For the Reformation: Grace That Cannot Fail

Following Rocky Munoz’s precedent in his series critiquing Calvinism, where Irresistible Grace is considered to be one of the primary foundations on which Perseverance of the Saints stands, I will now look at this fourth point in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym (still working backwards, as he does). He accurately notes that “the idea that those who are saved by God cannot fall away is anchored in the idea that they couldn’t have kept from becoming saved in the first place.”

Since his criticisms of this point of Calvinism are focused largely on John’s gospel, this is where I will also turn.

Munoz’s main claim is that, rather than communicating how God does all the work in salvation, John regularly “assumes” that his readers, and every human who has ever lived, both possess and are able to exercise free will. The primary argument he offers is that John consistently presents things in an either/or light: “either perish or have eternal life, either belief or judgment, either believe and see eternal life or don’t.”

From Whence Cometh Belief?

What we don’t see in Munoz’s treatment, however, is any mention of the passages describing precisely why people don’t believe. This is an incredibly important aspect of the Effectual Grace concept that Munoz never considers.

First, at the very beginning of John, the author addresses the origin of faith in each person:

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

Here, we see that only those who believe in Christ are given “power to become the sons of God” and thereby receive salvation. Munoz would have no disagreement there. But this belief, it must be observed, is declared to originate from none of the following:

  • Not from natural, human birth or ancestry—which was viewed as being the case by Judaizers even later on in the early church.
  • Not from the will of someone who is making decisions only in the flesh—that is, without any aid from the Spirit at all.
  • Not even from the will of any person—that is, from someone’s own conscious decisions, ones that they might “freely” choose to make on a whim.

How, then, are these people born? By God. This is the only option that is offered.

Another passage related to the divine reason for belief being enacted is found in the tenth chapter of John:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:24-27)

Notice what Jesus doesn’t say; he doesn’t say the inverse statement, which would be, “you are not my sheep because you do not believe.” Rather, he unequivocally states that these Jews’ lack of belief is the result of their not being his sheep.

Although Munoz asserts that “it’s difficult to make out exactly why the apostle took the time to write such exhortations” for people to believe in Christ if free will doesn’t exist, the answer is relatively simple for the Reformed Christian. The exhortations themselves have often been one of the primary means that God uses to call those who will believe to actually do so.

Regardless of whether John presents a choice between obeying God and disobeying God, his gospel especially—out of all of them—stresses the idea of the natural person’s enslavement to sin (which is what Calvinism’s idea of Total Depravity, or Total Inability, is ultimately drawn from). Because he denies man’s inability to choose righteousness freely, Munoz makes it difficult to understand what the purpose of God’s “grace” even is to begin with.

It’s Not Whether We Need Grace, But What Sort of Grace We Need

Munoz moves from this into a brief discussion of necessary and sufficient conditions, and he uses this idea of logic to consider what is needed and what is enough for salvation.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Reformed person would tend to agree with most of what Munoz says concerning God’s grace and each person’s needed compliance. It is true that God’s grace is necessary for salvation, and it is also true that the recipient of grace must actuate their coming to Jesus by actually doing so in time and space. This is all in total agreement with Scripture. What isn’t, however, is the suggested idea that someone can be sovereignly drawn by God and then still resist.

In reality, even by just considering the Greek verb translated “draw,” it is impossible to understand the person being drawn as an active participant in the drawing who is capable of resisting. “Draw” is an active participle that demands a passive, direct object. The word appears elsewhere in John 18:10, where it describes pulling a sword from a sheath, as well as in John 21:6 and John 21:11, where it describes the pulling up of a net full of fish. In Acts 16:19, Paul and Silas are forcefully “dragged” out of the Temple, and Paul himself is “dragged” or “drawn” out of the temple in Acts 21:30. There is no instance anywhere, whether in Scripture or any other ancient Greek literature, in which helko is used without the direct object being passive. Hence why the Calvinist would even speak of something like an “irresistible” force of grace.

Another lingering problem is that Munoz doesn’t accept the idea—which is unquestionably taught within Scripture—that regeneration must occur before someone professes true, saving faith in Christ. Consider the following passages in John’s first epistle:

“If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29).

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1).

In every single one of these verses, the Greek verb gennaô, translated as “born,” is used in the perfect tense. This clearly indicates that being born of God comes prior to whatever action is also being mentioned. So, in summary, according to the grammar that the apostle John uses (the same one whom Munoz claims “assumes free will” by default), being regenerated by the Holy Spirit has to always occur before the following:

  • Practicing righteousness
  • No longer sinning as a habitual practice
  • Truly loving others
  • Believing that Jesus is the Christ

Do we see this same message proclaimed elsewhere, that faith in Christ and obedience to Him is simply impossible without a prior, intervening act of God to make a person receptive to that message? Absolutely. Just some additional examples:

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.'” (John 6:63-65)

“And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is also called Peter, who will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ And as I was beginning to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as also on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave them the same gift as also to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?’ And when they heard these things, they became silent and praised God, saying, ‘Then God has granted the repentance leading to life to the Gentiles also!'” (Acts 11:1-18)

“You know that when you were pagans, you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I inform you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord. There are different ways of working, but the same God works all things in all men.” (1 Cor. 12:2-5)

“For I make known to you, brethren, as touching the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not after man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12)

Irresistible Grace in Application: The Example of Saul

One of the most incredible witnesses in Scripture to what effectual grace looks like is in the conversion and calling of Saul/Paul:

“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.'” (Acts 9:10-16)

Here, in the short time after Saul had literally been “breathing threats and murder against the disciples,” he is changed internally in order for him to be prepared for what God has decided beforehand for him to do.

In looking at this text, Munoz would have to maintain the idea that Saul could have rejected this grace; he could have rejected this call.

But clearly, this will not do. Had Saul actually possessed the free ability to resist God’s call and spiritual work in his life—whether before or after he was regenerated by the Holy Spirit—God would have been lying when he said that Saul was “a chosen instrument” or that anything could be revealed concerning “how much he must [not “might” or “could possibly”] suffer for My name’s sake.” Paul understood quite well that this irresistibility of God’s will and sovereign purpose was the very circumstance behind his being chosen, and he repeats this fact ad nauseum throughout the New Testament epistles.

Changed People Who Really Aren’t?

The point of my side’s argumentation, of course, is that a person’s nature is fundamentally changed so that they desire to do God’s prescriptive will (which includes belief in the Son and repentance: John 6:29). Once a person’s heart of stone is effectively softened by the Spirit—that is, regenerated—he no longer has any basis on which to remain in rebellion. In order for Munoz’s argument to stand, he would have to demonstrate an example of someone who has been regenerated and yet still refuses to accept the gospel.

Instead of affirming the Christ who offers up the high priestly prayer in John 17, where the Son acknowledges that the Father has “given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (v. 2), it appears that Munoz can affirm nothing other than a weakened Christ. He is a Christ who, in spite of the Spirit’s regenerative work on people’s hearts, keeps trying so hard to win many of them over but ultimately fails because they remain unwilling for some reason or another.

Someone needs to explain this to me: who are these mysterious people that Scripture never seems to talk about, who have been changed internally and yet still refuse to accept God? I offer that challenge up to anyone who might endeavor to answer it.

To This You Were Called—Not “Encouraged”

Munoz ends his critique by sarcastically reminding us that “God’s call is extended to all people.” But what he does on this particular point is conflate the general, external call to repentance—which undoubtedly goes out to every single human being—with whatever calling is spoken of in passages like Romans 8. If we read Rom. 8:30 and interpret it to mean that every single person is “called” in the same manner, then universal salvation is the only solution. This is because everyone who is called is also said to be justified and glorified. Paul never even hints at the idea of an exception to this. Are there people who are called but don’t end up with justification and/or glorification?

No, there is indeed a difference between an external call and an internal call. Everyone receives the former type of call, but only some are made willing by God to be open and receptive to the latter call.

This is exactly the type of scenario that is evident in the book of Acts, when an entire city receives the external call, and yet only some end up believing and turning to Christ:

“On the following Sabbath, nearly the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and they blasphemously contradicted what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and glorified the word of the Lord, and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout that region. The Jews, however, incited the religious women of prominence and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and drove them out of their district.” (Acts 13:44-50)

Look again at the bolded and underlined portion in the passage: “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (emphasis mine). Let me repeat this: there was an appointing to eternal life that took place beforehand; thus, the receiving of eternal life was not only decreed in eternity past by God, but it was also inevitable.

Not only that, but this passage has Gentiles being regenerated in order for them to be able to accept the gospel before Jews! What a glorious demonstration of the reality that Christ is “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). These Gentiles in Acts are just a small portion of those who will ultimately be a part of the Kingdom throughout all history.

Scripture clearly tells us the pattern of Christ’s effectual salvation in John 10. First, He lays down His life for the sheep. Following this, these same sheep for whom He lays down His life hear his voice. And after hearing his voice, they obediently follow him. The sheep’s will has already been changed because of God’s grace. Thus, as a result, their belief is inevitable. God’s grace effectively accomplishes everything that it was sent to accomplish.

The late F.F. Bruce, who was the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism at Manchester University, put it this way: “When the Spirit takes the initiative in imparting to believers the desire and the power to do the will of God, then that desire and power becomes theirs by His gift, and they do His will ‘from the heart’ (Eph. 6:6).”[1]

Peter expressed something quite similar in his second epistle:

His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

Here, again, God’s power is described as the very thing that precedes everything else that has anything whatsoever to do with “life” and godliness,” with salvation from the wages of sin (justification) as well as deliverance from the dominion of sin and the flesh (sanctification). Peter’s use of the perfect tense in the Greek, translated as “has granted,” is an undeniable example of the permanent nature of this granting by God. This alludes, of course, to the idea I discussed just prior to this post regarding the preservation of all believers in their faith.

Ezekiel 36 provides a fitting example of the concept of effectual grace, even under the Old Testament paradigm:

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezek. 36:26-27)

There may be no clearer illustration of the very model of divine provision and human responsibility that is described by the Calvinist system. Here, we see God Himself carrying out a heart and spirit transplant (without anyone’s permission, mind you), “caus[ing]” people to obey His commands, and then describing this as a “careful” practice carried out human beings’ own part.

It’s a misnomer to call any of this a matter of “force” against a human’s will, since the point is that his or her will has been radically changed by God so as to be in perfect alignment with it. It is “the day of [God’s] power,” as the Psalmist says, in which “thy people shall be willing.” It is thoroughly illogical to claim that someone can be made holy, in alignment with God’s will and purpose, and yet be unwilling to be this at the same time.

The entire point of the gospel and our need for a perfect savior is that we cannot save ourselves. We need a God who continually affirms to his creatures, as Sarah does to the Goblin King in Labyrinth, “you have no power over me.”

Wrapping Up

Next, we’ll look at Munoz’s critique of “L,” which stands for Limited (or Definite) Atonement, in Calvinism’s T.U.L.I.P. acronym. This isn’t rooted in some appalling idea of a privileged, select class. Rather, upholding the definiteness of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross is an important way of showing that God’s purpose in glorifying Himself through His people’s salvation is accomplished without fail.

[1] Bruce, F. F. 1989. Philippians (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. p. 82.

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