Irresistible Grace?

The doctrine of Irresistible Grace is one of the five main tenets of Calvinism. These five tenets are represented by the letters in the acronym “TULIP” (Total Hereditary Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace & Perseverance of the Saints). Total Hereditary Depravity is the teaching that everyone is born into the world tainted spiritually by the sin of Adam, totally unable to do anything good much less respond positively to the commands of God. Unconditional Election is the idea that God unconditionally elected certain individuals to salvation. These alone will be saved; all others will be lost. Limited Atonement is the belief that Christ’s blood atoned only for the sins of the elect. To the Calvinist, there was no sense in atoning for the sins of the non-elect; such would be a waste of the atoning blood. Irresistible Grace is the thought that when God gets ready to save one of the elect, He will send the Holy Spirit to directly operate on that one’s heart to regenerate him. This regeneration supposedly enables him to respond positively to the command of God to repent and believe the gospel. In other words the elect will be saved no matter what. All of the elect will be regenerated and all the regenerated will repent and believe the gospel. Perseverance of the Saints is the doctrine that all the saved will persevere until the end; once saved, always saved. In this article, particular attention is being paid to the fourth of these five tenets.

According to Stephen (speaking by the Holy Spirit), the Jews had a long and inglorious history of resisting the Holy Spirit. (Acts 7.2-50). He then concludes:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7.51-53) Stephen meant that, by rejecting the inspired words of the prophets, they had resisted the Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets. They proceeded to prove his assessment correct by resisting the Holy Spirit again.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7.54-60)

Calvinists teach, “The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those sinners whom He personally calls to Christ (John 6:37-40).”

But this takes the statement of Jesus completely out of its context and thereby misrepresents the identity of those are brought to Him. It assumes that there is a definite number of people that God has chosen but this is not the case. Notice the passage.

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:7-40)

The Father gives to the Son “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him.” Those who look on Him, believe in Him and come unto Him will not be cast out so long as they continue to look on Him and believe in Him. The passage does not even mention the work of the Holy Spirit.

Calvinists teach, “At the heart of this doctrine is the answer to the question: Why does one person believe the gospel and another does not? Is it because one is smarter, has better reasoning capabilities, or possesses some other characteristic that allows him to realize the importance of the gospel message? Or is it because God does something unique in the lives of those whom He saves? If it is because of what the person who believes does or is, then in a sense he is responsible for his salvation and has a reason to boast. However, if the difference is solely that God does something unique in the hearts and lives of those who believe in Him and are saved, then there is no ground for boasting and salvation is truly a gift of grace. Of course, the biblical answer to these questions is that the Holy Spirit does do something unique in the hearts of those who are saved. The Bible tells us that God saves people “according to His mercy…through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

The claim, that if man bears any responsibility in his own salvation he would be able to boast, is untrue. Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17.10)

We cannot boast for doing our duty or fulfilling our responsibility before God. The “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” in Titus 3:5 refers to the new birth.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)

When one obeys the teaching of the Holy Spirit by believing, repenting, confessing faith and being baptized, he is born again of water and the Spirit.

One Calvinist wrote: “The doctrine of irresistible grace recognizes that the Bible describes natural man as “dead in his trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13), and, because man is spiritually dead, he must first be made alive or regenerated in order to understand and respond to the gospel message.”

The above quote shows that Calvinists do not understand the nature of spiritual death. Because a person who is physically dead is incapable of physical activity, they mistakenly think that a person who is spiritually dead is incapable of spiritual activity. This does not follow. The reason a person who is physically dead is incapable of physical activity is that his spirit is no longer able to animate his body. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26)

However, spiritual death is separation from God (cf. Gen. 2.16-17 & Isa. 59.1-2). A person who is spiritually dead still has a mind, a conscience and a will. He can learn the truth, be convicted by the truth and obey the truth. The Scriptures teach that those who have sinned are spiritually dead UNTIL they are baptized into Christ.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6.3-11)

Thus, everything that must precede baptism – believing, repenting and confessing faith – is done by one who is spiritually dead. Even one who is about to be baptized is still spiritually dead. He is “quickened” or made alive IN baptism (Col. 2.11-13)

Paul said God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1.13). But this takes place when one is baptized into Christ (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3.27).

It is true that one must be drawn to Christ by the Father in order to be saved (John 6:44). But the Father draws us to Christ by teaching us through His word.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.” (John 6.45-46)

One Calvinist writer said, “Another misconception concerning this doctrine is that it teaches the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted at all. Yet, again, that is not what the doctrine teaches because that is not what the Bible teaches. God’s grace can be resisted, and the Holy Spirit’s influence can be resisted even by one of the elect. However, what the doctrine does correctly recognize is that the Holy Spirit can overcome all such resistance and that He will draw the elect with an irresistible grace that makes them want to come to God and helps them to understand the gospel so they can and will believe it.”

Well, which way is it? Is it “God’s grace can be resisted, and the Holy Spirit’s influence can be resisted even by one of the elect”? Or is it “…the Holy Spirit can overcome all such resistance and that He will draw the elect with an irresistible grace that makes them want to come to God and helps them to understand the gospel so they can and will believe it”? Can He be resisted if He can “overcome all such resistance”? Resistance that can be overcome is not really resistance.

The truth is that God’s grace can be resisted and has been resisted throughout man’s history. Even those who teach the so-called irresistibility of God’s grace resist His grace by their rejection of the truth God has so graciously revealed by the Holy Spirit.


Cite this article as: Bob Myhan, "Irresistible Grace?," in Answering Religious Error, July 19, 2015,

Irresistible Grace?
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