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In speaking about the Trinity, the older theologians were fond of a Latin phrase derived from Augustine: opera ad extra Trinitatis sunt indivisa—“the external works of the Trinity are undivided.” Confusing? Not really. The idea is simply that the three persons of the Trinity are totally united, not only in what they are (God) but in what they do. The works of Father, Son, and Spirit in creation, providence, and redemption are marked by the deepest Trinitarian unity.

For example, it would be wrong to say that only God the Father created the universe, as if the Son and the Spirit were spectators, cheering Him on from the sidelines. Scripture makes it clear that all three persons shared fully in creating the universe. The Son is Creator as much as the Father: “All things were made through Him” (John 1:3). The Spirit is Creator as much as the Son: “ ‘The Spirit of God has made me’ ” (Job 33:4).

Neither is it the case that the Father created a third of the universe, the Son a third, and the Spirit the remaining third (as if the Father made the animals, the Son the vegetables, and the Spirit the minerals). No, each person of the Trinity created the whole universe: one single universe, one act of creation, proceeding simultaneously from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in united omnipotent action.

I am not sure whether there is any very good analogy to this from the world of created things, unless perhaps it is the procreation of a child. The child is equally the offspring of its father and of its mother, and not of one more than the other. The two parents cooperate in the one action of producing the new life. In a faintly similar way, the three persons of the Trinity cooperated in the one action of producing the new entity, the cosmos. As the parents would say of the child, “Our child,” so the Trinity says of the universe, “Our creation.” There can be no exclusive “I” and “mine” here. The Father says, “I and My Son and My Spirit made the stars.” The Son says, “I and My Father and the Spirit fashioned the earth and sea.” The Spirit says, “I and the Father and the Son created man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”

The same mystery pertains to all the other works of the Trinity. It pertains, therefore, to the irresistible grace of the Trinity—that is, to the application of redemption. Let’s explore this.

God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. But how does that reconciliation actually touch the life of a person? How do we come to participate experientially in this reconciliation? We could say: “It is entirely up to us. The salvation is there. We now have to apply it to ourselves. We simply have to choose, to decide, to act.” But this would betray a mind-boggling lack of Biblical realism about human nature. If we are left to ourselves, we will ignore salvation and go on sinning, until we sin ourselves into hell. As Benjamin Warfield said, a gospel of “Whosoever will” is not much use in a world of universal “Won’t!”

Or we could say that the application of redemption is a joint work God prompts us, gives us a spiritual push (to overcome our lethargic depravity), and we then have to run in the direction He pushes us. And so, between God and ourselves, we enter into salvation. But this still leaves it ultimately up to us. Will we or will we not cooperate with God’s push? If we don’t, we frustrate Him. If we do, we have at best enabled God to save us (which doesn’t sound much like the Biblical idea of salvation or of God).

The true view is that God Himself sovereignly applies redemption to sinners. Everything that we do, however we may describe it—repenting, believing, converting, coming to Christ, receiving Christ, looking to Christ, calling upon the name of the Lord, turning from idols to the true and living God—it is all the outcome of God’s work in us. He moves us to do all these things. And He moves us sovereignly, omnipotently, efficaciously, leaving no room for our sin to thwart His gracious purpose. He slays our sin and graces us with willing hearts.

But what God is it that does these wondrous things? It is the triune God. And so everything we have said about the creation of nature we must say about the re-creation of grace. The almighty, efficacious grace that applies redemption to sinners is a Trinitarian grace. It flows from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one gushing Trinitarian fountain of salvation.

All three persons of the Trinity are the joint source of irresistible grace.

Scripture bears witness to the work of the Father in irresistible grace. Jesus spoke of it often. “ ‘No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him’ ” (John 6:44). The “drawing” of the Father lies behind our “coming” to the Son. As commentators have pointed out, the word for “draw” here is a powerful word, used of drawing a fishnet through the sea (John 21:6). It suggests might, effort, or exertion so as to overcome the resistance of the waves—or the resistance of the sinful human will.

Faced with hostile unbelief, Jesus says, “ ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father’ ” (John 6:65). Everyone in whom the Father works in this way inevitably comes to Christ. Jesus says, “ ‘All that the Father gives Me will come to Me’ ” (John 6:37). Also, “ ‘Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me’ ” (John 6:45).

Augustine comments: “What is the meaning of, ‘Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me,’ except that there is no one who fails to come to Me if they hear from the Father and learn? For if everyone who has heard from the Father, and has learned, comes, then certainly everyone who does not come has not heard from the Father! For if he had heard and learned, he would come. No one has heard and learned, and yet has failed to come” (On the Predestination of the Saints, 13). It is the Father, and not we ourselves, who brings us to the Son.

Scripture equally testifies to the work of the Son in irresistible grace. Psalm 110 prophesies of the Messiah, “Your people shall be volunteers in the day of Your power” (v. 3). It is Messianic power that makes us willing to enlist in the King’s army. The Messiah Himself taught, “ ‘If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed’ ” (John 8:36). None but Christ can liberate the slaves of sin. He also said, “ ‘Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him’ ” (Matt. 11:27). We can savingly know the Father only if the Son chooses to make Him known to us.

The apostles preached to the Sanhedrin, “ ‘Him Jesus God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins’ ” (Acts 5:31). Repentance, as much as forgiveness, is the princely gift of the exalted Jesus. According to Acts 16:14, when Paul preached in Philippi to Lydia, “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” In Acts, “the Lord” is Jesus, whereas “God” is the Father (compare Acts 16:31 and the stark distinction of 1 Cor. 6:14). It is the Lord Jesus Christ who opens our closed hearts to believe His Word.

Scripture also proclaims the work of the Spirit in irresistible grace. Jesus famously told Nicodemus: “ ‘Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ ” (John 3:3, 5). Only by the Spirit’s grace can blind sinners see the reality of the kingdom and banished sinners enter its blessedness. As Jesus continues, “ ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ ” (John 3:6). The only thing that flesh can give birth to is more flesh. If there is to be spiritual birth, it must come from beyond the bankrupt resources of fallen flesh. It must come from the Spirit, who, in the words of the Nicene Creed, is “the Lord and the Life-giver.”

When Paul wished to express his sense that the Christians of Thessalonica were truly saved, he said: “ . . . knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:4–5a). So it is with all “successful” preaching. The success does not spring from the preacher’s eloquence or sincerity, but from the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit (compare 1 Cor. 2:4). Paul was so convinced of this that he could sum up the whole of salvation thus: “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Who renews unto salvation? The Spirit. Not Paul. Not preaching. Not decisions. The Spirit. Everything else is but an instrument in His mighty hand.

All three persons of the Trinity are the joint source of irresistible grace. The grace that conquers our stubborn hearts, opens our blind eyes, unstops our deaf ears, breaks our addiction to sin, topples the tyrant unbelief, plants true faith, and then carries on its saving work to the end in the sanctification and perseverance of the saints—this grace flows in undivided splendor from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Not unto us, O Lord not unto us, but to Your name give glory, because of Your mercy, because of Your truth” (Ps. 115:1). He who grasps the glory of the irresistible grace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will be bound forever in self-emptied adoration to the triune Lord who alone has saved him.

Dead Men Walking

Dutch Masters

Keep Reading Irresistible Grace

From the June 2002 Issue
Jun 2002 Issue