The doctrine of “irresistible” grace is very often misunderstood because of the use of the word “irresistible”. It suggests that the grace of God cannot be resisted. It suggests that believers are dragged to Christ against their will, kicking and screaming along the way. Worse still, it suggests that God somehow brainwashes perfectly sound people into following Him robotically. However, “irresistible” really means that one desires something so much that it is too wonderful to restrain yourself from having it. Jesus says “[a]ll that the Father giveth me shall come to me” (John 6:37). “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will” (John 5:21).
A survey of the Bible and our own lives tells us that we are more than capable of resisting God’s calls. The Bible tells us again and again about the hardness of sinful man. In Acts 7:51, Stephen chastises the Jewish leaders and calls them a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” who “always resist the Holy Spirit”. The entire history of Israel in the Old Testament is a cyclical pattern of Israel hardening her heart again and again when presented with God’s commands and promises. Man is more than capable of turning up his nose at God’s grace and telling Him no. The sinful man cannot please God; he is hostile to God; he does not submit to God’s laws (Romans 8:7-8).
So the word “irresistible” tells us a really wonderful truth – that God not only extends us grace but changes our desires so that we not only lose our natural, sinful resistance to God, but our desires are changed such that we become more than willing to embrace Christ. God melts our hardened hearts when He makes us new. The reason we want to come to Christ is because God has done a work in our heart by making us new creatures – old things are passed away and all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“Irresistible” grace is therefore God’s sovereign work in overcoming the rebellion of our hearts and bringing us to faith in Christ so that we can be saved.
Imagine an embittered and traumatised slave. God frees us from our chains. But God also changes our desires so that we can trust, follow and love Him as Saviour, even if a slave’s inclination is never to trust anyone again. The hymn-writer of the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace”, John Newton, used this very analogy:
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night, Thine eye diffused a quickening ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light, My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
The imprisoned slave in the hymn did not run off and live his best life, he “rose, went forth, and followed” God. What could have changed his heart? It is God’s work, not the work of man. Jesus says, “[n]o one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). The drawing is the sovereign work of grace by God without which none of us will be saved from our rebellion against God.
Most of us know that we cannot with a clear conscience take very much credit for our own conversion. When I think about how I first came to Christ, it was not so much my circumstances – or the books I read – or the Christians whom I spoke to that led me to Christ, it was not because I was smarter or more spiritual or more humble. Instinctively I know (and perhaps you do too) that God’s grace was decisive in my conversion. My conversion was more than rational, emotional, and circumstantial. Where there was only pride in me before, God changed my heart to one of humility so that I was able to submit to God.
For us who have been Christians for a while now, whether first or second (or more) generations, we know that what God desires beyond outward profession is a broken and a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).
Some of us may feel like imposters when we hear such reminders. Perhaps, having heard the Word of God again and again, our lives seemingly still don’t reflect zeal. We still fall prey to old sins. We fail to be the testimony of Christ that we desire to be – one step forward seems like two steps back. For those struggling with the weight of this sin, remember Jesus’ words – “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30). God makes no empty promises, and when Christ says that his yoke is easy and his burden light, we can take Him at His Word.
Those whom God calls, He will sanctify and transform. The external call may have come to us with ease – through the many sermons we have heard, the Christians whose lives we have witnessed, the Bible which we pore over. But there is a second effectual call, which is the Spirit of God who works to change the heart of the sinner to respond to the gospel message we hear. This is how conversion comes. That is how the Gentiles in Acts were converted and responded with joy to the gospel message (Acts 13:48). And know this, God’s message to you is too this – “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26).
May God work in your heart today to transform and sanctify you to find following Him an irresistible joy.