Do These Passages Teach Irresistible Grace?

Following are three of the verses most commonly used to support the Calvinistic idea that in conversion a person (one of the unconditionally elect) is drawn irresistibly by a direction operation of the Holy Spirit. Because God’s work is always infallible, it is argued, this inward call to salvation cannot be confounded—there is no will in man to resist the saving grace of God.

John 6:44. The word “draw” is often interpreted by Calvinists to mean “compel,” though without the connotation of forcing someone “kicking and screaming” against their will. Most Calvinists recoil at the charge that irresistible grace implies God forces Himself upon anyone’s free will; in fact, they might even say that though God irresistibly calls them they voluntarily and freely choose to come (is it just me or does this seem rather contradictory?). Anyhow, observe that in John 12:32 Jesus uses the same word: “And I, f I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” If “draw” can only mean irresistibly compel, this passages teaches that all men universally will be saved—most Calvinists I have read would not dare go this far. What this illustrates is that “draw” can mean “attract or invite.”  The message of Jesus’ cross is the attraction by which God draws men to Himself, though as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18, to the world this gospel is highly unattractive. And this is precisely why not all men will be saved—not because God has passed over them when choosing the elect and thus willed them to be eternally lost, but because they do not appreciate and respond to the great love of God in Jesus.

Acts 16:14. What do we do with Lydia whose heart the Lord opened to heed the things spoken by Paul? First, Lydia’s conversion is not fully Calvinistic in that she was a worshipper of God before even hearing the gospel. Total depravity teaches this is impossible before being regenerated by the Holy Spirit’s call. If a miracle is needed to transform our hearts before we can seek God, Lydia is an exception. Secondly, Luke tells us that Lydia “was listening” to what Paul was saying; apparently she had what Jesus called an “honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15). It was her decision to hear with such openness, just as it was Pharaoh’s to harden his heart (Exodus 8:15). But how did the Lord open her heart? Compare a similar statement in Luke 24:45: “Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” This opening of the disciples’ minds was not miraculous (unlike the opening of the two disciples’ eyes in Luke 24:31), but it happened through Jesus explaining the Scriptures concerning Himself (Luke 24:46-47). It was through the influence of the message itself that their minds and Lydia’s heart was opened by the Lord.

Ezekiel 36:26. In speaking of Israel’s return from captivity and ultimately the coming Messianic kingdom, God promised He would put a new heart and spirit within them, replacing a heart of flesh for their heart of stone. This is often understood by Calvinists to refer to God rescuing the elect from their helpless state of total depravity and compellingly transforming them by His sovereign power. However, in Ezekiel 18:31 God commands Israel, “Make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” How could they possibly do so if they were totally depraved?  The full story is that man’s choice has something to do with repentance and transformation. God does not put a willing heart in us, as if we are robots that only do what we’re programmed to do (either sin or trust in God). Rather, He appeals to us by His Spirit through the “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), and by that gospel causes us to be born again (John 3:5). It is the word which saves us, not a miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit which cannot be resisted (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:21).