Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: effectual calling


Effectual Calling

    As we have seen in our review of Doug Sayers’ book Chosen or Not?, the various doctrines often called “Calvinism” can be quite controversial. Critics have charged that the ideas of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are unbiblical and an affront to human reason. How, one might be tempted to ask, can two groups of Christians, both claiming to respect the authority of Scripture, be so far apart in their interpretations? Can the Bible really be that difficult to understand?

    At times it may seem so, but that does not mean that the Bible is incomprehensible. What is required to understand it is a humble and teachable attitude and a complete honesty with the text. Our aim must be to understand what a given biblical author is saying in the text, and in order to do that we must pay careful attention to his use of language, the context, and the flow of thought through the passage. Words have meaning, and sentences have syntax. It really is possible to communicate ideas through the medium of human language!

    What, then, about the charge that the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” are really not taught in the Bible? We will not take up all five of them here, and we have already considered them elsewhere, but it would be worth our time to consider one particular passage of Scripture in which at least three of the “Five Points” appear, and that is Paul’s opening discussion in I Corinthians 1-3.

    The church at Corinth is an interesting case study. In some ways it was a young, vibrant congregation; in other ways it was a pastoral nightmare. And one of the problems Paul had to confront was one that is familiar to American Christians today: a pronounced sectarian spirit. The Corinthians, it would seem, had been exposed to the ministries of a variety of gifted preachers, among them Cephas (Peter), Apollos, and Paul himself. The individual Corinthians each had his favorite, and before long distinct parties had grown up within the church, each identifying with one preacher or another.

    This state of affairs drew a sharp rebuke from Paul, and he devoted the first three chapters of his epistle to addressing this issue. The gist of his argument is summed up in Chapter 3, verses 6 and 7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (NKJV).

    But what does he mean when he says that “God gives the increase”? The preacher preached the message; the sinner responded with his free will; what does God have to do with it?

    Everything, as it turns out. Paul begins his discussion by describing his own ministry among the Corinthians. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” (1:17). “Not with the wisdom of words” – that is a strange claim for a preacher to make! You would think that preaching was all about pulpit eloquence!

    But Paul goes on: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). Here we are struck by the irony of evangelism. The message is proclaimed, but it affects different listeners in radically different ways. To some, it is “foolishness”; to others, it is “the power of God.” How could their perceptions of the same thing be so totally different?

    Paul then goes on to describe why the gospel is rejected by so many people: the Greeks, he says, are looking for wisdom; the Jews want to see miracles. But “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).

    “To those who are called” – what does that mean? It is at this point that we plunge into the heart of the controversy. For Paul goes on to explain two controversial doctrines which have come to be known to us as “unconditional election” and “effectual calling” (or, “irresistible grace,” as it is also known). “For you see your calling, brethren, that no many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” Here it is evident that Paul is using the term “called” in a special sense – here it is virtually synonymous with conversion. To be “called” is to be saved. Furthermore, it is God who does the calling – He calls the ones who are saved, suggesting that He is the active Agent in the process. Thus this is a calling that actually results in the salvation of those who are called. It is “effectual calling.”


Next: Unconditional Election



    Chosen or Not?

    Doug Sayers

    CrossBooks, 2012

    467 pp., h.c.


    In his book Chosen or Not? author and blog commenter Doug Sayers gives us a long, sustained indictment of Calvinism. It is a long, rambling philippic aimed at the theology associated with the name of the famous 16th Century reformer.

John Calvin

John Calvin

    Doug at one time was a deacon in a Reformed Baptist church. What apparently disenchanted him with Calvinism was an incident years ago when his then three year old son nearly drowned to death in an accident. That raised the question of what would have happened to the boy had he actually died. Where would he have gone? When a Calvinist friend refused to give an unequivocal answer to the question, Doug began to wonder. He surmised that under Calvinist theology God could have sent the boy to hell, even if he had not actually committed any sins of his own, on the premise that he was guilty in God’s sight of having committed Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Doug was appalled, and he came to question the whole idea of predestination and original sin.

    As a result much of the focus of the book is taken up with some of the more difficult and controversial aspects of orthodox Calvinism – reprobation, the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, and limited atonement. Doug raises many of the usual objections: Calvinism is fatalistic, it makes God out to be an arbitrary, unjust monster, it leaves the reprobate with no chance of salvation, it denies human responsibility. It could be argued, however, that Doug is reacting to a particularly extreme form of Calvinism known as “Supralapsarianism.” As even Doug notes, Calvin himself did not believe that Adam’s guilt was imputed to his posterity (Institutes, II.i.89), and it is not at all clear that he believed in limited atonement. We fear that Doug is, in effect, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

To his credit Doug does show a familiarity with the sources, and he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith along with a number of mostly contemporary Calvinistic authors. The chief defect in the book is its weak exegesis. Doug reminds us at the outset that “. . . we should never let that which is clear in the Bible take a back seat to that which might be inferred from the Bible” (p. 48). Yet curiously, his argument relies heavily on human logic. We are frequently told that “it is reasonable to conclude,” “our natural sense of justice bears witness,” “It is reasonable to think,” “most people don’t think it would be right,” “It would be right (or fair) for God,” “It would also be reasonable (and fair) for God.” And all of this on just a single page (p. 127)! As Doug candidly admits, “Some philosophy is inescapable and both sides of our argument should be prepared to admit it . . . the question involves both Scripture and evident reason” (p. 9).

    Doug’s basic argument runs something like this: Suppose that “A” represents many of the doctrines associated with Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. And let’s say that “B” represents certain biblical texts that talk about God’s love for all mankind, the free offer of the gospel, and human accountability. To hear Doug tell it, if a Calvinist believes in “A” then he cannot possibly believe in “B.” And if the Bible teaches “B” then it cannot possibly teach “A.” Therefore, Calvinism and the Bible are irreconcilably opposed to each other.

    The weakness of this argument is that does not take into consideration the possibility that there could be paradoxes and antinomies in the Bible. For example, in Phil. 2:12 we read, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . ” (NKJV). Here we have as clear a statement of human responsibility as we are likely to find anywhere in the Bible. The sentence contains an imperative verb (“work out”) giving a direct command and laying a responsibility on the readers to act. Is this not proof positive that Paul was not a fatalistic Calvinist? Yet in the very next verse we read, ” . . . for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13). Try as one might, it is exceedingly hard to make the word “works” mean anything else than “produce a result.” In this instance the text actually goes so far as to say that God “works in you . . . to will and to do.” In other words, God controls both our wills and our actions. Did Paul just contradict himself? We don’t think so. The confusion is likely to be in our minds, not his. Let us beware of trying to be more logical than the Bible! What we have here is the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, something that Doug insists is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

    Unfortunately Doug’s logical method of reasoning leads to some regrettable conclusions. On the one hand, by maintaining that a Calvinist cannot possibly believe in “B,” he basically says that there is no real difference between a Calvinist and a Hyper-Calvinist (a Hyper-Calvinist is a person who really would deny “B”). In Doug’s view, a Calvinist is simply a “Hyper-Calvinist with a better presentation,” as he likes to say. And if a Calvinist tries to deny that he is really a Hyper-Calvinist, he is simply being dishonest. It is easy to see why a moderate Calvinist would resent the caricature.

    On the other hand Doug is faced with the considerable challenge of trying to show that the Bible really does not teach “A.” It basically involves trying to explain away the large amount of Scripture that describes what God does in salvation. The sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace are all major themes of the Bible. The Scriptures tell us that God chooses us, redeems us, begets us, and keeps us. There are repeated references to the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. And there are also passages that explicitly discuss predestination and election. It is hard to miss the point.

    It is not that Doug doesn’t try. A good example is his treatment of Rom. 8:28-30, which reads: “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.”

    Doug’s immediate concern in this passage is to try to show that the predestination involved is not a predestination of certain individuals unto salvation. Doug tries to tell us that “Paul is listing some of the terms and conditions of the deal, if you will” (p. 94). “This is a listing of God’s gracious provision for our salvation” (p. 95). God makes the provision, and we must act upon it by faith. The ones who are predestined are simply the ones whom God could foresee would believe. But Doug insists that “No reason is given here for any specific individual’s faith” (Ibid.).

    But the passage does not say that God merely created certain terms and conditions; it says that He does certain specific things to people that result in their salvation. The direct objects of the verbs are relative pronouns which all have the same antecedent: “whom He foreknew” (v. 29). This, in turn, refers back to “those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” in the preceding verse. Verses 29 and 30 are basically an explanation of the phrase “those who are the called according to His purpose” in verse 28.

    The usual anti-Calvinist explanation here is that when Paul said “whom He foreknew,” he meant that God could foresee who would believe, and then chose them. But that is reading something into the text that is not there. Paul is probably using the word “foreknow” in the same sense in which he uses it in 11:2, where it most definitely does not mean that God foresaw that the Israelites would obey. What is in view there is their disobedience. Moreover Doug’s interpretation weakens the verb “predestined,” of its force. There is no “destiny’ involved, according to him.

    Moreover, when we look at the various other actions described in verses 29 and 30 we notice that it says, among other things, that “whom He called, these He also justified” (v. 30). This “calling” results in justification; it has the actual effect of bringing the sinner to salvation. It is “effectual calling,” the very same irresistible grace that Doug says is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

    Thus the passage does not say that God predestined a plan; it says that He predestined people. The passage is a beautiful expression of what God does to save us.

    We could multiply examples of Doug’s exegesis, but the pattern is clear. All too often human logic is enlisted to rob passages of their force and meaning. The net effect is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. Is this really a sound way to approach Scripture? We hardly think so.


Next: Doug’s own theology