Irresistible Grace: The Fourth Main Point of Doctrine
The Triune God alone authors and accomplishes the salvation of His people; He does not simply make salvation possible and then leave to the sinner the most decisive step. He actually saves sinners, men and women who lie in the midst of death and who are wholly incapable of doing for themselves what must be done in order that they might be saved.
Nowhere does this fundamental emphasis of the Canons come to sharper expression than in the fourth main point of doctrine, irresistible grace. The salvation of God's people is the work of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Founded upon the Father's election to save His people for the sake of Christ, His Son; provided through the atoning work of Christ, the Mediator — salvation is effected and realized by means of the Spirit working irresistibly through the ministry of the gospel.
The doctrine of irresistible grace is addressed, then, to the manner in which the Father's electing purpose and the Son's atoning sacrifice are applied to the hearts and lives of those who are being saved.
The Position of the Canons
The Canons of Dort begin their treatment of the work of the Spirit in the application of redemption by stressing God's freedom to reveal His saving will to whom He pleases. This accounts for the fact that under the old covenant, in contrast to the new, the saving mercy of God was only disclosed to a "small number."
However, in the new covenant the gospel has been published and must be published to all the nations. In this publication of the gospel, God "seriously and most genuinely ... makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe" (Article 8).1 This means that the blame does not belong with Christ or the gospel when sinners refuse to believe and repent when called to do so through the gospel. God sincerely calls everyone through the Word of the gospel to believe, promising salvation to all without distinction who answer this call through faith and repentance. The fault for the unbelief and impenitence of many is therefore, entirely their own.
But what about those who do believe and repent, who are converted at the preaching of the gospel? Are they to be credited for their faith and repentance, as though these were their own accomplishment? The authors of the Canons answer this question first by denying that such faith and repentance are to be credited to the believer, and second, by affirming that they are the fruit of the Spirit's working through the gospel.
The fact that others who are called through the ministry of the gospel do come and are brought to conversion must not be credited to man, as though one distinguishes himself by free choice from others who are furnished with equal or sufficient grace for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains). No, it must be credited to God: just as from eternity he chose his own in Christ, so within time he effectively calls them, grants them faith and repentance, and, having rescued them from the dominion of darkness, brings them into the kingdom of his Son, in order that they may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called them out of darkness into this marvelous light, and may boast not in themselves, but in the Lord, as apostolic words frequently testify in Scripture.
Thus, the Spirit graciously gives to the elect through the call and preaching of the gospel that faith and repentance which are required.
In the following articles of the Canons, the authors attempt, to the extent this is possible, to provide a Biblical account of the manner of the Spirit's working in the heart and life of the believer.
Speaking of the Spirit's work in applying the gospel, the Canons affirm that God by the Spirit powerfully enlightens the mind of believers "so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God" (Article 11). Furthermore, by "the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit," God also "penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised." This work of the Spirit includes: giving to the sinner's will, otherwise captivated to sin, the readiness to do good; making the will, otherwise dead and lifeless to the things of God, begin to live and become receptive to the gospel's call; making the will, otherwise unwilling because unable, begin to desire the right; and activating and enlivening the will, otherwise inactive and lifeless, to produce the good fruits which come from a tree that has been made good. In so doing, the Spirit of God effectively enables the sinner, by nature spiritually dead and in bondage to sin, to turn willingly in repentance and faith to God.
The authors of the Canons acknowledge in their efforts to describe this working of the Spirit, that it is a work altogether marvelous and divine (or supernatural). Accordingly, the things with which it is compared in the Scriptures are the act of (new) creation, the raising of one from the dead, the making alive of what is otherwise lifeless and immobile (Article 12). It is certainly a more powerful and effective working than an act of moral per suasion, which leaves the sinner in the state in which he is found and leaves to the sinner's power the decision to be born again.
Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead. As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received is also rightly said to believe and to repent.
In the remainder of its consideration of the work of the Spirit in regeneration or the new birth, the Canons insist that the response of faith to the gospel is not a "work" in the power of the sinner either to accomplish or not. Faith is itself a "gift" of God, granted through the gospel by Him "who works all things in all people." Nonetheless, God grants this gift of faith through the ministry of the gospel, so that the responsibility of the sinner is not denied but underscored. God does not treat those to whom the gospel call comes like "blocks or stones," abolishing their wills and coercing them to reply in faith. Rather, through the ministry of the gospel God spiritually "revives," "heals" and "reforms" the sinner's will, granting to it a true freedom in readiness to do God's bidding.
Thus, the Canons conclude this fourth main point of doctrine by noting that God has in His good pleasure chosen to join inseparably the preaching of the gospel, the use of spiritual means, and the granting of faith to believers.
Just as the almighty work of God by which he brings forth and sustains our natural life does not rule out but requires the use of means by which God, according to his infinite wisdom and goodness, has wished to exercise his power, so also the aforementioned supernatural work of God by which he regenerates us in no way rules out or cancels the use of the gospel, which God in his great wisdom has appointed to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul.
The Scriptural Support for This Position
There are several aspects to the Scripture's description of the work of the Spirit in the application of salvation which support this teaching of the Canons. I will mention four of them here.
- In the first place, the Scriptures describe the Spirit's work in giving spiritual life and making believers God's children as a work of regeneration or new birth. In this granting of new birth to the believer, the Spirit makes sinners to live spiritually, though they are in themselves dead in trespasses and sins. In this respect, the new birth may be likened to a resurrection from the dead or even a new act of creation.
The marvel of the Spirit's work of regeneration lies precisely in the fact that it is exclusively the Spirit's doing. No one for instance, chooses to give himself birth. Just as our natural birth depends upon the decision and will of others, so in the case of our spiritual birth. This is why we read in John 1:12, 13, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." This is also the remarkable truth which Nicodemus, in his conversation with Christ, found initially so difficult to comprehend. As Jesus said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Only the Spirit of God is able to grant the new birth required to enter the kingdom of God (compare Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23).
Similarly, the metaphors of new life and new creation underscore the surprising and sovereignly effective work of the Spirit in salvation. Just as death cannot give birth to life, so sinners cannot enliven themselves. And just as the act of creation calls into existence things that are not, so the Spirit creates anew in the act of salvation. In Ephesians 2:5, we read the following description of the new life in Christ, "even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (compare Colossians 2:13). And in 2 Corinthians 5:17 we find a characteristic statement of salvation as the equivalent of a new creation: "Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things are passed away; behold new things have come" (compare Ezekiel 36:26, 27; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10).
- In the second place, the Scriptures speak of the Spirit granting new sight to otherwise blind sinners through the revelation of the gospel. Whereas by nature we are blinded by sin and incapable of seeing the truth of the gospel, the Spirit opens our eyes through the Word to see the truth concerning our own sin and the glory of Christ. No more than a blind man can appreciate the light of day or the beauty of the sunset, can a spiritually blind sinner appreciate the truth of the gospel. For this reason, the Spirit works through the gospel in such a way as to give sinners a true awareness of their needy condition and the remedy which is provided in the gospel (compare, for example, Luke 10:21; Ephesians 1:17, 18). Only the Spirit of God is able to confirm to us the things of the Spirit. Therefore, those who do not have the Spirit illumining their minds cannot receive or approve of the message of the gospel. "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (2 Corinthians 2:14).
- In the third place, the Scriptures ascribe the acts of faith and repentance by which sinners respond to the gospel call, to the Spirit who authors and gives them. Though faith and repentance are genuine acts, offered in response to the gospel, they are not independent acts, accomplished apart from the working of the Spirit. In the New Testament book of Acts for example, there are several occasions where the faith and repentance of those to whom the gospel was preached are ascribed to God's working in the hearts of His people. In Acts 11:18, the believers in Jerusalem, upon hearing of the repentance of the Gentiles at the preaching of the gospel, declare, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life." In Acts 13:48, when Paul announces the preaching of the gospel to the Gen tiles, we are told that "when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the Word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" (compare Acts 5:31; Acts 16:14; Acts 18:27). Similar passages may also be found in the New Testament epistles, in which the faith and repentance of sinners are declared to be the gift of God (compare Ephesians 2:8, 9; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:25, 26).
- And in the fourth place, the Scriptures often describe the call of the gospel as a sovereignly effective summons by which sinners are not only invited, but actually brought into the kingdom of God. The believer's calling through the gospel is not simply an "offer" which may or may not be answered. Rather, it is a gracious and sovereign act whereby the sinner is translated into the kingdom of God. This is the sense of the reference in Romans 8:30: "those whom ... [God] predestined, these he also called; and those whom he called, these he also justified." Frequently, believers are simply identified by this calling; to be "called" is to be saved, numbered among the people of God (compare Romans 1:6, 7; Romans 9:23, 24; Galatians 1:15, 16; 1 Corinthians 1:1ff.; Jude 1:1; Revelation 17:14). In 2 Timothy 1:9, to be called and to be saved are used as synonyms: "God, who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity" (compare Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 5:10).
There is much more that could be said about each of these Scriptural emphases. However, there should be no doubt that the work of God in the application of redemption is a sovereignly effective and irresistible work. How else could we interpret these Scriptural comparisons in which this work is likened to a new birth, a new creation, a new life, a new sight, and a new calling? In every one of these instances the Spirit works in us through the gospel what that gospel demands from us.
A Common Caricature
To conclude our consideration of the Canons' position on irresistible grace, there are two matters requiring further attention. The first concerns the manner in which the Canons are commonly caricatured. The second concerns the Canons' emphasis upon the use of means in the Spirit's work in applying the gospel.
The common caricature to which I refer was one already made by the Arminians and addressed in the Canons themselves. This caricature says that the Reformed view the Spirit's work as "irresistible" in the sense that it entails an overpowering of the sinner's will, coercing the believer into the kingdom of God. Though it may be admitted that the language of "irresistible" grace could occasion this kind of caricature, this is nonetheless a distortion of the Canons' teaching.2
Since the authors of the Canons expressly answer this caricature, and do so in terms which are not easily matched, we do well to take heed to their words.
Just as by the fall man did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will, and just as sin, which has spread through the whole human race, did not abolish the nature of the human race but distorted and spiritually killed it, so also this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and — in a manner at once pleasing and powerful — bends it back ... It is in this that the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists.
The wonder of the Spirit's work is that He gives through the gospel the desire which alone gives birth to the deed! By means of the Spirit's gracious working in granting to sinners a new heart, there is granted a true freedom to will and to do, because this has become the desire of our hearts, what is in accord with God's own good pleasure.
The Use of Means
In the history of the Reformed churches, it has often been debated whether this regenerating work of the Spirit is "immediate" or "mediate." That is, does the Spirit grant the new birth through the use of the ministry of the gospel? Or, does the Spirit in the strict sense, author this new birth without the use of the ministry of the Word? Some Reformed theologians have argued for the latter view, maintaining that the teaching of "mediate" regeneration imperils the exclusiveness of the Spirit's work in granting the new birth. These theologians fear that an emphasis upon the use of means will detract from the truth that only the Spirit imparts new life.
However, it is clear from the Canons that the authors wanted to place the emphasis upon the Spirit's use of the ministry of the gospel in bringing sinners to salvation. They wanted to stress the responsibility of the church to administer the gospel faithfully. And they insisted upon the responsibility of those to whom the gospel call is extended to respond accordingly. Only within the setting of this administration of the gospel, comprising both the gospel call and the sinner's believing response, does God communicate His grace in Jesus Christ to believers.
This is a matter requiring our attention because it belies the argument of many that the Canons' emphasis upon the sovereign initiative and effective working of the Triune God in the salvation of sinners belittles or diminishes human responsibility. But this is clearly not the position of the Canons.
There is nothing in the Canons' description of the Spirit's working through the gospel that would diminish in any way the earnest, sincere and serious proclamation of the gospel call to faith and repentance. There is nothing in the Canons' description of irresistible grace that would lessen in any degree the gospel summons to faith and repentance, together with the promise of salvation and blessedness to all who heed this summons. Nothing at all! Rather there is every encouragement given to the ministry of the gospel, because it is by these means that sinners are brought into and kept within the kingdom of Christ.
In fact, such gospel preaching is not only encouraged by the confession of the Canons, it is also stimulated by the good confidence we may have that the Spirit will effectively use this gospel summons to bring believers to salvation. There need be no uncertainty or wishful thinking about the prospects of success, when the gospel is preached according to the truth of the Scriptures. The wonderful confidence of gospel preaching, according to the Canons, is that God is pleased through these means to draw all His people without fail to Himself. None of those whom the Father has purposed to give to the Son, and for whom the Son laid down His life, will fail to be drawn by Him as the Spirit works effectively through the Word of the gospel.