Resisting and Cooperating With God

by James Akin

Calvinists are often horrified when they hear of Catholics talking about resisting grace or cooperating with God. However, the fact is that the Bible uses this language, meaning that Calvinists cannot criticize it without criticizing the language of Scripture.

I. The Language of Resistance

For example, with regard to resisting God, we read: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you" (Acts 7:51).

This language is abrasive to Calvinists, it runs against the grain of their theology, because they have historically labeled a major plank of their position, "irresistible grace." This is was a big mistake because it fossilized in Calvinist vocabulary a rejection of the most simple way to express an important Biblical theme, the fact that we must not resist the motions of the Holy Spirit, as the Jews addressed in Acts 7 did.

The thing Calvinists are concerned about -- the concept that there is a motion of God's grace which is infallibly fruitful in bringing about the repentance and salvation of a sinner -- is a fine enough concept. Many Catholics, such as the Thomists (and also the Augustinians, who are not the same group) believe it too. However, in keeping with the language of Scripture, Catholics do not refer to this as "irresistible grace" but, in the case of the Thomists, as "intrinsically efficacious grace" -- that is, grace which all by itself brings about its full effect.

Not all grace is of this sort, as indicated by the fact that there are motions of grace which the Holy Spirit gives which can be resisted. So in addition to intrinsically efficacious grace, Thomists would say that there are also extrinsically efficacious graces, graces which must be supplemented by something else in order to produce their target effect. Of course, the supplement will itself be a grace God has given, so in the end all ends up being attributed to God's grace. However, this does not change the point that not every single grace God gives is intrinsically efficacious. Some single graces he gives must be paired withother graces he gives in order to bring about the goal.

Thus, for example, the Jews addressed in Acts 7 received one grace -- the motions of the Holy Spirit -- but not the grace of corresponding with those motions. The fact is that there are people who are given partial graces but not full grace.

In fact, Calvinists use this very fact as a defensive move to explain passages such as Hebrews 6:4-6, which speaks of people "who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and have fallen away" (literal translation, see the article, "The Unforgivable Sin"). Calvinists argue that these people were never real Christians. They experienced some salvation-related graces, but never salvation itself. Unfortunately, this defensive move won't work because it flatly contradicts the text, but it does reveal a point of agreement between Catholics and Calvinists -- namely that there are people who receive some salvation-related graces from the Holy Spirit which do not of themselves bring those people to full and final salvation.

The problem is that Calvinists have not integrated this fact into their language and so they continue to use unbiblical modes of speech, such as, "God's grace is irresistible," and to shudder or even shout and get pridefully puffed-up with the attitude, "I am attributing more to God's grace that you are!" when they people using biblical modes of speech, such as "You always resist the Holy Spirit."

II. The Language of Cooperation

Related to this issue of the biblical language of cooperation with God, because obviously if one does not resist God and his grace then one cooperates with God and his grace. Calvinists also get tied in a knot (and pridefully puffed-up, which must be very painful when you are tied in a knot) when they hear Catholics talking about cooperating with God.

This is denounced as the evil doctrine of "synergism" because it claims that we work (-ergo) with (syn-) God -- a horrifyingly blasphemous statement to Calvinist ears. which is ironic because the New Testament several times uses the very term "synergize" (Gk, sunergeo) with respect to God's action and ours. I'm sorry, but the Bible is a synergist book because it in the most literal sense possible it uses synergist language. You can't denounce the language of synergism without denouncing the language of the Bible.

For example, in Mark 16:20 we read:

"And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with (sunergountos) them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen" (Mark 16:20).

Here we have a declaration that God synergized with the apostles in their ministry of preaching. This of itself shows that the language of men cooperating with God cannot be considered unbiblical. Indeed! It goes beyond that and shows us that the language of God cooperating with men is not unbiblical, and if the former would have been thought offensive by a Calvinist, the latter would positively blow his socks off.

What is more, we have here not just a statement that God cooperates with men in producing some natural thing, such as crops or money, but we have a statement that God cooperates with men in producing salvation, since that is the goal (and result) of the apostles' preaching mission.

And this is not the only time Scripture uses sunergeo to refer to human-Divine cooperation. We also read:

"We know that in everything God works for good with (sunergei eis agathon) those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).[2]

Here we have another declaration of God working with men. As Protestant theologian Dale Moody puts it:

"God works with those who love him toward the goal of the good. Murray insists that this is all 'divine monergism,' but the Greek verb is sunergei, from which the idea of a synergism between the will of God and the will of man comes. The . . . Calvinistic tradition will insert its ideas even if the very word of the text must be rejected!" (Commentary on Romans, 221)

And he elsewhere writes:

"The best translation of Romans 8:28 that we have noted . . . says God 'cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose.' This is just right, the way the Greek reads, but this understanding has been denounced as synergism. The Greek word for 'work with' is synergei, and from this word synergism was formed. It is strange indeed to hear people declaring they believe in the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture, yet at the same time they denounce this verb! They seem to find an increase in zeal as they butt their heads in an obstinate way against the very language of the Bible. What really do they mean when they speak of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, if the words of the Bible are forbidden?" (The Word of Truth, 342)

However, Paul goes beyond Romans 8:28 into a verse that would make a Calvinist even more uncomfortable:

"Working together with (sunergountes) him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Corinthians 6:1).

Here we have not only the language of men working with God (as opposed to God working with men), but Paul adds to this the exhortation not to accept the grace of God in vain, which means that the grace of God can be accepted in vain.

In order to do a full exegesis of this we would have to show what grace is being talked about, whether it is the offer or the reality of salvation, but no matter what the answer to that question is, this verse says something that Calvinist language is not going to like, because it means it is either possible to accept the grace of salvation at one time and then have it to be vain or it means that it is possible to accept the grace of the offer of salvation and have it be vain because you fail to cooperate with the offer, which means that this grace is not irresistible. Of course, Calvinists have long differentiated between the internal and the external call of God, but in order to keep from talking about God's grace being resistible (and thus potentially "failing," "being frustrated," or "made vain"), but the point is that even if this verse did refer to the external call of God, it would still show that some of God's graces can be accepted but then made vain.

Also, whichever grace it is -- God's outer call, God's inner call, or God's gift of salvation itself -- it is a salvation-related grace, meaning again that salvation-related graces, and specifically graces which lead toward salvation (in the case of either calling) can be resisted.

It also means (and this is especially clear if it is God's external call[1]) that in biblical language men cooperate with God in bestowing salvation-related graces -- another shocking mode of expression to a Calvinist.

And as Paul indicates, the cooperation in bestowing the grace must be met with a cooperation on the part of the person receiving the grace. Otherwise (if no action is taken) it will be rendered vain. Thus in biblical language there is a human cooperation needed both in the giving and in the receiving of this grace.

Of course, a Calvinist can say (as a Thomistic Catholic would say) that both cooperations in the giving and the embracing of the eternal call are themselves produced (not just enabled) by God's grace, and this is perfectly fine. A Calvinist and a Catholic alike can say that our cooperation is produced by God's operation. No problem at all. The point is that we cannot criticize as unbiblical the language of cooperating with God in salvific matters, and this is precisely what the Calvinist does.

Besides using the verb "synergize" (sunergeo, the verb used in different forms in the three preceding verses) Paul even uses the more "shocking" term "synergist" (sunergos) or "co-laborer" with respect to himself and God, saying:

"For we are God's fellow workers (sunergoi); you are God's field, God's building" (1 Corinthians 3:9).

Here Paul again speaks of himself (and others) as synergists or cooperators with God in salvific matters, meaning that the score is now two verses speaking of God cooperating and two verses speaking of men cooperating, an even balance.

The fact is that the language of resisting or cooperating with God is simply not the theological bogey-man that Calvinists make it out to be. In arrogantly decrying it as such, Calvinists have taken a holier-than-thou attitude with respect to the language of Scripture, which, since it is God's language, means that have taken a holier-than-Thou attitude, of which they very much need to repent.


[1] Although I am here speaking of the grace to which Paul is referring as God's external call, this is for the Calvinist's benefit, as it is the reading he would most likely give the text. Actually, I think that once a person gets over the idea that a true Christian can never lose salvation that the more natural reading of the text is that Paul is calling true but fallen Christians who to come back to salvation so that they will not have received the grace of God (their initial salvation) in vain (by dying without it).

This is indicated by the fact that Paul is talking to Christians and, as always, Paul presumes unless there is evidence otherwise every Christian is a true Christian who was genuinely converted and genuinely received salvation, though they may have since fallen. If Paul meant the grace he refers to to be the external call of God then this would make the passage very odd since his audience in the Corinthian church had already received the external call of God in evangelism and thus do not need an evangelistic appeal. Paul is not doing primary evangelism with them. He is not calling them to salvation but calling them back to salvation if they have forsaken it.

[2] This is the reading of the best manuscripts. The old KJV rendering of this verse, which suggests that all things conspire together for good in a kind of automatic providence, is based on an erroneous manuscript tradition.