There is an elementary school teacher who is surely ubiquitous. Her name is Miss Prim and Proper. I’m sure that she taught cursive writing in your school as well as mine. She nagged us about always dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s. Attention to detail is far more important in our theology than in our penmanship. For instance, we need to be sure to dot the I in TULIP, the well-known acrostic whose letters represent the classic five points of Calvinism. The T stands for total depravity, the U for unconditional election, the L for limited atonement, the I for irresistible grace, and the P for perseverance of the saints. In the age-old debate between Augustinian and Semi-Pelagian theologies, the crucial point at issue is irresistible grace (although this issue turns back on both total depravity and unconditional election).
Before we consider the qualifier “irresistible,” we must define the use of “grace” in this term. The grace that is in view is not some quantifiable substance that is added to or poured into the soul. The grace in this formula has to do with an action or operation. This operation is wrought on us by God the Holy Spirit. It is a divine work or operation that cannot be earned or merited. This fits with the most basic definition for grace in general—“unmerited favor.” We can never earn or deserve grace. If grace were earned, it no longer would be grace. Rather, it would be justice.
The specific operation of God that is in view in the doctrine of irresistible grace is the divine work of regeneration. Regeneration literally means “to generate again.” It is the concept that rests upon Scripture’s teaching concerning rebirth or being born anew. This is the idea expressed in Paul’s concept of “quickening,” by which the sinful person is raised from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Jesus emphatically and unambiguously taught that regeneration is a necessary condition for seeing and entering the kingdom. It is essential for salvation. To be saved, a person must be born again.
Most Christians agree that regeneration is necessary for salvation. The debate rages over the question of how this necessary condition is met. Historic Semi-Pelagianism teaches that in order to be regenerated one first must have faith. In this schema, it is clear that faith precedes regeneration and that regeneration rests upon a prior response of faith. Thus, God is seen as offering salvation to whosoever will cooperate with His grace.
The problem is that this view sees human beings as having the ability to resist God’s grace. Those who reject the offer of grace remain unregenerated and perish in their sins. They have successfully resisted God’s offer of salvation.
Another way of describing this view is by using the term synergism. The root of this word is erg, which in English is defined as a unit of work. It is also found in the word energy. The prefix syn indicates the idea of “with.” Synergism, therefore, refers to an action, work, or operation in which two or more persons are laboring together. It is a joint venture.