RPM, Volume 16, Number 12, March 16 to March 22, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Doctrine of Salvation
Effectual Calling
Sermon Number Twelve

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683


Our study of Covenant Theology continues as we make a transition to a new topic. My last sermon, which concluded our examination of the covenant of grace, concerned the work of Jesus Christ as the seed of Abraham in whom God fulfilled His promise to bring blessing to the nations of the earth. That sermon also served to introduce the subject of salvation proper as I talked about the role of faith in the redemptive experience. The doctrine of salvation, as understood within Covenant Theology, therefore, will be our next topic.

When I speak of the doctrine of salvation, I am answering these questions: How does a sinner pass from death to life, from darkness to light, from condemnation to forgiveness? What happens to a sinner that produces a spiritual and relational transformation? If we could diagram the salvation experience, what would it look like?

There are a number of elements involved in a sinner's conversion. Some of these elements are found in the initial stages of the sinner's transformation, while others are to be observed over the period of the sinner's life. For example, we think of regeneration as occurring right at the beginning of the conversion when the Holy Spirit enlivens the spiritually dead heart and imparts the seed of the new life. Sanctification, on the other hand, we see as the life-long outworking of that regenerative episode.

Sanctification, therefore, is a process that is not concluded until death. Yet both of these elements are to be viewed as components in a sinner's salvation experience. Salvation does not begin and end at the moment of regeneration; there are things that happen prior to that point and things that happen after that point, which are properly considered conversion.

Within Covenant or Reformed Theology, there is a term used for what I've been describing. This term is ordo salutis, which means "order of salvation" and refers to the sequence and interrelation of those elements that make up our salvation. Ordo salutis is concerned with the logical explanation of what happens to a sinner when he is acted upon by the Holy Spirit, is brought to new life, and thereafter yields himself in loving service to God. Generally, Covenant theologians see five parts to ordo salutis: effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. These are the "parts" or "steps" of our salvation from beginning to end.

Before I go further, I must emphasize that this new topic is within the context of Christ's all-sufficient work of atonement. That is, the order of salvation that I've defined for you unfolds upon the foundation of Christ's fulfillment of the terms of the covenant of grace. Because of Him, a sinner can have the salvation experience described as effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification.

The order of salvation is, put simply, the application of Christ's redemption to sinners by the Holy Spirit. Having said this, I also want to emphasize that the doctrine of salvation, which is explained in the order of salvation, must be viewed covenantally. Only the seed of Abraham are or can be affected in a saving way by the work of Christ. So while I speak about the order of salvation, I'm really speaking about how God keeps His promise to redeem a people if the Son would provide what was needed for their redemption.

Understanding our salvation is, of course, always a significant topic for the Christian. But I must stress that, due to contemporary debates about the nature of saving faith and related matters, the proper comprehension of how we are saved is an indispensable truth. Unless you know precisely what God has decreed regarding our redemption, you are susceptible to false teaching in the most important area of your existence.

Some of the errors being propagated within our own reformed community are obvious and easy to oppose. Other errors, however, are deceptively subtle. These are the teachings that turn us, ever so slightly in the beginning, in the wrong direction, theologically speaking. But a journey begun with just a small turn away from the truth will, in the end, lead us ever further from the teaching of God's Word.

I am referring, in particular, to the theological movement known as Federal Vision. Although proponents claimed they were simply misunderstood when this controversy first arose, it is now obvious beyond doubt that this system advocates doctrine that is not compatible with the traditional convictions of the Church in several fundamental points, such as, justification, sanctification, assurance, and the nature of the sacraments. As we study the order of salvation in the coming weeks, we will consider Biblical teaching on these and other crucial matters.

As we begin, I want to direct your attention to a passage of Scripture that provides support for the notion of an order of salvation. In Rom. 8, we read:

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (vv. 29, 30)

Paul describes a logical progression in the application of the atonement. What the Holy Spirit does is limited to those "whom [God] foreknew" and "predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son." This statement alone establishes the Reformed doctrine of a particular atonement. More relevant for our present purpose, however, is the sequential activity of God, described by the apostle, that takes the sinner from predestination to glorification.

It is our duty to be well informed concerning what God has done for us in Christ. To a certain extent, our conduct and our service to God arise from the ground of our knowledge. The better we understand our redemption, the more diligent we will be about our lives. This is not, of course, to discount the work of the Holy Spirit, but to emphasize that one of His tools is our knowledge of Scripture.

Now we are ready to study the first in the sequence of events known as salvation; we will begin with effectual calling. First, I will offer a definition of effectual calling; second, I will speak in detail about the origin and nature of effectual calling; and third, I will talk about the result of effectual calling.

01. The Definition of Effectual Calling

Effectual calling is that act of God whereby, through the Holy Spirit, He awakens and draws the sinner, who previously is spiritually dead, into saving union with Christ. When we speak of God's effectual call, therefore, we mean His supernatural activity in the heart of a sinner that enlivens that sinner's dormant heart and enables him and causes him to respond to the gospel unto his salvation.

I want to clarify something that is related to defining effectual calling. In the Introduction, I stated that this effectual call of God is the first in a logical sequence of events that together comprise our salvation. When I say that effectual calling is the first in a series of factors, I mean this in terms of what the sinner experiences personally; I mean this in terms of when and how the sinner comes to realize that God has chosen him for salvation.

As we are going to see in the second point, the call of God to salvation is, in fact, preceded by His eternal decree of election. As far as a sinner is concerned, however, the first indication he has that he is numbered among the elect is God's awakening call through the Holy Spirit.

A statement from Paul will help illustrate what I mean:

But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother's womb, and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. (Gal. 1:15-17)

The context of these verses is Paul's admission of his guilt in persecuting the Church of God. He states that he was "advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] contemporaries among [his] countrymen, being more extremely zealous for [his] ancestral traditions." (v. 14) While in the midst of that pursuit, the apostle indicates that God intervened and his life was redirected.

Historically, of course, Paul is referring to his experience on the road to Damascus when the risen Christ Himself confronted him. From that point, Paul was, in every way, a changed man. He was converted and became a servant of the One whose name he was trying to exterminate.

This account in Galatians represents Paul's mature reflection upon that incident. Notice the elements of his conversion: God set him apart, even before his birth; God called him through His grace in due time; and God revealed, by that calling, that Paul was, in fact, among the elect who would have applied to them the atonement secured by the Savior. As Paul experienced this conversion, what was his first indication that he belonged to Christ? His first indication was, of course, the call of God that revealed to him and others that he was the object of God's saving love.

God's call of Paul manifested itself on the road to Damascus. That's when Paul, as a sinner, realized that God had chosen him. But as he wrote to the Galatians, Paul acknowledged that God's will for him preceded that incident. Again, what I want to emphasize, and what I want to illustrate with Paul, is that we are safe in saying that God's effectual call is the first element in our conversion if we are speaking in terms of our own recognition of what God has done for us.

It is interesting to note that the risen Christ is the central figure in Paul's Damascus road experience. He is the One who speaks to Paul, as we know. However, Paul says later that Ananias, the man appointed by Christ to explain matters to Paul, said to him: "The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth." (Acts 22:14) Paul is correct, therefore, when in Gal. 1, he indicates that God's choice of him lay behind his Damascus road encounter. Nevertheless, that encounter with Christ, which was, in essence, God's call, was Paul's first indication that he had been chosen for salvation by God. Later, the apostle came to realize that God's eternal decree was, as I will emphasize under the second point, the basis of what he had experienced.

02. The Origin and Nature of Effectual Calling

It is important that we understand that the call is initiated by God the Father and because it is initiated by Him, the effectual call bears certain characteristics (these characteristics, of course, explain the nature of the call). God begins the work of applying the atonement provided by His Son to those that He has determined to save and give to the Son. This is a most precious aspect of our faith. This is what Jesus meant in John 6:37: "All that the Father gives Me shall come to me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out." How wonderful the thought that God the Father undertakes to keep the promise made to the Son in eternity; He promised to give to Him a special people, a people washed in the blood of the Son, a people rescued from certain destruction (cf. John 5:30, 43; 6:38-40; Eph. 1:4; 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9). In due time, God the Father sends forth His Spirit to the elect and the Spirit stirs them to life by the application of Christ's great atonement.

Let's consider some Biblical evidence for what I've said. In his opening remarks in 1 Corinthians, Paul gives thanks for the grace of God that was given to them in Christ. He says that God called them into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1:9) Paul continues and describes responses to the blessed gospel, the "word of the cross" by which the Corinthians had been saved. Paul says it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but "to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (v. 18) He specifies the reactions of the Jews and Greeks: the Jews "ask for signs" and the Greeks "search for wisdom." (v. 22)

Therefore, the message of the cross is "to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness." (v. 23) Then, the apostle writes: "...but to those who are called [like the Corinthians], both Jews and Greeks, [the gospel is] Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (v. 24) What is it that distinguishes between those who hear the gospel and scoff and those who hear the gospel and believe? What is it that causes the gospel to be embraced instead of rejected, cherished instead of scorned? It is the call of God.

God's call, again, is His supernatural work in the heart of the sinner. When God's call comes, it is an irresistible summons, it is a divine enabling. Without this life-giving call from God, the sinner remains dead in his trespasses and sin; he hears what is being preached, but he laughs at it, rejects it and ridicules it. Paul's words are devastating testimony against the Arminian doctrine of man's free will in salvation. If fallen man is left to himself, Paul teaches that he will never abandoned his sin and will forever despise what God offers in His Son. The only hope for the sinner is that soul-piercing summons from heaven.

Later, in the second chapter, the apostle describes how God called the Corinthians into fellowship with Christ. He says that God revealed the blessings of salvation through the Spirit; Paul adds: "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God..." (2:10, 12) The Holy Spirit, as I've said, is dispatched from God the Father to the elect sinner and He executes God's call, as it were.

In another passage, Paul again speaks of God's calling to salvation. In 2 Thess. 2, after warning his readers about the coming "man of sin," he says to them: "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." (vv. 13, 14) Notice that Paul first declares the eternal election of the Thessalonians according to God's choice, then identifies the end of that election: "...for salvation..."

And, finally, he explains that God had called the Thessalonians to this salvation "through our gospel." It is the call of God that unites those predestined to eternal life with Christ, the One in Whom and by Whom eternal life is realized. The call of God is that crucial link between what has been decreed and the manifestation of what has been decreed. This makes God's decree of election the sole decisive factor in the question of which sinner receives God's call to salvation.

As I indicated earlier, understanding the Biblical doctrine of God's call answers many questions that we have about our Christian experience and shows as false the popular notion that the sinner somehow initiates his conversion. Based as it is in God's eternal decree, the call of God to salvation is executed without regard to the sinner's merit and without regard to the sinner's activity. This passage teaches that there is something that precedes the call and that is God's decree of election. The saving call of God marks the beginning of the "time and space" expression of His eternal decision to save a particular sinner.

We must acknowledge that the call of God unto salvation is all of grace; God is responsible for the call and the call, itself, is only a manifestation of His sovereign will and has no regard for a sinner's merit. The call of God unto salvation is eternal; The call is the historical manifestation of God's prior decree of election and that decree of election was established before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1). Consequently, the call of God unto salvation is immutable, it cannot be change. And, finally, in terms of the character of the effectual call, I would add what we have studied indicates that it is covenantal. The call of God unto salvation is reserved for the seed of Abraham who, because of the substitutionary work of Christ, stand to inherit the blessings of the covenant.

Before I continue with the third point, I want to explain one small item. Throughout this sermon, I have used the phrase effectual calling. The word "effectual" is used by theologians to distinguish the call of God that involves the spiritual rebirth of the sinner and the general call of God that is present whenever His Word is proclaimed. As Paul explained in those passages from 1 Cor., not everyone who hears the summons of the gospel responds in a saving manner. Some hear its call, but reject it. They have heard a call from God, to be sure, but that call did not bring about their salvation. Therefore, it is helpful when discussing this matter to use the term "effectual calling" when referring to God's saving activity. At the same time I must add, however, that the New Testament generally speaks only of God's call and that call is always unto salvation. Using the modifier "effectual" is unnecessary, Biblically speaking, but it is an aid to our understanding.

03. The Result of Effectual Calling

The result of God's effectual calling of a sinner already has been, of course, indicated in the previous point. The effectual call of God results in the sinner being brought to life, spiritually speaking, and enabled and, in fact, moved to exercise faith in Christ. However, there is a more precise way to explain the result of God's call and that is by using the term "regeneration."

Regeneration is sometimes considered as a separate step in the ordo salutis, but is always discussed in connection with the effectual call. Since the call of God is effectual, it must carry with it the means by which the summons is realized in the heart of the sinner. Regeneration, the spiritual awakening of the sinner by the Holy Spirit, is the immediate consequence of God's call. Therefore, I am treating regeneration together with effectual calling since the two are so closely related.

There are three facts to understand about regeneration: first, it is the work of God exclusively; second, regeneration creates something new; third, regeneration always produces the fruit of righteousness. Let's look at a few Scriptural passages that validate these three statements.

First, regeneration is the work of God exclusively. Regeneration is the change that God brings about in the sinner; and, like the initial call of God, it is wholly His work. Fallen man is, as we have seen, dead in trespasses and sin. He cannot, he will not, come to God; fallen man is completely dependent upon the mercy of God. In Scripture, the work that God does to bring that sinner to life is variously called the new birth, being born again, renewal and, of course, regeneration. Regeneration is the term most often used when discussing this element of the ordo salutis.

Titus 3:5 says: "[God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit..." Although this verse does not explain what regeneration is, it does teach something relevant and important. It teaches that regeneration, as I stated, is not based on human merit. Paul clearly denies such an idea and actually contrasts human works with God's regenerative activity in the Holy Spirit. "God saved us," Paul writes, and He saved us "not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy..." This mercy manifests itself in the call and the accompanying new birth. The source of regeneration, like the call of which it is a part, is God. Fallen man can no more bring about his regeneration that he can initially call himself to salvation.

Second, regeneration is the creation of something new. I've already indicated this, but I must state emphatically that regeneration is not the igniting of some predisposition toward God in the soul of the sinner. Regeneration is the creation of that disposition; regeneration is the implanting of the seed of new life. Regeneration can be compared to the resurrection of a man from the dead, for, in a spiritual sense, that's exactly what happens.

Listen again to Paul:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus... (Eph. 2:4-6)

The phrase, "made us alive together with Christ," is a description of regeneration. It is a wonderfully graphic image of what happens to the sinner when God calls him to salvation; he is dead, but then he is alive. Pauline theology routinely uses this imagery in contrasting the pre-conversion state and the post-conversion state (cf. Rom. 6:11; 1 Cor. 15:22; Col. 2:13.); this is, in fact, a common, perhaps the most common, mode of expressing the difference between the unsaved and saved states of the sinner in the New Testament.

In keeping with the same theme, in another place Paul writes: "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." (2 Cor. 5:17) The call of God is executed by the Holy Spirit upon a sinner as He supernaturally and marvelously brings life from death. At that point, the sinner is renewed; he operates the rest of his life according to a new principle of morality. The point is that something happens to the sinner at regeneration that is unique. Regeneration does not depend upon what is present in the sinner, it creates something new in the sinner.

Third, regeneration always produces the fruit of righteousness. And it is the presence of this evidence that proves the nature of regeneration. The evidence that follows regeneration shows that a basic change has occurred in that part of man's makeup that governs his thinking and activity.

One passage that really describes what takes place in regeneration is Eph. 4:24. In this verse, Paul is urging the Ephesians to conduct themselves according to what had happened to them when they embraced the gospel. A change had taken place, he indicates, and the Ephesians were bound to give expression to that change in their thinking and behavior. Paul teaches that in regeneration, a "new self" is created and that new self is characterized by "righteousness and holiness of the truth."

This verse, therefore, identifies what happens at regeneration; the sinner who, prior to God's call, is characterized by unrighteousness and unholiness, is made over and a new principle, the principle of God's righteousness, is imbedded in his soul, as I stated. That newly imbedded principle immediately reveals itself and becomes active. The sinner henceforth operates according to a different and holy disposition.

This idea is more fully explained in Col. 3:5 ff.:

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry... and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him...

Paul is describing regeneration and the fruits of regeneration. Before regeneration, the Colossians were characterized by those things common to the fallen nature: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive speech. Those attitudes and practices were part of the "old self," Paul says, and were "laid aside" when salvation came. Now, he continues:

...as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The regeneration of the Colossians meant that they would be characterized by other things that were common to their new nature: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness. The contrast between what the Colossians were and what they had become is striking; we could hardly devise a more obvious distinction. What made the difference was, of course, regeneration. So it is clear that regeneration always produces self-attesting evidence of its presence.


In the application, I want to talk briefly about the impressions that are left in my mind after studying the doctrine of effectual calling. This Biblical doctrine leaves at least three distinct impressions in my thinking. I trust that as I explain them, you, too, will see their worth and be edified by them.

First, the doctrine of effectual calling leaves the impression that the mercy of God truly is astounding.

When God calls, He is calling sinners, He is calling the ungrateful and the rebellious; He is calling the lovers of falsehood and haters of truth; He is calling those who are guilty and who give expression to their guilt by the hour. Nevertheless, He still calls; He still sends His Spirit to one sinner after another and the Spirit regenerates the cold, dead heart and life springs from non-life. God still calls in spite of our sin, in spite of our boasts, in spite of our hard-headedness. What other word comes to mind when you think of God doing this for you but "mercy." How else can we describe what we receive from God?

Believers need to recapture the image of God as an infinitely merciful God. In recapturing this image, you see, they will recapture other truths that have, likewise, slipped away. They will recapture the truths of God's justice and holiness; they will recapture the truths of an absolute standard and forgiveness for transgression. And you can't help gaining a better understanding of the human predicament?I'm referring to our depravity?when you study the merciful call of God to salvation. We may think of God often, but I fear that we are not always thinking rightly of Him. I fear that too often we are thinking of God according to something other than Biblical data. If our understanding of God is to be accurate, it must come from what He reveals to us in the Word. And as we have seen, in the matter of effectual calling, the Word shows God to be most merciful, indeed.

A second impression left by the doctrine of effectual calling follows the first closely and that is our absolute dependence upon God for salvation.

The Bible's teaching on the effectual call of God leaves us standing with heads bowed before the Lord. Had God not called us, where would we be? Had God not chosen us in Christ, the alternative is horrifying. What can we do but be eternally grateful? What can we do but be humbled by God's marvelous grace and power?

Think how different the Church would be if, as the body of Christ, we had a sure and explicit understanding of our total dependence upon God for salvation. So many are wrongly thinking that they cooperated with God or that they "found" God when the truth is, dead men don't cooperate with anyone and fallen men never find anything because they are not capable of looking. God's patience is so abundantly extended toward us as we speak of our little theories and spin our tales about how we were saved. All the while, He knows that we were utterly lost and hopelessly imprisoned by sin when He sent His Spirit to us and that Spirit spoke in our souls the summons of our Creator.

A third impression left on my mind by this doctrine of God's effectual call is the sovereign right of God to choose His people.

This teaching of the Bible so clearly emphasizes God's independence and His divine prerogative in the matter of salvation. God answers to no man, but all men are accountable to Him. God does what He does because it pleases Him and He chooses whom He chooses because it pleases Him. God's Spirit is not some unseen, undirected force that envelops us all and awaits the initiative of man to bring about regeneration.

The Spirit of God is a divine Person, fully committed to executing the will of the Triune God with respect to salvation. How foolish we must sometimes appear in God's sight. Some of us want to take credit for what God alone is capable of doing. Others don't want to take credit for their salvation, but they don't want to give God the full credit either.

But a great and wonderful change occurs in a life when a person understands, accepts and submits to the sovereignty of God in salvation. It brings unbelievable joy and humility; it brings peace and confidence. Most important, it gives God the glory that belongs to Him and Him alone. The sovereignty of God in salvation is a fact and recognition of this fact puts the sinner in his place while God occupies His exalted place.


Hymn for Communion


Let's come to the Lord's Table and receive this sacrament that reinforces all these impressions left by the doctrine of God's effectual calling. This sacrament is testimony to His calling of us; it is a pledge that His calling will ultimately bring us to heaven. On this Table are the elements of bread and wine, symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ paid for our sins and gave us His righteousness and in His time, God calls us by the Spirit to inherit what Jesus secured for us.

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." (Matt. 26:26-29)
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