Russ on Irresistible Grace

Rather than starting every article with a joke, I decided to use a real life story which, often times, can be funnier than any joke.

I have a three year old son whose chief delight is playing in either dirt or mud. So much so, that we have needed to place limitations on his mud-playing. For instance, since we generally don’t allow him to play outside when it is wet and rainy, he found that he needed a source of water for his mud-making. So, he would often find a bucket, turn on the faucet that is outside our house, fill the bucket and go off to his mud-making. Of course, once his use for the faucet was over, it was forgotten, and rather than shutting it off, within a short amount of time we would have gallons of water flowing down our driveway. To remedy this, we placed rather strict parameters on the use of the outside faucet (i.e. NO usage except with Dad or Mom’s permission)…

The other day my wife was playing outside with him while our twin babies were inside sleeping. One of the babies woke up and began crying, so my wife ran inside to check on the baby. When she came out, there was our son playing with mud. Being slightly frazzled from the night before (anyone with twins will be knowingly nodding at this point), she was a little perturbed at our son’s complete lack of obedience. She began asking him why he had not listened to us and had used the faucet. He utterly denied any use of the faucet (which, he is apparently obliged to do anytime we speak to him since he denies doing anything whether good or bad). My wife, in no mood to quarrel went over to the faucet for the proof that would indict my three year old. She did not find it – the faucet and ground around it were bone dry.

Coming back to my son now perplexed by this whole situation, she again asked him how he had made the mud. My son proceeded to tell her in the innocent voice that only a three year old can muster. Rather than giving the details, let me say that Jesus once made mud with his spittle. My son, apparently finding such a method less than efficient and being a far more industrious person, decided to use another liquid-producing function of his body…

In the time that it took you to figure all that out, my wife went through several stages of denial, shock, and horror about four or five times over before horror won out. She scooped my three year old up, rushed him into the house, threw him in a bath and proceeded to give him a cleansing that Moses and Aaron would have been proud of.

All this to say that my three year old son is irresistible….and in need of tremendous grace. I’m not sure that’s exactly what the Calvinists have in mind when they speak of irresistible grace, but I thought it might be a nice tie in.

The Beginning of the Article In my last two posts, we began the process of looking at each of the components of TULIPS in order to see how well this model of salvation aligns with Scripture. In looking at Total Depravity, we agreed with much of the traditional position though we found no Scriptural evidence for: regeneration prior to faith; an understanding that death means spiritual inability to act; and that the non-believer is unable to exercise faith. Thus, we stated that a person will never seek God in their sinfulness.

However, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, God seeks each individual making them aware of their standing before Him. It is at this point that a person does or does not exercise their faith in Jesus. Once they believe, they are given life which is the presence of God through the Holy Spirit living in them. All the benefits of salvation are immediately bestowed upon them (though final fulfillment awaits our resurrection).

In our overview of Unconditional Election, we found little in the Calvinist position that aligns with Scripture. There is only one individual in Scripture identified as elect – Jesus (all other identifications are of a group of people). {{Ephesians 1}} tells us that we are elect in Him (i.e. our election is by association not by decree) and that God foreknew this in {{1 Peter 1}} and {{Romans 8}}.

We completely disagreed with the position of Limited Atonement. Since Calvinists cannot supply Scriptural proof that Christ died only for the elect, we believe there is a universal redemption that has been paid for all mankind ({{1 Timothy 2:6}}, {{2 Peter 2:1}}). This redemption is applied to the unregenerate the moment that they place their faith in Jesus ({{Galatians 4:5}}).

In this article, we will look at the fourth component of TULIPS – Irresistible Grace. I will follow the same model as I did with the last posts by defining Irresistible Grace from a Calvinist perspective, list some places where Biblical support is lacking, and make a suggestion for a position that better embraces Scripture.

Irresistible Grace From a Calvinist Perspective Like Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace is directly tied to the understanding of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. Since God has elected some who will surely be saved, He will act in sovereign grace ({{Isaiah 46:9-10}}) so that the elect will irresistibly be drawn to Christ ({{John 6:37}}). It should be noted that Calvinists do not believe that God forces the elect to believe in Christ, but rather gives them life. Those who are dead in sin are irresistibly attracted to Satan and all those who are given life by God are irresistibly attracted to God. Therefore, regeneration/life must be given prior to faith ({{Ephesians 2:4-5}}, {{1 John 5:1}}).

The most common Scriptural emphasis for Irresistible Grace is that of Lazarus being raised ({{John 11:40-45}}). This is generally how the argument proceeds. Lazarus is an example of those who are dead. They are bound and unable to self-resurrect themselves through an act of their will. Before Lazarus can respond to Jesus’ command to come forth, he must be given life. Jesus changed Lazarus’ condition first – giving Him life – so that he could hear the command to come forth.

Corollary to this is the argument that our faith is part of the grace that we receive as a gift from God ({{Ephesians 2:8-9}}). Therefore, there is no part that the person plays in the application of their faith.

Where I Think Calvinists Lack Scriptural Support Much of this we have already dealt with under my post on Total Depravity. So, I will try to repeat as little from there as possible and focus on the account of Lazarus and {{Ephesians 2:8-9}}. I will also look at {{Ephesians 2:4-5}} and {{1 John 5:1}} which are popular proof texts for regeneration prior to faith.

Is the account of Lazarus a good parallel to what happens to the unregenerate elect? It is important to look at the total passage to see its usefulness as a model of irresistible grace. Several things need to be noted. First, the purpose of Jesus waiting till after Lazarus was dead was so that He could resurrect him as a means of proof for his disciples to believe (11:14-15) which would be unnecessary if faith comes from God. In verses 25-26 we seem to get two different stories from Jesus – belief comes before living in v. 25; life comes before believing in v. 26. (though a closer look shows that belief comes before life in v. 25 and v. 26 is a statement of what is true when a person is believing and living). Interestingly, all of Jesus’ miracles pertaining to people (i.e. not the miracles that are purely natural such as the calming of the storm, etc.) that are recorded are predicated either explicitly or implicitly on the faith of the person being healed or someone else.

In fact, apart from this faith, Jesus could not do miracles ({{Mark 6:5}}). We see that Jesus seems to be focused on Martha for the basis of this miracle in v. 39-40. So there would be no indicator from this whether a spiritually dead person can exercise faith or not. Note that there is no decisive indicator in the passage that life was given to Lazarus prior to Jesus’ command. The command, like the prayers, seems to be given as much for the sake of the people around Him as much as it is for Lazarus. Could Jesus not have been speaking to the spirit of Lazarus which then reunited with his body and came forth? The passage simply doesn’t tell us either way.

As we noted in Total Depravity, an understanding of Lazarus’ resurrection is going to depend on an understanding of death. In that post, we showed that a Biblical understanding of death is not a lack of spiritual ability but rather a separation ({{Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30}}, {{Luke 16:26}}; life, then, is being in the presence of God – Revelation 20:10-15). So, since physical death is the separation of the body from the spirit, we would expect that physical life would somehow need to be given in order for the body and spirit to be rejoined.

However, does this necessitate that the same thing happens on a spiritual level? Can God communicate with an unregenerate person’s spirit prior to it being given life in such a way that it can understand? This would seem to be exactly what happens when the Holy Spirit convicts the unregenerate ({{John 16:8-11}}). Can a spiritually dead person hear or understand God? {{John 5:25}} would seem to state that it is possible. Can a person believe prior to receiving life? Again, that seems to be exactly what happens according to {{John 20:30-31}} (I know that some will state that life in some of these verses refer to the salvation that we receive after we believe after we have been regenerated – but that leads us to the logical difficulty that we are given life – regeneration – believe and then are given life again – salvation; if I’m wrong here, I’ll need someone to point out how).

Thus, the parallel with Lazarus and the faith/regeneration of the unregenerate do not seem to be as parallel as some would have us believe. Lazarus is an example of a body and spirit being reunited. Regeneration is an example of a person and God being reunited. The two may have some similarities, but we must be careful to state whether they are exactly parallel.

But don’t {{Ephesians 2:4-5}} and {{1 John 5:1}} state that regeneration happens prior to faith? {{Ephesians 2:4-5}} simply states that we have been given life through God’s grace – we agree with this. It does not state whether faith is prior to or after the life and thus is not a clear proof of regeneration prior to life.

{{1 John 5:1}} on its surface would seem to be a stronger argument. I agree with the approach that states the best means of translating this verse is “Whoever is continually believing that Jesus is the Christ, has been born of God…” However, this still does not state whether the regeneration came prior to or after faith. Let me use a non-theological example to help us understand this.

Let’s take the statement, “President Bush is continually sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom because he has been elected president.” The verb tenses and usage are the same as in 1 John 5:1. Because of an event that has happened in the past (the president being elected) a result continues today (he is continually sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom). But, the question is, could he have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom prior to being elected president. Given President Clinton’s penchant for open door policy and the fact that George W’s father was president, the answer is yes, he could have. Does the statement that we laid out above tell us whether he did or not? No, it is inconclusive.

In the same way, 1 John 5:1 is inconclusive in telling us whether faith is prior to regeneration. I do not doubt that we have been regenerated in the past nor that it is a direct result of that regeneration that my faith has been sustained till today and will be into eternity. I would not continue to believe had I not been regenerated. However, this verse does not answer the question we are asking – give clear proof that regeneration precedes faith. Many verses can be given supporting faith prior to regeneration ({{Luke 8:12}}, John 1:12, 3:16, 4:14, 6:35, 6:40, 6:58, 20:31, {{Acts 2:37-38, 8:12-16, 13:39}}, over 18 verses in Romans where our justification is by faith, all of {{Galatians 3}}, {{Ephesians 1:13}}, {{Hebrews 4:2-3}}, {{1 Peter 1:23}}, and many more less explicit verses).

Thus, we find no Biblical support for regeneration prior to faith (some might argue that regeneration happens at the same time as faith, and, although more tenable, does not deal with the verses that place life after faith).

We must also answer the point that Calvinists bring up that faith is a gift. Rey himself has done an excellent exegesis of Ephesians 2 here, so I will just parallel his points since they are quite clear. In {{Ephesians 2:8-9}}, we all have received a gift – salvation by grace through faith. Some would like to break this down to say that the grace is a gift, that the salvation is a gift and that the faith is a gift, thus supporting the Calvinist point.

However, the verse in the Greek simply will not support this. If Paul wanted to say this, he could have quite simply changed in verse 8 ‘that’ (touto) to ‘these’ (tauta) (the ‘it is’ does not appear in the Greek). It is the total plan of God which is being called the gift. And this is not something that we have either thought up or deserved in ourselves. Nor is it something that we can meritoriously work towards. This plan of God (the result of grace, by means of faith, and the death and resurrection of Christ) is a gift of God (notice, that I did not say are a gift of God). This does not necessitate that the faith itself is given to us by God – simply that the means by which God chose to accept us into His salvation is the gift.

Calvinists feel that faith as a gift is central to an understanding of God in order to maintain God’s sovereignty and His glory in salvation. If this is so central to a Biblical understanding of salvation, is there no other passage in all of Scripture that states that saving faith is given to us from God than the one that is so heavily disputed in Ephesians 2:8-9? I am not saying that one verse against twenty makes the one verse wrong (one verse is truth as much as twenty). I’m just asking for any other verse in Scripture that would say with more clarity that saving faith is given to us by God rather than hanging my hat on a verse that has almost throughout all Christian history been debated.

However, in light of the following verses, I don’t find Ephesians 2:8-9 as debatable as some make it out to be. There are some questions that arise if faith is a gift. If faith were something that only came as a direct gift from God, then there would be no reason for Jesus to be astonished at the unbelief of the unregenerate (Mark 6:6 – some have stated that this is an ‘expected astonishment’ – i.e. He knew they would not believe but was astonished at how much they pursued their own way – though I’m not quite certain how the word can support expectation or how it even makes sense with this word).

In addition, if faith is a gift of God, the lack of it cannot be judged by God since there is nothing that man can or cannot do to attain it (John 3:18 – I understand the argument that God can hold the non-elect responsible for their sin because they are participatory in their sinfulness – but if faith is a gift of God, how can He hold someone responsible for something they not only don’t have but can’t have without His action and, by His own decree, were never destined to have). Furthermore, if faith was given to people by God, how could demonic intervention prevent the gift from being given ({{Luke 8:12}})?

So How Do We Understand Irresistible Grace Based on Scripture Much like Limited Atonement, there is little in the Calvinist teaching on Irresistible Grace that we can use. Scripture clearly states that faith comes prior to life ({{John 20:31}} among many others) and thus we disagree with regeneration prior to faith. Though Ephesians 2:8-9 on the surface may seem to support a Calvinist belief in faith as a gift from God, lacking further Scriptural support and seeing support that faith is something that God expects to be in us prior to regeneration, we disagree that faith is a gift of God – rather God’s plan to provide for our need – through Jesus because of His grace and through our faith – is a gift from God.

Instead, as we’ve stated elsewhere, when the Holy Spirit convicts a person of their standing before God, each person either does or does not exercise their faith in Jesus. If they do, they are given life which is characterized by the presence of God in their life (immediately by the Holy Spirit, in eternity with the fullness of God).

-pastor russ-

  • T – Total Depravity
  • U – Unconditional Election
  • (F) – Faith
  • L – Limited Atonement
  • I – Irresistible Grace
  • P -Perseverance
  • S – Sovereignty
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