Calvinism vs Arminianism: The Irresistible Grace of God
God’s work of salvation in a person’s heart is a profound mystery. Does it ultimately go down to man’s decision or God’s that causes a person to believe and cross over from death to life? In Ezekiel 18, we see that the burden of responsibility for a man’s fate rests on his decision to repent: “when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life” (Ezekiel 18:27). Throughout Scripture, God pleads with mankind to repent and believe the Gospel, and holds us to account according to our decision. The Son of God, himself, even weeps over our unbelief: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37). Our unwillingness to believe separates us from God, yet at the same time, we see another reason for unbelief. Jesus explains to the Israelites that, “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (John 10:26). Note that he does not say the reverse – “you are not my sheep because you do not believe.” Obviously, God’s election is somehow mysteriously involved in our choice to believe the Gospel; and while most Christians agree both God and man play important roles in salvation, how they play out, and who has the final say varies considerably across traditions.
In the Calvinist tradition, God’s will has the final say. Article 11 of the Canons of Dordt says when a person is saved through the Holy Spirit, God “penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised.” Furthermore, “God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant.” This Calvinist understanding of God’s grace that invades and transforms an unregenerate person’s will is often called “irresistible grace.” Like Calvinists, Arminians agree that man’s will is so corrupted that a “prevenient grace” from God is necessary to help us believe the Gospel. Nevertheless, they object to any idea of this grace overriding a person’s free will. For the Arminian, man’s choice is the final deciding factor in their salvation, not God’s. God merely “chooses” those whom he foresees will choose him with the help of his prevenient grace; thus, man’s choice has the ultimate say. Human free will is sacred to Arminian theology and cannot be interfered with or violated lest God be unjust.
While man’s free will is important in the sense that God holds us accountable for responding to his call, “no verse in Scripture says that God decided to relinquish use of his power or control to make room for our free will.” This notion of the absolute sacredness of free will derives mainly from philosophical speculation rather than Scripture. Furthermore, it misunderstands the Biblical picture of human freedom and often misconstrues the Calvinist model into a cold determinism. To better understand the doctrine of irresistible grace, however, a more Biblical understanding of free will must first be established.
Arminians sometimes claim that in order for there to be love, there has to be free will; and this free will must naturally involve the choice to obey or disobey. It is claimed that without this free will, humanity would simply be robots – always obeying God, without the freedom to disobey, and therefore unable to truly and freely love God. But Scripture does not depict free will in this way. In Jesus, the ideal human, we see that he freely loved and obeyed the Father, and yet simultaneously “there is no evidence that Jesus held the ability of contrary choice – the ability to disobey.” He was tempted in every way as we are, yet “from first to last, he is the One who aligns himself with the Father’s plan.” Jesus possessed the free choice to obey God, yet not the ability to disobey Him. If this is true, then it proves that the ability to freely love God is not contingent on our ability to disobey Him. The Bible simply does not speak of free will in this way. Instead, “true freedom, freedom in the biblical sense, is the liberty to obey God without restraint, without sin standing in the way.” True freedom is to have our wills restored to that of Jesus’s. And though unlike Jesus, we do possess the ability to disobey God, the Gospel empowers us with the same freedom Jesus had when he perfectly obeyed the Father. God requires a response from us – to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling;” yet simultaneously we see that “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). True freedom is to have our wills united with God’s in perfect harmony. This is what Jesus died to restore us to, and is actively sanctifying us toward.
Part of the Arminian misunderstanding of free will is that it assumes humans are on a neutral playing field with the autonomous ability to freely choose between two masters – God or sin. The Biblical picture, however, portrays humans as slaves already to one master or the other. Paul writes, “do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16) After the Fall, it was no longer righteousness, but sin that became the master of all people, and our wills were corrupted accordingly.
Arminians and Calvinists both agree that people need God’s grace to believe, but they differ regarding the extent of that prevenient grace. Arminians argue that God supplies all people with equal grace to believe, but that this grace is resistible. If prevenient grace could be resisted, though, then those who are saved have become so as a result of their superior will to choose Christ, compared to those who reject him. This, however, implies something good in us, in addition to and apart from God’s prevenient grace. The Bible, however, does not support this idea, but says, “no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:11-12). We may think we have it within us to choose God, but Paul writes, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18). Whether before or after salvation, Paul says there is nothing good in us, apart from the grace of God that would enable us to carry out the good we want to do. Who then will rescue us from this body of death? At this point, our only hope, whatsoever, is in God’s grace alone to set us free.
Because of our complete spiritual deadness described in Romans 6-7, it is imperative that this prevenient grace be overpowering and irresistible. Our greatest enemy to our own salvation is ourselves; for we are hostile to God, and our wills are bent on self-destruction. If this is the case, then what virtue is there in God yielding his power to our self-destructive wills? Our plight is so perilous such that we need not a negotiation with God but an invasion from him. We need not be revived from sickness but raised from the dead. Paul explains how this rescue happens saying: we “were dead in our trespasses and sins…but God…even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:1,5). Furthermore, this work of God is solely by grace through faith, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Our ability to believe is by God’s grace alone, drawing us to himself (Jn. 6:44), and all whom he appoints to eternal life will believe (Acts. 14:17).
The Westminster Confession of Faith says the effectual call is by “God’s free and special grace alone” and that we are “altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit” at which point we are “enabled to answer this call.” This irresistible grace, however, is not a forced coercion, so that in choosing God we are being forced into something against our desires; rather he is setting our wills free from bondage to sin by changing our desires. He implants his Spirit within us so that we are free to obey God (Rom. 8:2), free to be more like Christ, and free to be who we were made to be.
 Canons of Dordt, Human Corruption, Conversion to God, and the Way it Occurs, Article 11.
 Peterson, Why I Am Not An Arminian, 141.
 Ibid., 154.
 Westminster Confession of Faith 10.2.