Friday, May 29, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace" -- Irresistible Grace

(Articles of Faith, 9)

Where is the Holy Spirit in this system of theology? True to its Calvinistic formulation, the work of the Spirit is to "efficaciously" call the elect sinner from his or her sinful darkness to faith and life in Christ. The Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those whom God the Father has called to faith. He applies saving power and transformation to effectually save all of the elect of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it this way: "All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ . . ." (Chapter X, Section 1). "Effectual" is an older word which indicates two things: (1) the Spirit's work in the sinner's heart and life cannot be thwarted or refused; and, (2) the Spirit never fails to bring these sinners to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Biblical Basis
It is a fundamental Scriptural truth that without God the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives, salvation and the benefits of Christian faith cannot be ours. Children of God are those "led by the Spirit of God" (Romans 8:14). Salvation is "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or from above)" (John 3:3) We are not saved by our deeds or good intentions but "by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). The Holy Spirit makes sinners whom He draws "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18; cf. Galatians 6:15; Ezekiel 36:26, 27). The Holy Spirit is the operative source of saving and sanctifying faith.

While the gospel invitation is given to all without distinction, only those specifically "called" by God Himself can and will come to faith. "Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those he called he also justified . . ." (Romans 8:30). The "call" of God is particular (Galatians 1:15, 16; Ephesians 4:4; Hebrews 9:15; Jude 1; 1 Peter 2:9) and not everyone is "called" in this divine and effectual sense. "So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy" (Romans 9:16). "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

The "irresistible" part of this truth flows from the fact that " all that the Father gives me will come to me . . . No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . ." (John 6:37ff) God's word and work in a person's life cannot falter or fail. An illustration is often given of Jesus "calling" Lazarus from death to life. Just as Jesus spoke life to his body, so Jesus speaks life to our spiritual bodies, with the immediate and effectual result that we "come forth" from death to life (cf. John 11:43).

Solving the Problems
Again, many have problems with such a teaching. The first is its "discriminatory" nature. If not everyone is given a chance to accept or reject Jesus Christ, then we are but puppets. Our free will is violated, many would say. This objection has been dealt with in the preceding blogs on this subject. And, everyone HAS been given a chance through our progenitor, Adam, and IS given a chance through the call of the gospel to "all who will believe." The "catch" is that only those given the ability or power to believe from God actually believe!

The second has to do with the "irresistibility" of the work of the Holy Spirit to come to faith. Can't we, in fact, "resist" the Spirit (cf. Acts 7:51) The Westminster Confession says that all those effectually drawn by the Spirit to Christ "come most freely, being made willing by his grace." WE still responsibly choose to come to Christ for eternal life, yet the "drawing force" is God the Holy Spirit enlightening, changing, transforming and moving us to Christ. The other way to look at this is to ask one who has been "born again" if he or she did not finally WANT to come to Christ for faith and life. Yes, for some this was a "struggle" with internal and external forces and temptations, but for all, once they came to Christ, they were overjoyed and celebrated their new life.

The essential struggle with this and other Calvinistic teachings has been the much vaunted "free will" of humankind. And, the Bible does indeed talk about making "choices" for or against God and being "willing" or not to come to God. One of my seminary professors explained it this way: There are two parallel tracks that appear to run concurrently here on earth, one being God's sovereign will and the other man's choices. Sometimes the one outpaces the other. It might appear that man is able to choose or not choose what God wants, and sometimes it appears that God decidedly is calling the shots in one's life. It is only in heaven that we will be able to see the tracks cross and make sense of this. Or, as the Apostle Paul says, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12, 13).