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 receiveth 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 Cor. 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 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 (Eccles. 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 the light?
Psalm 80:18 and 19 surely sets the sequence of events in their right order. "Quicken us and we will call upon thy 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 thee thou art unmindful...(Deut. 32 18).Consider what 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.
Shall a nation be born at once? (Isa. 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 (John 3:3).
Of his own will begat them with the word of truth (James 1:18).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who, according to his abundant mercy, hath 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 Peter 1:23).
See also 1 John 2 29; 3 9; 4 7; 5:1, 4, 18.
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 labors, 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 thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days...He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. As thou knowest 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 thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all [literally, who is doing the whole thing]. In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether this or that, or whether they both alike, shall be good (Eccles. 11:1, 4-6).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 cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17). "The seed is the word of God" (Luke 8:11).
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 knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth 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 thee, 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, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit (John 3:3).
I [Paul] have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase, so then, neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one [in objective and in importance] and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are laborers together with God (1 Cor. 3:6-9a).
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, "Thou art 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 coworkers 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 (Isa. 55:11).
Here then we have a situation in which it is clear that while others cooperate 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 (Gen. 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 by the 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 unrighteousness.
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 Cor. 5:17).
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 (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 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 that liveth and believeth..." (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, "Ye are not my sheep because ye believe not," but "ye believe not because ye 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; Heb. 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 precondition to the new birth. But if man is spiritually dead until he is born again, how can he fulfill such a precondition 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 (Matt. 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, the 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, centered 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.
* In dealing with the order of repentance and faith, Dabney (Lecture, Number 55 of his Lectures in Systematic Theology, 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.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 spiritual one.
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 be avoided.
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 coworkers 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 (v. 21) and in some cases even to "compel" them (v. 23). In the latter, the Greek anagkazo genuinely has the idea of "forceful" constraint. *
* See on this, Grundman, in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 345.But we should not see this as a form of cooperation in the salvation of a soul in the sense that Arminians have used the word cooperation, which is now technically termed Synergism. The kind of cooperation 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 cooperate 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 Cor. 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 the 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:
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. (3)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:
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 cooperate 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.... (4)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, 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 is converted."
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 grace?
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 Cor. 3:6, 7), "Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then, neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God who giveth the increase [Greek, auxanon: growth, increase in size]."
Thus we are privileged to cooperate 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 giveth Me shall come unto Me and him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out....No man can come unto Me, except the Father who hath 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 (v. 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" (v. 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; Rom. 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 (Ps. 80:18b; Rom. 10:13). Were the grace of God not irresistible, none would be saved, for none would call upon his name.
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.
1. J. L. Neve, A History of Christian Thought,
Vol. I., p. 258.
2. Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism Today, pp. 5, 16.
3. Ibid., p. 24.
4. Vol. II, p. 720.