There are many examples of irresistible grace in God's Word. Perhaps most plain is the calling of the disciple Matthew, also known as Levi the tax collector. The apostle records his own conversion in his Gospel: "As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him" (Matt. 9:9).
Consideration of this verse makes clear the basic teaching of irresistible grace. The Lord Jesus had just returned to Capernaum from His missionary visit to the region of the Gadarenes. Capernaum had become His Galilean headquarters, and many of His most spectacular miracles already had occurred there. Seeing Matthew at his tax collector's booth, Jesus went to him and called, "Follow me." At these words, the tax collector immediately was transformed into a disciple. It is a striking illustration of God's sovereignty in salvation.
For his part, Matthew presents an equally striking picture of man's total depravity. The statement that he was "sitting at the tax booth" is loaded with meaning. At the time, there hardly could have been a more depraved person than a tax collector. The Roman Empire took bids for the right to collect taxes. These agents paid a set amount to Rome, but could keep all the rest that they collected. Tax collectors enriched themselves by preying on impoverished people, stifling trade, and operating what amounted to a local mafia. To make matters worse, they were despised for collaborating with the foreign power that had subjected their own people to bondage.
By remaining in this occupation in Capernaum, Jesus' base of operations at the time, Matthew showed his hardness of heart to the presence and preaching of Christ. Tax collectors' booths were in the most public places; Matthew's was most likely situated either at the docks by the lake or along the main road leading into town. He probably had seen and heard Jesus many times, and was well aware of some of Jesus' greatest works. Just recently, a paralytic had been cured after his friends lowered him before Jesus through a hole they made in the roof of the building where Jesus was preaching. Earlier, Jesus had cast out demons and healed multitudes of hopelessly diseased people right there in Capernaum. But none of this had had the slightest effect on Matthew. There he was in his booth, carrying on his business without any visible response to all these affairs.
In short, there was nothing in Matthew to explain his sudden willingness to believe and follow Jesus. Instead, the answer is seen in the irresistible grace of God, as the Holy Spirit applied Jesus' call with sovereign and divine power.
This helps make clear that when we speak of irresistible grace, we do not mean that God's grace is never resisted. Those who oppose this doctrine make much of the many instances when men and women shun God's grace and turn away, just as Matthew had done many times. But this objection misses the point, for the simple reason that the doctrine of irresistible grace speaks of the operation of grace in the conversion of sinners. We do not teach that no one resists God's grace. But we do insist that when a sinner turns to Christ in faith and begins to follow Him, this conversion is the result of the sovereign, effectual, and irresistible operation of God's grace through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
As the conversion of Matthew shows, irresistible grace is joined to the saving call of God in Christ. Reformed theology makes an important and useful distinction between two kinds of calls. There is the general call of Christ to all the world, offered to all people irrespective of God's election. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Jesus cried (Matt. 11:28). John records that during the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, "Jesus stood up and cried out, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink'" (John 7:37). This is Christ's general call to anyone and everyone who hears. It is a sincere call and offer of salvation. But because of man's totally depraved state, no one answers this call by his or her own volition. Indeed, no one can. This was Matthew's situation. For all the many times he had seen and heard Jesus, for all that he had learned about what Jesus was doing, and in spite of even direct appeals to faith that Matthew very well may have heard, his sinful heart was indisposed to answer. Jesus once explained this, saying, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44). The sinful heart is hostile to God and uninterested in His offer of salvation; Matthew modeled this perfectly as he greedily went on extorting people in the very presence of Christ's saving ministry.
On one occasion, when Jesus was describing the impossibility of a rich man ever entering God's kingdom, Peter asked in dismay, "Who then can be saved?" (Matt. 19:25). This is a good question that arises naturally when we honestly face what the Bible says about man's hopeless condition in sin. The Bible describes unregenerate sinners as spiritually dead, blind, and enslaved. So how can anyone be converted to faith in Christ? The answer is another kind of call, one that comes with divine power to bring us to Christ: the effectual call. As Jesus told Peter, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26).
Conversion to Christ is not only possible, but happens by virtue of His effectual call, by which the Holy Spirit works with saving power to bring the unbelieving sinner to faith. R. C. Sproul explains: "The unregenerate experience the outward call of the gospel. This outward call will not effect salvation unless the call is heard and embraced in faith. Effectual calling refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Here the call is within. The regenerate are called inwardly. Everyone who receives the inward call of regeneration responds in faith." As John Murray writes of this saving call of God, "since it is effectual, [it] carries with it the operative grace whereby the person called is enabled to answer the call and to embrace Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel.
The effectual call offers the only realistic explanation for what happened to Matthew. He did not get up from his tax collector's seat because he summoned up the will to change his mind about Jesus. Rather, he came because Christ called him effectually, as the Holy Spirit applied the saving grace of God to his soul. Through the effectual call, not only was he enabled to respond in faith, but a change took place in his heart so that he was compelled to do so. God's grace was irresistible in his conversion precisely because it was a sovereign and divine act whereby God saved his soul. If a king or a queen is able to summon his or her subjects at a word, how much more is the almighty God able to call His chosen people to follow Jesus. For this reason, when called by the voice of God in Christ, Matthew "rose and followed him."
This excerpt is taken from What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? by Richard Phillips.