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God’s Resistible Grace

Tim Staples

Calvinists teach that man is powerless to resist God’s grace; hence, there is no truly free will.

The Catholic and biblical position, though, holds that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”—meaning we must do something—“for it is God who works in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13)—meaning God’s grace must precede and accompany every meritorious action that brings about our salvation.

The Catholic teaching emphasizes both God’s grace and man’s cooperation. But there is no room in Calvinist teaching for St. Paul’s inspired notion of man as “co-laborer” with God (1 Cor. 3:9). In Calvin’s words:

If [by free will] is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object… If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-laborer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilent delusion (Institutes, Bk. 2, Ch. 3, Para. 11).

Of course, Catholics agree that man cannot “of himself” merit anything from God—meaning, apart from God’s empowering grace. But Calvin’s meaning is very different. For him, “Subdued by the power of the Lord” means that man cannot resist the movement of God’s grace.

If God wills for you to go to heaven, he will give you grace to that end and you will be irresistibly moved to act in accord with it.

If God wills for you to go to hell, then you will not be given grace and you will be moved to sin by God’s eternal decree.

Now, before we proceed any further, two notes. First, many Calvinists will claim they believe in “free will,” as does the Westminster Confession. But “free will” for the Calvinist means acting in accord with irresistible grace that he cannot do anything but accept. The term voluntary, which Calvin used in the passage above, becomes meaningless. According to Calvin, when God extends his “special grace” of salvation and mercy he “does not suffer a refusal” (Institutes, Bk. 3, Ch. 22, Para. 6). Yet, man is “free”? This would be like Vito Corleone, in The Godfather, making “an offer you can’t refuse” and then claiming the offer was “freely” accepted.

Second, honest Calvinists acknowledge the contradiction here. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who at the time held the highest elected staff position in the Presbyterian Church (USA), wrote:

If, then, a sovereign God decides to elect persons to eternal life, that is a decision for all time and eternity… Presbyterians have endorsed this conviction, but with Calvin, we have always had trouble with it for two reasons. First, if God predestines every person, and not all are called, elected, or predestined for salvation, then God has predestined (the Westminster Confession says “fore-ordained”) some persons to hell or eternal damnation. Second, if God has determined the ultimate fate of all persons, then the individual has no power to make any important decisions. Presbyterians have learned to believe, also, in free will, realizing that these two doctrines are logically impossible to hold at the same time, but that each is true, as taught in the Westminster Confession… Those persons who can with a clear conscience accept what they are taught, regardless of apparent inconsistencies, are in some ways better off than those who think.[1]

Notice the almost cult-like acceptance of this logical contradiction. The Catholic and biblical faith never asks anyone to check his intellect at the door. Although we recognize that certain truths of our faith are supra-rational, there is nothing in our faith that is irrational. I have to agree with Kirkpatrick that a thinking man will have trouble with this Calvinist notion of double predestination. In fact, I would say that a thinking man is not going to remain Calvinist unless he can learn to believe what he knows to be irrational. And that is not faith; that is closer to superstition.

The grace of God is resistible, according to St. Paul:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Gal. 5:4-7).

Paul warns these Galatian Christians not to be seduced by “Judaizers” who were telling them belief in Christ is great, but that they must also return to the Old Covenant temple, sacrifices, law, circumcision, etc. in order to be saved. He warns that if they do this, they forfeit Christ; they “fall from grace.” To “fall from grace” means they resist God’s grace.

The inspired author of Hebrews also teaches we can “fall from grace”:

Strive for peace with all men, and for that holiness without which no man will see God. Take heed lest anyone be wanting in the grace of God [Gr.—usteron apo tes karitos tou theou—“falling from the grace of God”]; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble and by it the many be defiled; let there not be any immoral or profane person, such as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright (Heb. 12:14-16, Confraternity Bible).

The Greek verb ustereo, translated above as “wanting,” means “to fall short of, lack, or want.” Because the preposition apo, or “from,” is used immediately after the verb, a literal translation would be: “falling short of
from the grace of God.” I translate it as “falling from the grace of God.”

Similar to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the writer to the Hebrews warns Christians not to “sell their birthright” as sons of God and forfeit the glory of heaven which is their inheritance as Christians. Indeed, we truly are sons of God, and if sons, “then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). The context of Hebrews emphasizes the truth that Christians can, in fact, “fall from grace” and lose their heavenly inheritance.

St. Stephen chimes in very specifically when it comes to resisting the grace of God. He almost seems to have Calvin in mind 1,500 years before Calvin when he speaks to his “brethren and fathers” (Acts 7:2) among the sons and daughters of Abraham:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (Acts 7:51).

The Holy Spirit calls us by grace; thus, to “resist the Holy Spirit” is to resist God’s grace.

And finally, the words of our Lord himself are most clear:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, you house is forsaken and desolate! (Matt. 23:37-38).

Jesus here speaks as God and informs us that he is ever calling to his people by his grace to come to him as a hen calls to her chicks. But he is equally clear that he respects the freedom with which he has gifted them. It is their choice whether they will to resist his call—resist his grace—or cooperate with it unto salvation (Gal. 6:7-9; Rom, 5:1-2; 2 Cor. 6:1-2).


[1] What Unites Presbyterians, Geneva Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1997, p. 17. Emphasis added.


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