Welcome once again to Questions for Calvinists, where I am walking through TULIP saying to myself, “There is no way I am understanding this correctly. Am I?”
But that’s the purpose of the series. I want Calvinists to explain to me how I am misunderstanding their theology, or admit that I am understanding it correctly. This installment is about the I of TULIP, Irresistible Grace.
This is one of the parts of Calvinism which doesn’t need any marketing. It sells itself. The Grace of God is IRRESITSTABLE! Doesn’t that sound like the feel-good, romantic comedy that is taking the country by storm this Holiday season? Doesn’t it feel like a warm theological hug from John Calvin’s beard on a cold day, and his beard is soft as kittens and smells like fresh baked cookies?
It sure SOUNDS good, which is one of the reasons why I think people smarter than me accept it. Again, I am NOT claiming that I am smarter than Calvinists. I state as a matter of observable fact that there are LOTS of Calvinists out there not only smarter than I am, but more versed in the Bible and Greek. My questions are not an attack on any person or anything based on how smart I think I am. It’s literally me saying, “THIS? This is what Calvinism is? And you think the Bible teaches this? Am I getting this right?”
So here’s my understanding of what Irresistible Grace is, and you can leave me some comments telling me if I don’t understand it, or if it’s as wackadoo as it sounds to me.
Just as it sounds- no one can resist the grace of God. At first, this sounds good, right? Sure! The love of God is powerful and overwhelming! Some of us have felt that! But this is not what Calvinism is teaching. Remember when I said “EVERY SINGLE HUMAN is born, not only a sinner, but as someone who instinctively HATES GOD and CANNOT understand nor accept the Gospel”? That was Total Depravity. And remember when I said “when people get to heaven (or hell), it is because GOD chose to put them there”? That was Unconditional Election. And Jesus ONLY died for the sins of the people chosen for heaven– that’s Limited Atonement. Now we put these ideas together to ask, if people are born totally depraved, and salvation is based on God’s application of LIMITED Atonement to individuals chosen by His Unconditional Election, then how are people saved?
We all know this. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.…” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We choose to put our faith in Jesus, and He gives to us his righteousness, as our sins are paid for on the Cross…
Oh, wait, no! In order to choose to put our faith in Jesus, we would have to overcome our innate instinct to hate God and reject the Gospel. We can’t do that. We can’t even WANT to do that. This is where the Calvinist points to the part of Ephesians 2 that says “It is the gift of God.” Yes, they say, it is through faith you are saved, but if it was by choosing to put your own trust in Jesus, you would be DOING SOMETHING to save yourself (by WORKS so that you COULD boast!). That means you cannot choose to have faith in Jesus. Also, that whole total depravity thing. You don’t even want to. You’re like a child being offered broccoli. You can’t want it. You don’t even want to want it. You hate it. But like a good father, God can take that plateful of faith broccoli and shove it down your unwilling throat. But once he does, you’re glad he did.
That’s actually a fairly accurate metaphor.
This comes back to the Philosophy of Calvinism, which is, IF God wanted everyone to be saved, then EVERYONE WOULD be saved. Not everyone is saved, so God obviously doesn’t want everyone to be saved. That’s how we know Atonement is LIMITED, and thus Jesus only died for SOME people- the “elect.”
Irresistible Grace is an extension of this. Why is one person saved and not another? Because they are “elect.” God wanted them to be saved, so he chose them to be saved, and since they are so TOTALLY depraved from birth that they can only hate God, they have Faith imposed on them against their will. God does not draw them with an invitation. Jesus does not offer the gift of salvation. God flips the “Faith” switch to ON and they believe. They cannot accept and they cannot reject. The elect have no more choice than the damned. God decided before the world was made, and that is the ONLY choice in this process. When God decided to throw you into the ocean, you don’t get to decide if you want to get wet. You’re fully submerged before you even know what happened.
Dead man Walking
The metaphor a lot of Calvinists like is the example of Lazarus. (see John Ch 11) If you recall, Lazarus had died of some sickness, and several days later Jesus and the 12 roll up and visit the tomb. Jesus has them roll the stone away from the tomb and he calls Lazarus, and Lazarus comes out now fully alive again.
The Calvinist says, “That’s what salvation is like. Lazarus is dead, and can’t decide to accept the offer of life from Jesus. Jesus calls him to life and he lives. Jesus makes that choice, and all Lazarus can do is realize that he was dead but he’s not anymore.”
And if your goal is to give credit to Jesus for your salvation, this sounds like a GREAT metaphor. After all, what can we do to save ourselves? NOTHING. So isn’t it like a dead man being brought back to life? We can’t HELP Jesus save us. We certainly can’t do anything to bring ourselves to life. ALL credit for our being brought back from the dead belongs to Jesus. So, we’re like Lazarus, right?
Now, let me be clear. I am NOT about to argue that we save ourselves, or that we HELP Jesus to save us. The Calvinist is absolutely right that all credit and all glory belongs to Jesus for our salvation. Where the Calvinist seems to be in error is taking the language of being dead too literally.
The Calvinist says we can no more “accept the gift of salvation” than Lazarus could accept the gift of life. Jesus didn’t consult him. He simply raised him to life. He was DEAD. A dead man cannot hear an invitation to be raised and consider it, and then voice his decision. The Calvinist says we are the same spiritually. We CANNOT hear the gospel, we cannot accept the Gospel, and we cannot repent.
Well… the problem is that the rest of the New Testament exists.
Jesus Didn’t Teach This
Again let me clarify that I am NOT arguing that we HELP Jesus to save us, or that we can take credit for being saved. I am saying that Jesus did not teach that faith and repentance were something God does to a select few. Jesus taught that we are called to repent and put our faith in Jesus. We are responsible to respond to the call.
Consider the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”Matt 22:2-3
I find it completely incompatible that people can be given an Irresistible Invitation and yet REFUSE to come. Furthermore, in verse 7, Jesus tells us how the King responds; “The king was enraged.” But on Calvinism, EVERYTHING is according to God’s will and desire and decree. This would be the King being ENRAGED because his command was obeyed. After all, the people rejected his invitation, but on Calvinism those who reject the invitation do so because God determined it and left them in their total depravity. To be more Calvinistic, I feel the King’s servants would have to tell those people, “You’re NOT invited. The King doesn’t want you there.” And when they refuse to come to a feast which they are not invited to… the King is ANGRY about that?
But the King does not have a list of guests chosen before the story begins. Instead, once his invitation has been rejected by those who REFUSED to come, he tells his servants “go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’” Where is the unconditional election? Where are the ELECT? Invite ANYONE you find? Where is the LIMIT to the guest list?
Now some will try and use the end of this story to show Jesus teaching Calvinism, as it says,
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.Matt 22: 11-14
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Because this uses the word “chosen” a lot of Calvinists assume that it MUST be referring to the unconditionally elect. But the man was not tossed out because he wasn’t invited. It wasn’t because the king hadn’t offered him an invitation. It’s because the man was not dressed right.
This wasn’t about fashion. It was about coming to the King’s banquet on the King’s terms. It was a wedding feast, and so you dress for the occasion. But this man decided to come on his own terms as if he deserved a place there merely because he showed up. The metaphor is not spelled out here by Jesus, but it is elaborated on by other New Testament writers:
clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus ChristRomans 13:14
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.Galatians 3:27
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with hearts of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.Colossians 3:12
OH! There’s the word “elect” again! Doesn’t this mean the Bible is teaching unconditional election? No. Jesus himself teaches the condition of election. Clothe yourself in Christ. Jesus says “many are invited, but few are chosen” which means many are given the Gospel, but only those who come on the terms God sets- through Christ, in Christ, dressed in Christ, etc. -are chosen to have a seat at the feast. You don’t get to come to God on your own terms. You don’t say to the King, “I’ll wear what I want. Deal with it.” If you won’t honor the King, you will not attend the feast. If you do not come to the gates of heaven covered in the righteousness of Jesus, you will not be let in. The King CHOOSES to let in those dressed in the righteousness of Christ, and so those who are saved (“clothed in Christ”) are chosen. The Calvinist puts this in the wrong order and insists that the chosen are saved. Then they assume that only those saved and chosen were invited. But this is not what Jesus taught.
“This son of mine was dead and is alive again!”
Consider the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15:11-31 Jesus tells the story of the son who takes his father’s money and runs off to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I’ve already written about this (which you can read here) but let me hit the point at which Jesus fails to be a Calvinist:
WHY does the son decide to go home? If Jesus was teaching “Irresistible Grace,” wouldn’t the father come DRAG him back home? Surely he would not offer him the choice of coming home. The whole point of the Lazarus metaphor is that a dead man CANNOT accept an offer or make a choice. He is DEAD. Yet, this kid not only is not dragged home against his will, but Jesus tells it this way:
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.Luke 15:17-20
Did you see how UNCALVINISTIC this is? He CAME TO HIS SENSES? He used his faculty of reason to take an honest look at what his wickedness had accomplished and he realized that it was better to be a servant in heaven than be rich and famous in hell? It’s almost as if Jesus has never heard of Total Depravity! He tells the story so that this rotten kid goes off in search of his father’s mercy! But… that’s impossible! Doesn’t Jesus know that people CANNOT come to God and ask for mercy?
Apparently not because he says this
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.John 5:39-40
But if Depravity is TOTAL, and Grace is Irresistible, how could anyone REFUSE to come to Jesus? If they were totally depraved, they would not refuse. They would simply be INCAPABLE of coming to Jesus. They would be UNABLE. And if atonement is LIMITED, then what are they refusing? If they are not being offered the grace of God, what is there to refuse?
A very similar passage in Matthew shows Jesus saying,
How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!Matthew 23:37
Again, if Jesus was a Calvinist, wouldn’t he have said, “I would have gathered your children together, but I didn’t want to and I made you unwilling.”? Yet it seems like Jesus is under the impression that these people had a choice. He seems UPSET by the fact that they were UNWILLING, almost as if it was not him who made them that way.
If he was offering Irresistible Grace, HOW could they be unwilling to accept the irresistible? But, if he was NOT offering them grace, then what are they rejecting? If they are simply outside of the elect, and they are not covered by Jesus’s Limited Atonement, then there is nothing for them to accept or reject. If Jesus is NOT desiring to gather them in his grace, then to what are they unwilling? None of this makes sense when you try to force it to teach Calvinism.
Finally, something to note about the metaphor Calvinists love to use about Lazarus. Jesus never uses that metaphor, and neither do any of the other authors of the Bible. Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, Luke, etc. all knew the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, and yet they never use this to teach us what salvation is like. Jesus offers the wedding banquet and the Prodigal Son.
Jesus has the Father say this as he welcomes back his Prodigal son in Luke 15,
“…this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.’Luke 15:24
Jesus has the Father say of the son who came to his senses and went back home that his son was “Dead,” but he also says he was “lost.” So when the Calvinist insists that being “dead” means completely incapable of doing ANYTHING, even hearing, understanding, and responding to the Gospel, they are limiting the word to a bazar absolute which Jesus himself does not do. Besides which, if we are “spiritually dead” such that we can do NOTHING, how are we capable of sinning?
Paul says this is Romans 6:11 “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” And in Ephesians 2:1-2 we read “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk when you conformed to the ways of this world…”
We are capable of sinning, but we must consider ourselves dead to sin. Dead, like the son was dead to the father. LOST. Separated. Far apart.
You WERE dead, yet, you used to walk. While you were dead. So dead doesn’t always mean the kind of inactive, 100% passive state that physical death implied. The Prodigal son didn’t die, he ran away from home to pursue his selfish desires. But while his son was gone, the Father felt as if his son was dead to him.
More Jesus Seems to be Less Calvin
TULIP describes humanity as totally depraved- incapable of anything but sin and hate toward God. It describes all of us as being BORN already elect and destined for heaven or abandoned and destined for hell. It describes salvation as being available only for those who were chosen by God before the world began, and says Jesus only died for those elect. It says the totally depraved go from spiritually dead to spiritually alive when God bestows on them the gift of irresistible grace- not an invitation, but the miraculous work of raising a dead man who cannot help, or even do as much as consenting. He can’t seek it, and he can’t agree to it. He can only be brought to life and then realize that he used to be dead.
While I get why people tend to think of these doctrines as Biblical, I can’t help but look to the teachings of Jesus and see that he DID NOT teach these Calvinistic doctrines. Jesus doesn’t talk of God’s love for the chosen few, but for the world. Jesus does not talk of lost sinners as being born incapable of doing anything but hating God, but he talks as if they could choose to come to him. Jesus does not talk about the sinner as a dead man who can do nothing but lie dead until he is raised, but he tells us that a sinner can come to his senses and go home to the welcoming arms of his father. Jesus tells us that the King offers invitations which go to everyone, but which many reject, and which carry with it the condition that we come dressed for the event.
Again, my position is that I think many smart and Godly people are Calvinists, but I have to wonder if they are because they have agreed to the surface of things and not dug deeper. Yes, the saved are called the “chosen” or the “elect.” But what does the Bible mean by those things? I do not think it means what Calvin means. I think it means that, while everyone is invited, those who are chosen to sit at the King’s table must come “clothed in Christ.” Everyone has been invited, and those who come “clothed in Christ” will be chosen to sit at the King’s Table.
Yes, the Bible describes sinners as being spiritually dead, but what does that mean? Instead of the completely inert picture from Calvinism, the Bible seems to indicate that the dead are dead the way the Prodigal son was “dead.” Not because they are without the ability to do anything like an actual corpse. But because they are separated from the Father of Life. They are lost. But they are all called to come home. The King has sent invitations. The Father watches the horizon to rush out to meet us when we start back home.
The reason all of this matters is because the truth matters. The Bible matters. The Gospel matters. And I think the truth is, the Bible presents a Gospel which is good news for ALL people. The invitation has gone out to everyone, and we don’t make disciples because we hope to stumble upon the chosen few who were already selected, but we want people to be prepared to meet the King so that he will find them acceptable and invite them to the feast.
As always, let me know what you think, and thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend.
Part 4? Quite unexpected!
One problem with Calvinists (which I’m sure you’ve noted already) is that they create a false dilemma with free will. Apparently any choice has to be a work. But what if God offers us thay choice? Something to consider.