Monday, October 26, 2009

The Wind Blows Where It Wishes

The Freedom of God and Irresistible Grace

Last time, as we considered one of the most foundational aspects of one of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, I ended the post talking about the moment of conversion -- that moment when spiritual life is given to a dead heart. The eyes of your heart are finally opened, and you can finally evaluate reality as it is, and not how it looks to someone who's blind. Namely, you see sin as disgusting and repulsive as it is, and more importantly you see Christ as He is: gloriously compelling and supremely desirable. And you prefer Him over your sin.

I wrote about that event very carefully in the following string of sentences. I want to repeat these because they get at another foundational aspect of this wonderful doctrine of regeneration. I said, "And because you finally see Him, He is so sweet to you. You love Him! You can't resist Him!"

You can't resist Him.

I want to jump off of that to address something really crucial. Remembering Piper's quote, I want those who are truly born again to exult in what has really happened to them. Because it's true that many who are indeed born again don't know the nature of this new birth. And as he says, "It is a good thing to know—so that Christ can be honored for the fullness of his glorious work, and so that people can enjoy the assurance of being the objects of that miraculous act."

What I spoke about last time -- and what I sort of recapitulated above -- is why we Calvinists describe the new birth as Irresistible Grace. It's not because somebody forced it down our throat, but because the grace that we were given was grace that opened our eyes so that we could actually see the gloriousness and pleasantness of Christ and the total absence of any gloriousness or pleasantness of sin! And so seeing rightly, we can never choose anything but Christ! It’s not against our will… at that point. It’s that our will has been changed [by grace] to want what we now see as most desirable!

Grace is irresistible because Jesus is irresistible!

Calvinism & Arminianism

But do you know what? There is a teaching that is very popular in evangelicalism -- perhaps more popular than the one I just laid out -- called Arminianism. And Arminianism teaches that grace is resistible. They almost certainly wouldn't articulate it this way, but essentially they teach that God can open your eyes enough that you can see Jesus for who He is and that you can see sin for what it is, and that you could still choose to remain in sin. And many people that we know – many people in our churches, and many teachers, and bible study leaders, and apologists that we like to listen to – believe this. And they are wrong, dear friends. They're wrong.

But the reason they say this is because they say that God chooses to "respect" our "free will." Now, I know why they want to say that. But love for them and love for others requires that we explain why that is unbiblical.

First of all, God is not a respecter of persons (Ac 10:34, KJV) that He would respect our "free will." Instead, the Scriptures teach that God chiefly regards Himself in all He does. Ephesians 1:11 says that God "works all things after the counsel of His will."

Secondly, our will is not free, nor has it been since Genesis 3:7. It’s in bondage to sin (spiritually dead, remember?). So this is not even an issue of human autonomy. It’s not about whether or not we have a choice. The issue is: You can see now! You can see Christ for who He is! To say that we can see this Christ and choose anything but Him demeans His Glory. And so this is not a minor issue. This is not just some abstract, impractical, heady, theological discussion. The glory of God is at stake. And we want to glorify God in everything (1Cor 10:31; Eph 3:21). We need to get this right!

Monergism & Synergism

Now these two views – that I referred to as Calvinism and Arminianism – really have more precise names than that. (Because both of those theological systems involve more than a view of regeneration.) The view of regeneration consistent with Calvinism is called monergism, which is a big word that means “one agent is working.” Synergism, on the other hand, is the opposing view which encompasses many theological 'camps.' Synergism just means that there is more than one agent working, that there are multiple agents working in cooperation with each other.

So, which one is the right view? Is regeneration monergistic or synergistic? Well, back in John 3, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to be born again to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus asks Jesus how it’s possible for a man to be born again. "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?" In response to this, Jesus says, most interestingly, "The wind blows where it wishes."

So this idea of irresistible grace brings up the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And in this passage, Jesus makes it plain that this act of regeneration is entirely a work of the Spirit, conditioned upon absolutely nothing about us.

John 3:5-8 - Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

In other words: The Spirit (which, in Greek, is the same word for breath or wind) doesn’t submit to any man. He is not subject to the will of man, but blows where He wills! The wind blows where it wishes. Jesus is teaching that the miracle of regeneration is just that: a miracle. We don't cause ourselves to be born again any more than we can make the wind blow. We indeed must be born again, but this new birth is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God (Eph 2:8).

The question this all comes down to is this: Are we free, or is God? Does the Spirit submit to our will, or do we submit to His? Does the Spirit blow where He wishes, or where we wish?

Consider these passages (mouse over the references):

  • Ezekiel 36:25-27 – God says, "I will" five times. In these three verses, there are eight active verbs where God is the subject. There are no active verbs where man is the subject.
  • Ezekiel 37:1-14 – We’re dry bones. The point of Ezekiel’s hesitance to answer the question about whether they can live shows that he thinks they can’t live, but struggles to say something can’t happen in front of an omnipotent God.
  • Acts 16:14 – God opened her heart to respond, which was otherwise closed.
  • James 1:18 His will is exercised and He brings us forth.
  • 1 Peter 1:3 – He causes us to be born again according to His great mercy.
  • John 1:12-13 – Not of the will of man, but of God. Also, notice the backwards progression: Children of God <-- Receive Him <-- Believe in His name <-- Born of God.
  • John 6:44-45, 65 – None come unless drawn by the Father, which means the people who don’t come are not drawn. The Father “gives” the elect to Christ. And their identity as the elect – a specific group of people known by the Father – is further testified to by John 6:45, in which Jesus quotes Jeremiah 31, thereby identifying those who come to Christ as the elect of the New Covenant.

A word about this verse. The word translated "draw" in verse 44 is far from an ineffectual wooing. It's the Greek word helkĊ, which means to drag, as one hauls in a fishing net (John 21:6, 11), as one draws a sword from a sheath in the midst of battle (John 18:10), as angry men who just lost their money drag a foreigner before their court (Acts 16:19), and as Jewish men drag a traitor out of their city, intending to kill him, believing that he preaches against the Law of God and has defiled the holy place (Acts 21:30).

Apart from Him, You Can Do Nothing

We often quote John 15: "Apart from me you can do nothing." What does that actually mean? Can we do nothing? At least we recognize that we can do nothing good. Nothing of spiritual significance. But do we really believe that? Specifically, do the implications of the truth of that verse control our theology of humanity's natural condition as it relates to our theology of evangelism?

Let me ask you this, Christian. Considering this verse – "Apart from me you can do nothing" – I ask you, Can we believe apart from Jesus Christ? I don’t mean, "Can we get to heaven without Jesus Christ." We’re all going to agree with a resounding, "No!" to that one. What I mean is, can we as sinful human beings, come to a point in our lives and in our understandings, where we can, without already having Jesus and the Holy Spirit, decide to put our faith and trust in Jesus or accept Him as our Lord and Savior?

I’m going to assume that the answer to that is no. So what I think we’d all agree upon is that it takes a work of the grace of God for anyone to believe in the Gospel. So the question is: What is this grace like? Who receives this grace? There are
two possible answers: 1) Everybody, 2) Only those who believe, the elect.

If everybody receives this kind of general grace, why doesn’t everybody believe? If God determines that He will give every human being throughout history enough grace that they can make the choice to believe in or reject Christ, why doesn’t every single recipient of that grace (i.e., everyone) believe in the Gospel? If we’ve all received the same grace – the same kind of grace and the same amount of grace – what is the difference maker in salvation? Ultimately, the answer must be something in us.

But if the nature of this grace that we receive is an effectual, efficient, powerful, effective grace, then we must say that the only people who receive it are those who believe. Now, remember! They don’t receive it because they believe. That’s backwards. They only can believe by this grace. This grace has to come before belief, otherwise John 15 isn’t true and we can do something apart from Him. So if the only people who receive it are those who believe, we must say that the determining factor is the grace, and the results are the believing. Faith is a result of having received a special, effectual grace from God.

That grace is called the new birth, or regeneration. And just as a baby’s will is not consulted before being born, so are we born again, "not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13).


Annette said...

Often, when I think about these 2 views (Monergism/Synergism) I wonder, if people really understand that they were dead in their sins and trespasses before God saved them, why would they want there to be a system of salvation that places part of the work/responsibility for salvation on themselves? It seems ludicrous that people who are unregenerated could make any kind of choice to obey God without God first enabling them (opening their eyes to see Him/saving them) so that they can do so.
Some have argued that God Is A Gentleman, or that God Does Not Want Puppets.... But I don't want a God who is a gentleman, I want a God who gets all things done according to His holy and perfect will- what could be more beneficial to us? And we are absolutely going to act exactly as God ordains- and further, why would I NOT want to be perfectly obedient to, or controlled by, God's every word, all the time- I wish that WERE the case!
It's only in my sinful flesh that I desire to have control, rather than acknowledging God is the one in control- thanks Mike for all these great reminders of the truth that helps to keep me from desiring to have that control :)

Mike Riccardi said...

But I don't want a God who is a gentleman, I want a God who gets all things done according to His holy and perfect will.

Amen! That's definitely quotable!

Thank you, Annette, for your encouragement. We miss you guys, and it's nice to see your names in our inboxes and comment threads. :o)

Mike Riccardi said...

Posted by Annette Acker


Great post! You and I agree on a lot.

However, I'll never be a Calvinist because of the restrictive language used in TULIP. I can only accept the T--the other four concepts fail to accurately reflect biblical paradoxes. And are we free to add something like TULIP to the Bible? (Revelation 22:18) You may say that it's a restatement of Romans 8:29-30, but it changes the terminology (making it FAR more restrictive) and systematizes one biblical passage to the exclusion of others.

Piper, to his credit, uses very precise, biblical language. I agree with almost everything in Future Grace, except for the chapter on Romans 8:29-30, where he uses words like "guaranteed." But that chapter doesn't logically fit with the rest of the book. If salvation is guaranteed (a very strong word not found in the Bible) for those God in his unfettered discretion has chosen, why does Piper need to tell us to "yield" to God's grace and not "nullify" God's grace by self-sufficiency? How do you nullify irresistible grace? And if I'm not chosen, I have to resist, right?

So I just wanted to explain to you why non-Calvinists object to Calvinism. It's not because we don't understand and agree with what you say in your post. It's also not because we don't understand and agree with Piper's excellent expositional teaching. I list Future Grace as one of my favorite books in my Blogger profile, and one of the other Arminians who commented (Matt Stephens) lists Desiring God in his.

It's because of the disturbing ramifications of TULIP, as a self-contained chain of reasoning. Think about it logically for a moment, quite apart from the Bible and the teachings of Reformed teachers. Why do you want to be tethered to that? Why not just let God's word, with all it's paradoxes, speak for itself?

Mike Riccardi said...


I believe I am letting God's Word speak for itself, and a healthy, helpful encapsulation of what it teaches is represented by what is taught in TULIP.

I've never met an Arminian who doesn't appeal to mystery and paradox in the Bible. Here's the problem. A paradox is not an unresolvable contradiction. A paradox is a way of communicating that uses two things that are apparently contradictory to make an observable point about the relationship of two seemingly unrelated or incompatible things.

Paradoxes do not force us to remain at bay from the unsearchable mind of God. They invite us to dive right in and understand the mind of God, which no one knows except the Spirit of God, whom God has freely given to us so that we might know the things He wants us to know (1Cor 2:12-14).

I am not content to say, "The Bible seems to teach 'A', but it also seems to teach 'not A', so I'm just gonna leave those things there." I don't think that's God-honoring, because God has given us His revelation so that we may know Him.

SO... when I see the teaching that God is sovereign over every single thing that has ever happened, happens, or will happen in the whole of the created order, and THEN I see a passage which teaches that humans make choices, I take it as my mission from God (as well as a sheer delightful privilege) to understand the intention of God in presenting those two things together (i.e., a Biblical, and correct view of paradox). And so I see those two things, and I apply myself with the Spirit's aid to understanding the mind of God, and by the analogy of faith, I arrive at the conclusion that God's ordinance and decree govern all the human choices that are made. We both have a choice, but one choice is behind the other, and ultimately determined by the other (namely, God's choice is behind man's choice).

You cannot have two sovereigns. It's just the way the world is. Someone is sovereign, or someone else is sovereign. I cannot for the life of me imagine why it's more comforting to anyone to believe that humanity is sovereign, (1) in light of what Scripture clearly teaches (Is 46:10; Ps 33:6-9; Eph 1:3-12), and (2) in light of what Christian people know about their own depravity. I think in the real sense of the word, it's ridiculous.

Either God is sovereign and determines all things that happen in His creation, or man is sovereign and God reacts to what His creatures dictate to Him. There's no middle ground there.

Reality is, God is absolutely sovereign and yet holds men absolutely responsible. That is an antinomy (not a paradox, btw). That is something we are told explicitly is not ours to understand (Rom 9:19-20). But humanity does not have a free will. They have an enslaved will. It's not that they don't have a will at all; people make real choices all the time. But those choices are according to an enslaved will which they have by nature, unless that nature is changed by the supernatural grace of God (in regeneration).

Mike Riccardi said...

I can only accept the T...

Actually, you don't really accept the T. One thing about the 5 points is that they are all inferred from one another (even as they're all taught form Scripture, acceptance of one properly understood requires acceptance of the rest).

If you believe that humanity is totally depraved apart from any work of God, and without grace can do nothing at all to save themselves, whether to bring the whole operation to pass or even just to initiate it, you cannot believe that they have the ability to 'accept' or 'reject' 'grace.' They're dead. There's no state in which their wills can be consulted in which they won't respond with, "No! And get out of my way!" That's what "T" means. Spiritual deadness (Eph 2:1-3), hostility to God (Rom 8:7-8).

Similarly, if election is not unconditional, but conditioned upon faith, how would a dead man, totally depraved, exercise a loving utter reliance on something that he hates? He can't. As a depraved sinner, he cannot believe, and so he cannot 'get elected' according to conditional election.

So that was I and U, how about L now? If a sinner is depraved, how can he come to choose to activate a potential atonement? He can't. He's still dead, and wants nothing to do with Christ. The atonement -- and by that I mean sins actually forgiven, not just maybe-forgiven, where I can still suffer in hell for eternity for my 'forgiven' sins -- must be applied to those who believe. And those who believe must believe because something outside of them has granted them that faith (Eph 2:8-10).

And for P, how can a depraved sinner who couldn't do anything to earn / gain their salvation in the first place (again, dead), all of a sudden lose it by something of his own doing? There was nothing I could do to earn my salvation -- there's nothing I can do to lose it. And besides, you have verses like 1 John 2:19 saying that 'going out from' Christianity shows that one was 'never really of us.' Also, statements that Jesus Himself makes in John 6 and John 10 about Him losing none of those that the Father has given to Him (election), and no one being able to snatch them out of His hand necessitates that once you're truly justified you can never not be justified. (That is in fact what Romans 8:28ff teaches. Those who were called were also justified and those who were justified were also glorified. No amount of your putting "restrictive!" labels all over that makes it untrue.) In fact, to make the charge that people can lose their salvation is not a charge against them, but it's a charge against Christ's ability to save forever those who draw near to Him by faith (Heb 7). If we can fall away, God is not powerful enough to keep us; our unbelief (our sin) trumps His grace and His omnipotence.

So, you can't have T without ULIP. You can have a modified version of T, that's not really what Scripture teaches on total depravity. But you can't have the Biblical doctrine of the spiritual death of man outside of Christ, and then conclude that that dead man is perfectly autonomous to decide whether or not he is elect of God (!), to believingly apply an atoning sacrifice to himself, to accept grace which is impossible for him to accept, and to keep himself saved when he didn't do anything to get saved in the first place.

Mike Riccardi said...

Posted by Annette Acker


My point was not that we should not try to reconcile the paradoxes as the Spirit enables us. I do that all the time. My point was that TULIP interprets Romans 8:29-30 in a way that takes out all paradoxes.

Therefore, a five-point Calvinist is restricted in a way that other Christians are not. Other Christians are free to let the Spirit lead without regard to anything except God's word. With all due respect, I think that's why we're told not to add anything to the Scriptures.

Blessings to you, Mike! I'm glad that you have such a passion for God's sovereign grace.

Mike Riccardi said...


Do you believe in the Trinity?

Of course you do.

Do you believe that, since that word is not found in Scripture, that we are adding to the Scripture to talk about a trinitarian God?

Of course not!

We use the word (and concept) of "Trinity" to express in short form a summary of what we believe Scripture teaches about the nature of God.

Calvinists do the same thing with TULIP. We find it a helpful summary of what we believe Scripture already teaches. We don't add it to Scripture. We arrive at it from a careful study of Scripture.

Just like using "Trinity" isn't adding to the Bible, but using a helpful summary to represent a very complex doctrine taught all over Scripture, using terms like Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace aids in helpful summary to represent complex doctrines that take many words to explain otherwise.

It's not adding to Scripture. And "with all due respect," I think you should be more careful about to whom and to what you make that accusation.

Anette Acker said...

Mike, the "helpful summary" leaves out a lot of inconvenient contrary verses. And by being so rigid, it puts a stumbling block in the way of many believers who don't understand that they actually have a choice--that is, a choice to surrender to God's grace.

Our interpretation of the Trinity has little practical relevance. But TULIP purports to be a shorthand explanation of God's sovereignty and the nature of salvation. What could be more important to get right?

You persuaded me to drop the T. What I really believe in is original sin, not total depravity. But it looks like Piper himself is making an argument against total depravity in chapter 11 of Future Grace: "A Love Affair with God's Law." Check it out if you haven't already.

BTW, this is my last comment, and since you moved my post I'm no longer getting follow-up comments (the box is unchecked).

Anette Acker said...

I apologize for the tone of my last comment. I just don't think this is a particularly productive conversation, so let's just agree to disagree.

I wish you the best!