Matthew 23:37, Free Will, and Irresistable Grace

I. Where Catholics and Calvinists Agree on the Free Gift of Salvation.
Both Catholics and Calvinists believe that man is justified before God through the free gift of God’s Grace, and that this grace not only precedes anything good we might do, but is a requirement for it. In other words, we can do no good apart from God, nor can we desire good.

Here’s the crux of the problem, as both Catholics and Calvinists see it. Sinners are sick, and are separated from God. But that very separation from God prevents them from seeking repentance. They need the grace of God to operate within and upon them to even draw them to repentance and Baptism in the first place. So there’s no such thing as a person so inherently good that they recognized their own sinfulness sufficient to ask for Baptism. Such an individual doesn’t exist. This is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church. The Council of Orange says that:

Canon 4. If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Canon 5. If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.

Canon 6. If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

The Council of Trent, writing in response to the Catholic position, spells out Catholic views on justification at great length. Suffice it to quote from one specific part:

For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches,[99] continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained in its [due] time, provided they depart [this life] in grace,[100] since Christ our Savior says:

If anyone shall drink of the water that I will give him, he shall not thirst forever; but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting.[101]

Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own from ourselves,[102] nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated, for that justice which is called ours, because we are justified by its inherence in us, that same is [the justice] of God, because it is infused into us by God through the merit of Christ.

So justification happens not as a result of our own merits or inherent goodness, but because of the free gift of God at work in our lives. The third canon of the Council of Trent’s decrees on justification condemns the contrary proposition:

If anyone says that without the predisposing inspiration of the Holy Ghost[111] and without His help, man can believe, hope, love or be repentant as he ought,[112] so that the grace of justification may be bestowed upon him, let him be anathema.

So even the desire for Baptism is a grace from God not our own.

II. Where Catholics and Calvinists Disagree on the Free Gift of Salvation.

But here’s where we disagree. Calvinists believe that original sin eliminated free will entirely, and that the only way to get the sinner to justification, and to salvation, is through irresistible grace: that since the sinner is, within Calvinism, totally depraved, that sinner will reject the free gift of Grace, given the chance.

In contrast, Catholics believe that at every point in the process, such a thing as free will exists. That free will is not capable of leading them to salvation, nor is it perfectly free (sin enslaves), but it’s still existent. Even a drug addict maintains some element of freedom of the will: so does the sin addict. So Catholics believe that just as a drowning man is wholly incapable of saving himself, but is completely capable of thrashing free from the one who would save him, sinners are free to resist and prevent God from working in them.

This successful prevention is a result of the goodness of God. He called man, with free will perfectly intact in Eden, “very good,” while all His previous creations had been simply “good” (Gen. 1:25, Gen. 1:31). In other words, because free will is itself a good gift from God, He is unwilling to violate this good gift (free will) to give us another good gift (salvation).

Nowhere, in my opinion, is this clearer, than in Matthew 23:37. Matthew 23 is the Seven Woes of Jesus, as He mourns over the sinfulness of His people on His way to His Passion and Death. Towards the end, in v. 37, He says,

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

The Calvinist interpretation makes no sense here. According to them, Jesus Christ willing the people to repent is the only thing that’s required. And He clearly seems to be willing here, doesn’t He? If “How often I have longed” isn’t a signal of the Will of God, I have no idea what it is. So according to the Calvinist logic, He can’t be actually mourning. It would be like mourning that the food on your fork isn’t in your mouth, and refusing to make the simple move.

In contrast, Catholics would say that Christ had offered the free gift of salvation to them, and had been rebuffed. And that seems pretty obviously clear from what’s going on here:

  1. Christ is making clear that He wills to bring the people of Jerusalem to repentance (again, “How often have I longed”).
  2. Since He wills it, it means He’s provided the sufficient graces to accomplish it. It’s the only way that #1 can be a true statement, since He’s the indispensable part of the salvation process.
  3. Nevertheless, the people don’t will it (that’s the end of the passage).

So Jesus seems to be outlining the Catholic view of salvation here. What’s the contrary argument?

EDIT: In case it’s unclear… the conclusion from #3 is perhaps inescapably the result of the people’s resistance to the graces they’ve been offered. Acts 7:51 specifically says that the Holy Spirit can, and sometimes is, resisted. The notion that He is never resisted is a notion which is seemingly absent from the Bible. I’ll readily grant at the outset.

So God offers, through no merit of their own, abundant and sufficient graces, including the graces necessary to accept Him, but works with our nature — grace builds upon nature, as Catholics are fond of saying. Our wills, prior to the movement of God’s grace, are free, but not inclined towards God in a manner which will produce our own conversion. He bestows abundant graces upon us, enabling us to accept Him. But “enabling us” isn’t the same as “forcing us.” The mystery of free will is somewhat at work here: I’m not sure any Christian thinker has ever sufficiently explained the hows and whys of free will, yet even Calvinists typically concede that at least Adam and Eve had free wills. Suffice to say that while we can’t explain precisely how God enables us to choose between good and evil, He does. And that freedom, itself a gift from God, permits us to reject the salvation He offers.


  1. A book by an eminent Protestant scholar and apologist Norman Geisler, “Chosen But Free”, is a great argument that dismantles hard C5 point Calvinism. It’s a solid explanation from Scripture of fre will.

  2. Hi Joe,

    I hope you monitor your old posts and are able to comment. I am exploring the related issues of salvation and free will and ran across this most excellent post. Below are my thoughts and questions:

    I completely agree that as summarized in the various Councils you referenced above that all good comes from God, and that any good a man does is a response to the Grace of God, and that our justification/salvation ultimately is completely a gift from God. No arguments here.

    Now, we were created in the image of God and I take that to mean that we were given the gift to know good and evil and created to love and to be loved in the Agape sense of the word. But part of our gift of creation is a free will. [Without a free will, there is no love]

    In the swimmer analogy you recognize that man, thru his God-given gift of free will, is enabled to reject the ultimate gift of salvation.

    My question is therefore, why isn’t the ‘desire’ for God (love of God, desire to repent, etc) also possible as the positive essence of free will just as the swimmer has the rejecting negative essence of free will? Isn’t free will in both the negative and positive senses an artifact of our God-given gift of creation?

    In your post you said:
    “So even the desire for Baptism is a grace from God not our own”
    I’m having trouble seeing that.

    In multiple places, supported by Scripture, you are essentially saying that man, due to his sinful nature can never (using free will) choose to desire God because that would be a self motivated move toward God. I understand that man-motivated works is a false doctrine, however, when viewed in the light of my free will is a gift from God, both positive and negative free will, then I don’t see the conflict when I read these Scriptures.
    Given my perspective, then even the ‘desire’ of God would be a gift and therefore in concert with all the above council and your references.

    This free will issue is complex but I am having a tough time with the one sided aspect of the post above, i.e. free will only enables our damnation. Why can’t the swimmer, using the same God-given gift of free will, choose to reach out and accept the gift of the rescuer instead of rejecting it?

    When I read the Council’s conclusions and your comments, my perspective seem in harmony yet addresses my notion that the positive side of free will somehow comes into play also.

    Please help me to understand these subtle differences.


    P.s. I discovered SP only a few months ago and I think it most intriguing and helpful for this growing Catholic apologist. I particularly enjoy the civilized point-counterpoint discussions.
    Thanks you so much for your dedication and hard work that helps so many of us!!

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