Irresistible Grace by Rev. L. John Gable
November 5, 2017
During the past several weeks we have been discussing the distinctive principles of Reformed theology in recognition and celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and we have admittedly navigated some pretty deep theological waters: Total Depravity, the pervasiveness of our sin and absolute need for a Savior; Unconditional Election, God’s moving toward us with mercy and love, claiming us as His children without distinction or disqualification; and Limited Atonement, the necessity of our response to the provision of God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; which brings us to our topic for today, Irresistible Grace.
Given that we have come this far, I’d like to give you an insight as to how these five points of Calvinism came to be formulated in the first place, because Calvin didn’t make them up himself, and I’ll do so by asking you to reflect on an age-old question which I know you have considered before. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I’ll bet you were expecting some really hard theological question, weren’t you?
There is good reason to argue that the chicken came first, for without a chicken there can be no egg, and conversely one can make the equally strong argument that without the egg there can be no chicken.
It was a question similar question, though one couched in a bit more theological language, that called the Synod of Dort together in 1619, out of which came the five points of Calvinism, so identified as TULIP. Bear in mind Calvin had been dead for over five decades, but the chicken and the egg question for them was, “Where does faith come from? Is its origin human or divine? Is it something God does or something we do? Is faith primarily gift or grasp?” There were/are some who argue that faith is totally a gift of God’s grace, that there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve it, but that then raises the question, “What part does human freedom play in our acceptance or rejection of it? If it is “all God” is one free to deny it if God gives it?” Then there are others who argue that faith comes by our act of turning to God, when we make a decision for God, which explains why some people choose to believe and others not, but this then raises the equally difficult question, “Does that mean that we are the masters of our own destiny? That we can generate faith on our own without God’s involvement? That it is all up to us?” So which is it? Which comes first, God’s grace or our faith?
The Reformers generally insisted that salvation is by grace alone and that faith itself is a gift of God; yet still, Calvin, Luther and others also acknowledged that such faith required a human response. Like the chicken and the egg, this is a question that calls for not an “either/or” but a “both/and” kind of answer.
This is how it feels to many who are searching for a meaningful faith. The whole time they are seeking it feels like it is all up to them to find God. The struggle, the questions, the doubts all make it feel as though God is playing some kind of a metaphysical game of hide and seek. But once they come to faith they see that same struggle in a different way. They see all of the wrestling with questions and doubts as the very means by which God was leading them to Himself. They come to realize that God wasn’t hiding from them at all; rather He was giving them clues as to how He could be found.
Bottom line: faith is always a divine gift AND a human enterprise, each being incomplete without the other. Our seeking is initiated by God’s offering, and God’s offering is made complete by our acceptance. This then is the principle behind the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. It does not mean that on an individual level God’s grace cannot be resisted or denied, for we know that it frequently is. I find it curious that God has given us the prerogative of free will sufficient even to reject His love. This doctrine, however, reminds us that God is ever at work, in the world and in our hearts, and that ultimately God’s will cannot be thwarted. Through the ministry of God’s Holy Spirit, you and I are continually being called to align ourselves with God’s perfect will and purpose.
The doctrine of Irresistible Grace assures us that “God is working His purposes out” in human history, Romans 8:28, and friends, we need that kind of assurance given the kind of world we live in, right? We read in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis of God’s original plan for us and His creation. God looked at what He had made and said it was “very good”. In a word, God created us to live in “paradise”. That was God’s original, intended design for His creation. Then fast forward to the end of the book of Revelation where we read of God’s intended destiny for His creation, “a new heaven and a new earth”. Once again, God at home with His people, wiping away every tear, in a place where death will be no more, no mourning, no crying, no pain; in a word that sounds like “paradise re-gained”, doesn’t it? So, Scripture tells us the beginning of the story, God’s intended design, and the end of the story, God’s intended destiny, which makes us wonder, “What happened in the middle? Where did we go wrong?”
We know what happened, don’t we? We know all too well and we feel its effects every day and in every relationship of our lives. In that middle part we go off tract by making decisions which do not accord with either God’s good design or desired destiny. In our sinful rebellion we reject God and His purposes, and bring brokenness and disharmony through our violence, hatred, bigotry, idolatry and lack of trust (remember, Total Depravity). We deviate from the path which God has laid out for us between design and destiny. We act out of our own free wills and God, in His loving forbearance, allows us to follow our foolish ways.
But rather than give up on us, God continues to declare His love for us (Unconditional Election) and to provide a way back through faith in Jesus Christ for any who will receive Him (Limited Atonement), which is all to say, no matter how far off course we may roam, God will always show us the way to come back home (Irresistible Grace), all we need do is follow it. God continues to work His purposes out in human history, and nothing will ever keep God from achieving His desired end. This is the assurance of our faith: God’s grace is irresistible, unthwartable, undefeatable.
Some have likened God’s working His purposes out in history as being like sailing on an ocean liner. We are the passengers and God is the captain. As passengers we may continually rearrange the deck chairs, and make seemingly monumental decisions about what we will wear and what time we will eat. We may even make keen observations about points of navigation, what is ahead or behind, port or starboard, but none of that changes the direction of the ship. The captain alone knows the destination. He alone sees what we passengers do not see and sets the course. There may well be obstacles along the way which force the captain to deviate from the original route, but those mid-course corrections do not change the final destination. The captain is responsible for getting the ship and all of her passengers safely to the promised destination and nothing will keep him from doing so. Friends, the Captain of our salvation is trustworthy and true.
Though we have not yet seen it, God has told us of our final destination and has invited us, and not only us but all who would desire to join Him, to journey there with Him, such is the life of faith. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…and destined us for adoption as His children. He has made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:4,5,10) God has made His eternal purpose known to us in Jesus Christ. He has chosen us in love and destined us for redemption, but still it is our decision as to whether we will get on board or not. He will not take us where we refuse to go. He will not override our free will. It is still up to us to will God’s will and to align ourselves with God’s purposes. This we do by putting our trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. There may be times when we do not understand the course God is taking, and most certainly there will be storms at sea which may force God to change course or temporarily alter His plans, but we can be eternally confident of this: there is nothing that can keep God from bringing us safely to the destination He has prepared for us. So, we give thanks that God’s purposes are unthwartable and undefeatable. God’s grace is Irresistible.