The Resistible Grace of the Holy Spirit
Traditional Calvinism relies upon what it labels “Irresistible Grace” to cause the salvation of the lost. In its view, God’s election of a person to salvation is manifested when the Holy Spirit moves on the corrupted heart to give them the power to be saved. This movement cannot not be resisted. In Calvinism, if God has chosen you to be saved, you will be saved no matter what.
In what is becoming the accepted position in many churches of Christ regarding the Spirit’s work, the direct application of the Spirit’s grace upon the heart of the lost is an essential element. In that way, this position mirrors the Calvinistic view of the Holy Spirit. However, proponents of this view make one clear distinction between their view and Calvinism. In their view, the individual upon whom the grace of the Spirit is working still has the ability to reject and the obligation to accept this movement of grace.
Under this view of indwelling, the process of conversion occurs something like this:
- The lost person’s heart has been corrupted through a lifetime of bad choices – sins (Romans 1:21).
- Those “darkened heart”s need help in understanding and obeying the word.
- When confronted with the preached word, the Holy Spirit works “in conjunction with,” “along-side,” “in addition to,” or “beyond” (the specific language I have heard varies) the word to assist the darkened heart (Acts 16:14 is a favorite verse to which an appeal is made to establish an example of this in Scripture. Interestingly, the Spirit is not mentioned in Acts 16:14, nor at any point in the context of Paul’s visit to Philippi).
- The lost person chooses to accept or reject the Spirit’s influence and the offer of the word.
- If the lost person chooses to accept it, he is baptized for the remission of sins.
- In that baptism, he receives the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit’s work continues by circumcising the new convert’s heart and healing the corruption that had been upon it (Colossians 2:11-12 – Interestingly, again any mention of the Spirit seems to be missing from these verses as well).
- At this point, the new convert is a new creation able to serve God in newness of life; however, the Holy Spirit is still present with him and needed to provide additional power to serve God completely.
Admittedly, the preceding description is an amalgamation of several of my own exposures to this teaching. It may not fully represent any one person’s view by point and/or degree. However, all the above statements are currently being taught. I have heard each one. It is my conviction that several of those points need to be examined more fully.
However, the most critical element that purportedly separates this view from Calvinism is the idea of the resistible grace of the Spirit. It is my conviction that Scripture does not allow this view’s version of the Spirit’s grace to be resistible. I believe that point is established in 1 Corinthians 2. In that text, Paul describes both the person that would and the reason for their resisting the Spirit’s influence. When those reasons are placed beside the conversion process listed above – there is no room left for a doctrine of resistible grace beyond the preached gospel.
The critical verse in the context is 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
It affirms the following:
- The natural man does accept the things of the Spirit.
- The natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit.
- The natural man lacks the spiritual discernment (“he is not able”) to understand the things of the Spirit.
Identification of the natural man is essential in this passage.
For the Calvinist, the natural man is the unregenerate, depraved man. He cannot accept the things of the Spirit, so he needs the Holy Spirit to use His “irresistible grace” to cause him to be able to accept the gospel. For them, the Holy Spirit “force feeds” faith into the depraved heart. While the doctrine is wrong, it is at least consistent with itself.
For the current view of indwelling permeating the churches of Christ, identification of this man is more problematic. They refuse (rightly so) to go so far as to suggest that the corruption of the heart is so thorough that one cannot hear and understand the gospel in total. Nonetheless, the doctrine requires that the preached gospel alone is insufficient to save the lost. There must exist some middle ground beyond “the word alone” and short of Calvinism for the Spirit’s direct influence to aid in saving the lost.
Herein is the problem – one I believe to be fatal to this view. The natural man is not the depraved man; nor, can he be a man that is saved simply by the influence of preaching. The man of this view requires two influences: He needs the Spirit and the word. Those influences work in conjunction but they are not the same. The Spirit does not save apart from the word. The word does not save apart from the Spirit. However, 1 Corinthians 2:14 does not allow for that process to exist.
Who again is the “natural man?” The most common answer I have heard from advocates of the view under consideration mirrors the NIV’s translation of this verse: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” The natural man is “the person without the Spirit.”
So then, who is the “person without the Spirit?” This view is unwaveringly consistent in identifying that man. He is the lost man. In this view, all Christians have the Holy Spirit; only Christians have the Holy Spirit; and no person in the world has the Holy Spirit. If that line is ever crossed, this view simply cannot be sustained. This man must also, then, be identified with the man in the flesh of Romans 8:8-9.
Paul’s testimony about this man without the Spirit is that he “is not able” (ESV) or “cannot” (NIV) understand the “things of the Spirit.” In Romans 8 this man in the flesh without the Spirit of God in him “does not” and “cannot” submit to God’s law. Stop and consider this language carefully. Paul leaves no possibility for this man to accept, by his own will and choice, the things of the Spirit. “Cannot” and “is not able” describe a man devoid of his own will and power to accept the things of the Spirit.
We are being told in churches of Christ there are two influences at work in the conversion process: The grace of the Holy Spirit and the word of God. Definitionally, grace applied directly to the human heart by the Holy Spirit is a “thing of the Spirit.” The word given by inspiration of the Spirit must also be a “thing of the Spirit.” Every influence ostensibly applied to the human heart in conversion is applied directly or mediately from the Holy Spirit. Yet, that is the very influence Paul has just affirmed that the “person without the Spirit” is not able to receive. But he cannot be converted without (as we are now told) receiving both of these separate influences from the Holy Spirit.
At this point Calvinism provides an answer that is not available to preachers in churches of Christ (yet). Calvinists turn to the “irresistible grace” of the Holy Spirit. Within their theology, Calvinists have a perfectly consistent mechanism to address the problem of people who cannot receive the things of the Spirit. They simply assert that the Spirit overrides the depravity of the human condition and forces salvation upon them. Centuries ago, John Calvin “solved” this problem the only way possible. In time, our preachers will also come to the same conclusion. From where they stand now, without turning back, Calvin’s conclusion is inescapable.
Among us, we have no such clear and simply answer. The prevailing view of the Spirit’s work in conversion lacks an operative mechanism for the Spirit’s work on the heart of a lost person, who by his own power, “does not have the ability” to accept the things of the Spirit.
To illustrate this point, consider Acts 16:14: “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” In this verse we are told both influences were active. The preached word came from “what was said by Paul.” The Spirit’s direct influence is expressed in the statement that “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention. . .” Several questions must be answered with that understanding:
- Prior to hearing the words of Paul was Lydia a “person with the Spirit” or a “person without the Spirit?”
- If Lydia were a “person without the Spirit” how did she acquire the ability to spiritually discern the things of the Spirit without the Spirit?
- If Lydia were a “person with the Spirit” prior to her baptism, how did she receive the Spirit while still outside of Christ?
- Did Lydia receive the Holy Spirit as her gift in baptism? If so, per Romans 8:8-9, was she “in the flesh” or “in the Spirit” prior to her conversion?
- If she were “in the flesh” prior to her baptism, how did she submit herself to the law of God when Paul states that those in the flesh “cannot” please God (Romans 8:8-9)?
- If she were “in the Spirit” prior to her baptism, how did she “belong to Him” prior to baptism (Romans 8:9)?
- Is it possible for a person without the Spirit to cease being a “natural man” or a man “in the flesh” without the direct influence of the Spirit expressed in Acts 16:14?
- If the grace of the Spirit is resistible, and the person without the Spirit does not have the ability to accept and/or understand the things of the Spirit, how did the Lord open Lydia’s heart by the grace of the Spirit without overriding her volition?
- If God did interfere with Lydia’s volition, does that not make the Spirit’s grace irresistible?
I do not believe those questions can be answered consistently without weakening the “cannot” words of Paul in 1 Corinthians and Romans or by making an appeal to ambiguity or mysticism. Neither approach is satisfactory.
The current view of the Spirit’s influence in conversion needs a space between the influence of the preached word and the idea of the Calvinistic influence of the Spirit. Yet, given how this view defines itself, that needed room simply does not exists. If the natural man is defined as a “person without the Spirit,” only some direct action by God can overcome the corruption of that man’s heart. According to Paul, that man simply lacks the ability to accept the influence of the Spirit of his own volition. However, it is my contention that no other definition for the natural man (short of fully accepting Calvinism) can be argued under this view.
In effect, this view’s understanding of man needs three kinds of people: 1) Natural people who reject the things of the Spirit; 2) Natural people who receive the things of the Spirit; 3) Spiritual people who have received the things of the Spirit. The simple problem is that Person #2 in the list above does not exist in 1 Corinthians 2 or Romans 8. Paul only describes two kinds of people. Unless that third kind of person can be found, the “resistible grace” being taught among must eventually yield to the “irresistible grace” of Calvinism. It does not take a prophet to know that is where we are heading.
The simple answer to this dilemma is to understand the spiritual influence of the Holy Spirit in conversion is exercised through the Spirit-inspired word alone. What determines the effect of that message on the heart is whether that heart is good soil (spiritual) or bad soil (natural). It is the person that determines the quality of his soil. Remember, the good soil is good before the seed ever falls upon it (Matthew 13:8). This understanding is a simple one. It works in describing both those in and out of God’s covenant. Good, spiritual soil exists both within and without the church. Bad, fleshly soil is found both in and out as well. This is a view of humanity that has been preached among us for generations. However, it is also one that stands in contrast to the directly Spirit-aided gospel now being preached among us. We have not moved our position for the better.