Bavinck and Cunningham, two of the most orthodox and careful reformed theologians that history has blessed us with, describe below how the historical origin and intention of the term (and concept) of ‘irresistible grace’ was not meant to deny resistible grace. Shedd closely describes and synthesizes the Holy Spirit’s sincere common strivings with those who resist them and finally perish under the gospel call, and His choice to put forth His irresistible power in overcoming the resistance of, and effectually drawing, some unto salvation.
For an introduction to this teaching of scripture, of the compatibility of resistible and irresistible grace, with many Bible verses and 60+ quotes demonstrating it from reformed history, see The Common Operations of the Spirit.
Order of Contents
History of this Doctrine
. Synopsis of Pure Theology
The History of the Compatibility of Resistible & Irresistible Grace
Herman Bavinck 1854-1921
Reformed Dogmatics, 4:82-83, 1895-99
William Cunningham 1805-1861
Historical Theology, vol. 2, 1862, reprinted 1994, Banner of Truth, Ch. 25, The Arminian Controversy, Section 6, Efficacious and Irresistible Grace, pp. 408-9
“Calvinists, indeed, do not admit that it is an accurate mode of stating the question, to put it in this form,—whether or not the grace or gracious operation of the Spirit be irresistible? for they do not dispute that, in some sense, men do resist the Spirit; and they admit that resistance to the Spirit may be predicated both of the elect and of the non-elect,—the non-elect having operations of the Spirit put forth upon them which they resist or throw off, and never yield to,—and the elect having generally resisted the operations of the Spirit for a time before they yielded to them.
Accordingly, although the only thing in the Arminian declaration, as given in to the Synod of Dort [1618-9], which was regarded as containing a positive error in doctrine, was the assertion that, as to the mode of the Spirit’s operation in conversion, it was not irresistible, there is not, in the canons of the synod, any formal deliverance, in terminis [in such terms], upon this precise point, though all that the Arminians meant to assert, by denying the irresistibility of grace, is clearly and fully condemned. This statement likewise holds true, in all its parts, of our own [Westminster] Confession of Faith. It does not contain, in terminis [in such terms], an assertion of the irresistibility, or a denial of the resistibility, of the grace of God in conversion; but it contains a clear and full assertion of the whole truth which Arminians have generally intended to deny by asserting the resistibility of grace, and which Calvinists have intended to assert, when—accommodating themselves to the Arminian phraseology, but not admitting its accuracy—they have maintained that grace in conversion is irresistible.
They [Calvinists] object to the word irresistible, as applied to their doctrine, because of its ambiguity,—because, in one sense, they hold grace in conversion to be resistible, and in another, not. It may be said to be resistible, and to be actually resisted, inasmuch as motions or operations of the Spirit upon men’s minds—which, in their general nature and bearing, may be said to tend towards the production of conversion—are resisted, or not yielded to, by the non-elect, and for a time even by the elect; while it may be said to be irresistible,—or, as Calvinists usually prefer calling it, insuperable, or infrustratable, or certainly efficacious,—inasmuch as, according to their doctrine, whenever the gracious divine power that is sufficient to produce conversion, and necessary to effect it, is put forth, it certainly overcomes all the resistance that men are able to make, and infallibly produces the result.”
Peter Martyr Vermigli d. 1562
Commentary on Judges, Ch. 9, pp. 167-8
“Whether we can Resist the Grace of God, or No?
But now arises an other doubt as touching our nature as it is now fallen and corrupt, whether it can resist the grace of God and his Spirit being present, or no?
(There are sundry degrees of grace of God)
I think we must consider that there are, as it were, sundry degrees of the help or grace of God: for his might and abundance is sometimes so great that He wholly bows the will of man and does not only counsel, but also persuade. And when it so comes to pass, we cannot depart from the right way, but we are of God’s side and obey his sentence. Wherefore it was said unto Paul: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
(There is no violence or coaction inferred to man’s will)
And yet must we not think that when it is so done [that] there is any violence or coaction brought unto the will of man: for it is by a pleasant moving and conversion altered, and that willing, but yet so willing that the will thereof comes of God: for it is it which wills, but God by a strong and most mighty persuasion makes it to will.
But sometimes that power of God and spirit is more remiss: which yet (if we will put thereunto our endeavor and apply our will) we should not resist: yea we should obey his admonishments and inspirations: and when that we do it not, we are therefore said to resist Him, and oftentimes fall.
And yet this is not to be understand as touching the first regeneration, but as concerning those which are regenerated, which are now endowed with grace and Spirit. For the will of the ungodly is so corrupt and vitiate, that except it be renewed, it cannot give place unto the inspirations of God and admonishings of the Holy Ghost: and it in the first immutation of man’s conversion, it only suffers: and before the renewing, it continually (as much as in it is) resists the Spirit of God. But the first parents, whilst they were perfect, if with the help of grace being somewhat remiss, they had adjoined their endeavor, they might have perfectly obeyed the commaundments of God.
But we, although we be renewed, saving grace is more remiss, remitting nothing of our endeavor, we shall not be able constantly and perfectly to obey the commandments of God, but yet we may be able to contain ourselves within the bounds or limits of an obedience begun: which thing because we do not, therefore oftentimes we sin, and grievously fall.
(Why the grace of god works not alike always in us)
But why God gives not his grace always to his elect after one sort and one increase, but sometimes He works in them more strongly and sometimes more remissedly, two reasons may be assigned:
First, lest we should think the grace of God to be natural strengths which remain always after one sort. Wherefore God would most justly alter the degree and efficacy of his help: whereby we might understand that it is governed by his will and not as we lust. Moreover it oftentimes happens that our negligence and slothfulness deserves this variety.”
The Synopsis of Pure Theology 1625
Andreas Polyander, Disputation 30, ‘On the Calling of People to Salvation’ in Synopsis of a Purer Theology, vol. 2 (Brill, 2016), pp. 222-7
“32. The way of calling, when we examine it from opposing perspectives, is divided into external and internal. The former is achieved outwardly through the administration of Word and sacraments, the latter inwardly through the working of the Holy Spirit.
34, Nor does God always link the two ways of calling equally or in the same way, but the concurrence of both of them is effective in some people and ineffective in others.†
† [Editor: …’concurrence’ refers to the external and the internal callings that mostly, but not necessarily, concur. Even if they do concur that is not always efficacious. According to Arminius the concurrence of the outward and inward call was efficacious, be it that the effect ultimately depended on the consent of the believer. After the Synod of Dort, Reformed theologians felt a need to specify when and how the internal call had effect and did no longer teach that the concurrence of the outward and inward calls was always salvific. Cf. Van den Belt, ‘Vocatio in the Leiden Disputations,’ 552.]
35. The ineffective concurrence of the two ways is observed in three kinds of people. For some people are not moved to embrace it, even though the light of the evangelical truth has shone fully upon them. These are the people who receive the seed of the Gospel that is sown along the trodden path (Mt. 13:19).
37. To other people the Holy Spirit offers a little taste of his grace so that their hearts are touched by a momentary feeling of happiness. These receive the Gospel like seed sown among thorns (Mt. 13:22).
40. Although some gifts flow forth from the concurrence of the two callings and are shared by hypocrites along with the elect (i.e., the gift of knowing and tasting God’s good Word, and the virtues of the coming age [Heb. 6:4-6]), they are not sufficient for the salvation of the hypocrites. But in the elect they prepare the way for their salvation and–by God’s good pleasure towards them–these gifts do lead the way to more abundant grace, of which others are rightly, deservedly deprived because they do not employ those first gifts in the right way.
45. The form of the effective calling by which it is distinguished from the ineffective one, consists in the saving application of this benefit which takes some sinners from their natural communion to that particular grace…
46. The highest goal of both callings (shared by both the ineffective and the effective one) is the manifestation of God’s mercy towards those whom He calls. The subordinate goal of the effective calling, and [the goal] proper to it, is the saving imparting of God’s grace; but the accidental goal of the ineffective calling is the conviction of stubborn disobedience and complete inexcusableness in the hearts of those who impudently withstand and interrupt the Holy Spirit as He speaks through the mouths of the preachers.†
† [Editor: …The finis accidens is not essential to the goal but as it were a side effect of it.]”
On the Synopsis
Van den Belt, ‘The Vocatio in the Leiden Disputations (1597—1631): The Influence of the Arminian Controversy on the Concept of the Divine Call to Salvation’ in Church History and Religious Culture, Vol. 92, No. 4 (2012), p. 552-4. It appears that the below distinctions came about in the Leiden context (at least with regard to disputations on the call to salvation) after the fuller explication of Arminianism and the Synod of Dort (1618-9).
“To explain the efficacious call, Polyander (1622) refers to the parable of the seed. The inefficacious concurrence of the internal and external modes of the call has three distinct forms. Some are illumined by the light of the gospel, but not affected to embrace it. Others permit the light of the truth conceived in the soul to be suffocated by the cares of this world, and to others the Holy Spirit gives some taste of his grace by which their heart is affected with a sense of joy for a moment. These three forms correspond with the seed that falls along the path, among thorns, and on rocky places…
Polyander does not equate the internal call with the efficacious call for two reasons: 1) Because the universal call through nature also has an internal side, and 2) because the external and the internal call can concur in the hypocrit [Heb. 6:4-6].
When the call is divided into internal and external… with respect to the reprobate however, they can be distinguished as species. Following Polyander (1622) and Polyander (1627), Walaeus (1631) also distinguishes certain grades of the internal operation of the Spirit in the reprobate… In short, all the disputations held on the vocatio after the synod [of Dort] differentiate the internal work of the Spirit.”
William G.T. Shedd 1893
Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, 1893, New York, pp. 100-103
“The Calvinist, on the contrary [to Arminianism], holds that the unregenerate man never ceases to resist and never yields to God of his own motion, but only as he is acted upon by the Holy Spirit and is thereby ‘persuaded and enabled’ to cease resisting and to yield obedience. Ceasing to resist God, he [the Calvinist] contends, is holy action, and so is yielding or submitting to God. To refer this kind of action to the sinful and unregenerate will as its author [as the Arminian does], the Calvinist asserts [this] is contrary to the Scripture declaration, that ‘the carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,’ Rom. 8:7. A will at enmity with God never of itself ceases resisting Him, and never of itself yields to Him. It must be changed from enmity into love by ‘the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost’ in order to sweet and gentle submission.
The sinner, as such, cannot, therefore, assist and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in this work of originating faith and repentance, but the whole of it must be done by that Almighty Agent who can turn the human heart as the rivers of water. Christ, through the Spirit, is the sole ‘author of faith’ (Heb. 12:2). When the Holy Spirit puts forth a higher degree of his energy than He exerts in his ordinary operation, He overcomes and stops the sinner’s resistance instead of the sinner’s overcoming and stopping it of himself, and [the Holy Spirit] inclines the sinner to yield to the Divine monitions [admonitions] and impulse instead of the sinner’s yielding of his own accord [as the Arminian says]. If the sinner’s resistance is ‘overcome’, it is overcome by God’s action [according to the Calvinist]; but if it ‘ceases’, it ceases by the sinner’s action [by his own power, according to the Arminian].
To say that common grace [in the sincere strivings of the Spirit] would [hypothetically] succeed [in salvation] if it were not resisted by man, is not the same as saying that common grace would succeed if it were yielded to by man[‘s independent power, as in Arminianism]. [Hypothetical] Non-resistance is different from ceasing resistance [of the Arminian]. In the former [hypothetical] instance there is no opposition by the man [and thus the common, gracious striving of the Spirit in the gospel call would result in saving grace]; in the latter there is opposition, which is put a stop to by the man[‘s independent power, on the Arminian view].
According to the monergistic [God alone working] or Calvinistic view of grace, on the contrary [to Arminianism], no man receives a grace that is ‘sufficient for generating faith’ who does not receive such a measure of Divine influence as overcomes his hostile will; so that he does not stop his own resistance but it stopped by the mercy and power of God; so that his faith and repentance are not the result in part of his own efficiency, but solely of the Holy Spirit’s irresistible and sovereign energy in regeneration. In a word, the dependence upon Divine grace in the Calvinistic system [in being saved] is total; in the Arminian is partial. In the former, common grace cannot be made saving grace by the sinner’s co-action; in the latter it can be.”