The fourth basic doctrine of Calvinism is Irresistible Grace. It is also called Efficacious Grace or Invincible Grace.
Irresistible Grace is the idea that the elect, those who Calvinists believe have been unconditionally elected to eternal life, cannot resist the grace of God and heaven's determination to save them. As those elected to damnation can do nothing about it, those who are elected to salvation can do nothing to resist. The grace of God overwhelms them in such a way that even if they wanted to they could not repel it.
John Calvin believed that only a direct operation of the Holy Spirit could make one who is "dead in sin" hear the gospel and believe. This means that the gospel would not be sufficient to convict and convert the heart of the sinner. Calvinists say the Lord, through the Spirit, must appear to the sinner in a direct, miraculous way in order to bring about the sinner's conversion. And if the sinner is one whom God had predestinated to life before the foundation of the world, that sinner must submit to God's grace as revealed to him by the Spirit.
We will examine this fourth tenet of Calvinism, Irresistible Grace, by seeing how Calvinists themselves express this doctrine, considering the proof texts used to support it, and offering some Scriptural objections to it.
The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this doctrine by saying, "All those whom God hath 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; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace." (Chap. X, Sect. 1)
David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, in The Five Points of Calvinism, Defined, Defended, Documented, say,
"The gospel invitation extends a call to salvation to every one who hears its message. It invites all men without distinction to drink freely of the water of life and live. It promises salvation to all who repent and believe. But this outward general call, extended to the elect and non-elect alike, will not bring sinners to Christ. Why? Because men are by nature dead in sin and are under its power. They are of themselves unable and unwilling to forsake their evil ways and to turn to Christ for mercy. Consequently, the unregenerate will not respond to the gospel call to repentance and faith. No amount of external threatenings or promises will cause blind, deaf, dead, rebellious sinners to bow before Christ as Lord and to look to Him alone for salvation. Such an act of faith and submission is contrary to the lost man's nature.
"Therefore, the Holy Spirit, in order to bring God's elect to salvation, extends to them a special inward call in addition to the outward call contained in the gospel message. Through this special call the Holy Spirit performs a work of grace within the sinner which inevitably brings him to faith in Christ …
"Although the general outward call of the gospel can be, and often is, rejected, the special inward call of the Spirit never fails to result in the conversion of those to whom it is made. This special call is not made to all sinners but is issued to the elect only! The Spirit is in no way dependent upon their help or cooperation for success in His work of bringing them to Christ. It is for this reason that Calvinists speak of the Spirit's call and of God's grace in saving sinners as being ‘efficacious,' ‘invincible,' or ‘irresistible.' For the grace which the Holy Spirit extends to the elect cannot be thwarted or refused, it never fails to bring them to true faith in Christ!" (pp. 48-49)
Acts 16:14. The argument Calvinists base on this passage is that God opened Lydia's heart to receive the word. She then heard it and was saved. The answer to this argument is that Calvinists have things out of order. The proper order is that Lydia began as a worshiper of God (vv. 13, 14); after she heard Paul, Silas and Timothy preaching, her heart was then opened (v. 14); and she responded and obeyed the Lord. (v. 15) It is interesting to note that Calvinists will use this passage as a proof text for Irresistible Grace but exclude reference to Lydia's baptism.
Romans 8:7. The argument here is that the "carnal mind," possessed by those who are depraved, cannot understand, believe or obey the spiritual law of God. The answer here is to consider the verse in context -- verses 1-8. Seen in the context is the free agency of man in choosing whether to obey or disobey God. In reality, the passage is teaching a simple principle: those who are spiritually minded, those who have an interest in spiritual things, will be obedient to the commands of God and those who are carnally minded, those who possess no interest in spiritual matters, will be disobedient.
God does not force anyone to accept or reject His will. Calvinism simply views people as automatons ("A machine or control mechanism designed to follow automatically a predetermined sequence of operations or respond to encoded instructions" [Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 60] ) with no will of their own. While Calvinists teach that since a person is born totally depraved, he cannot even desire to do good, they say that if he is one of those who have been given unconditional election by God, that when God calls him, he cannot do anything to resist.
Irresistible Grace contradicts the Scriptural principle of free agency. This tenet of Calvinism declares that the grace of God cannot be rejected. In contrast, the Bible plainly teaches that ones salvation is conditional upon his obedience -- that one can either reject or accept salvation as it is offered through Jesus Christ. The grace of God has appeared to all people (Titus 2:11) and yet millions have rejected it. Each person is accountable for his response to the gospel. (John 12:47-48) Those who reject the teachings of Jesus are held responsible. (John 5:24; 8:24) The Bible states that each individual is free to choose whether or not to take advantage of the grace of God. It clearly demonstrates one may resist God's grace as revealed in His word.
Irresistible Grace mistakenly portrays how people are called by God to salvation. All people are called by the gospel. (2 Thes. 2:14) The Bible does not say that people are called by some still, small voice or by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit on them. The Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of the sinner does not work apart from the word. (Rom. 1:16)
Irresistible Grace changes the order of belief and salvation. A Calvinist, Loraine Boettner, says, "A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved." (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination) But in the Bible, salvation always follows belief, i.e., faith always precedes salvation.
Irresistible Grace has an erroneous view as to when one is made alive spiritually. Steele and Thomas say, "Therefore, the Holy Spirit, in order to bring God's elect to salvation, extends to them a special inward call in addition to the outward call contained in the gospel message. Through this special call the Holy Spirit performs a work of grace within the sinner which inevitably brings him to faith in Christ. The inward change wrought in the elect sinner enables him to understand and believe spiritual truth; in the spiritual realm he is given the seeing eye and the hearing ear. The Spirit creates within him a new heart or a new nature. This is accomplished through regeneration or the new birth by which the sinner is made a child of God and is given spiritual life. His will is renewed through this process so that the sinner spontaneously comes to Christ of his own free choice. Because he is given a new nature so that he loves righteousness, and because his mind is enlightened so that he understands and believes the Biblical gospel, the renewed sinner freely and willingly turns to Christ as Lord and Saviour. Thus the once dead sinner is drawn to Christ by the inward supernatural call of the Spirit who through regeneration makes him alive and creates within him faith and repentance." (48-49)
While that is what they say, the Bible teaches that one is made alive when, after hearing the gospel, he is baptized. (Col. 2:12,13; cf. John 3:3-5)
The Scriptures reveal we are saved by the grace of God. (Eph. 2:8) However, using our freedom to choose, we accept this grace by our faith not because God forces us to accept it. (Rev. 22:17)
Calvinism Analyzed and Answered. This is a six lesson study which considers the doctrines of Calvinism then compares and contrasts them with Scripture to see whether or not they stand or fall in light of God's word. It can be used in a class study or presented from the pulpit. (PDF file size 430k)