Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Effectual Calling

I’m beginning to think that effectual calling is one key biblical idea that is frequently misunderstood, as much among its supporters as its detractors. This state of affairs only leads to nervousness on the one side, and to caricature and misrepresentation on the other. Reformed theology has the Scriptural resources to meet this situation, I believe.

The Bible refers to a spiritual call which is brought about by God effectually, that is, a call that is due solely to God’s determination to make the change. It sometimes uses the term ‘call’ to denote this, sometimes other terms. God is said to work in men and women ‘to will and to do of his good pleasure’. But sometimes the same term, ‘call’, is used to refer to an ineffectual call, one which falls short of producing the spiritual change. So, on the one hand, Paul refers to God having called him by his grace, and refers to the Corinthian Christians who were called even though there were not wise etc. These appear to be two references, to the effectual call. On the other, Jesus refers to those who are called, many of them, and to the comparative few of those who are called as ‘chosen’, who are called effectually.

The formulation of the idea of effectual calling can be traced back – as so many things can be – to Augustine of Hippo. In his Letter to Simplicianus – On various Questions – Augustine outlines the basis of Gods sovereign grace from Romans 9 – long before the onset of the Pelagian controversy, much to the consternation of those who think that Augustine’s controversy with the Pelagians was due to the sclerosis of old age. He says this:

It is true, therefore, that many are called but few chosen. These are chosen who are effectually [congruenter] called. Those who are not effectually called and do not obey their calling are not chosen, for although they were called they did not follow. (‘To Simplician – On Various Questions’ in Augustine: Earlier Writings, Selected and Translated with an Introduction, John H.S. Burleigh, (London SCM Press, 1953), 395.

What, more exactly, is it to be ‘effectual’? An effectual call is one which ensures a positive response


A crucial element in the Reformed understanding of effectual call that the soul is, at the first, spiritually passive. A person may be active in all sorts of other ways, but in regeneration, the onset of effectual calling, he or she is acted upon. Biblical evidence - ‘A new heart will I give you….’

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. (Westminster Confession, X. II)
In the first paragraph of the chapter on effectual calling the Westminster Divines use a variety of strong expression to characterize the call. The Spirit (with and through the word) enlightens the mind to give understanding; takes away the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh, renews their wills, and determines them to that which is good. (Does the Confession explicitly teach determinism? Occasionally it does, as here.) The call is unilateral, monergic.

Nowadays this leads to standard charges that in effectual call the recipient is manipulated, and comparisons are drawn with brainwashing, or the application of mechanical force, or (more recently) of being ‘programmed’, or other types of coercion. Those who think of divine-human relations in the exclusively ‘conversational’ pattern typical of much modern theology cannot consistently find a place for effectual calling as biblically understood. This is clear in Kevin Vanhoozer's new book The Remythologizing of Theology.

What are we say? To grasp effectual calling in its classical expression, we must note three elements.

First, those who respond to God’s effectual call ‘come most freely, being made willing by his grace’. The tailoring of the divine activity to the uniqueness of the total life situation of each recipient. There is warrant for this from the New Testament’s evidence of the variety of ‘callings’: Nathanael and Lydia and Paul and Zaccheus.....

Nevertheless, there is a tension here between congruence, the matching of grace with the traits and circumstances of character on the one hand, and the direct ‘supernatural’ nature of the divine calling and regeneration on the other. This has shown itself historically in rival schools of understanding:Pajonism, for example, and the more central view as expressed, for example, by John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. The danger lies in ‘naturalising’ effectual calling, of thinking of it as the mere rearrangement or reordering of already-present powers. The issue between the natural and the supernatural is similar to that noted by
Warfield in his writings on the inspiration of Scripture. For example

[T]here is the preparation of the men to write these books to be considered, a preparation physical, intellectual, spiritual, which must have attended them throughout their whole lives, and, indeed, must have had its beginning in their remote ancestors, and the effect of which was to bring the right men to the right laces at the right times, with the right endowments, impulses acquirements, to write just the books that there designed for them. When “inspiration,” technically so called is superinduced on lines of preparation like these, it takes on quite a different aspect from that which is bears when it is thought of an isolated action of the Divine Spirit acting out of all relation to historical processes. (Revelation and Inspiration, 101)

To be sure, the issue is not the same, but nevertheless it is analogous. It has to do with the meshing of the natural with the supernatural. In the case of inspiration, the meshing of the endowments and character of the writer with the inbreathing of the Spirit. In the case of effectual grace, the meshing of the endowments and character of an unregenerate person with the divine operations bringing new birth, new life, illumination to the darkened mind, and so o
n. Not the one without the other.

So we must think of the Spirit’s work in regeneration not as a work of a general kind, operating in a blanket fashion in all those who receive it. It is not the provision of grace of a ‘one size fits all’ type, but the one work of regeneration, essentially the same, operating as it is ‘tailored’ to the personality and history of each particular recipient of the effectual call. We cannot imagine that the relation of the Divine Spirit is less personal than relations between one human person and another. It is more personal. Just as he who made the ear can hear, so he who intricately wove the human personality is intimate with its its inner movements. How could it be otherwise. Paul seems to have this in mind when we links his call with being separated from his mother's womb. So we must recognise (more than we do?) that the supernatural work of God in grace is congruent with the personalities, circumstances, and the particular needs of the recipient. It touches the springs of the individual personality, as the manifold wisdom of God is seen in the gathering in of his elect.

This has been recognized by Reformed theologians in the language that they characteristically use. So Turretin:

[T]he omnipotent and efficacious operations of the Spirit is not opposed to that sweet method by which God acts through precepts, exhortations and other things of the same kind; by which God speaks after our mode, although with all these he acts after his own. (Institutes II. 526)

The outward call meshes with the inward call. Again,

The Spirit does not force the will and carry it on unwillingly to conversion, but glides most sweetly into the soul (although in a wonderful and ineffable manner, still most suitably to the will) and operates by an infusion of supernatural habits by which it is freed little by little from its innate depravity, so to become willing from unwilling and living from dead. The will so renewed and acted upon immediately acts, converting itself to God and believing. (II. 524)

Incidentally, we should not conclude that the work of effectual calling is always free from force (as in the conversion of Saul or Tarsus, for example). Yet often it is more gentle (as, perhaps, in the case of Nathanael, and Lydia of Thyatira). The change may even, in its first conscious beginnings, be unnoticed.

The second thing is to recognize the shortness of the period of passivity. This is not the passivity induced by anaesthetic. It is the onset of gestation, the first shining of a beam, inseparable in fact – though separable in thought - from the ensuing process of sanctification. It is not an event that is temporally distinct from it. For the divine action leads at once to the human reaction, though even here God is at work in us, to will and to do of his good pleasure.

The third element is to recognize that the call is the first step in a person’s life in which he is being returned to his true self. The effectual call is not a secular change, but the first movement in the return of the one made in the image of God to his Lord and Father. Part of this consists in the removal of the mists of self-deception. Is the change a good thing? What will the one called say to the question, ‘Would you rather not have been changed?’ The answer is obvious, for the ‘old man’ was set on a path that is objectively abnormal, a deviation, a rebellion, and the rebel's return through the effectual call is the return to his true self, and to his first destiny.