What is Irresistible Grace?

1) This article will identify what Calvinistic Irresistible Grace is not, and Kennedy, MacArthur and Piper’s quote reveal the mistaken view.

2) Identify what Calvinistic Irresistible Grace necessarily must entail.

To begin, there are two types of “Irresistible Grace” as taught by Calvinists. Let’s begin with the less common definition, and then proceed with what is traditionally deemed the “Reformed” understanding. 

​Non-Traditional Calvinist understanding: It is the belief that God simply gives faith to His “elect,” or that God makes Christ so compelling to His “elect,” that they naturally and irresistibly come to Christ, but not that they are made preemptively Born Again. It is the belief that God simply gives faith to His “elect,” who in turn believe and are saved, and then are made Born Again by God. Again, this is not the traditional Reformed doctrine on Irresistible Grace.

Although D. James Kennedy, John MacArthur and John Piper do not prescribe to the above, their statements do (and perhaps inadvertently) reflect this marginally held Calvinist view:

Calvinist, D. James Kennedy: “Our faith and our repentance are the work of God’s grace in our hearts. Our contribution is simply the sin for which Jesus Christ suffered and died. Would you be born anew? There has never been a person who sought for that who did not find it. Even the seeking is created by the Spirit of God. Would you know that new life? Are you tired of the emptiness and purposelessness of your life? Are you tired of the filthy rags of your own righteousness? Would you trust in someone else other than yourself? Then look to the cross of Christ. Place your trust in him. Ask him to come in and be born in you today. For Jesus came into the world from glory to give us second birth because we must--we MUST--be born again.” (Why I Believe, p.140, emphasis mine)

​In other words, New Birth follows after faith, rather than preceding it, and of course, as an Arminian, I completely agree!

Calvinist, John MacArthur: “I’m a Christian today because before the foundation of the world from all eternity past, God chose to set His love on John MacArthur and to give him the faith to believe at the moment that God wanted him to believe.” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)

John Piper: “This is what we mean when we use terms like sovereign grace or irresistible grace. We mean that the Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit, and therefore he is omnipotent and sovereign. And therefore, he is irresistible and infallibly effective in his regenerating work. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t resist him. We do. The Bible is plain about that (Acts 7:51). What the sovereignty of grace and the sovereignty of the Spirit mean is that when God chooses, he can overcome the rebellion and resistance of our wills. He can make Christ look so compelling that our resistance is broken and we freely come to him and receive him and believe him.” (The Free Will of the Wind, emphasis mine) 

​“Pops faith” and “makes compelling” are not the traditional Calvinist views concerning Irresistible Grace, but Calvinists who don’t even hold to it, often use it anyway, perhaps for the sake of metaphor.

By Calvinist theology, how do unbelievers take a step toward God, if they are unregenerate? If the answer is by Common Grace, viz. “pops faith” and “makes compelling,” then this essentially concedes the Arminian argument that God is able to forego a preemptive Regeneration, and use Prevenient Grace in order to reach the lost sinner, when He knocks upon the door of their heart. (Revelation 3:20)

The traditional Calvinist understanding: Signifies “regeneration,” which is the idea that only those whom God “regenerates,” unfailingly come to Christ. So what is “regeneration”? Traditionally, the Calvinist understanding of regeneration was meant to signify something taught in Ezekiel 36:26, in terms of God removing the “heart of stone” and implanting a “heart of flesh.” Compare with 2nd Corinthians 5:17 which states: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” When you put all of the pieces of the regeneration-puzzle together, regeneration is inextricably tied with being “in Christ” and that’s problematic for Calvinism.

Calvinist, R.C. Sproul:  The Reformed view of predestination teaches that before a person can choose Christ his heart must be changed. He must be born again.” (Chosen By God, p.72, emphasis mine)

Sproul adds: “A cardinal point of Reformed theology is the maxim: Regeneration precedes faith.’ Our nature is so corrupt, the power of sin so great, that unless God does a supernatural work in our souls we will never choose Christ.” (Chosen By God, pp.72-73, emphasis mine)

Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer: “The corruption of sin extends to his mind as well as his will; consequently, no one seeks God. Because man is dead in trespasses and sins, God must regenerate him and even grant him the faith to believe.” (The Doctrines That Divide, pp.179-180, emphasis mine)

Calvinist, John MacArthur: “I’m a Christian today because before the foundation of the world from all eternity past, God chose to set His love on John MacArthur and to give him the faith to believe at the moment that God wanted him to believe. He chose us.” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)

John Calvin: “For the evangelist says that no one can believe except he who is born of God. Therefore faith is a heavenly gift. Moreover, faith is not cold and bare knowledge, for no one can believe unless he is born again by the Spirit of God.” (John: The Crossway Classic Commentaries, p.24, emphasis mine)

Calvinist, James White: “Do we believe to become born again, or must we first be born again before we can exercise true, saving faith? Can the natural man do what is pleasing to God? Can the dead choose to allow themselves to be raised to life?” (Debating Calvinism, p.198, emphasis mine)

Calvinistic Irresistible Grace means one thing: Being unilaterally made Born Again first, as a new creature in Christ, in order to repent, believe and become saved, and hence the Calvinist maxim: They come most freely having been made willing. 

Calvinist, James White: “I just know that no man will do it unless and until the miracle of regeneration takes place first.” (Debating Calvinism, p.305, emphasis mine)

Calvinist, James White: “When the time comes in God’s sovereign  providence to bring to spiritual life each of those for whom Christ died, the Spirit of God will not only effectively accomplish that work of regeneration but that new creature in Christ will, unfailingly, believe in Jesus Christ (‘all that the Father gives Me will come to Me’). Hence, we are not saved ‘without’ faith, but at the same time, Christ’s atonement is not rendered useless and vain without the addition of libertarian free will.” (Debating Calvinism, p.191, emphasis mine)

If you noticed the part about how the “new creature in Christ will, unfailingly, believe in Jesus Christ,” then you have the meaning behind the term, “Irresistible Grace.” In other words, it is something given to those who are “in Christ,” which of course begs the question: When do people become “in Christ”? Calvinism essentially teaches that at the preordained moment, “the elect” are preemptively placed in Christ, or preemptively made Born Again in Christ, and as this new creature with a new heart and a new spirit, one irresistibly and unfailingly comes to Christ, and White cites John 6:37 and John 6:44 in support. This is essentially the Calvinist teaching on Irresistible Grace

However, the Arminian objection has traditionally focused on a different view of when people become “in Christ.” The Arminian objection is two-fold: 

  • Ephesians 1:13 states that one hears the Gospel, believes in the Gospel, and then is sealed in Christ, rather than being sealed in Christ, hearing and then believing. John Calvin was aware of this dilemma, and responded by explaining a two-fold meaning to being sealed in Christ. (You may wish to inspect your commentary on the interpretations and implications of Ephesians 1:13.)  

  • The Calvinist teaching on preemptive regeneration comes with the requirement that unbelievers be preemptively regenerated placed in Christ. Arminians argue that no one can be in Christ, and simultaneously be an unbeliever. 

​Calvinist, John Piper: “Those whom the Father draws, come to Me. And when we come, I’ll say it again, and I’ll say it over and over, we come voluntarily, with zero coercion. We come freely, with zero constraint. We do what we want to do, or it isn’t faith. Faith sees Him as bread, sees Him as life, sees Him as treasure, sees Him as Lord, sees Him as Savior, sees Him as all, and says, ‘Yes!’ There’s no constraint here. That’s the freest moment of your life, and you got that way by Sovereign Grace. God raised you from the dead, gave you eyes to see, opened your heart, to be rational for the first time in your life. Before this, we were slaves, slaves of sin, slaves of everything, especially me, slave of me, because I want to be boss, and I don’t want to be jerked around; I want to be God. Yes sir, I want to be God, and that’s slavery ultimately.” (Skeptical Grumbling and Sovereign Grace, 11/29/2009)

Once their eyes and heart are opened, do they have a choice to come? We are told, “Yes, and their choice is always to come.” Is that a free choice? We are told, “Yes, and it is the freest moment of your life.” But does that freedom include the freedom not to come? We are told, “Yes, but you will always want to come.” Why? We are told, “Because you are made to want to come.” It seems like, then, that the concept of Irresistible Grace merely exchanges one kind of slavery for another, and not that being a slave to God is bad, because it’s not; it’s wonderful, but the question is whether or not Irresistible Grace would really constitute any kind of real freedom. Typically, when we speak of freedom, we speak of the power of contrary choice. When we speak of the freedom not to sin, we speak of real freedom, because in Adam, we are slaves to sin. So being freed not to sin, is indeed real freedom, but freedom never to sin is simply slavery of another kind. It’s slavery to righteousness, which again, is wonderful. In fact, in Heaven, we will be slaves of righteousness, in a way in which we will never sin, and that is indeed wonderful. But if we chose to receive such a gift, then it is “voluntary,” as John Piper uses the term. But if we never chose to receive such a grace, then it is not voluntary, but rather, involuntary. You would be voluntary by means of involuntary constraint. The concept of being “made willing” is simply a contradiction in terms. Consider an analogy to a soldier. An enlistee is different from someone drafted. They are both in the Army, but only one joined voluntarily. You cannot say that the one drafted had volunteered. Although he may be willing to go, and may even enjoy going, he did not have a choice, since the choice was made for him; he was drafted, and that’s what Irresistible Grace is all about.

​If you volunteered into the Army, then you had a choice, but if you were drafted, then you had no choice. So if one is of the Father’s eternal elect, and is unconsciously and unilaterally regenerated, and transformed into a “new creature,” then one did not consciously choose to be with Christ, but was drafted, and hence it is not a free choice.

​From the Arminian perspective, Calvinism offers God a kingdom of Stepford Wives, who never choose to be with Him, but were unconsciously and unilaterally regenerated, so that as “new creatures,” they would freely choose to be with Christ. If God could just as easily do this for one person vs. another, then God would have sent His Son to Calvary for a completely arbitrary group of people, and who chose His Son because God made it so.

Calvinist, Charles Spurgeon: “I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, ‘You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.’ My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will.” (Other Sheep and One Flock, emphasis mine)

This represented the concept of Irresistible Grace to Charles Spurgeon. However, instead of despising Free Will, I think that God loves Free Will. It’s a matter of having a real wife vs. a Stepford Wife. Sure there are ups and downs with a real person, but there is also the joy of being freely loved, under otherwise adverse circumstances. Otherwise, why would God put His “beloved” Son through Calvary for what is otherwise just a bunch of arbitrarily chosen people? The big payoff that Calvinism offers God is the opportunity to “demonstrate various attributes” which God can do anyway, in the Arminian paradigm. I just don't know what true value that Calvinism offers God. To say, “Well, God gets a people that He chose” is still just an arbitrary group, which never chose to be with Him, apart from being irresistibly forced into, when being unconsciously and unilaterally regenerated.

​Arminian “Prevenient Grace” does not teach that God resets a person’s nature. This is projecting a Calvinist mechanism on to Arminianism.

Calvinistic Mechanism: God takes a person who is the Father’s elect, and regenerates them without their knowledge. In the regeneration, whatever their old heart was, it is removed, and a new heart is transplanted in its place, such that the person is now a fully transformed “new creature.” As a redeemed, Born Again new creation in Christ, the person is now in a position to make a positive (and conscious) choice to say yes to Jesus’s free offer of the Gospel. 

Arminian Mechanism: 

1. According to Revelation 3:14, Jesus knocks. (From Calvinist, J.I. Packer’s perspective, this means that Jesus “waits impotently” at the door of our heart. However, to an Arminian, it means that although God hasn’t changed or reset our nature, He is intervening, and taking the initiative.) 

2. According to John 16:8, the Holy Spirit convicts. Now fear is a powerful emotion. (Charles Spurgeon commented that pastors should use this emotion to motivate people, and he used Invitations, despite protests from his Calvinist brethren.)

3. According to Acts 26:14, the Holy Spirit goads the old creature who is unregenerate, with pressure from God, so that the resistant individual would otherwise need to sin against the grace of God, in order to continue resisting. In the Arminian mechanism, the person is still an unregenerate, old creature, still with the old stony heart. Arminians believe that those of Luke 8 who received the word with joy, even if temporarily, were never truly Born Again, and thus were still the unregenerate, old creatures, caught between competing desires (God’s will for them, and their own will for themselves), while those who received Christ with a sincere heart, God then seals in Christ with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (as per Ephesians 1:13), so that they are then made into a new creation, with the old heart replaced with a new heart, as per the promise of the New Covenant. But the difference is that the old creature (being unregenerate), made a conscious decision and sincere choice, to submit to Christ, no better than the thief on the cross. 

Summary: in the Calvinist mechanism, the old creature never submitted to Christ, while in the Arminian mechanism, the old creature did submit to Christ, and Christ then regenerates them.

The problem with Calvinism is that it cannot account for a transition state in the conversion process, because conversion from rabid God-hater (dead in sin) to regenerated God-lover (Born Again) would theoretically have to be seamless and instantaneous or else you would have Born Again unbelievers running around, and for an indefinite period of time until full conversion is completed.

​Question: Is there any discernible difference between God “powerfully and unfailingly bend[ing] the human will to faith and conversion,” as the Canons of Dort teach, vs. God forcing someone to be saved?

Answer: If they are regenerated against their fallen will, then no matter how much Calvinists may insist that “they come most freely having been made willing,” they are in reality, forced.

Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer: “Arminianism said man was sick; Calvinism said man was dead. If he is only sick, common grace might help him to recover by enabling him to make a right choice. But if he is spiritually dead, he needs the Give of Life to make the choice for him….” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.180, emphasis mine)

Lutzer answers: “Needless to say, God does not coerce a person to believe. There is no such thing as a person who doesn’t want to be saved and God saves him anyway because he is elect.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191, emphasis mine) 

Wait! So God will “make the choice for him” though “God does not coerce a person to believe.” How exactly is this not Double-Talk? Even Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, admits: Determinism means that we are forced or coerced to do things by external forces.” (Chosen By God, p.59, emphasis mine)

Erwin Lutzer: “Now (and here it gets tricky) Calvinism goes on to say that God grants the inclination and ability to choose Christ to some, namely, the elect. God does not coerce anyone, if that means he saves a man against his will.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.191, emphasis mine)

Of course it gets “tricky” because it’s Double-Talk.

If they are regenerated against their fallen will, then no matter how much Calvinists may insist that “they come most freely having been made willing,” they are in reality, forced.

One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians explains concerning his testimony: “I remember the Spirit beginning some serious convicting work in my heart in 1993. It was greater and subtle respectively over the next two years. I finally repented May of 1995. During that time I resisted, but some times drew closer. Then I would resist again. The whole experience was like that: steps forward and steps back. The clincher was in May of 1995 when my dad was talking to me about the return of Christ. It was that brief phone call that caused me to seriously think about my standing with God. In a moment, I knew the reality of Christ’s return (something to which I hadn’t really given much thought), and I knew that I was not right before God (I had previous knowledge of these things, being raised in the church). I told my dad that I’d be home in two weeks. I hung up the phone, prayed to the Lord to forgive me of living my life in sin, and to make me into a new person. I was changed. What do we do with those three years of the Spirit’s work (1993, 1994, 1995)? How does the Calvinist explain that the Spirit was convicting me concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11), but I resisted that work much of the time? Must we concede that the Spirit waited three years after His initial (and strong) conviction to irresistibly regenerate me unto faith / repentance and salvation? This is why I say that Calvinism cannot be lived out; it may look good to some in black and white, but it does not correspond with reality, which, if I remember correctly, is the definition of ‘truth,’ right? ‘Truth is that which corresponds to reality.’” (SEA, emphasis mine)

Another member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: …our experience shows that there is a transition from one condition to another. In other words, it is true that at first, apart from the work of the Spirit, apart from Prevenient Grace, the unbeliever has no desire for God is not seeking after God is often hostile to God, etc. But what the Calvinist leaves out, because of his system, is the work of the Spirit, which leads a person from the condition referred to in Romans 8:5, 1 Cor. 2:14, and Romans 3:10-18 (which is lost, uninterested and unseeking) to a condition where they begin to seek, begin to have some interest and begin to understand some spiritual things, as the Spirit works in them. It is this transitional condition that they leave out, and it is this transitional condition that results in salvation if they do not resist the Spirit. If they do resist the Spirit, then they gain knowledge and understanding of spiritual things (which is not true of the unbeliever apart from the work of the Spirit) and yet are not saved. But a person who has, in fact, experienced the powerful and supernatural work of the Spirit in this transitional state, may not yet be saved (or may never get saved), but it is wrong to describe them with Romans 8:5, 1 Cor. 2:14 or Romans 3:10-18. They are lost, but they are also enlightened directly by the Holy Spirit. Those of us who evangelize regularly have seen this up close. We have seen people transition from the completely lost condition that those verses describe, to a more open state and yet in this open state, the person is not yet a believer. And it is in this open state that they then accept or reject Christ. So I think we need to be strong in pointing this out, that there is the totally lost state, and the saved state, but also the state in between, the transitional state, where the person is still lost and not saved and yet those proof texts used by Calvinists do not apply to that person.” (SEA, emphasis mine)

Another member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “This is a real problem for Calvinism because they maintain that someone cannot seek God unless regenerated. But clearly, many people seek God before being regenerated. The biblical point is that people cannot seek God on their own, apart from grace. The Calvinist scheme really leaves no room for a process of someone coming to faith. Their scheme tends to leave only two options, rabid God-hater or regenerated God-lover, with no process to go from one to the other. But that is far from reality. Now, of course, the sophisticated Calvinist would not affirm this to be their position, but it seems logically demanded by their distinctive doctrines, such as the Calvinist view of being dead in sin (as opposed to being dead via ‘separation’) and regeneration preceding faith.” (SEA, emphasis mine)

Another member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “Calvinists are unable to distinguish between ‘PURPOSE’ and ‘ABILITY.’ Certainly God has the ability to force our wills to do whatever He wants, but that isn’t His purpose.” (SEA, emphasis mine)

Here is a link to an additional discussion on this matter.

Question:  What is Irresistible Grace?

Answer:  From the traditional Calvinist perspective, it means that God takes a person who is the Father’s elect, and regenerates them without their knowledge. In the regeneration, whatever their old heart was, it is removed, and a new heart is transplanted in its place, such that they are now a fully transformed “new creature.” As a redeemed, Born Again new creation in Christ, the person is now in a position to make a positive (and conscious) choice to say yes to Jesus’s free offer of the Gospel.