Podcast that works through this same material.
I was in a theological discussion last night with someone on Facebook. He pressed me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, on whether or not we affirm the idea of ‘resistible grace’; i.e. the idea that the would-be Christian has the capacity to resist God’s offer of gracious salvation. This conception of grace, to think it in terms of being able to be resisted, comes from a metaphysic that Evangelical Calvinists eschew. Further, to think in these terms, in the history of ideas, is to think in the terms set by the classically Reformed understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ (the “I” in the TULIP). Irresistible grace, so called because of the acronym, represents a concept of grace that is grounded in the substance metaphysical (and its logico-causal necessitarian) framework that sees grace as a created quality given to the elect so they might respond affirmatively (and, subsequently, persevere) to the offer of salvation. Richard Muller writes the following:
gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις; the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae,or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction betweengratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation.
I have emboldened the aspect, from Muller, that serves instructive for our purposes. If the theologian moves too quickly they might not pay close enough attention to what Muller is implying; it might seem that Muller is saying that the scholastics Reformed maintained that gratia operans is in reference to the Holy Spirit, and His regenerative work, personally. But that isn’t what the scholastics Reformed, or Muller following, maintain. As Muller notes, this sort of grace ‘creates in man the means,’ this is the key to understanding what actually is being said. You notice how this conception of grace is abstract from the personal agency of the Holy Spirit, it is someTHING that is infused or instilled into the accidents of elect humanity ‘through which’ they ‘are justified by “grace.’” Grace in this framework is a potency yet to be actualized in the life of the elect; and they will actualize it because they are indeed, the elect—and God has decreed that the potency given to them in this ‘created grace’ will be actualized; just as sure as God is sovereign God who decrees (decretum absolutum).
If, for the classically Reformed, grace is a created thing abstract from God, even as it is provided for by God, it’s conceivable that as a potency, it could be ‘resisted.’ This isn’t conceivable in the scholastic’s Reformed ordo salutis, but all it takes is for someone to come along, like Jacobus Arminius, to think this concept of grace from another ‘order of salvation.’ Without getting into all of that, and without attempting to develop the anatomy of saving grace in Arminius’ theology, the point being made, is that if grace is a created quality, abstract from the personal agency and life of God in the Holy Spirit, a quality that has potency waiting actualization by the elect (whether that’s Arminian or Calvinist understanding), that it has the potential to be resisted. But this is a dilemma, or represents a material universe, that Evangelical Calvinists avoid.
The Evangelical Calvinist Alternative
It is no secret that my personal style of Evangelical Calvinism is informed largely by Barthian and Torrancean themes. As such the alternative I seek to offer to the aforementioned scholastic understanding of grace (as a potency that is either irresistible or resistible, depending on the broader theological tradition it is deployed within) will find its principal parts from the thinking of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. And because of space restraints (e.g. since this is just a blog post), I will offer two full quotes, one from Barth, one from Torrance, and then simply reflect on how this shapes an alternative understanding of Divine Grace relative to the ‘created’ type we have just sketched.
Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, think of God’s Grace, as just that: a personal reality grounded in God’s free choice (election) to be God for us, in us, and with us in Jesus Christ. If this is the case, then to think in terms of the possibility of grace being ‘resisted’ or ‘irresisted’ no longer has the gravitas it does in the scholastic conception we have visited. If God in Christ has always already elected to not be God without us before the foundation of the world, this implies that the foundation of the world is funded by God’s Grace ‘all the way down.’ When God made this choice to be for us (pro nobis), this implies that the inner reality of the created order, is God’s covenanted life of “for-usness.” Once this choice was temporally actualized in the incarnation (as given proleptic prefiguration in God’s tabernacling with Israel), what was once antecedently in God’s being, became actualized in the execution of God’s economy for the world in Christ. In other words, once God became human in Christ (Deus incarnatus), this actualization of God for us in His assumed humanity, cannot be thought of in terms of something that is resistible or irresistible; grace in this frame can only be thought of in terms of concrete actualization. George Hunsinger writes the following with reference to Barth’s concept of actualism, and how that functions for his theological program:
“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.
This helps explicate and move things forward. For Barth, according to Hunsinger, in his actualised frame, Grace would be a reality that simply has come to be as a result of God’s choice to be for the world. Thus, it is not something that can be possessed or grasped as a potency built into the accidents of the creature; instead, it is always already a happening that has been realized for us, because of God’s free choice to be with us. Therefore, grace is God’s person for us; He possesses us, we do not possess Him through this grace. It is a reality that encounters us afresh and anew by the miraculous in-breaking of the Holy Spirit’s work, as that is first actualized in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ, and then brought to us as the same miracle by which the human agent will say yes in correspondence to God’s Yes and Amen for us in Jesus Christ. But this simply is how it is; this is the state of the new creation; it is a state of ever refreshing Grace that funds the re-created order as that has been accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Humanity in this frame, salvation in this frame, is an actualized reality that comes to be, and has come to be, in the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ. It is not possible to resist or irresist this grace, since it isn’t something we can operate or cooperate with, as if a commodity given to us to handle. No, we have been handled, as it were, by its actualized and concrete reality in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be human now in God’s Kingdom; to be human is to experience God’s new creation in Christ; as such, this becomes salvation for all those in participation with Christ by the Holy Spirit.
For the Evangelical Calvinist, then, the idea of resisting or not being able to resist, is a non-starter. There is no space for such potencies in God’s Kingdom in Christ. But what about people who say no to God’s offer of salvation? That remains a problem for the inscrutable nature of sin to explain. And as Barth rightly notes, in his elaborate reformulation of election; sin is das nichtige (‘nothingness’), a reality outside of the realm encompassed by God’s life of Grace to be for us, for the world. I will come back later, and develop this further in another blog post. I have run out of energy. Let me leave us with a long quote from TFT. This passage should help elucidate further what I have been driving at:
To sum up: Grace in the New Testament is the basic and the most characteristic element of the Christian Gospel. It is the breaking into the world of the ineffable love of God in a deed of absolutely decisive significance which cuts across the whole of human life and sets it on a new basis. That is actualized in the person of Jesus Christ, with which grace is inseparably associated, and supremely exhibited on the Cross by which the believer is once and for all put in the right with God. This intervention of God in the world and its sin, out of sheer love, and His personal presence to men through Jesus Christ are held together in the one thought of grace. As such grace is the all-comprehensive and constant presupposition of faith, which, while giving rise to an intensely personal life in the Spirit, necessarily assumes a charismatic and eschatological character. Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. The other side of faith is grace, the immediate act of God in Christ, and because He is the persistent Subject of all Christian life and thought, faith stands necessarily on the threshold of the new world, with the intense consciousness of the advent of Christ. The charismatic and the eschatological aspects of faith are really one. In Christ the Eternal God has entered into this present evil world which shall in due course pass away before the full unveiling of the glory of God. That is the reason for the double consciousness of faith in the New Testament. By the Cross the believer has been put in the right with God once for all—Christ is his righteousness. He is already in Christ what he will be—to that no striving will add one iota. But faith is conscious of the essential imminence of that day, because of the intense nearness of Christ, when it shall know even as it is known, when it shall be what it already is. And so what fills the forward view is not some ideal yet to be attained, but the Christian’s position already attained in Christ and about to be revealed. The pressure of this imminence may be so great upon the mind as to turn the thin veil of sense and time into apocalyptic imagery behind which faith sees the consummation of all things. Throughout all this the predominating thought is grace, the presence of the amazing love of God in Christ, which has unaccountably overtaken the believer and set him in a completely new world which is also the eternal Kingdom of God.
 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30. [emboldening mine]
 All that is required is that this concept of grace be removed from its decretal framework as referred to in the ordo salutis of classical Calvinist soteriology, place it in a framework where human agency is independent from God’s decree, and this sort of grace can be resisted salvifically.
 George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.
 Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 34-5.