WCF 10: Of Effectual Calling
Salvation is like a treasure that becomes more precious to us the better we understand it. One way of better understanding our salvation is to study what theologians call the ordo salutis, or the order of salvation, the “process by which the work of salvation … is subjectively realized in the hearts and lives of sinners.”[i] Romans 8:30 is the classic text on how God saves: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Embedded in those terms are additional concepts that fill out our understanding of salvation, but this verse provides biblical warrant for itemizing the motions of divine grace. Ultimately, salvation is like a single golden chain, one unified work of God. Still, to get to know our great salvation we can study each of the links in turn.
The first link is election, God’s eternal and gracious choice to save some sinners. But to understand how the elect actually become Christians we turn to effectual calling. The word “calling” rightly suggests that God offers grace to sinners; through “the ministry of the Word” he calls wayward children to come home. But the calling of God is more than an invitation. It is effectual, it actually produces the desired effect. The effectual call is also known as regeneration, God’s one-sided action whereby he brings dead sinners to life in Christ.
Who Are the Called?
Put simply, those who are called are spiritually dead but elect sinners.
God Effectually Calls the Elect
The effectual call is different from the general call of the gospel. The call to repent and believe goes out to everyone who hears it. God is constantly calling sinners to turn from their sins and find life in him. God’s kind providence should stimulate us to repent (Rom. 2:4). The loveliness of nature is an invitation to find the author of this beauty. Our troubled consciences warn us to flee sin and seek righteousness. And, mostly clearly of all Scripture tells the story of God’s redemption so that we might ourselves be redeemed. But all this knowledge of God people naturally twist, exchanging his truth for a lie (Rom. 1:18–25). Only to the elect does God make this call effective for salvation. It is in this sense that Jesus interprets his parable of the wedding feast: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).
Those who are chosen are not elected for any personal qualifications. As God’s eternal predestination is “without any foresight of faith … or any other thing in the creature, as conditions” affecting his choice (ch. 3), so is the effectual calling “of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man.” Anything good that God might foresee is caused by his one-sided work of grace. The elect are born again, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
God Effectually Calls Dead Sinners
The effectual call is illustrated in Jesus’s call to Lazarus after he had died. Lazarus had already been dead for days. He stank. But Jesus cried out with a voice that was not only loud but powerful and authoritative: “Lazarus, come out.” And “the man who had died came out” (John 11:38–44). For some reason Lazarus was chosen for resurrection. But he couldn’t raise himself. The dead are completely incapable of producing life.
So it is with the effectual call. Our greatest duty is to love God with heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). But we can’t. By nature we do just the opposite. We are set against God—“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Our hearts despise him, our minds misunderstand him, and our wills resist him.
No amount of natural, personal improvement can make a person right with God. Professing a religion—even agreeing with the true faith—is not regenerative. Diligently keeping the rules of Christianity cannot save a spiritually dead person. We must be effectually called.
What Happens to the Called?
The simple answer is that God draws dead sinners to life in Jesus. In the effectual call the Holy Spirit recreates us, correcting the damage done by our fall into sin. He enlightens our minds “spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God.” God’s regenerated children truly “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). The Spirit transforms our hearts; he replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). Born-again people can begin to feel what God feels and obey no longer merely out of duty but out of love. Finally, the Spirit renews our wills. When God works in us we can will and work in harmony with his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). If you are born again you are a new creation (John 3:3, 5; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10). Amazingly, the Spirit doesn’t simply repair us by working on us, he enters into us; he joins our life to the life of the Triune God. It is only union with Christ that makes a person Christlike.
And this recreative work is completely one-sided. An elect sinner is “altogether passive” in the work of grace “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.” We only have ears to hear when God opens our ears (Matt. 13:16). Paul was not merely uninterested in becoming a Christian, he hated Christ! But the Holy Spirit made Paul a new man. This is why we can believe that both “elect infants dying in infancy” and others who cannot respond to the preached word are regenerated by the Holy Spirit without their active participation. What matters is not our maturity or intelligence but our possession of Christ sovereignly given by God.
Through the effectual call God fully renovates his children so that as he draws us to himself we “come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). The word for “draws” isn’t a polite invitation or a gentle wooing. Twice Luke uses the word to tell how Paul was dragged into court for examination. In a similar way the apostles “hauled” to shore their bulging net of miraculously caught fish (John 21:11). They didn’t entice the net to shore. They sweated to make it happen. But because in regeneration the elect are transformed we want to come to Jesus. We once were blind to the beauty of Christ; but now we find him “altogether desirable” (Song 5:16). We were deaf to his words of warning and affection; now we hear his voice and we want to follow him (John 10:16).
God’s work of regeneration transforms elect sinners. It isn’t a complete renewal—that happens at glorification. But it is a real start. And what God starts he always finished (Phil. 1:6).
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.
[i] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 415, 416.