Irresistible Grace and Condemnation: Who Are We?

When I was a child there were times when my mother, exasperated by my behavior, would ask: “Who do you think you are!?” My unruly and arrogant conduct revealed that I was not thinking rightly about myself. Understanding salvation from sin is like this. Rightly understanding salvation means rightly understanding ourselves, and a right understanding of ourselves only comes by rightly understanding God.

Who are we in relation to God? What does God’s word reveal about our being and abilities in relation to God? The Apostle Paul’s statement to the men of Athens (Acts 17:24) regarding God and humans helps us answer these questions: “In him we live and move and have our being.” Notice that when speaking to these men, who were largely ignorant of God’s written word, Paul first proclaimed the doctrine of God the Creator. If we do not understand the first doctrine revealed about God in his word, then we will not rightly understand the doctrine of God the Redeemer. A right understanding of the biblical doctrine of salvation begins with understanding the first three chapters of Genesis.

God created all things of nothing in the space of six days and all very good. God created humans, male and female, after his own image, with knowledge, righteousness and holiness and with dominion over the other creatures. Pretty basic. When Adam and Eve sinned they responded by trying to hide from God. But God knew precisely where Adam and Eve were hiding. After all, he is the Creator, who knows all things, and from whom no creature can successfully hide. But God, being rich in mercy, came to them and continued to speak his word. Ah, yes, the biblical doctrine of revelation is intimately united to the biblical doctrine of redemption. God redeems, or rescues from sin by his Word and Spirit.

Those to whom God chooses to reveal himself as Redeemer are redeemed. While all people have experienced through the creation the eternal power and divine nature of God (Romans 1:18-21), this knowledge of God the Creator is only sufficient to hold them accountable and inexcusable for their sin. The knowledge of God that Jesus stated is eternal life (John 17:3) is only given to those who receive God’s mercy (Romans 9:17-18; Titus 3:1-7). By definition, and by the explicit statement of Jesus, this saving mercy and grace is God choosing to reveal himself. God chooses some sinners to receive this saving knowledge of himself (Mt. 11:25-28). To those who have had the power of sin conquered by God so that they are no longer spiritually dead, blind and deaf, to them alone is eternal life given. Having been born again by God’s Spirit the recipients of God’s mercy and grace are able to see the kingdom of God. “Unless one is born-again (or “from above”) one is unable to see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

What is it that one sees and hears when one is regenerated by God and receives the covenant blessing of God’s Holy Spirit so that one is justified by God’s grace (Titus 3:5-7)? One sees and hears the living, true, glorious and redeeming Triune God as he has revealed himself in his Word written and made flesh. This is being given a heart of flesh where previously one had a heart of stone (Ezekiel 11:19-20); this is having dead, dry bones brought back to life (Ezekiel 37:1-14); this is being set free or let go from your enslavement so that you are brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21), so that you are enabled to worship and serve the only living and true God (Gen. 15:14; Exod. 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:1, 3, 7, 8, 11; Ps. 102:18-22; John 8:31-36).

If you think that it is unfair that God chooses some to eternal life and some to eternal damnation, you do not accurately understand that God is fully and perfectly just in condemning every sinner to hell. God is not obligated to save any sinner from sin, unless he by his own free will decides to obligate himself to save some. Our sin results in spiritual death and therefore blindness and deafness so that our rebellion and resistance against God continues unless God resurrects us from the spiritually dead giving us eyes to see and ears to hear him. You see, by definition, God’s saving mercy and grace is irresistible precisely because it accomplishes the purpose for which God sent it (Isaiah 55:10-12).

When Paul proclaimed the doctrine of salvation by giving the authoritative interpretation of God’s Old Covenant people’s history, he admitted that a few questions would be inevitably raised by those who understood his point. In Rom. 9:19-20 we read, “You will say to me then: ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Paul had previously indicated that some might accuse God of being unjust given what he had said about God choosing Jacob and rejecting or “hating” (either translation fits the term’s meaning) Esau, before either was physically born. Just as God acted in relation to Jacob and Esau, so too God acted in relation to his covenant people, Israel and Egypt. But, again, notice the questions of Rom. 9:19-20, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’

Paul provided the answer to those questions. You remember, he wrote: “Well, God gave humans the ability to resist his will by giving them all ‘free will,’ and they are the Captains of their Fate, the Masters of their Soul; they are the ultimate determiners of everything that takes place in their lives; they have the power of contrary choice, and if God had not done this he would be unjust. Because, after all, there is a standard of justice outside of God to which God must bow. And besides, we know that I am only talking about what is applicable to the corporate people of God in the Old Covenant era.”

Of course, you don’t remember Paul writing that, because that is not what he wrote. Nor is it a possible inference from what he did write. No, Paul’s answer is: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the lump one vessel for honored use, and another for dishonorable?” The people who actually get Paul’s point recognize that what he affirms is that no one ultimately resists God’s will. You see, it is not just that God’s saving grace is irresistible, as grand and glorious as that truth is. Rather, it is also that God’s condemning wrath is irresistible. And in neither case is God revealed to be unjust, but perfectly, gloriously just and merciful! Who resists God’s will? No one. Not those saved by God’s grace. Not those condemned by God’s wrath. You will accurately understand it when you accurately understand who you are and who you aren’t, and this only comes when you know who God really is.

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith