John Calvin and the Doctrine of Irresistible Grace

from Oct 20, 2017 Category: Articles

In 1610, the followers of the Dutch pastor and professor Jacob Arminius drafted a protest called “the Remonstrance.” The document contained five negative statements that rejected specific Calvinistic doctrines, followed by five articles stating Arminian doctrines. Among the Calvinistic teachings with which the Remonstrance took issue was the doctrine of irresistible grace.

In the fourth negative statement, the Arminians rejected the following: “That the Holy Spirit works in the elect by irresistible grace, so that they must be converted and be saved; while the grace necessary and sufficient for conversion, faith, and salvation is withheld from the rest, although they are externally called and invited by the revealed will of God.” The statement of the Arminian doctrine was then presented in the fourth article on Resistible Grace: “Grace is the beginning, continuation, and end of our spiritual life, so that man can neither think nor do any good or resist sin without prevening, co-operating, and assisting grace. But as for the manner of co-operation, this grace is not irresistible, for many resist the Holy Ghost (Acts vii).”

The publication of the Remonstrance led to a lengthy debate between Calvinists and Arminians in the Netherlands. Eventually, in order to resolve the debate, the Dutch Estates General called an ecclesiastical assembly, the Synod of Dort, which met from November 1618 until May 1619. In addition to the approximately seventy Dutch delegates present, there were twenty-six delegates from eight foreign nations, including England, Switzerland, and parts of Germany. The synod set forth its conclusions in the Canons of Dort. This document contains “the decision of the Synod of Dort on the five main points of doctrine in dispute in the Netherlands.” Each main point in the canons contains a positive exposition of the Calvinist doctrine, followed by a rejection of the corresponding Arminian error.

The synod’s defense of the doctrine of irresistible grace is found in Main Point III/IV of the canons. After setting forth the effects of the fall upon human nature and the inability of the light of nature or of the law to convert fallen man, the synod declares that what neither nature nor the law can do, God “accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Art. 6). In eternity, God chose His own, and within time He effectively calls them and grants them faith (Art. 10). The Holy Spirit supernaturally regenerates God’s chosen ones in an incomprehensible manner (Arts. 11–13). This regenerating work is irresistible: “all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe” (Art. 12).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, which was completed in 1646, sets forth the same doctrine of irresistible (or effectual) grace that was defended at Dort. Its statement of the doctrine is found in Chapter 10, “Of Effectual Calling.”

This doctrine is found as well in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 67.7 We see, then, that by the seventeenth century, the doctrine of irresistible grace was considered to be an established point of Reformed orthodoxy. Here the Reformed churches were following the lead of John Calvin, who had simply set forth the teaching of Scripture.

As we have seen, the doctrine of irresistible grace involves several doctrinal issues, including effectual calling and regeneration. Calvin addressed these themes in his biblical commentaries, his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and in several treatises, including one specifically addressed to the topics.8 Calvin found the doctrine of effectual grace in several texts of Scripture. One of the clearest of these references is John 6. Commenting on verse 44, Calvin explains how God draws sinners to Himself.

The statement amounts to this, that we ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not drawn, but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected. True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant.

Jesus had said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44a). As Calvin explains, this verse clearly expresses the truth that God is sovereign in man’s salvation. Man does not initiate the process, for he cannot come to Christ unless God acts first. This is the case because man is dead in sin, and a dead man can do nothing for himself.

Calvin’s most extended systematic treatment of the doctrine of irresistible grace is found in his 1559 edition of the Institutes. Here Calvin explains that God must begin the good work of salvation in us because our wills are evil and set against Him. Man’s will cannot turn to the good in its own power, but must be changed by God. As Calvin explains, this divine change is efficacious: “He does not move the will in such a manner as has been taught and believed for many ages—that it is afterward in our choice either to obey or resist the motion—but by disposing it efficaciously.”

Because salvation is God’s work, from beginning to end, perseverance ultimately depends on Him. It is a free gift of God, not a reward based on man’s merit.

In 1542, the Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius wrote a work titled Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace. Pighius was critiquing Calvin’s teaching on the subject of free will and predestination as found in the 1539 edition of the Institutes. In 1543, Calvin wrote a response to Pighius titled The Bondage and Liberation of the Will. This book contains Calvin’s most extended treatment of the relationship between God’s grace and man’s will. In it, Calvin sums up his argument against Pighius in the following statement:

But all that we say amounts to this. First, that what a person is or has or is capable of is entirely empty and useless for the spiritual righteousness which God requires, unless one is directed to the good by the grace of God. Secondly, that the human will is of itself evil and therefore needs transformation and renewal so that it may begin to be good, but that grace itself is not merely a tool which can help someone if he is pleased to stretch out his hand to [take] it. That is, [God] does not merely offer it, leaving [to man] the choice between receiving it and rejecting it, but he steers the mind to choose what is right, he moves the will also effectively to obedience, he arouses and advances the endeavor until the actual completion of the work is attained.

Contrary to Pighius, Calvin affirms that grace is efficacious:

[In the Institutes] I say, then, that grace is not offered to us in such a way that afterwards we have the option either to submit or to resist. I say that it is not given merely to aid our weakness by its support as though anything depended on us apart from it. But I demonstrate that it is entirely the work of grace and a benefit conferred by it that our heart is changed from a stony one to one of flesh, that our will is made new, and that we, created anew in heart and mind, at length will what we ought to will. For Paul bears witness that God does not bring about in us [merely] that we are able to will what is good, but also that we should will it right up to the completion of the act. How big a difference there is between performance and will! Likewise, I determine that our will is effectively formed so that it necessarily follows the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not that it is sufficiently encouraged to be able to do so if it wills.

In his teaching on the subject of saving grace, Calvin merely followed the doctrine set forth in the Scriptures. The doctrine of efficacious grace is necessary because of the state of fallen man. Man is born dead in sin (cf. Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13), with his mind and heart corrupted (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 8:7–8; 1 Cor. 2:14). He is a slave to sin (Rom. 6:20; Titus 3:3) and therefore unable to repent and come to God (Jer. 13:23; Matt. 7:18; John 6:44, 65). Because of this, man must be born again (John 3:5–7). Those whom God elected and for whom Christ died are brought to life by the Holy Spirit (John 1:12–13; 3:3–8; 5:21; Eph. 2:1, 5; Titus 3:5). God gives them faith and repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:48; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:25–26), and they are justified.

This excerpt is adapted from Keith Mathison’s contribution to John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology.