“Efficacious grace”: When God’s grace turns dark.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 February 2018

Because popular culture tends to define God by his power, not his character like the scriptures describe him, 1Jn 4.8 a lot of Christians do it too. The result is a lot of bad theology, where God’s love, grace, and justice unintentionally (but hey, sometimes very intentionally) take a distant second to his might and glory.

Take grace.

Properly defined, grace is God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people. It’s what reaches out to people who totally don’t merit God’s attention whatsoever, loves us anyway, turns us into daughters and sons of the Most High, and grants us his kingdom. It’s amazing.

But when you imagine God’s single most important attribute is his power… well, grace looks extremely different. It’s no longer an attitude. It’s a determination. You will receive God’s grace, become his child, and be on the track for heaven. Or none of these things will happen, because God’s grace will never touch you, because God doesn’t want you. No we don’t know why; he just doesn’t. No you can’t change his mind; piss off.

I know: Under this redefinition, God’s grace is still amazing… but only for its recipients. For everybody else, God seems arbitrary, and downright cold. Because only a third of the planet considers themselves Christian. (Figure some of them aren’t really, and figure there are those, like Abraham ben Terah, whom God’s gonna save despite their inadequate knowledge of Jesus. I think it’ll still come out to be a third.) This means God’s perfectly fine with two-thirds of humanity going to hell. If so, he created an awful lot of unwanted people… and is deliberately making hell more full than heaven.

Yeah, that’s the usual problem when you make God out to be deterministic: Suddenly his plans for the universe are mighty evil. But hey, determinists don’t care: God wields all the power they could ever covet, and they’re going to heaven. They get theirs.

Calvinists tend to call this deterministic form of grace irresistible grace. Although lately a number of ’em realize just how rapey “irresistible” sounds, so they prefer the term efficacious grace—that if God decides to be gracious to us, this grace is so powerful, so mighty, it will have an effect upon us, and will do as God intends. ’Cause to their minds, the Almighty doesn’t merely want things, or wish for things: He determines things. And since he’s almighty, what force in the universe could possibly stop him from getting his way?

How efficacious grace works.

As you know, there are pagans who want nothing to do with God. They might believe in him; they might not; either way they’re nontheists. God wants to save them, ’cause he wants to save everyone. 1Th 2.4 But like the people of Jerusalem with Jesus, they don’t wanna. Lk 13.34 They don’t think about what’ll happen after they die (or imagine it’ll be reincarnation, nothingness, enlightenment—whatever floats their boat); they just wanna do their thing, and for God to stay out of it.

What can God do with such people? He keeps loving them, and keeps drawing them to himself. But someday he’s gonna stop trying, and they’ll have to go into the fire. Like Moses and the brass snake, he told them to turn and look his way and be healed… Jn 3.14-15 and they just won’t. So that’s on them.

Now if power’s your thing, that’s just not good enough.

A sovereign God who doesn’t get what he wants every single time? To those who worship power, which is precisely why they imagine God as power, they believe no such thing. The idea isn’t just unthinkable: If God doesn’t always get his way, it’d mean he’s not really sovereign. Not really almighty. Not really God. They can’t have that. So this idea that God leaves the free choice up to his creatures as to whether they’ll follow him or not? They consider it weak and foolish, and no God they could respect would behave this way. Out it goes.

God’s grace, they insist, is effective. Always effective. It’s backed by God’s infinite power, so it can’t be anything but effective. It saves everyone it touches. If God touches us with it, we’re saved: Done deal, once saved always saved, for nothing God does is weak, and everything he does is efficient.

Though love is patient, kind, and doesn’t demand its own way, 1Co 13.4-5 efficacious grace doesn’t give a rip what its recipients might’ve originally wanted. His grace overwhelms our will, and transforms us into creatures who love God, who can’t help but love God. Every “change of heart” you see in a pagan who quits their lifestyle and turns to Jesus? They didn’t really change their hearts. God, and his efficacious grace, did. He changes hearts. Ek 36.26, Jr 24.7 Only he.

What about the scriptures which state God wants to save everyone, invites everyone into his kingdom, and calls to everyone? What about Jesus’s story of the big dinner?

Luke 14.16-24 KWL
16 Jesus told them, “Some person was making a big dinner, and invited many.
17 He sent out his slave at the dinner hour to tell his invited, ‘Come, it’s ready now.’
18 Every last one began to refuse.
The first told him, ‘I bought a field and need to go out to see it. I ask you to excuse me.’
19 Another said, ‘I bought five yoke of oxen and I’m going to examine them. I ask you to excuse me.’
20 Another said, ‘I married a woman, and that’s why I can’t come.’
21 Coming back, the slave reported these things to his master.
Enraged, the master then told his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the squares and streets of the city.
The poor, the maimed, the blind, the disabled: Bring them here.’
22 The slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done—and there’s still space.’
23 The master told the slave, ‘Go out to the roads and fences.
Force people to enter!—so they can fill my house.
24 I tell you: None of those men I invited will taste my dinner.’

Well, they skip the bit about people refusing the master’s invitation, and fixate on verse 23: “Force people to enter!” The first time the master called for dinner guests, apparently he didn’t really mean it. The second time, he really meant business. So determinists actually describe this as two different calls of God:

  1. THE GENERAL CALL. Where God tells everybody to turn to Jesus and be saved. But he’s not serious; he’s just saying this to make his general intentions known.
  2. THE EFFECTUAL CALL. Where God not only specifically calls individuals to come to him, but forces them to enter. He bends our will so we’ll do as he wants.

Efficacious grace begins with that effectual call. Those he called in this manner, he saved with his efficacious grace. He forces us into his kingdom. Not kicking and screaming, ’cause first he reprograms our minds so we want to enter the kingdom, and if anything we’d be kicking and screaming to get in.

So you only think you turned to God. You didn’t really. God brainwashed you.

Well, mostly brainwashed you. You’re still gonna sin. I would think if God was gonna go to all the trouble of erasing our God-resistant bad attitudes, he’d knock out our sin nature, or at least put some serious dampers on it. Rumor has it he hates sin, y’know. Pr 6.16-19 But God’s efficacious grace only takes care the effects of sin; it doesn’t knock out the sin itself. It’s like a medicine which treats symptoms but can’t actually cure you: It’s not that efficacious.

Grace to you. (But only you.)

Christians believe in efficacious grace for lots of reasons. Not just because they love the idea that our sovereign LORD gets his way, but because they love the idea that they are part of the LORD getting his way. After all, they’re Christian. Which means God wanted them, got them, and now they permanently belong to him. They’ll never, ever lose the kingdom. Their Father is more powerful than anyone, and nothing can snatch ’em from the Father’s hand. Jn 10.29 Their salvation is a certainty—and certainty feels great!

After all, a lot of the reasons Christians adopt Calvinist beliefs, is because they’re searching for certainty. They wanna know what God’s up to. Calvinists claim they know, so follow them, and you can know too. You can be right while the rest of us are wrong. The rest of us might fret about the fact so many people are still lost, but you get to bask in the knowledge that God’s getting absolutely everybody he really wants—and he wanted you!

That’s what becomes the primary focus, if not the only focus, of all the teachings about efficacious grace: The blessings of God towards us, the Christians. The grace of God towards some, the Christians. The plans of God regarding all, but only the Christians get the blessings, and the rest get the shaft.

And the rest get the shaft because they deserve it.

That’s one of the really irritating bits I discovered among those who teach on effectual grace. The obvious question always comes up in class: If effectual grace saves everybody it touches, why can’t God just touch everyone with it? Why can’t there be universalism? After all, if God can reprogram some of us to love and follow him, why not all of us?

Well, the teachers reply, he doesn’t wanna.

Why doesn’t he wanna?

Ah, they’ve been waiting for this point. Here’s where they bust out Romans and quote Paul:

Romans 9.14-23 KWL
14 So what do we say? Not that there’s something wrong with God; never gonna happen.
15 He told Moses, “I’ll show mercy to whomever I can show mercy; Ex 33.19 I’ll pity whomever I can pity.”
16 Which means it’s not our desire nor striving, but God’s mercy.
17 The scripture says about Pharaoh, “This is why I raised you up:
So I can show my power in you; so I can proclaim my name to all the earth.’ Ex 9.16
18 Which means he shows mercy on whoever he wants—and hardens whoever he wants.
19 So you’ll tell me, “So why does he condemn those who oppose his intentions?’
20 Oh, people. You who defend yourselves against God: Don’t.
The sculpture doesn’t tell its sculptor, “Why’d you make me this way?” does it?
21 Or hasn’t the potter power over the clay?—
Out of his lump, he makes a pot which is valuable… or not.
22 If God wanted to demonstrate anger and display his power,
with great patience he might put up with anger-pots, created only to be shattered,
23 so he can reveal the riches of his glory to mercy-pots, preprepared for glory?

Here, they point out those who resist God are all part of his plan: They were “created only to be ruined.” Ro 9.22 Because God can do that. Because he’s God. And if you think that sounds outrageous and harsh of him, “Who art thou that repliest against God?” Ro 9.20 KWL Who are you to tell God how he oughta behave? You think you’re better’n him?

Yeah, they’re totally mangling the intent of this passage. Paul was addressing σὺ τίς εἶ ἀνταποκρινόμενος τῷ θεῷ/su tis ei o anta-pokrinómenos to Theó, “You who are defending yourselves to God,” the people who object to God’s judgment because they’re pretty sure he shouldn’t condemn them. Mt 7.22 Which might include us, if we self-righteously think we earned righteousness by our own good karma. But more often, people quote verse 20 not to rebuke the self-righteous, but to rebuke people who are simply asking the reasonable question, “So why doesn’t God just save everyone? After all, Paul said he wants to. 1Ti 2.4 Said salvation’s for everybody. Ro 5.18, 2Co 5.19, Tt 2.11 Said God is merciful to everybody. Ro 11.32 So if some people still aren’t saved, what’s going on? Why does it look like God’s will is getting blocked?”

Okay yes: God can do anything he wants. That’s what sovereignty really means—not that he micromanages everything, but that if he wants to do something, he will; and if he doesn’t wanna do something, he won’t. God wants everybody to repent, and not perish. 2Pe 3.9 But more importantly he doesn’t wanna force repentance. He wants us to come to him willingly, not forcibly. Just as Simon Peter instructed pastors to supervise their churches “not by constraint but willingly,” 1Pe 5.2 God likewise supervises his people. He wants children, not robots.

But because he’s almighty, he can harden and soften hearts when he feels he needs to. He can manipulate people’s will when it suits his purposes. He has in the past, in the scriptures, which is why Paul used the well-known example of the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

Exodus 4.21-23 KWL
21 The LORD told Moses, “When you go return to Egypt, show all the signs I put in your hand.
Do them before the Pharaoh’s face—but I hardened his heart against freeing the people.
22 Tell the Pharaoh the LORD says this:
‘My son, my firstborn, is Israel. 23 Free my son to serve me, I tell you.
Refuse to free him, and look: I kill your son, your firstborn.’ ”

The LORD deliberately hardened the Pharaoh against Israel, and Egypt was ruined as a result. And if you think that was unfair of God, you haven’t weighed the historical situation properly. God was using this Pharaoh to judge Egypt for four centuries of slavery and genocide his predecessors had willingly perpetrated against Israel. The LORD may have ruined the Egyptian economy, killed the Egyptian firstborn, and let Israel plunder the Egyptians, but Egypt had spent 400 years taking everything Israel owned, and trying to kill all Israel’s boys. Ex 1.16 God’s judgment was harsh, but still merciful by comparison.

If God wants to show his greatness by manipulating people in small ways, he reserves the right to do that. He’s God; he’s our creator; of course he can. He can be merciful if he wants—or not.

But does this passage apply to all humanity, and talk about how God’s gonna harden every non-Christian and throw them into hell? Nope; not even close. It’s about how Paul’s upset because his people, Israel, hadn’t wholly accepted Jesus as their Messiah, Ro 9.1-4 although technically not every Israeli is one of God’s chosen people, Ro 9.6 because salvation isn’t about genetics but relationship. Ro 9.8 And if you think that’s not fair of God, Ro 9.20 who can be merciful to whomever he wants, Ro 9.15 who can smash us if he so wishes, Ro 9.22-23 you don’t really have a leg to stand on. God was letting Israel harden like the Pharaoh hardened—which made his grace to gentiles all the more obvious.

Context is important, folks. Israel thought they merited saving because they were descendants of Abraham, or because they obeyed the Law. Though if you merit saving, why would you need grace to make up the difference? And God doesn’t offer grace to those who think he owes them one. He offers it to those of us who know he owes us nothing—but trust God to save us anyway. You know, faith.

And y’know, those who imagine they’re gonna be saved by the power of efficacious grace, have reimagined grace to be this mighty force which saved ’em once and for all. Not an ongoing attitude of God’s, which regularly bridges the gap between us sinners and our Lord: A fixed event in the past which now means we merit saving, ’cause once saved always saved. Just like a promise made to Abraham, Israel, and Moses, which the Israelis imagined was due them because they were Abraham’s descendants. Yep, those who pin their hopes on efficacious grace are stumbling over the same block as the Israelis of Paul’s day. Ro 9.32-33 Their righteousness isn’t achieved through faith: They consider it predestined, placed in motion long ago. Just like Israeli genes.

When we imagine a world where God happily saves us Christians, and just as happily destroys the rest of humanity because it shows off his anger and power, Ro 9.22 it creates a really dark and messed-up worldview. Too many deterministic Christians grow to actually despise non-Christians: If they’re just going to hell anyway, why should we bother to form any attachments to them, or love them like Jesus wants us to love neighbors and enemies? Why even share Jesus and the gospel with hell-fodder?

Besides, if God has their future all mapped out, whether we do anything for them or not… exactly why should we do anything for them or not? We’re going to heaven anyway, so it’s not like our disobedience will seriously penalize us in the kingdom. And they’re going wherever they’re going either way. We can just kick back and let destiny unfold.

If you ever wondered why there are so many apathetic, lazy, irreligious Christians in the world, this’d be why. This mindset is way too common in Christendom. We need to fight it.

Reject self-righteous, graceless grace.

Grace is God’s attitude towards his people, and when his people exhibit grace too, it’s a fruit of the Spirit. His grace should overflow us, and become our grace. We should display God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude. Towards everybody—because God wants to save everybody. We should want that too.

Those who believe in efficacious grace, don’t think of grace as a fruit. At all. Because let’s face it: How on earth could we exhibit efficacious grace? How could our grace transform everybody we touch? We’re not almighty! At best we could just be kind to everybody—and y’know, there are plenty of kind Calvinists out there. (Some of whom are actually letting God’s grace flow through them, although they won’t necessarily call it that, ’cause they imagine God’s grace to be way more potent.)

So efficacious grace has multiple problems: It doesn’t spread God’s grace any further, because we can’t imitate this behavior without turning into legalists. I mean, if you tried to reprogram people to be selfless instead of selfish, loving instead of fearful, full of faith-works instead of nothing… well, our methods tend to create cult members more often than not.

But most problematically, it makes God out to be an immoral monster. Y’see, if God’s grace really does transform everything it touches, yet he only cares to use it on 33 percent of humanity, why on earth are we calling him mighty and glorious, and not horribly inept at his job? I mean, if two-thirds of humanity are resisting his salvation, these numbers stand to reason… but if they can’t resist, why is God pleased by so many destroyed, wasted creations? How could we call him a good God if he’s behind so much evil?

So no, the idea of efficacious grace isn’t consistent with the scriptures, and in practice it’s not consistent with the idea of a good God. It’s not really grace; it’s fake grace. Pursue the sort of grace which truly transforms everything it touches, without having to brainwash everyone: Pursue God’s real grace.