Ephesians 2:8&9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.”
What is so irresistible about grace? Let’s remind ourselves what is the grace of God. It is not a religious gesture; it is not an attitude of kindness; it is the work of Omnipotence himself that effectually transforms all he touches. Grace begins in God’s pity toward rebels who in their hatred of him are fighting God’s kindness and bringing eternal damage to themselves. Grace is God’s determination to save billions of such sinners and take them to a new heavens and new earth. Grace is the Almighty acting so that we men and women, who behave like a pack of dogs eating their own vomit, are sanctified, made Christ-like and glorified. Grace is the Holy One humbling himself, paying the huge price that others owe, taking the judgment of the guilty, enduring the punishment of the condemned and so delivering them. Grace is God’s loving power in action.
1. GRACE IS IRRESISTIBLE BECAUSE GOD’S PURPOSES MUST BE COMPLETED.
Grace has a specific and particular end in view; “He did predestinate us to be conformed to the image of his Son.” If we begin at that relatively modest goal then the grace of God begins to take our breath away. Grace is God’s determination to make favoured sinners Christ-like. Grace is not content with justification, or adoption, or union with Christ. Grace is concerned to make people like God. Grace is not going to rest until all it embraces are a transcript of the Lord Christ himself. God so loves his Son that he will fill heaven with an innumerable company of people each one of whom, morally and spiritually, are in the image of Christ, and all the divine energy and creativity are committed to that end. All his resources are focused on that great enterprise. “When we see him we shall be like him . . . That he might present the church to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.” That is the destination of grace.
Or we can expand the purpose further, that grace will make Christ the first-born among many brethren. There is this constituency of the redeemed which does not exist for itself, but to be a family of brethren in which Christ has the pre-eminence. He will be the first-born, and the centre, and the sun. The multitudes which are there will all cohere in him. This is what every single one of them has in common, that who and where they are is all because of him. This body is a community of joy and praise because from eternity God has purposed to fill the heaven of heavens with the sound of the praises of the Lamb, like the sound of many waters. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain . . . Unto him that hath loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood . . .”
Or beyond that, the purpose of God’s grace can be expanded further: he will regenerate the whole heavens and the earth. He will make a new universe which shall be, in all its glory and beauty, the inheritance of the Son of Man and all the children which God has given to him. The whole cosmic environment comprehending the distant stars, or the blades of grace, the solar system or the sands on the seashore, the ozone layer and all earth’s atoms and molecules will be redolent with the righteousness of Christ. God will gather together all things in Christ. There will be a reconciliation of everything in the universe joined to that single hub. Grace has that great end in view.
2. GRACE IS IRRESISTIBLE BECAUSE OF THE INVINCIBILITY OF GOD .
God has made an eternal commitment. He has set his mind upon saving a company of people more than any man can number. He has donated every one of them to his Son to have and to hold for ever. His whole heart is in it. “I shall be their God,” he has said. His omnipotence is committed to saving these people. He has enlisted every divine attribute, and prerogative, and function to this end. The Father is committed. The Son is committed. The Holy Spirit is committed. The angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, every other creature all have that one end in view. That is the goal of the incarnation – that is reason that there dwelt in Christ all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. That is the purpose of the work of the Spirit in all the elect.
Grace is irresistible because it is the strength of God. It is not sentiment, though songs with the word ‘grace’ in them may be. It is not feeling, though it creates the most powerful feelings. Grace is power acting to redeem. The old persecutor from Tarsus , Saul, became what he became by the grace of God. When his thorn in the flesh almost destroyed him it was Christ’s grace that was sufficient for him and his future life. That mighty grace can change every circumstance, strengthen every weakness, cheer every distress and lift every burden. It can enable us to climb every mountain, carry every load and handle every responsibility.
Grace is super-abundant. If we make the claim that our lives have been touched by grace we are saying that we are being preserved by the might of the Maker of the heavens and the earth. The God who keeps our planet in orbit around the sun is the same God who is keeping us on our pilgrimage to heaven. The grace of the one who raised the Lord Christ the dead has a grip on our lives. So all our hope of keeping on and on and on, going on trusting, and repenting, and believing, and mortifying remaining sin, plucking out the right eye when it offends us, and turning the other cheek, and forgiving seventy times seven, and always being ready to give a reason to anyone who asked us about the hope that is in us, and persevering, and entering heaven and receiving a resurrection body depends upon the power of God alone, that is the power of grace.
Grace is irresistible because Christ has ultimate authority in the whole universe. The Lamb sits in the midst of the throne, not as a spectator. He exercises real power. His session there is not only eloquent to us of his centrality in the cosmos and the blessedness of the position he now occupies but it is eloquent of his unchallengeable supremacy. That Lamb who loved the church and gave himself for it today wears a crown. He is head over all things to the church. He has supreme power over every force in the cosmos – physical, intellectual, spiritual – all powers and authorities must obey his command. If you can conceive it, it is under his control. If you can think it then ultimately Christ is in charge of it. Grace is irresistible because Christ is unchallengeable. Should all the hosts of hell gang up against him they must miserably fail because our Lord has already defeated them when he was at his weakest. Now that he has a name above every name how can he fail? What is utterly beyond human comprehension is all controlled in its every movement by the supremacy of the enthroned Lamb. Christ has taken the church in the grip of grace and is leading it through the darkness and the valleys to its blessed rest. The message of grace is that the divine pity is invincible and it is enfleshed in the Man in Glory.
3. GRACE IS IRRESISTIBLE BECAUSE THE ONE GOD IS SOVEREIGN .
What power God has. Think of how Emperor Nebuchadnezzar realized this when God greatly humbled him. He said of God, “ he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35). It is this God who is determined to save sinners, and that is entirely a matter of his own initiative. It is reduced by the apostle Paul to one marvellous statement as he reminisces about his own conversion – “When God was pleased”he says (Gals. 1:15) when God was pleased Paul was saved and Paul was safe and Christ was glorified. Grace is utterly discretionary – consider the title of Shedd’s sermon on the text, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.” Shedd calls his message, “The Exercise of Mercy Optional with God” (W.G.T.Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man, Banner of Truth, p.358ff). No saviour was commissioned to be sent to deliver the angels that rebelled: God simply dealt with them in utter fairness. God has no obligation to save a single sinner. You would think today, hearing some men talking, that the most obvious and predictable characteristic of God is his mercy, that he should love the world and spare not his Son. In the New Testament the forgiveness of God is a mystery. It is the supreme paradox. In vain the first-born seraph tries to sound the depth of love divine. Why . . . how could he love like this . . . sparing not his only Son? Grace is optional. It is rooted into God’s sovereign good pleasure.
It is utterly unconditional, that is, it is not evoked by any qualities in us at all. It is not because of perceived beauty, or righteousness, or attractiveness in us that constrained the pity of God. He did not examine and discover a decent life in me and so focused his salvation on me because of some worthiness that God had spotted. Salvation comes forth utterly and entirely out of God’s own unconditional love. So the message of God’s grace declares that it is always objective, and invincible, and sovereign.
4. GRACE IS IRRESISTIBLE BECAUSE GRACE REDEEMS.
Think of the title of John Murray’s classic work, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Banner of Truth). Whether by Christ or by the Holy Spirit, whether for us on Golgotha or in us by the indwelling Spirit, whether a past accomplishment in a finished work or a present relationship in an ongoing work – our redemption is all of grace, from beginning to end, from the alpha to the omega.
i] In the accomplishment of redemption it was God’s grace which conceived the possibility. He thought of it. It dawned on him, we would say, and so he took the initiative. He had not created the quarrel, nor forged the enmity, nor set up the estrangement, but in effecting reconciliation he acted. He draws up the blue-print in its every detail. It was not that his intervention was constrained by the pleading of man. No counsel of the most religious men in the world gathering together laid out this plan before him that they had conceived and then urged him to act upon it. They did not cry and shout and dance for hours and cut themselves with knives until the blood gushed out like the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel pleading with their god to do what they wanted him to do. There was nothing like that whatsoever. There was actually nothing only the sound of death reigning in the world; no one was seeking after God, and then, without any human initiative or sense of need, God alone set up this tremendous machinery of redemption.
God provided the instrumentality. He found a Lamb in his own flock, even from his own bosom, bearing his own image. He even became that Lamb: the providing God is not a different being from the provided Lamb. The God who said that without the shedding of blood there could be no remission of sins himself provided the blood that should be shed: “Feed the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.”
That same grace made Christ who knew no sin to become sin for us. That same grace paid Christ the wages of sin. It was all of God. We did not make Christ our substitute – that was God. We did not offer him upon Calvary – that was God. We did not give our son to the death of the cross – that was God. He aroused the sword of rectitude and commanded it to find its sheath in Christ’s breast. We did not go through our sins one after another trying to think of them all and placing them carefully upon him – the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. The accomplishment of redemption was all of God. One great theme in the letter to the Hebrews is that Christ was all by himself, utterly alone, when he purged us of our sins.
ii] In the application of redemption it is the same divine grace which irresistibly saves all God’s chosen people. The exalted Lord from the midst of his throne embarks upon a ministry of reconciliation to a rebellious world. God becomes the preacher of his own gospel. How shall they believe him whom they have not heard? So men are made “ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us” (2 Cors. 5). Paul was conscious that behind all his speaking there was the authority of God. Behind Paul’s imploring there was a yearning God, longing and pleading with men – the one who in the days of his flesh saw the city and wept over it. Let preachers be like God in the pulpit. Let there be love and affection that speaks of the mercy of God and his sincere desire to see sinners saved. Let there be majesty and authority there as those who speak for the Ancient of Days. Let there be truth there as those who follow him whose words were, “Thy word is truth.”
We might think that the Lord pleading through his servants with men and women to be saved would be the conclusion of God’s activity. What grace that he who preached the Sermon on the Mount should be preaching to us sinners today. You think that that is everything that God can possibly do, No! Yet more is needed and more is given. The audience hearing of the finished work of Christ and the free and sincere offer of mercy is deaf and blind and hostile and dead. The hearts of the listeners are closed to the message. What happens? Grace acts decisively again, and by providence first brings favoured sinners under the gospel to consider it. All the years before that moment were preparatory years. He gave such a person to such and such parents. Perhaps they were parents who were Christians and so they conditioned their child to think the highest thoughts of Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God and the only Saviour. So the child was drawn to Jesus Christ by what he heard and what he saw of the Saviour in the lives of his parents all through his life. Perhaps the parents were not Christians and conditioned their children not to think highly of Christ, but nevertheless much about these parents was great, totally in love with one another, raising children in a wise and caring way so that the boys and girls as they grew up became thoughtful and compassionate people and so were made ready to hear of the gospel when they first met it. Or perhaps the parents were the worst kind, abusive, hard, a succession of partners moving into the home, the bedroom having to be bolted at night to keep the unwanted out; drugs and drink might have been freely available when there was money. The words “Jesus Christ” were only used as curses. That was the home in which you were raised, a home of tears and despair. There was no salvation and no deliverance in that world and when you were led to hear the gospel what wonders it spoke to you of forgiveness and new life. So I am saying that preparation for the great commitment to Jesus Christ went back and back to your upbringing and the kind of home you had.
Then there were the multitude of circumstances that brought you to Christ, and what widely different stories all could tell. There was a work of grace going on in your hearts before you knew it. Prevenient grace was directing your hearts and lives subtly but firmly. God in love was coming to you in hidden ways. Many could speak of friendship with a Christian in school or at work and the growing fascination with this Christian lifestyle and beliefs that God used to draw you to the Saviour. Others would speak of a time of emptiness and heartache with nothing in this world having anything to offer to help you. Then you were prepared for your first contact with the Lord Jesus Christ. I particularly like the story of a friend named Michael Phelan and his pilgrimage. He says, “When I first began to read the Scriptures it was in total isolation from any Jewish or Christian individual or organization. I did not even know that the book I had purchased, entitled Good News for Modern Man was a New Testament. As I read its pages I was drawn more and more deeply into the heart of its teaching until I reached a definite point where an event of recognition occurred. Without the aid of any other human, immediately and comprehensively, I was granted the realisation that what I was reading was absolutely and eternally true. The impact this recognition made upon me was life-changing, and brought a feeling of joy combined with wonder and awe. For me there could be no going back: from that moment on, I knew I was reading words that forever were true, and must be lived by, and if need be, died for” (M. W. J. Phelan, The Inspiration of the Pentateuch, Twoedged Sword Publications, 2005, p. 17). That is irresistible grace in operation. I spoke to Michael this week about those words; “I remember it as if it were yesterday,” he said. Another Christian named Charles Mallary said of the Lord, “I love him because he first loved me. He turned me and I was turned. He drew me, and I ran after him. He made me alive and I called upon his name.”
There are manifold ways in which God works in the lives of many people, some so extraordinary that if I repeated them to you it would create the impression that conversion always has to be breathtakingly and spectacularly unusual. Of course that is not so. God mostly uses friendship, love and the preaching of the gospel in a congregation of believers so that slowly and steadily the pieces fit into place and our hearts are ‘strangely warmed’ to know the Savour for ourselves. Yet we have known men who have come to this church and the first time they heard the gospel irresistible grace convicted and converted them.
So the preaching of the gospel is by God’s grace, and the whole directing of providence is also by that same grace, but grace goes further so that the Lord who preaches to the hearts of men actually opens men’s hearts. On the road to Emmaus the one who lengthened his stride and caught up with depressed Cleopas and his discouraged companion first opened the Scriptures to them from Genesis to Malachi. Then he did more, he opened their understandings too. Then they saw it – the death was redemption, and it was followed by resurrection. The Lord who led Paul to Philippi and directed him to the side of a river to speak to a group of women and gave him words to say, went further. One of the women, named Lydia , heeded the message of Paul because the Lord Jesus opened her heart to receive it. Grace gave her illumination from on high. Grace gave her spiritual life. Grace made everything new. Grace gave her the conviction that this message was true. Grace revealed to her the beauty of Jesus. Grace created in her heart a desire for him. Grace made sin loathsome. That is how grace is irresistible. To what does Paul ascribe the success of the gospel in Thessalonica? That “our gospel came not to you in word only, but in power and in the Holy Ghost and with much assurance.” That is irresistible grace that overcomes our ignorance, and indifference, and prejudices. Grace uses our blessed background or it overcomes our background or our rebellion against our background and it brings us to know the Lord for ourselves.
5. GRACE IS IRRESISTIBLE BECAUSE IT IS THE GRACE OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.
We are informed that Philip told the Ethiopian “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). It is his gospel; it is all about him. He is its source and theme. The grace of God is centred in our Lord Jesus Christ; it is in the glory of his person and the perfection of his finished work. That grace is dynamic so that in the gospel the Saviour comes and confronts sinners. In other words I can go to any person and I can say to them, “I have a Saviour here for you.” And if I don’t continually parrot those precise words like some mantra nevertheless that precise conviction is part of my theological universe. In the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ I believe that I have a Teacher who will overcome my hearers’ ignorance. I have a great Priest who will speak on their behalf to God. I have a Lord who will protect and keep them, and this glorious Saviour is gloriously for them. That is why he has brought me into contact with them. I can use the language of a group of Christian preachers in Scotland two centuries ago who were given the name ‘Marrow men’ after a fine book with that word ‘marrow’ in its title, and I can say to you all without any reservation I have a Saviour here and because of his glorious grace he is for you. I am not using the preposition ‘for’ there in the sense of substitution but in the sense of offer. Christ’s teaching – for you. Christ dead – for you. Christ reigning – for you. Christ interceding – for you, that is, for you to receive, to have and to hold in this world and the next, to know his protection and be educated by him.
One Christ – of course, only one, no other Jesus, and of course in three offices, of course in two natures, and of course in three states – but still one Christ. One Christ – of course one in being and substance with the Father and the Spirit – the triune God. But one indivisible Christ who is a powerful King, an instructing Prophet and a serving Saviour and he is all for you, sinner! No preacher may separate him when we offer him to sinners. Think of a computer, and [i] the box with everything miniaturized packed into it, and [ii] the monitor, and [iii] the keyboard. Think of all the services that it gives you – e-mails, wake-up calls, diary, spread sheets, the world wide web. Could you go into a computer store and say that you want a computer which only provides the services on the monitor – without the power-box and without the keyboard? The assistant would say to you that that was impossible, that the box and the modem, the keyboard and the services provided are all one, and you cannot have one without the others too. He would say to you that what you are asking for is impossible, for a PC is one.
So it is with Christ, the gospel of grace is that the sovereign Lord who directs and protects, is also the great Prophet who teaches and enlightens, and he is also the High Priest whose blood de-sins and whose righteousness wraps us about safe and sound for time and eternity. This one Saviour is freely offered in his grace to all. He is one God and Surety and by himself he has fulfilled all those three offices for every one of his people. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . .” he said, and in all these ways he serves his people. God doesn’t do half a job. His grace does not leave us washed – but lacking his protection. His grace does not leave us informed and educated – but in our guilt and shame. His grace does not leave us shepherded – but in the dark. I am saying that we cannot disconnect his offices. You have neither the wit nor the power to disentangle them, and anyone who tells you he can is deceiving himself and the truth is not in him.
a] By the grace of God I have Prophet Christ Jesus who will teach you who you are, who God is, what the good life is, who is your neighbour, what you must do to be saved, how you can inherit eternal life, what lies beyond death. That is the message we have for everyone.
b] By the grace of God I have High Priest Christ Jesus whose blood cleanses us from all sin, no matter who you are, where you come from, what your reputation has been or the quality of your life. Here is the remedy for every guilty conscience, here is peace for every troubled soul, here is the source of a clean heart.
c] By the grace of God I have King Christ Jesus whose Lordship is such that he has put everything under an obligation that if it touches you in any way, as shattering as the crash of a plane or as gentle as a mother’s kiss on the cheek of her sleeping child, he will ensure it must work for your good – the best things that happen to you, and the worst things that affect you. That is irresistible grace.
This complete Christ of the three offices is for you. I am saying that this is our message of grace when God comes by us in the glory of the gospel. God draws near and he makes men an offer. God visits and makes us a proposition. God offers forgiveness. He promises more. He offers us himself: “I will be your God. I will bless you with every spiritual blessing.” And what is unbelief? It is the rejection of that offer.
Can this offer of grace be resisted? Of course the outward call of God can be resisted, and resisted violently. Jesus preached to Jerusalem ; he would have taken them under his wings and protected them, but they would not be taken. They cried, “Away with him! Crucify him! Release unto us Barabbas!” The message of this one divine Son of God and only Saviour whose name is Jesus from Nazareth was unacceptable to sinners then. It is disagreeable yet, that the only hope of every single person is the bleeding sacrifice of God the Son 2,000 years ago? “Foolishness!” The preaching of such a message is despised and resisted. Think of Saul of Tarsus kicking against the goads of conviction. He certainly resisted the word of God. Today the external call is rejected. There are pangs of conscience but they are stifled. There are eruptions of deep conviction but they come to nothing. Of course there is a sinner’s opposition to the Spirit who has been sent by Christ in convicting the sinner of his state before God, but does Jesus stop? Has he not been given a company of sinners more than any man can number? Will be give up trying to save them when he meets initial opposition? Does he withdraw from the conflict a broken, defeated Saviour? Will Jesus ultimately be hindered and overcome by a sinner’s strength, even though that person has been given him by the Father to save, though Christ shed his blood to save him? Will God look down helplessly from heaven, his hands tied? Is the Lamb in the midst of the throne a frustrated Lamb? No, Jesus won’t give up; he will come to the favoured sinner again, in another way and by another providence with a power that is uncontrollable. The sinner’s heart is in his hands and he will turn it his way. He will answer the doubts, he will woo the affections of the heart, he will illuminate the mind and he will make the sinner ready to trust in Christ in the day of his power. Would we pray for someone’s conversion if God were powerless to save a sinner? Think how it was with John Newton, how for twenty years he resisted the grace of God in Christ, and how the Lord never gave up on him. He wrote
In evil long I took delight, Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight, And stopped my wild career.
I saw One hanging on a tree, In agony and blood,
Who fixed His languid eyes on me, As near His cross I stood.
Sure, never to my latest breath, Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death, Though not a word He spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt, And plunged me in despair,
I saw my sins His blood had spilt, And helped to nail Him there.
A second look He gave, which said, “I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid; I die that thou mayst live.”
Thus, while His death my sin displays In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace, It seals my pardon too.
God did not give up on saving John Newton. He came to him and placarded the cross of Christ before him; he sent storms and encounters with death until Newtown was inclined to choose the Saviour. Newton freely repented; he freely obeyed the invitation to come to Christ. God did not ride roughshod over the laws of intellect, and thought and conscience and will. He made Newtown willing in the day of his power. That is irresistible grace. That mighty energy from heaven is the basis of praying for sinners. If ultimately God is impotent and it all hangs on the sinner’s will to say yes or no – the will . . . Almighty and God . . . helpless – then the church and the pulpit will fix their attention on man away from the Sovereign God, and do everything to make unconverted man happy and persuaded and conditioned so that he will say ‘Yes’ to Jesus. All our services, our worship and our preaching will be focused on encouraging men to make a decision. But if God is all powerful then we will seek to honour him and humble ourselves before him and tell men what he says, that he wants them to repent and he desires them to come to him for life, and then we will beseech them to come, all day long stretching forth our hands to this defiant generation.
There is nothing today more marvellous in the whole universe than that we can stand before a congregation in our frailty and mortality burdened with all our personal inadequacies, facing many who have but the slightest interest even in Christian morality, and our message to every single one of them is that Jehovah God is offering himself to them that moment to be their Saviour as prophet and priest and king and husband and lover and friend for ever and ever. He is sincerely offering every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ Jesus to them.
We only long for them to stop rationalising their unbelief, and cease attempting to justify it. Do they want a warrant to come to Christ? Do they plead their unfitness because they lack a warrant? Are they searching for a warrant in their own experience? Are they waiting for a verse to jump out at them one day and zap them? Those things may happen, but they are not the warrant for faith. They are looking in the wrong place if they are saying, “Give me an experience and then I can trust.” God says, “I will make you an offer: here is my Son, the divinely appointed prophet, the priest and the king, and he is for you to receive now.” Those who receive him to them he gives the right to become the sons of God. This is an utterly sincere and genuine offer. The Lord is not at the front of the meeting making this offer or we would ask sinners to come to the front to receive him. The Lord is near you, in the message we preach, in your ears, in your conscience, in your heart, in your mouth, that whosoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. The Holy Spirit takes the message and the offer and he enables you to hear it, and he moves you to receive him. He is being offered now. You accept this offer or you reject it. That is our message. It is a message of grace, and it is centred upon the Lord Jesus Christ.
20th April 2008 GEOFF THOMAS