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 points 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
 Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.488-489.
 Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.20
 Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.466.
 Ibid. p.462-463.