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.
Herman Bavinck 1854-1921
Reformed Dogmatics, 4:82-83, 1895-99, This quote was compiled by Tony Byrne.
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.
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.