How Does the Christian Life Begin? The Effectual Call of God

When we come to the doctrine of the effectual call we encounter a paradox. Because of God’s predestining love, many people in the world are truly the ‘elect of God’ but still remain dead in sin and without hope. God has chosen them in Christ before the foundation of the world, yet they live as unbelievers, apart from Christ, still rejecting the gospel. How is it then that God brings these chosen ones, how is it that God brings His elect to a saving knowledge of the truth? The answer according to Scripture is the effectual call.

Or we could say it another way: God’s sovereign election is not the end of the story, it’s merely the beginning. God will lead all of those He has elected in Christ to salvation through Christ and the first step in this process is the effectual call. This is why Paul says in Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called…’ So first comes the election of God then comes the call of God. And not just any call, but a call that we say is ‘effectual’ because the call itself creates what is not there: life from death, light from darkness, faith from unbelief, salvation from condemnation, and adoption from alienation.

Two examples from Scripture:

a) Open Eyes to See the Wisdom and Power of God

1 Cor. 1:22-24, ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 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 the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

In this passage we’re presented with three groups of people: Jews, Gentiles, and another group Paul refers to as ‘the called.’ Three groups with two very different responses to Christ. Jews demand signs/wonders and upon seeing/hearing of Jesus Christ they conclude Him to be a stumbling block. Greeks (who are Gentiles) were seen as more cultured people than the Jews so rather than seeking powerful signs they sought after wisdom and upon seeing/hearing of Jesus Christ they conclude Him to be folly. This response of unbelief does not surprise us because in the verses leading up to v22-24 we continually read that to the world the cross is foolishness (v18), that it pleased God the world through wisdom cannot find Him or know Him (v21a), but rather God saves those who believe a message which the world sees as foolishness (v21b).

Standing against the unbelief of Jews and Gentiles is the other group, ‘the called.’ We’re introduced to this group in v24 and when these people heard of Jesus Christ they did not think Him to be a stumbling block or folly, no, they held Him to be the very power and wisdom of God. A slow reflection of these three groups and their responses to the gospel prompts us to ask one question: what made the difference? How did the third group recognize Christ as God’s very wisdom and God’s very power while the Jews and Gentiles missed it? The Jews wanted their signs, the Gentiles wanted their wisdom, and ironically the very things that both of these groups were seeking are found together in Christ in the highest degree possible. He is the definition of the power of God…He is the definition of the wisdom of God. What made this last group embrace this and embrace the truth of the gospel while the others rejected it? Answer: they were called of God.

We see this in the first few words of v24, ‘But to those who are called…’ That’s it. That’s the difference maker. ‘But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ This means the call of God is the very thing which removes our John 3:3 blinders. Anybody recall John 3:3? ‘Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.’’ Because of our sinful nature we cannot see the kingdom of God, we’re blind to the beauty of the gospel by birth, but those who are called, those whom God gives the new birth (that’s what ‘born again’ means) can see power and wisdom in the gospel! They don’t think of the gospel as a small thing that doesn’t have meaning for their life, they think it is life. Do you? It was the call of God that made this third group in 1 Cor. 1:24 see the truth of who Jesus really is while the rest of the world was blind to it. Thus, the call of God is an effectual call or is efficacious because it brings about the desired effect.

b) Through the Gospel of Christ – For the Glory of Christ

2 Thess. 2:13-14, ‘But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this He called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Paul always gave thanks to God for the Church in Thessalonica, because they are beloved of the Lord. How does Paul know they are so loved by God? He says it here – because God chose them and is working in them by His Spirit so they would be sanctified in the truth. After electing them and choosing them before the foundation of the world how does God convert them and begin this work of Spirit sanctification in their hearts? Paul says it in v14, ‘To this (to what? To Salvation, to sanctification, to the Christian life) He called you (how did He call?) through our gospel (why did He call?) so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ So again it’s election first and then God brings that election to pass in their lives through calling them to Himself through the gospel.

This is where I want to point out the difference between the external call of God and the internal call of God. The external of God is when both the elect and the nonelect hear with their ears a preacher calling them to the gospel. This external call goes out from faithful pulpits all around the world, it’s heard on podcasts, radio, and even TV when you watch a Billy Graham crusade or something faithfully presenting the gospel. The internal call of God, on the other hand, is when God through His Spirit awakens you, grants you the new birth, removes your natural blinders, and because of this work of (which you can call regeneration) you can hear God calling to you within, in your heart. You feel God affirming within that what you’re hearing is good, is true, and is beautiful.

So we have 2 calls: the external call that goes out to all people indiscriminately and does not result in salvation, and the internal call that goes out only to the elect that does result in salvation. This internal call is the call we see in v14. It is the effectual call of God, the call that brings about the desired result. It’s a call that carries the power of creation and new creation. In Genesis 1 God called out into the dark void and all creation was made, in John 11 Jesus called out into the dark cave and Lazarus rose from the dead, and when God calls out into our dead hearts we awake…we’re born again, we become new creations, and in this awakened or quickened state we find ourselves feeling strangely warmed to the gospel and you know what we do then? We willingly choose to repent and believe. So hear me loud and clear: sinners really do choose to repent, sinners really do choose to believe…but no choosing and no believing will happen until God calls, because His call literally changes our hearts, His call gives us the ability repent and believe.

Now that we’ve seen that these two calls are different calls, see also that the internal call of God in the soul of man has an inseparable connection with the external call of God from the pulpit. In v14 Paul says, ‘To this He called you through our gospel…’ It is through the preaching of the gospel that God calls His elect to faith. Particularly it is the power of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel, which takes that gospel and makes it effective within the heart of man. Of course this means the external call of God in the preaching of the Word of God can be taking place while the internal call of God in the soul of man takes place. Or it can mean that the external call of God in preaching can linger in the soul of a man or woman for many days, weeks, or even years before God grants His saving internal call.

I recall reading (can’t remember where) of a certain farmer who went on a long journey to hear George Whitefield preach, and after hearing him he returned home to his work and nothing much changed for him spiritually. But one day weeks later while working on the farm he remembered something Whitefield said and in an instant the farmer fell to his knees in repentance, crying out for God to save him from his sins. In this farmer’s case the external call went out when he heard Whitefield preach, and weeks later God did what only He can do, He saved that farmer in the middle of his farm. This is the internal call, it works with and alongside the external call.

Just a brief side note here: since it is through the external call or the preaching of the gospel that God saves His own with His internal or effectual call, do you see how necessary the preaching of the gospel is? Without it no one gets saved, yet with it God powerfully works to save. In this light, St. Francis of Assisi’s comment ‘Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words’ is one of the most ridiculous and wrong comments known to man! Since God saves His people through preaching, WORDS are ALWAYS necessary to preach the gospel! Remember Romans 10:15? ‘Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.’

In v14 Paul ends the sentence giving us the result of effectual calling saying, ‘To this He called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ This means, not that you and I receive any glory of our own upon God’s calling, but that from this calling we’re brought face to face with the most ultimate reality in the entire universe: the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So the effectual call of God is through the gospel of Christ, and for the Glory of Christ.

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