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WHOSOEVER WILL: A Baptist’s perspective on irresistible grace

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Many Baptists, when asked about the five points of Calvinism, characterize themselves as two or three point Calvinists, and almost invariably the two doctrines that Baptists deny are limited atonement and irresistible grace.

Why do most Baptists deny irresistible grace?

At the Synod of Dort, which framed the doctrines summarized in the T.U.L.I.P. acrostic, irresistible grace was defined as “God works in us without our help.” The Synod affirmed that conversion “does not happen only by outward teaching or by moral persuasion,” and denied that “it remains in man’s power whether or not to be reborn or converted.” So those whom God calls, “are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn.”

In other words, irresistible grace means that God chooses those whom He wants to save and compels them to believe. This is effectively forced on them such that the person being saved has no choice about it. With irresistible grace, it is not possible to resist the conviction of the Holy Spirit and remain lost.

According to this concept, the elect are given a special “enabling grace” or “effectual calling” which changes them without their agreement or consent. Those who are not elect do not receive the “enabling grace,” so they have no chance to be saved because they have not been given the means to do so. Therefore, the God of irresistible grace simply chooses to save some and not to save others, regardless of their response to Him. Those He elects cannot resist being saved. Those He does not elect have no possibility of being saved, no matter how much they might seek it or desire it.

What does the Bible say about irresistible grace?

The simplest answer is, “Nothing,” because the phrase “irresistible grace” appears nowhere in the Bible. But the theological term of the Trinity does not appear in Scripture, either. However, the concept of the Three Persons of God is clearly stated. The same is not true for the concept of irresistible grace — just the opposite.

In the Old Testament, Israel is God’s elect people, and yet they resisted God’s grace and calling. Often God lamented how His elect people resisted His love (Ps. 78:10, 81:11-13, Prov. 1:24-26, Jer. 32:33, Hos. 11:1-9).

In the New Testament the most direct reference to the resistibility of grace is in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:2–53, just before his martyrdom in Acts 7:54–60. Confronting the Jews who had rejected Jesus as Messiah, Stephen said, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (Acts 7:51 NASB). Stephen accuses both these Jews who rejected Christ of “resisting the Holy Spirit” and many of their Jewish ancestors of resisting God as well. Luke 7:30 describes the Pharisees’ rejection of the counsel of God (Luke 7:30), and Saul is spoken of kicking “against the goads” before his salvation (Acts 26:14).

Throughout His teaching ministry, Jesus taught that God’s grace is resistible. This was the case in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The city who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37, HCSB, cf. Luke 13:34).

Jesus’ lament over an entire city is made personal in the incident with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18–23).

The ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18, HCSB). If Jesus believed in irresistible grace, we would have expected Him to answer, “Nothing!,” because lost persons could literally do nothing if they were not elect. Instead, Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. This act would have indicated that the ruler was making Jesus (rather than Mammon) his Savior and Lord. The young ruler was unwilling, and Jesus let him walk away and face the solemn consequences of his decision.

Noting the rich young ruler’s unwillingness, Jesus then comments about how hard it is for a rich person to enter into heaven — indeed, as hard as a camel going through the eye of a needle (Luke 13:24–28). Of course, if Jesus believed in irresistible grace, He never would have suggested that it was harder for rich persons to be saved than poor persons. It would not be harder for God to save one person than another. So being “hard” referred to the rich person’s unwillingness to repent of the idolatry of money and trust Christ.

The same idea of resistible grace arises frequently in the parables of Jesus’ teaching ministry, such as in the parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-43) and the parable of the Sower in Matt. 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; and Luke 8:1–15). For example, the variable that differentiates the different soils in the parable of the Sower is not the proclamation of the Word (which goes to all the soils) but the response of the individual.

The gospel in the New Testament is not presented to just a chosen few, but it is a broad invitation to all people. Scripture clearly teaches that God desires the salvation of all people (Matt. 18:14, 1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9, 1 John 2:2).

This same all-inclusive word translated “all,” “anyone,” or “whosoever” is used repeatedly in the New Testament to offer an invitation to all people who would respond to God’s gracious initiative with faith and obedience (Matt. 7:24/Luke 6:47; Matt. 10:32-33/Luke 12:8; Matt. 11:28/Luke 7:37; Matt. 16:24–25/Mark 8:34-35/Luke 9:23-24; John 1:7, 1:9, 3:15-16, 4:13-14, 6:40, 6:51, 7:37, 8:51, 11:26, 12:46; Acts 2:21, 10:43, Rom. 9:33, 10:11; 10:13, 1 John 2:23, 4:15, 5:1; Rev. 3:20, 22:17).

More evidence against irresistible grace is that whenever anyone in the New Testament asks a direct question about how to be saved, the answer never refers to election. The answer always calls for an action on the part of the person to receive the salvation that God has provided for and offers to each person (John 3:14-16, Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:37-40, 8:36-37, 16:30-31, Rom. 10:9-10).

Ephesians 2:8 clearly states the one doctrine of grace actually taught in Scripture: “For by grace you have been saved through faith….”

Compelling persons to perform involuntary actions is not a truly gracious gift. God extends His gracious salvation to all who voluntarily respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Steve Lemke is provost, professor of philosophy and ethics, and director of the Center for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Steve Lemke