The “I” in Calvin’s TULIP acronym stands for “Irresistible Grace.” Since Calvin believed the elect chosen by God for salvation did not possess the free will needed to respond, the grace that God gives to those elect is “irresistible,” which also means they do not possess the free will to resist. The saving grace of God is applied to all of those he has determined to save and overcomes any and all resistance to obeying the call of the Gospel and brings them to saving faith. The Holy Spirit causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent and to come to Christ.
Probably the strongest passage of Scripture used by Calvinists to support their view is when St. Paul writes in Romans 9:18-24 “So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me thus?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
We’ve already looked at portion of this passage in the post on Unconditional Election. There I mentioned a Catholic understanding of what it means when God “hardens” someone’s heart. Divine hardening is not seen as punishment for sin but the natural consequence for those who stubbornly resist God. God allows this discipline into their life for the purpose of conversion. They key word is whether God “causes” this hardening or he “allows” it. In either case it is His divine will at work, but there is most definitely a difference between God’s active will (what He causes) and God’s permitted will (what He allows).
One of the keys to understanding this passage is that in context it is specifically referring to Israel as God’s chosen people, and his reference back to the potter and the clay is from the prophet Jeremiah. In that passage we clearly see the freedom for repentance and a choice they must make. Jeremiah 18:6-10 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it.”
Here are additional verses a Calvinist may point cite in support of the teaching of irresistible grace:
John 6:37 All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out.
John 6:45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.
Acts 16:14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyati′ra, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.
1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:4-5 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)
Catholics reject the doctrine of Calvin on irresistible grace. We believe that God always is the initiator in the salvation process, His grace is extended to all people, and can be resisted by free will. So while God’s grace is a precursor that is necessary for faith, we can freely choose to reject it. The catechism makes these points:
CCC1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.
CCC2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity.
One easy way to think of the difference between the Calvinist and Catholic view is that the Catholic understanding is that grace enables us to believe, but does not compel us to believe.
And there is strong Scriptural support for the Catholic position. In the Old Testament we see Joshua telling the Israelites “Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15). Jesus tells the apostles in Mark 6:11 that “if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.”
In the book of Acts Stephen shows that the Holy Spirit can be opposed when he says “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (Acts 7:51). We also see in Acts 28:24 when Paul is preaching to the Jewish leaders in Rome that “Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.”(NRSVCE)
The book of Hebrews tells us “See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled.” (Hebrews 12:15)
And in perhaps one of the most poignant lines in all of Scripture in Matthew 23:37 we see Jesus over Jerusalem saying “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
It is always Christ’s desire to gather all people to himself (John 12:32) and he provides the grace necessary for our faith. It remains to us to freely choose Him.