Effectual Calling The Westminster Confession of Faith
All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.The Westminster Confession of Faith (10.1)
“Why am I a Christian when so many other people are not?” Many godly people have asked this question. They realize that they are no better than other sinners. Yet now they rejoice in the riches of Christ, while others go on living in sin and misery. Isaac Watts expressed it well when he wrote,
While all our hearts and all our songsIsaac Watts
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?
“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”
Ultimately, the answer must be the Lord. Christ is the great evangelist. Whenever the gospel is preached, it is Christ who preaches even if the hearers belong to nations far off that never heard the physical voice of Jesus of Nazareth (Eph. 2:17). Unlike mere human evangelists, this great Evangelist has the power to call sinners effectually, that is, to cause them to hear His Word, to understand it, to believe it, and to obey its command to come to Him for salvation and life.
The Shepherd calls to sinners by the Word, and His sheep know His voice and follow Him and are enfolded with His people (John 10:3, 16). He laid down His life for His sheep, and though others will not believe Him, yet His sheep hear and recognize His voice and follow Him all the way to glory (John 10:11, 26-28). Christ’s voice has the power to raise the dead (John 11:43-44), and He is raising the spiritually dead to believe in Him and live (John 5:24-25).
The Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes and explains this reality in this chapter on effectual calling. Webster’s defines “effectual” as “characterized by adequate power to produce an intended effect.” In terms of the gospel as preached by Christ (Mark 1:14, 15), effectual calling is extending a call that has power to produce the intended response of repentance and faith. Note that “effectual” goes one step beyond the more common word “effective” by including the idea of purpose. An effectual call is one that can produce not just any result but the intended result. It effects or works the result designed by the one who issues the call. Such a call is said to “answer to its purpose.”
Effectual calling must therefore be the work of God and not man. It is an exercise of the sovereignty that belongs only to God. Paul describes God’s sovereignty at work for our salvation in the “golden chain” of Romans 8:30: “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” We are justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). God’s call is the outworking of His eternal decree of predestination, and it results in justification. So it must have power to produce the faith that justifies the sinner. It is more than the gospel call, invitation to salvation, and offer of Christ (Matt. 22:14); it is the outworking of God’s eternal purpose and grace in a person’s life and experience (2 Tim. 1:9). For the same people are predestined in Christ to eternal life, called to faith in Christ, justified by their faith in Him, and ultimately glorified with Him.
It should also be noted that this term is unique to the Westminster Confession. The Westminster divines were attempting to clarify the ambiguity that often surrounds the word regeneration. The term can refer to one’s initial experience of saving grace; it can also refer to the ongoing and progressive work of sanctification, or the daily renewing of our lives. By coining the term “effectual calling,” the divines made it clear that they had in mind the initial quickening of the sinner, enabling him to believe and be saved, as distinct from the further regeneration or renewal of his life as a believer.
The Confession rightly highlights God’s sovereignty over the persons who hear, and the timing of God’s effectual call. The Lord is so utterly in control of this call and our resulting faith that He often calls precisely those people whom we would least expect – the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised people of this world (1 Cor. 1:26, 27), while passing by many others. While the wise and powerful of this world sneer at the gospel, “unto them which are called” the gospel shines with the glory of “Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). God turns on the light in their hearts, and they are captivated by the divine beauty of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Have you experienced this?
God effectually calls sinners on His own timetable. The Lord converted Saul, the great persecutor of the church, “when it pleased God” to do so (Gal. 1:15). We cannot manipulate conversion, for our times are in His hand and God wrote all the days of our lives in His book before we were born (Ps. 31:15; 139:16, marginal note 7). Yet the ministers of the Word must be faithful to preach and to pray, for God calls by His Word and Spirit (John 6:63), and in answer to our prayers. And if we are not saved, then we must diligently listen to the preaching of that Word with the cry that God would open our eyes to behold its truth and our hearts to receive it.
The Westminster divines explained God’s work in the soul with biblical metaphors. First, it is a transforming light: “enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God.” To be sure, there is a degree of illumination that only convicts and may bring moral reformation but does not save (Heb. 6:4). Wicked Felix trembled at Paul’s preaching, but he did not repent of his covetous ways (Acts 24:25, 26). In effectual calling, this light dawning in the heart is nothing less than a quickening or resurrection of the inner man (Eph. 2:1-7), previously dead in sin. It produces an experiential knowledge of God in Christ that is in its essence a new life born in the soul (John 17:3).
Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.Ephesians 5:14
Second, effectual calling is a heart transplant: “taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh.” Here the divines alluded to Ezekiel 36:25-27,
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
In place of a “whorish heart” that rejects God and runs to idols (Ezek. 6:9), the Lord promised to give His people a tender, responsive, believing heart towards Him.
Third, effectual calling is a sovereign persuasion: “renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ.” To be sure, sinners resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). But He sweetly conquers them with God’s love. God does not draw people to Christ against their will. The Lord works upon their wills to make them willing to obey Christ (Ps. 110:3; Phil. 2:12-13). He draws them to Christ in such a way that “they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” Yet this is an “effectual drawing” that always results in their coming to Christ and being saved (John 6:37, 44). God works upon our hearts so that we love Him (Deut. 30:6). Thus we say with Watts,
’Twas the same love that spread the feastPsalm 27:8, 9 (The Psalter, No. 73:2b, 3)
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.
And then we can sing with David:
Thou bidst me seek Thy face, and I,
O Lord, with willing heart reply,
Thy face, Lord, will I seek.
Hide not thy face afar from me,
For Thou alone canst help afford;
O cast me not away from Thee
Nor let my soul forsaken be,
My Saviour and my Lord.
Westminster Confession of Faith (10.2)
This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, 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.The Westminster Confession of Faith (10.2)
Charles Spurgeon once sat listening to a boring sermon, and his mind began to wander. He asked himself how he had become converted. It was because I prayed. But then it occurred to him, why did he pray? I was moved to pray by reading the Scriptures. But the questions persisted; why had he read the Bible? And suddenly, Spurgeon realized that God was at the bottom of it all, and He is the author of saving faith.
We often want to claim something for ourselves in our conversion. One way of doing this is to say that God looked ahead into history and foresaw that you would trust in Christ, given the opportunity to do so. God therefore chose you, in this scheme, because He knew you would choose Him. But why would you choose Him? No one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11). In reality, we only choose Him because He first chose us.
The Westminster Confession reminds us that God did not choose or call you because He knew that you would respond positively. God announced the destiny of Esau and Jacob when they were “not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth” (Rom. 9:11).
God did not save you because you were better or more worthy than anybody else. He did not succeed in converting you because you cooperated more than other sinners do. Salvation is by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). You were dead in sin, utterly unable to move towards God and horribly offensive to His holiness (Eph. 2:1-3). You played no more role in your effectual calling than a corpse plays in its being raised from the dead (Eph. 2:5).
This is what the Confession means when it says that mankind “is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit” (cf. Titus 3:5). We contribute nothing to our salvation except our desperate need. That is not to say that unconverted people can do nothing at all; the same legs that take them to a bar can carry them to a church service. They can read, listen to, and think about the Word of God (Acts 17:10-11). They may even fear God’s wrath. Like the blind man, they can cry out for Christ to have mercy upon them until He gives them sight. Sadly, most fallen human beings are not willing to do even what they can.
Most importantly, lost sinners cannot stir up the least drop of saving faith, hope, or love in themselves. Man is perishing in spiritual inability. Without the Holy Spirit, they are unable to receive the truths of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14), unable to submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7-8), and unable to come to Christ (John 6:44). They cannot bow before the Lord Jesus and confess Him unto salvation (1 Cor. 12:3).
Grace alone makes us alive and enables us to repent and to believe, love, obey, and hope in Christ. Whoever believes in Christ has been born of God – the perfect tense of “has been born” showing that our faith comes from God’s regenerating work within us (1 John 5:1). We do not love God by nature, but by grace, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:10, 19).
This is why Paul erupted into praise to God whenever he heard that someone had been converted (1 Thess. 1:2-4; 2:13). Why else would he thank God for the faith, hope, and love of converts, unless all the glory or credit for them must go to God? Let us therefore praise God fervently for our effectual calling, and rejoice whenever a sinner repents! As the psalmist teaches us to sing:
Lord, if Thou shouldst mark transgressions,Psalm 130:3, 4, 7, 8 (The Psalter, No. 363:2, 5)
In Thy presence who shall stand?
But with Thee there is forgiveness,
That Thy Name may fear command.
Hope in God, ye waiting people;
Mercies great with Him abound;
With the Lord a full redemption
From the guilt of sin is found.
Westminster Confession of Faith (10.3)
Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also, are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.The Westminster Confession of Faith (10.3)
God has wrapped some things in a cloud of mystery. We dare not venture into the darkness of such mysteries with the feeble light of our speculations, but must rest content in the beams of light shining from the Word. One such mystery is God’s purpose in the death of those mentally incapable of understanding the gospel, whether infants or adults.
We cannot say that such persons are sinless. David confessed that he was in sin from the moment of his conception in his mother’s womb (Ps. 51:5). Sinners go astray from their infancy, showing their inward corruption even in early childhood by speaking lies (Ps. 58:3). Nor can we say that they are free from guilt, for their death shows that they are bound up in Adam’s fall and condemnation, even before they commit any willful act of transgression against the law of God (Rom. 5:14, 18). Children and mentally impaired adults, “descending from (Adam and Eve) by ordinary generation” (WCF 4:3), are included in the “all” who sinned in Adam and fell with him in his transgression.
How can they be saved? God’s ordinary way of saving sinners is to call sinners effectually through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14). In fact, though there are many religions in the world, there is no other name but Jesus by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Those who follow other religions have no relationship with the true God and have no hope (Eph. 2:12).
But the Bible sheds a beam of light when it reveals that God can save infants. John the Baptist was leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary, the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:41-44). The unborn child was already filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15). There is much we don’t understand, but clearly God had saved the infant in the womb and moved him to rejoice in Christ. Therefore, we know that God is able to save sinners with underdeveloped or impaired mental capacities.
The Confession declares this comforting truth, but does so cautiously, saying that God saves “elect infants” and “elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” God will have mercy on those whom He will have mercy (Ex. 33:19). The Confession does not say whether all persons in the world dying in infancy are elect, or only some. The Westminster divines evidently felt that we should not rush in to dogmatize where Scripture is largely silent.
However, we can hope in the character of God.
Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” Deuteronomy 7:9
He is our covenant God, whose blessings overflow to us and to our children. After David’s infant son perished because of the consequences of David’s sin, he had the faith to say, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:24). Certainly the covenant people of God may entrust their children and childlike ones into the hands of a faithful God. David celebrates God’s covenant faithfulness and reminds us that behind the promise stands the unchanging love of God:
Unchanging is the love of God,Psalm 103:17, 18 (The Psalter, No. 278:4, 5)
From age to age the same,
Displayed to all who do His will
And reverence His Name.
Those who His gracious covenant keep
The Lord will ever bless;
Their children’s children shall rejoice
To see His righteousness.
Thus, we affirm that, based on God’s character and His covenant commitments to His own, it is His normal way to save children of believers whom it pleases Him to take away in infancy. That’s why the Canons of Dort say,
“Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.” (1.17)
This principle is also applicable to the mentally impaired, so that we believe that God’s normal way is sovereignly and mysteriously to call them to life eternal in Christ by placing the seed of regeneration in their souls.
Westminster Confession of Faith (10.4)
Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the law of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.The Westminster Confession of Faith (10.4)
The Lord Jesus said, “Enter ye in at the strait (narrow) gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). Christ’s teaching about the narrow way does not sit well with modern religious relativism, but the Son of God speaks with divine authority and we must listen to Him.
The Westminster Confession addresses two cases of people who are not in the narrow way to life. In the first case, they go to church and hear the gospel preached. They may experience some work of the Holy Spirit upon their souls, such as conviction of sin (John 16:8), happiness at the message of God’s love (Matt. 13:20-21), and insight into the meaning of the Bible (Heb. 6:4). Perhaps they even exercise some spiritual gifts for ministry (Matt. 7:22). They may even for a time joyfully profess to be followers of Christ (Matt. 13:20-22). But they are not saved. Why not?
The Confession declares that “they never truly come to Christ.” Coming to Christ does not mean going up front in a meeting or reciting a prayer. Coming to Christ means trusting in Christ alone for eternal life and joy (John 6:35). Whatever else they do, these people do not repent of sin and believe on the Lord Jesus as their only Savior. They are guilty of the great sin of unbelief, and therefore God’s wrath abides on them (John 3:36). Their good works and religious duties are done in vain because they do not proceed from a true faith, and “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).
Yet the Confession probes deeper. Why didn’t they come to Christ? Someone might answer that it was their own free choice not to believe. This view only begs the question, why then did they choose not to believe? The Confession has the answer. They were called by the ministry of the Word, but they were not effectually called by God. And why didn’t God effectually call them? He did not call them because they were “not elected,” not chosen by God and “ordained to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). This is what Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Many hear the gospel invitation to come to Christ, but few are elected by God. Therefore, they refuse to come to Christ and perish forever.
The second case is those “not professing the Christian religion.” They may profess another religion or profess to have no religion at all. They may try to live a good life according to their conscience (“the light of nature”). They may fervently follow their own religion. They may be very noble and even sacrifice themselves for their god or their country. But they are not saved. Why not? Again, it is because they do not come to Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Christ is the only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). All other ways are excluded. No other way has been provided.
This exclusiveness may make God seem very harsh and unfair, but in fact it is necessary because God is very holy and just. Are you offended at the thought that God must effectually call a person through the gospel in order for him to be saved? If so, you should ask yourself why we need to be saved. And saved from what? The answer is that people are not innocent or basically good. They are sinners, and they deserve to be condemned and punished.
Sinners don’t deserve God. Sinners don’t desire God. Citing many passages from the Old Testament, Paul writes in Romans 3:10-12,
There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
When Christ sends His Word and Spirit to a sinner, His love compels Him to seek after someone who hates Him. He embraces someone who spits in His face. He pursues someone who is running away from Him.
Far be it from us to accuse God of injustice. Rather, let us marvel and be amazed that God effectually calls anyone out of the band of rebels that our race has become. Why would He do it? Ephesians 2:4-5 tells us, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved).” Abundant mercy! Boundless love! Triumphant life! Glorious grace! The inspired psalmist paints this picture of saving grace at work:
Rebels, who had dared to showPsalm 107:10-14 (The Psalter, No. 293:1, 2)
Proud contempt of God Most High,
Bound in iron and in woe,
Shades of death and darkness nigh,
Humbled low with toil and pain,
Fell, and looked for help in vain.
To Jehovah then they cried
In their trouble, and He saved,
Threw the prison open wide
Where they lay to death enslaved,
Bade the gloomy shadows flee,
Broke their bonds and set them free.
Finally, the Confession confronts our modern tendency to modify the claims of Christ to accommodate the claims of those who profess some other religion. “To assert and maintain” that such persons can be saved in some other way than the way of Christ is “very pernicious,” that is, destructive, ruinous, even fatal, since we are encouraging a vain hope in these people, one that will lead ultimately to their being “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). Therefore, this view is “to be detested,” that is, abhorred and rejected.