What does it mean that God calls us to salvation? This article discusses the calling of God in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it also studies the twofold calling (called by some: the inner and outer calling).

Source: Om het Hart van het Christelijk Geloof (Kok Kampen). 4 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

Our Calling About the Calling to Salvation


“To call” is an ordinary verb. How often have we not heard that we were called? But it makes a difference who is calling, and for what purpose.

“‘Calling” is possible a less frequently used word. We can say that we need to pursue our calling.

In the context of this book where “to call” and “calling” are both mentioned, we are dealing here with more than just the ordinary “calling”. Indeed, it is God who calls us.

Anyone who reflects on the relationship between him and us needs to marvel about this. God could have left the people who had turned away from him, to their fate. Yet, we read in Genesis 3:9, “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” In this we can hear how God calls man to account, although in light of what follows, it is not just that. The Lord calls man back to himself.

He continues to call, solemnly and powerfully. His purpose, i.e., what he wants to accomplish with this, is described clearly in Paul’s letters: “God calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12), “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9).

That is the main story line to which we will hold fast.

Is God calling everyone? Including those who have never heard the message of the gospel?

God addresses all people. In Acts 14:16, 17 we read that he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good to the nations.

Traditionally much has been thought about the witness or revelation that comes to everyone, the “general revelation”. No one can say that he or she does not notice anything from God. Therefore there is a conscious or an unconscious searching for God; various religions exist, and at the very least people recognize that there is a higher power with whom we as people have to do.

But to learn to know God we must be called out of the darkness to his wonderful light (see 1 Peter 2:9). Here, as well as in numerous other Scripture passages, the calling unto salvation is intended: the salvation that God grants us in Christ. This is at the same time a call for the proclamation of his great deeds. Being called unto salvation implies also having been called unto sanctification. Our entire life fits in the perspective of this calling. Perhaps we are even called to a special service.

The Calling in the Old Testament🔗

Sometimes the call to God’s service comes first. This is often the case in the Old Testament. We read of Moses’ call, of Samuel’s, and of the prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses answers his call, “Here I am” (Ex. 3:4). The Lord also calls Samuel by name, “‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant hears’” (1 Sam. 3:10).

God speaks powerfully and he ensures that his Word receives a response, and that people commit themselves to his service.

A few times this calling is in relation to someone who is being engaged in the execution of God’s plan and who has to fulfill a certain function in God’s service, without the person knowing that he has to obey this call. We can think of Cyrus, the Persian king, of whom the Lord says, “I, even I, have spoken and called him; I have brought him” (Isa. 48:15).

In the Old Testament, Israel is the people who are called. There is no nation that is called in the same way unto salvation and unto God’s service. The people of God’s call are the people of God’s choice. The Lord did not choose this people because of their inherent qualities, but he wanted to express and prove his love and faithfulness. That is his purpose also when he speaks to his people and says, “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43:1).

The one uniquely called is the Servant of the Lord, to whom God says, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6). This prophecy is fulfilled in the person of the Messiah who brings righteousness and justice to the earth.

When we check into all this, it strikes us also that the call can remain unanswered. The Lord has to punish his people, “because, when I called, you did not answer; when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my eyes and chose what I did not delight in” (Isa. 65:12).

The Calling in the New Testament🔗

Also in the New Testament there is mention of the calling to a particular service. The Lord Jesus calls the disciples. Paul, too, calls himself an apostle who was called.

The emphasis is on the call unto salvation in Christ. In the gospel it is Jesus who calls sinners to repentance. We quoted some texts already from Paul and Peter. It is also mentioned that God calls to take hold of the eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12), and to his eternal glory in Christ (1 Peter 5:10).

A key text is 1 Corinthians 1:9, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This calling incorporates everything. The word “fellowship” (koinonia) means first of all participation. We become partakers of Christ and all his benefits. The apostle is thinking of an act of God whereby he involves people in salvation when at first they had no part in it and were outside. God calls them to himself through the proclamation of the gospel. His word is like an invitation to seek and find salvation in him. However it is more than an invitation. F.J. Pop says, “Indeed, it is God who does the inviting, and therefore with this invitation comes also the strength of his will to save those who are called; a power that grabs them, tears them loose from their bondage, sets them free to obey his call. It is a power that really saves them from the powers of darkness, and that transports them into Christ’s realm.”

“You were called” (aorist verb style). That points to a decisive event. Here the verb appears in the present tense, as is often the case; it means to say that it is not just a passing stage. God keeps on calling, and we need to keep responding.

How does he call us? He does so by his Word, and in particular through the gospel of Christ. We are being addressed both in his promises as well as in his demands. He works it through his Spirit that we start to listen to his voice, and that we believe and obey.

When God calls us, this is an act of his grace and of his power. The calling is not something that stands on its own, but is taken up in the comprehensive whole of divine thoughts and actions unto salvation, which are pictured by Paul in Romans 8:29, 30 as a chain of which the links are welded together. Those whom he predestined from all eternity he also called: as the first act that flowed from God in time, “the powerful and effective call of God through the proclamation of the gospel” (H. Ridderbos).

In Romans 8 election and calling go together, such that the reverse is also true for us: we are to confirm our calling and election (2 Peter 1:10) by means of the gospel and his promises, being strengthened in a faithful life with the certainty of our election.

But what do we understand by the words at the end of the parable of the royal wedding meal: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14)?

There are people who are called but yet they are not chosen, as becomes evident from their reaction to the gospel. In this parable, calling is the same as inviting. The Greek of the New Testament uses one and the same word for both (kalein). In the parable the first meaning is ‘inviting’. See verse 9, “and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” In verse 14 the translators usually choose “calling”. Another rendering could be, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Those who were invited first do not want to come. They will have to pay the penalty for it, because the invitation is not without obligation. Then the people from the roads are invited. The King allows those also who are not apparently entitled or eligible to yet find a place in the festive hall. That is an indication of the miracle of grace. But then it appears that there is a wrong person among the guests, a man without a wedding garment. He does not want to wear the garment of grace, and as a result is excluded from the feast.

God does not let the invitations go out just for nothing. In his kingdom he has place for the people. It is a broad gospel: Come to the feast! But we need to be serious about it, and may not abuse it. It is irresponsible not to come, or to come in a different way than the king wants. Unbelief is a big riddle, and faith a great miracle.

A Theological Distinction🔗

Also on account of a Scripture passage such as Matthew 22:14, Calvin speaks of a twofold calling (duplex vocations species). The diverging reaction to the proclamation of the gospel, which we see time and again, led him and many others to make a distinction between a general and a particular calling. Sometimes a differentiation is made between an outer call and an inner call.

We can bring in some criticism in regard to these terms. The call through the gospel is in fact not so general as the revelation, which can be termed as general. The term “outer call” can leave an impression that it concerns only something external when God speaks to us in the gospel. It has been taught indeed that this is merely an outer, external call.

The theological distinction that we are now discussing can be found to a certain extent in our confessions, where it is said of the so-called general or external call: “But as many as are called by the gospel are earnestly called, for God earnestly and most sincerely reveals in his Word what is pleasing to him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him.” Of the particular or internal call it is stated, “He has chosen his own in Christ from eternity and calls them effectually within time” (Canons of Dort, III/IV, Art. 8-10).

To come or not to come — does that decisive choice depend on the free will of man? Does the gospel fit better with the one than with the other? Or does someone hear it when he is more or less receptive to it? There are theological theories where solutions are sought in this direction, such as synergism and congruism.

However, that is not the way it is. No one who is called by God would really come to him if God did not work this himself by granting him or her faith and repentance.

The calling that we receive from God is always earnest, but not always effective or powerful in such a way that man will respond. The seed of the gospel may not fall on good soil with everyone. There is a difference in effect, but where it concerns the content of the call, there is no difference. God says the same to each of us, “Turn to me and be saved” (Isa. 45:22). “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Come to the wedding feast” (Matt. 22:4). In Christ’s name the apostle Paul asks, “We implore you... be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

Therefore it is also confessed in the Canons of Dort, “The promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe” (II, 5). This proclamation is without discrimination, and therefore not just for those who are eligible, as if they are already more or less on the right path. We are called as we are. We may come the way we are.

Considering the universal character of the invitation unto salvation, we have not a single reason to doubt whether God also intends this for us. The question may arise whether not only others are called, but also whether we are called personally. But everyone who hears the gospel is being called. When we receive baptism as the sign and seal of God’s covenant, we are called. His name is mentioned as well as ours. Everything is good when we call on him who first called us. He who calls upon his name will be saved.

Coming does not automatically follow calling. It is not an automatism. The biblical word “calling” means that God treats us as people with a personal responsibility. By calling us he forces us to decide.

When God calls us to his fellowship and to his service, this is serious. Anyone who wants to follow the path that he directs, but cannot make it as far as he or she would like, may believe that the Lord is more willing than anyone else. By the power of his Word and by the work of his Spirit he pulls us to himself and unites us with him eternally.

A simple but straightforward Psalm words it this way, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7; see Heb. 3:15; 4:7).

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