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The Reformation in the sixteenth century was a great revival of the doctrines of grace. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church had come to be more and more dominated by leaders who elevated human ability and human cooperation with God as the critical issue for salvation. These leaders did not deny the necessity of grace, but taught that the human factor was essential for making that grace effective. With the Reformation, the church recovered the Bible and the purity of its teaching on grace. Christians saw anew that God’s grace does not depend on a human contribution, but is effective simply according to the plan and action of God. The Reformers proclaimed again the simple teaching of the Word of God that salvation is by grace alone.
The Reformers also realized that they were not the first in the history of the church to recognize this teaching of the Scriptures. As they read the writings of the great church father Augustine of Hippo (354–430), they saw that he also had seen the clear revelation of God concerning grace. They also recognized that although many in the medieval church had moved away from Augustine’s doctrine of grace, many leading theologians continued to teach his views throughout the Middle Ages. The Reformation recaptured and renewed the teaching of the Bible, Augustine, and the better medieval theologians on grace.
All of the magisterial Reformers stood for salvation by grace alone. The Reformed churches followed the teaching on grace of John Calvin, who expressed that truth with the greatest clarity and forcefulness. Grace, he said, was planned in eternity, flowed from the death of Christ, and was applied irresistibly to the elect by the Holy Spirit. In his Genevan Catechism, Calvin wrote of that sovereign, effective work of the Holy Spirit in giving to His elect the grace of Christ:
I mean that the Spirit of God, while He dwells in our hearts, operates so that we feel the power of Christ (Rom. 5:5). For when we grasp the benefits of Christ with the mind, this happens by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. By His persuasion they are sealed in our hearts. In short, He alone gives them a place in us (Eph. 1:13). He regenerates us, and makes us new creatures (Titus 3:5). Therefore whatever gifts are offered us in Christ, we receive them by virtue of the Spirit.
The banner of grace was raised high wherever the Reformed movement spread. One country in which Calvinism came to prominence was the Netherlands, where, in the midst of severe persecution and civil war, the Reformed church was established. The Reformed churches there adopted the Belgic Confession, written by the martyr Guido de Bres—a confession that the grace of God alone saves.
While most in the Dutch Reformed churches faithfully embraced the teaching of Scripture and the confession on grace, some ministers dissented. The dissenters may have been influenced by Desiderius Erasmus, who had criticized Martin Luther’s stress on the helplessness of sinners. Like Erasmus, they came to believe that a doctrine of irresistible grace would undermine preaching and weaken the call to holiness. This has been a serious and recurring concern in the church, and yet it is a strange one. The history of the church shows over and over again that those most serious about the doctrines of grace have been very serious about preaching and holiness.
James Arminius, first a minister in Amsterdam and then a professor at the University of Leiden, became the principal spokesman for these dissidents in the Netherlands. On the question of the irresistibility of grace, Arminius wrote: “I believe, according to the Scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.”
When Arminius died in 1609, he left behind a number of followers whom history would call Arminians. In their own day, they came to be known as the “Remonstrants,” because in 1610 they filed a remonstrance, or petition, with the government asking for protection and toleration. At the heart of their remonstrance of 1610 was a five-point summary of their theology. First, they believed that election was not the unconditional election of individuals, but the conditional election of those who would believe and obey. Second, they taught that Christ died on the cross for all men and for all sins. Third, they taught that mankind was helplessly lost in sin apart from grace. Fourth, they taught that while grace is “the commencement, progression, and completion of all good,” it is not irresistible. Fifth, they stated that they were unsure as to whether those regenerated by the grace of God could fall from grace and be lost.
These five points of Arminianism evoked a strong protest and many responses from Calvinists. These responses would come to be called the five points of Calvinism. Calvinism actually has far more than five points. Arminianism simply chose to attack Calvinism at five points, and Calvinism offered five responses to the five errors of the Arminians.
In the Netherlands, the Reformed churches called an international synod to respond to the Arminian challenge. This synod met in the city of Dordrecht from November 1618 to May 1619 with delegates not only from all of the Netherlands but from Great Britain, Switzerland, and various parts of the Holy Roman Empire. After intense and prolonged study and discussion, the Synod of Dort unanimously adopted a series of decisions called canons, which answered each of the five points of the Arminians. These answers were written in a pastoral tone, seeking not only to give a clear statement of the doctrines, but also to show the importance and pastoral applications of them.
Because the Arminians formally accepted the doctrine of total depravity, the synod treated depravity and irresistible grace together in what it called the “Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine.” We can see both the clear doctrine and the pastoral tone of the canons on irresistible grace in articles 11 and 12. While these articles may be long, they contain a full statement of how good God is to us in giving us His grace that overcomes all our resistance.
Article 11 presents both the external means that God uses to give us His grace, and also the sovereign way in which He works internally in us. Article 11:
But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the Gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. He also, by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of man. He opens what was closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, which, though previously dead, He now makes alive. From being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders the will good, obedient, and pliable. He actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.
The next article, the 12th, expands on these themes, showing how supernatural and powerful the work of regeneration is and how delightful and enlivening it is to those who have received that irresistible grace. Article 12:
And this is that regeneration, which Scripture so highly extols, namely that renewal, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this regeneration is in no way effected merely by the external preaching of the Gospel, or by moral suasion, or the kind of work where, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, or to be converted or to continue unconverted. Rather it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable. It is not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as declared in the Scripture, which was inspired by the author of this work of regeneration. Therefore all those in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. As a result of this, the renewed will not only is made active and is influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Therefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.
Since the Synod of Dort, other critics of irresistible grace have arisen. The Canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession, and many other Reformed writings have defended the doctrines of grace with great effectiveness. From Augustine to our time, orthodox theologians have taught that salvation is by grace alone. We must remember, however, that although the witness of history to this doctrine is very powerful, it is the witness of the Scriptures that is foundational. And the Bible teaches that the grace of God is irresistible. Jesus said it most simply and clearly: “ ‘All that the Father gives Me will come to Me. . . No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day’ ” (John 6:37, 44).