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A professional athlete was asked, “At what moment did you realize that you had made it into the highest league of your sport?” The reality did not hit him, the athlete responded, until the first paycheck was deposited into his bank account, and he understood that he was now getting paid for the game he loved to play. This earthly example portrays in part the experience that a Christian might have when he comes to understand the doctrine of irresistible grace. When the true believer comes to the realization that all the benefits of Christ are personally applied to him and he is now in Christ, he is like the athlete who has come to a fuller realization of who he really is and all that truly belongs to him. He now understands that he is a Christian through the sovereign eternal election and redemption of Christ effectually applied to him by the Spirit.

Irresistible grace is perhaps better described theologically as efficacious grace or effectual calling. This doctrine is spelled out clearly in the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 10), and it is summarized in the Westminster Shorter Catechism in this manner:

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered in the Gospel. (Q&A 31)

The whole of salvation, including the work of conversion, is a work of God because the whole (or totality) of man is affected by the fall of Adam. Spiritually dead men and women can neither do nor will themselves into a better relationship with God unless God does a work in them. George Whitefield said that man can more easily “climb to the moon on a rope of sand” than do any good works that place him in right relationship with God. What man is incapable of doing, God does powerfully and efficaciously by His grace through His Word and Spirit.

Spiritually dead men and women can neither do nor will themselves into a better relationship with God unless God does a work in them.

This inward call of the Holy Spirit typically takes place in conjunction with the external call of the gospel that goes out to the world through the read and preached Word of God. What is externally read and heard finds a heart, mind, and will that have been spiritually renewed and regenerated by the Spirit. That Word, possibly rejected, ignored, or misunderstood previously, now makes sense and is even desirable through the powerful working of the Spirit, so much so that the hearer takes first “steps” of faith and repentance in Christ. New life has emerged.

In John 11, the resurrection of Lazarus foreshadows the greater resurrection of our Lord and also symbolizes the ministry of our Lord, who breathes life into dead men. With a simple command of “Lazarus, come out,” the previously dead Lazarus emerges alive from the grave, and Jesus demonstrates that He has the power of bringing dead bones back to life (see Ezek. 37:1–14). Just as no one would think that Lazarus enabled or willed himself to physical life, so no one ought to think that he can do the same toward spiritual life. God alone has the words of life and brings forth life—physically and spiritually (John 6:68).

Many object to this doctrine because they remember so clearly the circumstances that brought them to Christ—that is, when they “chose Christ” or “decided for Christ.” Experientially, this is true. We do freely come to Christ, for as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, . . . come most freely,” but it then quickly adds “being made willing by His grace” (10.1). We come to and embrace the Lord Jesus Christ by faith only because He first came to us and chose us, and He now works that salvation in our hearts and minds and lives. This supernatural grace doesn’t merely make salvation possible (the Wesleyan/Arminian view) but really and truly does save all those for whose sin Christ has atoned. Therefore, from the first spiritual breath to our last physical breath, we are to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” but as Paul quickly reminds the Philippians (and us), “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). Our being alive in Christ from now and into eternity is God’s will and work for His glory.

The five points of Calvinism, which Charles Spurgeon said are “the gospel, and nothing else,” are a tight-knit set of doctrines that stand together not as a formulaic system of logic but as a biblical and theological summary of God’s miraculous work of salvation in the life of the elect. Each point presumes the others. What makes irresistible grace unique from the others, however, is that this doctrine explains the application of that salvation in the life of the believer. The previous three points (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement) are realities that are primarily rooted in the past (fallen in Adam, elect in eternity, atoned for in Christ), and perseverance of the saints primarily looks forward (persevering to the end). But irresistible grace takes those doctrines and applies them to the believer so that they are not only true of the believer but also true in the believer now and for all eternity as the believer is awakened to the unfathomable reality of being “in Christ.”

Irresistible grace happens in us, as the eternal salvation of God enters our personal existence through the supernatural work of conversion. This first taste of saving grace, which is experienced more and more each and every day through Christ, is what the true Christian savors both now and forever: the riches of His grace that sovereignly saved and drew all His elect into personal relationship with Himself. And so we sing, as John Newton aptly put it, “Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!”

Limited Atonement

Perseverance of the Saints

Keep Reading The Doctrines of Grace

From the December 2023 Issue
Dec 2023 Issue