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Ask a Pastor: Is Grace Truly Irresistible?

Question

Resistible Grace? I’ve been in the FRC/URC circles for many years now and have benefited greatly from them. But to be honest I’m not card carrying Calvinist. I’m rather skeptical about numerous points in ‘TULIP’. In the book of Ezekiel, God says this to Ezekiel “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Then in the 1 Timothy it says “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” From these two passages we established that: 1. God desires all men to be saved. 2. God does not delight in the death of the wicked. From these two premises we can draw one of three conclusions: 1. All people will eventually be saved (universalism) 2. God does not truly desire all to be saved (making the 1 Timothy passage rather disingenuous) 3. Grace is resistible. As far as I understand there are two ways a Calvinist approaches to this: 1. When the Bible says “all men” it means all types of men and not really “all men”. 2. God has two wills, the hidden/revealed will or the sovereign/permissive will. If we take the first suggestion then I think the words of Paul are deceiving us…which would undermine the infallibility of scripture. If we take the second approach then one must really wonder what else is part of God’s hidden will. He reveals to us in Scripture that he does not ‘delight in the death of the wicked’ and ‘desires all to be saved’ but really he has a hidden will which we do not know of? Some will interject here and say God’s ‘hidden will’ or ‘greatest desire’ is to glorify himself. But that creates even more of a problem: God is more glorified in someone’s eternal damnation than in his salvation! If one takes the sovereign/permissive approach, that God’s sovereign will is always fulfilled but his permissive will can be thwarted by humans, then one has to ask…Is grace truly irresistible?

Answer

Good questions! I would begin by saying being a ‘Calvinist’ is not a membership in some kind of club. In fact Calvin begged not to have his name attached to these doctrines, because he didn’t come up with them. Being reformed is simply a matter of listening to all of scripture. It is a common misconception that being reformed is primarily about the 5 points, when in fact these are simply the reformed answers to the 5 points of Arminianism. The ‘Tulip’ acrostic was developed later, and I sometimes wonder if it is the best way to convey what we mean.


The term ‘irresistible’ grace lends itself to the misconception that God drags people into His kingdom kicking and screaming, against their will. The Canons of Dordt actually describes it much more winsomely: God sweetly and powerfully heals and restores the broken wills of sinners so that they gladly and willingly believe.


Your question does reveal a common Arminian polemical approach – the false dilemma or the false either or as if there are only two options. To use an example unrelated to this specific issue – if someone claims you are either a radical feminist or a spouse beater, that is a false dilemma. You only quote 2 texts to argue against God’s powerful triumphant victorious grace. Neither one really proves what you claim.


No reformed person denies Ezekiel’s words. I have quoted them often. The doctrines of sovereign grace do not declare God takes pleasure in the death of the wicked. If it is not wrong for God to punish the wicked, then it is not wrong for God to plan to do so either (election). This text would only make your point if you could prove that people who want to believe in Christ and repent of their sins are being rejected by God. This you cannot prove.

A reformed interpretation of the 1 Timothy 2:4 text is not limited to the 3 options you list. Universalism is unbiblical. Resistible grace violates John 6, Acts 13:48, and other texts. To argue that reformed people don’t really believe all means all is simply incorrect. Every word has a context, and when it is taken out of context, it says something very different than intended. For example, if someone says, are you all ready? What does this ‘all’ mean? Without context, who can say? Imagine now a school gathered for chapel. The kindergarten teacher is saying this to her class to lead them back to the classroom. Take the ‘all’ out of context and say it has to mean the entire school or ‘all does not mean all’ is obviously incorrect. In context, 1 Timothy 2:4 is asking people to pray for the Caesars who persecute them, thrown them to the lions and do other horrific things. We might think such people are beyond redemption or doubt whether we even want them to be saved. Even such people are to be prayed for, since God draws His people from all levels of society. In context, this is a perfectly natural interpretation. Other reformed writers work with the different words for will in the Greek about which more could be said.


God’s hidden will simply means He does not tell us everything He is thinking and planning. We are for one simply incapable of processing it all, and He does not have to tell us everything He is doing. Because we don’t have all the information, we are in no position and have no right to judge God on what He has said.


None of this hinders the ability to preach and believe the gospel freely to everyone. Calvin said it like this: don’t seek your salvation in the whirlpool of figuring out your election but concern yourself with faith in Christ which is sufficient proof of your election. I encourage you to look into ‘compatibalism’ which is a beautiful way of showing how God’s sovereignty and our responsibility do not clash but harmonize. A good place to start is the book ‘What about Free will’ by Scott Christensen


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