From the Archives: How I Became Convinced of the Effectual Call

I grew up with a semi-Calvinistic understanding of salvation. I knew that people were dead in sins and that dead people don’t do anything. But I did not understand much of how salvation actually worked.

When I first heard someone teach on the effectual call (also poorly described as irresistible grace) I balked at it. It didn’t seem to match up with my conception of salvation and my experience of life. When the gospel was preached, it seemed that the Spirit was working generally in people’s hearts, and they either responded to that work or rejected it. But that was all that was happening.

While in graduate school, I took a class on Romans. When studying through Romans 8—specifically verses 28–30—I became convinced that the effectual call was a biblical teaching.

After dealing primarily with justification in chapters 1–4 of Romans, Paul moves on to discuss the hope of the believer in chapters 5-8. He assures the believers in Rome that they no longer have to face God’s wrath. However, they will still face difficulty in this life. In the familiar teaching in Romans 8:28, Paul assures them that God is working in all the tribulations that they face (and every other part of their life) for their good. He is working His purpose out in their lives.

But how can the Roman Christians know that God is working things out for their good? To assure them, Paul gives a list of five verbs showing the certainty of their salvation in Romans 8:29–30. (Note: It is important to keep in mind that Paul is not providing a full teaching of soteriology here but is offering teaching to support his argument that God is working out His purpose in the lives of believers.)

The first verb in the chain is “foreknow.” This is probably the most controversial verb in the passage. The basic and most common meaning deals with prescience—knowledge of the future. If that is the meaning here, Paul would simply be stating that God knows people beforehand. Since it is obvious that God knows people beforehand (every person ever born), those who argue that the word only means prescience typically state that there is something specific about the believer that God knows. Often they supply an object such as “God knew who would repent” or “God knew who would believe.” God’s election then is based on His previous knowledge of who would choose Him. This understanding has some difficulties. The objects of God’s knowledge are the persons themselves, not something about them (i.e., not “what He did foreknow about the person” but “whom He did foreknow.”) This view also contradicts Pauline thinking. God’s choosing of believers is not based on their actions (their decision to repent and believe), but on God’s mercy and grace (e.g.,Rom 9:11–16.)

Although the most common meaning of “foreknow” in Greek literature speaks of prescience, it is more often used in the New Testament to indicate a previous relationship or choice (Rom 11:2; 1 Pet 1:20; Acts 2:23; 1 Pet 1:2). This follows the Old Testament usage of “know,” which was more influential in Paul’s thinking than Greek usage. The term speaks of a special affection or selection (Ps 1:6, 144:3; Hos 13:5; Amos 3:2). Paul does not say that God foreknows everyone in this passage, but only believers. He obviously does know every person beforehand, but He only enters into a relationship and sets His love upon believers (cf. Matt 7:23).

The second verb of the chain is “predestined.” Paul places more emphasis on this verb than any of the others. He temporarily leaves the list of verbs to discuss predestination at more length. After God has set his affection on His people, He then determines their end. The end of believers is conformity to Christ’s image. Ultimately this is speaking of the final redemption, when the believer is given a new body like Christ’s. However, that does not preclude a reference to the present life. God is even now working in believers to make them more like His Son. He uses the trials that they face to help them grow in conformity to Christ.

Paul resumes his chain of verbs with “called” in verse 30. This is the point when God’s eternal choice becomes a historical reality. This call is not the universal call of the gospel offered to all men—the only kind of call I used to consider. Rather, it is an effectual call that guarantees salvation. Why? Because all of those called are also justified. Paul’s point in providing these verbs is to show that every individual believer goes all the way to glorification. If someone can be called but reject that call (and thus not be justified), Paul’s argument falls flat. Thus, there is a call from God that will certainly issue in justification. In other words, there is a call that is effective in bringing people to salvation. (That does not mean that man has no responsibility. Again, Paul is not giving a complete teaching on salvation. Rather he is showing the surety of God’s accomplishing His purpose.)

As was already mentioned, the ones “called” are next “justified.” Paul dealt with this topic at length earlier in the epistle. In salvation God declares the sinner to be just because of the righteousness of Christ. He now regards the believer as righteous.

In the final link of the chain, the believer is “glorified.” It is intriguing that Paul views this as already complete, although elsewhere it is clear that glorification is a future act. The certainty of this glorification is so great that Paul can state it as if it were already done. This fits well in his argument: if God’s purpose will surely be accomplished—including his purpose in calling—glorification is as good as done.

Ben Edwards 2017


Ben Edwards is associate pastor of discipleship at Inter City Baptist Church in Detroit Michigan. He oversees the instructional ministry of the church, seminary, and Bible Institute, as well as teaching the Crossroads Adult Bible Fellowship (College and Career). He has been on staff since 2008.

389 reads
1956 reads

There are 2 Comments

JNoël's picture

"That does not mean that man has no responsibility."

And that is the ultimate quandary that we, in our humanity, will never resolve. If God's call is 100% effectual, then what is man's responsibility? If man does have a responsibility, then God's call cannot be 100% effectual. The two are at odds with each other, and there is no answer our minds can comprehend.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

ScottS's picture

I appreciate the discussion Ben brings. I've heard this line of reasoning before. But for me, I see the fault in the logic even as Ben explains it, but also within the passage itself. Note Ben's statements (bolding added):

He assures the believers in Rome that they no longer have to face God’s wrath. However, they will still face difficulty in this life. In the familiar teaching in Romans 8:28, Paul assures them that God is working in all the tribulations that they face (and every other part of their life) for their good.

Ben is already classifying (correctly) the group being discussed are believers. That is, the statements made in Romans 8:28-30 relate only to those who come to faith, which is those who do heed the call and end up loving God. Their belief is already in the background context of the passage.

God’s choosing of believers is not based on their actions (their decision to repent and believe), but on God’s mercy and grace (e.g.,Rom 9:11–16.)

I believe the first part of the statement is correct, since the whole passage is in reference to those that love God (per Romans 8:28, which is again believers), but the second part of the statement contradicts the first part. "God's choosing of believers" is by definition a choice based on those who believed or not. That faith is the divider does not contradict that it is by "God's mercy and grace" that God has chosen anyone. God chose to choose believers in Him; He did not have to make that choice.

Paul does not say that God foreknows everyone in this passage, but only believers. He obviously does know every person beforehand, but He only enters into a relationship and sets His love upon believers (cf. Matt 7:23).

Again, based on the way it is stated, the foreknowledge and the relationship are both based on the contingency of whether one is beleiving or not. Belief is already in the background of the foreknowing and of the ultimate relationship.

The end of believers is conformity to Christ’s image.

Again, conformity is being stated as whether one has come to belief or not.

Paul resumes his chain of verbs with “called” in verse 30. This is the point when God’s eternal choice becomes a historical reality. This call is not the universal call of the gospel offered to all men—the only kind of call I used to consider. Rather, it is an effectual call that guarantees salvation. Why? Because all of those called are also justified. 

Here is where the logic breaks with respect to the nature of the call being effectual or not. I agree with Ben that the passage has been speaking the whole time about believers. That does not change here in v.30. That is, "all of those called" is still a reference to believers. All the passage is saying is that of the general calling that goes out to mankind, which general calling is needed for anyone to believe, those who have been called that come to faith (i.e., the believers that are the topic of the passage) will be justified. It is a passage of assurance for believers that they will be justified and glorified. It speaks nothing to the nature of the call itself, only that the call will come to all those who do ultimately believe and come to love God.

Romans 8:28 clearly establishes that the target group under discussion are those that love God, which are only believers. This group is foreknown, is predestined, is called, is justified, and is glorified; but all the things working together for that end goal of good are still based on whether they do or do not come to faith to begin with. The calling is necessary to every person who comes to faith, but that does not necessarily imply that the calling is effectual to every person it comes to. This passage does not teach that.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.