An Ex-Calvinist’s Tiptoe Through TULIP – Irresistible Grace
In my favorite scene of the Jim Carrey flick Bruce Almighty––after Bruce has been given Divine powers only to abuse them, then hit rock bottom and seek reconciliation with his girlfriend––Bruce asks God [played by Morgan Freeman]:
“How do you make someone love you without affecting their free will?”
To which Morgan Freeman responds,
“Welcome to my world, son. You find an answer to that, you let me know.”
For the Reformed Calvinist, this problem is resolved with what is termed “Irresistible Grace.” Since the Calvinist believes the human person to be totally depraved and unable to choose to love God, God therefore is the only party involved in a person’s salvation, such that He elects on His own those who are going to choose Him. One must be totally regenerated, and the old person Divinely overridden, in order to choose Christ. This may on the surface appear unfair and unjust since one’s salvation does not incorporate one’s own free will, but for the Calvinist free will is still real and present; it’s just that a person cannot choose God due to their depravity. People choose evil freely, but to choose good and follow God they must be governed thus by the Holy Spirit.
Certain Reformed Christians may understand or describe Irresistible Grace with variant nuances from this, but I aim to justly summarize what this doctrine is trying to communicate: man is so fallen that he not only needs a Redeemer, he needs that Redeemer to make man “get redeemed” or else remain wallowing in the mire. This is a noble effort to remove the human tendency toward pride, a works-based mentality, and a taking of [even a little] personal credit for the glory that God deserves. But, as you must have guessed, I believe this to be a flawed and unbalanced attempt, which I will proceed to outline.
WHAT THE FATHERS THINK
The Calvinist arguments above may be extracted from some Scriptures, but historically they are not in accord with the writings of the Church Fathers. I will begin with Saint Augustine, Calvin’s favorite Church Father in substantiating his Reformed views, in his comments on Romans:
“The Law is defended against every accusation, but we must be careful not to think that these words deny our free will, which is not true. The man being described here is under the law, before the coming of grace. Sin overpowers him when he attempts to live righteously in his own strength, without the help of God’s liberating grace. For by his free will a man is able to believe in the Deliverer and to receive grace. Thus with the deliverance and help of Him who gives it, he will not sin and will cease to be under the law. Instead, being at one with the law or in the law, he will fulfill it by the love of God which he could not have done through fear.”[i]
He affirms here that the grace of God is needed in overcoming the fallenness of our condition. But for Augustine this grace does not supersede the person, rather he asserts that man is able to freely tap into that aiding grace of his own accord. John Chrysostom also commented on Romans 8:7:
“Paul is not saying that it is impossible for a wicked person to become good but rather that it is impossible for one who continues in wickedness to be subject to God. For a person to change and become good and subject to God is easy . . . If we give our souls up to the Spirit and persuade our flesh to recognize its proper position, we shall make our souls spiritual as well. But if we are lazy we shall make our souls carnal. For since it was not natural necessity which put the gift into us but freedom of choice, it now rests with us which way we shall choose to go.”[ii]
Saint John Cassian is commonly dismissed as what the Protestant Reformers called “Semi-Pelagian” in his theology of salvation, but in reading his works it becomes clear that this is not the case. His articulation of this working together of God and man is a very important principle for the Orthodox Church. Consider the following passage:
“For it was not given only to David to think what is good of himself, nor is it denied to us naturally to think or imagine anything that is good. It cannot then be doubted that there are by nature some seeds of goodness in every soul implanted by the kindness of the Creator: but unless these are quickened by the assistance of God, they will not be able to attain to an increase of perfection, for, as the blessed Apostle says: “Neither is he that planteth anything nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase.” But that freedom of the will is to some degree in a man’s own power is very clearly taught in the book termed the Pastor [The Shepherd of Hermas], where two angels are said to be attached to each one of us, i.e., a good and a bad one, while it lies at a man’s own option to choose which to follow. And therefore the will always remains free in man, and can either neglect or delight in the grace of God. For the Apostle would not have commanded saying: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” had he not known that it could be advanced or neglected by us. But that men might not fancy that they had no need of Divine aid for the work of Salvation, he subjoins: “For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do, of His good pleasure.” And therefore he warns Timothy and says: “Neglect not the grace of God which is in thee;” and again: “For which cause I exhort thee to stir up the grace of God which is in thee” . . . “[iii]
If conversion is a complete system override, such that the person will only ever choose evil out of necessity and compulsion by what the totally depraved passions dictate, than we arrive at a contradiction from the beginning of the redemption story in the Garden of Eden. The purpose of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to present a choice, a single rule so that Adam and Eve would not have to choose obedience and devotion to God out of necessity since there was no other option. They needed to actually choose Him compared to the alternative, which is why God desired to place the tree even though He knew they would fall, because He desires true followers and devotees. The Calvinist view of conversion conflicts with God’s purpose for allowing the Fall, which was to provide genuine human choice (which is now tainted and infected by sin, but not swallowed up altogether, since evil cannot absorb and replace something good). In the historic view, salvation is only and ever accomplished within us by His grace, and it is His grace that works redemption and progression towards glorification at the Resurrection, but we must first give our assent to that work of grace and cooperate with it.
TURN YOUR EYES UPON JESUS
John 6:44 is a quotable favorite of the Calvinist perspective, as it states:
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Nonetheless, I do not think it affirms man’s total inability to choose God. Just before saying this, in verse 27 Christ says,
“Labour not for the meat which perishes, but for that meat which endures unto everlasting life,”
and in verse 29,
“This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.”
Thus there is some kind of human action, believing, and striving involved alongside this “drawing” and “work” of the Father. The Arminian position of salvation promotes “Prevenient Grace” rather than Irresistible Grace. Prevenient grace contends that grace must precede conversion, but that this grace is available to all and humans are capable of resisting it since it is not an overthrowing of human decisive action. I do not fully embrace “prevenient grace” or “common grace,” or “saving grace,” or any of those distinguished grace terms that are continually being invented in the West because these all stem from the general idea that salvation is a one-time event. God’s grace is God’s grace, and it needs no further dissection.
But prevenient grace is better since everything we do to receive, obey, and conform to the will of God is all to His credit, but this is not due to a Divine system override. The very fact that we are created by God, made in His image, and imbued with free will is itself a prevenient grace. Our salvation is to His credit because He created us with the dignity and Divine thumbprint to distinguish right and wrong and to choose right; thus our choice is an act of grace and to His credit because He is our Creator and gave us that ability over-against the rest of Creation. God desires to experience the salvation process with us and involve us in it as partners because He is that personal. He wants genuine love and desire on our part so that the process can be an enjoyable cooperation of Him helping us progressively choose Him.
MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE?
In the Greek Scriptures there is a term called parakoresis that connotes the integration of community in the process of creation that takes place whenever the Spirit is present; the term literally means “dance” (from the root words for “parallel” and “choreography”). The synergistic cooperation of God and man is meant to be a picture and imitation for us of the relationship within the members of the Holy Trinity Itself. I took ballroom dancing in high school and there are a few key factors to a successful performance.
- We have to listen to the instructor. We require guidance in our walk with Christ because if we just get out there and make up how we dance with Christ like it was a junior high prom, then this in no way contributes to the unity of our relationship. The salvation process requires much more application of the mind, spirit, and body than that.
- Someone has to lead. If I did not properly lead my partner in ballroom then we would get all messed up and start going in different directions. We have to submit to the leadership of Christ.
- Someone must follow. In marriage the husband generally leads and the wife responds. Unfortunately so many view this description of role-play as a complete dichotomy between active and passive parts. This is inaccurate, as both roles are playing a very active part in what they are doing, because the initiation role does not deny or overrule the responsive role, it simply channels it in the proper way it should go. But the responsive role still has to play an active part in order for the dance to be a success. This illumines the often-misinterpreted Ephesians 5:25-33 passage as demeaning to women. In Orthodoxy this concept is inherently understood through the person of the Virgin Mary, since she had to respond to God’s annunciation to her to carry Christ in her womb. Her response, “Let it be unto me as you have said,” is the response of all the Church, and although it humbly submits, it is an active, integral role, without which we would not be saved.
- We must practice. It takes a lot of practice to get it right, which is why we are not perfect upon conversion, because conversion is just the point of beginning the preparation for what will one day be made complete.
- When it’s done well, it presents to us beauty and glory.
Holy Scripture itself, as well as Christ in both His Divine and human natures, are the most supreme, tangible examples we have of this beautiful, synergistic reality of cooperation. The books of the Bible were authored by human writers who were all very unique stylistically and we see numerous examples of actual human input, yet all of Scripture is directly inspired by the Lord Himself – not dictated without any human contribution whatsoever. Let us strive, in cooperation with His grace, to maintain that proper balance, even though our prideful, arrogant minds (of which mine is the worst) compel us to do otherwise.
God’s grace is available to all without partiality, but He will remain knocking, waiting at the door as long as it takes in order to have a genuine relationship with people who can interact and reciprocate with Him, rather than Himself playing both His and our roles. In the words of the Evangelical Apologist Norman Geisler,
“God is love. True love never forces itself on anyone. Forced love is rape, and God is not a divine rapist!”[iv]