Article 8: The Serious Call of the Gospel
Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe.
The doctrine of calling occupies a major place in Scripture. Simply stated, when the gospel is proclaimed (what the Canons have described as the `ministry of reconciliation,’ following Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5) God’s elect are called. As a result of being thus called, they embrace Jesus Christ through faith and trust in him, and in him alone, for salvation.
Throughout the Scriptures, calling is directly connected to regeneration. This notion of "calling" clearly precedes the exercise of faith. In other words, no one can come to faith in Christ, unless they are first "called," as in John 6:65 when Jesus says, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
The are a number of important considerations here. The first thing that we need to consider is that the Reformed make a distinction between the so-called “general call” that goes out without exception to all men and women (elect and non-elect alike) whenever the gospel is preached, and the effectual call which is made to God’s elect only.
This “general call” is what is in view in Matthew 22:14, when our Lord is describing the great wedding banquet yet to come, and he says “For many are called, but few are chosen.” The general call is utterly sincere (as the Canons point out), meaning that all who come to Christ in faith will indeed be justified and granted eternal life.
But the general call cannot heeded by those who are still described as “dead in their sins.” This why we now speak of what is called the “effectual call.” This is the call of God which results in regeneration and faith. It is typified by Jesus standing outside the tomb of Lazarus and declaring “Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus does.
The Scriptures always speak of calling as God’s act and repeatedly connect it to the Spirit’s working through the word. One important Old Testament text to consider here is found in Ezekiel 37:1-14, where the prophet is granted the vision of a valley of dried bones of the house of Israel, and when the breath of God enters them the bones come to life. Says Ezekiel:
37:1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
Here we have a very clear picture of the Holy Spirit working through the word to call God’s elect to faith and to grant them eternal life—a promise which is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit indwells God’s true temple, which is the church, the mystical body of Jesus Christ.
The doctrine of calling is clearly found in the New Testament, and is also directly connected to preaching. An important text in this regard is Romans 10:13 ff., where Paul writes,
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” 19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” 20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” 21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Here we see the general call (“I held out my hands all day long”) and the effectual call (faith comes by hearing) in the same text.
We see the effectual call clearly described in Acts 16:14, we are told by Luke that when Paul proclaimed the gospel to Lydia and her family, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” In Romans 4:17, Paul speaks of God’s sovereign call of Abraham— “`I have made you the father of many nations'—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” The connection between calling, regeneration and the word of God is made by James (1:18): “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The apostle Peter affirms the same thing (1 Peter 1:23 ff.)— “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for `All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
In John 1:12-13, we read, “ But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” And in John 5:24 ff. we read the following: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. `Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.”
Even from this very short survey it is very clear that calling is God’s act, specifically the work of the Holy Spirit. It is also clear that effectual calling comes through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified.
Finally, it is important to note that calling is also directly connected to faith and regeneration. This means those who effectually called are given the new birth, they are born of God, they are made alive when formerly dead in sins and trespasses, and that faith in Christ arises only after calling and regeneration. Faith is not the cause of regeneration, but the fruit of it.
The authors of the Canons are absolutely correct to place their confidence in the power of God the Holy Spirit to bring men and women to faith, and to have no confidence in the fallen wills of sinful men and women. God not only ordains the end (who will be saved), but also as the means by which he will save them (the preaching of the gospel). It is only through the gospel that men and women are given the new birth and come to faith in Christ.
Arminians, on the other hand, place their confidence in the ability of Adam’s fallen race to come to faith in Christ, even though the Scriptures teach that we are all “dead in sin.” There is simply no biblical support for the Arminian view of “ineffectual calling,” since the call is supposedly of no avail, unless the sinner exercises their will and chooses to believes, because of the work of Christ in supposedly securing prevenient grace for everyone in general, but for no one in particular.