We tend to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between God and His creatures, and so, unfortunately, we sometimes use language calculated to perpetuate that misunderstanding. One term that is misunderstood in this way, in the view of many, is the “irresistible grace” of the famous TULIP. But is the misunderstanding justified?
Some might say the term makes conversion sound like a mugging, with the hapless proselyte being bonked on the head that he might be dragged off to eternal life, whether he wants to be or not. But the intent of a mugging is to rob and maim. Why would we ever think of salvation in such terms? There are other irresistible things in the world, and yet we never call them muggings.
For some reason, no one wants to admit that the grace of the new birth is irresistible. But our first births are just as irresistible, and virtually no one complains about that. I was born in 1953, and I do not recall ever being consulted in 1952 about whether I wanted to be born. Life was simply thrust upon me, somewhat violently they tell me, and first thing I knew I was playing with toys trucks on the floor of this family’s living room. The name was Wilson, they said, and the prison door clanged shut. That whole business was irresistible—it makes your skin crawl to think of it. I was now someone’s brother, not someone’s sister, and I hadn’t been asked about my preferences there, either. I was an American, not an Englishman. I was a Wilson, not a Williams or a Smith. In short, there was a good bit of tyranny all around.
Of course, the reason I was not consulted is that there was no “me” to consult. In order to consult me, someone would have had to create me without consulting me in order to ask me all the questions. But in what form could he have created me in order that I might give my answers? I would have had to answer objectively, so it would have been no fair making me with a preference for anything. Thus, I would have had to be an androgynous blob, a faceless, nameless orphan, with no love for any particular family, place, or nation. Then the question would have come, “Where and under what conditions would you like to be born?” and I would have said, “Huh?”
Of course the grace of God is irresistible—it has to be. It is life for creatures, and no creature ever generated his own life. What do you have, Paul once asked, that you did not receive as a gift? And if it was a gift, why do you boast as though it were not a gift? Given the nature of the case, the gift, in order to be given, must be given irresistibly. God simply does it. “And just who does He think He is?” someone might ask.
The reason we do not like to be told that our new life was “irresistibly” thrust upon us is that we want to take some kind of credit for it. In a world in which some are saved and some are not, we want the reason for the distinction to rest with us. For if it is sheer gift, we have to boast in the Lord, just like the Bible says.
Put another way, we want our will in the matter to be—you guessed it—irresistible. God built the machinery of salvation, but we supposedly have the authority and power to come and operate it, if we so choose. If one man is saved and another is lost, the praise and blame go, respectively, to each of them.
By grace are you saved, Paul says. It is not by works, but through faith. And, anticipating what our slippery hearts might do with that, Paul adds that even faith is a gift from God. And why? Lest any should boast (Eph. 2:8–9).
The boastful hearts of sinful men will always ask, “Why is this man saved and that man not saved?” If the answer points to anything within the two men, then the man who believes he fulfilled the requisite condition will boast in that fulfillment. Was it going forward at the invitation? “I did that.” Was it a superior docility? “I had that.” Was it believing in Jesus, which that other man refused to do? “I believed.”
Life and death are therefore manifested in the pronouns. When the question is asked, “Why did salvation come to you?” grace through faith answers one way and works-righteousness answers another, and the chasm between grace and works is revealed in the first two words. The former says, “Because He . . .” and the latter says “Because I . . .” As far as this discussion goes, the exact formulation of the rest of the sentence does not really matter.
Irresistible grace? Why not? God is irresistibly God. He is the irresistible Creator. His creations of light, space, and time were irresistible. Just as the Bible tells us the new birth is like the first in this respect, it also tells us the new creation is like the first. The God who spoke light out of darkness, with the darkness helpless to do anything about it, also spoke light into the darkness of our hearts. “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). His light is irresistible.