The Doctrine of Salvation (part 2)

May 24, 2009     Time: 00:37:41

[Opening prayer]

We are coming to the doctrine of effectual calling on the part of the Calvinist. We looked at how the Calvinist interprets Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 in terms of God’s unconditional electing and then predestining certain persons to salvation and glorification, and we talked about how that plan is actualized in human history. One of the ways in which it is actualized is through God's effectual calling people to faith in Christ.

Here the Calvinist wants to distinguish between two types of calling. First there is the general call of God which goes out to all of humanity. Then there is the special call which goes out just to the elect. The general call will be God's summons to humanity to repent and believe in the Gospel. This goes out to the whole world. Let’s look at a couple of passages that the Calvinist interprets in terms of God’s general call.

John 7:37. “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.’” There is the general call. If any man thirsts, come to me and drink from the waters of salvation. This is a general invitation that goes out to everyone.

Look at Matthew 11:28. Again Jesus is speaking and he says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He invites everyone who is beleaguered with sin and burdened down to come to him and Christ will relieve his burden and give him rest. It is a general call.

Finally, over in Matthew 28:18-19 – this is the Great Commission that Jesus gives to his disciples:

Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Here is the command to go out and preach the Gospel to the whole world. This will be the general call of the Gospel going out to all of humanity, commanding them to repent and inviting them to come to Christ.

So the Calvinist agrees that there is a kind of general call to salvation that God issues. But this call is not what the Calvinist would call the effectual call of God. The effectual call is the special call which goes out to the elect. When we say it is effectual, what the Calvinist means is that it infallibly produces the effect of bringing people to Christ.[1] It isn’t just a sort of invitation. Rather, it goes out and grabs that person and brings him in. So the person who receives the special call of God on his life cannot refuse. He cannot say no. This is an effectual call that is different from the general call. Let’s look at some passages that the Calvinist interprets in terms of God’s special call.

Romans 8:30: “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” There it refers specifically to the elect – those who have been predestined by God to salvation. These he called and then he justified them and glorify them. This contemplates a more restricted call that isn't issued to humanity in general but is issued to the predestined.

Another example would be Romans 1:6-7. This is part of Paul’s greeting to the church in Rome. He refers to them in verse 6: “among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints.” Here he is referring specifically to the Christians who have believed in Rome as being those who are the called of Jesus Christ – called to be saints.

Finally, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 26-27.

God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. . . . For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,

These would be verses that the Calvinist would say refer to this special call that goes out to the elect and infallibly produces its effect of bringing them to Christ.

If we analyze this special call more closely, the Calvinist would say that in the case of the special call the efficient cause of the call is God. An efficient cause is a cause which produces its effect. For example, if I make a statue I am the efficient cause of the statue. The clay or the marble would be the material cause out of which the statue is made. But the efficient cause is the productive cause. It is the cause that produces the effect. The efficient cause in the case of this special call is God himself. 1 Corinthians 1:9 says, “God is faithful through whom you were called into fellowship with his Son.” It is God who calls you into this relationship.


Also, Galatians 1:15. “But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me.” Paul is describing his conversion. We want to notice that it was God who had set Paul apart even before he was born. God is the one who then called him through his grace. So God is the efficient cause of this.[2]

Finally, 2 Timothy 1:9, referring to God, says, “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” So there God is the one who has called us according to his own purposes. So God is the efficient cause of this special call.

Secondly, what is the moving cause? The moving cause would refer to God’s motivation – what is it that moves God to call certain people to himself? The Calvinist will say the answer to that is God’s will. It is simply God’s unconditioned will. 2 Timothy 1:9 says, “He saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was graced us in Christ Jesus.” There isn't anything higher than God's will to move him to call certain persons and to overlook others and not call them. It is just God’s inscrutable will.

Thirdly, what is the instrumental cause of this effectual call? That is to say how (or by what means) does God call people? What is the instrument that he uses? The answer, the Calvinist would say, is the Word of God. It is through his Word that he calls people to himself.

2 Thessalonians 2:14, “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There Paul says that the Thessalonians were called through the instrumentality of the preaching of the Gospel. It is God’s Word, whether in written form or whether it’s the proclamation of his Word in the form of the Gospel, it is through the Gospel – through the Word of God – that God calls people into salvation and relationship with himself.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: What part does the Holy Spirit play? The Holy Spirit will be responsible for regeneration. When a person receives the call, as we’ll see in a moment, the Holy Spirit will work through the proclamation of the Word to regenerate that person’s heart so that that person is born again. The Spirit is very much involved in this, especially though in terms of regenerating people so that they can respond to the call of God. I’ll say something more about that in a second.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: What is the purpose of the general call then, given that people can't respond to it apart from the special call? Well, I don’t know how to answer that question. To me it does seem sort of pointless. One might say this is a demonstration of God’s mercy and goodwill toward all men that he extends this general call. But it is not really that because unless God gives them the grace to respond it isn’t merciful! It does nothing. The general call has really no affect in terms of people’s ability to respond to it. I think the Calvinist would agree with this – this isn’t pejorative – it is like calling to the dead corpse in the coffin to get up and take the life-giving potion that will bring it back to life. It is just pointless to do that. You have to administer the life-giving potion to the corpse.[3]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think that one could imagine sociological benefits to the general call, as you said. Maybe in some countries that are so depraved – think of voodoo for example in Haiti. To speak into that culture, the revelation of Christ in God’s general call could have a kind of leavening affect upon society as a whole and make it a more humane and better place. But it wouldn’t bring about salvation of folks, though I suppose it could provide, as you say, some sort of sociological benefit.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think that you are right that the Calvinist would say in virtue of the general call it does increase people’s culpability. People who have never heard the Gospel will be culpable for not responding to God’s general revelation in nature and in conscience. In Romans 1 Paul says that all persons everywhere are at least responsible for knowing that there is an eternal Creator of the universe and they sense his moral law written on their hearts, he says in chapter 2. But if they hear the Gospel through the general call, that will increase their culpability, the Calvinist would say, because now they’ve been given even more revelation and yet they don’t respond. Of course it’s also part of the Calvinist theology that they can’t respond. So one wonders how can you be more culpable given that you don’t have any ability to respond. That’s a problem.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The question is: in the Calvinist view does free will play a part in the general call but not the special call? I think probably Calvinists would disagree among themselves about this, but I think that a consistent Calvinist will say that there just is no free will and therefore it doesn’t play a role even in the general call. Since everything is under the providence of God and is ultimately a result of his decree, even the unbelief of the persons who received the general call is not something that is independent of God’s decree. It is not as though they have free will. As I understand Calvinism, there just is no freedom of the will accept in the sense that people do voluntarily what they do. It is not as though they are coerced to do what they do. They do it voluntarily. But they don’t really have the ability to do anything different than what they do, even unbelievers.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: It certainly is true that we don’t know who the elect are. There’s nothing that marks them out so that we could say, “Ah, my neighbor is elect. I should go share the Gospel with him.” There is no way to know that. Certainly in one sense, I think, you are right in saying given our ignorance we have to just go out and generally preach the Gospel. But that would be a distinction from the human side only. I take it that the Calvinist is making a distinction that is even from God’s own point of view. From God’s point of view he calls all humanity to repent and believe, but he will only call certain ones in an effectual way to call and believe. It is as though the special call doesn’t really have any more content to it than the general call. They are both the preaching of the Gospel. But it is that the special call is accompanied with this special working of the Holy Spirit that we talked about briefly to regenerate the unbelieving heart so that that person can respond. It is kind of like an epoxy glue that requires two parts to it. In both cases the preaching of the Gospel is the same. That is the one part. But if you don’t have the other part – the part that sets the epoxy – then it won’t do any good. So I think that the general call and the special call are the same in terms of their proclaimed content, but what makes the special call effectual is that it is accompanied by this other additional element of the working of the Holy Spirit. It is not as though it has more information or more content to it. Even from God’s point of view, there is a difference here. It is not just a matter of our ignorance that we don’t know who the elect are, as I understand it.[4]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: If I understand the question it is what is the ultimate difference between a person receiving the special call or merely the general call? The ultimate difference is that the person – and only the person – who receives the special call will believe in Christ. The person who gets only the general call will not respond. He will be damned. The special call only goes out to the elect – those whom God has chosen before the foundations of the world to be his and whom he has predestined to be his. In their case, they will with infallible certainty respond to the call and believe – and only they will respond to the call and believe.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Good question. Does the Calvinist think you have to be in the Calvinist church in order to receive the special call? Certainly not. Calvinists would not say you have to be a Calvinist in order to be a Christian, in order to be predestined or elect. Certainly they believe that there are plenty of elect people who have bad theology, and they are saved despite their bad theology. I think that my Calvinistic friends would look at me and they would not say Bill Craig is reprobate or he is not one of the elect. I think they would say he is one of the elect that God has regenerated, but sadly his theology is just all messed up, and if he were more consistent as a Christian he would have a better handle on the truth. But they wouldn’t try to exclude others and say they are not genuinely elect, no.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: What do you mean when you say that the Calvinist thinks that some people are saved and don’t even know it?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Oh. Right. Even the Calvinist may have a lack of assurance and doubt that he is elect. He may really struggle with this. In fact, this leads into the whole question of assurance of salvation. Typically, Calvinists want to say that Calvinism has a strong doctrine of assurance of salvation because if you are elect you cannot lose your salvation. You are in for sure. But the difficulty is that Calvinism also has to say, therefore, that people who, to all appearances, were once Bible-believing born again Christians who have fallen away were in fact never Christians – they were never regenerate. That can occasion, I think, then deep doubts and lack of assurance because that would mean I could have all this great experience of Christ and all of the Christian experience that I do and it could all turn out to be illusory just as it was with this fellow that fell away. In a sense, it can actually really undermine your assurance of salvation if somebody could be non-elect and yet have all of the signs of being a regenerate born again Christian.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t know James Kennedy’s theology that well. He certainly comes out of the Reformed tradition and out of the Calvinistic tradition. But how much he tows the line I really don’t know.


Let me say something more about regeneration, and then we will continue our discussion, because I think this is also a very, very interesting difference between Calvinists and Arminians.

If a person receives the special call of God, the Calvinist would say that the unregenerate person (and by “unregenerate” we mean not born again). Regeneration is the fancy theological term for being born again. “Generation” has the notion of being born, and “re” means repeated or again. So “born again” would be “regeneration” - someone who is spiritually dead but then they experience regeneration and are born anew to eternal life.[5]

What the Calvinist says is that an unregenerate person cannot respond to the special call of God. He is spiritually dead. The Bible says he is dead in trespasses and sins. Therefore he cannot have faith. It is not as though the call of God to have faith in Christ can go to an unregenerate person and the unregenerate person who is dead spiritually can say, Ah! I believe! I have faith in Christ!, then as a result of his faith in Christ he is born again. That is an impossibility, the Calvinist would say.

Therefore regeneration actually logically precedes faith. Notice I say “logically” not “chronologically.” The Calvinist could well hold that these happen simultaneously. In the very moment of being regenerated by the Holy Spirit the person places his faith in Christ. But in terms of explanatory priority it is the regeneration that makes the faith possible. It is not that the regeneration is a response to the faith. It is not that the person has faith and therefore God regenerates him in that moment. Rather, it is because he is regenerate he can have faith in Christ. If you ask about the relationship of explanatory priority or logical priority, regeneration logically precedes faith.

What happens is that the special call of God goes out to someone that is elect (that God has predestined to believe in Christ), then the Holy Spirit goes and regenerates that person and then enables that person to have faith in Christ. This is really very different. You can see why Calvinists would feel very uncomfortable with evangelistic tracts like the Four Spiritual Laws which say, Invite Christ into your life, Pray this prayer and Christ will come into your life. They don’t think it works like that. Rather, Christ comes into your life and then you have faith in him. The work of regeneration is not something that is done in response to something that the sinful dead unregenerate person does. It is God who has the priority here. God is the one who acts unilaterally to regenerate a person so that they can then have faith in Christ.

Regeneration and conversion are really two distinct things. Conversion may well come later than regeneration. As I say, they can occur simultaneously, but regeneration will be logically prior to conversion. Conversion involves elements like knowledge (knowing the truths of the Gospel; you hear them and understand them), assent to them (I agree with these truths; I agree I am a sinner; I agree Christ died for my sins; I agree God raised him from the dead), and then trust or faith (I have faith in God; I have faith in Christ; I trust in him as my Savior). These are all elements of conversion. These are actually the fruit of regeneration rather than the preconditions of regeneration.

That is why the special call is different than the general call. The special call is accompanied by this secret work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating a person’s heart and making them become a Christian so that they can then have faith in Christ.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Boy, that is true. Yup.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think you are absolutely right in saying that this whole debate hinges upon what it means to be dead in your trespasses and sins. The Bible clearly affirms that the unregenerate person is dead in trespasses and sins.[6] But it doesn’t say that a spiritually dead person cannot respond to the preaching of the Gospel with faith. That is an inference that the Calvinist makes, probably because the Calvinist thinks in a sense of faith as a work that a person performs. The Arminian will see this very differently as we’ll see. The Arminian doesn’t think of faith as a work that the non-believer performs, but rather simply as the reception of the Gospel, as the reception of this message that he has heard and believes. Clearly, to be spiritually dead, I think, doesn’t mean you can’t have knowledge of the Gospel. You can understand the Gospel. It doesn’t even mean you can’t assent to it. The Bible says even the demons believe and tremble in that sense. They assent to the truths of the Gospel.

The key factor would be trust. Can you have faith in the truths of the Gospel that you understand and assent to? There I don’t see, myself, that the Scripture clearly teaches that only a regenerate person can have faith. Certainly Ephesians 2:8-9 says, By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is the gift of God not the result of works. But remember we pointed out when we discussed that passage that the word “this” there is in a different gender than the word “faith” so the “this” doesn’t refer to the “faith.” When he says, “This is the gift of God” it doesn’t refer to the word “faith.” Rather “this” refers to the whole process of salvation by grace through faith. That is the gift of God, not the result of works lest anyone should boast.

I think you are right in saying that how you interpret the expression “dead in trespasses and sins” will be absolutely a watershed. The Calvinist takes “dead in trespasses and sins” to mean that the unregenerate person is utterly incapable of doing anything in response to the Gospel or even the non-regenerating work of the Holy Spirit – if the Holy Spirit is convicting him of sin, he can’t even do anything on that basis. While I think that is certainly one way to understand the notion of being dead in trespasses and sins, I don’t see that that is clearly the teaching of the New Testament myself. I am already kind of getting ahead of myself but at least I think you are correct in helping us to see that how we understand that notion of being spiritually dead is going to probably determine whether or not you go with the Calvinist theology or you go with a different theology. Because if you do go with the Calvinist understanding of spiritual death then it would seem everything has to be unilateral from God.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: This is a really good question and what I thought someone else was referring to when he said that some of the elect may not know that they are elect. Is it possible for, say, people who have never heard the Gospel to be elect and that God has chosen them to be part of his children, part of his Kingdom, even though they never get to hear the Gospel? So they could be chosen, elect, and regenerated apart from the Gospel. I think the Calvinist would be very, very reluctant to agree to that because remember we said that the instrumental cause of effectual calling is the proclamation of the Gospel. It is the Word of God. So the person who is living at a time and place in history where he never gets to hear the Gospel, I think the Calvinist will say he is not elect. God will ensure that all of the elect are born at times and places in history where they hear the Gospel. Or maybe another way of putting it: God will ensure that anyone who is elect will hear the Gospel, through a missionary, a short-wave radio broadcast, some way or another God will get the Gospel to the elect. If they are elect, God will ensure that the special call goes to them in the form of the Gospel.[7]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: This will be our last question. I think it is really a good one. In 1 Timothy 2:4, “God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” What the Calvinist has to say is that that is not true in a universal sense. What that means is that God wants all kinds of people to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. Notice he says in verse 1 and verse 2, I want prayers to be made on behalf of all men: kings, all who are in authority, all kinds of people in other words. Similarly in verse 4, God wants all kinds of people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but he doesn’t literally want all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. Otherwise he would call them specially and effectually which lies within his power. For the Calvinist, God wills the salvation of a select group of people and those he calls to himself but the rest he passes over, and they receive only the general call to which they cannot respond.


What we will do next time is look at a very different perspective on these same passages and on the notion of faith and calling. Next time we’ll look at Arminianism.[8]

[1] 5:00

[2] 9:53

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:13

[5] 25:10

[6] 30:02

[7] 35:09

[8] Total Running Time: 37:41 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)