Irresistible Grace: How God Applies the Rescue

Many years ago after an incident in which my minivan became hopelessly stuck on a frozen Wisconsin lake in February (long story, feel free to ask for details), I saw an illustration of an important biblical teaching. Preachers do that (look for illustrations, not drive on snowy lakes).

Back to the story. Through the darkness, the driver of a very powerful four-wheel-drive Chevy truck saw my overheated vehicle and drove through deep snow to rescue me. He hooked a chain to my chassis and dragged me to the main road that crossed the lake. I didn’t flag him down. I could say I cooperated, but my spinning wheels were useless until he dragged me to the place where my wheels could work.

The bottom line is this: my rescue was all about his decision to come and get me. My contribution to the process, if you call it a contribution, was being obviously in trouble.

Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Why did he say that? He said that because he was pointing out (see more in verses 26-46) that God’s people will be saved at the time and by the means he has ordained. They will repent and believe, but even those are gifts. In other words, Jesus was articulating the doctrine that would later be called “Irresistible Grace”.

Many of those who oppose this doctrine do so because of a faulty caricature. They testify of their own resistance to the gospel’s call to repentance. People say, “If this is true, then why did I resist so long before I turned to Christ?”

Of course everyone resists God. Stephen spoke of this in Acts 7:51, as did Paul in Ephesians 4:30 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19. This is our nature. Total depravity, right? So then, spiritually dead people can only exercise faith when a work of God called “regeneration” frees their will. Faith comes after the new birth (John 1:11-14; John 3:3-8; Titus 3:4-5; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 1 John 5:1). The Canons of Dordt used these words to defend this doctrine:

Moreover, when God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.

So are we puppets, unwilling people dragged into the family of God? No more than Lazarus resisted coming forth from that tomb. No more than I fought the guy in the Chevy truck. The Canons of Dordt coupled this doctrine with Total Depravity:

…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. As a result, a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant. It is in this that the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists. Thus, if the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, man would have no hope of getting up from his fall by his free choice, by which he plunged himself into ruin when still standing upright.

Because man is spiritually dead, only a gracious work of God can change his condition. This work, then, does not force unwilling people into the kingdom but makes unwilling people willing. This is what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. It is what God did when he granted Gentiles faith. It was the experience of Lydia, whose heart God opened.

The suggestion that this doctrine is anti-evangelistic cannot stand up against the facts. Evangelist John R. Rice wrote, “Satan uses this doctrine of ‘Irresistible Grace’ to lull Christians to disobedience and lack of compassion and burden to get people saved.” In reality, believing this promotes aggressive evangelism. We do not need manipulative altar calls, a great band or funny cartoons to woo more people to salvation. God uses means and his chosen means of rescuing sinners is the preaching of the gospel. Ours is not to dress it up but to spread it thick. As one preacher said, “We stand in the service of the all-sovereign God of the universe whose words do not fall to the ground, whose purposes must be accomplished and whose people will be saved.”

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