Part II: The Crystallization of the
Theology of Grace
If a man by
nature always resists the grace of God, then in order for that
grace to be effectual it must in some sense be irresistible;
for if the grace of God were ineffectual none would be saved,
and this we know is not the case.
We know by experience that "the
natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for
they are foolishness to him; neither indeed can he know them
because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
On the other hand we also know that "to them that received
Him gave He the power to become the sons of God, even to them
that believe on his name" (John 1:12).
Thus to speak of the grace of God
as irresistible is not to say that man cannot resist it, for
he does. It is only to say that human resistance is allowed to
proceed so far and no further than God pleases. The Jewish authorities
were allowed to resist the Holy Spirit to the very last (Acts
7:51), but Paul was allowed to resist only to a point ‹ when
his resistance was suddenly brought to an end (Acts 9:5, 6).
The grace of God is sovereign; but it cannot be said to be irresistible,
for men do resist it. Loraine Boettner* suggested that it might indeed
be better to employ the term Efficacious Grace instead,
for this is really what the saving grace of God is. This would
spoil a widely accepted mnemonic aid, the acronym T U L I P,
beloved of catechists for many generations, but in the interests
of greater doctrinal precision it might be well to abandon it.
Now while it is true that man cannot
continue to resist the grace of God if the purposes of God require
otherwise, there is no doubt that even the elect are sometimes
reluctant at first ‹ if not actively hostile, as Paul was.
What does this resistance signify? What of the man who seems
anxious for the Lord's salvation and yet hesitant about accepting
it, perhaps "not far from the Kingdom of God" (Mark
12:34), yet procrastinating on the very threshold as though both
longing for and fearing it at one and the same time? If the natural
man cannot receive these things, how can a man half receive
*Boettner, Loraine, The Reformed Doctrine
of Predestination, Philadelphia, Presbyterian & Reformed
Publishing Co., 1975 , p.162.
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them and half resist
them? Is he half-dead? Is such a position possible? Or is it
that being born again is a process rather than an event?
The question is an important one to answer.
Was Paul actually already born
again that he could recognize the Lord against whose pricks he
had been kicking so hard, even though he continued to kick? Was
he like Francis Thompson who so eloquently spelled out his flight
from God whom he yet was seeking longingly? When did the saving
grace of God first reach out to him? When he began to flee Him,
or only after he was overtaken? Would the truly dead be aware
of the pursuing God of love, "the Hound of Heaven"
as Thompson so aptly named Him? Or was there already a spark
of spiritual life that made him aware of the divine pursuit long
before the moment of capture? Paul must have known of the "prickings"
of God ‹ but how did he know? The truly dead know
not anything (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Was there then a glimmer of
life already engendered? In short, when does the process of
being born again actually begin? Was not Lazarus made alive while
he lay in the darkness of the tomb and before he came forth into
Psalm 80:18 and 19 surely sets
the sequence of events in their right order. "Quicken us
and we will call upon your name . . . and we shall be saved."
First, quickening; then, calling upon his name; and finally,
salvation. Then must we not suppose that the man who kicks against
the pricks like Paul, or who comes from the grave still bound
hand and foot with the garments of death like Lazarus, or who
has progressed along the way so that he is not far from the Kingdom
of God like the scribe, even though he has not yet been wholly
set free to rejoice in the assurance of salvation, is nevertheless
already spiritually alive in some sense? But when, then, was
the spark of life actually introduced?
The most apt analogy of all is
certainly the analogy of birth. It is the analogy which is associated
inevitably with our Lord's conversation with Nicodemus, but it
is an analogy adopted in both the Old and the New Testaments
alike, as will be seen by the following references.
Of the Rock who begot you [Israel], you are unmindful. . .
. (Deuteronomy 32 18).
Shall a nation be born at once? (Isaiah 66:8).
. . . who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh,
nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13).
Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God
Of his own will He begat us with the word of truth (James
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who,
according to his abundant mercy, has begotten us again unto a
lively hope. . . . (1 Peter 1:3).
Being born again, not of corruptible
seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God. . . . (1
See also 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18.
this analogy implies. We customarily think of a new birth, the
overt and public manifestation of conversion, as the starting
point of all Christian experience. Yet is this really so? Is
not birth preceded by a period of covert growth and development
which follows the act of union of two seeds at the conception
of the individual? Life begins with conception, not with birth.
And perhaps this is where spiritual life really begins. In natural
life a seed is germinated and a period of development is initiated
as a consequence, until after a certain number of days or months
of prenatal life, depending on the species, gestation is complete
and the new living organism comes forth into the world. Thus
delivered, the newborn becomes an independent source of life.
If we transfer these sequences
of events to spiritual birth we have to conclude that, before
actual conversion, there is probably a gestation period. This
gestation period is not fixed in duration as it is in the natural
world, for some move quickly from their first introduction to
the things of God towards actual conversion, while others move
very slowly. A few seem to come to birth only after a gestation
period occupying years. In either case it is a period of hidden
growth, of uneven growth seemingly, of fleeting evidence of life
followed by such stillness that we despair of the individual's
viability. Many people pass through this gestation period unevenly,
at times eager to learn and to talk and to read the Word of God,
and at other times showing almost total dormancy or disinterest.
And throughout this time the individual invariably lacks assurance.
Like the fetus, he or she is dependent entirely upon the protection
and encouragement and concern of others. There is no genuine
spiritual vitality that is truly self-sustaining.
These things are commonly observed
by those who are involved in personal evangelism, who therefore
have opportunity to witness a kind of spiritual life which the
Lord must have seen in the young scribe who was not far from
the Kingdom, and to witness a kind of resistance to the promptings
of the Lord which must have characterized Paul's kicking against
the pricks before he was finally brought to the place of non-resistance.
It could be, then, that conception
and not birth is the initial step taken by God in making
effectual the Election of one of his children. It must be taken
in secret, hidden from both the individual himself and from those
who are observing him. The seed which is germinated in the soul
is the implanted Word, and the germination is the work of the
Holy Spirit of God who makes it alive. In due course after a
gestation period the foetal child of God comes to birth, sometimes
quietly and sometimes dramatically. And
perhaps there are false
labours, false alarms, or even births induced before the proper
time. But none are stillborn.
Spiritual conception is an act
of God. As John 1:13 says, it is "not of the will of the
flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." And as the Lord
said to Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh;
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6).
It is of his own will that He begat us (James 1:18) ‹
not of any corruptible seed such as is physical but of an incorruptible
seed which is the Word of God (1 Peter 1:23), germinated by
the Holy Spirit in what can be described only as a form
of virgin conception. This process is irresistible because there
is no one there to resist. This is a work of God clearly,
wholly of his initiation and without human consent or refusal.
The Lord's people may indeed play a part in it, for it is their
privilege to plant the seed, but the recipient of life plays
no part in this process whatever.
Do we have any intimations in Scripture
that such a period of secret development akin to gestation and
initiated by something akin to spiritual conception really does
precede the actual coming to birth of a soul? I believe we do.
Let us examine four passages of Scripture which when placed in
juxtaposition shed a remarkable light on this matter. I propose
to set forth these passages first of all without comment, and
then to review them by drawing attention to certain remarkable
and highly significant parallelisms in the language and symbolism
employed by each of these four writers:
Cast your bread upon the waters; for yhou shall find it after
many days. . . He who observes the wind shall not sow; and he
who regards the clouds shall not reap. As yhou know not what
is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb
of her that is with child: even so you know not the works of
God who makes all [literally, who is doing the whole thing].
In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening withhold not
your hand: for you know not whether this or that, or whether
they both alike, shall be good (Ecclesiastes 11:1, 4-6).
The kingdom of God is such, as if a man should cast seed into
the ground; and should sleep and rise, night and day, and the
seed should spring and grow up, he knows not how. For the earth
brings forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear,
after that the full corn in the ear (Mark 4:26-28).
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto
you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of
God. Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he
is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb,
and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter
into the kingdom of God. . . Marvel not that I said unto
thee, You must be born again. The wind blows where it will, and
you hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it comes and
whither it goes: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit (John
I [Paul] have planted, Apollos watered;
but God gave the increase, so then, neither is he who plants
anything, neither he who waters; but God who gives the increase.
Now he whot plants and he who waters are one [in objective and
in importance] and every man shall receive his own reward according
to his own labour. For we are labourers together with God (1
Notice in these
quotations the recurrence of such words as sowing, seed. wind,
womb, born, water, and so on. The passages clearly reflect
the same motif: the birth of a soul is like the sowing of a seed
which germinates in secret by a mysterious process followed by
a time of hidden development that we call gestation. Remember
throughout that the seed is the Word of God, for we are born
again "not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by
the Word of God" (1 Peter 1:23). "Of his own will begat
He us with the word of truth" (James 1:18). "Faith
comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God" (Romans
10:17). "The seed is the word of God" (Luke 8:11).
In the natural order of things
the actual infusion of individualized life does not begin
at the time of birth but at the time of conception. Conscious
life begins with birth. What a man may remember with extreme
vividness is his spiritual birth. But who can recall or who ever
detected when the whole wonderful process was actually initiated?
Only God knows which seed of the many portions of the Word of
God that may have penetrated and lodged in the womb of the soul
will actually germinate, being fertilized by the Holy Spirit.
It is our privilege to plant this seed, and it is our privilege
to water it, but I doubt if this is anything more than a privilege.
I doubt whether we are any longer absolutely essential, for the
Word of God in printed form has run to every part of the world
for men to read. There are many places where it is not yet known,
and here it is our responsibility, and perhaps we are indeed
essential for its planting. But by and large the seed can be
planted now through a printed portion of Scripture or a tract
or a billboard sign without personal human attendance. We know
this by experience. Men have been saved by reading a page blown
from a torn New Testament. But it is our privilege to plant the
seed and it is our privilege to be there also to assist in the
prenatal development of the newly conceived yet unborn soul.
Most of us have witnessed the entire lack of assurance of those
who are still seeking but have not yet come to birth. They are
dependent upon our constant stimulation or encouragement. Men
do resist this coming to birth, even as Paul kicked against the
pricks of God. And who has not exclaimed in eager anticipation,
"You are not far from the Kingdom!"
How could the dead, those in whom
there is no spiritual life whatever, possibly kick against something
of which they have not the slightest awareness? And how could
the dead so act as to give the impression of having gone a long
way towards being alive? Such resistance at the time of conversion
could mean only that
there is already life present, and at what time in the cycle
of coming to birth could such life have been introduced other
than at the time of conception? So if we should ask, "What
kind of life can the spiritually dead soul have before that soul
is born again?" we can only answer, "It can have the
kind of life we all have before we are born the first time ‹
prenatal life." For this, only conception is necessary,
the germination by the Holy Spirit of the seed which is the Word
of God implanted in the soil of the soul. Though the soul is
indeed spiritually inert as a seedbed, yet it has a passive aptitude
to nourish that implantation if God sees fit to give it life.
At this point in time there
can be no resistance. The implantation and germination
are unresisted and irresistible because, while man may sow the
seed which the ground cannot refuse, only God can germinate it;
and ungerminated it comes to nought. Here, then, we must suppose
the birth of a soul begins with an act in which the recipient
plays no part; here Election becomes effectual; here the Lord's
Atonement is first made applicable; here a new creation is initiated.
In this gestation period of prenatal existence the real life
of a child of God begins. Here is fashioned in secret, like the
stones of the Temple which were later brought to the site, one
more member of the Body of Christ, a brother or a sister in the
blameless family of God for whom Christ died. There is no resistance
to the grace of God in this genesis of the Christian soul, nor
indeed in the very nature of the case can there possibly be.
It all begins with the seed which is the Word of God, sown through
the agency of God's children, germinated and caused to begin
its growth in secret through the agency of the Holy Spirit, and
watered and nourished by the Lord's people. We become co-workers
with God but we never usurp the creative power which rests only
in his hands.
Thus as we analyze these four lengthy
quotations we see the picture emerging. As the Lord's children
and bearers of the seed, we are encouraged to sow wherever there
is any hope of a return, "beside all waters," as Isaiah
32:20 puts it. "After many days" the returns will become
manifest. Not all the seeds will be germinated. Indeed very few
of them probably, for this is God's way. After how many days?
We are not told because different soils and different environments
produce different harvests. We are encouraged only to have patience
because the results will be "after many days" and not
immediately. There is no fixed gestation period in spiritual
matters. But the possibility of delay ought not to become an
excuse for putting off the sowing. He that keeps his eye constantly
on the weather will not sow at all! And whoever spends his time
studying the sky rather than the soil will find he has no harvest
to reap. We do not know "the way of the Spirit" nor
precisely how the seed grows in secret before it demonstrates
its viability by bursting through the surface of Mother Earth.
This is surely the message of Mark 4:2-28. Sow faithfully, and
then go about normal business. By all means cultivate the ground
and water it regularly, but do not try digging up
the seed. Have patience
‹ it takes time. It is God who is working at it, God who
is working it all out. Thus we keep sowing in hope (Isaiah 55:11).
Here then we have a situation in
which it is clear that while others co-operate with God in the
birth of a soul, that soul does not himself make any contribution
whatever in the initiation of life. The soil is dormant, having
only a potential, a capacity for life; but there is no active
will either to seek or to refuse the spiritual germination.
Whether the fetus at full term
plays any conscious part in coming to birth is a matter about
which there is still disagreement. Sometimes it almost looks
like it, but the appropriate chemical stimulation can cause extraordinary
responses in organisms which have no brain whatever (such as
plants), and even more amazingly in decerebrated or effectively
brainless animals, and, alas, in anencephalic infants born without
the gray cells which constitute the vehicle of mind in normal
individuals. Electrochemical reactivity in an unborn body equipped
with animal life can cause responses to stimuli that have all
the appearance of consciousness which nevertheless can be shown
to be absent. That Jacob in the womb should grasp his twin brother's
heel (Genesis 25:26) is not an exceptional circumstance, for
contact with the palm of the newborn will often induce a grasping
reflex even before the cortex (the gray matter of the brain)
has developed. Such activity is still entirely reflex. Thus the
appearance of an "urge" to be born before actual parturition
is sometimes observed, but it is not at all certain whether it
is a conscious urge involving will or only a reflex action
in response to a change in the chemistry of the immediate environment
surrounding the fetus.
What can be said with absolute
certainty is that in the natural order, until the two seeds unite
successfully, there is no coming to be born. And until the seed
which is the Word of God takes root in the soil of man's soul
wherein lies the seat of his God-given capacity for redemption,
and until this seed is germinated by the Holy Spirit in a process
somewhat akin to what happened in Luke 1:35, there is no coming
in due time to the rebirth of the spirit. Natural birth is not
an improper analogy in that it is the climax of a gestation period
in which growth has taken place largely in secret. The whole
process culminates suddenly in the emergence of a new individual
whose independent life is initiated by the inbreathing of the
Holy Spirit (John 20:22), in a sudden opening of the eyes to
a new understanding (Luke 24:45), in the acquisition of a voice
to prove his viability, and in a new form of hunger. It is also
the beginning of a different kind of dependence upon others,
for nurturing and for fellowship. All these things occur after
birth in ways that are different from those vaguely analogous
needs which existed during the gestation period.
There can be no resisting by the
not-yet-conceived. There can be no desiring for life either.
There is, in fact, at this point no one there. And so it is with
the divine conception of the new man in Christ Jesus, begotten
will of God alone. We
can examine personal experience for words to describe the effect
of conversion, but Scripture alone can tell us about the
process itself. There must surely be much yet that is
revealed in Scripture which up to now we have not recognized
as relevant. But the great Confessions which formalized the Church's
understanding of the process have with one accord sought to preserve
and crystallize two aspects of the truth: first, that conversion
is a sovereign act in which the recipient plays only a passive
role; and secondly, that it results from the combined effect
of the Word of God sown and the Spirit of God germinating it.
The Confessions have not viewed this sovereign act as being effected
by coercion of the will but rather as by a form of persuasion
making the will responsive so that the unsaved "come most
freely, being made willing by his grace" (Westminster
Confession, XII. 1), or as Luther put it: "When
God works in us, the will, being changed and sweetly breathed
on by the Spirit of God, desires and acts not from compulsion
but responsively" (Bondage of the Will, XXV).
When an individual matures and
acts for the first time disobediently and the spirit dies, all
that remains to the will is a natural bent towards unrighteousness.
With the creation of a new man within, the will towards righteousness
is re-created and the original bi-directional freedom of will
which Adam first enjoyed is restored. In due time, the elect
will reach the place where the old will to unrighteousness has
died and there will thenceforth be freedom only to righteousness
even as at the present time man by nature has freedom only to
The creation of this new potential
is a sovereign act of God's grace. It is not derived out of the
old will, as though the old will were by some process purified
in part. But it effectively breaks the bondage of the individual
to the old will by creating an antagonist to it. The new life
introduces a new kind of motivation, new desires, new goals,
new aspirations. The old desires, goals, and aspirations are
now challenged. The will to righteousness is not derived by some
corrective process within the old will which gives it powers
that it did not have before. The will to righteousness is identified
with the creation of the new man in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians
Conceived as it were "virginally,"
this new man by the very nature of his being begotten of God
partakes of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This is what Paul
in Romans 7:22 refers to as "the inward man," a phrase
which, in keeping with the original Greek, might quite properly
have been rendered "the man inside"! It is only embryonic
until it is brought to birth; and it is immature until it is
brought to perfection when God's molding and chastening work
is completed (Phililippians 1:6; Hebrews 12: 6-11).
Now life comes
before faith. The gradual change which is observable in the elect
before they come to birth is spoken of as repentance. Like life,
repentance also precedes faith. Faith is exercised by the living,
not by the
dead. "He who lives
and believes. . . ," (John 11:26). As is clear from John
10:26 we must already be Christ's sheep to be believers. The
Lord did not say, "You are not my sheep because you believe
not," but "you believe not because you are not of my
sheep" ‹ which is a very different thing. Faith is not
the cause of this life but the proof of it. We are not saved
because we believe, but we believe because we are his sheep.
Whenever repentance and faith are spoken of in juxtaposition,
repentance is placed before faith (Acts 20:21; Hebrews 6:1).
But if faith is the result of life, then whence does repentance
originate? One can hardly see repentance, even when commonly
interpreted as "sorrow for sins," as occurring before
the spirit has been made alive. Yet we normally think of it as
a kind of pre-condition to the new birth. But if man is spiritually
dead until he is born again, how can he fulfill such a pre-condition
as that kind of repentance which seems to require that he be
already alive? Does a corpse sorrow over its deadness? Can the
spiritually dead sorrow over his sins, except perhaps to regret
that they did not succeed as he hoped? This is what Judas did
when he "repented himself" in vain (Matthew 27:3).
Must there not already be some form of spiritual life within
the heart to make godly repentance possible? Otherwise, like
Judas, a man merely changes his own mind.
Repentance in the more basic sense
of the word means "change of mind," and it is reflected
in experience as a changed attitude in the unbeliever towards
the things of God. The idea of a change of attitude on the Lord's
part which does not involve sorrow for sins is frequently observed
in Scripture as the following verses indicate: Genesis 6:6, 7;
Exodus 32:14; 1 Samuel 15:11, 35; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles
21:15; Jeremiah 18:8, 10; 26:3, 13, 19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10;
and Hebrews 7:21. And the word also refers to human repentance
which has little to do with sorrow for sin, as a comparison of
Genesis 27:34 f. with Hebrews 12:17 clearly shows.
What we often witness in those
whom we seek to lead to the Lord, before they are born again,
is just such a change of attitude. The idea of sorrow for sin
is by no means always apparent. Often it is rather a new interest
in spiritual matters, a new desire to find meaning, a new openness
in discussing the things of God, a new willingness to listen
to the message of the Gospel. Such new attitudes do not merely
appear after conversion; they are often observed before conversion.
They seem to be part and parcel of what is meant in Scripture
by repentance. They represent the beginning of a genuine change.
Then must we not presume that the seed of spiritual life has
already been germinated even though the individual has not yet
come to birth? What else can this possibly indicate other than
that conception has taken place though the gestation period has
not yet run its course? And this period of gestation is by no
means an uninterrupted progress forwards. It is often accompanied
by periods of dormancy and apparent lack of interest. If in our
concern we then try pressure tactics we often run into resistance,
kind of resistance that
was clearly manifest in the life of Paul before he was
converted. We thus seem to come close to resolving a serious
problem in the ordering of events. * There is a real kind
of spiritual aliveness in embryonic form prior to the new birth.
This new life is God-given. It is given unsought and unresisted.
It is given secretly so that we, the sowers, can never be sure
until later whether our sowing of the seed has been fruitful
in the way we hoped. This is a sovereign act, centred in the
will of God and not according to the will of man. It is the beginning
of the effective realization of God's purposes in Election.
One further point
in this connection seems worthy of a moment's reflection. If
the course of events associated with the second birth is not
altogether unlike that associated with the first, perhaps we
can enlarge our understanding by the consideration of one factor
in the physical process which may conceivably apply also in the
There are times when, in the natural
process, coming to birth seems unduly delayed, and what is known
as induction is resorted to. Induction is giving artificial assistance
(mechanical or chemical) to bring about parturition. May it not
be that we are sometimes called upon to give the same kind of
assistance to one who is about to be spiritually born? We may
properly be reluctant to use any form of pressure to hasten
the soul into its new life, because we seem thereby to be
appropriating the office of the Holy Spirit. But this is not
really the case if the crucial work of the Holy Spirit is not
in parturition but in conception. We should certainly be prepared
in the case of imminent spiritual birth to encourage the soul
that is about to be born, though premature interference is to
* In dealing with the order of repentance
and faith, Dabney (Lecture, Number 55 of his Lectures in Systematic
Theology, grand Rapids, Eerdman's 1972 reprint, p.655
and 657) remarked "Let anyone look at the scriptural definition
of Repentance, and he will be convinced that none but a regenerate
heart is competent to the exercise." And later "Both
these graces are the exercises of a regenerate heart alone: they
presuppose a new birth. Now, Calvin, with perhaps the current
Calvinistic divines, says that Repentance not only immediately
follows faith but is produced by it. And again when we speak
of faith as the origin of repentance, we dream not of any space
of time which it employs in producing it; but we intend to signify
that a man cannot truly devote himself to repentance unless he
knows himself to be of God." But Dabney himself does not
feel that this ordering of events is justified. In our view it
is erroneous to represent faith as existing irrespective of faith,
in its very first acting, and as begetting repentance through
the medium of hope. On the contrary, we believe that the very
first acting of faith implies some repentance as the prompter
thereof. At the same time he would make no gap of duration between
the birth of the one or the other. This seems to be necessary
in order to avoid having repentance (which is a sign of life)
precede saving faith (which is also a sign of life). But this
problem is obviated very simply if we assume that rebirth is
preceded by a period of gestation. Repentance is then effectively
initiated at the time of conception and active saving faith at
the time of birth: the first indicating covert spiritual life,
but life nevertheless, and the second overt spiritual life. Dabney's
"no gap of duration" would then be replaced by the
period of gestation.
If the individual has increasingly shown spiritual concern and
hunger for the life that is in Christ Jesus, and is manifestly eager to
come to the issue but seems unable to take the final step, ought we not
to help him by decisive action? We are not thereby usurping the authority
of God; we are merely offering ourselves as active co-workers in his service.
Perhaps such induction can be the meeting place between a strict Calvinism
that recognizes the Sovereignty of Grace and a wise and concerned evangelism
that actively seeks to remove some of the hindrances to its effectual
fulfillment. The householder in Luke 14:16 ff. who prepared his feast
sent out his servant into the highways and byways to find guests to fill
his table; he did not go himself to fetch them, though he surely might
have done so. He sent his servant to bring them in (verse 21) and in some
cases even to "compel" them (verse 23). In the latter, the Greek
anagkazo () genuinely has the
idea of "forceful" constraint. *
But we should
not see this as a form of co-operation in the salvation of a
soul in the sense that Arminians have used the word co-operation,
which is now technically termed Synergism. The kind of co-operation
we are advocating is not between the Lord and the sinner in the
initiation of life at conception, but between the Lord
and his people in bringing a soul to birth after the period of
gestation is complete. The older Calvinists sometimes termed
irresistible grace Monergistic Redemption. And they were
certainly putting the emphasis in the right place, for the sinner
does not co-operate in any way in his own spiritual conception.
This is indeed solely a work of God.
But there is a place for God's
people to involve themselves actively when the gestation period
seems to have run its course, even as Paul spoke of "persuading
men" (2 Corinthians 5:11), persuasion which must upon occasion
have been tantamount to spiritual induction.
The key point of Calvinistic soteriology
is the fact of man's complete non-involvement in his own spiritual
conception. As Warfield observed, Monergism "has been much
more deeply embedded in the system than the doctrine of predestination
itself which is popularly looked upon as its hallmark."
The contribution which the individual is supposed to make to
his own salvation is the exercising of repentance and faith,
out of his own inner resources. At the time of the Reformation
when Luther was unequivocal about the absolute impotence of man,
it was Melancthon who began to interject the idea that man is
able to exercise his will by giving free active assent to the
Gospel, to "comfort himself" through faith so that
* See on this, Grundman, in Theological
Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel,
1936, translated by Geoffrey Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Eerdman's,
Holy Spirit is then
granted, as God comes to his aid. (1) Man's response to the hearing of the Gospel is to
believe it; God's response is then to send his Holy Spirit to
seal the believer.
According to Warfield: "It
was perceived by all the Reformers that the free grace of God
must be preserved in its purity in the saving process by insisting
upon the elimination from it of all the leaven of synergism."
Otherwise God is "robbed of his glory and man is encouraged
to attribute to some power, some act, some initiative of his
own, his participation in that salvation which in reality has
come to him from pure grace." (2) And again, Warfield wrote: (3)
To God alone . . . belongs salvation
and the whole of salvation; He it is, and He alone, who works
salvation in its whole reach. . . . Any intrusion of any
human merit, or act, or disposition, or power, as ground or cause
or occasion, into the process of divine satisfaction ‹ whether
in the way of power to resist or of ability to improve grace,
or the opening of the soul to the reception of grace, or of the
employment of grace already received ‹ is a breach with Calvinism.
And it is a
breach with the Gospel!
The crux of the matter is in the
initiation of the process, and here I believe we find the safest
and truest biblical analogy not in the actual new birth of the
new man but in the conceiving, in the germination of the seed,
which is the Word of God, by the supernatural life-giving power
of the Holy Spirit.
In his Systematic Theology under
the general heading The Synergistic Controversy, Charles
Hodge wrote as follows: (4)
If the soul is not merely morally
sick and enfeebled but spiritually dead [as taught in the great
Confessions: the Augsburg, Smalcald Articles, and finally
in the Formula of Concord] then it follows: (1) That man
since the Fall has no ability to anything spiritually good. (2)
That in order to return to God he needs the life-giving power
of the Spirit of God. (3) That the sinner can in no way prepare
himself to be the subject of this grace, and cannot merit it
nor can he co-operate with it. Regeneration is exclusively the
work of the Spirit, in which man is the subject and not the agent.
(4) That, therefore, it depends on God and not man, who are to
be and who are not to be partakers of eternal life. (5) That
consequently God acts entirely as a sovereign. . . .
All these inferences
are in harmony with the theology of Paul, Augustine, and Calvin,
and were freely accepted at first by Luther. But before his death
he had begun to lean towards some mild form of Synergism,
1. Melancthon: see J. L. Neve, A History
of Christian Thought, Philadelphia, Muhlenberg Press, 1946,
2. Warfield, Benjamin B., Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism
Today, London, Evangelical Press, c.1909, pp.5, 16.
3. Ibid., p.24.
4. Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids,
Eerdmans, 1973 reprint, vol.II, p.720.
influenced perhaps chiefly
by Melancthon but also in some measure by the many factions within
the Lutheran party which seem to have been concerned to preserve
some means of stimulating evangelism, which was in danger of
losing its incentive. If man contributed nothing, then why attempt
to persuade him? Perhaps, said the Lutherans in the end, man's
contribution is not an active one; but it could be a passive
one ‹ non-resistance. And so as we have seen,
for what may have been the best of reasons, namely, concern to
keep alive a vital missionary spirit among their members, the
Lutherans allowed this small but essential contribution to be
made by man. As the Formula of Concord (p.539), after
half a century of earnest discussion, finally concluded: "Towards
this work the will of the person who is to be converted does
nothing but only lets God work in him until he
But if man must work with God in
any essential aspect of his own salvation, then he becomes the
ultimate arbiter of his own destiny. He can yield and be saved,
or he can resist the grace of God and be lost. Whether his Election
is to be made effective or not rests with him and not with God.
As we have seen, the Reformers in the Augustinian tradition stood
firmly against any such synergistic system of soteriology. They
were unbendingly monergistic.
But in recent years, as we shall
see in Part IV, even the Christian Reformed Church has witnessed
rumblings towards a departure from this firm resolve. Once again
the issue is the feeling that pure Monergism is deadening missionary
zeal. If man has some real part to play in his own salvation,
would this not provide the stimulus required for the Lord's people
to go out and exercise their persuasive powers more earnestly,
seeking to turn the unsaved back to the Lord? It looks like it.
It seems that persuasion would be fruitful and greater eagerness
in persuading men would surely turn more men towards God, seeking
salvation. But is this really true? Would this change
the number of the elect?
Or would it bring to the birth
prematurely many who as a consequence would recover a normal
healthy Christian faith only after years of corrective teaching?
Does this not put the whole burden upon man, the persuader, rather
than upon God, the Giver of Life; upon the techniques of
evangelism rather than upon the true message of God's Sovereign
Melancthon taught that "some
men assent willingly and do not resist the Word of God."
If we assume that actual rebirth is the sum and substance of
the conversion experience, then there is some evidence that man
does have the power to assent willingly, for some men come very
easily and quickly to birth, as though they were already fully
prepared in their own spirit. Others seem to delay their coming
for years. Is this not proof of Melancthon's position? But if
we consider that birth must always be preceded by conception
and foetal development, and if we admit that man cannot possibly
delay or resist his own conceiving, then the situation is different.
For what part could
man possibly have in
his own conception, when the Word of God is germinated by the
Spirit of God and a whole new creation is initiated which had
no existence before its conception?
But once this conception has occurred,
others may witness evidences during spiritual foetal development
of a new kind of life, of new movements of the emerging organism
long before actual birth. We see a man hitherto totally indifferent
to the things of the Spirit, disinterested in hearing or reading
the Word of God, avoiding Christian company, and shunning all
discussion of spiritual matters, suddenly showing an interest,
genuinely, earnestly, often unashamedly. It is sporadic and evanescent
at first. We, the observers, become excited, wondering if our
friend is already born again; but we learn by many disappointments
to be cautious and not prematurely hopeful. But we ought to be
hopeful! It may not be birth but conception that has taken place
and these are the twistings and turnings of a healthy but yet
unborn organism which God has engendered and which in due time
He will bring to birth.
In terms of the soul to be saved,
God alone is responsible, monergistically, for the giving of
life, but we meanwhile have the privilege of working with God
synergistically in sowing the seed, and in its cultivation and
watering. "I have planted," Paul writes (l Corinthians
3:6, 7), "Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So
then, neither is he who plants anything, neither he whot waters;
but God who gives the increase [Greek, auxanon: growth,
increase in size]."
Thus we are privileged to co-operate
with God in planting the seed but not in the germination of it.
And the soul in whom the seed is thus planted and germinated
plays no part in the germination process.
Jesus said: "All that the
Father gives Me shall come unto Me and he who comes unto
Me I will in no wise cast out. . . . No man can come
unto Me, except the Father who hash sent Me draw him. . . ."
(John 6:37, 44). This last observation, which proved so offensive
when it was first spoken (even as it proves offensive today)
because it challenges man's imagined freedom, was very deliberately
repeated by the Lord (verse 65): "Therefore said I unto
you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto
him of my Father." And we are told that "from that
time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with
Him" (verse 66).
What could possibly be a plainer
statement than this of the fact that salvation is conferred upon
a select number who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born
again by the will of God alone (John 1:13; Romans 915, 16; James
1:18)? Whoever thus comes to birth does not by this dramatic
experience become a child of God, but actually has already become
a child of God (John 17:6) by a prior experience of supernatural
conception. When he comes to birth, he has already been introduced
into the family of God, and for this reason and for no other
reason is able to hear God's words
(John 8:47). We are
thus quickened first and only then do we call upon his name
for salvation (Psalm 80:18b; Romans 10:13). Were the grace
of God not irresistible, none would be saved, for none would
call upon his name.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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In a fallen world, and in the matter
of man's salvation, either man or God must be free to have the
final word. Both cannot. If man is free, God is bound by man's
freedom. If God is free, man must be bound by the will of God.
In an unfallen world this would not be so, for then all wills
would be one. God's grace must be irresistible or man's will
would remain eternally opposed to God's, and the creature would
override the Creator. Grace has to be irresistible.