Monday, August 23, 2010

Patristic Witness To Irresistible Grace

Clement of Alexandria writes, “The heavenly and truly divine love comes to men thus, when in the soul itself the spark of true goodness, kindled in the soul by the Divine Word, is able to burst forth into flame; and, what is of the highest importance, salvation runs parallel with sincere willingness – choice and life being, so to speak, yoked together.” (1) Here we see Clement arguing (to pagan Greeks, we might add) that the human ability to respond to God’s grace comes from God Himself simultaneously with the grace. He does not assert that there is “good in every man.” The “spark of true goodness” Clement mentions, is kindled by Christ. There is no “divine spark” in all men that simply needs to be tapped into. That is Eastern mysticism, not Christian theology.

Minucius Felix has a remarkable statement. His pagan opponent says, “For whatever we do, as some ascribe it to fate, so you refer it to God: thus it is according to your sect to believe that men will, not of their own accord, but as elected to will.” (2) Note that this pagan is not corrected as having a faulty view of Christian doctrine. He understands ift perfectly. What does Christianity teach? Only the elect will.

In the following passage, the Theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus eloquently describes the loving response to God’s grace that election creates. “If thou hast poured out upon God the whole of thy love; if thou hast not two objects of desire, both the passing and the abiding, both the visible and the invisible, then thou hast been so pierced by the arrow of election, and hast so learned the beauty of the Bridegroom, that thou too canst say with the bridal drama and song, thou art sweetness and altogether loveliness.” (3) Notice his expression – “pierced by the arrow of election.” How can anyone construe such a notion as resistible grace from that figure? It suggests the image of a man hunted down, ambushed and attacked unawares. There is no notion there of a grace that is offered and rejected. If a man knew that he would be shot by an arrow he would resist, and that is the whole point. God’s grace must be irresistible; if it were not, every single soul would resist it!

Augustine’s mentor Ambrose had this to say: “The Lord considered and knew who were His, and He drew His saints to Himself. And those whom He did not choose He did not draw to Himself.” (4) Jesus’ statement in John 6:44 is clearly the influencing factor behind such a comment. Ambrose unmistakably sees God’s grace as both efficacious and irresistible. Based on John 6:37, there really is no alternative. Jesus as much as says that everyone the Father has given (past tense) to Him, will come (future tense). Let the Arminians play their word games if they “will”; we say, “Let God be true, but every man a liar.” (5)

The pioneer missionary Patrick described his own conversion in these telling words: “Whence I, once rustic, exiled, unlearned, who does not know how to provide for the future, this at least I know most certainly that before I was humiliated I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft, and placed me on the top of the wall. And therefore I ought to cry out aloud and so also render something to the Lord for His great benefits here and in eternity - benefits which the mind of men is unable to appraise.” (6) Patrick envisions himself like an inanimate stone lying in the mud. This is a brilliant image. It illustrates perfectly man’s inability to do anything about his own spiritual condition. It illustrates man’s deadness in “trespasses and sins.” (7) A stone can no more lift itself from the mire than it can understand the obnoxiousness of its condition.

This also demonstrates the flaw in much of contemporary evangelism. Telling the sinner that all he has to do is simply take advantage of all God has done, leaving to him the last step, is like telling a corpse that if he wants to live again he should raise his hand! I have heard altar call appeals that picture the sinner as a sick man on his deathbed. The doctor (God) enters the room with the medicine that will save his life. God pours the medicine into a spoon and even sticks the spoon into the man’s mouth. Yet the man must swallow the medicine if he would recover. Such illustrations are extremely deceptive. They appear to place all the work of salvation into God’s hands, but in the final analysis, man must still make the crucial step, without which all of God’s work is frustrated. Even on such a scheme, man is his own savior. Widely respected evangelists such as Billy Graham use the aforementioned illustration. Patrick’s illustration is much more theologically sound.

1. Clement of Alexandria, Protepticus XI
2. Minicius Felix, Octavius XI
3. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XII on Matthew 19:1
4. Ambrose, Letter 59
5. Romans 3:4
6. The Confession of St. Patrick, 12
7. Ephesians 2:1

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