A Trinitarian Work
Each member of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – participates in and is vital to the salvation of all sinners. In order to see the place of the doctrine of irresistible grace in the plan of God’s salvation of man, it is necessary to briefly review what we have established as the teaching of Scripture thus far.
As we have already seen, it is necessary for God to sovereignly come to man to save him, because man in his natural state of total depravity will not and can not come to Christ by himself. Rather, he is prone to hate God and his neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 5), and therefore will not and cannot love God or serve Him.
The Father, before the foundation of the world, choose or elected those whom He predestined to save. This election was unconditional. The ground of God’s choice was His sovereign will and love, not any merit foreseen in man. God gave His elected people to His Son, Jesus Christ, in order that Christ could make full atonement for their sin.
This atonement was limited in its purpose – to save the elect given to Jesus by His Father. Jesus fully paid for the sins of His people on the cross. But the work of the Father and the Son do not complete the work of salvation, because the work of Jesus still needs to be applied to the hearts of God’s elect, because man’s will is in bondage to sin (of which unbelief and rebellion are a part). If man is going to “receive” the benefits of Christ, he must have a heart to receive it.
God does not provide a cafeteria-style salvation where it is all prepared, attractively laid out, and left to man to take or leave. Rather, God comes to His elect for whom Christ shed His blood and applies to them salvation through the power of His Word and Holy Spirit. It is this grace of God in applying salvation that is the subject of the doctrine of irresistible grace. The person of the Trinity that is primarily active in this work of God is His Holy Spirit.
Simply stated, this doctrine declares that the Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those sinners whom He personally and sovereignly calls to repentance and faith in Christ. All those that God intends to save – and indeed has saved in Christ – will be saved. This is because the Holy Spirit will apply the truth of the gospel to the heart of the elect whom He has regenerated. He does this sovereignly, irresistibly, and unfailingly. Man has neither the power nor the desire (after regeneration) to resist the call of the gospel. To maintain, as Arminians do, that man has the power to resist the almighty power of God is blasphemous and a great error.
The Holy Spirit of God, no less than the Father and the Son is sovereign. In John 3:8, the free and sovereign nature of the Spirit of God is described as follows: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It should be remembered that the word for “wind,” “breath,” and “Spirit” are from the same Greek word (pneuma). The word “wind” here refers to the Holy Spirit.
Earlier we mentioned that Christ’s atonement was limited, not because it was “insufficient” to save all men, but that it was “efficient,” “effectual,” and intended only for the elect. This “effectual” characteristic of the atonement is dependent upon the Holy Spirit actually applying Christ’s cleansing blood to His people. The certainty that God’s Holy Spirit will apply the benefits of salvation, are based on the fact that God has certainly chosen His people unto salvation and Christ has certainly died for them. In summary, those who were dead in sin, elected by God’s grace, and redeemed by Christ’s blood will believe.
The External Call of the Gospel
The gospel call or command (that is, to repent of sin and believe in Jesus) extends to all who hear the sound of the gospel. It summons all men to come to Christ by way of repentance and faith to receive His righteousness and everlasting life, or if they refuse to believe, to suffer the wrath of God and everlasting condemnation.
Given the fact that we do not know who the elect are when we bring the gospel to them, we bring it with sincerity to all men. We call all men to repent and believe the gospel with the full realization that God will only apply it to His elect. Man, left to himself, cannot believe it. The Canons of Dort also teach this in the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article 8: “As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly (sincerely) called. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what is acceptable to Him, namely that those who are called should come unto Him. He also seriously promises rest of soul and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe.”
This external or outward call of the gospel alone will not bring anyone to salvation. Why? Because man, by nature, is dead in sin and under its power! The carnal, fallen nature will not and cannot respond in faith to the gospel. No amount of light can penetrate his blind eyes. No amount of logic or persuasion can convince an understanding that is darkened by sin. No amount of truth will pierce his deaf ears. No power of man can raise up to life the sinner’s dead heart. “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7, 8). Again Jesus says in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
The Canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article 9 says: “It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves…”
Before man can believe the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit of God must change the sinner’s heart of stone into a heart of flesh – it must be reborn or resurrected from death to life. Since man does not have a free will by nature (but one in bondage to sin and Satan since the Fall), the Holy Spirit must first change (set free) the will of man so that it conforms to the will of God. In speaking of Lydia’s conversion we read, “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14b). “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.