Matthew Levi – a tax collector-turned-Christian – had no qualms about recounting his own call to follow Christ. Simply and succinctly he writes in his Gospel: ‘As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me”, and he rose and followed him’ (Matthew 9:9).
Every Christian can relate to Matthew, because every Christian has likewise been called by God to follow Christ. Every believer has, as it were, ‘heard’ the voice of God — not audibly like Matthew, but just as truly.
The Word of God convicted us of our sin and perilous plight, and showed us the all-sufficient provision for our sin in ‘Christ and him crucified’. Therefore we too can testify with the hymn-writer: ‘He drew me, and I followed on, charmed to confess the voice divine’.
Calling is one of the more neglected facets of Christian salvation. Yet as we read our New Testament, we find it just as true to describe Christians as ‘called by God’, as to describe them as ‘chosen by God’, ‘redeemed by Christ’, ‘saved by grace’ or ‘justified by faith’.
Calling is a thread which runs throughout the pages of the New Testament. Consider some verses:
‘Those whom he predestined he also called’ (Romans 8:30).
‘God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son’ (1 Corinthians 1:9).
‘[He] called you in the grace of Christ’ (Galatians 1:6).
‘He who calls you is faithful’
(1 Thessalonians 5:24).
‘Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call’(Hebrews 3:1).
‘The God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ’
(1 Peter 5:10).
‘Those who are called’ (1 Corinthians 1:24; Jude 1).
We also note that what is true of Christians individually is also true of the church collectively — the New Testament word for ‘church’ (ekklesia) means literally the ‘called out ones’.
Salvation is of the Lord
God’s call, then, is integral to both the divine plan and a scriptural understanding of Christian salvation. The Shorter Catechism defines effectual calling as follows:
‘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 to us in the gospel’ (Q. 31).
Divine calling — for calling is a work of God himself — reminds us that the God of the Bible takes the initiative in applying salvation to individual human souls. Salvation is thoroughly and distinctively ‘of the Lord’.
If we know the Scriptures, and our own hearts, we know that this is just as well! If God had not ‘called us out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9) we would have remained in darkness. Christ’s work at Calvary would have been in vain — we would have derived no benefit from it whatever.
Thank God that we are not left to our own devices when it comes to the vital matter of salvation — for if we were we would surely go our way to a lost eternity.
But the Bible tells us that God, who sent his Son to be our Saviour, also takes responsibility for awakening us to our sin and condemnation. Once we are alerted, his Spirit further makes the way of salvation crystal clear to us, and enables us to lay hold upon it personally, by trusting the Christ of Calvary.
The Lord Jesus himself declares: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me’ (John 6:37) and ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44).
Preaching the gospel
How does God’s call come to us? The answer is, ‘In any way he pleases’. God is totally sovereign in the way he calls his people. Paul’s call was different from Timothy’s, which was different from Matthew’s.
Normally, however — though not exclusively — God’s call comes to us through the preaching of the gospel. ‘Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching [word] of Christ’ (Romans 10:17).
To quote the Shorter Catechism again: ‘The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners…’ (Q. 89).
Preaching is central to the divine economy. This does not always have to be ‘pulpit preaching’, for Christ can be proclaimed in a variety of ways, including one-to-one conversations (remember Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch), literature, and tape recordings. In every case, however, the Spirit of God is pleased to employ ‘preaching’ as a means to save sinners.
When we pray for faithful preachers, we are praying that God’s Word would accomplish his work of calling his elect to Christ. We may safely abandon present-day ecclesiastical novelties, distractions and diversions — having every confidence that God’s work, done in God’s way, will accomplish God’s will.
And this will be to God’s eternal glory — just as in the days when the apostle Paul testified, ‘I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith …’ (Romans 1:15-16).
A Matter for praise
Thank God, then, for his gracious call — for if you belong to Christ it is as a result of his effectual calling. The preaching of the gospel is, paradoxically, as much a divine activity as a human one.
When Christ is preached, almighty God is at work in saving power as he calls sinners to himself. Notwithstanding the weakness of the human preacher, and satanic opposition to the gospel, God cannot be thwarted in his eternal purposes of grace.
God will save his chosen ones. Christ will build his church. The will of the sovereign God will most surely be done: ‘Those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified’ (Romans 8:30).
Divine calling (‘vocation’) then is an essential link in the glorious, golden and unbreakable chain of Christian salvation. Salvation is no ‘hit and miss’ or ‘chance’ occurrence. Salvation is divine!
The God of the Bible effectively, dynamically, irresistibly, surely and gloriously calls those whom he has chosen in Christ, and secures them for his eternal kingdom. There would be no salvation without divine vocation.
A heart of flesh
Chapter 10 of the Westminster Confession (‘Of Effectual Calling’) states:
‘All those whom God hath predestined 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 them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace’.
Or, as Isaac Watts expressed the same truth:
How sad our state by nature is
Our sin how deep its stains,
And Satan binds our captive minds
Fast in his slavish chains.
But there’s a voice of sovereign grace
Sounds from the sacred Word —
Ho! Ye despairing sinners, come
And trust upon the Lord.
My soul obeys the almighty call
And runs to this relief.
I would believe thy promise Lord
O help my unbelief!
To the dear fountain of thy blood,
Incarnate God, I fly.
Here let me wash my guilty soul
From sins of deepest dye.