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What is irresistible grace?

Unsplash/Alex Shute
Unsplash/Alex Shute

The doctrine of irresistible grace says that the Holy Spirit never fails to bring His own to faith. A clear grasp of this doctrine is sorely needed today.

The contemporary Church is in the midst of a crisis of confidence concerning biblical preaching and the diligent use of the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works irresistibly in the lives of sinners.

The Church needs to reaffirm her faith in the invincible power of the Spirit-applied Word of truth.

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Grace teaches us that the salvation of hell-deserving sinners is the work of the triune God alone. When Calvinists say that grace is irresistible, they mean that the Holy Spirit never fails to call, regenerate, and save those whom the Father has elected and Christ has redeemed.

The efficaciousness of this grace is defined in the Canons of Dort (Head III–IV, Art. 11):

When God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the Gospel to be externally preached to them and powerfully illuminates their mind by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.

The Westminster Confession (10.1) reminds us that God’s irresistible grace does not save people against their wills but by “renewing their wills ... so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” Unfortunately, the term irresistible can suggest capricious force or violence to a sinner’s will. If you are a believer, you know that when grace took hold of you, it brought you willingly and lovingly to what God had predetermined for you.

God must work within the sinner to make him willing to come to Christ. John 6:44 says that unless the Father “draws” him, a sinner will not believe the Gospel. The original word for draw implies an effective power (John 21:11Acts 16:19James 2:6). We may kick against the Gospel before we are made willing to receive it, but not after our wills are so changed.

Another term for irresistible grace is effectual calling. Two calls need to be distinguished. With the outward call, the Gospel is preached and a call to salvation is extended to everyone who hears the message (Isa. 45:22). But this outward call will be resisted (Acts 7:51). It will not bring sinners to Christ because men by nature are dead in sin and enslaved by the devil (Eph. 2:1–3).

To bring sinners to salvation, the triune God must extend to them a special, inward, irresistible call in addition to the outward call contained in the Gospel message. The electing Father is the great Inviter who does this calling. Romans 8:30 tells us, “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called” (KJV). But the effectual call is also God’s living voice in Jesus Christ. Jesus says in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” And the Spirit is involved in drawing men to Christ through the Word (John 16:13–14). Scripture describes this Spirit-wrought change as a new birth by the Spirit (John 3:5), a passing from death to life (John 5:24), an opening of the heart (Acts 16:14), a spiritual resurrection from the dead (Eph. 2:4–5Col. 2:13), and a regeneration by the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:5).

Two implications follow from irresistible grace and effectual calling. First, God’s gracious calling is monergistic, or one-sided. It is not synergistic, or two-sided, involving God and us (Gal. 1:15). Second, grace comes to us at enormous cost. The good news of the Gospel is that the cost of our sin was paid by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not by us. It is given at the expense of the Son of God’s incarnation in the womb of Mary and His obedience in suffering the law’s just condemnation on the cross. When God shows us grace, He is faithful and just to do so because of the saving work of Jesus Christ alone.

Salvation is due to the spontaneous, extravagant love of God. If you are to be saved, it must be by the operation of God’s irresistible grace in your life. Pray that God would save you from your sins. Then, as He answers your prayer and you believe in Christ as He has commanded (Acts 16:31), you will recognize that your believing was because of His working in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). Be encouraged, for “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9, KJV). And give all the glory to God.

(For more information on irresistible grace, see Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, chapter 8, from which this article is condensed.)

This article was first published in Tabletalk, the Bible study magazine of Ligonier Ministries. Find out more at or subscribe today at

Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is also editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books, president of Inheritance Publishers, and vice president of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society. He has written, coauthored, or edited eighty books, including A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

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