While the Bible’s teaching on unconditional election is extensive and unambiguous (Romans 9), the Scriptures also give plain testimony to the truth that people are responsible to repent, and to exercise faith in Christ, in order to be saved (Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30). And doing so is an act of human willing. However, we learn from total depravity that sin has so corrupted our entire being – indeed it has rendered us spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) – that we are not even capable of repentance and faith (Romans 3:10-18).
We must repent and believe for salvation, but we cannot. So how can the elect be saved? How can any sinner be saved? The answer is grace, irresistible grace.
Irresistible grace means that God, by the Holy Spirit, works so powerfully in the hearts of his elect people, that they are not only enabled to exercise faith and repentance, but they most certainly will do so. In this act of sovereign grace, God effectually overcomes all natural resistance to the gospel, and wins a sinner to Christ by transforming his heart so that, by virtue of a new nature, the sinner most freely and willingly turns to Christ.
In John 6, Jesus spoke to some fair-weather disciples who objected to “hard sayings” of his, and who ultimately quit following him. The Lord reminded them of what he taught earlier, that no one can believe in him unless the Father draws him to Christ: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (v. 65). So no one can put their faith in Jesus unless God grants it. And Jesus also taught that whomever the Father gives to him, will most definitely come to him: “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (v. 37).
This is irresistible grace: only those whom the Father gives to Jesus, can come to Jesus (v.65), and all those whom the Father gives to Jesus, will come to Jesus (v. 37).
Many Christians object to this doctrine because it teaches man is incapable of choosing to believe in Christ. So the Arminian and semi-Pelagian will affirm that grace is necessary for salvation, but, they say, there is still within natural man some capacity of will to believe. In this understanding, God’s grace makes salvation a possibility, but not an inevitability. Ultimately, man must decide if he’ll put his faith in Christ. Grace may lead him to the wells of salvation, but he still must lower his cup to drink.
But this view is wholly incongruous with the way the Bible depicts man’s salvation. The Scriptures speak of a spiritual re-birth: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:4). Another analogy is re-vival, or resurrection: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of the your flesh, God made alive together with him” (Colossians 2:13). Yet another way Scripture describes salvation is re-creation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Does a baby will herself to be born? Does a dead man choose to come to life? Did the universe decide to spring into being?
Of course, no. Neither does a sinner will to be reborn, or choose to be revived, or decide to be remade. The only understanding of God’s grace in the redemption of sinners that does full justice to these biblical descriptions of salvation is irresistible grace.
What this means for you, Christian, is that you must not only give thanks and praise to God for what Christ has done for you, in his death and resurrection, but you must also give thanks and praise to God for what the Holy Spirit has done in you, in his work of regenerating grace.
For this teaching, like all the doctrines of grace, brings us face to face with that humbling and profound reality, that our salvation is God’s doing, from beginning to end. “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 3:8). Amen!