call, but they must do so by virtue of their fallen nature. They have no power to receive the gospel. And it is precisely for that reason that there must be a doctrine of irresistible grace. There must be an influence greater than human nature—a power greater than our resistance—that is brought to bear upon our souls, or else we would be forever doomed. After all, “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Thomas Watson stated it beautifully:
God rides forth conquering in the chariot of His Gospel. . . . He conquers the pride of the heart, and makes the will which stood out as a Fort Royal against Him, to yield and stoop to His grace; He makes the stony heart bleed. Oh! it is a mighty call! Why then do some men seem to speak of moral persuasion? That God in the conversion of a sinner only morally persuades and no more? If God in conversion should only morally persuade and no more, then He does not put forth so much power in saving men as the Devil does in destroying them.2
The grace of God is far more powerful than the will of Satan or the will of fallen man. And it is by this grace that sinners are converted and brought into a saving relationship with the sovereign God.