We’ve covered a lot in this series about the history of the Doctrines of Grace, the Radical Corruption of man’s sinfulness, the Sovereign Gracious Choice of God in salvation, and the Specificity of the Atonement. In this article, we consider God’s Irresistible Grace or perhaps better described as His Effectual Call of sinners to Himself via the proclamation of the Gospel.
The Arminian Position holds that regeneration follows faith. The Holy Spirit does all He can to bring every fallen person to salvation, but until that person, through their free will chooses to believe, He cannot give them spiritual life. Thus, for the Arminian, faith precedes and makes possible the New Birth.
In contrast, the Reformed Position states that regeneration precedes (comes before) faith. The Holy Spirit graciously regenerates every one of the elect, creating a new heart in them whereby they freely and willingly believe in Christ as Saviour. Thus, the New Birth makes faith possible – the person must be made alive first to believe.
If this is sounding like a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” sort of confusion, then let’s jump into the Scriptural texts to find both some clarity and also why it is important.
The Scriptural Support
1. Every person elected from eternity past for whom Christ has died will certainly be saved through the work of the Holy Spirit
As we have covered previously, Jesus teaches clearly that God the Father has given to Him an elect people and also guaranteed that they will come to Him (John 6:37 & 44). Those who are his will hear and respond to his voice calling them to his fold. He says in John 10:16, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. John Calvin comments on John 6:44,
“The statement amounts to this, that we ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not drawn, but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected. True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant.”
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11 that we “were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” Our justification is by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ and is applied to us by the Holy Spirit. Salvation ultimately is a triune work of our God. All three Persons of the Godhead work together in the salvation of His people. God the Father elects and gives to His Son a particular people, the Son justifies them by his substitutionary life and atoning death, and the Spirit regenerates and infallibly calls them to true faith and repentance. The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:2 confirms this when he calls his readers,
“elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.”
Sometimes, the work of the Spirit in salvation is underestimated or underappreciated. But the work of the Spirit is replacing the heart of stone with a heart of flesh and giving us spiritual sight and hearing to respond to the Word of the Gospel. It is only by the Spirit that we can submit to the Lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3). It is the Spirit that gives us life (2 Corinthians 3:6). The Spirit is the one who releases us from our bondage to sin and liberates us (2 Corinthians 2:17). The Spirit is actually given to us as the seal and guarantee of our inheritance as redeemed sons of God. Paul says in Ephesians 1:13-14,
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
This point is amazing – don’t miss it!
If I tell you, “When I come back, I’m going to give you your own brand new car. And, as a guarantee that I will keep my word, I’m going to give you the keys and ownership title to my own car to hold onto until I come through on my word.” If I didn’t come through on my promise, I would lose what I gave to you as my guarantee – I would forfeit it if I were to fail to meet my word. This is the immensity of God giving us His Spirit as a guarantee of our inheritance! Just as it would be impossible for God to lose His Spirit (as that would mean the destruction of the Trinity and thus the universe!), that’s the type of assurance the Christian has that God will come through on His promise of their inheritance which is purchased in Christ.
2. The Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration
Regeneration is a unique work of the Holy Spirit to transform a person from the inside and is not dependent on their help or cooperation. Regeneration – the making alive of people who were previously spiritually dead in their trespasses – is described in the Bible in a few different ways. It is spoken of as a new birth, a new heart, a new creation, a resurrection and a gift.
A NEW BIRTH
We become children of God through the new birth. John 1:12-13 says,
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
This is not “of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” As the apostle Paul confirms, it does not depend on “human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”(Romans 9:16)
Perhaps the most famous teaching on the new birth is from the lips of Jesus himself in John 3:3-8, where he tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God. As mysterious as where the wind blows to and from, “so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”(v.8) We do not know the time or situation that God, by His Spirit, chooses to regenerate a sinner – it may be in their youth or old age – but it is sure that all whom He has chosen to set his love on from eternity past will come to him. This is good news, since ultimately it is not a matter of human ability, then God can literally save anyone – from the little child to the severely mentally handicapped. If it were up to our ability, there would be vast amounts of people who either haven’t developed enough mentally or by accident have become mentally handicapped who would not be able to comprehend and believe the Gospel. But as it is, God can make anyone come alive to His truth and embrace Christ in faith.
The Apostle Peter says that we have been born again “through the living and abiding Word of God.”(1 Peter 1:23) As in Ezekiel’s vision of The Valley of dry bones, God’s Word is the normal instrumental cause of salvation – as people hear the Word faithfully proclaimed, the Spirit gives life to spiritually dead people. Our salvation is according to God’s mercy, “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”(Titus 3:5)
A NEW HEART
Regeneration is also spoken of as the giving of a new heart. In Deuteronomy 30:6, Moses told God’s people that there would come a day when God would “circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souls, that you may live.” This was what the Old Testament prophets looked forward to in the midst of a people who repeatedly fell away from the Lord. This was the promise of the New Covenant that God would make with His people. Ezekiel gives testimony to this promise:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
A NEW CREATION
This renewal by the Spirit is so complete that we are said to be a new creation in Christ Jesus. Paul says it clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18a that, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God…” When we are made new by the Holy Spirit, there should be a change in our life that is so profound that we should be as a new creation – with new desires, affections, actions, etc. These are brought about by God’s Spirit in us, not by any external works. It is the new creation that matters (Galatians 6:15). We become God’s workmanship, His new creation, “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
Because we were dead in our trespasses and sins prior to God’s saving grace, the regeneration by the Spirit is also a spiritual resurrection. Jesus says that, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” And in John 11, Jesus demonstrates this by raising his friend Lazarus, who was four days in the grave, from the dead. The salvation of sinners is nothing less than a resurrection from the dead. Paul says this clearly when he says that God “made us alive” who were previously dead in sin (Ephesians 2:5; see also Colossians 2:13).
Lastly, regeneration is a gift from God – not something we can earn or do for ourselves or cause Him to do by anything we do. Jesus has been given authority to give eternal life to as many as God the Father has given him (John 17:2). Everything that we have, including our salvation is a gift of grace from God (1 Corinthians 4:7). Even the faith by which we believe in Christ for salvation is a gift from God.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In the Greek construction of the sentence, the “this” (τοῦτο) refers back to the whole of salvation by grace through faith. That is what is “not of yourselves”. Thus, repentance and faith are gifts from God which are the result of the Spirit’s regeneration.
The book of Acts clearly shows us that repentance is a gift that God gives to us. The Apostle Peter, answering the High Priest in Acts 5:31 says that it is Jesus who gives repentance and forgiveness of sins. In Acts 11, as Peter was explaining to the Jewish believers at Jerusalem about God’s salvation extending to the Gentiles, they glorified God, saying, “then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18) In Acts 13:48, it was as many as had been appointed to eternal life who believed. Lydia’s eyes and heart were opened by the Lord in Acts 16:14 to receive the things the Apostle Paul spoke to her about. Paul affirms that it is granted to us to believe in Christ (Philippians 1:29) and that we are to correct those opposing us in humility in hopes that God would grant them repentance (2 Timothy 2:25-26).
Struggles with this doctrine
Many people have problems with this doctrine – thinking that it is within their ability to repent and believe of their own free will. John Murray comments on the struggle with this doctrine that,
“In much of present-day evangelism it is assumed that the one thing man can do in the exercise of his own liberty is to believe in Christ for salvation. It is supposed that this is the one contribution that man himself must make to set the forces of salvation in operation and that even God himself can do nothing towards this end until there is this crucial decision on man’s own part. In this assessment there is total failure to reckon with human depravity, with the nature of the contradiction that sin involves.”
As we have covered in a previous article, the doctrine of Total Depravity or Man’s Radical Corruption due to sin precludes the possibility of the fallen sinner responding to the Gospel without the effectual working of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. John Calvin, in responding to a Dutch Roman Catholic theologian, Albert Pighius, on this topic wrote:
“I say, then, that grace is not offered to us in such a way that afterwards we have the option either to submit or to resist. I say that it is not given merely to aid our weakness by its support as though anything depended on us apart from it. But I demonstrate that it is entirely the work of grace and a benefit conferred by it that our heart is changed from a stony one to one of flesh, that our will is made new, and that we, created anew in heart and mind, at length will what we ought to will. For Paul bears witness that God does not bring about in us [merely] that we are able to will what is good, but also that we should will it right up to the completion of the act. How big a difference there is between performance and will! Likewise, I determine that our will is effectively formed so that it necessarily follows the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not that it is sufficiently encouraged to be able to do so if it wills.”
God does not leave the salvation of His beloved people to chance or to the will of fallible, sinful people. He surely and lovingly brings them to Himself. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes it this way:
“All those whom God has predestined to life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving to them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace. This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being made alive and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” (Westminster Confession of Faith X, 1,2)
In our final article in this series, we’ll take a look at the doctrine of the Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints.
If you’ve found these articles educational or edifying, please consider sharing them with others so that they may be blessed as well.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Articles in this series: