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What is a Reformed Church? (10) "I" -- Irresistable Grace, or Effectual Calling

by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD line

(A sermon delivered on January 4, 2009, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)


          Today we wish to focus our attention on the fourth of the five points of the doctrines of grace.  It is what is commonly referred to as God’s “effectual call”, or it is also termed as “irresistible grace,” which is the “I” in the acrostic, TULIP.
          As we pointed out earlier, each of these five points was articulated in response to the five points of Arminianism.  The Arminians taught that God’s grace was resistible or obstructible by what they believed to be the “free will” of man.  “Since God wants all men to be saved,” says the Arminian, “He sent the Holy Spirit to woo all men to Christ; however, since man has absolute free will he is able to resist God’s will for his life.”  Although the Arminian says he believes that God is omnipotent, he insists that God’s will to save all men can be frustrated by the finite will of man on an individual basis.  In effect, the Arminian has God accomplishing the salvation of none, but enabling all men to save themselves.
          The assembled men at the Synod of Dort said this was heresy.  The conclusion of Dort was that God’s purpose to save His people is never frustrated or defeated, but that God effectually calls to salvation everyone whom He had chosen and ordained to salvation before the foundation of the earth.  This has always been and continues to be the understanding of the Scriptures in the Reformed tradition.  This is our position. 
          This is not, however, the position held and espoused by most church-goers.  It is commonly assumed that a fallen man has the ability in and of himself, granted, with some help of the Holy Spirit, to believe savingly on Christ of his own free will.  One described the prevailing position in this way:

          In much of present-day evangelism it is assumed that the one thing man can do in the exercise of his own liberty is to believe in Christ for salvation.  It is supposed that this is the one contribution that man himself must make to set the forces of salvation in operation and that even God himself can do nothing towards this end until there is this crucial decision on man’s own part.  In this assessment there is total failure to reckon with human depravity, with the nature of the contradiction that sin involves.  Paul tells us that not only is the mind of the flesh not subject to the law of God but also that it cannot be (Rom. 8:7). This impossibility extends to the gospel as well.  It is the implication of Paul’s other word that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).  But to this truth we have the most pointed and express witness of our Lord himself. “No man can come unto me, except the Father who hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44); “no man can come unto me, except it were given to him of the Father” (John 6:65). Here is the witness of him who knows what is in man and who knows the Father as the Father knows him. And it is to the effect that it is a moral and spiritual impossibility for a man to come unto him except by the free gift from the Father in his secret and efficacious drawing. (John Murray)

           To consider this matter biblically, let us turn to the passage just alluded to, John 6.  Here we read of our Lord’s interaction with certain Jews who believed the nature of saving faith in the same manner as an Arminian.  Now we looked at John 6 some weeks ago when we introduced the doctrines of grace generally, but we want to look again at John 6 as it touches specifically on this matter of irresistible grace.  John 6:35ff read as follows:

          And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.  But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.  This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.  And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
          The Jews then murmured against Him, because He said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.”  And they said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
          Jesus therefore answered and said to them, “Do not murmur among yourselves.” No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.  It is written in the prophets ‘And they shall all be taught by God’ {Is 54:13} Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.  Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father.  Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.  I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead.  This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
          The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”
          The Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven ‑‑ not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
          These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.
          Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?”
          When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples murmured about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you?  What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.  The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.  But there are some of you who do not believe.”  For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.  And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”
           For that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.  Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
          Then Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
          Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?”  He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve.

            I.  The Lord Jesus taught God’s irresistible grace in bringing people to salvation. 

          From the passage that we have just read we may say a number of things respecting the nature of salvation and the manner in which God bestows it upon people.  First, we read the words of the Lord Jesus in which He declared that everyone of God’s elect will be saved through Jesus Christ.  This is the statement of verse 37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me.”  Here the Lord Jesus speaks of those whom the Father had given Him.  These are those individuals that God the Father elected unto salvation before the foundation of the world.  God the Father chose them and gave them to His Son.  Jesus here makes the declaration that “all” of the elect will indeed come to Him for salvation.
          Secondly, we read in verse 39 that everyone of His people, the elect of the Father, will be saved.  Not one will be lost.  Everyone of the Father’s elect that the Father has given to His Son will have part in the resurrection on the last day.  “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.” 
          Thirdly, we read in verse 44 that no one is able to come to Jesus Christ apart from the grace of the Father in bringing them to Jesus Christ.  “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”  Clearly we can conclude from this statement of our Lord that no one can be saved apart from a work of irresistible grace in his life.
          Fourthly, we read that those who come to Christ for salvation do so because the Father has called them and they have heard, understood, and responded to the irresistible call of the Father.  Verse 45, “everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.”  Everyone comes who has heard and learned.  Not some, but everyone, because God’s grace in bringing salvation is irresistible. 
            And fifth, the Lord Jesus speaks of the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing salvation and in doing so declares the impossibility of a human being to save himself.  Verse 63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing." Only God’s irresistible grace is able to bring a sinner to Jesus Christ for salvation.

            II.  Statement and explanation of the doctrine (from the Westminster Shorter Catechism): 

          The doctrine: Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered us in the Gospel.”

            A.  The word “call” or “calling” with regard to salvation is used in two ways in Scripture‑‑a general call, and an effectual call.

            There is a general call that is sometimes described as a universal or external call, which goes forth to all humanity.  It is a call of God given to all universally to repent of sin and believe the gospel.  This call is alluded to in Acts 17:30, in which we read that God “commands all men every where to repent.”  This general call is an universal call of all men to serve and worship the living God.  This call is made by the light of nature, displayed in the works of creation, which demonstrate the Being of God; and by the law of nature written on the hearts of all men.  This call is also communicated to man by the works of God’s providence, in which God leaves not himself without a witness.  An external call of the Word of God is a call by the ministry of the word.  An external or general call was made by the prophets under the Old Testament, John the Baptist the forerunner of Christ, and of Jesus Christ himself.  The general call to salvation was extended by the apostles, and by all succeeding faithful ministers in all ages, to respond to the revealed will of God being conveyed.  The call to repent of sin and believe on Christ for salvation is a call to every person who hears the words of the gospel.
             The general call of the gospel is frequently rejected entirely.  John Gill, and 18th century London Baptist pastor, once described this:

      “I have called, and ye have refused ; I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people”; and to these it must be useless, as to any salutary effects; many that are called and invited to attend the, gospel ministry refuse to come; such were they that were bidden and called to the marriage feast; but they made light of it, and some went to their farms, and others to their merchandise; such were the Scribes and Pharisees, who would neither go into the kingdom of heaven themselves, nor suffer others that were entering to go in, but shut it up against them; that is, would neither attend the ministry of Christ and his apostles themselves, nor suffer others, but discouraged them from it, by their reproaches, threats, and persecutions, as our Lord complains, Matt. 23: 13:3-7.  Others that attend the ministry of the word, do it in a careless and negligent manner, not minding what they hear, but like leaking vessels, let it slip, or run out; or stop their cars to the voice of the charmer, charming ever so wisely; many that hear have an aversion to what they hear; the gospel is an hard saying to them, foolishness to some, and a stumbling-block to others; some mock and scoff at it, as the Athenians did; and others, as the Jews, contradict and blaspheme it, putting it away from them, judging themselves unworthy of eternal life; and therefore it is no wonder it becomes of no saving effect to either of these sort of persons: and, indeed, it is always insufficient and ineffectual of itself unto real conversion, without the powerful and efficacious grace of God; when God goes forth with his ministers, working with them, then work is done, but not otherwise; when the hand of the Lord is upon them, or his power attends their ministry, many believe and turn to the Lord; but unless his arm is revealed, the report of the gospel will not be believed, nor the call of it be attended to.

           But apart from the general call of the gospel, there is the effectual call that God extends to individuals by His irresistible grace.  This is the call of the gospel which goes out to specific individuals.  This is the call of God which is heard by them “who have ears to hear.”  The Holy Spirit issues this effectual call to the elect through the general call of the gospel.  As we read in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 14,

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This call is effectual, always accomplishing the purpose for which it was issued--the salvation of God’s chosen ones.  Again, John Gill described this effectual call when he commented on Galatians 5:1-3, “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty.”
            They were slaves to their sinful lusts and pleasures, and were brought into bondage by them, and held under the power of them, as in a prison ; but in effectual calling, the shackles of sin are broken off, and the prison-doors opened, and they are bid to go forth and show themselves; they become free from the tyranny of sin, and sin has no more dominion over them: in their state before calling, they are under the power and influence of Satan, the strong man armed, who keeps possession of them, by whom they are kept in bondage, and led captive by him at his will; but when effectually called, they are taken out of his hands, and are turned from the power of Satan unto God, and are delivered from the power of darkness, and are translated into the kingdom of God's dear Son, where they are Christ's free-men…  They are called and allowed to make use of a liberty of access to God, through Christ, by one Spirit, and to enjoy all the privileges of the gospel, and the immunities of a gospel church-state, being fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.

            III.  Another passage that teaches effectual calling – 2 Timothy 1:8-11

            Paul wrote to Timothy with respect to the gospel.  He encouraged the young minister to be bold in the gospel, for they both had been the recipients of God’s saving grace that had been wrought in them by the gospel.  Paul described God who had saved them, having called them by His irresistible grace.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. (2 Tim. 1:8-11)

            A.  What the Lord had done for them:who has saved us and called us with a holy calling” (2:9)

           God had “saved” them, meaning that God had delivered them from sin and God’s wrath upon sin.  God had brought them out of a condition of misery and condemnation into a state of God’s forgiveness and favor.  Moreover, God had “called them”, that is, from having been at great distance from God, God ad called them unto Himself. 
           Now, although the order of words suggests that God had saved them and then called them, we know that this was not Paul’s meaning.  God had saved them by having called them.  It was an effectual call.  God had purposed to save them and He did so.
           Paul describes God’s calling to salvation as a “holy calling.”  The calling is holy because it comes forth from a holy God.  But it is also holy because the call makes men holy.

            B.  The cause for which the Lord did this for them.

                        1.  First Paul expresses what the cause was not, negatively.  It was not due to any merit on their part, “not according to our works.”  There was nothing about Paul or Timothy that moved God to call them to salvation.  It was not because God foresaw something that they would do, might do, could do—it was not according to works. 

                        2.  Then Paul describes positively the cause of God calling them to salvation, “but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.”  First, God had called them according to His own purpose.  This alludes to God’s election of Paul and Timothy unto salvation.  Before time began God decreed all things that would come to pass in history.  History is an unfolding, a playing out, of His eternal decrees.  Before time began, God purposed to save Paul and Timothy.  Before time began, God purposed to save you, if He has called you unto Himself. 
           Second, God had saved Paul and Timothy, calling them to salvation according to God’s grace.  It was due to God’s free and sovereign love bestowed upon them freely in Christ Jesus that was the reason that God had effectually called them to salvation. 
           And so, effectual calling is the work of God whereby He brings His elect into a saving relationship with Himself.  It is the fulfilling of His purpose to call His beloved ones unto Himself.  Through God’s effectual call, God begins to apply the work of salvation that He ordained in eternity that His elect would receive freely.  This is in accordance with what Paul wrote in Romans 8.  There we read,

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30)

           Why is it necessary that God effectually call His elect unto salvation?  The puritan, Thomas Boston, answered this quite well.  Christians were in need of God’s effectual call unto salvation because:

            1.  They were far off from God, God needs to call them unto Himself.  Ephesians 2:13, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been made near by the blood of Christ.”

            2.  They are hard and fast asleep, and they need this call: Ephesians 5:14, “Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.”

            3.  But if they are awakened, they would not know where to go.  They are as those who were awakened on the day of Pentecost.  But what was their reaction to the apostles?  Acts 2:37, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’”

            4.  But if they did know where to go, they are not willing to go there.  In John 5:40 Jesus said, “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”

            5.  If they were willing to go to Christ, yet being awakened, they dare not venture, because guilt so stares them in the face.  While the man is asleep, it is nothing to him to believe, to come to Christ; like people that walk in their sleep, they can go anywhere fearlessly.  But when he is awakened, it is not so easy.  He will then be like Adam, hiding himself on hearing the voice of the Lord, and will not come until he is called by the Lord Himself.

            6.  And lastly, if they durst (dare) to come, yet they cannot come, unless they are drawn.  John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”* 

            IV.  Our response to the Bible’s teaching respecting God’s effectual call to salvation

            1.  Let us use all the means that God has appointed to assure ourselves that we have been partakers of God’s calling.  2 Peter 1:10, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  What “things” does Peter say we must do in order to test ourselves?  We are to see to it that “giving all diligence,” we add to our faith “virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self‑control, to self‑control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.  For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2.  We who have been partakers of this divine call, let us be diligent to continue to hear and respond to our God, and seek Jesus Christ always, who speaks to us through His Word.  1 Peter 1:15, “But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”  And 2 Thessalonians 1:11f, “Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power, that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  We are instructed in Hebrews 3:1ff:

            Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house.  For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house.  For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God.  And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward,  but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end.

            3.  Let us not be ashamed of the gospel or of our Lord Jesus before the world in which we live.  Let us proudly and boldly own and confess Him before others.  1 Timothy 1:8 and 9, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, 9who has saved us and called us with a holy calling.”

            4.  Let us always be very humble and grateful that we owe every aspect of our life before God to His glorious grace and power in having called us into this life.  1 Corinthians 1:26, “For you see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.”  “For who makes you differ from another?  And what do you have that you did not receive?  Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7),

            5.  Let us always pray that we would comprehend fully the hope that is ours because God has called us into His grace.  As Paul prayed, let us pray for one another that “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling” (Eph. 1:17).

            6.  Recognize that although God called you individually and personally, His calling of you was not in isolation; He called you to be involved in His body, the church.  Colossians 3:12ff, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.  But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.  And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”  And also Ephesians 1:1ff, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to have a walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” 

            V.  Other Scripture verses that depict an effectual call to salvation

Matthew 16:17.  “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.”

John 5:21. “For as the Father raises the dead and giveth them life, even so the Son also giveth life to whom he will

John 10:3.  “To him the porter opens; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.”

John 10:16.  “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice: and they shall become one flock, one shepherd.”

John 10:27.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

Acts 16:14.  “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple of the city of Thyatira, one that worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened to give heed unto the things which were spoken by Paul.”

Acts 18:27.  “And when he was minded to pass over into Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him: and when he was come, he helped them much that had believed through grace.”

Romans 8:28, 30.  “And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, (even) to them that are called according to (his) purpose.  For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained (to be) conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”

Romans 9:29.  “You will say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?”

Romans 11:29.  “For the gifts and the calling of God are not repented of” (retracted by God).”

Galatians 1:15, 16.  “But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me, (even) from my mother's womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles; straightway I conferred not with flesh and blood:”

1 Corinthians 1:9. “God is faithful, through whom ye were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14. “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, for that God chose you from the beginning unto salvation through the sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:  whereunto he called you through our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews 3:1. “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, even Jesus.”

            VI.  Objections to the doctrine

1. “This teaches that God forces men against their will.”  No, it means that God will see to it that His people will be willing in the day of His power  (Psa. 110:3).  He does not force them against their will.  He gives them a new heart which moves them to will (desire) His salvation.

2. “This makes men robots.”  No, it presents God as greater than men’s hearts and their sin.

 3. “The Bible teaches that men resist the grace of God (e.g. Acts 7:51).  Yes, men in their sin will always resist God’s gracious and loving offers (cf. Matt. 23:37; Rom. 10:21).  This is all the more reason that a heavenly calling, an effectual, irresistible call is needed, else none would come.


* Complete Works of Thomas Boston (Richard Owen Roberts Pub., 1980), vol. 1, pp. 562-64.