Irresistable Grace and Preaching
by Rev. Ronald Van Overloop
The link in the golden chain of Calvinism which is called irresistible grace is as indispensable as the other four links. This link answers the question, "How are the benefits of Christ's cross applied to the elect?"
The answer of all those who deny or compromise the sovereignty of God is that the benefits of Christ's cross are not applied UNTIL the recipient exercises the so-called prerogative of a free moral agent and actually wills to be converted. The presuppositions of this answer of the Arminians are many. We list two major ones. The first is that man is not truly totally depraved, for, they say, man's will in itself has never been totally corrupted but only hindered, and man can use its powers to choose good. The second incorrect presupposition is that grace is nothing else than a gentle moral suasion which consists in advising the willing heart of unconverted man to be converted. Thus grace is made to be only a helping hand. Salvation in this conception of things is said to be all of grace, BUT all receive this grace. The only possible conclusion to this theory is that the one who remains unsaved is able to resist the grace given to him.
Upholding God's sovereignty we defend the truth that His grace is irresistible.
Elsewhere in this issue it is shown that total depravity implies a grace which is irresistible. Also it is shown that grace is the favor of God which is a power to fashion us according to His holy design. God "hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus" (II Timothy 1:9). Jesus says, "No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him" and "no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of My Father" (John 6:44, 65).
In the Canons of Dordt (III, IV, 11, 12) we are taught of the relationship between efficacious grace and preaching. Efficacious calling, by which God works true conversion, consists of the external preaching of the gospel and of the regenerating Spirit pervading the inmost recesses of man. This calling unto salvation God works in us without our aid. This is effected not only by the external preaching of the gospel, but also by an internal, supernatural work of the Spirit. In no wise is this effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel or by moral suasion so that after God performs His part it remains in the power of man to be converted or not. By the work of the Spirit AND by the preaching of the gospel God calls His own. Preaching is the divinely chosen vehicle for the deliverance of irresistible grace. These two elements of efficacious calling may not be separated. If it is held that conversion takes place without the preaching, one hits the rock of the errors of hyper-Calvinism. If it is only by the preaching of the gospel and without the internal work of the Spirit, one hits the hard place of all the errors of Arminianism, for then the preaching is merely moral suasion on God's part with its success depending on the power of man as to whether he will be regenerated and converted or not.
The rightful place of the preaching of the gospel is alongside the work of the Spirit. Hand in glove these are the divinely chosen means to work conversion. The Spirit effects the radical change in man's heart and will and actions through the means of the preaching of the gospel.
The Canons of Dordt explain what is the proper place of the preaching in the bestowal of grace (cf. III, IV, 17). It draws a comparison between the natural and the spiritual. Natural life is produced and sustained by an almighty operation of God. In His perfect wisdom and goodness God has willed to exert this power upon natural life through the use of means. So it is with spiritual life. Such is produced and sustained within men only by supernatural operations of God. Also this life, through the use of means, is produced and sustained by God. That means is the preaching of the gospel. The golden mean must be maintained between the extremes of hyper-Calvinism (and its denial of the use of gospel preaching) on the one side, and of Arminianism (and its use of preaching as moral suasion) on the other side.
Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit whereby He softens the hard heart, infuses new qualities into the spiritually dead will, and actuates and strengthens the believer to bring forth good works. To this end the perfect wisdom and goodness of God uses the sacred admonitions of gospel preaching. We may not separate what God in His good pleasure has most intimately joined together.
For this article to provide a more complete treatment of the relationship between irresistible grace and preaching we must consider the practical outworkings of this beautiful union. We have two thoughts we want to present.
The first thought is about the content of the preaching. What is to be the content of that preaching which is built on the foundation of the absolute sovereignty of God and His irresistible grace? At the Synod of Dordt the Arminians charged that in such preaching there was no room for admonitions.
Again the Canons of Dordt (III, IV, 17) provide us with the proper starting blocks. All true preaching not only must instruct concerning this efficacious grace of God to His glory and the abasement of all human pride, but also must present the admonitions of the gospel in the exercise of the Word, sacraments, and discipline. The theme of all true preaching is the exaltation of God and the consequent humiliation of man. The preaching must show the absolute necessity of the blood of Christ to the exclusion of all the works of men. Central in all preaching must be that the heart of faith is Jesus Christ and His righteousness as efficaciously imputed. The unconverted must not be flattered, nor the converted given carnal ease.
All who hear the message of the Gospel are to be told plainly that their salvation was and is in the hands of God to give or to withhold. This plain proclamation is no obstacle to coming to faith and salvation, only to human pride. The true preacher of the gospel knows that his entreaties can never make men able or willing, but that conversion is the work of the power of God alone.
Why then cry, "Repent and believe!"? Because the Spirit effectually works in men (to bring about initial conversion in the unconverted and continued conversion in those already converted) in connection with that preaching, illuminating men's minds so they may discern the things of the Spirit of God. Through the means of admonitions to repent from sin and to believe the work of God in Christ, the Spirit makes man discern his inability, sinfulness, and guilt. By means of the gospel admonitions the Spirit enlightens man's understanding as to the propriety and necessity of a salvation by God alone. Thus man is fully persuaded of his utter inability to obey apart from the grace of God, which grace must be irresistible. Thus men's obstinate wills are sweetly and powerfully bent so that where resistance formerly ruled, now there begins to reign a sincere spiritual obedience to the will of God. Therefore the truths of the spiritual inability of man to save himself and of the sovereignty of God in salvation must be proclaimed and the persuasive commands issued in order for the Spirit to work conversion. Only then does the preaching of a salvation of sinners by a sovereign God have hope that God will use His words to bear upon men's hearts with a power no man can resist. Then I, as a preacher of the gospel of irresistible grace, beseech sinners to be reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5:20).
Because the truth of this relationship between irresistible grace and preaching is often misunderstood, let us look at it again answering these questions: "Why exhort and admonish to believe when faith is a gift of God and we cannot believe of ourselves?" "Why would a sinner try to do what is impossible for him to do of himself, namely, believe?"
It does not have to be true that faith is in any way a work of man's corrupt nature. Nor is it necessary that Christ be dead for all, in order for man to have a warrant to obey Scripture's admonitions. Rather it is while man is exhorted and persuaded to believe in and on Jesus Christ that it pleases God the Spirit to quicken spiritually, enabling the sinner to acknowledge his inability and to desire God's forgiveness. We cannot produce faith in ourselves, not even by placing ourselves under the means of grace (the preaching). Nevertheless it is only through these means that we can expect God's irresistible grace to work in us. So has God joined together the preaching and His efficacious grace as wrought by the Holy Spirit.
The second practical thought we might bring is that there is a place for prayer in this connection. Accompanying the preaching of irresistible grace, the true minister of the gospel prays. This is also the responsibility of the elect who have already been brought to the consciousness of salvation. They who are the recipients of this irresistible or efficacious grace owe and give eternal gratitude to God, knowing that he has not made himself to differ from the one who does not believe. Therefore, for that one who has not yet been called, it is our duty to pray to God Who calls the things that are not as if they were (Cf. Canons of Dordt, III, IV, 15).
Believing God's Word that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, the true minister of the gospel and all who presently believe pray. We pray that the Spirit will use the means of the Word that morning, afternoon, or evening efficaciously to work initial conversion or to further sanctification in those already believing. Fervently this prayer must be uttered before every worship service. Only the Divine Wind (John 3:8) can make the words of the preaching of the gospel to be a power of salvation which no hard heart can withstand. So we must pray for that Spirit of Christ to be present in every worship service. Otherwise all preaching is in vain.
So we must preach and so we must pray. A beautiful harmony wrought by Divine wisdom and goodness exists between irresistible grace and that preaching of the gospel which is accompanied by fervent prayers.
Rev. Ronald Van Overloop (Wife: Sue)
Ordained: October 1972
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1972; Home Missionary (AL) - 1979; Bethel, Roselle, IL - 1989; Georgetown, Hudsonville, MI - 1994; Byron Center, MI - 2004; Grace, Standale, MI - 2008Website: www.graceprc.org/
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