Note: For all Biblical quotations, the NKJV is used, unless I am citing the Greek Old Testament (LXX), for which the NETS is used. The italics in Biblical quotations are from the translators to note words added for clarity that are not present in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Among Protestants, debate surrounding Calvinism and Arminianism is generally focused on a presumed monergistic, irresistible, and final election until salvation vs a synergistic (though Arminians disagree with this term), prevenient, and contingent election. Lutheranism, rejects this paradigm. While Lutherans agree with Calvin, loosely speaking, on monergistic election and agree with Arminius on apostasy being possible, Lutherans take a middle-ground on the function of grace. More rightly speaking, since Luther (and the Lutherans with him) formulated their doctrine prior to the Arminian and Calvinist debates at the Synod of Dordt, Calvin (and the Reformed with him) took a more extreme stance than Luther, relative to the Roman Catholic Church, while Arminius (and the Remonstrants with him) took a more moderate stance than Luther.
For Lutherans, conversion is a monergistic process, that is to say, the will of man does not assent to agreement to conversion. Man does not “accept” Christ nor does he “choose” God. This is in accordance with Reformed doctrine. Lutherans, however, reject that grace is irresistible. Man is able to reject God as his will naturally does in its sinful state. This is not to detract from God’s sovereignty; God does act in ways that are irresistible to man, but as a broad scriptural theme, God permits man to reject Him with regards to salvation. This occurs on a corporate level in Israel and on an individual level in the New Testament.
The Lutheran confessions state the following:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faithSmall Catechism Part II – Answer for the Third Article of the Creed
18] Now, if in St. Paul and in other regenerate men the natural or carnal free will even after regeneration strives against God’s Law, it will be much more obstinate and hostile to God’s Law and will before regeneration. Hence it is manifest (as it is further declared in the article concerning original sin, to which we now refer for the sake of brevity) that the free will from its own natural powers, not only cannot work or concur in working anything for its own conversion, righteousness, and salvation, nor follow [obey], believe, or assent to the Holy Ghost, who through the Gospel offers him grace and salvation, but from its innate, wicked, rebellious nature it resists God and His will hostilely, unless it be enlightened and controlled by God’s Spirit.
19] On this account the Holy Scriptures also compare the heart of the unregenerate man to a hard stone, which does not yield to the one who touches it, but resists, and to a rough block, and to a wild, unmanageable beast; not that man since the Fall is no longer a rational creature, or is converted to God without hearing and meditating upon the divine Word, or in external, worldly things cannot understand, or of his free will do, or abstain from doing, anything good or evil.Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II.18-19
39] There would also be overthrown and taken from us the foundation that the Holy Ghost wishes certainly to be present with the Word preached, heard, considered, and to be efficacious and operate through it. Therefore the meaning is not at all the one referred to above, namely, that the elect are to be such [among the elect are to be numbered such] as even despise the Word of God, thrust it from them, blaspheme and persecute it, or, when they hear it, harden their hearts; resist the Holy Ghost; without repentance persevere in sins, do not truly believe in Christ, only make [godliness] an outward show, or seek other ways to righteousness and salvation outside of Christ, 40] Moreover, even as God has ordained in His [eternal] counsel that the Holy Ghost should call, enlighten, and convert the elect through the Word, and that He will justify and save all those who by true faith receive Christ, so He also determined in His counsel that He will harden, reprobate, and condemn those who are called through the Word, if they reject the Word and resist the Holy Ghost, who wishes to be efficacious and to work in them through the Word and persevere therein. And in this manner many are called, but few are chosen….Formula of Concord, Solid Declartion II.39-40, 78
78] But the reason why not all who hear it believe, and some are therefore condemned the more deeply [eternally to severer punishments], is not because God had begrudged them their salvation; but it is their own fault, as they have heard the Word in such a manner as not to learn, but only to despise, blaspheme, and disgrace it, and have resisted the Holy Ghost, who through the Word wished to work in them, as was the case at the time of Christ with the Pharisees and their adherents.
The Lutheran confessions are clear here that the Holy Ghost works in the Word and is always efficacious, yet men are able to resist the Holy Ghost working in the Word to convert. At the same time, men do not choose God. While somewhat mysterious, this doctrine upholds that salvation is entirely the work of God yet condemnation is the choice of man.
The reason for man’s resistance (his sinful state), the monergistic grace of God in working salvation, and the ability of man after being regenerate in faith to fall away (apostasy) have been addressed already. To better understand this, previous posts on Original Sin/Entire Depravity, Monergistic Election, and Apostasy/Perseverance should prove useful. Because the previous posts covered much of the argument surrounding this topic, merely falling short of addressing it directly, this post will be short, solely discussing the resistance to the Holy Ghost prior to regeneration.
The Scriptural Witness
Numbers 14:10-11 reads, “And all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Now the glory of the LORD appeared in the tabernacle of meeting before all the children of Israel. Then the LORD said to Moses: ‘How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?'” God performed many signs to Israel, yet they rejected Him.
Isaiah 5:1-5 reads, “Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes. ‘And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. What more could have been done to My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.'” Here God works His vineyard, yet the vineyard brought forth wild grapes, suggesting that God allows man to resist His work.
Luke 7:29-30 reads, “And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” The Pharisees and lawyers heard Christ preach to them yet they rejected the will of God. Examples of Christ preaching and man resisting that are less explicit are abundant.
Luke 13:34-35 reads, “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!“‘” Israel heard the prophets but rejected them. Examples of prophets preaching and Israel resisting that are less explicit are abundant.
Acts 7:51-53 reads, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” Stephen is speaking to the Jewish religious authorities in this context, explaining how they resisted the Holy Spirit, as Israel had done in the past repeatedly.
Acts 13:44-46 reads, “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.'” Paul and Barnabas preached the word of God to the Jews, yet the Jews rejected God.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 reads, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.” Paul is clear that man can reject God after being called to holiness.
2 Timothy 3:6-9 reads, “For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was.” Paul gives a clear example here of Jannes and Jambres resisting God (working through Moses) in the Old Testament and compares this to the perilous men that that resist the truth, which is none other than the Word of God, through which the Spirit works.
The above passages demonstrate that man resists God’s grace repeatedly, a common theme in scripture.
Addressing Common Counterarguments
“John 6 refutes resistible grace.”
John 6:37, 39, 44-45, 65 reads, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out…. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day…. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me…. Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”
Nothing in this passage addresses irresistible or resistible grace. Rather, it addresses predestination. Those given to the Son by the Father will be raised up on the last day. Nowhere does the passage make grace to be irresistible.
“Romans 8:28, 30 states that those whom God effectually calls necessarily come to full salvation.”
Romans 8:28, 30 reads, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose…. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”
Nothing in this passage addresses irresistible or resistible grace; nor does the argument address the subject at hand. The argument addresses the possibility of apostasy, not resistance to grace in conversion. I have addressed apostasy and perseverance in a previous post.
“Acts 13:48 states that those appointed thus believe, which suggests irresistible grace.”
Acts 13:48 reads, “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”
Nothing in this passage addresses irresistible or resistible grace. The passage addresses that those appointed, or in other passages often phrased as “elect” or “predestined” or “chosen,” came to believe. Monergistic election and perseverance of the elect have been addressed in previous posts.
“Acts 16:14 gives an example of irresistible grace.”
Acts 16:14 reads, “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.”
Nothing in this passage addresses irresistible or resistible grace. The passage states that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the things spoken by Paul, which is affirmed by Lutherans as monergists. Even if this were an example of irresistible grace, to base a doctrine on this passage would be to take a single descriptive example as the general rule for all conversions.
“Daniel 4:35 and Psalm 115:3 state that God does as He pleases.”
Daniel 4:35 reads, “All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'”
Psalm 115:3 reads, “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.”
God is omnipotent and immutable, yet He permits and bestows free will onto people. God is sovereign, but this does not lead to a complete philosophical determinism. Man’s ability to resist God’s calls in the preached Word is not a violation of His sovereignty but a result of God’s permission of free will on man and man’s sinful nature.