God’s Calling to Himself

When you read something in the Bible, perhaps for the umpteenth time, but suddenly it communicates something new to you, you pay attention.

Such was the case when I ran across (on my way to researching a completely different topic) these verses in Hebrews 3:7-8:

Inspiration

[7] Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,

[8] do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,

on the day of testing in the wilderness,

This was to me significant because here was the Holy Spirit, assumed by evangelicals to be hosted only within believers in Jesus following His death, resurrection and outpouring of His Spirit, who the writer of Hebrews is addressing.  But it was originally warning the Israelites to not resist Him, 1200 years before Christ (Psalm 95). So, apparently, the Spirit has more missions than exclusively convicting post-Christ sinners and extending God’s grace to them. Maybe I had been misunderstanding the role of the Spirit of God completely all along.

What If?

It seems in both instances of heart-hardening, the caution is about not resisting God’s will in/for your life. For the Israelite exiles, God’s presence lived with them – literally in their camp. For Christians, we commonly understand that God’s presence lives within them in the form of the Holy Spirit following their conversion to belief in God.

So this all got me thinking: “What if, on the day of Pentecost, and following, God’s Spirit wasn’t just poured out on those people in Jerusalem, but over the whole world?” If everyone was subject to the Spirit of God, but could resist it (“harden your hearts”) through their own wills, how would this affect the interpretation of what the Bible says, and some interpret it to say, about knowing Him, loving Him and some of the difficult verses ostensibly concerning salvation? This is the question we will examine.

Working Assumption

I make the assumption that on the day of Pentecost, and every day thereafter, the Holy Spirit of God was implanted in each and every human being. Why, you might ask, would I assume such a heretical thing?

The answer is found in God’s announcement of His New Covenant. In Jerimiah 31:33-34 we read:

[33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall ALL know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Let’s examine this in more detail;

  • I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” How would this be accomplished if not by the Holy Spirit being poured out on all humanity – not just locally and sporadically as we read of in the Old Testament. (See Joel 2:28-29, below). If you don’t believe this is the announcement of God’s New Covenant, heralding the advent of Christ, and that it is literally only for the nation of Israel, please review the Apostle Paul’s description of “Israel” in Romans 9:6.
  • for they shall all know me”. This is accomplished by the same mechanism that makes #1 true. If the Spirit of God has any place in your being, whether you are consciously aware of Him or not, He has the ability to make Himself known to you in a variety of ways. He is God, after all.
  • and I will remember their sin no more.” This is clearly through the atonement of Christ’s sacrifice.

The prophet Joel (2:28-29) tells us that, indeed, God will pour out His Spirit on all of us:

“And it shall come to pass afterward,

that * I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your old men shall dream dreams,

and your young men shall see visions.

29 Even on the male and female servants

in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

The context of Joel’s prophecy is essentially unknown. However he prophecies that God will initially bless Israel (perhaps in their restoration from Babylon), but then the judgment (the Day of the Lord) will come in which both the nations and Israel will be judged. This judgment is commonly understood to be the 70AD destruction. In between these two events is God’s pouring out of His Spirit. (Pentecost happened in 28 or 29 AD.) If you don’t think these passages say that all people have received the Spirit of God within His New Covenant, what do think they say, and why?

But, if you agree that this is God’s announcement of His New Covenant made with His Creation, and that the central figure of this covenant is His Christ, who will atone for humanity’s sin, and perhaps more significantly, will pour His Spirit into those for whom He has sacrificed, resulting in “all shall know me”, then you and I are in sync. Of course, my premise is that the “all” mentioned that shall “know me” is really ALL – everyone, as the word’s definition makes clear:

3605 כּׂל; כּוׄל kōl kôl, kole, kole;

From 3634; properly the whole; hence all, any or every (in the singular only, but often in a plural sense).

So, just to put a fine point on it, here is my hypothesis:

  • God’s Spirit is in some way present/operative in every human being following Pentecost. (There may be no abiding relationship with His Spirit, but He is there, nevertheless, to call us to Himself, and make Himself known), and
  • For this to be possible (for even the most sinful of men), Christ’s atonement was necessary. This means that Christ’s sacrifice was on behalf of all men (2 Corinthians 5:15), so that His Spirit could inhabit those who, before His atonement, would have been a defiled and therefore an unsuitable habitation for Him.
  • This impartation of the Spirit says nothing whatsoever about the salvation/justification of its recipient. (We’re not claiming Universalism here.)

These first two are the statements implied by Jeremiah 31:31-34. Yes, this is a very unorthodox position. But let’s test it (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and see where it leads.

Key Ideas

What about God’s “Call”

The Bible speaks of at least two distinct types of call by God – the call to life in Him, and the call to serve Him in some instance/capacity.

In the verses we’ll look at below, the word in use is kaleo – “to call”. Notice its usages can range from “summon” (which if you’ve ever been served the legal object of the same name, you understand that you must obey and appear) to “invite”, which is how it is used in the parable in Matthew 22 of the King’s wedding feast for his son.

Speaking specifically to His disciples in John 15:16, Jesus says: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you”. Quite so. In Matthew 9:9 we see Jesus choosing or calling Matthew, as He did the others. (But what we also see is Matthew choosing to respond to this call. He stands up and follows Jesus.) This type of call is primarily a call to service of God. (It’s worth noting, as in the case of Matthew, Peter, and the others that their belief and trust only came later.)

Paul in Romans 1:1 introduces this concept of a “call” to service of a sinful man– himself — by God. He says he was “called” to be an apostle. Paul isn’t a good example of the “calling” of the Church since he was uniquely and forcibly conscripted by God into His service (Acts 9:1-9)[i]. (In 2 Timothy 1:11 he calls it “appointed”). This is not the experience of people in general today, or since. However, since Paul received an intense revelation of God, we should obviously explore his insights about God’s act of calling men to Himself, so as to learn from him.

In verse 1:6 he says you – the church in Rome – are among those “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 1:9 he says “God is faithful, by whom you” (those in the Church at Corinth) “were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (See also 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Galatians 1:6, 5:13, Ephesians 1:18, 4:1-4, Colossians 3:15, 2 Thessalonians 2:14, 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 1:9, Hebrews 9:15, 1 Peter 1:15, 2:9, 2:21, Jude 1:1.)

This is the wider call we’re interested in. It seems to be, unlike Paul’s, a general call by God to come to faith and life in Him/His Son. This, after all, is God’s will according to Paul here: 1 Timothy 2:3-4 “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (See also 2 Peter 3:9, Titus 2:11-12)

The Reformed or Orthodox position is that only those who God has chosen/elected before the foundation of the world get a call that is “effective” to demand an answer of “Yes, Lord”. They think this because a) they think that, due to our “depravity”, it is impossible for man to seek God (total depravity), and b) they don’t and can’t accept that anyone has the ability to say no to God’s will (irresistible grace).

However, it isn’t necessary for either of these interpretations to be true in order for these verses to accurately express the reality of God’s calling of His created people to Himself. If God’s call to him is resistible, all of the above verses are nevertheless valid and make sense. These verses are all addressed to believers, those who have responded “Yes”, in the past.

So how does God “call” us? Our working assumption is that each person has God’s Spirit within Him that calls him to faith. These calls of God fit with our hypothesis that their agent – their source – is the Spirit of God in us. Our calls back, when and if they actually occur, would simply be our responses to this call, not God forcing a “Yes, Lord” answer. And, because of Christ, we can be sure they are heard. (1 John 5:14-15)

But Who’s Calling Who?

At the same time, many verses say we are to call on God. For example, Romans 10:13 (quoting Joel) says: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 2 Timothy 2:22 says “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” See also Joel 2:32, 1 Peter 1:17.

What does it mean to “call on the Lord”? Our intuition may be that it is prayer; a spiritual calling out to God. But the more informed understanding among students of these scriptures is that it simply means obeying the Gospel – “Believe, repent, be baptized and follow me.” The idea is that one “calls” to/for God by believing Him, turning from (repenting of) his previous life, and trusting Christ for his life. It may help to see this idea if we look at the parallels between two seemingly unrelated verses in Acts.

Acts 2:38

(Peter)

Every one of you Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,
Acts 2:21

(Paul)

everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Here the parallel verb phrases seem to point us to the equivalency of calling to God and belief, repentance and baptizing in Jesus. So we may conclude that biblically, responding to God’s call with belief, repentance and baptism seems to be the essential and complementing symmetry to the call of God as our “call” back to Him.

Romans 8

Romans 8 deserves special attention since it is the sine qua non of the Reformed election doctrine. Here’s what he says:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

If we’re going to test our hypothesis with this passage, the first thing we’re going to have to do is forget all of our learned biases about what it’s saying, and look at it anew with unclouded eyes. It’s simply impossible to see anything new if you persist in seeing it as old, but it is extremely difficult to do.

First, let’s review how it looks through “old” (i.e. Augustine’s[ii]) eyes. In a nutshell, Augustine taught (near the end of his life) that God chose/specified His elect before the foundation of the world to eternal life in Him. To him, God was the author not only of the call to only His elect, but of their ultimate regeneration and faith (notice the order 😉 ). To him, the doctrine of God’s Sovereignty demanded that He was responsible for each step in the transition of a sinful, hopelessly depraved person, to the state of salvation to life in Christ.

But here Paul isn’t even talking about the process of salvation; he is talking about those who love God. God has called them (by His Spirit) and they have already called back to Him in faith, since they have developed a love for Him. (It should go without saying that only those with faith in God can “agape” Him.) So this is a completely different situation than we have been looking at so far. We’re not talking here about a general call to a population to which some of that population responds “Yes, Lord.” We’re talking only about those who have already answered in faith.

But what does our hypothesis have to say, if anything, about Paul’s doctrine of predestined election, so beloved by our Reformed brothers?

These people that love God He foreknew. Loving Him, He predestines them. To what? To be conformed to the image of His Son, so that they would be brothers of Christ. Then, having planned and acted so that these people looked like Christ to Him, He “called” them. This calling occurs after they have believed. So this calling is, like Paul’s, to service. (See also Acts 13:2 and 16:10). Having called them to His service, He justifies them – meaning deems them righteous, as He did Abraham because of his faith, and ultimately glorifies them.

To me the profound takeaway from this view of Romans 8:29 is that we’re not talking about the process typically called “election” here. We’re talking about how God treats those who love Him – who already are elect if you will. The predicate or first cause in Paul’s chain of events is love for God. And this love is only found in those who have trusted him for their lives.

This is exactly the line of thinking, re: predestination, Paul is following in Ephesians 1:4-5. Once again he’s talking about those who love God. If we now love God He “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love he predestined us …”

These verses describe something fundamentally different than the call-to-salvation verses, above. There, God issues a call to people to turn to Him and away from the world. Then, in faith, some answer “Yes, Lord” and begin the transformation Paul describes, leading ultimately to glory. For these (all those who would trust God), God predestined how He would transform them into the image of His Son. Others either don’t answer or shake their fists with a vehement “No!” These have chosen to ignore the appeal in Hebrews 3:7-8.

What of Gods’ Grace?

We find the doctrine of God’s saving (as opposed to sanctifying) grace throughout the New Testament. It is a foundation stone of traditional Christian salvation doctrine. But interestingly, we’re never told exactly what it is. We’re told it is a gift of God; that we have no merit to deserve it. But what it is and how it works is not explained.

Well, how might it work? How does God communicate with us today? Does He communicate through prophets? Does He appear (theophany) to people to give them verbal instruction? Or does he communicate to us through His Spirit? Jesus, in John 16:8-11 says this speaking of the Spirit:

“And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: [9] concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; [10] concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; [11] concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. ”

Jesus says one of the Spirit’s jobs is to convict those who don’t believe Him of their sin. That sounds suspiciously like a call of salvation to me. God’s gracious gift to us is His call.

Paul famously says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that it is “by grace” we have been saved, through faith. So is grace an actor in the process of salvation? Or is grace simply that character of God which animates Him to act – to call? Textually, it seems likely it is the later, so that the verse could have been written: “For it is by grace that you have been called to salvation, through faith…” God’s grace animates Him to call us.

But that brings us back again to the question: “Who does He call?” As we’ve seen, God’s desire (1 Timothy 2:3-4, and also Jesus in Matthew 11:28) is that everyone should, in response, come to Him with “Yes, Lord”, implying that He calls everyone.

We’re all familiar with Matthew 22:14: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Is many “all”? Well, not literally. But Jesus rarely spoke in literal terms. He’s making this statement to explain the wedding feast parable’s outcome that many (both good and bad) came into the feast, but one guest was rejected for his inappropriate clothing. He had answered the call, but insincerely, in that his attire reflected that he really didn’t have consideration for the King or his son, yet he obviously wanted their food. Jesus, in this response, isn’t focused on those who sincerely answered the call, or their number, only on the insincere guest. So it’s quite understandable that we don’t get new or clarifying information in his statement as to all those who were called. The parable itself, however, implies that it was made to everyone available.

That some don’t answer the call at all challenges traditional thinking, not on the nature of this grace, but on the nature of the call. The traditional view says God doesn’t ask anyone who could say no. It says that we don’t have the ability to say no. And so, to explain verses like those we just looked at, the traditional view has had to invent multiple types of the “desire”, or will, of God – one that He actually means (Sovereign will), for those who will believe, and one that is just an expression of His character, for everybody else (Moral will).

A condition for this hypothesis to be correct is that few answer “Yes, Lord” completely or at all. Empirically, that’s what we see from people. But is that because most answer “No!” or a non-total “Yes”? Or is it because they were never asked in the first place? This is the issue on which you have to apply the scripture and inspiration of the Spirit to arrive at an answer that you trust to be the truth.

Conclusions

Of course, this hypothesis on the nature of God “calling” in the situations we examined is very controversial if not heretical. But what we’re trying to do here is be Bereans – to test these things with the scripture to see if they are, if not provably true, at least plausible and consistent with the texts. And I think we’ve shown that there are simple interpretations of their meaning that, while not traditional, are consistent with the texts.

However, it is one thing to claim plausibility, but quite another to assert that this is what the Bible is actually describing. So are there other scriptures that support this view of God’s implementation of His Holy Spirit and call, and man’s possible response to His call to Him through His Spirit?

The passage I think that comes closest we mentioned in passing, above – the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22). In this parable, Jesus says that a King wanted to host a wedding feast for his son. So when the feast was ready he “called” “those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” The King sent his servants to call (kaleo) those who had been invited (a representation of the Israelites) to attend the feast. But “they would not come”. He tries again, and they still refuse, but not only that, they attack and kill the servants sent to summon them. In response, the King effectively says to his servants, “OK, fine. Go out and invite as many as you find” on the street, referring, apparently, to Gentiles. And they invited “both good and bad”, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

This does not describe “irresistible grace”. This is an invitation by the King to come to Him, for good. And it is rejected by many. Others (both good and bad) accept the invitation. Did the King “choose” those who ultimately attended the feast? Well, yes, He did. He specified to whom His invitation was extended.

This seems to be exactly the behavior we observe in reality with Spirit-imbued humans reacting to God for which, as Paul reminds us, we have no excuse.

If this is correct theology, lots of doctrine has to be re-thought. But that’s not the purpose of this note. It is simply to introduce a plausible theory of the operation of the Holy Spirit and grace and calling in salvation that is conformant with scripture. And I believe that’s what we have done.

 

[i] This, unfortunately, doesn’t prevent our Reformed brothers and sisters from claiming Paul’s conversion as the prototype for all salvation experiences.

[ii] This interpretation started with Augustine, in the 4th and early 5th centuries, who himself, in struggling to understand the concept and functionality of God’s grace in the process of man’s salvation, changed his position on the precise mechanism over several years (e.g. see “Augustine on Initium Fidei: A Case Study of the Coexistence of Operative Grace and Free Decision of the Will”, academia.edu – you’ll need an academia.edu free account) in response to various challenges, before landing on this final interpretation. This interpretation was otherwise not found among the early Church Fathers; it was unique to Augustine. And it’s crucial to keep in mind that the Reformed interpretation we all know and love is what Augustine said Paul said, and not necessarily what Paul was actually saying.