We already tend to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between God and His creatures, and so it is unfortunate that we sometimes use language calculated to perpetuate that misunderstanding. One term that is misunderstood in this way, in the view of many, is the irresistible grace of the famous TULIP. But is the misunderstanding justified?
Some might say it makes conversion sound like a mugging, with the hapless proselyte having been bonked on the head in order that he might be dragged off to eternal life, whether he wants to be or not. But the problem with this image is the intent of a mugging – to rob and maim. Why would we ever think of salvation in such terms? We need to think about this more carefully. There are other irresistible things in the world, and yet we never call them that. We just take the irresistibility for granted.
For some reason, no one wants to admit that the grace of the new birth is irresistible. But for all of us, our first birth was just as irresistible. Moreover, virtually no one complains about this. I was born in 1953, and I do not recall ever being consulted in 1952 about whether I wanted to be born or not. Life was simply thrust upon me, somewhat violently they tell me, and first thing I knew I was playing with toys trucks on the floor of this family’s living room. The name was Wilson, they said, and the prison door clanged shut. No escape now, they said. That whole business was irresistible – makes your skin crawl to think of it. I was now someone’s brother, not someone’s sister, and I hadn’t been asked about my preferences there either. I was an American, not an Englishman, and not a Chinese. I was a Wilson, and not a Williams or Smith. In short, there was good bit of tyranny all round.
Of course, the reason I was not consulted is that there was no “me” to consult. In order to consult me someone would have to create me without consulting me in order to ask me all the questions. And in what form would I be created in order that I might answer the questions? I would have to answer objectively, so it would be no fair making me with a preference for anything. This means I would have to be an androgynous, humanoid blob, a faceless, nameless orphan, with no love for any particular family, place, or nation. And the question would come, “Where and under what conditions would you like to be born?” “Huh?” I would have said.
Of course the grace of God is irresistible – it has to be. It is life for creatures, and no creature ever generated his own life. What do you have, Paul once asked, that you did not receive as a gift? And if as a gift, why do you boast as though it were not a gift? And given the nature of the case, the gift, in order to be given, has to be given irresistibly. God simply does it. “And just who does He think He is?” someone might ask.
The reason we do not like to be told that our new life was “irresistibly” thrust upon us is that we want to take some kind of credit for it. In a world in which some are saved and some are not, we want the reason for the distinction to rest with us. For if it were sheer gift, we would have to boast in the Lord, just like the Bible says.
Put another way, this means that we want our will in the matter to be, you guessed it, irresistible. God built the machinery of salvation, and we have the authority and power to come and operate it, if we so choose. If one man is saved and another is lost, the praise and blame go, respectively, to each of them. One man is praised for seeing what had to be done, and doing it, and the other man is blamed for neglecting the appropriate response.
By grace are you saved, Paul says. It is not by works, but rather through faith. And, anticipating what our slippery hearts would do with that, Paul hastens to add that even this faith was a gift from God. And why? Lest any should boast (Eph. 2:8-10). The boastful heart of sinful men will always ask, “Why is this man saved and that man not saved?” If the answer points to anything within the two men, anything whatever, then the man who believes he fulfilled the requisite condition will boast in that fulfillment. Was it going forward at the invitation? “I did that.” Was it a superior docility? “I had that.” Was it believing in Jesus, which that other man refused to do? “I believed.”
Life and death are therefore manifested in the pronouns. When the question is asked, “Why did salvation come to you?” grace through faith answers one way, and works-righteousness answers another, and the chasm between grace and works is revealed in the first two words. The former says, “Because He . . .” and the latter says “Because I . . .” As far as this discussion goes, the exact formulation of the rest of the sentence does not really matter.
Irresistible grace? Why not? God is irresistibly God. He is the irresistible Creator. His creation of light, and space and time were all irresistible. He spoke and everything just showed up, ready or not. Just as the Bible tells us the new birth is like the first birth in this respect, Scriptures also tell us that the new creation is like the first creation in this same way. The God who spoke light out of darkness, with the darkness helpless to do anything about it, also spoke light into the darkness of our hearts. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The word is irresistible.