Irresistible Grace: The Lord Opened Her Heart
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ given to mankind in the Gospel is of course resistible. We noted this very truth a few weeks back when Place for Truth covered man’s Total Depravity. In our fallen nature, men and women are entirely incapable of obeying the Gospel command to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Remember how Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 2:14? “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
And yet Paul can also say a bit later that even though we are all, as unbelievers, spiritually dead with our wills and desires enslaved to sin, still for those who have believed in Jesus and have accepted the Gospel have done so only by God’s grace. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Listen to how the Apostle John put it. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Even the Apostle Peter chimes in on the irresistible nature of God’s enlivening grace. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
So what we end up seeing in Scripture is this distinction between unbelievers who hear and resist the Gospel versus other unbelievers who hear the same Gospel and yet by God’s special, inward, enlivening grace cannot help but believe and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus. Luke actually gives us a glimpse into this distinction when he describes the salvation of Lydia upon hearing Paul give the Gospel.
In Acts 16:11-15 Luke writes that on the Sabbath Paul, Timothy, and Silas “went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.” Notice that Paul speaks to a group of women. And yet, Luke continues, “one who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God.” Luke singles out one woman from the group, Lydia. When Luke says that she’s a “worshiper of God” he means a Gentile who sought to worship the God of the Jews. But look at how Luke describes how she came to believe. “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul and after she was baptized.”
All the women heard Paul speak about the Gospel. And yet only one of them ended up believing and getting baptized. What accounted for the difference? That stunning phrase in verse 14, “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Wow! Lydia was a recipient of God’s irresistible grace - a grace that actively worked to overcome her hardened heart, her deaf ears, and blinded eyes. She once was lost but now she’s found, was blind but now she sees!
Theologians have referred to this distinction as the outward call versus the inward call. All the women who heard Paul give the Gospel heard the outward call of grace. And yet the result was nothing more than a repellant disdain for the good news much like a young Afghani boy throwing pebbles at a Soviet Tank. The outward call did not penetrate the unbelievers heart.
But with Lydia, the Gospel call was an inward call. There the Spirit of God accompanied the living and active word of God and took that very same pebble and allowed it to penetrate deep within the tank-like heart of Lydia. Her heart of stone became flesh; her spiritual ears were now opened to hear and understand the truth of Jesus Christ. The inward call of the Gospel had its full and intended effect: the salvation of God’s child Lydia.
This is exactly why Paul says that the preaching of the Gospel, the preaching of “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). God’s irresistible grace is a powerful, life-giving grace enabling those who are being saved, like Lydia, to “pay attention” to its saving truths. It is an inward call that is so sure and effective that Paul can rightly and tightly argue that “those whom [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). Outside of God’s irresistible grace, outside of His inward and totally effective call, we are all lost in our sins and unable - aye, unwilling! - to ever put our faith in Christ. What good news then, that God can and does bring dead sinners to life, opening our hearts to pay attention and believe in the good news of Jesus Christ.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.