Reforming Calvinism, pt. 16: Irresistible Grace (The Gift and the Giver)

In this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I move from my critique of the traditional Calvinist understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ to an Evangelical Calvinist revision. In doing so, my desire continues to be, as it has been all along, not to jettison the traditional five Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARpoints of TULIP but rather to build on the key insights that they contain and reform them into greater conformity to God’s self-revelation in Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As we have seen in part 15 of this series (here and here), the traditional definition of ‘irresistible grace’ attempts to account for the way in which God sovereignly accomplishes his salvific will in relation to individual human beings so as to preserve the primacy and graciousness of grace. However, by lapsing back into the medieval notions of created grace that funded the Catholic theology so ardently opposed by the Reformers, the classic Calvinist view ultimately undermines the very thing that it hopes to protect. By driving a wedge between the gracious gift and the divine Giver, classic Calvinism turns salvific grace into a ‘thing’ that becomes a quality or possession of the regenerate individual and consequently, it reintroduces the synergistic and sacramental soteriological framework that it superficially eschews.

So how can we begin to reform this doctrine so as to maintain its key insight regarding the primacy and sovereignty of grace? The first step, as hinted above, is to refuse to separate the gift of grace from its divine Giver. With reference to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, Karl Barth warns us that:

Nowhere is there more obvious danger of confusing the subject and object of faith or love than in relation to this third mode of God’s being in revelation [i.e. the Holy Spirit]. But all such confusion is ruled out by the clause: “Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.” This gift, the donum Spiritus sancti, refuses to be abstracted from its Giver. But the Giver is God. We can have the gift only when and as we have God.[1]

Likewise commenting on the Creed, T.F. Torrance stresses:

In the third article of the Creed belief is confessed in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life who proceeds from the Father and who with the Father and the Son together is glorified and worshipped.” In line with what is said there about Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God, the Holy Spirit is said to be the Lord and the Giver of Life. In both cases the divine Giver and the divine Gift are one and the same. At the Reformation that Nicene principle was applied not only to the Word of God and to the Spirit of God but also to the grace of God. The grace of God given to us in Christ is not some kind of gift that can be detached from Christ, for in his grace it is Christ himself who is given to us. Properly understood grace is Christ, so that to be saved by grace alone is to be saved by Christ alone. It was in a cognate way that the Reformation (I think here especially of John Calvin) regarded the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is not some gift that can be detached from God and dispensed to us by the church, for the Holy Spirit himself is the Lord and Giver of life. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is mediated to us and we are savingly united to Christ.[2]

What Barth and Torrance articulate here in conformity to the theology embedded in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is of utmost importance. However we understand the event of conversion, we cannot divide the grace that effects it from the Giver who gives it by defining grace as something that becomes the possession of the regenerate will in distinction with the being and act of God himself. As Barth succinctly states: “Grace is the Holy Spirit received, but we ourselves are sinners.”[3] To be drawn by grace means to be drawn by God. To be given grace means to be given God. To be saved by grace means to be saved by God. At no point in the ordo salutis does grace become the predicate and humanity the subject. The gift is the Giver, and the Giver is the Lord. As I continue to offer an Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘irresistible grace’, this will be the fundamental insight upon which everything else will be based.

What then do we make of the statements in Scripture, such as Romans 8:1-11 and Galatians 5:16-26, that seem to speak of a regenerate will and nature being the possession of believers? In response, I would like to briefly make two points. First, a careful reader of these texts will observe that the contrast Paul develops is not between those who are fleshly and those who regenerate but between those who are fleshly and those who are of the Spirit. The difference between these two statements is enormous. The first – that which Paul does not say – distinguishes between two types of humanity simpliciter: the unregenerate and the regenerate. The second – that which Paul does say – does not so much distinguish between two types of humanity as though one possessed an inherent quality that the other does not. The difference, rather, is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit as given by and uniting us with the risen and ascended Christ.

Second, we must remember that the New Testament is decidedly eschatological in orientation. That is, it universally presupposes that the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes has been inaugurated in Christ and by the Spirit but yet awaits consummation in the future. Thus, we cling to the assurance of our redemption not because of what we can see in ourselves but because of what we see in Christ as the one into whose image we will one day be perfectly transformed. As Paul states in Colossians 3:3-4: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” In other words, we believe that in Christ we have died to our sins and have been raised to newness of life. But that fact is that we believe this; we do not see it yet in ourselves. The real ‘us’ is “hidden with Christ in God” and will not be fully revealed until Christ who is our life appears at the end of the age. To profess our salvation, then, is not to attribute to ourselves a new, intrinsic quality; it is rather to fix our eyes firmly on Christ in whom our fully redeemed and glorified selves our hidden. 

I would like to conclude this post with another quotation from Barth who drives these points home with particular force:

That God the Holy Spirit is the Redeemer who sets us free is a statement of the knowledge and praise of God. In virtue of this statement we ourselves are the redeemed, the liberated, the children of God in faith, in the faith we confess with this statement, i.e., in the act of God of which this statement speaks. This being of ours is thus enclosed in the act of God. Confessing this faith in the Holy Ghost, we cannot as it were look back and try to contemplate and establish abstractly this being of ours as God’s redeemed and liberated children as it is enclosed in the act of God.

We may, of course, be strong and sure in faith—that we are so is the act of God we are confessing, the work of the Holy Spirit—but we cannot try specifically to make ourselves strong and sure again by contemplating ourselves as the strong and the sure. To have the Holy Spirit is to let God rather than our having God be our confidence…

But to have it in faith means that we have it in promise. We believe that we are redeemed, set free, children of God, i.e., we accept as such the promise given us in the Word of God in Jesus Christ even as and although we do not understand it in the very least, or see it fulfilled and consummated in the very least, in relation to our present. We accept it because it speaks to us of an act of God on us even as and although we see only our own empty hands which we stretch out to God in the process. We believe our future being. We believe in an eternal life even in the midst of the valley of death. In this way, in this futurity, we have it.[4]

Continuing with the next entry in this series, I will further unpack these crucial insights.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for help with the opening critique.

[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.488-489.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.20

[3] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.466.

[4] Ibid. p.462-463.


7 thoughts on “Reforming Calvinism, pt. 16: Irresistible Grace (The Gift and the Giver)

  1. Bobby Grow 26 September 2016 / 22:05

    Hey Jonathan,

    I think I am happy to do away with the TULIP altogether, other than to use it rhetorically as a hook for discussion with those who do hold to the TULIP. From a prolegomena level, or even a proper theological and dogmatic taxis, TULIP starts at an Augustinian place rather than Athanasian. I think that’s what I would ultimately want those who hold to the TULIP to understand; even if we can creatively re-engineer it for our own purposes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 26 September 2016 / 22:41

      Hi Bobby,
      Yes, I don’t disagree with you fundamentally, especially regarding prolegomena and theological taxis. I’ve said before that the starting place in TULIP is faulty, and that’s why I’ve been trying to reorient everything throughout to its proper starting point. I think that what I am trying to get at here is something similar to what Barth did vis-à-vis election. I did a post on this a while back in which I traced how in CD II/2, Barth positioned himself confessionally in relation to the Reformed tradition in order to begin his reworking of election from within traditional supralapsarianism, contra Lutheranism and Reformed infralapsarianism. What I am hoping to do (whether or not I’m successful!) is to pay due homage where homage is due (as Barth does in CD II/2), and identifying elements of continuity from which to begin is one way of doing so. Part of this stems from my history (15 plus years as a classic 5 point Calvinist) and the desire to reform from within rather than abolish and replace. Since EC is a “mood” rather than a straightjacket, I think there’s some freedom to go in this direction.

      Besides, I have to distinguish myself from you in some way!


      • Bobby Grow 27 September 2016 / 00:39

        Oh yeah, I see what you’re doing, and it isn’t anything I haven’t tried to do myself in various ways and at various levels over the years. As far as the moodness of EC I’m not totally sold on that, actually; that framing was put in the Intro to our book, and in the blurb to the book because of some push back from one particular contributor to our book—I wasn’t really for that. In other words, while I do think there is a thread within Reformed theology past and present, that fits within this type of unspoken “mood,” I think what Myk and I have done, particularly with our theses, is state things in rather delimiting ways—indeed to the point that some of our authors did not agree with all of it. In other words, what Myk and I have done, I think, is unique in some ways; more movement like (rather than mood).

        That said, I like the way you are developing and re-developing the 5 points; keep it up.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan Kleis 27 September 2016 / 08:58

        Thanks for bringing me up to speed! I’m nearly caught up on your blog (only about a year’s worth of posts to get through), and I’ve noticed how you repeatedly (in the past) emphasized that EC was a mood with fluidity and freedom. Since I agree with all the theses, I have no problem with the delimitation to a movement, it just good that I know that now, especially since I have deliberately avoided the language of ‘movement’ and have stuck to ‘mood’ in my own posts.


      • Bobby Grow 27 September 2016 / 09:09

        Yeah, and that’s how I’ll still refer to it—as a mood. But honestly I see it a little differently than that. I mean we weren’t seeking to start a movement, but at the end of the day, with the 15 theses it carves out space in a certain way. For example, I use much of Frost’s work in my own thinking, but I know for a fact that Frost would not, in the slightest, subscribe to EC as Myk and I have laid it out in our theses. There are other contributors, as I noted, to the book who would not subscribe exactly to our theses; but in those cases they still prefer the “mood” those theses were motivated by relative to the alternative in Federal Calvinism or even in 5 point Baptist Calvinism.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bobby Grow 27 September 2016 / 09:34

        I’ve always liked this quote on the expansive nature of what it means to be Reformed i.e. non-5 point. I think he recognizes (even tho he did affirm the 5 points) the broader reality of Reformed theology (which includes an “evangelical Calvinist” mood).

        All this not withstanding, we are also children of the Reformation with its recovery of certain evangelical themes: the Word alone, by grace alone, and by faith alone. More particularly, we are a part of a specific Reformation tradition known as Reformed or Presbyterian. Although many in this tradition call themselves “Calvinists,” others do not rally around the five points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints (often referred to by the acronym TULIP). These so-called points do not come from Calvin but from the Canons of Dort, which were composed in the Netherlands over fifty years after Calvin’s death. The Reformed tradition does not stem from Calvin alone. Before him there were other Reformed reformers—Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, and Farel, to name only a few—and there were others who worked with him or were indebted to him such as Bullinger, Knox, and Beza. [I. John Hesselink, On Being Reformed, 89]

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan Kleis 27 September 2016 / 13:29

        Yes indeed, this is a good one from Hesselink.


Comments are closed.