Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church of Walker, Michigan.
Before proceeding next time to the subject of the order of salvation, we take one more article to look at the Spirit’s saving work as a whole. We have contrasted this work of the Holy Spirit with the work of the devilish spirit that moves among the Charismatics. We now turn to consider how this work of the Spirit contrasts with work of the powerless spirit of which the Arminians speak. The Arminians often speak about the work of the Holy Spirit convicting the sinner of his sins and drawing him to Christ. But they greatly err when they explain how the Spirit does this, for they deny that this gracious work of the Holy Spirit is efficacious and irresistible.
This error is found in almost all churches in these last days. Indeed, there are relatively few on this earth who still confess that the work of the Spirit of Christ is irresistible. Most maintain that the Spirit is gently drawing to Himself every individual, or at least every individual who comes into contact with God’s Word. Quietly and patiently He is knocking at the door of every individual’s heart, they say. But, they go on to explain, He is also a gentleman, who will not come in where He is not wanted.
If this were really the case, no one would be saved. If the Spirit did not enter a person until that person opened his heart to embrace Him, then there would be no hope of salvation for anyone. Man by nature is dead in sin, unable to do anything that is the least bit good. He cannot open his heart and embrace Christ. For a man to come to Christ, God must first open his heart, cause him to come to life, and thus give him the ability and the desire to believe and love the truth of the gospel.
The Spirit gives life; He does not merely offer it. He not only speaks the words of eternal life, but also places them in our heart, so that we believe them and love them.
The Spirit’s Work Not Merely a Moral Advising
Our confessions reject the teaching that the work of the Holy Spirit is merely a moral advising. In the Canons of Dordrecht we reject the errors of those
Who teach that the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle advising, or (as others explain it) that this is the noblest manner of working in the conversion of man, and that this manner of working, which consists in advising, is most in harmony with man’s nature; and that there is no reason why this advising grace alone should not be sufficient to make the natural man spiritual, indeed, that God does not produce the consent of the will except through this manner of advising; and that the power of the divine working, whereby it surpasses the working of Satan, consists in this, that God promises eternal, while Satan promises only temporal goods … (Canons 3&4, B, 7).
The Arminians refer to the work of the Holy Spirit as merely a gentle advising or moral persuasion, so that the grace of the Holy Spirit is merely an advising grace. The Spirit is presented as merely speaking God’s Word to us from without, in an effort to persuade us to repent and believe in Christ. It leaves out the fact that the Spirit’s work is also the internal, irresistible work of causing us to believe and embrace the Word spoken. This is what our fathers said about this error in the latter part of this same article:
But this is altogether Pelagian and contrary to the whole Scripture which, besides this, teaches yet another and far more powerful and divine manner of the Holy Spirit’s working in the conversion of man, as in Ezekiel: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.”
That this new heart is a heart with God’s law written in it is evident from passages such as Jeremiah 31:33,
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Those who say that God is lovingly drawing everyone who hears the preaching of the Word mention only the Spirit’s work of speaking to us from without, and leave out what our Canons here rightly call the “far more powerful and divine manner of the Holy Spirit’s working,” which consists in His irresistibly giving us a new heart and His writing of God’s Word in our new heart, so that we delight to do it. All those who receive God’s grace receive not only the former, but also, and centrally, the latter. Without the latter, the former would not benefit them at all.
Let there be no confusion. By confessing this article, we are not rejecting the truth that the Spirit speaks to us externally in the preaching, persuading us to repent and believe. But we are maintaining that the Spirit also speaks to us internally, giving us a new heart with His Word written in it, and thus efficaciously causing us to embrace it and to obey it.
This truth is very important to remember when dealing with those who teach that God loves and desires to save everyone who hears the preaching. Many of these people know, of course, that the Bible teaches that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him. But they maintain that the Spirit of God is drawing everyone who hears the preaching of the Word, trying desperately to get them to cooperate with Him and to accept the offered salvation. God, they say, is doing His part, but man must cooperate with God and open his heart to receive that which God offers.
This is a denial of the fact that God is the One who sovereignly opens a man’s heart, writes the Word of God in this heart, and thus causes him to rejoice to hear the Word and to embrace it. This work, which is of central importance to our salvation, they make to be the work of man, rather than the work of God. They foolishly insist that man must first open his heart and embrace the Word of God, before God will perform His gracious work of giving to him the life of Christ.
The article of the Canons quoted above also sets forth the basis that such Arminians gave to their argument. The Arminians said that this advising work of the Holy Spirit is most in harmony with man’s nature, and that there is no reason why this advising grace alone should not be sufficient to make the natural man spiritual. With this argument such people deny that man by nature is totally depraved. If man by nature is spiritually dead, then no matter how much one may talk to him, one will not be able to persuade him to come back to life. Such a teaching is as foolish as standing in a graveyard and calling to the dead to stop lying there in their graves and to get up and do some work.
The Spirit’s Work Life-Giving, Not Life-Offering
The Spirit of God that saves us is God’s life-giving Breath. The most common word for spirit in the Old Testament is a word that literally means breath. It is translated as such in Psalm 33:6,
By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.
In John 20:22 we read of Christ breathing on His disciples, and saying, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” It is not by offering to us this life-giving Breath, but by breathing Him into us, that our Redeemer saves us from all our sins and miseries.
The work of this life-giving Breath of God may be referred to as either efficacious or irresistible. That it is efficacious means that it has the power to produce the desired effect. If the Spirit desires to work in us faith, His work will certainly produce that faith in us. That the Spirit’s work is irresistible means that no one can stop the Spirit from doing the work He intends to do. This must not be misunderstood. It is not that the Spirit draws a person, while the person is vehemently trying to prevent it. Rather, the Spirit first regenerates us, and then draws us in such a way that He makes us “ready and willing henceforth to live unto Him” (Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism).
When explaining our position to someone, there is a good reason for referring to the work of the Spirit as irresistible. The term is negative, and states what we deny, namely, that the work of the Spirit can be resisted. It clearly and sharply distinguishes us from others. And to set forth the truth distinctively is precisely what we are called to do.
If a man is going to convert, he needs the Spirit not only to speak to him from without, but also to give him a new heart in which this same Word is permanently written. Only then will he hearken to the Spirit’s Word as he hears it in the preaching. Only then will he embrace that Word and live out that Word, to the glory of God’s name.