Of Effectual Calling
Second London Confession: Chapter X
Anne Marie Grimball could not have been happier chasing the frivolous lifestyle of a typical Southern belle in colonial Charleston, South Carolina. Among her many “flattering prospects,” the young woman counted an “amiable and tender husband, the gay circle—diversions—visits—congratulations, etc.” Grimball described herself as “thoughtless and gay” in her pursuit of pleasure, enjoying all that America’s most hedonistic city had to offer. At times, though, Anne admitted that sobering thoughts of her mortality disrupted her happiness, and she found herself “terrified at the idea of death.” Unable to stifle these concerns, Grimball began attending the Charleston Baptist Church, pastored at that time by Oliver Hart. A Pennsylvania native, Hart had been reared on the sturdy Reformed doctrines of the Philadelphia Baptist Confession, and had been converted under the revival preaching of George Whitefield in the early 1740s. His arrival in Charleston at the close of 1749 had revitalized the South’s oldest Baptist church. Under Hart’s preaching, Anne “heard the gospel in its purity” week after week. Yet it seemed to do little good. She recalled later how “neither the threats of the law nor the sweet gospel sound made any impression on my hard and rocky heart.”
But beneath the surface, Anne was undergoing a quiet change. Charleston’s “gay scene,” once so invigorating, slowly lost all its appeal. Amid the trappings of her happy life, Anne realized that “something was missing—and that something I could not find. My mind was not at rest.” Then, in a series of tragic events, Anne buried multiple children in the span of a few years. She now found herself identifying with the psalmist, who compared man’s life to a blade of grass—“in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” (Psalm 90:6) She wrote of this time, “my convictions became more powerful—my situation more alarming, I thought no one was exercised as I was—I could not make my case known—I plainly saw that I must perish, dying as I was.” She still attended meetings at the Baptist church, but found no peace for her storm-tossed soul. “Satan, the grand enemy of souls, beset me with blasphemous thoughts—frightened me from duty—I feared to hear a sermon, lest it should rise up in judgment against me. Tell my unhappy case to anyone, I durst not,” she remembered. Even the happy stories of conversion she heard others tell heightened her unrest: “I loved to hear the people of God tell their experience; [but] feared they should ask me any questions.”
But one day, the dark clouds of fear and unbelief suddenly parted, and Anne saw clearly that Jesus Christ had loved her and gave Himself for her. She believed and was baptized. As she looked back on these events, Anne realized that a living Savior had been leading her, calling her, at every step:
After many struggles with my frail and corrupted nature, many conflicts with a hard head of unbelief, our condescending Lord made me willing to follow him into the watery grave. I was baptized by Mr. Hart, May 5, 1770 (in my 29th year). Thus the Lord in his abundant mercy led me on from step to step as I could bear with afflictions—with comforts and mercies—with crosses and losses—until I was made willing to trust him, alone, for the whole of my salvation.1
Anne Grimball’s diary dramatically describes the experience of what Oliver Hart and the Baptists of a previous generation termed the “effectual call.” Addressed in Articles IX and X of the Second London Confession (hereafter 2LC), the effectual call refers to the event in which “God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace.”2 As its name implies, the “call” involves a personal summons, the sudden awareness that one is being addressed by God, like Abraham in the darkness of Ur, or Samuel lying in the house of Eli the priest, or Simon Peter on the shores of Galilee. The call is “effectual” because it invariably accomplishes its purpose: the recipient of God’s call will certainly respond to the divine Speaker with faith, repentance, and obedience. The effectual call is thus closely associated with other important New Testament concepts related to salvation, including regeneration, new birth, and conversion.3 Oliver Hart neatly packaged all these ideas together when he spoke simply of the “saving change” God produced in His people in the hour of their salvation.
The doctrine of the effectual call was of paramount significance for 18th Century Baptists like Hart and Grimball, as well as for their fellow evangelicals. The “saving change” was a source of unending wonder and delight for the Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards, who preached about the “Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God.” The Methodist Charles Wesley sang for joy about the effectual call in his famous hymn, “And Can it Be?”:
Long my imprisoned soul did lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eyes diffused a quick’ning ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free!
I rose, went forth, and followed thee!
And ordinary evangelical women like Anne Grimball, Sarah Osborne, and Hannah Heaton filled page after page of their diaries with personal accounts of receiving the call. These believers remind us that the effectual call is more than an abstract doctrine: it should move us to humble gratitude and joyful praise.
The Foundation of the Effectual Call
While the “saving change” occurs in a single moment of time, but early Baptists traced its origins back before the world began, to the eternal purposes of the Holy Trinity. There, in Oliver Hart’s words, God “foresaw Adam would fall… and that the whole human race would be involved in guilt, and must inevitably perish.” In response to this impending tragedy, the members of the Godhead “formed a council” to “lay the plan” of man’s salvation. In this plan, each Person of the Trinity would take a vital part. The Father fashioned the plan of redemption in His own heart, purposing to rescue “a select number of the fallen race” from the misery of sin, and adopt them as His own dear children. Yet the Father’s plan would require an unthinkable sacrifice of love: He must send forth His beloved Son to secure salvation for the elect through His perfect life, death and resurrection on their behalf. Yet the Son did not shrink from the perilous mission; He entered into agreement with His Father to undertake everything necessary to save His people from their sin. The Father, in turn, pledged to send the Holy Spirit to the elect at the appointed moment of conversion, making them willing and able to receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work through faith.4 The early Baptists believed this divine agreement framed the whole biblical narrative, but found it most clearly revealed in Jesus’ discourses in John’s Gospel and in the writings of the apostle Paul. They called it the “covenant of grace.”5 The effectual call represented the final step in the Trinitarian conspiracy of redeeming love.
So who is responsible for the call? In one light, eighteenth-century Baptist John Gano was right to affirm that all three persons of the Godhead are involved in the effectual call. Yet the New Testament authors seem to focus on the Father as the author of the call.6 Thus, Jesus declares in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Paul refers in 1 Thessalonians 2:12: to “God, who calls you to his own kingdom and glory,” and asserts in 1 Corinthians 1:9 that “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ”. Peter famously speaks of God as the one who “called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The effectual call flows from the Father’s everlasting love; it is His loving voice we hear calling us to salvation, for “those whom he predestined, he also called” (Romans 8:30). Yet the Father issues His call through the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. It is the omnipotent Spirit of God who invades the life of the individual sinner at the Father’s “appointed and accepted time,” to apply the redemptive work of the Son to the heart.7 So perhaps it would be accurate to say that God the Father calls us, into fellowship with His Son, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The effectual call is a Trinitarian act.
For our Baptist forbears, rooting the effectual call in God’s eternal purpose established that the call came by “God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything forseen in men, nor from any power or agency in the creature.”8 Here, the 2LC echoes the apostle Paul, who praised the God “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:8–9). As we begin to grasp something of the eternal grace that lay behind the call we received at Vacation Bible School, on our knees in a jail cell, or at a tent revival, we too will be moved to praise. We will also be moved to a deep and genuine humility before God and neighbor (including those Christian neighbors who have never heard of the effectual call, or do not view it as we do). After all, when Paul wants to humble the swaggering Corinthian church, he urges them to “consider your calling, brothers.” The truth is, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). The effectual call is a call to humility, a call to wonder, love, and praise.
The Necessity of the Effectual Call
Baptist founders believed that an effectual call was absolutely necessary for salvation because of man’s radical sinfulness. The Bible teaches that man is “in a state of sin and death,” so alienated from God that he cannot and will not come to God on his own.9 In the comprehensive description of the 2LC, fallen man has a “heart of stone,” unable to respond to God’s overtures of love (Ezekiel 36:26); he has a will “in bondage under sin,” enslaved to corrupt desires (John 8:36); and he has an understanding so darkened that he cannot understand the things of God (Romans 1:21; 1 Corinthians 2:14). We manifest our sinfulness in a variety of ways, some through reckless, law-breaking immorality, others through smug, law-keeping morality. But what fallen man will never do is stretch out empty hands of faith to the crucified and risen Jesus.
Accordingly, both Old and New Testaments show fallen men and women stubbornly resisting God’s call. As in the case of Anne Grimball, neither the sternest warnings of coming judgment nor the most tender appeals of grace seem to make the slightest impression. It was this habitual rejection of his love that provoked the Lord to complain through Jeremiah, “I spoke to them, but they did not listen; I called to them, but they did not answer” (Jeremiah 35:17). The same self-destructing hard-heartedness moved Jesus to weep over Jerusalem, for “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not!” (Matthew 23:36–37). But how does such resistance square with God’s “effectual call”?
Baptists and other Reformed Christians have historically answered this question by distinguishing between a “general call” and an “effectual call,” or an “external call” and an “internal call.” Citing biblical texts like the Lord’s parable of the four soils, or His declaration in Matthew 22:14 that “many are called, but few chosen,” they recognized a general call going out to all sinners that did not terminate in the new birth. After all, Christ commanded His disciples to liberally sow the seed of the good news on all kinds of soil, knowing that in many cases it would yield no lasting fruit (Mark 4:1–20). But why does a general call exist? We cannot know all of God’s reasons, of course, but one reason is surely to underscore the absolute necessity of God’s prevailing grace in salvation. When gracious gospel invitations provoke hostility, ridicule, boredom, or a merely superficial acceptance, we see more clearly than ever the helplessness of man’s plight. If man is to be saved, God must provide absolutely everything. To borrow the language of Isaiah 55, God must not only provide the feast that will satisfy us through the costly death of his Son; and he must not only provide the warm and generous invitation to come eat and drink our fill; but we are so foolish and stubborn that he must even provide the ability and desire to come to the table, that he may lavish us with his eternal kindness in Christ (Philippians 2:13–14; Ephesians 2:7). But who could imagine a sovereign and holy God so humble, so patient, so gracious? The God of the Bible shatters all our categories in the miracle of the effectual call.
The Miracle of the Call
Paul captures the essential difference between the general call and the effectual call when he reminds the Thessalonians of their own conversion. He urges them to remember how “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Until the moment of God’s “appointed and accepted time,” the gospel call is “only in word.” We may hold those words in contempt, or those words may be a matter of mild curiosity, or we may even assent to those words in a very superficial way. But the call is only words. Like a high school boy daydreaming in class while the teacher drones away, we are vaguely aware that someone is speaking in the background, but the words are of no consequence to us. But most of us know what it is like to be suddenly jarred from our preoccupation when that droning voice suddenly speaks our personal name: “Mr. Smith, what is the answer?” For those who were more studious than I was, I can assure you that the experience is most unsettling. One moment, you are blending into the crowd, tuning out the speaker, happily pursuing your own line of thought. Then, without warning, a personal, non-ignorable address calls you to account! You feel utterly exposed by the call of your name. There is some analogy here with the effectual call. Like the Thessalonians, those who are being effectually called by God find that they are no longer dealing with words on a page, or words from a preacher. Something—or Someone—is now coming to them, calling to them, searching for them, with power and conviction that cannot be ignored.
That initial sense of being called is often highly uncomfortable—it involves a new and devastating awareness of who we are as sinners under the searching gaze of a holy God. At one point during his call, Peter fell on his face and begged Jesus to leave him: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8) And yet, this new sorrow over our sin is a very good sign that something wonderful is happening. In the words of the 2LC, God is calling us “out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ.” Though we cannot realize at the moment, a new creation is dawning. The Spirit of God is wielding the same power He used to raise Christ Jesus from the dead, to effect a comprehensive inner change in us: “enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God (Acts 26:18; Ephesians 1:17, 18); taking away their heart of stone, and giving to them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:27; Ephesians 1:19).”10 The call has done its work when we realize that the One who has exposed us in our sin is now laying his hand on us and saying, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10). This Jesus refuses to depart from us; in fact, He promises that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We will spend the rest of our lives learning and relearning all this, but we grasp enough at the moment of the effectual call that we are finally “enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”11
What role do we play in all this? The 2LC specifies that we are “wholly passive”—we contribute nothing. “Dead in trespasses and sins,” we are in the same position at the moment of the call as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, or as the corpse of Lazarus when Christ called him from the grave. As in these cases, the effectual call itself carries within it the power to respond. Yet the sinner’s passivity does not mean gospel ministers have nothing to say to those not yet called. Faithful preachers concerned to uphold God’s sovereign grace need not send their listeners home in fatalistic despair, wondering if God may one day choose them. This is because God does not typically “zap” individuals with his call at random; He has appointed means, namely “His Word and Spirit,” along with His providence.12 As Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to catch a view of Jesus, we place ourselves in the Lord’s path by making use of his appointed means: attending the preaching of the gospel, reading the Scriptures, engaging believers in conversation about salvation. Yes, we should tell our listeners that they cannot call themselves to salvation. We should urge them to act on the slightest stirring to “seek the Lord while He may be found.” Of course, as in the case of Zacchaeus, the Bible assures us that if any sinner finds himself or herself so inclined to seek out the call of Christ, it is because the great Seeker has already begun drawing the heart toward Himself (Luke 19:1–10).
The framers of the 2LC tread carefully when discussing the divine and human will in the effectual call. They knew that what passes between the Lord and our souls in this holy moment involves a mysterious interplay between the divine and human will. So while it has been common among the Reformed to the effectual call as an instance of “irresistible grace,” I share Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge’s reticence about the phrase. In one light, God’s grace in our salvation is blessedly irresistible, and must be if we are to be saved. Yet this phrase can imply “the idea of a mechanical and coercive influence upon an unwilling subject.”13 But while the subjects of grace have been fiercely unwilling to come to God up to the moment of conversion, the miracle of the effectual call is that the Lord makes them willing. Older evangelicals like Oliver Hart loved to turn to Psalm 110:3 to describe the moment of the new birth: “Thy people shall be made willing in the day of thy power (Hart preached this text more than a dozen times in the years 1773–1794, more than any other passage in that same period).” For Hart, the psalmist’s image perfectly captured the miracle of the call, as God’s former enemies willingly threw down their arms and presented themselves as loyal subjects to King Jesus, in a manifestation of the power of God’s Spirit. So it is entirely appropriate to ask our listeners: “Are you willing to come to Jesus? If you are, it is because the Lord has long since been at work in your life, to make you willing. So come to him.” It is for good reason that the 2LC employed the language of sacred romance in the Song of Solomon in describing the call: “Draw me after you; let us run. The King has brought me into his chambers” (Song 1:4). Some aspects of our salvation are better suited for adoration than analysis.
Remembering this mysterious element of the effectual call can guard us from developing false expectations about what a true conversion “must” look like. Well-meaning Christians have often created problems for themselves and for others by assuming that a “true conversion” must follow a certain pattern, whether that included a long season of despair and “terrors of the law,” a trip down to the altar at the end of a worship service, or an instant and dramatic change of lifestyle. The truth is, the Bible speaks of a personal God who calls different men and women in a variety of ways. A brief glance at Paul’s visit to Philippi in Acts 16 shows that Jesus Christ is not a paint-by-numbers Savior. A Jewish businesswoman receives her effectual call at a quiet Sabbath Bible study, when the Lord “opened her heart;” a demon-possessed slave girl experiences a violent deliverance from the powers of darkness; a Philippian jailer must have his world collapse around him before he cries out in despair, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The call is the same in each case, yet the circumstances are all so different, perfectly suited for each individual by the God who loved them before the world began. As helpful systematic theological categories are, God is not a mechanical “system.” He is a personal God dealing with individual men and women created in his image. He calls some dramatically, like the apostle Paul; others he calls more subtly, like Timothy growing up in the care of a godly mother and grandmother. The effectual call is personal: it involves a living Savior drawing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, with cords of kindness and bands of love (Hosea 11:4).
Only in retrospect could Anne Grimball look back and understand what had transpired in her life through those tumultuous years leading to her conversion. She could not have realized at the time that she was being called; nor could she have imagined all that her calling would entail when she responded to it. Least of all could she have expected that in a few years, she would be married to Oliver Hart, the pastor who baptized her, both having lost their first spouses to death. God’s call is always like that: you never know where it may lead you; you are just trusting the one who has called your name to get you safely home.
So for the authors of the 2LC, the effectual call constituted the glorious beginning of the Christian life, but it is only the beginning. It is a happy summons to follow Jesus Christ on a pathway of holiness that ultimately leads to heaven and perfect communion with the Triune God who set his love on us so long ago. The 2LC stresses that the walking out of this calling will not always be easy. While God has indeed renewed our natures so that we now “will and work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:14), powerful remnants of indwelling sin still reside in us. Because of these “remaining corruptions,” even new creations like us do “not perfectly, nor only, will, that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.”14 We still resist the loving voice of the Father. Thus the effectual call is also a call to spiritual conflict, waging war in the power of the Spirit against the desires of the flesh, until we are safely home. A full discussion of these dynamics of sanctification must await the exposition of the later articles of the 2LC. Let it only be said in closing that he who called us is faithful; he has promised to complete the good work he began in us (1 Thessalonians 5:24; Romans 8:30; Philippians 1:6). So the called have nothing to fear.
1 Anne Hart, Narrative of Anne Maria Sealy Grimball Hart, born 1741, South Carolina, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
2 2LC IX.4; Colossians 1:13. This article will consider the following sections of the 2LC :
IX.4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin, (Colossians 1:13; John 8:36) and by His grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good (Philippians 2:13); yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he does not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but does also will that which is evil (Romans 7:15,18,19,21, 23).
X.1. Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, He is pleased in His appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call (Romans 8:30, 11:7; Ephesians 1:10, 11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14), 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; (Ephesians 2:1–6); enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God (Acts 26:18; Ephesians 1:17, 18); taking away their heart of stone, and giving to them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:27; Ephesians 1:19); yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace (Psalm 110:3; Cant 1:4).
X.2. This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, nor from any power or agency in the creature ( 2 Timothy 1:9; Ephesians 2:8); being wholly passive therein, being dead in sins and trespasses, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:5; John 5:25); he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it, and that by no less power than that which raised up Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19, 20).
3 Some Baptist theologians, like John Gill, have distinguished between the effectual call and regeneration in the ordo salutis: “effectual calling may be distinguished from regeneration, taken more strictly, for the first infusion and implantation of grace in the heart…” (John Gill, Complete Body of Practical and Doctrinal Divinity [Philadelphia: Graves, 1810], 377.) Others treat these as two perspectives on the same essential reality. The 2LC addresses both under the heading of “Effectual Calling.” In this vein, nineteenth-century Baptist John L. Dagg wrote: “The internal grace, which renders the outward call effectual, is the grace of regeneration. Hence regeneration, considered as the work of the Holy Spirit, is the same as effectual calling; considered as the change of the sinner’s heart, it is the effect of this calling. The calling is effectual, because it produces regeneration in the subject on whom it operates.” John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1982), 332–33; cf. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 700.
4 2LC V.1–2.
5 Oliver Hart, Of Christ the Mediator, in A.D. Gilette, ed., Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, from A.D. 1707 to A.D. 1807 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851), 182.
6 John Gano makes this argument in his 1784 exposition of the effectual call in his circular letter to the Philadelphia Association. See Gilette, Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, 202.
7 2LC X.1.
8 2LC X.2.
9 SCL X.1, Eph 2:1–6.
10 2LC X.1.
11 2LC X.2.
12 2LC X.2.
13 A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (1860; reprint: Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 452.
14 2LC IX.4; Romans 7:15, 18, 19, 21, 23.