Reforming Calvinism, pt. 18: Irresistible Grace (All of Christ, All of Us)

In the last entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I applied the theological axiom “the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver” to the Christological side of an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. I argued that grace can be truly irresistible only when it is located, first and foremost, in the humanity that Christ assumed in order to fulfill in himself the sum total of our salvation not only objectively on the side of God but also subjectively on the side of humanity. Grace is irresistible in the sense that the election of Jesus Christ for this purpose occurred apart from and prior to any human decision, and thus the existence of every human being – as represented by Christ – is ‘irresistibly’ grounded in and determined by this gracious act. The result, as T.F. Torrance beautifully states, is that:

Jesus Christ was not only the fulfilment and embodiment of God’s righteous and holy Act…but also the embodiment of our act of faith and trust and obedience toward God. He stood in our place, taking our cause upon him, also as Believer, as the Obedient One who was himself justified before God as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. He offered to God a perfect confidence and trust, a perfect faith and response which we are unable to offer, and he appropriated all God’s blessings which we are unable to appropriate…Therefore when we are justified by faith, this does not mean that it is our faith that justifies us, far from it – it is the faith of Christ alone that justifies us, but we in faith flee from our own acts even of repentance, confession, trust and response, and take refuge in the obedience and faithfulness of Christ.[1]

Thus, grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ himself did not resist the will of his Father but offered to him a perfect life of faith, worship, and obedience in our flesh and on our behalf. At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith?

The short answer to this question is no. However, since this may seem a bit counterintuitive, a bit of explanation is necessary. Let’s listen again to Torrance as he begins to help us sort this out, specifically in relation to justification:

Justification has been fulfilled subjectively as well as objectively in Jesus Christ, but that objective and subjective justification is objective to us. It is freely imputed to us by grace objectively and we through the Spirit share in it subjectively as we are united to Christ. His subjective justification becomes ours, and it is subjective in us as well as in him, but only subjective in us because it has been made subjectively real in our own human nature, in our own human flesh in Jesus, our Brother, and our Mediator.[2]

Though perhaps a bit confusing at first glance, Torrance clearly delineates the various senses in which salvation (or in this case justification) is objectively accomplished and subjectively appropriated. Primarily, the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ means that not only the objective accomplishment of our salvation is found in Christ but also its subjective reception inasmuch as Christ himself, by substituting himself in our flesh and in our place, offered to the Father the perfect human response of faith and trust on our behalf. Therefore, our subjective reception of salvation is actually objective in relation to us, that is, it has occurred outside of us in Christ prior to and apart from any subjective decision or act of faith of our own. Far from minimizing the importance of our own faith, however, it is precisely the objectivity of Christ’s subjective work that, through the Spirit who unites us to Christ, actually makes our own subjective response of faith possible.

The reason for this, as Torrance explains, is that:

Because grace is Christ giving and communicating himself to us unconditionally in his own sovereign love and freedom, its mode of activity can be thought of only as intensely and supremely person. It is grounded in the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and its operation is never one that breaks connection with that ground…In other words, grace has its own sui generis mode of operation, akin to the creative activity of God which likewise cannot be described in terms other than itself…

It is perhaps above all in the very nature of theology itself that it is most important to be faithful to the nature of grace and to respect its own mode of activity. Where grace is related to being and causality then the whole redemptive and creative activity of God can be construed only in the concatenation of logico-causal connection. But where theology is faithful to the nature of grace it is concerned to explicate and articulate its understanding of the redemptive and creative activity of God according to the logic of grace, i.e. in accordance with the actual way which the grace of God has taken in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in accordance with the sovereignly free and yet divinely compulsive movement of the life of the Incarnate Son on earth.[3]

What Torrance articulates here is of vital importance, because he helps us to understand why the objection that the vicarious faith of Christ eliminates the need for our own faith is based on a faulty kind of logical thinking. This is not to say that Torrance dispenses with logic altogether. It would be more accurate to say that he presses us to adopt the kind of logic that is appropriate to the subject matter in question. If, as we have already seen, grace is identical with God himself in his own self-giving, then we cannot try to understand the way in which God graciously acts on us in terms of simple cause-and-effect. To apply this kind of logic would be to reduce grace to an impersonal or mechanical force. This, in my view, is why debates concerning divine sovereignty versus human responsibility are often doomed from the outset, because they frequently presuppose a mathematical or zero-sum logic according to which ‘all of God’ is taken to mean ‘none of us’, or, contrarily, that ‘some of us’ leaves room only for ‘some of God’. Therefore, another kind of logic is needed – what Torrance calls ‘the logic of grace’ – that derives from the “actual way which the grace of God has taken in…Jesus Christ”.

What exactly is this ‘logic of grace’ in Christ to which Torrance refers? In an essay entitled ‘Predestination in Christ’, Torrance explains it this way:

If Grace means the personal presence of God to men, then that means concretely, Jesus Christ. Therefore it is in the relation of the deity to the humanity in Jesus Christ that we our to look for our final answer to this question…Here we have very God and very Man, deity unimpaired by the presence of humanity, and humanity unimpaired by the presence of deity…The Incarnation does not mean some kind of metaphysical union between divinity and humanity in general; it was personal (hypostatic); it was the union between the Word and a particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary. But that does not mean that Jesus as Man had any independent existence from the Word; He has no existence apart from the Incarnation. His existence was grounded solely in the act of God, Who at that one point and at no other, has so come among men.

We must now proceed to draw the analogy. We can say that just as Jesus Christ was vere homo et vere Deus, so in the divine encounter we have a really human decision and a really divine one. The human decision has no independent existence apart from the divine, but nevertheless it is a particular and concrete decision; it is personal…In the experience of faith the man who has been chosen by God cannot say that he has chosen God, and yet the act of Grace means that for the first time man has been set free from the bondage of sin, and placed under God’s claim for obedience…We must say then that there is a kind of hypostatic union between Grace and faith, through the Holy Spirit…Faith has no independent existence apart from the initiative of Grace, nor is it in any sense the produce of human activity working independently of the Word. It is WE who believe, and we come to believe in a personal encounter with the living Word. Faith entails a genuine human decision, but at its heart there is a divine decision, which, as it were, catches up and makes it what it is, begotten of the Holy Ghost.[4]

As Myk Habets notes, Torrance appeals to the ‘logic’ of the incarnation because it is in the hypostatic union of Christ that we see the perfect conjunction of divine and human decision and action and thus the archetype of the way that God’s grace takes in relation to all other human beings.[5] This logic is well expressed in the anhypostasis/enhypostasis couplet which, simply stated, means that human nature of Christ had no independent existence apart from the Word assuming it (anhypostasis) and yet, once assumed, became a concrete and fully realized human being (enhypostasis). The significance of this is that while Christ’s human nature – and thus his human will – existed and operated solely on the basis of the will and action of the Word, this did not mean that it existed and operated as an automaton, merely giving the illusion of meaningful and free human activity. Rather than placing the human will of Christ in slavish subservience to or competition with the divine will, the Word’s action in the hypostatic union, however mysterious or incomprehensible, fully personalized the human will of Christ and thus made it fully free. Since the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ discloses the actual way that grace takes in relation to all other human beings in salvation, it would be a mistake to conclude that Christ’s vicarious humanity – including his faith in our place – would diminish the importance of our faith. Habets comments: “The human decision, like Christ’s humanity, is anhypostatic, it has no independent existence apart from the divine, but it is concrete and personal, and so enhypostatic”.[6] That is to say, had Christ not believed for us, our faith would be non-existent; yet because he believed for us, his faith “authors and perfects” (Heb. 12:2) our own when we are brought into union with him by the Spirit. Thus, as Torrance was fond of saying, all of Christ means all of us.

At this point, questions still remain. Granted that Christ’s faith does not negate but grounds and establishes our own faith as we are united to him, how is it that this union actually takes place? This will be the subject of my next post.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.159-160.

[2] Ibid., p.160.

[3] Ibid., pp.186-187.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1941. ‘Predestination in Christ’ in Evangelical Quarterly 13, pp.127-130.

[5] Habets, M., 2008. ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study’ in Irish Theological Quarterly 73, p.342.

[6] Ibid.


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