Irresistable (Effectual) Grace

R.C. Sproul

How is it that you who hated God so much now love him so much? What did you do to change your heart so radically? Do you remember resisting grace? Do you remember when you received it? Was it before or after you had faith in Jesus Christ for your salvation? In this message, Dr. Sproul considers these questions as he examines the doctrine of “Irresistible Grace.”

As we continue with our study of Reformed theology, we’re going to continue our examination of the acrostic TULIP. We have trampled down this beautiful flower in God’s garden. By changing “total depravity” to “radical corruption” we turned the T to an R. We turned “unconditional election” into “sovereign election,” then we turned “limited atonement” into “definite atonement,” and we’re going to do it again and change another letter.

The letter I stands for “irresistible grace.” Once again, I have a little bit of a problem with this designation, not because I don’t believe the classical doctrine of irresistible grace, but because it is misleading to many people when they hear it articulated in these terms. So, we’re going to talk about effectual grace. Unfortunately, there is very little left of our beautiful flower TULIP when I’m done with these modifications.

Relentless Resistance

The idea of irresistible grace provokes a lot of controversy, and there is a lot of misunderstanding about it.

When I was a seminary student, we had a professor who was teaching New Testament and who was also the president of this Presbyterian seminary. In class one day, one of the students raised his hand and asked, “Do you believe in the doctrine of election?” The professor exhibited a bit of irritation at that question. He said emphatically that he did not believe it because he did not believe that God dragged people kicking and screaming, against their will, into the kingdom of God when they didn’t want to be there, and at the same time prevented others from coming who desperately wanted to be in the kingdom.

I was astonished not only that this was such a serious distortion and caricature of historic Reformed theology, but also that it would be uttered by a man who should have known better, a man who had been steeped in the confessional standards of the church. I thought, “If a person of this status in the church with this experience and this education has this misconception about irresistible grace, then how many other people must labor under the same misconception?”

The word irresistible conjures up the idea that one cannot possibly offer any resistance to the grace of God. But, beloved, the history of the human race is the history of relentless resistance to the sweetness of the grace of God. What is meant by irresistible grace is not what the word seems to suggest, that grace is incapable of being resisted. Indeed, we are capable of resisting God’s grace, and we do resist God’s grace. But the idea here is that, in spite of our natural resistance to the grace of God, God’s grace is so powerful that it has the capacity to overcome our natural resistance to it. That’s why I prefer the term effectual grace rather than irresistible grace, because this grace effects what God intends to effect by it.

Regeneration Precedes Faith

What we’re really looking at in this controversy is the relationship between grace, God’s work, and our response to it—the relationship between faith and regeneration. If there is any one point that historically divides Reformed theology from other theologies, it is the question of the relationship between these two ideas.

In historic Reformation thought, the notion is this: regeneration precedes faith. Let me take a moment to explain a subtle nuance of this word. When we use the term precede, we’re usually talking about something that comes before something else in time. That is, if something precedes something else in time, we say that it has temporal priority—one thing comes, then later the other thing follows from it.

Now, when theologians use this language of precede, what is in view with respect to the order of salvation is what we call logical priority. For example, we believe that justification is by faith alone. We don’t say that faith is by justification, but rather that justification is by faith. We believe that, in the very instant a person has faith, God declares them just in Christ. There is no time gap between the presence of faith and the presence of justification—in time they’re simultaneous. But when we say that justification is by faith, and not faith by justification, what do we mean? We mean that the reality of justification depends upon a prior condition, the presence of something else, for it to be real. In this case, justification depends upon faith, not faith upon justification.

So, when we talk about regeneration preceding faith, this means that before a person exercises saving faith, before they believe in Christ, before that individual exercises his or her will to embrace Christ, God must do something for them and in them so that faith can be exercised.

A Little Island of Righteousness

It’s common in our culture and our religious circles to say that, in order for a person to be regenerated or reborn, all it takes is to believe. If you have faith, then, as a result of your faith, you become a new creature. You are now regenerated. You are now born again, and you are born again precisely because you have exercised faith.

We talked earlier about the Pelagian controversy and that view of original sin that left a little island of righteousness in fallen man, whereby fallen man is still deemed to have the moral power to incline himself or herself to respond positively to the good, to choose Christ, and so on. This view says that the person is not dead in sin and trespass, that this metaphor in Scripture is hyperbolic, and that fallen people are really only seriously ill. Fallen people have been weakened by the fall, but not to such an extent that it requires a divine work of re-creation in their souls for them to come to faith. This semi-Pelagian view is that fallen man still has within his heart the ability to exercise faith if God woos him, entices him, or in other ways draws him.
John tells us the words of Jesus in the sixth chapter of his gospel where Jesus said, “Nobody can come to Me unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44). The way many Christians interpret this text is to say that the “drawing” has to do with God’s external wooing, persuading, enticing, or luring and that God draws many people. Some respond positively to this drawing; others say no to the drawing. God draws everybody with an equal persuasive power, and, in the final analysis, those who acquiesce to the drawing are saved, and those who do not acquiesce are lost.

“Here Water, Water, Water”

I once had a debate on this subject at an Arminian seminary in the Midwest and had an interesting exchange with the head of the New Testament department there. He cited John 6:44, and I was quick to say to him, “Do you realize that the same Greek word that John uses here is frequently used elsewhere in the Scriptures, notably in the book of Acts where Paul and Silas are dragged into prison?” I suggested that the idea in the book of Acts was not that the jailer went into the jail cell and tried to woo, entice, or persuade Paul and Silas to get in there behind bars. The word has more force than that.

I then called attention to the lexicographical study of that Greek word in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, where the preferred rendering of the word draw is the word compel. It changes everything if you read the text and Jesus is saying, “No one can come to Me unless the Father compels him.” That’s much stronger than the weaker word “draw,” which could be interpreted as this wooing type of concept that is mere external suasion.

At this point in our debate, the professor threw me a curve that I wasn’t expecting. He said, “Yes, but do you realize that the same Greek word is used in one of the Greek poets (he cited Euripides or somebody; I don’t remember) for the action of drawing water from a well?” He looked at me in triumph and said, “Dr. Sproul, you don’t compel water to come out of a well, do you?”

I said: “No, sir, you don’t. You have me there, and I confess that I was not aware of that reference in the Greek language. But how do you get water from a well? Do you stand up at the top of the well and call down, ‘Here, water, water, water?’ Do you try to woo it, entice it, or lure it, or do you have to go down with a bucket and pull it out?” I said, “I’m perfectly happy with the allusion to getting water out of a well because that’s what God does with us—we’re buried in the water, and we need to be drawn out by somebody else’s power, not by our own.” That’s what the debate here is all about.

“Unless a Man Is Born Again”

I said at the beginning that all of these controversies really come back and roost on our understanding of the T in TULIP, on our understanding of the doctrine of total depravity, and our doctrine of moral inability. Is our condition of bondage to sin so serious and the fall so severe that we have no moral desire for God unless God plants that desire in our hearts?

Jesus put it this way to Nicodemus: “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3), and, “He cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). We hear our Lord saying in that discussion with Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and later He says, “The flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). There is a prerequisite, a sine-qua-non, that has to happen to us as a work of God the Holy Spirit, by which He raises us from the state of spiritual death. Paul articulates that in the second chapter of the book of Ephesians. Let’s take a moment to look at that.

The Gift of Faith

Paul says in Ephesians chapter 2:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves (notice that the immediate antecedent of the “that” is “faith”); it is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:1–8)

What Augustine was saying to Pelagius, what Luther was saying to Erasmus, what Calvin was saying to the world, what Edwards was saying to Chauncy, and what we’re saying to our friends today is that faith itself is a gift that is given, and it is engendered in us by regeneration.
It is not that the Holy Spirit drags people kicking and screaming against their will to come to Christ. The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our hearts so that, while we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing—and more than willing. Indeed, we aren’t dragged to Christ; we run to Christ, and we embrace Him joyfully because the Spirit has changed our hearts. That heart is no longer a heart of stone, impervious to the commands of God and to the invitations of the gospel. God melts the hardness of our hearts when He makes us new creatures. When we’re dead, the Holy Spirit resurrects us from spiritual death so that we come to Christ because we want to come to Christ. But the reason we want to come to Christ is because God has already done a work of grace in our soul. Without that work, we would never have any desire to come to Christ. That’s why we say that regeneration precedes faith.

One Working

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. This means that the divine operation called rebirth, or regeneration, involves the work of God in the human soul and the work of God alone.
Erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. Mono means “one.” So, monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in my heart is something that God does by His power, not by 50% His power and 50% my power, or 99% His power and 1% my power, but 100% by the work of God. He, and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and of the human heart to bring us to faith. When He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about by it.
When God created you in the first place, He brought you into existence. You didn’t help Him. It was His sovereign work that brought you to life biologically. When He brings you to spiritual life salvifically, it is His work, and His alone, that brings you into that state of rebirth and renewed creation. Hence, we call this effectual grace. It’s grace that works. It’s grace that brings about what God wants it to bring about.

God Alone

Let me read a passage that is found in the historical introductory essay to the Revel edition of perhaps Luther’s most important work—at least the book that Martin Luther thought was his most important work—The Bondage of the Will. This historical introduction was written jointly by two men, one of whom was J.I. Packer. Here is just one paragraph from that introduction:

Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers’ thought).

What they’re saying in this introduction, following Luther’s work against Erasmus, is that the whole controversy over justification was a surface issue that thinly veiled the deeper question which engendered the controversy in the first place—the question of whether our salvation is solely of God’s grace or not. That’s what Luther was jealous to talk about in his work, The Bondage of the Will.

If indeed, we are dead in sin and trespasses, if indeed our wills are held captive by the lusts of our flesh and we need to be liberated from our own flesh in order to be saved, then, in the final analysis, salvation is something that God does in us and for us, not something that we in any way do for ourselves.