The Call to Faith and Repentance
‘To call’ is an ordinary verb. Have we not often heard that we have been called? But it makes a difference who calls and for what purpose.
The present participle, ‘calling’, is not so commonly used. Sometimes it is used to say that we must follow our calling.
In the context in which this article speaks of call and calling, we are referring to something more than the ordinary meaning of these words. For it is God who calls us.
When we think about the relationship between him and us, we are amazed at this. God could have let the human race, which had turned away from him, fend for itself. But in Genesis 3:9 we read: ‘But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”’ That tells us that God called humanity to account, but in light of what follows, it is not only that. The Lord also calls humanity back to himself.
He continued to call them earnestly and forcefully. The goal that he wanted to and will reach with his call is described very clearly in the epistles of the apostle Paul: ‘God … calls you into his kingdom and glory’ (1 Thess 2:12). And: ‘God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful’ (1 Cor 1:9).
This is the theme that we want to hold on to.
But is everyone called by God? Even those who have never learnt the message of the gospel?
All people are addressed by God. Acts 14:16-17 says that God has not left himself without testimony towards the peoples of the world, because he has shown kindness to them.
Over the centuries, much has been written about how God makes himself known to everyone by his ‘general revelation’. No one can claim that he or she perceives nothing about God. That is why there is a conscious or unconscious seeking after God: there are religions and there is at the very least a sense that there is a higher power to whom we are accountable.
But to come to know God, we have to be called out of darkness into his wonderful light (cf. 1 Pet 2:9). That text and quite a number of others refer to the call to salvation that God grants in Christ. At the same time, it is a calling to proclaim his marvelous deeds. Being called to salvation also means being called to sanctification. Our entire life must represent the calling. And we may even be called to a special office.
The Call in the Old Testament
Sometimes the call to the service of God is clear to the person who is being called. That is especially so in the Old Testament. We read about the calling of Moses, of Samuel, and of the prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses responds to his calling: ‘Here I am’ (Ex 3:4). The Lord calls Samuel by his name: ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening”’ (1 Sam 3:10).
God speaks with authority and he ensures that his word is listened to and that people commit themselves to his service.
A few times the call is made to someone whom the Lord employs in the fulfillment of his plan and who has to carry out a specific task in his service. And he must obey, even though he is unaware that God called him. Cyrus, king of Persia, is an example. Of him the Lord says: ‘I, even I have spoken; yes, I have called him. I will bring him, and he will succeed in his mission’ (Isa 48:15).
In the Old Testament Israel is the people God has called. There is no other people that the Lord has called in the same manner to salvation and to his service. They are the people of God’s choice. The Lord did not choose this people because of Israel’s qualities, but because he wanted to make his love and faithfulness evident. That is also why, when he speaks to his people, he calls them by name, and says: ‘you are mine’ (Isa 43:1).
The servant of the Lord is the pre-eminent person who has been called and to him it is said: ‘I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles’ (Isa 42:6). This prophecy is fulfilled in the person of the Messiah, who brings righteousness and salvation on earth.
When we consider the concept of calling, it also strikes us that there may be no response to the call. The Lord has to punish his people because they did not answer when he called, and did not listen when he spoke, but instead did what was evil in his sight and chose what displeased him (Isa 65:12).
The Call in the New Testament
The New Testament also speaks about a call to a particular service. The disciples are called by the Lord Jesus. Paul calls himself an apostle who was called (Rom 1:1).
The emphasis falls on the calling to salvation in Christ. In the gospel it is Jesus who calls sinners to repentance. We already referred to texts from the epistles of Paul and Peter. These say also that God calls people to eternal life and to his eternal glory in Christ (1 Tim 6:12; 1 Pet 5:10).
1 Corinthians 1:9 is a key text. The fellowship with Christ to which we are called according to this apostolic word, means everything. The word ‘fellowship’ (koinonia in Greek) means participation in the first place. We share in Christ and all his gifts. The apostle is referring to an act of God whereby he includes human beings in salvation who were formerly excluded. God calls them to himself in the proclamation of the gospel. His word is an invitation to seek salvation in him and to find it in him. But here it is more than an invitation. Pop says: ‘For it is God who extends the invitation and therefore, in the invitation, all the power of his salvific will is also extended to those who are called. It is a power that takes hold of them, tears them loose from their bonds, and frees them to follow the call. It is a power that truly delivers them from the power of darkness and brings them into Christ’s kingdom’.
‘God … has called’ (aoristus). That points to a decisive event in the past. If the verb is in the present tense, which is also frequently the case, it means that it is not a passing stage. God continues to call and we must continue to respond.
How does he call us? By his Word and in particular by the gospel of Christ. We are addressed by his promises as well as by his demands. By his Spirit he causes us to listen to his voice and to believe and obey.
God’s call to us is an act of his grace and his might. Therefore the call does not stand on its own, but is included in an all-encompassing bond of divine salvific thoughts and deeds that Paul represents in Romans 8:29-30 as a chain, the links of which have been forged together. H. Ridderbos says that God’s first act in time, namely, ‘the powerful, effective calling of God through the proclamation of the gospel’, flows from his eternal election.
Election and calling belong together in Romans 8, but the reverse is also true: we must make our calling and election sure (2 Pet 1:10). We do this by means of the gospel and God’s promises and by living in faith. Thereby we are strengthened in the certainty that God has elected us.
But what must we then think about the words that conclude the parable of the royal wedding banquet: ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen’ (Matt 22:14)?
There are people who were called, but who are not chosen, as is apparent from their reaction to the gospel. In this parable, invitation is the equivalent of calling. The New Testament Greek uses one word for it (kalein). In the parable it first means to invite. See Matthew 22:9: ‘invite to the banquet anyone you find’. In v. 14 the usual translation is ‘called’ [ESV; ‘invited’ NIV 1984]. Another rendering is also possible: ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen’.
Those who were invited first, refuse to come. They have to pay the penalty for their refusal, for the king’s invitation is not without obligations. Then the king directs his servants to invite street people. The king also gives a place in the festal hall to those who, one might suppose, are not eligible. That is an indication of the wonder of grace. But then the king sees that a man without wedding clothes is sitting among the guests. He does not want to wear the garment of the blessed ones. And therefore he is barred from the feast.
Thus, God does not issue the invitation for naught. He has room in his kingdom for people. The gospel is free: Come to the wedding feast! But we must take the call seriously and may not misuse it. It is irresponsible to refuse to come or to appear in a way other than what the King demands.
A Theological Distinction
Calvin speaks about a twofold calling (duplex vocationis species), partly because of a text like Matthew 22:14. The diverse reactions to the proclamation of the gospel that we observe repeatedly caused him and many after him to draw a distinction between a general and a particular calling. Sometimes a distinction is made between an external and an internal call.
There is much to criticize about these terms. The calling by the gospel is in fact not so general as God’s revelation, which can indeed be called general. The term ‘external’ can give the impression that when God speaks to us in the gospel it is merely an outward matter. And, indeed, some have held the view that this calling is purely external.
The theological distinction that we are discussing is found in the Reformed confession in this sense that, of the general or external calling, it says: ‘God earnestly and most sincerely reveals in his Word what is pleasing to him, namely, that those who are called should come to him’. And of the particular or internal calling, it says: God ‘calls them effectually within time’ (Canons of Dort, III/IV, 8, 10).
To come or not to come, does that decisive difference depend on the free will of human beings? Does the gospel suit the one better than the other, or does one hear it while one is less or more susceptible to it? Theological theories that seek such a solution exist, such as synergism and congruism.
But that is not what the Bible teaches. No one who is called by God is able to come to him, except for the fact that he enables the person by giving him or her faith and conversion.
The call that comes to us from God is always earnest, but it is not always so effective or efficacious that the people answer the call. The seed of the gospel does not fall into good earth for everyone. There is no difference in the content of the call, but there is a difference in effect. God says the same thing to each of us: ‘Turn to me and be saved’ (Isa 45:22); ‘Repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15); and ‘Come to the wedding banquet’ (Matt 22:4). In Christ’s name the apostle asks: ‘Be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor 5:20).
That is why the Canons of Dort say: ‘The promise of the gospel … ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men … together with the command to repent and believe’ (CD II, 5). Without discrimination (indiscriminatim). That means: not only to those who seem to be qualified for it because they are already more or less on the right path. We are called as we are and we may come as we are.
Considering the universal character of the invitation to salvation, we have no reason at all to doubt whether God has us in mind. The question might arise whether not only others are called by him, but that we are too. But everyone who hears the gospel is being called. When we receive baptism as sign and seal of God’s covenant, we are being called, for both his name and ours are mentioned in our baptism. ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13).
Responding to the call does not follow as a matter of course from the call. There is no automatism. The Biblical word ‘call” implies that God reaches out to us as people who have their own personal responsibility. By calling us he demands that we make a decision.
When God calls us to communion with and service to him, he truly means it. Whoever desires to walk the path that he indicates, but is unable to travel as far as he or she would like, may believe the Lord is much more willing than anyone else. By the power of his Word and the work of his Spirit he will draw us to him and will bind us to him forever.
As Psalm 95:7-8 so aptly says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your voice’ (quoted in Heb 3:7-8, 15; 4:7).Rather, be guided by his Word and Spirit.
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