26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Today’s sermon is about the doctrine of irresistible grace. I’m going to try to explain it in three different ways: First as a divine romance, second as it’s understood in classic Calvinism, and finally in the 21st century terms of human evolution and progress.
Before I do that, allow me a somewhat longish digression (but one with a purpose!).
I don’t quite remember the first time I saw my wife Amy. But she often tells the story of the first time she saw me. It was in the band room at Coronado High School. We were both 16. She saw me across the crowded room, wearing a red, sleeveless shirt. I had in my hand a bass drum mallet (a drumstick) and with it I was engaged in a mock sword fight with another drummer.
Watching me, in that instant, Amy thought to herself, “What a Dork! But he has nice arms.”
Fast forward just a few months, actually 26 years ago this month, and two of our friends had fixed us up on a blind date–the Coronado High School Homecoming Dance. We had dinner at the Chilis on Mesa near Doniphan, then the dance in the ballroom at one of the downtown hotels (I forget which one). We danced awkwardly at arms length, in the way that only a good Baptist girl and a good Methodist boy can.
After the dance, several of us were scrunched into the back seat of a friend’s car as his dad drove us all home. The song “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles came on the radio, and Amy quietly slipped her hand into mine. I don’t remember the first time I saw her, but that was the moment when I knew that she was “the one.”
And so the very next day, I wrote her a five-verse love song for piano and strings, and played it for her over the telephone. It was called, “Forever.” And it scared the hell out of her. Remember, we were 16. We had only been on one date. I was still pretty much just a dork with nice arms.
But I was a persistent dork with nice arms. And so just…nine-and-a-half years later…and after only five unsuccessful attempts (on her part) to break up with me…I asked her to marry me…probably only for about the 30th or 40th time since we were sixteen. But this time I proposed on New Year’s eve 1999, and everyone knew that the Y2K bug was going to destroy the earth the next day…so what did she have to lose? Other than the fact that in the act of proposing, I lit her apartment on fire and almost burned it down (but that’s another story for another time).
What’s my point in all of this? Those of you who know my wife know how incredibly blessed I am to have been married to her these past 17 years. I say “blessed” and not “lucky” or “fortunate” because those of you who know ME know that luck wouldn’t have been enough–divine assistance was required. I stand before you today as living proof that when God intends for something to happen, it will happen–no matter how unlikely, no matter how long it takes, no matter how ill-equipped you might be, and no matter now many times you screw things up.
That’s the nature of irresistible grace.
Of course, the doctrine of irresistible grace does not have quite so much to do with attraction between you and your significant other as it does attraction between God and those he has chosen to be his “elect.” As the Apostle Paul puts it in today’s scripture passage, “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Basically, if God chooses you, if God calls you…that grace changes your life, your heart, and draws you irresistibly to him.
The opposite of irresistible grace, in theological terms, is called “prevenient” grace (basically “resistible” grace). It is a surprisingly popular doctrine in many churches these days, and basically it’s the idea that God chooses everyone, but some people say “no.” They resist. Not just once, but they successfully continue resisting until the very end, and therefore by their own choice, God is not able to save or redeem them, because God respects our “free will.”
Most Calvinists would argue that’s the same thing as a parent saying to a child, “I respect your free will, so if you choose to run out into the busy street in front of a car, I will only save you if you ask me to.” No. If you have the power to save the child, you save the child, whether he wants to be saved or not.
So in classic Calvinism, the doctrine of Irresistible Grace is simply a way of saying that God’s will is stronger than ours, God’s plans are better for us than our plans for ourselves, and where the two are in conflict, eventually God wins. Or as writer and theologian Rob Bell puts it, “love wins.”
Again, the Apostle Paul, in one of his most often quoted verses: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Note that this verse does NOT say, “All things work out for everyone all the time.” Nor does it say, “All things work out for people the way they WANT them to.” It says that “all things work together for GOOD for those who love God, who are called according to HIS purpose.” In other words, what’s GOOD is determined by God’s purposes, not by our desires.
Which brings me to my final take on Irresistible Grace, as viewed through the lens of biology and sociology. Contrary to popular belief, the greatest good in evolution is not the survival of the individual. It’s the survival of the species. And sometimes, what’s GOOD for the entire species is not so good for the individual.
That’s why in our families, we instinctively make great sacrifices of our own interests or well-being for the sake of our children, so that they might thrive and succeed even beyond our own ambitions for ourselves. In sports, given the choice, a good player will sacrifice individual accomplishment so that his or her team can win the game. In our armed forces, in law enforcement, or in firefighting, an individual will willingly put his or her own life at risk to protect the larger community.
I think that’s a better framework for understanding the concept of “GOOD,” regardless of whether we’re speaking of evolution, or God’s intentions for humanity (and perhaps they are one and the same). Classical Calvinism emphasised the salvation of the INDIVIDUAL after death as the ultimate good. But as a Calvinist today I’d rather emphasize the “greater good” or benefit to humanity as the ultimate good.
We know that all things are constantly, slowly, inexorably working together for THAT kind of good, over the span of millions of years. As we evolve, we keep getting better and better, stronger and smarter. Better at taking care of each other, better at understanding the world around us and the way it works.
Now, if you look at things on a small scale, you might think otherwise–this year’s tragedy, this year’s natural disaster, this year’s local or national crisis. That’s because we’re also getting better at communicating with each other instantaneously across vast distances. But if you look at any specific statistic over a span of the past hundred, or even thousand years–war, poverty, famine, disease, mortality, take your pick–you will see nothing but the steady and consistent improvement of life and humanity on this planet.
Unstoppable progress. Irresistible grace.
Now at this point in the sermon, some of you (especially those who are familiar with my sermons!) may have noticed something missing. Pastor Neal has gone for almost an entire sermon without defining anything…no etymology, no Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or Old English.
I didn’t forget. I was just saving the best for last.
Merriam Webster’s dictionary gives, as its first definition of grace, “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” Further down the page, it also defines grace as a “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.”
Where the word grace appears in the New Testament (mostly in the letters of Paul) it is almost always the Greek word χάρις (charis), which is where we get words like charisma and charity.
From Greek, the word jumps over into Latin, where it becomes GRATIA. That’s where we eventually get the word “grace” but also words like “grateful” and “gratitude.”
I think there’s a progress, a flow, an “evolution” if you will, to all of these definitions.
First, God (or the universe, or natural selection–take your pick) bestows upon you some special favor or gift. If you are sitting here today able to hear and understand me in this vast universe filled with billions of atoms that have assembled to form stars and planets and galaxies (and lots of empty space), and some of those atoms just happen to have come together in a way that makes you uniquely YOU…well that’s a pretty amazing gift right there. Life is a gift, quite enough in its own right.
And so you are full of that gift; you are full of character and charisma and grace.
When we truly grasp this idea–when we deeply reflect on any or all the gifts that we have been given in this life–our response is an irresistible sense…of gratitude, thankfulness. And when we are in that grateful state of being, and our brains are producing elevated levels of Serotonin, what happens next?
We tend to be nicer, kinder, more gracious to the people around us. The more grateful, the more thankful we are, for who we are and what we have been given, the more we feel compelled to share those things with others.
And thus grace and gratitude spread throughout the earth. Continually. Incrementally. Irresistibly.
You don’t have to seek out that kind of grace–it will find you, sooner or later. When it does, I pray you’ll recognize it for what it is… as you stop… as you give thanks… as you cherish the experience… and as you pass it on.