Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.1: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

With this entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I begin with my Evangelical Calvinist treatment of the “I” in TULIP which stands for “Irresistible Grace”. Consistent with my approach thus far, I will first refer to and then offer a critique (split into two parts) of R.C. Sproul’s brief explanation of the traditional Reformed view that he provides on the Ligonier blog (the entirety of which can be accessed here). Here is Sproul on ‘irresistible grace’:

In historic Reformation thought, the notion is this: regeneration precedes faith. We also believe that regeneration is monergistic…It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARman’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God. He, and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and the human heart to bring us to faith.

In addition, when He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about…Hence, we call this irresistible grace. It’s grace that works. It’s grace that brings about what God wants it to bring about. If, indeed, we are dead in sins and trespasses, if, indeed, our wills are held captive by the lusts of our flesh and we need to be liberated from our flesh in order to be saved, then in the final analysis, salvation must be something that God does in us and for us, not something that we in any way do for ourselves…

Irresistible grace does not mean that God’s grace is incapable of being resisted. Indeed, we are capable of resisting God’s grace, and we do resist it. The idea is that God’s grace is so powerful that it has the capacity to overcome our natural resistance to it. It is not that the Holy Spirit drags people kicking and screaming to Christ against their wills. The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our wills, so that whereas we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing, and more than willing. Indeed, we aren’t dragged to Christ, we run to Christ, and we embrace Him joyfully because the Spirit has changed our hearts…Without that work, we would never have any desire to come to Christ. That’s why we say that regeneration precedes faith.

As with previous entries in this series, I would like to examine Sproul’s position (which, I think can be safely agreed upon, is a good summary of the traditional Reformed view) through the lens of its intellectual history. The reason for this is simple: Reformed theology since the Reformation has proceeded with the goal of preserving the primacy of God’s grace in salvation. This is evident in Sproul’s statement that the regeneration leading to faith is “monergistic”, that is, completely and entirely the work of God. Historically speaking, the Reformed were concerned to guard against other accounts of salvation, such as the medieval Roman Catholic view, that tended toward a synergism between God and humanity. It is largely for this purpose that the Canons of Dort – from which the ‘five points of Calvinism’ originate – opposed the Remonstrants in asserting the unconditionality and sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners. ‘Irresistible grace’ plays an important role in safeguarding this notion.

For this reason, the question that I would like to pose is quite simple: does the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ that seeks to account for the way in which sinners come to faith and are saved accomplish this task? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to dig a little deeper underneath the surface of Sproul’s claims to “monergism” and “grace that works” in order to expose what I think are fatal cracks in the traditional view’s foundation.

To begin, I would like to consider how Thomas Aquinas approached the same question, because it was by and large Thomas who provided the greatest and clearest exposition of the theology that would serve as the framework for the medieval Roman soteriology against which the Reformers would ardently protest. Denys Turner, a reputed Thomas scholar, helpfully explicates the view of the ‘Angelic Doctor’ on the subject of converting grace:

Thomas interlaces the elements of irresistibility on the side of grace and freedom of choice on the side of the human. At one point, Thomas says that grace does its work “infallibly” but not “coercively,” and he seems to mean that the work of grace cannot fail, because grace does all the work and its efficacy depends on only such conditions obtaining as it effects for itself: for “no pre-condition of God’s infusing the soul with grace is required other than such as God himself brings about.”…Therefore, because there are no conditions not of grace’s making to impede its work, the action of grace is “infallible.” And yet because the free consent of the human will is precisely what grace brings about, its action is not “coercive.”[1]

Does this sound at all familiar? It should, because it is in many respects similar, if not identical, to what Sproul describes as the traditional Reformed view. This may be surpising to those who are accustomed to thinking of Protestant tradition as standing in diametric opposition to all things medieval and Roman Catholic. This is simply not true, for as I have mentioned in previous posts (here and here), the rise and development of Protestant orthodoxy, especially that of the Reformed, did indeed subvert many aspects present within the Roman tradition, but it did not jettison everything. For all its discontinuity, Reformed orthodoxy evinced much continuity with pre-Reformation thought inasmuch as it embraced, appropriated, or only slightly modified many theological and philosophical ideas already present among medieval thinkers. It would seem that to some degree, the traditional Reformed concept of converting grace falls into this latter category.

In my opinion, one of the most helpful accounts of this is offered by W. Travis McMaken who compares the views of Reformed orthodoxy, represented by Zacharias Ursinus, with the Catholic view articulated by Thomas Aquinas pertaining to the application of grace to and the conversion of sinners. Here is McMaken:

We can…chart the logic of Thomas’s sacramental soteriology in the following way. First, God loves particular individuals and by loving them determines them as good, that is, predestines them for the supernatural end of eternally enjoying the vision of God. With this supernatural end in view, God sets about providing for the supernatural means of achieving this end. Thus, second, Jesus Christ is sent to make satisfaction for sin and thereby achieve the grace necessary to propel the predestined to their supernatural end. This grace is applied to the predestined individual through participation in the sacraments…

The Reformation did not reject the sort of sacramental soteriology that one finds in Thomas; rather, it offered an alternative judgment as to the means by which salvation achieved by Christ is applied to particular individuals. In short, whereas Thomas and the traditional view maintained that this occurred by means of the sacraments, the Reformation traditions affirmed faith as the true means. This shift was…ardently maintained in the latter half of the sixteenth century by the Reformed tradition, as represented here by Zachiarius Ursinus….

[A] twofold distinction obtains between Thomas and Ursinus…: first, Ursinus consistently subordinates the sacraments to faith as that means by which the salvation wrought by Christ is applied to the individual; and, second, his doctrine of election has God actively predestining for both salvation and reprobation. Despite this twofold distinction from Thomas, however, Ursinus does not modify the basic structure of traditional sacramental soteriology. God has determined that some individual human beings will enjoy eternal life; Jesus achieves salvation; some subsequently determined means apply that salvation to those elected by God. For Ursinus, God’s electing decree “concerning the forgiveness of sins is everlasting, but the execution of it takes place at the time when we apply to ourselves by faith the forgiveness which the gospel offers unto us” (CHC, 309). This supports Markus Barth’s contention that the difference between Roman Catholic and Reformation sacramental theologies is relative as opposed to irreconcilable.[2]

McMaken exposes something here that is absolutely crucial for us to understand. While on the one hand, Catholic and Reformed accounts of salvation seem at odds due to the differences between the former’s insistence on participation in the sacraments and the latter’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’, the two systems actually share a deep continuity given the underlying ‘sacramental’ foundation on which both are grounded. As McMaken further explains, the sacramental structure derives from “the assumption that Christ’s achievement of grace is one thing, and the effectiveness of that grace for our salvation is another”.[3] In other words, “the salvation achieved by Christ is made effective for the individual Christ at a later date and as a consequence of a later act of application”.[4] Thus, while there is a divergence between the Catholic and Reformed understandings of how salvific grace converts the sinner (sacraments vs. faith alone), the difference is relatively small compared to the overall soteriological framework shared by both.

Someone could of course protest, pointing out that the Catholic and Reformed views are far more different than McMaken allows, given that, as Sproul states above, Reformed theology maintains that the grace of regeneration precedes human faith and thus eliminates any notion of synergism. This, however, misses the point entirely, and it fails to fully account for the Catholic position which, like that of the Reformed, wants to say that salvation is ‘grace all the way down’. Although the conditions may be different, both traditions, following Augustine, fundamentally affirm that humans cannot fulfill those conditions apart from the enabling power of grace. This is precisely the role that regeneration plays in traditional Reformed soteriology, and thus it does not ultimately constitute a decisive difference.

The main point that I want to make from this is relatively simple: if the traditional Reformed account of ‘irresistible grace’ bears a striking, albeit often hidden, similarity to the view that it ostensibly opposes, is it possible that it actually does not accomplish the goal that it was designed to do, namely preserve the primacy of grace in salvation and conversion? I think that this is indeed the case. By making the full achievement of salvation contingent upon a later act of human appropriation (whether by participation in the sacraments or a personal decision to believe), the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ with its ordo salutis of ‘redemption accomplished and applied’ appears to reintroduce into the soteriological equation the very synergism that it claims to reject. In my next post, I will delve a little deeper into why this is so.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Turner, D., 2013. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven; London: 2013. pp.151-152.

[2] McMaken, W.T., 2013. The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. pp.65-66, 72.

[3] Ibid., p.63

[4] Ibid., p.63


4 thoughts on “Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.1: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

  1. Morgan 20 September 2016 / 19:01

    Where do we place universal consensus in our thinking so it has a chance to challenge our presuppositions? Is there any life of Christ to be submitted to in the general ancient and mostly unbroken understandings of anything, but especially concerning individual salvation?


    • Jonathan Kleis 20 September 2016 / 20:11

      Of course there is a place for this, although I wouldn’t say that there is an understanding nearly as universal or unbroken as you say. If you read enough on this blog, you will see that I am all about continuity, where appropriate and in line with Scripture, with the ‘consensus patrum’ of the church.


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