Errors of Calvinism (5): Irresistible Grace

Calvinists claim that the Holy Spirit only works on the hearts of the elect and that His urgings cannot be refused, hence the term, “irresistible grace.” Once again, for them, divine sovereignty overrules human responsibility. However, our thesis is that they coexist, and here we shall show that certainly God (in the person of the Holy Spirit) must be at work for anyone to be saved, but at the same time, individuals are commanded to change their minds, i.e., repent.

The work of the Holy Spirit in salvation

The Lord Jesus promised His disciples in John 16:8 that the Holy Spirit would come to reprove the world of [i.e., about] sin, righteousness, and judgment: the same world that “God so loved” (John 3:16), and the same world into which God sent His Son “that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). So what does it mean that the Holy Spirit would reprove the world (not just the elect) about sin, righteousness, and judgment? This point is so important that it is well worth spending some time considering the breadth of meaning of the word. The relevant Greek word is elegchos which literally means “to bring to light.” Among the possibilities offered for its English rendering are from Strong (Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon): “convict, convince, tell a fault, rebuke, reprove.” From J. N. Darby (New Translation): “to bring demonstration”; the English Revised Version “convict”; Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 1871): “convince” (note our English word convict comes from the Latin word “convincere” which literally means to convince), while other renderings include “to expose.”

Marvin Vincent (1834 – 1922) expanded the meaning to “will convict [the world] of ignorance of their real nature” (Word Studies on the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1946), whilst Fritz Rienecker (1897 – 1965) helpfully gave his expansion as “a rebuke that seeks to prove with demonstrative evidence” (A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1980). Another has noted that “the word rendered ‘reprove’ in the AV [is] rather difficult to render satisfactorily in English, (so full of meaning is it),” but it contains “the conception of authoritative examination, unquestionable proof, decisive judgment.” Last we note that B. F. Westcott (1825 – 1901), former Regius Professorship of Divinity, Cambridge UK, wrote that: “It involves the conceptions of authoritative examination, of unquestionable proof, of decisive judgment, and of punitive power. He who ‘convicts’ another places the truth in a clear light before him, so that it must be seen and acknowledged as truth … He who then rejects … rejects it with his eyes open and at his peril,” (The Gospel according to St. John, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971, p. 228).

In summary we can say that “reprove” covers the idea of providing sufficient and convincing proof of the reality, truth, and seriousness of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Without such proof sinners cannot and will not repent, but once they have it, they are obliged to repent. The question then is, “Are those to whom the Holy Spirit speaks able to refuse His evidence?” Stephen told the Sanhedrin “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51). The verb “resist,” as explained by Vincent (Word Studies), is “a very strong expression implying active resistance.” Here then is one example of wilful, strong resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit.

When such sufficient evidence of the Holy Spirit is refused, surely this is blaspheming (evil speaking) against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31), and insulting Him (Heb 10:29). If this persists, the person involved will not be saved. Even in prediluvian days, we have God saying, “My Spirit shall not always strive [plead, JND] with man” (Gen 6:3). This implies that even in those wicked days the Holy Spirit was active in giving men the necessary evidence for them to repent, through the walk and witness of Enoch and Noah (1Peter 3:19; 2Peter 2:5–9; Jude 14).

This work of the Holy Spirit means that those who hear the gospel have divine witness as to its truth, in writing in the Word of God, and in their conscience by the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, although man generally is spiritually dead, hearers of the gospel are given sufficient evidence by the Holy Spirit to see the truth of these weighty matters. If we leave the Holy Spirit out of the equation, then we cannot find any solution to man’s responsibility exercised in the gospel; once we understand His work, we see possibilities that otherwise are absent.

The Gospel Call

The gospel call is “God’s authoritative invitation,” wrote F. F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Ephesians, Pickering and Inglis, London, 1961). It is the same F. F. Bruce who wrote that C. H. Spurgeon, the greatest English Calvinist of the 19th century, is said to have prayed more than once, “Lord, hasten to bring in all Thine elect, and then elect some more.”(Answers to Questions, p. 198, Paternoster Press, Exeter, 1972). Along with the bona fide proclamation of the gospel for all, the Holy Spirit is active in hearers’ hearts, giving them all the proof they could ever ask for as to its truth. They are then responsible to repent (change their minds) and believe the gospel.

Of course, it is important when trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit, to bear in mind what the Lord Jesus told Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth [i.e., wants to] …. so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8). That is to say, since in Hebrew the words “spirit” and “wind” are the same, the Holy Spirit works in salvation when and where He desires and chooses, and not as we expect or understand.