God's Effectual Call
Topic: Topical Sermons Passage: Romans 8:28–30, 1 Corinthians 1:26–31, Ephesians 4:1–6
Growing up as a boy, I could be found on the school playground nearly every summer day from mid-morning until supper time. My buddies and I, along with anyone else who cared to join us, would show up around ten in the morning with bats and gloves in hand, hoping that someone had remembered to bring a ball. We would play on that dusty field all day long until the cover came off the ball or we sensed that it was time to go home for dinner. A few of us would hang around for as long as we could, hitting the ball until the string wound its way completely off, and hoping we could come up with another one the next day.
My house was several blocks from the playground. I had been told repeatedly that my father would be home from work at 5:00 sharp and supper would soon be on the table. But kids have no concept of time...especially when the score is tied. So my mother developed a unique form of communication. On one occasion, she walked two blocks to the end of a street that was in direct sight-and-sound-line of the playground and—no joke—beat on a metal pan with a wooden spoon. I cannot remember whether or not she called my name, but there was no doubt what that unforgettable sound represented. And I knew how I had better get home right away.
You might say that hers was an “effectual call” to me, meaning that it was “effective” in getting me to respond to her will.
This morning as we continue our look at the great doctrines related to salvation, we will be considering God’s “effectual call.” By that term I am speaking of God summonsing people to himself through the proclamation of the Gospel in such a way that they respond to Him in saving faith.
It is helpful for us to bear in mind as we begin to reflect on this subject that the Church is spoken of in the New Testament as the “called out” of God. That is precisely what the Greek word, “εκκλεσια,” means. Therefore, as we refer to the “effectual call” of God, we are speaking of those individuals who have been “called out” from the world by God to be His people.
There are a number of Scripture texts we will be considering today, but I would like to begin by first fleshing out...
The meaning of God’s “effectual call.”
...more carefully. What precisely are we referring to in the use of this phrase? Permit me to share a rather detailed description from the Westminster Confession of Faith, a 17th-century document which continues to be subscribed to by many Protestant bodies. I quote at some length:
All those who God has predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.
Although the Westminster Confession is neither inerrant nor divinely-inspired, it nevertheless reflects the New Testament teaching that were it not for God’s “effectual call,” none of us would become heirs of salvation. To cite Ephesians 2:1, we would all be “dead in trespasses and sins,” completely incapable of responding to Him of our own accord.
Christians tend to agree that the calling of God is a divine activity in which unsaved men are drawn to God. But there is more that needs to be said. By itself that statement omits the most important aspect of the doctrine that we are considering this morning, and that is that God’s call is “effectual,” or accomplishes the purpose it sets out to do.
Biblical scholars on both sides of the theological aisle differentiate between what are generally referred to as God’s “general” and “specific” calls, thus distinguishing the Lord’s “general invitation” for all sinners to come to Him and His “specific and effectual summons” extended only to “the elect.” The New Testament bears this out. For example, in Matthew 11:28 the Lord Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But then in Matthew 22:14 we are told that “Many are called, but few are chosen.” A “general call” appears to be extended in Luke 5:32, where Jesus announces His mission as being one of calling “sinners to repentance.” But then clearly in places like 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul refers to “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote of what he called the “two species of calling,” differentiating between them in this way:
There is a universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike...Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts.
Wayne Grudem has defined God’s “effectual call” as “an act of God the Father, speaking through the human proclamation of the gospel, in which he summons people to himself in such a way that they respond to saving faith.” Both he and Calvin agree that it is through the preaching of the Scriptures that people “hear” God’s call. And to those who are among “the elect,” that call is “effectual” to the point of leading them to repent of sin and trust Christ for salvation. It is this call—this “effectual call” of God—that we are concerned with this morning.
I mentioned last Sunday that these messages are taking us into some deep—and in some cases, uncharted and perhaps troubling—waters. Please believe me when I say that my intention is not to create confusion or generate contention, but rather to teach and preach on these topics and to remain faithful—to the best of my understanding—to the total testimony of the Scriptures. Therefore, I beg your indulgence and ask that you be patient as we tread these waters together.
If the meaning of God’s “effectual call” remains blurry, perhaps it will be made clearer as we move into our second point, which is...
The necessity of God’s “effectual call.”
In the aftermath of last Sunday’s message, a few folks told me that they had never heard a message on “divine election,” one that emphasized God’s sovereign choice of those who would become the heirs of salvation. An initial hearing of that doctrine naturally evokes strong emotion and consternation, especially when it suggests our vulnerability and need for divine enabling. Even among those who are frequently exposed to it, there are often feelings of uneasiness...and understandably so.
Most of us have grown up under preaching that appeals to our wills in the offer of salvation, as if we are the controlling agents in the process of salvation. What I am arguing today is that there can be no response on our part before there is first an “effectual call” extended by God. Millard Erickson expresses this perspective quite clearly when he writes, “Because all humans are lost in sin, spiritually blind, and unable to believe...some action by God must intervene between his eternal decision and the conversion of the individual within time. This activity of God is termed special or effectual calling.”
I call your attention to 1 Corinthians 1, verses 23 through 31, one of the principle texts that speak of the necessity of the divine call. There Paul writes,
“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
This passage reveals several salient facts that relate to our being called by God. In the first place, the description of humanity being portrayed here is that none of us is in any position to merit God’s favor. A second fact that we see is that the relationship with the Lord that anyone enjoys is based solely on His “choice” and “calling.” And third—and of most practical importance—we are told that relationship is founded on the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
James Petigru Boyce was one of the founders and the first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1887 he published a volume that remains in print entitled, Abstract of Systematic Theology. In beginning his discussion on the chapter entitled “Outward and Effectual Calling” Boyce writes, “The atoning work of Christ was not sufficient for the salvation of man,” a statement which at first reading seems to smack of outright heresy. But when we follow his argument, we realize that he is quite correct. He, in fact, summarizes well the reason that the “effectual call” of God is so necessary.
In logical sequence, Boyce points out several facts that we may have a tendency to overlook when it comes to understanding how salvation came to be appropriated to the believing sinner. They can be summarized in the following way:
- To begin with, the work of Christ on the cross accomplished the removal of all the obstacles that stood in the way of God’s pardon of the sinner. In other words, it paid the just penalty for sin.
- But that still left the sinner at enmity with God, because until he is brought into an understanding of the truth and a willingness to embrace it, he remains in a lost condition.
- It is imperative, therefore, that the Gospel be proclaimed to every creature. This is what Boyce calls “the external call of the Gospel.”
- This proclamation, however, meets with little success because of the willful sinfulness of man and his rejection of the Gospel’s claims.
- God knowing that this is true, not only of all mankind in general, but even of the elect He purposes to save in Christ, gives to these such influences of the Spirit as will lead to their acceptance of God’s call, or what Boyce labels the “effectual call.”
Boyce then lists eleven arguments from Scripture in order to demonstrate the need for God’s “effectual” call in the life of all who will turn to Christ and be saved. The bottom line is that not a single one of us is able to respond to God’s offer of salvation apart from His enabling grace to do so. We call to mind yet again those words we have paused to reflect upon each week in this series...God’s “golden chain of redemption” embedded within the 8th chapter of Romans:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those who he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30).
If you have not already committed these verses to memory, then you may want to consider doing so. At the very least, I encourage you to read and reread them each week as we go through this series, because we find ourselves returning to them time and again.
As we noted a moment ago, in the words of Millard Erickson, “Because all humans are lost in sin, spiritually blind, and unable to believe...some action by God must intervene” between his eternal decree to save sinners whom He has elected from before the foundation of the world for salvation and their actual “in time” turning to Him. That “intervention” is His “effectual call,” apart from which no one would be saved.
We have looked at the meaning and the necessity of God’s “effectual call.” What is left is for us is to say something about its process, purpose, and product. We’ll take those one at a time, noting first...
The process of God’s “effectual call.”
The 16th-century English pastor and theologian William Perkins is often referred to as “the father of Puritanism.” He is the one most credited with laying the foundation of Puritan piety by digging deeply into the biblical doctrine of predestination. What many dismissed as irrelevant or even irreverent, for Perkins and generations after him became the bedrock upon which they built their faith. Apart from the solid foundation of God’s work of election in eternity-past, he believed that an understanding of and regard for the work of Christ are greatly diminished. In other words, God’s work of choosing and calling believers to Himself was essential to the Gospel, as well as to Christian living.
A proper view of God’s “effectual call” is to see it as a two-stage process. Part one involves a right hearing of the Word by those who were “dead in trespasses and sins” (cf. Ephesians 2:1). Their minds are thus illumined by the Spirit of God with irresistible truth. The preaching of the Word accomplishes two things. In the first place it reveals to man his sin and the awful punishment it has earned; and secondly, it reveals the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ for those who will believe. According to Perkins, these two things become so real that “the eyes of the mind are enlightened, the heart and the ears opened, that the elect sinner may see, hear, and understand the preaching of the word of God.”
The second part of the two-stage process with regard to the “effectual call” of God is equally important. It involves the piercing and breaking of the sinner’s heart so that it is that it is prepared to receive God’s saving grace offered to it.” Perkins said that there are four “principle hammers” that God uses to break the sinner’s heart so that he will be made ready to respond to the Gospel:
- knowing God’s law and its requirements imposed upon all by a just and holy God,
- being aware of one’s sin, both inherited and practical, as well as its due punishment,
- conviction of the heart with the sense of God’s wrath against sin, and
- despairing of human ability to merit God’s favor and to gain eternal life.
All of this implies that the Lord Himself is the principal Actor in the salvation of any human being. He is the One who has labored behind the scenes—indeed, since “before the foundation of the world” (cf. Ephesians 1:4)—to ensure that His elect will come to Him. Paul understood this better than most when he testified to having been “set apart before (he) was born,” having been “called by his grace” (Galatians 1:15).
Once again we could turn to the “golden chain” found in chapter 8. The Apostle’s words there are quite clear. It is God who “foreknows.” It is God who “predestines.” It is God who “calls.” It is God who “justifies.” And it is God who “glorifies.” And while human responsibility is never minimized—indeed, we are all accountable to God—there is no mistaking the fact that our Lord is “the founder and perfecter of...faith” for everyone who believes (cf. Hebrews 12:2).
When we as Christians pause to reflect upon the course of our journey in coming to Christ, it becomes clear that many people and circumstances were in play long before we came to the realization that the Lord of the universe had claimed us as His own. From a human perspective, our salvation involved a process...at times a circuitous and uncertain process, but ultimately one that was narrow and straight. Humanly speaking, we come to Christ in time by way of “circumstance” and “decision,” but in the mind of the eternal God, those who demonstrate themselves to be His have belonged to Him since before time began.
I never cease to be amazed at God’s ways, ways that human logic cannot deduce. That is why He gave us His Word. Everything we know of God comes principally from what He has been pleased to reveal to us. Our logic and intuition can take us only so far. There comes a time when we must yield to the greater knowledge and wisdom of the infinite God.
In the Book of Acts it took time for the Gospel to reach the regions beyond Judea. But when Paul and his missionary team arrived in Gentile territory and began sharing the Word of God with them, we are told that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Later on when Paul considered whether or not he should continue preaching the Gospel in the unreceptive city of Corinth, the Lord told him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent...for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10).
Our God continues to call His own to Himself through the convicting and redeeming power of the Gospel. Even as His call goes out today in many places around the world, the Lord already knows those who have responded and will respond. That is because His is an “effectual call.” This is what Jesus was alluding to in John 10, when He said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me...My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:14 and 27).
All of this leads to...
The product of God’s “effectual call.”
The result—or “product”—of the “effectual call” of God is saving faith on the part of the believer. As Ephesians 2:8 serves to remind us that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Bible scholars will at times debate to what specifically “the gift of God” refers. Many contend that “this” and “it” speak of the entire process of salvation, and while that is certainly true, there is a valid grammatical argument to be made that those two pronouns relate to the “nearest antecedent,” which in this case is “faith.”
If that is indeed the case—as I believe it is—then what is implied is that “faith” is not a virtue on our part, but rather something that is granted by God to those whom who calls. Elsewhere in Scripture it is suggested that God grants “repentance” at His good pleasure (cf. 2 Timothy 2:25). Since He grants the ability to turn from sin, it seems only fitting for Him to correspondingly grant the ability to turn to Him, which is what saving faith implies.
The “product” of God’s “effectual call” is then a people whom He calls to Himself and saves. And that leads us to ask “why?” Why would a perfect God who possesses no inherent need bother to choose and call out of a sinful lot a people to inherit the blessings of eternal life? That leads us to...
The purpose of God’s “effectual call.”
In considering this, let’s turn to the 4th chapter of Ephesians. Here we find another of the major texts that relate to God’s call. The Apostle Paul records these words while incarcerated in Rome. Notice verses 1 through 6:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
As we trace Paul’s discussion throughout his letter to the Ephesians, we realize that one of his main points is the unity of God’s chosen body known as “the Church.” Keep in mind that the word “church” (“εκκλεσια”) means “called out ones.” Through the cross-work of Jesus Christ, God is “calling out” and uniting people from every people group on the planet to one another and to Himself.
Four times in the six verses we just read, we see the word “call.” We observe that God is the One who does the calling, while it is the responsibility of those who have been called to “walk (or live) in a manner” that accurately reflects Who they now belong to. In order to do that, they must be united with others who have embraced the same saving faith in a manner similar to the unity that has always existed and will always exist between the members of the Godhead...the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
God’s people have been called to reflect this unity, and there are a number of reminders sprinkled throughout the New Testament that bear this out. I’ll mention just a few:
Regarding his own coming to Christ, Paul testified in the 1st chapter of his letter to the Galatians (verses 15 and 16) that God “had set (him) apart before he was born, and...called (him) by his grace...to reveal his Son in (him).”
In 2 Timothy 2:9, Paul jogged the memory of his young son in the faith, telling him that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling.”
Peter took this a step further, exhorting his readers in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” And in his second epistle he challenged them to “confirm (their) calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10), reminding them that they had been “called to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).
God’s call is said to be “a heavenly calling” in Hebrews 3:1, and is described as “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” in Philippians 3:14.
Paul further wanted Christians to know that they had been “called to freedom” in Galatians 5:13 and “called...to peace” in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
That these were more than mere pious-sounding platitudes is borne out in a context dealing with our most intimate relationships. Addressing the subject of sexual behavior, Paul wrote in no uncertain terms “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” in 1 Thessalonians 4:7.
Even though “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29)—meaning that it is “effectual”—this same Paul concludes in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.”.
What then is the “purpose” of God’s “effectual call?” Simply and yet profoundly it is that He would be glorified through those whom He has elected, called, and saved. As Peter has expressed in 1 Peter 5:10, God “has called you to his eternal glory in Christ.” It is through the lives of His “called out ones” that God has ordained for His name to be exalted and praised. There is no higher calling than this. It is the very reason for which we have been created, called, and saved.
This morning I have been speaking to some who are the called of God, as well as to others who may not be included in that group. Perhaps deep down inside, you know to which you belong. Have you heard the “effectual call of God” through the witness of His Word and the persuasion of His Holy Spirit? Have you responded in saving faith? If so, there is no greater reason for humble worship and heartfelt praise to God during a season of the year when the world is “giving thanks” to lesser gods for lesser things.
If you do not recognize yourself as having been called by the Lord to salvation in His Son, then perhaps what you have heard this morning will serve as the opening whispers of His summons to you. That is my sincere prayer.
For those of us who have embraced God’s “effectual call,” I remind you that our task now is to be the conduit of that call through our testifying to and proclaiming God’s eternal truth. We find this apostolic charge in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20. May it serve as His challenge that the “effectual call” of God is one to both know Him and to make Him known.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).