by Jeremy Walker/
Read all the posts published to date in this 16-part series on the essential truths of the Christian faith.
HOW DO WE COME TO POSSESS THE BLESSINGS OF SALVATION? Part 1
We have so far considered three anchor points of the Bible’s teaching about the grace of God, truths to which we must hold fast in the present generation and pass on to coming generations. In the preceding pages we have seen that we are by nature fallen, facing our rebellion and our utter spiritual deadness and hopelessness in ourselves as lost sinners. Then we saw that Christians are chosen, the Lord God—in the face of our hell-deserving sinfulness—freely and sovereignly setting his love upon us, saving whom he will. Next, we traced how we are redeemed, the Lord Christ Jesus laying down his life to save all those whom the Father had given him.
All this carries us on to another question: if there are those in utter lostness and misery who are appointed for mercy, and if this blessing of life has been secured for them, their ransom paid by Christ, how does anyone enter into possession of those blessings?
The answer to the question is we must be called. Here is another anchor point for faith.
The Necessity of the Call
The fact that this call is necessary flows from and is demanded by all that has gone before. By nature we can neither understand nor receive those things which belong to the Spirit of God—they are foolishness to the natural man, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14 NKJV). We are spiritually lifeless, antagonistic to righteousness, slaves of sin, blind and deaf to divine truth, having no capacity either to know or to do the will of God, sinful in nature and by deed. As should be plain from all that we have considered before, unless God works to save us, we simply cannot be saved. Unless God calls us to himself, we cannot but remain where we are—wandering, inert, rebelling. Think of the composite picture of hopelessness and helplessness in the parable of Luke 15—a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. This is the heart of every man by nature. But the merciful promise of God takes account of this. In Ezekiel 36 the Lord promises a new heart and spirit, moving us to will and to do in accordance with the Word of God:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:26–27 NKJV)
Similarly pressing language is found in John’s Gospel. Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus says to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NKJV), before driving home the fact: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7 NKJV). Christ is not telling Nicodemus about an obligation to fulfill, but about a necessary experience to undergo. Nicodemus—like all of us—must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless God calls us to himself, we shall remain lost in the darkness, stuck just where we are.
The Nature of the Call
Here we must make a distinction between two different kinds of call that come from God.
The Universal Call
There is, first of all, the general or universal gospel invitation. It is variously described and depicted in the Old Testament and in the New:
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you—the sure mercies of David. Indeed I have given him as a witness to the people, a leader and commander for the people. Surely you shall call a nation you do not know, and nations who do not know you shall run to you, Because of the Lord your God, and the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you.” Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:1–7 NKJV)
Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” (Jeremiah 6:16 NKJV)
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:29 NKJV)
“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” These things Jesus spoke, and departed, and was hidden from them. (John 12:36 NKJV)
These are just a few brief and scattered examples of a Bible full of admonitions, pleas, and commands to hear God’s Word, receive God’s Christ, take God’s promises, flee God’s wrath. Sinners are repeatedly urged to repent of sin and believe in the Lord Christ. This gospel call comes to all, urging all to come to Christ and so to obtain life everlasting. In accordance with this, it is the task of preachers to declare the good news, identifying and exposing sin and making plain the context, substance, and demands of the gospel of God. Preachers, on behalf of God, are to call, command, persuade, and entreat sinners to be reconciled to God. But although that general invitation should be made, and is made on God’s terms by faithful gospel ministers, mankind is by nature unwilling to come (Matthew 22:3 NKJV, Matthew 23:37 NKJV; John 5:40 NKJV). Something more is required.
The Effectual Call
And so we come, second, to the effectual gospel call. This is not separate from the general gospel invitation. It both lies within it and rides above it. The Shorter Catechism (Question 32) defines this effectual call with beautiful, biblical precision and clarity:
Effectual calling is the work of God the Father’s power and grace, whereby He, by His Word and Spirit, invites and draws His elect unto Jesus Christ; convincing them of their sin and misery, enlightening their minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing their wills, thereby persuading and enabling them to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to all in the gospel.i
This call, then, is more than a gracious and genuine invitation. It is a sovereign summons. This powerful call actually accomplishes something. It secures its intended outcome. It is something like the difference between a birthday invitation and a court summons. The first can be fairly easily turned down with little thought and little consequence. The other comes with an authority that cannot be denied. For this reason Paul can write that while one sows and another waters, it is God who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6–7 NKJV). He calls in accordance with his own gracious purposes in Christ:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:28–30 NKJV).
All those who are chosen and redeemed shall, in due course, be called. But why is this call effectual? This is a question we will pursue in next week’s post.
Part 10 of a 16-part series drawn from Anchored in Grace: Fixed Points for Humble Faith, by Jeremy Walker.
Jeremy Walker serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, England, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has written several books and has blogged at Reformation21 and The Wanderer.
i The Shorter Catechism: A Baptist Version (Avinger, TX: Simpson Publishing Company, 1991), 14