Following the earlier articles in this series, a question, of course, arises: ‘Man is totally depraved. God has elected some to life and salvation. Christ has died for them. How is it that in time some (the elect) come to be saved, as distinct from others who do not?’ Men and women are changed in time. How?
The answer is, by the grace of God. God’s grace is his unmerited favour. In this context, it is the power God exercises towards the sinner in bringing him or her to Christ for salvation. It is his work in the heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the sinner is irresistibly drawn to Christ.
Obviously this work is necessary, because mankind is lost in sin and depravity and is unable to accomplish any spiritual good. As they are, men and women deserve the wrath and curse of God. It is a wonder of God’s love that he graciously works in some and, through conviction of sin, repentance and faith, brings them to trust in Christ alone for salvation.
That grace of God is, of course, sovereign, almighty, and therefore efficacious, or irresistible. It may readily be seen how this all hangs together: God loves certain souls from all eternity; he sends Jesus to die for them on the cross to pay for their sins; he sends the Spirit to enable them to trust Christ.
Bringing the dead to life
But why do we speak of ‘irresistible grace’? Some teach that man has a free will in the matter of salvation. They say that unless a person makes a decision for Christ he will not be saved. In this view, man’s will is all important. However, because of his native depravity, fallen man is incapable of exercising his will towards any spiritual good. After all, he is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13).
He cannot make himself alive spiritually. He cannot ‘decide’ the right way. Rather, the Lord must draw the sinner. He must quicken the sinner spiritually. It is God’s will in this matter that is crucial.
Jesus taught that, ‘all that the Father gives me will come to me…’ (John 6:37), and, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day’ (v. 44). Such Scriptures show that God must draw the sinner to himself. If a man were left to decide, he would never come to Christ, since his will is in bondage to sin and can only be exercised according to his fallen nature. Apart from grace, he will not even understand the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel we read that Christ’s sheep hear his voice and follow him (John 10:16). Besides this, in the eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, Paul describes the chain of salvation, affirming that ‘whom he predestinated, these he also called…’ (v. 30).
This, of course, is implicit in the necessity of the new birth, concerning which Jesus speaks to Nicodemus (John 3:1-12). Jesus makes it clear that no one can ‘see’, let alone ‘enter’, the kingdom of God unless they are first born of the Spirit. Similarly, in his first letter, Peter speaks of the Christians to whom he is writing as being ‘born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides for ever’ (1 Peter 1:23).
Finally, Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ until they were ‘made … alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:4-6). This is the language of sovereign, efficacious grace.
This gracious operation of God in bringing life to the dead soul is a necessity of the situation arising from the sinner’s inability. But this is not to say that man is coerced into believing in Christ, as if he were dragged kicking and screaming in to the state of salvation.
The sinner is made willing in a day of his power (Psalm 110:3). God works effectively in time, so that the elect will be willing to receive and embrace Christ as he is offered in the gospel. The experience of the sinner is doubtless like this:
I sought the Lord and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found,O Saviour true;
No, I was found by Thee.
Lydia is a beautiful example of the workings of the effectual grace of God (Acts 16). It was during Paul’s first incursion into Europe after receiving the Macedonian call (vv. 6-10). At Philippi he attends a prayer meeting at the riverside and meets a woman named Lydia. He spoke to her about the gospel and we read that, ‘The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul’ (v. 14).
Without that opening of the heart she would not have believed. That is ‘irresistible grace’.
Commanded to believe
Perhaps a word of caution is in order. It is true that none are saved without God’s effectual call and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Having said that, there are no grounds for sitting back and doing nothing, waiting for the Spirit to move within.
The gospel involves a call: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). ‘Repent, and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). The sinner is exhorted to ‘strive to enter through the narrow gate’ (Luke 13:24). The Greek word translated ‘strive’ is one from which we get our English term ‘agonise’. That is a command to the sinner, and no one else can do the striving for him.
One thing is certain: in the glory of the redeemed in the new heavens and new earth, the praise will celebrate what God has done. There will be no cause for rejoicing, on the part of the people of God, in anything they have done to acquire salvation. It will be all about what the Lord has done. He will have all the glory (see, for example, Revelation 5:8-14)!