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Irresistible grace (or efficacious grace) is a doctrine in Christian theology particularly associated with Calvinism, which teaches that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom He has determined to save (the elect) and, in God's timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to faith in Christ.
Fourth-century Church Father Augustine of Hippo taught that God grants those whom he chooses for salvation the gift of persevering grace, and that they could not conceivably fall away. This doctrine gave rise to the doctrine of irresistible grace (gratia irresistibilis), though the term was not used during Augustine's lifetime.
According to Calvinism, those who obtain salvation do so, not by their own "free" will, but because of the sovereign grace of God. That is, men yield to grace, not finally because their consciences were more tender or their faith more tenacious than that of other men. Rather, the willingness and ability to do God's will are evidence of God's own faithfulness to save men from the power and the penalty of sin, and since man is so corrupt that he will not decide and cannot be wooed to follow after God, God must powerfully intervene by drawing the sinner to himself. In short, Calvinism argues that regeneration must precede faith.
Calvin says of this intervention that "it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant,". Despite the denial within Calvin and within the Calvinist confessions of violence or coercion being done to the will, Puritan scholar Perry Miller characterized Calvin's view of regeneration as being "a forcible seizure, a holy rape of the surprised will." John Gill says that "this act of drawing is an act of power, yet not of force; God in drawing of unwilling, makes willing in the day of His power: He enlightens the understanding, bends the will, gives an heart of flesh, sweetly allures by the power of His grace, and engages the soul to come to Christ, and give up itself to Him; he draws with the bands of love. Drawing, though it supposes power and influence, yet not always coaction and force: music draws the ear, love the heart, and pleasure the mind."
Objections to the doctrine
Christians associated with Arminianism, notably followers of John Wesley and part of the Methodist movement, reject this Calvinist doctrine. Instead, they believe that God's prevenient grace is extended to all human beings alike though perhaps in different measures, drawing them toward His love and thereby making salvation available. In this view, (1) after God's universal dispensation of grace to mankind, the will of man, which was formerly adverse to God and unable to obey, can now choose to obey through the work of Christ; and (2) although God's grace is a strong initial catalyst to effect salvation, it can ultimately be resisted and rejected by a human being.
Both sides agree that the resistibility of grace is inexorably bound up with the theological system's view of humanity's inability to respond to God and of the extent of God's grace. As Calvinist Charles Hodge says, "The (Arminian) and (Roman Catholic) doctrine is true, if the other parts of their doctrinal system are true; and it is false if that system be erroneous. If the (Calvinistic) doctrine concerning the natural state of man since the fall, and the sovereignty of God in election, be Scriptural, then it is certain that sufficient grace does not become efficacious from the cooperation of the human will." Thus the Calvinist passages which Calvinists interpret as the sovereignty of God in election are also relevant here.
Like Calvinists, Lutherans view the work of salvation as monergistic in which an unconverted or unrepentant person always resists and rejects God and his ways. Even during conversion, the Formula of Concord says, humans resist "the Word and will of God, until God awakens him from the death of sin, enlightens and renews him." Furthermore, they both see the preaching of the gospel as a means of grace by which God offers salvation.
Calvinists distinguish between a resistible, outward call to salvation given to all who hear the free offer of the gospel, and an efficacious, inward work by the Holy Spirit. Every person is unwilling to follow the outward call to salvation until, as the Westminster Confession puts it, "being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed by it." Once inwardly renewed, every person freely follows God and his ways as "not only the obligatory but the preferable good," and hence that special renewing grace is always effective.
Contrary to the Calvinist position, Lutherans hold that whenever the Holy Spirit works outwardly through the Word and sacraments, he always acts inwardly through them as well. Unlike Calvinists, Lutherans believe the Holy Spirit always works efficaciously. The Word heard by those that resist it is just as efficacious as the Word preached to those that convert. The Formula of Concord teaches that when humans reject the calling of the Holy Spirit, it is not a result of the Word being less efficacious. Instead, contempt for the means of grace is the result of "the perverse will of man, which rejects or perverts the means and instrument of the Holy Ghost, which God offers him through the call, and resists the Holy Ghost, who wishes to be efficacious, and works through the Word..."
Lutherans are certain that the work of the Holy Spirit does not occur merely alongside the means of grace to regenerate, but instead is an integral part of them, always working through them wherever they are found. Lutherans teach that the Holy Spirit limits himself to working only through the means of grace and nowhere else, so that those who reject the means of grace are simultaneously resisting and rejecting the Holy Spirit and the grace he brings.
Biblical passages related to the doctrine
|The Five Points|
|Perseverance of the saints|
The statement of St. Paul is said to confirm that those whom God effectually calls necessarily come to full salvation: "(T)hose whom (God) predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified" (Romans 8:28,30), but it is especially several verses from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which contains a record of Jesus' teaching on humanity's abilities and God's activities in salvation, that serves as the central proof text for the Calvinist doctrine:
- John 6:37,39: "All that the Father gives me will come to 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."[ESV]
- John 6:44–45: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.... Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me."[ESV]
- John 6:65: "(N)o one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."[ESV]
- Proponents of Arminianism argue that the word "draw" (Greek: ἕλκω, helkô) as used in John 6:44 does not require the sense of "drag", though they admit this is the word's usual meaning (as in Jn. 18:10; 21:6; 21:11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; Jas. 2:6). They point to John 12:32 as an example: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Arminians interpret this to mean that Jesus draws all people to Himself but some are able resist this drawing since, if the call is truly irresistible, then all must come to Christ and be saved. They may also note that in the Septuagint version of Jeremiah 38:13, when Jeremiah is lifted out of the pit where he was left to die, this Greek verb is used for the action which his rescuers performed after he voluntarily secured the ropes under his armpits, and that this rescue was certainly performed in cooperation with Jeremiah's wishes. Therefore, they may argue, even if the semantics of "draw" are understood in the usual sense, this should only be taken to indicate the source of the power, not the question of whether the person being drawn independently desires the drawing, or to indicate that the drawing is done irrespective of their wishes.
Calvinists argue that (1) the word "draw" should be understood according to its usual semantics in both John 6:44 and 12:32; (2) the word "all" (translated "all people" in v. 12:32) should be taken in the sense of "all kinds of people" rather than "every individual"; and thus (3) the former verse refers to an irresistible internal call to salvation and the latter to the opening of the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles, not a universal, resistible internal call. Some have asserted on this basis that the text of John 6:44 can entail either universalism or Calvinism, but not Arminianism.
Arminian William Barclay argues that "man's resistance can defeat the pull of God" mentioned in John 6:44, but commentator Leon Morris contends that "(n)ot one of (Barclay's) examples of the verb ('draw') shows the resistance as successful. Indeed we can go further. There is not one example in the New Testament of the use of this verb where the resistance is successful. Always the drawing power is triumphant, as here."
History of the doctrine
In the Catholic Church, debates concerning the respective role of efficacious grace and free will led to the establishment of the Congregatio de Auxiliis at the end of the 16th century by the Pope Clement VIII. The Dominicans insisted on the role of the efficacious grace, but the Jesuits embraced Molinism, which postulated greater liberty in the will. These debates also led to the famous formulary controversy in France which pitted the Jansenists against the Jesuits.
The doctrine is one of the so-called Five points of Calvinism that were defined at the Synod of Dort during the Quinquarticular Controversy with the Arminian Remonstrants, who objected to the general predestinarian scheme of Calvinism. In Calvinist churches, the doctrine is most often mentioned in comparisons with other salvific schemes and their respective doctrines about the state of mankind after the Fall, and it is not a common topic for sermons or studies otherwise.
- Hägglund, Bengt (2007) . Teologins historia [History of Theology] (in German). Translated by Gene J. Lund (4th rev. ed.). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. pp. 139–140. ISBN 978-0758613486.
- John Calvin. "John 6:41-45". Commentary on John. 1. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, X.1
- Canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine, Article 16
- Miller, Perry (June 1943), ""Preparation for Salvation" in Seventeenth-Century New England", Journal of the History of Ideas, University of Pennsylvania Press, 4 (3): 261, JSTOR 2707254
- John Gill. "John 6:44". John Gill's Exposition of the Bible. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- Charles Hodge. "Efficacious Grace". Systematic Theology. 2. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, art. ii, par. 71; par. 18
- Solid Declaration, art. ii, par. 59
- Westminster Confession of Faith, X.1,2.
- Loraine Boettner. "Efficacious Grace". The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- "Calvinism and Lutheranism compared". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 2009-03-30.
- Henry Eyster Jacobs: A Summary of the Christian Faith. Philadelphia: General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, 1905, pp. 216-17, Engelder, Theodore E.W. (1934). Popular Symbolics: The Doctrines of the Churches of Christendom and Of Other Religious Bodies Examined in the Light of Scripture. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. p. 58.
- Solid Declaration, article xi, "Election", par. 41
- Smalcald Articles, part 8, "Of Confession": "[I]n those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word."
- Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott. "helkô". A Greek-English Lexicon. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- Brian Bosse (2005-10-11). "A Logical Analysis - John 6:44" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-12-02. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- Leon Morris (1995). The Gospel According to John (revised ed.). p. 328, n. 116.
- "Of Effectual Calling" from John Gill's Body of Doctrinal Divinity
- "Concerning Efficacious Grace" by Jonathan Edwards
- "Efficacious Grace", section 3.14.4 from Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology
- "On Regeneration", a sermon by Charles Spurgeon
- "Irresistible Grace" by John Murray
- "Efficacious Grace", chapter 13 from Loraine Boettner's The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination
- "Regeneration Precedes Faith" by R. C. Sproul
- "Irresistible Grace" by John Piper
- Many articles on irresistible grace by various authors
- Irresistible grace, WELS Topical Q&A (Confessional Lutheran perspective)
- Sermon #58: "On Predestination" by John Wesley
- Sermon #128: "Free Grace" by John Wesley
- Irresistible Grace
- Prevenient Grace by Gregory Neal
- Calvinism and John 6: An Exegetical Response by Steve Witzki
- Free Grace or Forced Grace? by Steve Witski