Irresistible Grace: The Lord Your God Will Circumcise Your Heart

Some Christians resist belief in the doctrine of irresistible grace. These brothers and sisters find the teaching that grace conquers all pushback repugnant. How could an all-loving God run roughshod over the freedom of his human creation? This is a misunderstanding of the doctrine for sure. We should first establish that the doctrine is grounded in Scripture and then we can look at what the teaching means and doesn’t mean.

If we think about it for a moment we will realize, I think, that the doctrine of irresistible grace is the flipside of the coin of total depravity and if coins were three-sided, there would be another side with the engraved image of unconditional election. If it is true, and I think that it is, that we are born into this fallen world totally depraved we are unable to believe the gospel in our natural fallen condition. We neither can believe the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ nor do we want to when left to ourselves. Thankfully, God has chosen us in Christ from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) so that we do not need to try to save ourselves. The sad truth is that while we cannot save ourselves and need not save ourselves, we usually try to all the same. The doctrine of irresistible grace looks at how God actually saves those whom he has set his heart on from before creation and fall in the mists of eternity past. If we cannot save ourselves and we are born in sin then something needs to be done to overcome our inability to believe on Christ.

Before we consider the how of irresistible grace, let’s see how it is intricately woven into the fabric of Scripture. Properly understood, irresistible grace is not to be set against the numerous commands that God issues throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy 10:12 Moses tells the children of Israel

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?

Clearly the Lord has expectations of his people and how they relate to him. Consider with me for a moment the requirements spelled out here by Moses:

          Fear the Lord your God

          Walk in all his ways

          Love the Lord your God

          Serve the Lord with all your heart and soul

          Keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord

As you consider the history of the children of Israel, let alone our own obedience to these imperatives, we need to be honest. The children of Israel found total love and obedience to God impossible (note their repeated subjection to pagan powers and ultimate exile) and we find the same problem with ourselves. We need to avoid the fallacy that ought implies can. God’s commands are not based on our present capacity to fulfill them. God has only ever set his commands before two men who were able to perfectly obey them: Adam and Jesus (Romans 5:12-21). Adam did not obey God and we have inherited his guilt, corruption, and loss of ability to obey God. Jesus, the God-man Mediator, did obey the Father to his own pain. But Jesus did not have an inherited sinful nature. Yes, he came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3). But he was not himself sinfully disposed.

Moses goes even further in Deuteronomy 10:16 and reveals God’s command to Israel, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” See! Right there, God tells the Israelites to change their own hearts. To clean up their own act. This is not as simple as it at first might appear to be. God gave the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 with the expectation that all ten would be obeyed all the time with the right motivation. However, since the fall we have not been able to obey God as we should. We really don’t want to anyway. Only Jesus obeyed his Father. And it is a good thing that he did. Our redemption depends upon his obedience.

The history of Israel and our own experience tells us that we need help from some source outside of ourselves if we are to ever have changed hearts. Circumcision of the foreskin symbolized the cleansing of the fallen sinful human heart. That is why Scripture can talk about circumcising the “foreskin” of the heart. The truth is, no matter how many times God commanded the Israelites to circumcise their own hearts, they found they had no internal resources upon which to draw. The saints of Old Testament Israel knew what we know. God must circumcise our hearts if we are to ever circumcise our own hearts. In fact, later in Deuteronomy 30:6 Moses tells the children of Israel, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Later prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak about God entering into a new covenant with his people and writing the law on the human heart and replacing the heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36). The conversion and calling of Paul on the Damascus Road points to irresistible grace too. Paul didn’t ask to be confronted and blinded or converted. Paul did not ask to be called to serve as the apostle of the Gentiles.

Granted that irresistible grace is taught in Scripture, how does it work? Remember that Adam and Eve were created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. They were not created in a state of neutral equilibrium like a donkey standing between two identical piles of hay and having to choose which pile to dive into. To speak of irresistible grace as if it were a stuff is an erroneous way of thinking, to be technical and really to be true. It is God who is irresistible and his grace is his own favorable attitude toward sinners under his own well-earned condemnation. To speak of irresistible grace is to speak about God’s conquering grace. In this God enables us to function as we were created to function with a desire to glorify him and enjoy him. Another way to talk about this is to say that we who are the recipients of God’s all-conquering grace respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ as we objectively ought to. We are really talking about regeneration from a different vantage point.

God’s saving and gracious initiative will always hit its bull’s eye. God will not and does not leave redemption up to us because that would be like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Does God command to circumcise our hearts? Yes, he does. But only those who have been unconditionally elected from eternity past in Jesus Christ will overcome total depravity and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ unto salvation full and free. God does not miss his target. When you come to Christ by faith you do it willingly. Is it completely understandable that we are commanded to repent of our sin and believe on Christ and yet it is only by God’s irresistible grace that we can do it? Not really. But it is the case that it is so. And I for one am very thankful.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington