How Calvinism Shapes Christian Ministry: Irresistible Grace, False Gospels, and Guarding the Sheep

Jacob Tanner


Picture the scenario: The perfect Son of God is preaching some of the greatest sermons the world has ever heard and performing a series of miracles that no mortal eye has ever beheld, when—practically without warning—a vast multitude walk away from him. Why? What happened?

As it turns out, Jesus had simply proclaimed the truth to those who hated the truth. He had told the people that “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn 6:37), and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:44).

The crowds, upon hearing these things, expressed their disdain to Jesus when they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60). But Jesus refused to comply with the sinful standards of a sin-hardened crowd. He instead doubled down on the so-called hard saying and responded, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.… This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:61-63, 65).

The multitude, upon hearing all of this, turns away (Jn 6:66). They cannot bear to hear such things spoken aloud. But, turning to his disciples, Jesus confirms their allegiance to both himself and the truth. In John 6:67, Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter responds that there is nowhere else to go—it is Jesus, after all, who possesses true words of life. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69).

One of the so-called hard sayings of Jesus that day was the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. Jesus explained that, apart from the grace of God, sinners will always reject both himself and the truth of God’s Word. Those who have the grace of God imparted to them, however, will be irresistibly drawn to Christ, as a bride is drawn to her new husband.

The fact that the saints are irresistibly drawn to Jesus and his teachings is an encouragement to pastors behind the pulpit to remain true to God and his Word, to faithfully proclaim the truth without thrills and frills, and to guard the good deposit of the Word of God for future generations (2 Tim 2:14).

Defending Irresistible Grace and the Free Offer of the Gospel

As the fourth letter of the TULIP acronym, Irresistible Grace simply teaches that those whom God has sovereignly elected to salvation, and those whom Jesus perfectly atoned for at the Cross, will hear the gospel and, by a special imparting of grace through the Holy Spirit, be drawn to Jesus in such a way that they will willingly come to him as their Lord and Savior. This moment of irresistible drawing will occur at the time the Father has appointed, and not a moment sooner or later. God’s perfect plans will be fulfilled.

Of course, as with the other letters of the TULIP acronym, Irresistible Grace has its detractors. Here, the objections are simple: If salvation requires God’s drawing of the sinner to himself by a special outpouring of grace, why does God not show this grace to all his creation? Is it not unjust and unfair that God would only show grace to an elect few? Besides that, is it not the very heart of God for all to be saved? Does not 2 Peter 3:9 declare that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”? Does this doctrine not stifle the free offer of the gospel?

The refutations to these objections are as follows: God is not required to show grace—or mercy, for that matter—to anyone. If grace is “getting what we do not deserve,” and mercy is “not getting what we do deserve,” then, by definition, neither grace nor mercy are required by God. He is able to freely give grace to whomsoever he will and shed mercy upon whomsoever he will, but there is no injustice on the part of God if he withholds mercy and grace from some sinners. In fact, this is the basis of Paul’s argument in Romans 9:14-16:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 

It is God’s prerogative to show mercy and grace to whom he will. By not lavishing his mercy and grace upon all, he chooses instead to show just judgement to others for their sins. This is not injustice, but perfect justice.

That said, God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ez 18:23). As some theologians have pointed out, God has three basic wills: His efficacious will (wherein he ordains all that comes to pass); his prescriptive will (wherein he reveals his laws and commandments); and his permissive will (wherein he permits things to occur that are otherwise against his desires). The proclamation of the gospel often relates to all three. In his prescriptive will, God has given his law, which we all have transgressed, along with the gospel call to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt 4:17). Within his efficacious will, he has sovereignly determined that there will be some, upon hearing the gospel, who will be drawn irresistibly to Christ as their Lord and Savior. Within his permissive will, he has also sovereignly chosen to pass over some and not show them mercy or grace, so that they will be guilty of not only breaking the commandments, but also guilty of having rejected the only begotten Son of God.

For the pastor, this simply means that the grace of God is still sufficient to save those sinners whom God has elected. Those who do not receive grace from God will become even more hardened in their sin, just like Pharaoh. Our mission is not to determine who is due to receive grace on what day, but to simply be faithful to preach the free offer of the gospel and allow God to operate in his sovereignty. As Paul points out in Romans 9, God creates some people as vessels of mercy and others as vessels of his wrath. In both instances, he has the right to do as he pleases for he is the Potter and we are but clay in the Master’s hands. “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom 9:18).

Graciously Bearing Fruit

Those who have been the recipients of such great grace as this, who have been irresistibly drawn to Christ, should display a new pattern of actions, words, and thoughts. With new affections that have been oriented towards Jesus, the one who has received great grace and mercy should behave with utmost graciousness and mercifulness toward others. The pastor, especially, should be a conduit of loving grace and mercy.

Jesus gets to the heart of the matter when he tells his disciples that, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (Jn 15:16). The Christian, and especially the Christian minister, should remain ever humbled by the truth that Christ chose us and drew us to himself, and forever thankful. This thankfulness should overflow in an abundance of fruitfulness.

In fact, fruitfulness for the Christian should look a lot like loving God above all else and loving our neighbors as ourselves. As Jesus told the disciples, “These things I command you, so that you will love one another” (Jn 15:17). The two tables of the Ten Commandments can indeed be summarized as follows: The first table containing the first four commandments demand that we love God, and the second table containing the remaining commandments demand that we love others as we love ourselves. The one who has experienced the grace of God must model this ever-growing and expanding love.

This grace, mercy, and love that we exhibit exists predominantly because Christ first loved us. While we continue to offer the gospel freely to sinners, we must not anticipate they will return our kindness, nor must we require their generosity before lavishing them in love. Jesus explained that we are not going to be loved by the world; on the contrary, we should expect the world’s disdain and hatred. He warns in John 15:18-19 that “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” And, again in verse 25, “But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’”

Augustine of Hippo once wrote that “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Those who have been drawn to Christ and have found their rest in him must now live for Christ whom our hearts love, and that means bearing fruit.

Graciously Guarding the Flock

While bearing fruit means loving others with a great deal of grace and mercy, it also means upholding the truth. Jesus warned in John 10:10 that, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Similarly, there are many false shepherds who are merely “for hire” and will run at the first sign of danger (Jn 10:12-13). This means that the true under shepherd, who has been called by Christ to care for the flock of a local church, must be prepared to do theological battle for the truth to guard the sheep from all manner of assaults. As John Calvin famously said, “The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both.”

Even within the Church, we must be leery of those shepherds who are “for hire.” These are the ones of whom Jude spoke, in Jude 4, who “Have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” False teachings abound today. There are many attempting to pervert the grace of God by teaching doctrines that lead to great sins of lasciviousness. There are others who would deny the truth to gain favor with the world, and yet more still who preach a Jesus of their wicked machinations. They are, “Waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved” (2 Pet 2:17).

Guarding the flock against such thieves, robbers, and false shepherds means, primarily, that we teach the truth. We preach the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27) without cheap tricks or worldly techniques. While the churches specializing in playing on the emotions of people, or entertaining the goats with theatrics and entertainment may, for a time, attract and garner a large following, and while the churches with ministers faithful to God’s Word may find themselves in a similar predicament to Jesus at the end of John 6, we must not despair or lose hope in our calling. We do not need the light shows, fog machines, or drama teams because God draws his sheep irresistibly to himself. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied through our faithfulness to the Word, and God will lead his faithful elect to our churches, by his grace.

But more than preaching the truth, we must also be prepared to do battle. We are to, “Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). This means that when errors creep into the church and lies are spewed from pulpits, we must pick up the Sword of the Word and clash against those enemies of truth. But, to do so, we need to hold to a humble dependence upon Christ.

Graciously Praying for both Those Within our Flocks and Outside

Teaching the truth, contending for the truth, and defending the truth may seem a thankless job, and it may also appear a task that we are most inadequate for. This is where Irresistible Grace becomes most encouraging: Not only will God keep his elect from falling away by this grace, but he will keep drawing us back to the truth by this same grace. But this means that we must depend on God, and not ourselves, in this battle. We must, in short, be men of prayer. The Apostle Paul urged Timothy, “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2). We must pray for ourselves and our sheep, that God would guard us against wicked schemes and evil plots, while also praying for those who have been deceived and are deceiving. This, after all, is the beauty of the gospel: God can irresistibly draw even the most hardened, devious, and deceptive sinners to himself. He can turn thieves and false shepherds into members of his flock and, by his grace, even transform them into genuine under shepherds guided by his grace.

Let us, then, continually be drawn to Christ by this irresistible grace that our dependence would be on him and not ourselves, and let us be a people of great prayer.

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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.