Ask Steve: External and Effectual Call


Currently Reading:

The Gospel’s Power & Message

by Paul Washer

Category: Christian Living

Reformation Heritage Books, 2012





Question: Steve, how does the calling of God work? Does God call all people in the same way or are there distinctions in His calling?

Answer: There are different views about the calling of God depending on whether you are of Calvinist, Arminian, Lutheran, or Pelagian background. In answering this question, the Bible presents two kinds of calls: the external call and the internal call. This view is most associated with the Reformed, Calvinist tradition, but is, quite frankly, the most biblically supported view.

The external call is the general call, or the general gospel invitation, that goes out to all humanity when the gospel invitation is extended through evangelism and/or the preaching of the word. It is a visible work done. It can be a call to individuals, to cities, or even to nations, whether in the Old or the New Testament times. This call is met with various responses and does not necessary end up with positive results. In fact, it most always end ups with rejection of the gospel. Passages like Matthew 22:14 teach the reality that “many are invited [external call], but few are chosen [internal call].” This call takes place whenever the gospel is preached, whether it was by Christ during His three year ministry, by the apostles during the apostolic age, or by Christians during the church age. Passages such as Matthew 11:28, Luke 5:28, and Luke 13:34 and teach the external, general call that Christ gives to all people around the world to repent and believe on the gospel before it is too late.

There seems to be a dilemma with this scenario. According to the Bible, all people are infected with sin and are dead in their trespasses (Eph 2:1-3), which makes people incapable of doing good deeds and redeeming themselves. Romans 3:11 states, “There is no one who understands.” How are they supposed to respond to the external call if they are incapable because of their dead nature? In other words, does God hold them personally responsible for rejecting the gospel invitation? The answer is yes, according to Scripture. God holds every person responsible for rejecting the gospel.

It is not God’s fault that people end up lost and condemned, but it is entirely the individual’s. Scripture teaches that every man is accountable and culpable to God for his own sins and for hardening his own heart (Gal 6:8; Ex 7:13). Sinners do not have the ability, because of their depraved nature, to respond to the general offer of the gospel. However, they are still at fault for rejecting the call of God. Because of the spiritual impotence of mankind, the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration and initiative is needed if any man is to be saved (Jn 3:3). Without Him, all people would fail to respond to God’s external call and perish in hell. This is where the internal, effectual call comes in.

The effectual (special) call is the call of God in the person’s heart. This is also called an irresistible call (one of the points of the TULIP formula), and is something that we have no control over, but is entirely based on God’s sovereign will. As Bruce Demarest defines it, the effectual call is a sort of “divine power, mediated by the proclaimed Word, by which the Spirit illumines darkened minds, softens stubborn wills, and inclines contrary affections towards the living God, thus leading the unregenerate to trust God in a saving relationship.” In other words, the effectual call is a powerful work of God in which He uses the preaching of the gospel to bring repentance and faith to the hearer, and thus bring salvation to the person. Therefore, effectual call always leads to the person responding in saving faith. It never fails. Whereas the general call can lead to mixed results (including many rejections of the message), the effectual call always results in acceptance of the gospel. The general call is the duty of man; the effectual call is the duty of God (1 Cor 7:21; 1 Pet 2:21).

As I indicated in Matthew 22:14, “many are called, but few are chosen.” The many refer to the gospel being distributed in the general call, whereas the “few” that are “chosen” represent the elect that experience the effectual call onto salvation. All of the elect experience the effectual call, or else they would not be the elect. Those whom God chosen before the foundation of the world are called, as Romans 8:28-30 teaches. 1 Corinthians 1:9 also comments on the truth of the correlation between calling and assurance of salvation: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In answering the question “Does God call all people in the same way?,” the answer is essentially no. There is a general invitation that goes all to all people (in which all will be held responsible for their decision to that invitation). This general call is observable by all men. But the special call is only known by God, and only known to man when the results are made manifest by the elect’s conversion. That is why multiple Scripture (Rom 8:29; Acts 16:4; Ps 65:4) references make it clear that God has selective callings (election) for those whom He has predestined to save, and this describes the doctrine of effectual (special) calling. It is important to understand this concept because there are Christians who do not believe in this truth. Many Christians believe that God makes one general gospel call to the entire world through Christian’s proclamation of the gospel, thus implying that the gospel call can actually be responded to by some ounce of “goodness” or innate ability within people’s hearts.

One such group who believe in this theory is the Arminianists. They believe in a single, external general call of God to sinners for salvation. They believe that the Calvinist doctrine of “two calls” of outer and inner call is Scripturally unwarranted, and possibly even unjust for God to elect some to be saved while rejecting others to be damned. To explain how sinners have the ability to repent and believe in the gospel, Arminianists say that prevenient grace allows for neutralization of the effects of Adam’s sin in the unbeliever so that he can respond positively to the gospel call. Under such state of “neutrality,” the Spirit’s work can be resisted, contrary to the Calvinist teaching.

Two other traditions that believe only in the universal, external call are the Pelagian and Lutheran tradition. They also believe that the Holy Spirit’s work can be resisted and that people have the innate ability to respond and accept the gospel message. Pelagians believe so because people are not affected by original sin, and Lutherans think that people have enough inner illumination by the Holy Spirit to respond in power to the gospel.

However, all of this runs contrary not only to the Bible’s teaching concerning the theology of God’s calling, but also the doctrine of predestination, election, depravity, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (e.g. granting faith and repentance). This is why it is important to have a solid understanding of how God works in His calling and our personal responsibility in promoting the call of God in the gospel. As much as we should set out to win souls through the faithful and accurate proclamation of the gospel, we must never try to usurp God’s role to manipulate or coerce decisions in only a way God can do through His effectual calling, which is the only call that can save a sinner. Without such a calling, our own callings have no power. This is not to negate our own personal responsibilities in evangelism, but merely to keep a proper perspective on our role in a sinner’s salvation and God’s role.