Efficacious and Irresistible Grace

by William Cunningham

We have stated generally the nature and import of the application of the blessings which Christ purchased for men, —or the way and manner in which God imparts these blessings to men individually, —explaining the Arminian doctrines of universal vocation and sufficient grace, as applicable, first, to mankind in general, and, secondly, to all to whom the gospel is made known; and contrasting them with the doctrines generally held by Calvinists, in regard to effectual calling and efficacious grace. We have seen that, as we cannot assign any other adequate cause or reason, except the good pleasure of God, why so many of our fellow-men have always been, and still are, left in a state in which they cannot attain to a knowledge of the way of salvation, while others enjoy the glorious light of the gospel; so we are shut up also to ascribe to a special distinguishing gracious operation of God’s Spirit, —bestowed upon some and not upon others, —the fact, that of those who do enjoy the same outward vocation and the same external privileges, some reject the call, refuse to believe and to turn to God, while others believe and are converted. The provision which God has made for imparting to men individually the blessings which Christ purchased, may be ranked under two general heads, —namely, first, outward privileges or means of grace, the knowledge of the way of salvation, and the offers and invitations of the gospel; and, secondly, what is commonly called grace itself, or the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit upon men’s minds, enabling or assisting them to repent and believe. We have already considered the first of these subjects, and have entered upon the explanation of the second, —stating, generally, the Arminian doctrine of sufficient grace, bestowed upon all men who hear the gospel, to enable them to believe it if they choose; and the Calvinistic doctrine of effectual calling and efficacious grace, bestowed only upon some, and constituting the true cause or reason why they believe and are converted, while others continue in their natural state of impenitence and unbelief. The establishment of the doctrine of special distinguishing grace, bestowed by God on some, and not on others, —and certainly producing in all on whom it is bestowed faith and regeneration, —may be said to terminate the controversy between Calvinists and Arminians upon this important point.

The controversy, however, has branched out into several other questions, about which— though they are all virtually included under that of special distinguishing grace— it may be proper to give a brief explanation, especially as I have not yet adverted, directly and formally, to the point on which the Arminians commonly represent the whole controversy upon this subject as turning, —namely, what they call the irresistibility of grace. Arminius himself, and the more evangelical of those who have generally been called after his name, professing to hold the total depravity of man by nature, have asserted the necessity of the special supernatural agency of the Spirit to the production of faith and regeneration; and, in general terms, have indeed ascribed these results wholly to the grace of God and the operation of the Spirit; while they professed to be anxious only to show, that, as to the mode of the Spirit’s operation, it is not irresistible. The discussions, however, which have taken place upon this subject, have made it manifest that there are other deviations from sound doctrine on the subject of the work of the Spirit in producing faith and regeneration, into which Arminians are naturally, if not necessarily, led; and the subject is inseparably connected with right views of the entire depravity of man, and of his inability, in his natural state, to will or to do anything spiritually good, —subjects on the consideration of which, for reasons formerly stated, I do not at present enter.

Arminus, in his declaration addressed to the States of Holland, in 1608, the year before his death, stated his views upon the subject in this way: "I ascribe to grace the commencement, THE CONTINUANCE, AND THE CONSUMMATION OF ALL GOOD, —and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, without this preventing and exciting, this following and co-operating grace. From this statement it will clearly appear, that I am by no means injurious or unjust to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free-will: For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, (Is the grace of God a certain, irresistible force?’ That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace, (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions and operations as any man ever did,) but it relates solely to the mode of operation, —whether it be irresistible or not: With respect to which, I believe, according to the Scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.” In like manner, as we have seen, his followers at the Synod of Dort, in their declaration as to the third and fourth articles, spoke to the same effect; though some of the very same men who professed so much scriptural truth at that time, —and especially Episcopius, —afterwards adopted, or at least promulgated, sentiments much more Pelagian, in regard to the nature and necessity of grace. It would have been well if all who have been called Arminians had ascribed as much as Arminius did to the grace of God, in the conversion and sanctification of men. But we cannot admit that, on the ground of the statement we have quoted, —strong and plausible as it is, —he can be proved to be guiltless of attributing too much to man’s free-will, or must be regarded as giving a scriptural view of the nature and mode of the Spirit’s operation. Notwithstanding all that he has said, in ascribing to grace, and to the operation of the Spirit, the commencement, the continuance, and consummation of all good, —that is, —for it does not necessarily mean more than this, —that nothing spiritually good is produced in man, without, or except by, the agency of the Spirit, it is quite possible that he may have held such a co-operation or concurrence of man himself, in the exercise of his own natural powers and capacities, with the Spirit, in the whole process by which faith and regeneration are produced, as to neutralize or obscure the grace of God in the matter; and to make man a joint or concurrent cause with God even in originating those changes which are indispensable to salvation. And this, indeed, is just what is implied in the denial, that the mode oj the Spirit's operation in producing conversion is irresistible.

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, 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, 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 Confession of Faith. It does not contain, in terminis, 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 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 infrustrable, 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.

And here I may remark by the way, that it is a point sometimes controverted among Calvinists themselves, whether the non-elect are ever the subjects of motions or operations of the Spirit, which, in their own nature, tend towards conversion, or possess, in a measure, those general properties which, when they possessed them in a higher degree, produce conversion. Upon this point, our Confession of Faith takes the side of asserting that they “may have some common operations of the Spirit and this view of the matter is more accordant than the opposite one with what seems to be indicated by Scripture upon the subject, while it is not liable to any serious objection. But Calvinists, while differing upon this point, —which is not of much intrinsic importance, —all admit that the elect do for a time resist divine grace, or the gracious operations of the Spirit; while they all maintain that, whenever that special grace which is necessary to conversion, and which alone is sufficient to effect it, is put forth, men cannot resist, or overcome, or frustrate it, and do, in fact, certainly and necessarily yield to its influence. This doctrine is asserted in our Confession of Faith— not in express terms, indeed, but plainly and unequivocally— in this way: It declares that, in the work of effectual calling, —which is asserted to be wrought in “all those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only,” — He renews their wills, and, by His almighty power, determines them to that which is good, and effectually draws them to Jesus Christ, yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace; and it further declares, that, in this process of effectual calling, man is “altogether passive,” “until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”

If the depravity of man by nature is so entire or total, as that he labours under an inability to will anything spiritually good, and therefore— for this is a necessary consequence of his want of ability to will— must have his will renewed by a power from without himself, and must be wholly passive in the commencement of the process by which this renovation of the will is effected, then it is evident that— though he may have resisted an inferior measure of the power that tended in the direction of renewing him— the power by which the renovation of the will was actually effected must have been such that he could not resist or overcome it, —that, whenever power sufficient to effect such a result was really put forth, it must certainly remove every obstacle, and infallibly accomplish the result intended. If it were a power that could be overcome or frustrated by anything in man, it would not be sufficient to effect the result, because there is no other source from which any assistance or co-operation in producing the result could v be derived. Man himself is dead in sins and trespasses, —utterly destitute, until his will has been renewed, of any ability to will what is good; and therefore the power which is sufficient or adequate to renew his will, must be such as certainly to overcome all obstacles, and infallibly produce the necessary change. The Arminian doctrine is, that when all the means have been used, and the whole power has been put forth, that are sufficient to produce faith and regeneration, and that do, in point of fact, produce them, Wherever they are produced, all men may, and many do, resist (these means and this power, and in the exercise of their own freewill, continue impenitent and unbelieving, overcoming or frustrating the very same power or agency— the same, both in kind and degree— to which others yield, and are, in consequence, converted and saved. This is plainly— whatever general statements may be made about the necessity of divine grace— to ascribe to men a natural power to will what is spiritually good, and to make this natural power to will what is spiritually good the real determining cause of their conversion, —that which discriminates or distinguishes those who repent and believe from those who continue in impenitence and unbelief. Men attribute too much to man’s free-will, —to adopt the language of Arminius, —when they ascribe to it any power to will what is spiritually good, or any activity or power of co-operating with divine grace in the origin or commencement of the process of regeneration. And unless this be ascribed to it, the power by which regeneration is actually effected must be irresistible, —must be such that men cannot frustrate or overcome it.

It will be seen, then, that the doctrine of the irresistibility, or insuperability, of divine grace in conversion is a necessary consequence of scriptural views of man’s entire depravity, and his inability by nature to will anything spiritually good; and that all that Calvinists intend to set forth in maintaining this doctrine, is declared when they assert that it is necessary that men’s will be renewed, and that, in the commencement of the process by which this renovation is effected, they are wholly passive, —incapable of co-operating with divine grace, or with the Holy Spirit operating upon them, until He has, by His own almighty power, effected an important change upon them. This change is sometimes called regeneration, when that word is taken in its most limited I sense, as distinguished from conversion; and, in that case, regeneration means the first implantation of spiritual life, —the process of vivification, or making alive, —while conversion describes the process by which men, now quickened and renewed, —no longer passive, but active, —do willingly turn to God, and embrace Jesus Christ as all their salvation and all their desire; and the whole is comprehended under the designation of effectual calling, which includes the whole work of the Spirit, in applying to men the blessings which Christ purchased, and in effecting that important change in their condition and character which is,  in every instance, indispensable to salvation.

An essential part of this process is the renovation of the will, or the giving it a new capacity or tendency, —a power of willing what is spiritually good, —whereas before it could will only what was spiritually evil. And it is important to have our attention directed to this feature in the process, as it is that right views of which most directly oppose and exclude Arminian errors upon this subject. In the description of effectual calling, given in the Shorter Catechism, it is said to be “a work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel.” The general principles of the Arminians upon this subject lead them to deny the renovation of the will, as a distinct step in this process. If there be such a thing as a renovation of the will, it must manifestly, from the nature of the case, be effected by a divine power; and that power, finding nothing previously existing in or about the will, that can assist or co-operate in the production of the result of its own renovation, must be exerted in such a measure, in effecting the object, as to be insuperable, or certainly and infallibly victorious. The Arminians, in denying the insuperability of the grace of God in conversion, and in maintaining that, even when a divine power sufficient to produce conversion is put forth, men may frustrate it and continue unconverted, not only ascribe to the will of man, in his natural state, a power or capacity, in regard to what is spiritually good, which is inconsistent with the necessity of its being renewed, but also assign to the truth, or the word, an influence or efficacy in the matter which Calvinists generally regard as opposed to the teaching of Scripture; and hence the importance, not only of holding the necessity of the renovation of the will, but also of regarding this as a distinct step in the Spirit’s work of effectual calling, from the enlightening the mind in the knowledge of Christ.

Arminians commonly resolve regeneration, not into an almighty and insuperable agency of the Spirit, operating directly upon the will, in renovating it, by giving it a new capacity, tendency, or direction, but into what they commonly call a moral suasion, —that is, into the mere influence of motives addressed to the understanding, and, through the understanding, operating upon the will, —in other words, into the mere influence of the truth, opened up and impressed by the Spirit; while Calvinists have usually maintained that there is a direct and immediate operation of the Spirit upon the will itself, and not merely through the influence of the truth operating upon the understanding.

The distinctions and explanations, which have been put forth in the discussions upon this subject, are too numerous and minute to admit of our attempting any exposition of them; we can merely point it out as a subject which has been much discussed, and is entitled to some attention. The standards of our church, while they do not give any formal deliverance upon this subject, as it has been usually handled in theological discussions, and no deliverance at all upon some of the minuter questions which have been controverted among Calvinists regarding it, plainly enough indicate, not only that it is necessary that the will should be renewed, but also that this step in the process of effectual calling is distinct from any mere agency of the Spirit in enlightening the understanding, —in opening up and impressing the truth which God has revealed. And I have no doubt that this view corresponds most fully with all that Scripture makes known to us about men’s natural condition of darkness and depravity, —about the nature of faith and regeneration, and the agency and the means by which they are produced.

The Arminians usually object to these views about the certain efficacy or insuperability of the grace of God in conversion, that they are inconsistent with the nature of the human will, and with the qualities that attach to it. They usually represent our doctrine as implying that men are forced to believe and to turn to God against their will, or whether they will or not. This is a misrepresentation. Calvinists hold no such opinion; and it cannot be shown that their doctrine requires them to hold it. Indeed, the full statement of their doctrine upon the subject excludes or contradicts it. Our Confession of Faith, after giving an account of effectual calling, which plainly implies that the grace of God in conversion is an exercise of omnipotence, and cannot be successfully resisted, adds, “Yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” That special operation of the Spirit, which cannot be overcome or frustrated, is just the renovation of the will itself, by which a power of willing what is spiritually good— a power which it has not of itself in its natural condition, and which it could not receive from any source but a divine and almighty agency— is communicated to it. In the exercise of this new power, men are able to co-operate with the Spirit of God, guiding and directing them; and they do this, and do it, not by constraint, but willingly, —-being led, under the influence of the news concerning Christ, and the way of salvation which He has opened up to and impressed upon them, and the motives which these views suggest, to embrace Christ, and to choose that better part which shall never be taken away from them. In the commencement of the process, they are not actors at all; they are wholly passive, —the subjects of a divine operation. And from the time when they begin to act in the matter, or really to do anything, they act freely and voluntarily, guided by rational motives, derived from the truths which their eyes have been opened to see, and which, humanly speaking, might have sooner led them to turn to God, had not the moral impotency of their wills to anything spiritually good prevented this result. There is certainly nothing in all this to warrant the representation, that, upon Calvinistic principles, men are forced to repent and believe against their wills, or whether they will or not.

Neither is there anything in this view of the subject that can be shown to be inconsistent with any truth concerning the will of man, or the properties attaching to it, established, either by an examination of man’s mental constitution, or by the word of God. It is plainly inconsistent, both with reason and with revelation, to suppose that God has created anything which he cannot regulate and direct, absolutely and infallibly, and which he cannot regulate and direct without treating it inconsistently with its proper nature, —the nature and qualities he has assigned to it. We cannot suppose that God should have bestowed any powers or properties upon any creatures which would place them beyond His entire and absolute control, or would require Him, in any case, in order to effect any of His purposes, with them or by them, to exercise His omnipotence, in a manner that runs counter to the constitution He has assigned to them. He does, indeed, exercise His omnipotence in renewing men’s wills, and giving them a capacity for willing what is spiritually good; but, in doing so, He is only restoring them, in so far, to the condition in which He originally created them. And in the mode of doing it, while there is an exercise of omnipotence, effecting a change upon them, there is nothing done that interferes with the constitution of man, as man, or with the nature of will, as will. Our Confession teaches, that “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil.” But this does not imply that God Himself cannot, if He chooses, certainly and effectually determine it to good, —whatever may be necessary, in existing circumstances, in order to secure this, —without taking away the natural liberty with which He has endued it. This natural liberty does indeed imply a possibility of men yielding to temptation, and falling into sin; but it does not imply that God cannot, by an exercise of His omnipotence, recover men from any of the consequences of the sin into which, from the abuse of their freedom of will, they may have fallen; and do this without taking from them, or obstructing, the exercise of that freedom which He originally conferred upon them.

In short, the will of man could not originally have possessed, and never could by any process acquire, any capacity or property, in virtue of which it should be placed beyond God’s absolute control, or which should prevent Him from regulating and determining, at all times and in all circumstances, the character and actions of His creatures. Nothing is more clearly revealed in Scripture than this, that when God enables men to repent and believe, He puts forth upon them an exercise of almighty power, analogous to that by which He created all things out of nothing, or by which he raises the dead; but there is no ground for asserting that, even upon the Calvinistic view of the nature of this process, He does not treat man, in effecting this change, according to his proper nature as a rational and responsible being. We are very sure that no property does, or can, attach to the will of man, whether fallen or unfallen, that can take it beyond the reach of God’s sovereign control, or prevent Him from directing its operations, without interfering, by a mere exercise of omnipotence, with its true nature and essential properties. Of all the capacities or properties that have ever been ascribed to the human will, the one that has most the appearance of being inconsistent with God’s supremacy over it, is what is called by the Arminians its self-determining power; and yet I doubt if there are sufficiently clear and certain reasons for denying even this view of the freedom of the will, upon the mere ground that, if the will possess this self-determining power, it would be impossible for God to exercise absolute control over its operations. But if this cannot be clearly and certainly made out, still less can it be proved, on the other hand, that any agency which Calvinists ascribe to God in renewing the will, is inconsistent with a full regard to its true nature and essential properties, —to anything that can be shown to attach to it.

It is, of course, no objection to the Calvinistic doctrine of efficacious, insuperable grace in conversion, —though some of the more Pelagian Arminians have sometimes represented it in that light, —that it deprives men of everything like merit or ground of boasting in repenting and believing. If it did not do so, it would not be the doctrine of the sacred Scriptures; and one great objection to the Arminian doctrine, —that men, even when a divine power amply sufficient to produce in them faith and regeneration, has been put forth, may still overcome and frustrate the exercise of this power, and continue unconverted, —is just this, that this doctrine, with whatever general professions about man’s depravity and moral impotency by nature, and about the necessity of the gracious operation of the Spirit in producing conversion, it may be accompanied, practically assigns to men themselves, and not to God, the regulating or determining power in the matter, —the power by which, in each case, it is settled that repentance and conversion shall take place, —that is, that a man shall be put in actual possession of all spiritual blessings, and finally of the kingdom of heaven.

The difficulty is much more serious that is founded upon the case of those who are not converted, though they have the gospel offers and invitations addressed to them; or, when the special distinguishing efficacious grace of God is not put forth, who continue in their sins, and finally perish. The difficulty, of course, is to reconcile their responsibility for their impenitence and unbelief, —their guilt and just liability to punishment on this account, —with the views which have been explained as to the way and manner in which the conversion of those who are converted is effected. This is, virtually, the great difficulty which is commonly urged against the whole Calvinistic scheme of theology; it is usually discussed in connection with the subject of predestination. To the examination of that subject we must now proceed; and under that head we will have to advert to the considerations by which this difficulty has been usually met and disposed of.


from Historical Theology

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links