George Ella on Doctrinal Matters

Irresistible Grace

A lecture given by George Ella at the Protestant Reformation Society, August 27th, 2009, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, England

Irresistible grace represents the traditional ‘I’ in the acronym ‘TULIP’. So now I shall tease you a little. The name ‘Tulip’ comes from the same Turkish root as ‘turban’ and the flower of that name was introduced by the Turks to Europe as a symbol of the spreading Ottoman Empire, or the TULIP ERA as the Islamising of Europe was called. The popular strains Tulipa turkestanica and Tulipa kurdica point to this. Why the Turkestan turban-shaped talismanic Tulip and Turkoman black merchants robes were chosen as Christian symbols of faith and ministry by post-Reformation parties, must be the subject of another lecture.

The T-U-L-I-P, beautiful as it is, does not sum up the Christian Gospel. British Reformers had other flowers, too, like the rose of Sharon, in their doctrinal bouquets. There is no doctrine of the Word, no justification, no sanctification, no repentance, no faith, little Christology and little ecclesiology in the tulip’s five letters. They outline correctly and superbly God’s sovereign will, but they are alarmingly silent on how this is applied to the needs of sinners in witness, worship and evangelism. Theological gardeners who only cultivate tulips, are thus often accused of that spiritual barrenness and hyperaesthesia called Hyper-Calvinism.

Is the Tulip then not the flower of the Great Commission? Is it about time we chose another blossom? Certainly not! The Bible and English horticultural practice come to our rescue. For us true Edenic gardeners, the tulip is a member of the liliaceae family, that is, the lilies; and lilies are older than Islam. Lilies in the Bible always symbolise God’s evangelical care and outdo Solomon in all his glory. English gardeners have always cultivated the tulip lily under its common or garden catalogue name, which the greenfingers amongst us will know is ‘Love’s Declaration’. Is this not our gospel in a nutshell, or rather, in a flower-cup?

Be that as it may, God’s Word also speaks of the Anemone, Crocus, Cyclamen, Hyacinth, Iris, Lily, Narcissus, Star-of-Bethlehem and Rose, and not just tulips. The gospel is a rich flora of multifarious florescence, virescent verdure, herbs of all hues, sweet fruits and irresistible fragrances.

The Five Points

The Five Points of Grace have thus been around since Biblical times together with all the other salient doctrines of salvation. Calvin was a later compiler who strove in an Aristotelian manner to systemise and codify for the French-speaking world what Bede, Gottschalk, Greathead, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Huss, Tyndale, Latimer, Jewel, Bucer and Bullinger did so well for the English and German speaking nations. However, Calvin neither codified the Five Points, nor summed up Christianity so stringently. His gospel was more copious.

The Reformed Church of England strove to cram the doctrines of Grace into the nine Lambeth Articles of 1595, quoted here last year, to pacify Hyper-Calvinists of the Heidelberg School who claimed Calvin was too tame. These Nine Articles were better than the Four of the Synod of Dort and the Five of Tulip, but they were not as all-embracing as the Thirty-Nine of the Elizabethan Settlement nor the Forty-Two of good King Edward’s reign and the 1552 Reformed Prayer Book. These still outshine Geneva, Dort and Westminster for sound Scriptural reasons. If British Christians would study their own pioneer Bible-based Reformers and less the radical second-generation English, Dutch and French compilers and systematising Natural Light Precisionists and Natural Law Ultra-Puritans, they would be back at the heart of Reformation and soul renewal.

Thus, when William Cowper, the poet, replied to his young relation, John Johnson who was about to study theology and had asked Cowper for advice, the poet replied, after discussing his curriculum:

“Life is too short to afford time even for serious trifles. Pursue what you know to be attainable, make truth your object and your studies will make you a wise man. Let your Divinity, if I may advise, be the Divinity of the glorious Reformation. I mean in contra-distinction to Arminianism and all the isms that were ever broached in this world of error and ignorance. The Divinity of the Reformation is called Calvinism but injuriously; it has been that of the Church of Christ in all ages; it is the Divinity of St. Paul and of St. Paul’s Master who met him in his way to Damascus.”[1. Letter written June 7, 1790.]

Having understood that, and as we are dealing specifically with Calvin here, we must examine what he said about irresistible grace. He said a lot and it improved as he matured. We shall begin with young Calvin’s initial work on the subject: his answer to a Dutchman named Pigge (1490-1542) in his The Bondage and Liberation of the Will of which I had only a Latin ‘Easy Reader’ until Derek Scales[2. Secretary of the PRS.] kindly sent me a fuller English translation from 1996 recently updated and reprinted.

You will all be familiar with the classical couplet in that ancient English ode:

‘Little Piggy: Busy Street.
Motor car: Sausage-meat.’

Well, Calvin was the motorial force in 1543 striving to make post-humus sausage-meat of what he thought was wee little Pigge.

Pigge, who used the more academic-sounding pen-name ‘Pighius’, was Provost of St. John the Baptist’s at Utrecht, Holland and a brilliant scholar who had made a name for himself combating Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer. The latter has been called the Father of Calvinism because of Calvin’s and France’s enormous dependence on him. Pighius was encouraged by Bishop Cincius and Cardinal Cervini to write against Calvin’s 1536 and 1539 Institutes. This was probably a trap as Pighius was a radical whom Rome and the Council of Trent condemned as ‘bewitched by Calvin’. Though he was intellectually sympathetic to the Reformation, he was mesmerised by pontifical pomp and believed salvation meant teamwork between God and man. He was thus considered too much of a half-way man by the papists. Pighius’s half-baked teaching is still with us as shown by Erroll Hulse’s The Great Invitation which speaks of ‘undeniable tensions’ in coming to faith, such as ‘Only God can save me; I must save myself’; sinners need a new heart but they are ‘responsible themselves for making themselves such a new heart.’

Pighius took the bait and wrote his Ten Books (really chapters) on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace published in August 1542, shortly before his early death. The work was prohibited by the Roman Catholic authorities. Though many ‘Reformed’ Christians nowadays would find much acceptable in Pighius’ work, Calvin did not. Calvin decided to attack Pighius’ views in his The Bondage and Liberation of the Will in time for the 1543 Frankfurt Book Fair. Actually, the work refers to the bondage and liberation of human choice but the translators obviously wanted vainly to rank the work with Luther’s 1525 masterpiece The Bondage of the Will. Calvin, however, quickly realised he was not in good shape for the fight and that his reply would be no masterpiece. So he actually won only two of six of the ten rounds in the fight. Throwing in the towel before the final four, he excused himself unsportsmanlike by saying he did not want to ‘insult a dead dog’.

Calvin’s first blow was to claim that Pighius had put forward ideas from Calvin’s 1536 and 1539 Institutes as his own. This opening punch was easily parried because Calvin, had taken much of this material himself unacknowledged and in detail from German-speaking writers for his French readership. After this failed stratagem, Calvin took four rounds of merciless beatings:

1. Pighius complained that Calvin denied Patristic free-willism. For Roman Catholics, patristic teaching is equal to Scripture. Instead of sticking to Scripture, Calvin lost points in scholastic sparing, always missing his opponent. May we Reformed Christians always take our proofs from our own field which is Sola Scriptura.

2. Pighius criticised rightly Calvin’s understanding of Aristotle. Though English and Continental Reformers dropped Aristotle, Calvin stuck stubbornly to Aristotle’s methods as a means of defining and systematising salvation, besides concluding that irresistible grace was Aristotelian, therefore Scriptural, and therefore Christian. Following Calvin, many seventeenth century Puritans used Aristotle’s methods to produce a compartmental theology far from the freshness, spontaneity and comprehensiveness of the English, Strassburg and German-Swiss Reformers. Compare Jewel, Bucer, and especially Bullinger with Calvin. True experimental religion for them bubbles up from the heart held in safe-keeping by God. Aristotelian Calvin dissects doctrines ad absurdum so they lose their Biblical fullness and clarity.

3. Pighius criticises Luther and Melanchthon at length but Calvin had not Pighius’ command of German Reformation history. Besides, he fouled his Reformed fight by favouring the Augsburg Confession and leaning to Gnesio-Lutheranism on the Lord’s Supper. Indeed August Lang classifies Calvin’s Institutes as the work of an ‘Upper German Lutheran’.

4. Calvin had not learnt the Marquis of Queensbury’s gentleman’s rules and lost his temper. He addressed even his fellow ministers as ‘Vain wretches’ instead of by name. Thus he called Pighius ‘raving’, ‘blinded by madness’, ‘too stupid,’ ‘arrogant’, one who ‘tempts those who have not much education,’ having ‘a raving passion for abuse’. His major mentor Henry Bullinger repeatedly reproved Calvin for his witness-destroying, below-the-belt punches. This is why the Genevan Councils rarely let Calvin publish alone but always in conjunction with Bullinger and recommended that Beza followed Bullinger before Calvin.

The rounds which Calvin clearly won:

1. Pighius thought sinners could sin or not sin at will. Calvin replied that our wills had that freedom originally, but lost it in the fall. Now we sin of necessity. Pighius, like 18th century Andrew Fuller following him, claimed that the will was fallen enough to deserve condemnation but was not totally fallen as it was open to overtures of salvation. Thus sinners have what Fuller calls ‘a holy disposition’ to be exercised before God can speak to one’s soul. Calvin maintained that unless God’s prevenient grace steps in, there is no recognition of God’s salvation in man as all his faculties are fallen.

2. Pighius pre-defined Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’: ‘I ought, therefore I can’. I ought to obey the law, therefore I can. Calvin denies that because one morally ought, one morally can. One ought to live a righteous life but because sin has intervened, one cannot. Pighius accuses Calvin of not believing in human moral responsibility. Wrong, says, Calvin, the ‘ought’ is there but the will and awareness to do what is right is only found in Christ.

Calvin’s Commentaries

In Calvin’s commentary on John 6:41-45, completed in the fifties, we find a more mature, balanced and less quarrelsome outline of God’s irresistible grace. Calvin is seldom good in controversy but can be pure gold when relaxed and composed.

1. The gospel must be preached to all without exception.
2. It cannot be embraced without faith.
3. Faith comes from God alone.
4. Elect sinners are efficaciously drawn to God by preaching and the work of the Spirit.
5. He concludes: ‘The Church cannot be restored in any other way than by God undertaking the office of a Teacher, and bringing believers to himself.’

Calvin taught that there were no hidden capacities in sinners which were allegedly on probation and which awakened on hearing the gospel, thus allowing dutiful sinners to become rejuvenated Adams. He adds:

“Christ declares that the doctrine of the Gospel, though it is preached to all without exception, cannot be embraced by all, but that a new understanding and a new perception are requisite; and, therefore, that faith does not depend on the will of men, but that it is God who gives it.”

This, in Calvin’s words, is irresistible grace, though Calvin obviously prefers to call saving grace ‘efficacious’. This would, of course, spoil the Tulip. Modern Pseudo-Calvinists tell us that Calvin taught a mended fallen human will by grace. No. Calvin taught a new will in Christ.

The Institutes

Nor does Calvin omit the subject in his 1559 Institutes but deals with efficacious grace in a lengthy passage in Book II, Chapter 3, paragraphs 6-14.

1. Efficacious grace is a remedy for natural corruption.

Calvin quotes Phil.1:6 ‘Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you, will perform it’.

So Calvin believed in salvation by works – God’s works in Christ, doing what we could never do. Calvin hammers this home by quoting 2 Cor. 3:5, claiming we have no ability whatsoever to think anything savingly of ourselves. This refutes the error that man is only fallen morally but not in his natural capacities enabling him to reason, to will and thus to recognise saving duties. Calvin says God must supply that which is totally lacking, as men dead in sin are no better than stones. Quoting Philippians 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6, he shows that the new will that God places in us at conversion is entirely a work of God and a feature of God’s grace, stating, ‘We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them,’ (Eph. 2:10.) We do not obtain faith by doing good works, we are given faith to do good works.

2. Man-God cooperation in effectuating grace is impossible

Now Calvin deals with Peter Lombard’s theory that once man’s will is aware of God, it takes part in the conversion and sanctification act and co-works with God. Even Rabbi Duncan, Iain Murray and Geoff Thomas fall into the folly that God, in order to make salvation effective, must do His all and man must do his all, too.[3. See Murray’s Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, p. 84 and Geoffrey Thomas’ review in the Evangelical Times, July Issue, 1995. One Presbyterian minister commented in Question Time that Murray and Co. were referring to sanctification, not conversion. Apart from the fact that this does not fit the authors’ context, Calvin’s words would reject any idea that the saved sinner was partner in his own sanctification as a will inclined to good is found only in God.] Calvin claims there is no human cooperation anywhere in the work of grace. The Christian’s depraved will is erased and replaced with a will that is entirely God’s. Here Calvin relies strongly on Augustine, one of the few Fathers he has studied in any detail. I wish Augustine had influenced Calvin a little more. Every Christian minister should read through Augustine once a year in order to refresh and enliven his ministry. However, be prepared to find restored Edenic horticultural iridescence in Augustine where Calvin has either black or white. Reading the mature Calvin is like hearing a sound verdict from a wise judge. Reading Augustine is like hearing a sinner’s praise after being declared righteous.

3. A will inclined to good is found only in God

Calvin continues rather optimistically:

“It is certainly easy to prove that the commencement of good is only with God, and that none but the elect have a will inclined to good. But the cause of election must be sought outside of man; and hence it follows that a right will is derived not from man himself, but from the same good pleasure by which we were chosen before the creation of the world.”

He adds:

“The beginning of right will and action being of faith, we must see whence faith itself is. But since Scripture proclaims throughout that it is the free gift of God, it follows, that when men, who are with their whole soul naturally prone to evil, begin to have a good will, it is owing to mere grace. Therefore, . . . . nothing good can proceed from our will until it be formed again, and that after it is formed again in so far as it is good, it is of God, and not of us.”

4. Biblical prayers show the need for efficacious grace

Being a practical man, Calvin shows how efficacious grace works in the Christian’s daily prayer. He does not pray, ‘Lord, what use can I make of my talents today?’ but in the words of Solomon (1 Kings 8:58;) ‘incline our hearts unto him, to walk in his ways, and keep his commandments’ or as David prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me,” (Ps. 51:10.). Calvin comments, “David feeling for the time that he was deprived of directing grace, prays. Is not this an acknowledgement that all the parts of the heart are full of impurity, and that the soul has received a twist, which has turned it from straight to crooked? And then, in describing the cleansing, which he earnestly demands as a thing to be created by God, does he not ascribe the work entirely to Him?”

The Christian, for Calvin, should attempt nothing without confessing “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me,” (John 15:1, 4.). Concerning Christian action, Calvin teaches, ‘the first part of a good work is the will, the second is vigorous effort in the doing of it. God is the author of both. It is, therefore, robbery from God to arrogate anything to ourselves, either in the will or the act. Were it said that God gives assistance to a weak will, something might be left us; but when it is said that he makes the will, every thing good in it is placed without us. Moreover, since even a good will is still weighed down by the burden of the flesh, and prevented from rising, it is added, that, to meet the difficulties of the contest, God supplies the persevering effort until the effect is obtained.”

5. Adam proves free will does not work

The fallen Adamic sinner’s will therefore has no second choice to obey or resist the will of God in salvation. God does not now wait patiently to see who will grasp His hand. Calvin adds:

“The Apostle’s doctrine is not, that the grace of a good will is offered to us if we will accept of it, but that God himself is pleased so to work in us as to guide, turn, and govern our heart by his Spirit, and reign in it as his own possession. Ezekiel promises that a new spirit will be given to the elect, not merely that they may be able to walk in his precepts, but that they may really walk in them, (Ezek. 11:19; 36:27.) And the only meaning which can be given to our Saviour’s words, “Every man, therefore, that has heard and learned of the Father, cometh unto me,” (John 6:45,) is, that the grace of God is effectual in itself.”

Calvin shows how Augustine in his De Praedestinatione Sancta derides those who claim the power of dutifully willing salvation for themselves. Augustine says, “Fear, lest by arrogating to yourself the merit of finding the right way, you perish from the right way. I came, you say, by free choice, came by my own will. Why do you boast? Would you know that even this was given you? Hear Christ exclaiming, ‘No man cometh unto me, except the Father which has sent me draw him.’”.

Objections to Efficacious Grace

If you are not yet convinced of efficacious grace, the poverty of oppositional arguments will help you. Here are their main tenets.

1. Titus 2:11; John 12:47-48 and John 5:24; 8:24 teach respectively that God’s grace comes to all; each person is accountable for accepting or rejecting the gospel and those who reject Christ are held responsible for it. True, says Calvin. All are responsible; but all through sin reject this responsibility – and are lost. Their only hope is that God intervenes with efficacious grace.

2. All are called by the gospel: 2 Thess.2:14. They are, says Calvin, if the gospel comes their way, but all men by nature reject the gospel unless God gives them grace to accept. Calvin’s critics claim that Irresistible Grace destroys the order of belief and salvation. Faith always precedes salvation as a condition to be met before salvation comes. Calvin asks, but whence comes faith? It is the gift of God to be given to whom He wills.

3. Al Maxey, on his web-site, quotes Rev. 3:20 where Jesus is standing at the door, knocking and claims that irresistible saving grace is the doctrine of man and the idea that God forces sinners to believe against their will is inhuman and ungodly. Jesus is a Gentleman: He knocks, He does not kick the door down.

Scripture teaches that Jesus is more than a gentleman. He is a lover who woos His Bride to Himself, sometimes by tender knockings and sometimes by whispering sweet words of hope. In this, He is irresistible and unlike many a thwarted lover, entirely successful. Furthermore the passage Maxey presents is referring to Christ’s dealings with His Bride, the Church and not with sinners standing outside of His marriage contract. Moreover, we would certainly expect a brave and noble lover to kick down any door to rescue his beloved from the hands of a culprit. In this case, that culprit is the devil himself. So why complain at such a deliverance?

Calvin rules out any mention of force as there is nothing to force. Dead men and inanimate stones are not cooperative beings in the process of redemption. When God told the dust, ‘Be Adam’, could the dust have said ‘No thank you’! Over my dead body’. Besides, all God gives us is to our advantage. Furthermore, we are not talking about an enforced will but a new will caused by irresistible and effectual grace. What creature in Heaven will be disappointed in not going to hell? I find my wife as irresistible now as she was over forty years ago. My love for her has grown even stronger over the years. I would object very much to people saying she forced me to love her. True love knows no enforcement but thankfulness.

4. Maxey argues that God gives His Spirit as a reward for belief and not that they may believe. He argues for belief without the Spirit and the giving of the Spirit as some ‘second blessing’. Maxey’s proof texts invariably contradict him such as Galatians 4:6 “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Maxey has also forgotten Romans 8:14-16:

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.”

It would seem obvious here that with the Spirit comes faith to recognise Father, Son and Holy Spirit, i.e. the Spirit provides faith. Maxey however, concludes in shocked tones:

“If the doctrine of Irresistible Grace is true, then it places the responsibility of salvation entirely upon God and destroys the responsibility of man to act. If Irresistible Grace is truly ‘irresistible,’ it destroys the ‘free moral agency’ of man”.

Maxey’s logic is praiseworthy but he does not draw the necessary conclusions from it, namely that man cannot act in saving himself, so God must do it for him and that man has no free moral agency any longer, so God must give him a conscience to understand his plight.

Dear Brethren, we must know our hearts and the evil that is within them and praise God for the irresistible grace that unlocks the doors of heaven and lets us in. We do not even have to knock. God’s grace is all sufficient. We rejoice in the Lord always because He has given us access to His forgiving heart, in spite of our hearts of stone.

George Ella


George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.

George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.

George Ella on Doctrinal Matters
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