Reforming Calvinism, pt. 19: Irresistible Grace (The Lord and Giver of Life)

In the previous entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I answered a question frequently raised regarding the vicarious humanity of Christ, namely, does Christ’s Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARbelieving in our flesh and on our behalf lessen or eliminate the necessity and importance of our own faith? The answer, we discovered, was: No! On the contrary, it is precisely Christ who grounds, creates, sustains, and brings to completion our own faith as we come to share in his faith through union with him. The question with which I left off in that post was this: if this is true, then how is it that such union with Christ occurs whereby we come to share in his faith?

The answer to this, simply stated, is that our union with Christ takes place by the Holy Spirit. Karl Barth makes this point abundantly clear when he writes:

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of the divine reconciliation. In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader. In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation. The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere—gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself—is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is this freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognise the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church. The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost. Here, then, at this fontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God. And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word. Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor. 3:17 is Himself the Lord.[1]

In Reformed theology, it is not uncommon to speak of our conversion taking place through the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. Indeed, this was a central theme in John Calvin’s theology. However, as I pointed out in my critique of the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ (here and here), the work of the Holy Spirit is frequently transmuted into sacramental notions of ‘created grace’ and ‘infused dispositions’ in which the Spirit’s presence and activity are conceived as qualities or properties of the regenerate individual. As T.F. Torrance contends:

At the back of all this there lies deep down a confusion between the Creator Spirit of Holy God and the creative spirituality of Christian man, and therefore we think we can develop out of ourselves ways and means of translating the new coming of the Spirit and the new creation he brings into the forms of our own natural vitality. The terminology of [Roman Catholics] and Protestants may differ: what Romans call ‘created grace’ Protestants call ‘the Christian spirit’, but in both the supernatural energy and life of the Creator Spirit falls under the disposal of man. In Romanism and Protestantism alike the Church has domesticated the grace and Spirit of God in its own spiritual subjectivity instead of being the sphere of the divine freedom where the Lord the Giver of Life is at work as Creator Spirit.[2]

Given this tendency, it is critical to emphasize two fundamental points in order to free Reformed theology from this error: 1) the Spirit is and always remains, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms, “the Lord and Giver of life”, and 2) the gift of the Spirit is grounded in and mediated to us by Christ. I will take each of these two points in turn.

First, the Spirit always remains the Lord and the Giver of life wherever he is present and active and can thus never become confused with any quality or property, whether natural or infused, in the regenerate individual. Recalling the important axiom that ‘grace is identical to the Giver’, we cannot make grace a possession of our own without detaching it from the person of the Holy Spirit or elevating ourselves to the level of God. As Barth argues:

But this also means that the 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. They tell us about the relation of God to man, to his knowledge, will and emotion, to his experience active and passive, to his heart and conscience, to the whole of his psycho-physical existence, but they cannot be reversed and understood as statements about the existence of man. 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.

Second, while it is true that we partake of all the benefits of salvation when we are united to Christ by the Spirit, it is also true that the Spirit’s presence and activity in us is itself predicated upon the mediation of Christ. Torrance explains:

The Holy Spirit in his new coming is mediated to us through Christ in his divine and human natures. It behoved Christ to be God that he might give his Spirit to men, for only God can give God. It behoved Christ also to be Man that he might receive the Spirit of God in our human nature and mediate it to his brethren through himself. We are concerned here not primarily with the continuing presence and operation of the Spirit in the world which have been since the beginning of creation, but with the new coming of the Spirit in the profounder and more intimate mode of presence made possible by the Incarnation, and which the world cannot know or receive apart from Jesus Christ and what happened to our human nature in him.

Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary into our human nature through the power of the Spirit; at his Baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him and anointed him as the Christ. He was never without the Spirit for as the eternal Son he ever remained in the unity of the Spirit and of the Father, but as the Incarnate Son on earth he was given the Spirit without measure and consecrated in his human nature for his mission as the vicarious Servant. He came through the temptations in the wilderness clothed with the power of the Spirit and went forth to bring in the Kingdom of God by meeting and defeating the powers of darkness entrenched in human flesh. He struggled and prayed in the Spirit with unspeakable cries of agony, and bore in his Spirit the full burden of human evil and woe. Through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without spot to the Father in sacrifice for sin; according to the Spirit of Holiness he was raised from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father to receive all power in heaven and earth. There he attained the ground from which he could pour out the Spirit of God upon all flesh. As Lamb of God and Priest of our human nature he sent down from the throne of the Most High the gift of the Holy Spirit upon his Church that through the same Spirit the Father and the Son might dwell with men.

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit. In his new coming, therefore, the Spirit came not simply as the one Spirit who proceeds eternally from the Father but as the Spirit mediated through the human nature and experience of the Incarnate Son. He came as the Spirit of Jesus, in whom the Son sent by the Father lived out his divine life in a human form, in whom the Son of Man lived out his human life on earth in perfect union with the Father above. He came as the Spirit who in Jesus has penetrated into a new intimacy with our human nature, for he came as the Spirit in whom Jesus lived through our human life from end to end, from birth to death, and beyond into the resurrection. And therefore he came not as isolated and naked Spirit, but as Spirit charged with all the experience of Jesus as he shared to the full our mortal nature and weakness, and endured its temptation and grief and suffering and death, and with the experience of Jesus as he struggled and prayed, and worshipped and obeyed, and poured out his life in compassion for mankind. It is still in the Name of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit comes to us, and in no other name.[4]

This is important, for it helps us to understand how ‘irresistible grace’ can be both wrong and right. It is wrong when, as noted above, it confuses the Spirit’s person and work with the qualities and operations of regenerate human beings (i.e. an infused disposition that responds irresistibly to the call of the gospel). It is also wrong when it it locates the ‘irresistibility’ of grace primarily in the relationship between the Spirit and human beings, because doing so completely bypasses the mediation of the Spirit from the Father that Christ effects in his own vicarious humanity. In other words, the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ transgresses the fundamental axiom of Christian orthodoxy that ‘the works of the three Persons of the Trinity are indivisible’, because it separates the prophetic work of Christ in the preaching of the gospel from the Spirit’s effectual work in those who hear (i.e. the Spirit does not effectually call in a ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ way all those who hear the gospel but only the elect), and it also fails to account for the necessary place of Christ’s vicarious reception of and living in the Spirit on behalf of all whom he represents in his incarnation (i.e. all humanity).

On the other hand, ‘irresistible grace’ can be rightly understood when the Spirit remains the Lord and Giver of life and when the ‘irresistibility’ of grace is located primarily in Christ’s own reception of and living in the Spirit whom he now mediates in his ascended and glorified state every time he exercises his prophetic office in the preaching of the gospel. Grace is thus truly irresistible, not because it infuses grace into our souls, but because it is an accomplished event (and thus irresistible!) in the life of Jesus Christ in which we come to participate through, as Paul says in Galatians 3:2-5, the “hearing” of the gospel. We can be assured, therefore, that when we share the gospel, we don’t have to wonder whether or not the Spirit will effect his ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ work of effectual calling; rather, we can be confident that through us Christ is exercising his prophetic role and the Spirit is at work to unite our hearers with him, and through him to the Father.

As usual, this no doubt leaves a lingering question. If all this is so, then why do many people not respond in faith when they hear the gospel? Moreover, doesn’t this whole reworking of ‘irresistible grace’ logically entail universal salvation? These are important questions that I will address in my next post in this series. Stay tuned!

_____________________________________________________________

Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.198-199.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.244-245.

[3] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.245-247.

Advertisements