Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.2: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

In this second half of the fifteenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I continue my critique* of the traditional Calvinist doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’ as articulated by R.C. Sproul on the Ligonier blog (the entirety of which can be accessed here). In the first half of Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARthis post, I considered a bit of the intellectual history underlying this view and suggested that it reintroduces into the Reformed ordo salutis the very element of synergism that it claims to reject. This is due to the fact that it presupposes a sacramental structure of redemption in which the achievement of Christ remains contingent upon a later act of human appropriation (whether participation in the sacraments or a personal decision to believe). This way of separating what Christ accomplished in the past from how his accomplishment is applied in the present results in an economy of salvation in which it is the grace-enabled human action that completes or actualizes Christ’s work in the life of the individual. In this sense, the classic Calvinist view of salvation, even when it claims to hold to ‘grace alone’ and ‘faith alone’, actually comes very close to the Roman Catholic view that it intends to avoid.

In order to defend and explain this a bit more in detail, I would like to begin by referring back to R.C. Sproul’s explanation of ‘irresistible grace’. Sproul states:

He [God], 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…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.

To understand the problems inhering in this, it is necessary to unpack what Sproul says about the grace that God “exercises…in the soul” in order to change its “disposition” and thereby make it receptive to Christ. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller provides a more technical explanation of what this entails against the background of Reformed orthodoxy:

[A] saving knowledge of God is supernatural not only in its object and ultimate source but also in its instrumentality and its acquisition by the mind. Supernatural theology is mediated by the revealing activity of the logos prophorikos and the Spirit, and it is received by a supernaturally given disposition of knowing (habitus sciendi) or, more precisely, disposition of believing (habitus credendi) distinct from the disposition that receives the natural knowledge of God through perception of the creation. Although the term was not favored by the orthodox because of its medieval usage in the doctrines of grace and justification, theological knowledge is clearly an “infused” knowledge (cognitio infusa) resting, in the receiving mind, on an infused disposition (habitus infusa).[1]

Germane to my critique is what Muller refers to here as the “infused disposition (habitus infusa)” that is created by the Spirit in regeneration and that enables an individual to obtain a saving knowledge of God and put faith in Christ. While Muller notes the reticence with which the Reformed orthodox used this particular phrase given “its medieval usage”, he nevertheless acknowledges that the concept of “infused disposition” was certainly operative in the their understanding of conversion. Elsewhere Muller offers a more detailed explication of this when he writes:

The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel…(3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…(4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith.[2]

In summarizing the various definitions and distinctions of grace in Protestant scholasticism, Muller helpfully orders them according to the typical ordo salutis of scholastic Reformed theology. This helps us to see how Protestant scholastics usually understood the inner mechanisms, as it were, of regeneration and conversion. In reading Muller’s summary, it should become clear that, especially with regard to definitions three to five, the scholastics conceived grace as something infused by the Holy Spirit that enables a person to cooperate in the process of salvation. What is both surprising and disconcerting about this is that this delineation of the various actualizations of grace (due no doubt in part to the scholastic methodology that drew distinctions in the quest for ever-greater logical precision) is very similar to the conceptions of created grace that undergirded the Roman Catholic position on salvation, codified at the Council of Trent, that the Protestant scholastics purportedly opposed. Here is Ron Frost’s historical summary of the development of this conception of grace in the thought of Thomas Aquinas via his appropriation of Aristotle:

In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love (fide per dilectionem operante), as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the efficacy of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace (anteriorem gratiam). The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex libertatis) from specific directives. This is viewed within the Aristotelian framework: freedom provides opportunity for meritorious choice, either to do well or badly. Aquinas anchored his own cause by citing Aristotle directly: “The free man is one who is his own cause.” Thus Aquinas’s system looked for room—a region of limited autonomy within God’s larger will—in which free choices, enabled by grace, display a person’s ability to “act rightly.” The necessary grace is infused by the Spirit: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.”

The notion of habitus, as drawn from Aristotle’s anthropology, was crucial to Aquinas and, though widely noticed in scholarly literature, should be reviewed in passing. Habitus is the principal nexus of nature and grace in Aquinas’s spirituality, the gift of grace which supernaturally enhances nature to be able to bear the responsibilities of faith…Thus Aquinas’s view of grace combined human responsibility with divine enablement—the cooperative model of faith. Love, in this arrangement, is seen to be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection which, as a response, is non-meritorious. It is this conception of love as part of the enabled will, that supported with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. In Aquinas’s solution God provides an assisting grace that enables, but does not compel, the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

The similarities between Thomas’ Aristotelian-influenced understanding of grace and that of the Protestant scholastics according to Muller should not be difficult to discern. Both view grace as that which enables, through regeneration and ‘infusion’ in the individual, the capacity to freely believe. Both consequently regard grace as something which is possessed by regenerated individuals. Both see the necessity of the individual’s cooperation with grace for the attainment of eternal life. And as remembered from the first half of this post, both believe that this operation of grace is ‘infallible’ or ‘irresistible’ in its effect and yet not coercive, for by changing the sinful disposition through regeneration and granting grace as a quality or possession of the regenerated disposition, an individual is enabled to freely believe and persevere in faith unto final salvation.

One of the major problems with this understanding of grace is that it functionally becomes a predicate of the regenerate individual. That is to say, while theoretically dependent on the Holy Spirit, the grace of regeneration is functionally distinct from the Holy Spirit inasmuch as it becomes a property of the regenerate individual. Grace is not so much the presence and action of the Holy Spirit himself as it is a ‘substance’ that can be imparted to an individual resulting in a transformed disposition and intellect by which the individual can freely cooperate in salvation, whether through good works or faith alone.  Frost explains this problem further when he writes:

The bifurcation of grace by Aquinas into created and uncreated aspects…was of profound consequence to subsequent theology. Created grace offers its recipients a new capacity within their own nature to recogize and choose the Spirit’s values, yet this grace is separate from any immediate activity by the Spirit…This synthesis, along with the identification of grace with the eucharistic elements, had very practical consequences it led to an increasingly hypostasized view of grace among the laity. It also tended to shift the focus of theology from God as the source of all grace–a relational emphasis–to grace being pursued for its benefits–a pragmatic and anthropocentric emphasis. Grace, then, as presented in hypostatic terms, engendered the sacramentalism and sacerdotalism which were seen by reformers to have flourished to excess in the medieval period.[4]

Notice the technical yet important language here. The Thomistic conception of grace later appropriated by the Protestant scholastics became effectively “hypostasized” when viewed in terms of an infused possession of regenerate individuals. This means that as grace was ‘personalized’ as an inherent property of the regenerate individual, it was ultimately ‘depersonalized’ in that it became a ‘something’ other than the presence and activity of God himself in Christ and by the Spirit. Although intended to preserve the primacy of grace, this had the ironic and tragic effect of actually diminishing the absolute sovereignty of God’s gracious action and increasing the focus on the responsibility of the regenerate to cooperate with grace. Taken to its logical end, the ‘hypostatization’ of grace within regenerate individuals (i.e. the transformed disposition and intellect) ultimately elevates the regenerate to the place of God insofar as it attributes to human beings the grace and power that can properly be attributed to the presence and action of God alone. As Karl Barth explains:

[T]he creature to whom the Holy Spirit is imparted in revelation by no means loses its nature and kind as a creature so as to become itself, as it were, the Holy Spirit. Even in receiving the Holy Ghost man remains man, the sinner sinner. Similarly in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost God remains God. The statements about the operations of the Holy Spirit are statements whose subject is God and not man, and in no circumstances can they be transformed into statements about man.[5]

The consequences of defining the work of the Holy Spirit in the way against which Barth warns – by transforming statements about grace and the Spirit into statements about the attributes and power of the regenerate will – are serious. It effectively reintroduces synergism into the ordo salutis by placing the burden on regenerate individuals to properly cooperate with the grace they have been given. In so doing, however, such grace cannot truly be said to be irresistible in that it is detached from the Triune God who, as the only fountain of all true ove, joy, beauty, and goodness, is the only truly irresistible One.

This, then, is the theology/philosophy that underlies Sproul’s definition of ‘irresistible grace’ as God’s work in the soul to change its dispositionThe language of Sproul, Muller, and Thomas is, for all intents and purposes, identical, and the evident connection between them substantiates my claim that the soteriology of Reformed scholastic orthodoxy manifests many elements of continuity with the sacramental and synergistic outlook of medieval Catholicism. Although there are of course differences between the two, these differences seem to pale in comparison with the overarching and undergirding framework that funds both of them. It is my conviction, therefore, that the traditional Calvinist understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ is fundamentally flawed, both because it undermines the graciousness of grace and because it is not truly ‘irresistible’. It is for this reason that ‘irresistible grace’ needs to be reformed.


*Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to sources and providing many of the key insights used in this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.286-287.

[2] Muller, R.A., 1985. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, pp.129-30. (cited at

[3] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, pp.227-228.

[4] Frost, R.N., 1996. Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology. Unpublished PhD dissertation, p.101.

[5] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.


6 thoughts on “Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.2: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

  1. Bobby Grow 21 September 2016 / 20:26

    90% of the time I read your posts I have to do a double take and make sure I’m not reading my blog. Lol

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jonathan Kleis 21 September 2016 / 20:32

      Well in this case, I did get Muller’s quote on grace from you! As I’ve said before, we all wear our theological influences on our sleeve. 🙂 No doubt after some time, I’ll find my own voice!


  2. Craig Benno 22 September 2016 / 04:10

    Interesting. It seems Sproul is in agreeance with Arminius also.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 22 September 2016 / 08:36

      Hi Craig, indeed, I think when you get beneath the surface, there is much that they hold in common!


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