I have been teaching an adult education class at Mira Mesa Presbyterian Church over this semester. We have been examining some of the fundamentals of the Reformed/Presbyterian theology. Here is a part of our study. If you would like to learn more about Calvinism please contact me and I would be happy to respond.
This paper will review the fourth point of the five points of Calvinism. Remember the five points of Calvinism followed the acronym TUL I P; total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
There are basically two types of grace; Common grace and special grace. Common grace is so-called because it is common to everyone. The whole human race experiences common grace without even realizing it, whether they believe in God or not. It is everything that sustains life. It is the ability, generally speaking, for human society to continue in an orderly and cooperative manner to pursue the scientific, cultural, and economic pursuits of civilization. Although this is not the focus of this paper, it would be an exciting study to explore the Church role in Common Grace, and note how God exercises the expansion of his Kingdom through the use of our spiritual gifts as the body of Christ. Without Common Grace the world would be consumed by evil, however the Church as a means of this Common Grace is a light within the darkness which does not let the darkness overwhelm the world.
Special grace, unlike common grace, which is universally given, is given only to those whom God elects to eternal life through faith in his son, our Savior Jesus Christ. It is what Paul was speaking about in II Corinthians 5:18, “all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.” This grace not only saves but also transforms and revitalizes those lives which were previously broken and meaningless. There are four aspects of special grace and they are; prevenient, efficacious, irresistible, and sufficient.
Prevenient grace means that which comes first. It comes before any human decision can be made or any act on the part of human beings. Grace is always an act of God who takes the initiative on behalf of sinners who can do nothing. This is the whole point of grace: it is not earned or given for something we have done it is freely and lovingly given to us who have no resources to gain it or even win it. This is in fact what John was talking about in I John 4:19, “we love, because he first loved us.” God loved us before we even knew to love him. Paul concurs with John in Romans 5:8,10 “but God demonstrates his own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God to the death of his son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” As we can see, God took action when we could do nothing as Paul says in Romans 5:6, “for while we were still helpless at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
Efficacious grace means that grace accomplishes its purposes. Everything that God sets out to do will be accomplished. God’s purposes always produce results they can never fail and they never come back empty; otherwise he is not God. This fact of redeeming Grace is not only seen in turning a sinner into a saint or moving a life from darkness to one of light but also in bringing them completely to salvation and eternal life. This is what Jesus was saying in John 6:37-40, “all that the father gives me come to me, the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of him sent me, that of all that he has given me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my father, that everyone who holds the son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I myself will raise him up on the last day.”
Now we come to irresistible grace which can only be understood within the backdrop of everything that has been said above concerning the nature of grace. Irresistible grace is grace which cannot be rejected. We have learned that God always achieves his objectives and we now find that God’s plan and purposes cannot be resisted or thrust aside. Take for example Saul of Tarsus, who was told by Christ, “it is hard for you to kick against the goats.” This was a Greek proverb for useless resistance. Jesus was telling Paul it is useless to try to resist God, it can’t be done. As Paul was soon to learn the regenerating work of God in the believer’s heart, precisely again because it is God’s work, can no more be resisted than if it were to come up empty. As Paul later says in Galatians 1:15, “but when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me to his grace…” God not only called him to his grace but had set him apart before he was born and this is something that not only happens to Paul but to all those who are the elect. Paul states quite clearly that those who are in Christ were chosen in him before the foundation of the world in Ephesians 1:4-6, “just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved.” Even the Old Testament supports this teaching, as is seen in the Psalmists liturgy of praise in Psalm 134: 4, “For the Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession.” As God’s all-powerful Word and Will could not be resisted at creation and the created order had to come into being; so also the elect, as new creations in Christ, cannot resist this same all-powerful Word and Will.
Sufficient grace is a grace that is adequate for the saving of the believer here and now and hereafter to all eternity. As with the other aspects of special grace, it is a work of God that will be accomplished. Those who draw near to him through Christ are saved “fully and completely.” This is what the writer of Hebrews was saying in Hebrews 7:25, “therefore he is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” It is God’s works through Christ to forgive, reconciled, and save and it is a job, as all God’s work, which will be accomplish.
Remember, Prevenient, Efficacious, Irresistible and Sufficient are all aspects of Special Grace. We are taking them apart to examine each, as if we were forensic scientists, to get a better understanding of Grace itself. However, they are one in the same Grace that must function together as a whole. Just like our body with its many systems, (Skeletal System, Muscular System, Cardiovascular System, Respiratory System, etc.) which we can examine, and have an appreciation of, but need all to sustain life.
One of the wonderful consequences of this teaching on special grace leads to the fifth and final point in Calvinism known as perseverance of the saints which is often stated in the Reformed motto “once saved always saved.”
Like what we learned with Special Grace, there are different aspects to the teaching regarding the perseverance of the saints. In the case of this teaching there are two; assurance of salvation and God’s providence. The first one, assurance of salvation, is the focus of this paper. However, like the aspects of Special Grace the aspects of this teaching must function together as a whole. God’s providence is His providing all our needs as we struggle to meet the challenges of the daily Christian life. As Paul wrote in Philippians 4:19, “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” We can examine God’s providence in a later paper, for now we will focus on the assurance of salvation.
In the light of this focus, Perseverance of the saints means those who are truly saved will persevere to the end and cannot lose their salvation. It doesn’t mean that a person who is truly saved will never lose faith or backslide at any time. But that they will ultimately persevere in faith (in spite of failures) such as not to lose their salvation.
Obviously this teaching is rooted in God’s unconditional election and predestination. That is, since God is the One who chose and predestined the elect to salvation, therefore the elect will be saved. They might turn away from faith and give appearance of losing their salvation, but if they really are elect they will repent and ultimately return to faith, because God is the One ensuring their salvation. A student in my Fundamentals of the Faith class gave a good example of the thinking here, that might be helpful to understanding this teaching. Imagine being tethered to God by a very long rope that has a great amount of slack which allows us to drift away from, but never be totally apart from, God. In His favor He can pull us back to Him as He chooses.
This long rope is the assurance of salvation and it is the best part of this teaching. Christians can rest assured that their salvation is “taken care of” and they need only to live out their lives in acts of gratitude to God. All fear is gone only comfort and joy remain, knowing that nothing can separate us from God, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)
This is a very difficult and deep teaching of Christianity. It is often very hard to understand, or even for Christians to agree on. This is why it is important to always remember that the operation of God’s grace is a deep mystery and far beyond our limited human comprehension. And yet at the same time God has given human beings the ability to think and reasonably come to conclusions. We always keep in mind that God does not treat human beings as though they were puppets with no mind or will of their own. This is the tension that must be kept in place. There is mystery and also the awesome ability and responsibility to use our minds as a part of the free will that God gives to us. I believe that God never violates this freedom, because it was given to us by Him. Confronted with this marvelous but mysterious reality, we can do no more than exclaim, with Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!… For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11: 33,36)
John M. Scholte, M.Div.