Q: How can I invite "all" sinners to Christ when the Reformed concept of "irresistible grace" implies that for some to be elect some must be nonelect?
—Craig Skinner, Georgia
A: Perhaps the adjective "irresistible" causes more problems than it's worth. The Synod of Dort (161819), in defending God's gracious initiative in regeneration, begins where Scripture does: the image of God, the fall from righteousness, original sin, total inability, the inadequacy of natural light, the inadequacy of the Law.
This bad news (which sets up the good news in the next article from Dort) emphasizes human responsibility—that we willfully reject God's commands and are therefore held accountable. The corruption of our own hearts keeps us from coming to Christ, while God's sovereign grace unshackles our imprisoned hearts and leads us out of our inherited but also chosen dungeon. "I was sought by those who did not ask for me: I was found by those who did not seek me," says the Lord (Isa. 65:1; all references are from the NKJV unless otherwise noted). Those who receive Christ do so "not … of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). "For [God] says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.' So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy" (Rom. 9:1516; RSV).
Since the individual is by nature "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1), willfully resisting "the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him" (1 Cor. 2:14), what choice would any of us make if God merely offered faith in Christ rather than giving us that faith? But God has guaranteed that, despite our collective rebellion, he will raise many of those spiritually dead to life: "But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Eph. 2:45).
Whatever its weaknesses, the term irresistible grace tries to capture the sovereignty of God's grace: No matter the depth of depravity, God will overcome the sinful resistance of those whom he has chosen and redeemed. Unfortunately in our day, the term carries connotations of coercion. The Synod of Dort, however, insisted that "this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful, bends it back."
Perhaps substituting "overwhelming grace" or "invincible grace" for irresistible grace would be better understood today. This grace is not simply a prevenient grace that places unbelievers somewhere between death and life and then leaves them with the decision; it is that grace by which God makes a family out of hostile enemies.
How does this relate to the free and universal offer of the gospel (to which the Reformed tradition lends enthusiastic support)? It is true that the Reformed tradition holds that only the elect are given faith by the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel: "Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). Far from there being any antagonism between election and the free offer of the gospel, it seems that the former gave the apostles confidence, knowing that, as God reminded Paul, "I have many people in this city" (Acts 18:10). No wonder the Apostle to the Nations said, "I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Tim. 2:10). And yet, his commission had nothing to do with finding the elect but only with proclaiming the good news to the world.
The only reason that there should be a conflict between God's electing grace and the free offer of the gospel is if we want to say more than Jesus and the apostles themselves. For instance, it is often assumed that if we cannot tell an unbeliever, "God loves you," "Christ died for you," we aren't sincere in our offer of the gospel. If that is the case, the many invitations of the New Testament are similarly invalid, whether "God so loved the world … " or "Come unto me, all you who are tired and burdened under, and I will give you rest."
We never know the identity of the elect, so we are to treat all professing and communicant members of the visible church as brothers and sisters in Christ, elect and beloved for the sake of Christ. After all, "the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are his' " (2 Tim. 2:19).
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