Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality)

In part 19 of my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that a better way to formulate the traditional Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” would be to ground it in Christ’s own vicarious reception of and victorious life in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the grace of the Holy Spirit that brings sinners to conversion is not a quality that is granted to or infused in the human soul but the “irresistible” action of Christ himself in receiving the Spirit at his baptism, in living out a life of perfect holiness under the conditions of fallen humanity
through dependence on the Spirit, and in rising to an indestructible life by the power of the Spirit. Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARQuestions remain, of course, for while this may be set forth as the primary meaning of “irresistible grace”, it still does not explain how individuals come to partake of Christ’s Spirit-filled vicarious humanity through union with him. Asked simply: how does the conversion of sinners actually take place?

Instead of the typical Reformed answer that resorts to logico-causal, mechanistic, or quasi-sacramental frameworks (for this, see my previous posts in this series), I think that a more promising way forward is that which Torrance outlines in terms of “onto-relationality”. Onto-relationality is simply a fancy way of saying that we are who we are only in our relations with others. In other words, we do not exist as isolated individuals who can be considered apart from our personal relations with those other than ourselves; rather, our very existence as persons is dependent on the personal relations in which we are enmeshed from the very beginning. For Torrance, onto-relationality is a concept rooted ultimately in the Trinity: God the Father is not “Father” without the Son, and God the Son is not “Son” without the Father. A father is not a father who has not a son, and a son is not a son who has not a father. Inasmuch as we human beings possess personhood as image-bearers of God, we should not expect that our own existence would be any less onto-relational. This is, in fact, what we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis: God creates human beings to live in dependent communion with himself, and their attempt to forge for themselves an autonomous existence only leads to their destruction.

This concept of onto-relationality provides a fruitful way of understanding what occurs in the conversion of sinners through the work of the Holy Spirit. Gary Deddo helps us to connect the dots when he writes:

For Torrance the Holy Spirit is the ontological connection between the Father and Son in their Trinitarian life, between the Son and his human nature in the incarnation, and between us and the incarnate Son. These relations each in their proper way are all onto-relations, that is, they are all being constituting relations. Thus the atoning exchange which took place in Jesus renewed the very being of human nature. Torrance provides a profoundly ontological and so real, actual, personal, and relational grasp of the work of the Spirit. Torrance’s realistic and ontological interpretation makes intelligible the reality and actuality of our relationship to God which demands a real and actual response of praise and worship.

Through consideration of a number of ever more comprehensive themes Torrance further discovers the intensely personal nature of the relationship established with humanity in Christ. Union with Christ, understood in an onto-relation way, encapsulates his grasp of the reality of relationship. For Torrance salvation is the perfection and completion of our union and communion with the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. That union with God actualizes a reconciling exchange which affects us at the very core of our being, so that we become in relationship to God other than what we were on our own. For in that exchange we receive not some divine stuff or something external to us, but are united in person to Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which was in Christ…

In the West, Torrance suggests, there has been a growing tendency to identify the Spirit with the human spirit and creativity. He insists that the Holy Spirit can in no way be identified with the human spirit or its experiences. The Spirit, although united to human subjectivity, can never be confused with it. The Spirit retains its sovereign lordship over and independent personhood within humanity…The Holy Spirit always belongs to God and not to us. We may be possessed by the Spirit but the Spirit is never in our possession.

It might seem that this view jeopardizes the integrity of humanity. But if humanity is constituted by its relation with its Creator and Redeemer, such that there is no such thing as human autonomy, then for Torrance such union and communion in the Holy Spirit is no threat to humanity but is its fulfillment. For the Spirit is mediated to us in and through the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ. The only thing threatened is a claim to human autonomy which leads to alienation from God and death. In the Spirit God does not overwhelm us. Rather than the loss of self the Spirit provides its completion…The Spirit perfects our humanity in our humanity on the basis of the humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

Deddo’s elucidation of onto-relationality à la T.F. Torrance offers a way of conceiving the Spirit’s work in conversion that avoids, on the one hand, facile (and unbiblical!) recourse to some notion of libertarian free will and, on the other hand, the equally unbiblical idea of grace as a substance or quality imparted to human soul that “irresistibly” enables the decision and subsequent life of faith. In Deddo’s (and Torrance’s) estimation, no one is able to choose to believe the gospel through some innate capacity of their own, nor does the objective work of the Holy Spirit become subjectivized as the property of those who do believe. The Spirit is and ever remains, as the Nicene Creed states, “the Lord and Giver of life” who can never become the possession of those in whom he operates. Rather, it is the personal presence and action of the Spirit that, through the preaching of the gospel, mediates to us the presence and action of Christ in whom we become fully and finally personalized as human beings.

When the gospel is proclaimed to us, the Spirit brings us into a direct, personal relation with Christ himself, an act that renders us, for the first time, truly human, and that sets us free (free indeed!) to believe. This freedom, however, is not that which is usually intended by the phrase “free will”, for it is not a freedom to choose between two possible alternatives — either for or against Christ — but only a freedom to choose Christ! To be human — truly, fully, authentically, beautifully human as God originally intended when he created us in his image — does not involve the freedom to live in rebellion against him but only to live in communion with him! This is what the Spirit accomplishes through the preaching of the gospel: he establishes an onto-relation between Christ and ourselves through which the dehumanizing effects of sin are undone and the humanizing power of Christ’s vicarious humanity re-personalizes us so that we are freed to become the human beings that God created us to be in life-giving fellowship with himself.

Precisely how this occurs is a mystery, as mysterious as the Spirit’s conceiving of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet that it occurs is something that we can surely affirm, just as surely as we can (and must!) affirm that Jesus was conceived of the Spirit in Mary’s womb. Ultimately, when it comes to the Spirit’s work in the conversion of sinners, we are brought to the edge of a fathomless chasm into whose bottomless depths we can peer but cannot plumb. In the final analysis, the conversion of sinners should be a cause for wonder and adoration rather than logic and speculation. May we praise God for his indescribable gift!

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[1] Gary W. Deddo, “The Holy Spirit in T.F. Torrance’s Theology”, in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance, ed. Elmer M. Colyer. (Lanham; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 93, 95.

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This entry was posted in Anthropology, Classic Calvinism, Evangelical Calvinism, Five points of Calvinism, Grace of God, Holy Spirit, Reformed theology, Reforming Calvinism, Soteriology, T.F. Torrance, Union with Christ, Vicarious humanity of Christ. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality)

  1. Anthony Fagan says:

    thank-you for this particular article. Irresistable grace is unbiblical. The person believing believes by the Holy Spirit as communion and worship progress? I’m trying to understand what this means. Would you be able to break this down finer because I’d like to understand why it isn’t right to think universalists claim we have always been perfect and complete from god’s side of the coin. They claim we simply believe we were always perfect and the fall didn’t matter to God at all. This point of irresistable grace is one of the arguments they use to say all are saved.

    From: Reformissio Sent: Saturday, March 04, 2017 1:29 PM To: anthony.fagan@bellaliant.net Subject: [New post] Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality)

    Jonathan Kleis posted: “In part 19 of my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that a better way to formulate the traditional Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” would be to ground it in Christ’s own vicarious reception of and victorious life in the Holy Spirit. That is ” Respond to this post by replying above this line

    New post on Reformissio

    Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality) by Jonathan Kleis

    In part 19 of my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that a better way to formulate the traditional Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” would be to ground it in Christ’s own vicarious reception of and victorious life in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the grace of the Holy Spirit that brings sinners to conversion is not a quality that is granted to or infused in the human soul but the “irresistible” action of Christ himself in receiving the Spirit at his baptism, in living out a life of perfect holiness under the conditions of fallen humanity through dependence on the Spirit, and in rising to an indestructible life by the power of the Spirit. Questions remain, of course, for while this may be set forth as the primary meaning of “irresistible grace”, it still does not explain how individuals come to partake of Christ’s Spirit-filled vicarious humanity through union with him. Asked simply: how does the conversion of sinners actually take place?

    Instead of the typical Reformed answer that resorts to logico-causal, mechanistic, or quasi-sacramental frameworks (for this, see my previous posts in this series), I think that a more promising way forward is that which Torrance outlines in terms of “onto-relationality”. Onto-relationality is simply a fancy way of saying that we are who we are only in our relations with others. In other words, we do not exist as isolated individuals who can be considered apart from our personal relations with those other than ourselves; rather, our very existence as persons is dependent on the personal relations in which we are enmeshed from the very beginning. For Torrance, onto-relationality is a concept rooted ultimately in the Trinity: God the Father is not “Father” without the Son, and God the Son is not “Son” without the Father. A father is not a father who has not a son, and a son is not a son who has not a father. Inasmuch as we human beings possess personhood as image-bearers of God, we should not expect that our own existence would be any less onto-relational. This is, in fact, what we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis: God creates human beings to live in dependent communion with himself, and their attempt to forge for themselves an autonomous existence only leads to their destruction.

    This concept of onto-relationality provides a fruitful way of understanding wh

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    • Hi Anthony, I’m glad you found this helpful. I’m not sure I fully understand your question, but I will respond as I can and hopefully my answer will be what you are looking for. So the concept of onto-relationality comes straight from the opening chapters of the Bible, as I mentioned in my post. God created human beings as his image-bearers, and inherent in this is the fact that human beings are utterly dependent on being rightly related to God for their existence. Any breaking of the fellowship between God and humans would mean that the latter are no longer able to bear the image of God, and this would mean their dehumanisation and ultimate destruction. This is why God warned Adam in the garden that transgression of his commandment would result in death. Like a vacuum cleaner can only function as long as it is connected to a source of power, so also human beings can only truly live as they were created to live if they stay “connected”, as it were, to the source of their being and life.

      The fact that we now live in a “Genesis 3” world in which all human beings are born into a sinful and rebellious condition and thus estranged from God means that we must be reconciled and restored to fellowship in order to become truly human as God’s image-bearers. The reason why the fall is not something we can downplay or dismiss as having no importance from God’s point of view is due to the stark reality of death. As Paul points out in the latter half of Romans 5, death has spread to all human beings because all have sinned. Where there is alienation from God, there is death. On the other hand, where there is death, it is a sure sign that there is alienation from God. This is what must be overcome.

      Now it is in Christ who assumed our fallen flesh and humanity that by the power of the Holy Spirit bent our rebellious will back to God, as Torrance liked to say. By entering into the fallen condition of our post-Genesis 3 humanity, Jesus vicariously lived a life of perfect holiness through the Holy Spirit and thus purified human nature and reconciled us to God in himself. This is the “irresistible” part of grace: it is lodged in the person and work of Christ himself.

      We as individuals estranged from God are not, however, automatically saved as a result of this. Since our reconciliation is in Christ himself, we must be, as Calvin said, united to him by the Spirit else what he did for us has no benefit to us. The way that this union takes place is not, as traditional Reformed soteriology says, through the Holy Spirit’s impartation of some new quality by which we are enabled to believe in Christ (the sacramental view of grace as a substance). Rather, I am proposing, following Torrance, that the conversion of individual sinners to faith in Christ (which in reality is the faith of Christ in which we are given to participate) occurs through a re-personalizing, re-humanizing relation established between them and Christ by the Spirit. That is, we are not converted when the Spirit imparts or infuses some new capacity in us that comes to be our possession as “regenerate” individuals, rather we are converted when through the Spirit we are brought once again into the life-giving relation that was ours in Eden but that we lost through sin. Through the gospel the Spirit mediates to us Christ himself, and it is in his presence that we become who we were created to be: we are restored to the image of God as we are restored to fellowship with God in Christ. It is at this point that we become free, truly free, to live in the filial trust and obedience that marks out God’s image-bearers. Again, this is not “free will” as is usually intended. The restoration of our humanizing relation with God does not place us before two equally possible choices: to trust and obey or to reject and rebel. As Paul says in Romans 6, we are freed from the slavery of sin to becomes slaves of God! When we are “free” to sin, it is then that we are actually slaves of sin. When, on the other hand, we become “free” for faith and obedience, we have actually become slaves of God! This is true freedom, not to choose rebellion if we so desire, but to choose to be what we were created to be. It is this freedom, our proper freedom as God’s image bearers, that is restored to us in our Spirit-mediated relation with Christ, and it is this that accounts for our ability to repent and believe the gospel.

      As you can hopefully see from this, there is a real dynamic of death-producing alienation and life-giving reconciliation that occurs. It is not that God’s love for us has changed, but we have estranged ourselves from God through our sin, and so his love must manifest itself in wrath as it resists everything that is un-love. Our reconciliation is complete in Christ (in his person!), and so it’s not an automatic thing that we can actually participate in that reconciliation, but we must be united to Christ by the Spirit through the gospel so that our true being and personhood is restored through our relation with God. Continued estrangement and rebellion on the part of individuals can only result in their final destruction, for such is the inevitable end of the breaking of fellowship with God.

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