Faith in Focus

BEING REFORMED: JUST FIVE POINTS? (4)


There are two children in the same Sunday School class. They hear the same Bible stories, they sing the same songs. A handful of years later one of them has professed Jesus as the Lord of her life. The other has drifted away into the world.

Why?

There are two children in the same family. They have the same father and mother. They both learn about the things of God and they go to the same Christian school. One continues in life as a genuine believer. The other turns his back on the Lord.

Why?

There were once twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. One of them loved and served the God of the covenant. The other did not.

Why?

The Arminian says that the difference is found in the will of man. For the goodness of God comes to both Jacob and Esau; the gospel is preached to both Mary and John. The offer of salvation is in no way restricted. But God does not crash into any person's life so as to touch his heart and cause that person to believe; that freedom is left to man. What clinches the deal, so to speak, is man's will, man's decision.

Not so, says the Calvinist.

What 'clinches the deal' is not the will of man, but the will of God.

Think again of Mary and John. Let us assume that Mary comes to believe, but John does not. In John the Spirit of Christ is not working in a saving way, and because John is spiritually dead (as is Mary!), he can't believe, even though he hears the preaching of the gospel.

But that same Spirit of Christ works in Mary irresistibly, opening her heart (cf Acts 16:14), enabling her to see that she is a sinner and in dire need of the Saviour.

The Arminian says that the reason why Mary accepts and John rejects the gospel is that Mary decides this way and John decides that way. But the Calvinist says that it is God who decides.

Irresistible?

Let us not misunderstand the meaning of that word irresistible.

It does not mean that God forces a person to believe, with all His divine power; who would be able to resist that? It does not mean that anyone, against his or her will, would be dragged into the Kingdom, kicking and screaming out of protest.

The Canons of Dort put it this way: '... this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and - in a manner at once pleasing and powerful - bends it back', (III/IV, art 16).

God does not treat people as if they are 'blocks and stones'. God does not do violence to man's will. He does not pick us up like lifeless puppets to propel us into the Kingdom.

Rather, by means of His gracious work in the hearts of men, women, boys and girls God gives a new heart so that the person begins to hate sin and love Christ. And so - the Canons of Dort again (III/IV, art 16) - 'As a result, a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant. It is in this that the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists.'

Indeed, the will of a person is changed by God. That person now wills to be saved, wills to glorify Christ, wills to serve God, wills to love his neighbour.

Does it then depend on the will of that person? In one way, yes, for his/her will is fully and actively God-directed. But in another way, no, ultimately, no, for the truth of Scripture is : God first made that person willing!

It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy (Romans 9:16); For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? (I Corinthians 4:7); It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose (Philippians 2:13).

God's power of salvation is the power of love. He does not propel people into His Kingdom, but He compels them. He does not overpower them with sheer force, but He overwhelms them with sheer love! By His grace God makes us want to be His children.

Indeed, it then has become a truly irresistible offer! A person cannot help accept it!

It is somewhat like a hungry person being placed before a scrumptious four-course meal, all set out for him. That person does not have to be forced to eat it. He wants to eat, desires to eat, wills to eat. He cannot help but look hungrily at that delicious food, waiting for the moment he can start!

Or it is like a handsome boy who meets an attractive girl. Neither the girl nor the boy have to be forced to appreciate one another's good looks; that comes naturally! Or should I say: irresistibly! Maybe the guy is looking for a steady girlfriend, and he can't help but be attracted to her. She is irresistibly attractive to him, and he desires, he wills, he wants to be near her.

So God, in His gracious dealings with people, shows to them - through His Word and Spirit - the attractiveness of Christ; the glory, the majesty, the beauty of the Lord of lords, and once He has done that, these people cannot but believe, turn from sin, and love God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now they desire to do that; they want to do that. It all has become irresistibly attractive to them!

When I said a little earlier that salvation does not depend on the will of man, someone may protest and say: 'But I willed to be saved, I willed to serve the Lord. It was certainly not against my will!"

Exactly! It is the Lord who made us willing.

* * *

It all comes down to election

This is the fourth point of the 'Five Points of Calvinism' and all the points depend on one another and flow forth out of one another.

We have seen previously that if God would leave salvation up to man, no one would ever be saved! For man is dead in sin, spiritually dead (Ephesians 2); he does not want to be saved, he does not choose to be saved.

Romans 3:11 - there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God.

I Corinthians 2:14 - the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them.

Titus 3:3-5 - At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hated one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.

The verdict is beyond doubt: a natural man, unregenerate man, cannot know the things of God, neither does he want to know them. Faith is dependent on the graciousness of God. That is the position which the Reformers held, for it is the truth of Scripture.

In a way, not very pleasant for us at all, for it speaks of the total spiritual bankruptcy of man. But in another way wonderfully glorious, for it tells of the grace of God, and that grace - to use Martin Luther's words - is inexpressibly sweet!

Dr Edwin Palmer gives a graphic illustration of this truth and it is about a man who is drowning.

According to the Arminian, the man is on the surface of the lake, his head going under every now and then, but he is very much alive and kicking. A lifeline is thrown out to him, and if he has enough sense, willpower and strength, he will grab hold of it and let himself be dragged ashore. You see, the lifeline represents Christ. Christ, therefore, is necessary for salvation. But He is not sufficient. Man must have enough intelligence to see that he is drowning and therefore needs the lifeline of Christ. He must have willpower enough to take hold of Christ.

But according to the Scriptures, the man in the lake is not bobbing up and down on the surface of the lake, but is one hundred feet below the surface, on the floor of the lake, with a ton of lead tying him down! He has been there for some time, so he is thoroughly dead. Now it is obvious that the lifeline is of no avail to him, of no help whatsoever.

In other words, according to the Reformed position, the offer of salvation alone is of no use whatsoever to the spiritually dead. If that dead person on the bottom of the lake is to be saved, a miracle must happen. Someone must go down, take off that ton of weight, give new life to that person, take him to the surface, and give him the strength and the will to grasp the lifeline.

God in Christ gives new spiritual life, through the agency of the Word and the ministry of the Spirit. Then - and only then - man can believe: - for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil 2:13).

Now that is irresistible grace!


Keith V Warren

(Dr Keith Warren is Principal of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong).

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised November 96 / Copyright 1996