April 15, 2012

Anthony Hoekema on "Irresistible Grace" and a Criticism of TULIP

It is commonly said that Calvinists believe in "irresistible grace." This expression is, in fact, part of the "TULIP" acronym, which stands for the so-called "Five Points of Calvinism": Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.22 The term "irresistible grace" conveys an important biblical truth. As we saw, regeneration is monergistic and not synergistic. It is not a work in which God and man cooperate, but it is the work of God alone. All that was said about the natural state of fallen human beings, about effectual calling, and about the way in which God regenerates his people supports the affirmation that the grace which regenerates us is indeed irresistible.

Objections, however, have been raised against the use of the expression "irresistible grace." The first objection is that this term suggests a kind of overpowering domination on God's part, giving the impression that God violates our wills and deals with us as if we were things instead of persons. A second objection is the contention that God's grace may indeed sometimes be resisted--does not the Bible speak of those who resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)?

These objections, however, can be answered. I dealt with the first objection earlier, in connection with effectual calling.23 In reply to the contention that God violates our wills in regeneration, we may say that since we are by nature dead in sin, our wills need to be renewed so that we may again serve God as we should. God's action in regenerating us, therefore, is no more a violation of our wills than is the artificial respiration applied to a person whose breathing has stopped. Herman Bavinck has put it well: God's [effectual] calling "is so powerful that it cannot be conquered, and yet so loving that it excludes all force."24 Or listen to C. S. Lewis: "The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation."25

In connection with the second objection, it should be noted that the expression "irresistible grace" did not originate with the Calvinists. It was the Remonstrants (or Arminians) at the Synod of Dort (1618–19) who used this expression, which they had gotten from the Jesuits, to characterize the Reformed position on regeneration.26 Bavinck goes on to say that Reformed theologians did not wish to deny that God's grace was often resisted. Therefore they preferred to speak of "invincible" or "unconquerable" grace, or to say that God's saving grace was "finally irresistible."27 The grace of God may indeed be resisted, but it will not be successfully resisted by those whom God has chosen in Christ to salvation from before the creation of the world. As Cornelius Plantinga aptly says, "Nobody can finally hold out against God's grace. Nobody can outlast Him. Every elect person comes . . . to 'give in an admit that God is God.'"28
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22. For helpful discussions of these five points, together with Scriptural proof, see Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972); also David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1965).
23. See above, pp. 89–91.
24. Roeping en Wedergeboorte (Kampen: Zalsman, 1903), p. 224.
25. Surprised by Joy (London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1960), p. 183.
26. Bavinck, Dogmatiek, 4:65.
27. Ibid., pp. 65-66.
28. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., A Place to Stand (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1979), p. 151.
Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 104–105.

Commenting on this section in Hoekema, particularly the last paragraph, Kenneth Stewart writes:
A fine scholar from this branch of the Reformed family pointed out, for example, in 1989, that the I in TULIP was actually a caricature of the position championed in the Synod of Dordt. Those who derided the Reformed idea of effectual calling or prevailing grace branded it "irresistible."53 This is the kind of inside information that needs circulating. It should change popular Calvinism's use of TULIP.
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53. The "I" of the acronym T-U-L-I-P, far from encapsulating Dordt's intended emphasis, actually relays the protest of the Dutch Remonstrants against early seventeenth-century Calvinism in a way dependent on Jesuit writers of that time. How is it possible that irresistible, a term intended to besmirch and caricature the concept of a grace that eventually prevails over all opposition, has been taken up and championed by those it was meant to portray unfavorably? See Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 104–105.
Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 91.

See also A. A. Hodge's criticism of the term.

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