Why Irresistible Grace Doesn’t Work, and Why Prevenient Grace Does


All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.



Before we address prevenient grace and irresistible grace, we need an understanding of the spiritual condition of mankind, and why God’s grace is needed:

Man Is Sinful:


Romans 3:23 – 23 for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;


Man Is Separated From God By Sin:


Genesis 2:17 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.


Genesis 3:676 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. 7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves aprons.


Romans 6:23 – 23 For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.


1 Corinthians 15:21-22 – 21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.


Romans 5:12 – 12 Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned:


Ephesians 2:1-2 – 1 And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins, 2 wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; 3 among whom we also all once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest:


When God created Adam and Eve, He created them without sin. Until they chose to disobey, they were in perfect fellowship with God. When they sinned, they died spiritually, and were thus separated from God. This sin (sinful nature) and separation from God was passed on to the rest of mankind from that point forward. To be a sinner and separated from God means that we need to be brought back into a right relationship with God, or we will die in our sins and spend eternity away from the presence of God in a place of torment.


The question must be asked, how dead are we? That is, what does it mean to be spiritually “dead in trespasses and sins?” Well, the opposite of death is life. What we have in Christ is life. We have a new nature. We experience a new birth. So I think primarily it means the absence of this new birth, this new nature. It means to have a sinful, corrupt nature that is separated from God. We are dead in the sense that if we die in our sins we will spend eternity in the lake of fire, “the second death” (Rev 20:14).


However, spiritual death also means that we are out of harmony with God in regard to spiritual things. That means we are out of harmony with spiritual truth and with God‘s will and with God Himself. In our unregenerate state, we do not have a personal relationship with God where we can walk and talk with God in fellowship, nor are we able to understand the spiritual truths of God’s Word. In our unregenerate state, we cannot understand the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to be saved.


Man Is A Slave To Sin:


Romans 6:20 – 20 For when ye were servants of sin, ye were free in regard of righteousness.


Jeremiah 17:9 – 9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?


Since man has a sinful nature, he has a corrupt heart and is a slave to sin. That means our wills are so affected that we’re not able to respond to the gospel message in the humility of faith; we’re not able to choose to follow Christ.


Because Of Sin, No One Is Righteous Or Does Good:


Romans 3:9-10 – 9 What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we before laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin; 10 as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one;


Romans 3:12 – 12 They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one:


Isaiah 64:6 6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away .  KJV


James 2:10 – 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.


Why is none righteous? Why are none good? It’s because God looks upon man as those who have sinned wholesale – guilty of all. It’s just like the illustration that if you put one drop of black ink into a glass of pure water, it colors the whole glass of water. It has a sweeping effect. What qualifies a person to be righteous? What qualifies a person to be good? The answer is sinless perfection, total obedience, to be as Jesus is.


Because Of Sin, No One Understands and Is Blind and In Darkness:


Romans 3:11-12 – 11 There is none that understandeth, There is none that seeketh after God; 12 They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one:


Acts 26:18 18 to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me.


2 Corinthians 4:3-4 – 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that perish: 4 in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them.


To be spiritually dead is to be spiritually blind, in total darkness. Without the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit we can never see the truth, we can never discern between the one true religion and false religion, we can never see ourselves as sinners in need of forgiveness and in need of Christ as Savior. Mankind needs the Spirit of God to shine His light in this kingdom of darkness in which he dwells.


Because Of Sin, No One Is Able to Seek God:


Romans 3:11-12 – 11 There is none that understandeth, There is none that seeketh after God; 12 They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one:


Luke 19:10 – 10 For the Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost.


Since man is separated from God spiritually and out of tune with the things of God, he is not able to seek God on his own. God is the one who actually seeks sinners, and when a person seeks God it’s really in response to God seeking him. God must intervene on our behalf and make Himself known to us.  


Because Of Sin, No One Fears God:


Romans 3:18 – 18 1There is no fear of God before their eyes.


To have a fear of God, one must be able to see the truth about God and of our accountability to Him. It means to have a reverence for God that is demonstrated by a life of submission to His will. Unregenerate man is unable to do this.


Because Of Sin, No One Is Able To Submit To God’s Law:


Romans 8:7-8 – 7 because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be: 8 and they that are in the flesh cannot please God.


James 2:10 – 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.


One sin makes man guilty of the whole Law of God, therefore he is unable to submit to God’s Law. Since he is guilty of the whole Law, it stands to reason that he is in a state of total rebellion to God’s Law instead of submission. The only way a person fulfills or submits to the whole Law of God is through Christ, who fulfilled the Law for us. Only then do we please God.


Because Of Sin, Works Of The Law Cannot Bring Justification:


Romans 3:19-20 – 19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God: 20 because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin.


As already explained, man is guilty of breaking the whole Law, therefore works of the Law cannot bring justification. We can never do enough to gain God’s favor. Fulfillment of the Law and justification only comes through Christ. The Law of God reveals our sinfulness and inability to keep it, which makes us aware of our need for forgiveness that only comes through Christ.


Because Of Sin, We Are God’s Enemies:


Romans 5:1010 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life;


As this verse indicates, to be enemies with God means to be out of a right relationship with Him. That’s a result of sin; God hates sin. There is no fellowship between light and darkness (1 Jn 1:5-6; 2 Cor 6:14-15). It’s only when we are cleansed of our sins and reconciled to God through Christ, are we no longer enemies.


Because Of Sin, Man Is Condemned:


Romans 5:16 – 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. NASB


Romans 5:18 – 18 So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life.


Because of sin, we are separated from God. If we die in this separated state, we will spend eternity in separation from God in a place of torment. And because of sin, there’s not a thing we can do about. Only God can deliver us from this, otherwise, hopeless state.


Such is the plight of mankind. That’s a lot to overcome. Our study makes it clear that we’re unable to do that ourselves. God’s grace is needed to overcome this deep spiritual depravity. In order to see the truth that is in Christ, only God’s grace can overcome this spiritual barrier that prevents it. It’s in regard to the operation of God’s grace that Calvinists and Arminians differ in their understanding. Arminians hold to a view that’s known as prevenient grace, while Calvinists hold to a view that’s known as irresistible grace.


Calvinists believe that God’s grace comes in the form of the new birth. They believe that in order for a person to see the truth, in order for them to be able to come to faith in Christ, they must first be regenerated. Thus they believe that regeneration precedes faith.


Arminians believe that regeneration follows faith in Christ, that it’s a result of faith, not a condition for it (Acts 15:8-9; Gal 3:2,14,25-26; Jn 1:12-13; 12:36). We believe that this barrier of spiritual depravity is overcome by way of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit within a person’s heart, within the core of one’s being. It’s the Holy Spirit Himself who overcomes our spiritual darkness by opening our eyes to the truth. He further frees our will that is bound by sin. Since we’re slaves to sin, our wills must be freed so that we’re able to respond to the gospel message in the positive manner of humble faith.


However, we don’t believe this illumination and freeing of the will necessarily results in salvation. We believe that’s God’s gracious work within the sinner can be resisted in pride. This work of the Spirit of God enables one to respond in either direction. This way, God’s love and offer of salvation is freely received or freely rejected. It’s a genuine offer that is in harmony with the Bible’s teaching that Christ died for all mankind and that salvation is available to all who hear the gospel message. That one must freely receive the offer of salvation from a willing heart of faith, is in harmony with the unlimited atonement of Christ that is so clearly presented in God’s Word – that most Calvinists deny. However, as the following Scriptures reveal, that’s a lot to deny:


Matt 11:28; Jn 1:7-9,16,29; 3:17; 4:42; 6:51; 12:32; 20:31; Ro 5:15,19; 10:18; 11:32; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Eph 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4-6; 4:10; Tit 2:11; He 2:9; 2 Pe 3:9; 1 Jn 4:14


So here we have the two positions on the operation of God’s grace in the matter of salvation. In regard to the new birth, we’ve already seen that the Arminian position is faith before regeneration. The following discussion shows why it must be that way, and why irresistible grace doesn’t work biblically:


James 4:6 “…God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.”


1 Peter 5:5 – “…God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.”


1 – James and Peter are quoting Proverbs 3:34, which reveals a universal truth about pride and humility, and clearly seen throughout Scripture. In context, James and Peter were instructing believers, but they were applying this truth to them and their situation. God, in general, deals with mankind according to this law. God hates pride and loves humility. However, this universal truth should not be viewed as all-encompassing, where He deals with every single human being according to this truth (God being God and people being so needy, God deals with mankind as He sees fit) – but should be viewed, in the general sense, of man’s status with God and how He works in people’s lives.


However, there is an application of this law or truth where it is all-encompassing, where God does adhere strictly to this law each and every time with each and every person, and that is as it pertains specifically to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to spiritual truth in general. Of course, Calvinists believe that for “the elect,” there can be no turning away in pride. I’ll deal with that later.


Calvinists may object that the truth presented in James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 does not pertain to salvation, simply because they were dealing with an issue with Christians. But that’s nonsense. The general truth that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, demands – above all things – the necessity of its particular application to salvation. Does God grant the grace of salvation to those who humble themselves in faith?  Of course He does. Does God oppose those who reject the gospel message in pride? Of course He does, whether James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 refer to salvation in their respective contexts or not — it’s still a universal application of this law of pride and humility. Everyone who hears the gospel of Jesus Christ must turn away from pride and respond in the humility of faith. Jesus said that Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). Unless people humble themselves before God as little children, salvation is not possible. Jesus also said: “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (Jn 3:19). People don’t come to faith in Christ because of the fact that they “love darkness rather than the light.” People love their sin so much that they’re not willing to turn away from those things in humble faith. Paul, too, said that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” ESV (Ro 1:18). People suppress the truth of Christ because they would rather live a life of unrighteousness. In pride they cling to their sinful lifestyle and their own way, unwilling to humble themselves before God. God opposes those who reject the truth in pride. Unless they someday respond to the truth in the humility of faith, they will never experience God’s grace of salvation. Over and over throughout Scripture we see that one must believe in order to receive forgiveness of sins.


Faith and humility cannot be separated. One cannot believe apart from humility.


[By the way, it’s important to note that the above scriptures reveal that the reason people don’t come to faith in Christ is not because they’re not among “the elect,” but because they don’t humble themselves as little children – because they love darkness rather than light – because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They also reveal that God’s grace is resistible].


With this universal truth in mind – and in the context of the gospel message and salvation through Christ – we need to see how it relates to both the Arminian view of grace and the Calvinist view of grace.


Prevenient grace reveals truth in order to provide the opportunity for humility unto salvation. Irresistible grace via regeneration not only reveals truth, but also eliminates all possibility of pride and rejection. In other words, Calvinism has God taking pride out of the picture and granting (causing) humility in its place. Without this grace of humility,  how many would reject Christ in pride and die in their sins? Calvinists would answer, everyone — which just proves my point. God simply can’t ignore pride, because of the fact that He “opposes the proud.” The pride of rejection that God sees in sinners before regeneration, prevents Him from granting the grace of regeneration and humility and salvation. How many people humble themselves before God upon hearing the gospel the first time? I think it’s fair to say, not many. Again, from the Calvinist perspective, how many people would turn to Christ in the humility of faith if God didn’t regenerate them? No one, according to Calvinists. However, God cannot overlook the pride of rejection that He sees. From the Calvinist perspective, how many times does a person reject the gospel message before God regenerates them so they can respond in faith? I doubt if there would be very many Calvinists who would disagree that a person may hear the gospel of Jesus Christ many times before God regenerates them so they can believe unto salvation. The fact that many people reject Christ over and over and over before he or she finally receives Christ as Lord and Savior, shows that pride is at work. Thus granting them the grace of regeneration and the grace of humility, would require God to violate His own law.


Arminianism teaches that the gospel of Jesus Christ is accompanied by prevenient grace, that God is at work in a person to convict and reveal truth and enable faith — but not irresistibly so. Everyone hearing the gospel message has an opportunity to respond in humility of faith or reject in pride. However,  in Calvinism,  a person can hear the gospel message many times and reject it in willful pride for many years before God finally regenerates them. This reveals an inconsistency with what the Bible teaches about the offer and rejection of life through Christ, that God opposes the proud. Calvinism has God giving the grace of regeneration and the humility of faith to those who previously rejected Him in pride, perhaps for many years.


Those who hear the gospel message are accountable to respond in faith. If they refuse, it’s because of pride. Whatever the reason for one’s rejection, pride is always the root cause. To say otherwise would contradict such Scriptures as those I quoted earlier (Matt 18:3; Jn 3:19; Ro 1:18). As long as a person continues to reject Christ, God will continue to oppose. It’s only when a person humbles himself before God in faith, that He extends the grace of salvation. To grant the grace of regeneration would be a violation of His own law, because regeneration is tantamount to salvation. It’s rewarding pride with salvation. It has God ignoring pride, and granting humility in its place.  Senseless.


On the other hand, Arminianism makes perfect sense. The gospel message is presented, the Holy Spirit does the necessary work in bringing about conviction and revealing truth and freeing the will and enabling faith, and then extends the grace of salvation to those who humble themselves in faith. Likewise, God refuses those who refuse Him in pride. This is a very simple truth that Calvinism severely complicates.


2 – Not only does Calvinism have God ignoring pride, and then making prideful rejection impossible (after regeneration) by giving the humility of faith in its place (via irresistible grace), but I contend that in order for humility to be genuine, there must be the availability and possibility of pride. And again, I’m referring to what takes place after regeneration. If pride is not present or is not an option, how then, can there be humility? Humility must be measured by something else. There must be the possibility of the response of pride in order for the response of humility to be revealed as such. Yielding in humility, necessarily, requires a turning from that which counters. True humility is defined by that which would challenge one to respond in the other direction. Yet, in Calvinism, upon regeneration, pride is not even a possibility, which reveals a humility that is illegitimate. The Calvinist version of humility only works for God. Humility is an inherent attribute of God, and therefore, doesn’t need the possibility of pride to validate His humility. But we’re not God. As sinful beings, whether born-again or not, there must be the availability and possibility of pride in order for the response of humility to be seen as such. The Calvinist version of humility is false.

3 – There’s yet another reason why the Calvinist version of grace is invalid, and that has to do with their inconsistent view of regeneration as it applies to the response of obedience in a person’s life. As Christians, even though we’ve been regenerated, sin and pride and self-will have not been eradicated. Pride and self-will is still a present possibility in our lives.  With that being true, it’s a total fallacy that regeneration always results in the obedience of faith unto salvation (Acts 6:7; Ro 1:5; Ro 16:26), as Calvinism teaches. While Calvinists may have an issue with the idea that sinners can resist the Holy Spirit as He’s drawing them to faith in Christ, what do we do as Christians? Does the fact that we’ve been born-again and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit guarantee that we will always obey the Word of God or the promptings of the Spirit? What Calvinist would answer in the affirmative? If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any sin among God’s people; we would all be living perfect lives before God. But the truth is, we walk in the influences of the Spirit, not in the irresistable control of the Spirit, as though we had no will of our own. While we as believers are drawn to obedience, it’s not in a manner that locks our will into submission. We’re given the freedom to choose which way we will go — and sometimes, if not often, we choose to go our own way.  Again, what Calvinist could disagree with that?


Therefore, why would it be any different with the “regenerated” sinner who doesn’t even know Christ? Regeneration is the same at every point in one’s life, and it’s the same Holy Spirit who works within a regenerated life at every point. Nowhere does Scripture indicate that the composition or the operation of regeneration changes at any point in a person’s life.


So then, Calvinists would have us believe that a person is under the irresistible control of the Holy Spirit one moment, and then suddenly in a resistible state the very next — that the sinner is irresistibly drawn to the obedience of faith, but as a believer he or she is then put into the place where they’re free to choose to obey or not to obey.


We see again that the Calvinist version of God’s grace demonstrates a serious inconsistency. Moreover, I contend that Calvinist irresistible grace goes beyond the purview of grace. Rightly defined, grace is Divine favor. I don’t believe irresistible grace can be correctly defined as such. I think a more accurate term would be Divine exertion, or irresistible exertion. In the Calvinist scheme, God not only regenerates, but He overpowers a sinner’s will so that at the moment of conversion he or she has no will of their own, but God exerting conformity to His own will. At that moment in time, they lose their true identity, and in effect, it’s God doing the believing for them. Once the decision for Christ has been made, they then regain their true identity and once again are given the freedom to choose according to their own will. As discussed above, as born-again Christians, at no time throughout our lives does the Holy Spirit irresistibly “draw” us into obedience. He never overpowers our will so that we have no will of our own. But that is exactly what irresistible grace must do to “draw” a person to faith in Christ. But then if a person’s will is overpowered or overcome, then according to true definition, a person is not being drawn, but being subdued, being brought under subjection. Calvinism has God overlooking pride before regeneration and overpowering the will after regeneration (or upon regeneration) in order to prevent pride. This is not the biblical definition of God’s grace.


Before and during and after conversion, we retain the will to choose to go God’s way or to go our own way. At no point does God overpower our will and replace it with His own will. Regeneration places us in the influences of the Holy Spirit, but never under total control (as with a robot) to where we lose the freedom of will that gives us our very identity. We each have a personal identity that is linked directly to our individual wills. If we lose that even for a moment, we become someone we’re not. Conformity of our wills to the will of God is a growing process that continues throughout our lives, which still requires the personal yielding of of our wills to His.

4 – In answer to any Calvinist objections that prevenient grace makes a person spiritually neutral, that hardly describes the work of the Holy Spirit! The Spirit of God is powerfully moving to open spiritually blind eyes, to pierce the darkness with the light of Christ, to bring conviction of sin and of the need for forgiveness, to free the will and enable faith, calling and drawing and wooing the sinner to Christ. He graciously influences the will, but does not overpower it. This is the true, biblical description of Divine grace.

Conclusion


Let’s be clear, as sinners, we’re rooted in pride. But we’re also spiritually blind. If the Holy Spirit didn’t open our eyes to the truth, no one would ever be saved. Thus what we’re talking, in regard to prevenient grace, is the opportunity to respond to revealed truth, either according to the humility of faith or the pride of rejection.


Therefore, even though prevenient grace is given to the proud, it doesn’t conflict with the fundamental principle of “opposition to the proud but grace to the humble,” because it, ultimately, still allows the sinner to respond between the two options of humility or pride. When discussing this with another SEA member, he gave an illustration that I think is helpful:


“PG does not violate the principle of “opposition to the proud but grace to the humble” because everyone is proud in their depraved state, too proud to receive the gospel. There is no possibility of humility that would receive grace apart from grace to make humility possible. It is sort of like a charity that says it gives financial rewards to those who use their money well among the totally destitute (to encourage proper money use). But the totally destitute do not have money to use well. So that principle does not apply to the fact that the charity also gives all the destitute that it serves a basic amount of money to meet their needs. It only kicks in once the people are able to use money, and show poor or good usage.”


Calvinism doesn’t allow those same options of pride or humility. The difference between the opportunity to respond either way, or having one of those two options removed, is no small distinction between prevenient grace and irresistible grace (via regeneration). There cannot be faith without humility. There also cannot be humility without the option of prideful rejection. What makes humility,  humility,  is the fact that pride is being set aside. We can only make a humble decision when we first set aside pride. Turning to God in humility, means that we are turning away from pride.


However, in Calvinism, there’s not even the possibility of clinging to one’s pride. Therefore, how can one turn away from that which isn’t even possible? If it’s not possible to turn away from, then it’s not possible to turn to.  Clearly the option to go either way must be present — one validates the other, which invalidates Calvinism’s position of regeneration and irresistible grace.


The bottom line is, even if James and Peter never made that statement about pride and humility, it remains a biblical truth that God only grants salvation to those who humble themselves before Christ in faith. Therefore, the principle of James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, as it relates to salvation, is clearly taught in the Bible whether it’s specifically stated or not.


I believe the points made here reveal Calvinist regeneration and irresistible grace to be a totally flawed and confused representation of biblical doctrine. It disregards pride and overpowers one’s will, which results in a false humility — turning God’s grace into something that confutes the very definition of it. It’s easy to see that the Arminian view of God’s grace doesn’t have all the issues that the Calvinist version has. This type of inconsistency is common in Calvinist theology.