Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
We are considering the biblical doctrine of the saving calling, that work of God in Christ by His Holy Spirit by which He gives us the conscious participation of the blessings of salvation as we lay hold of Christ and all His benefits. Through the Spirit of Christ the triune God addresses the elect, regenerated sinner by the Word of the gospel, enlightening the understanding and drawing him out of darkness into the light of life.
Having seen several beautiful characteristics of that saving calling, we must give attention to the means by which God works that wonder work in us.
We have seen that God draws us unto Himself by making us willing to come to Him. Christ calls His sheep irresistibly, so that they hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27). They hear Him by means of the preaching of the gospel. This also is the Spirit’s work.
So we are brought to the consideration of the external aspect of the calling.
How does God call His people?
He calls them externally through the preaching of the gospel and internally through the operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Those two aspects cannot be separated when we speak of the saving call.
God uses a means that men would call “foolishness.” That “foolishness” is preaching. God will have His Word preached by ministers whom He calls and sends. By that preaching, Christ speaks His Word to His people. He speaks not merely to our physical, but to our spiritual hearing. With His Holy Spirit working in our hearts and applying that Word to our spiritual consciousness, Christ speaks powerfully, efficaciously. He calls savingly. So He brings us to a consciousness of our blessed relationship with Him.
Even when we speak about the external aspect of the saving call, we must not overlook the fact that we are yet speaking about the saving call. We speak of God bringing His elect into the consciousness of their saving union with Christ. Though the preaching of the gospel goes forth promiscuously, i.e., without regard to the faces of men (let alone the hearts, as if we could read them), the saving call is directed to the elect alone.
The Scriptures clearly connect the saving call with election. Romans 8:30 teaches that those who are called are those whom God did predestinate unto glorification. II Thessalonians 2:13, 14confirms that those who are saved are those who are chosen by God, and that their election and salvation come to expression through God calling them by the gospel, “to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Those whom He has taken to Himself in eternity, He gathers to Himself in time by the preaching of the gospel.
The Call of the Gospel
With a view to the gathering of His elect people, God has the gospel preached indiscriminately and without distinction, to all men where He in His good pleasure sends that gospel preaching.
The gospel is preached, not as an offer of salvation which man can freely accept or reject, nor as an invitation, but as an authoritative command to repent and believe. It rests upon the inescapable demand of God to all men that they love Him. That is the calling with which man was created. It is the obligation which man failed to perform, transgressing God’s law and calling forth His judgment.
That preaching, expounding the Word of the Scriptures, sets forth the truth of our guilt and sin, the guilt and sin of all human beings, without exception. It presents the person and work of Jesus Christ as God’s provision for the salvation of guilty and depraved sinners, and points to faith in Christ as the only way to salvation. It proclaims the command to repent and believe, and promises forgiveness and salvation to all who believe. Furthermore, it sets forth the certain consequences of damnation on all who reject Christ and His Word.
So we confess concerning this call of the gospel (Canons of Dordt, I, 3), “And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom He will and at what time He pleaseth; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified.”
That call of the gospel, promiscuously proclaimed, is clearly seen in many examples of gospel preaching found in the Bible.
It is seen in the apostle Peter’s sermon immediately following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. His faithful exposition of the Scriptures came to culmination in Acts 2:38, 39, where we read, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
The apostle Paul followed the same pattern in his preaching, as we see in Acts 17:30, 31, where he addressed the Athenians, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” And as he explained his preaching to King Agrippa (Acts 26:19, 20), Paul said, “Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.”
It is this same preaching, this same call of the gospel, as to its contents, that is set forth in our Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 84, where the question is asked, “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?”
“Answer: Thus: when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel God will judge them both in this and in the life to come.”
Notice, the Catechism gives no place to a well-meant offer. Though the preaching is promiscuously proclaimed, the promise itself is particular. There is a command to all. The promise of salvation is only to those who repent and believe. Damnation is declared to all those who continue in impenitence and hardness of heart.
So the call of the gospel goes forth, the authoritative proclamation of the preaching of the gospel. It never leaves the outcome up to man. That preaching works. By the Spirit of Christ it works.
That gospel makes distinction. Not, the preacher makes distinction, as if he should determine the worthiness of the hearers. The preacher preaches to every person who will give ear. The church brings that gospel by her ministers and missionaries into all the world, wherever God in His good pleasure sends her. It isn’t the church or her preachers that makes distinction and separation. We are called to “set forth Christ” and Him crucified. The gospel itself makes distinction, or God makes distinction by that means, converting some and hardening others, and that according to His own eternal and sovereign decree.
This is also a confessional matter for us. The Canons of Dordt maintain the same in the First Head of Doctrine, Article 6. “That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, for ‘known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world’ (Acts 15:18).”
By that gospel God purposes to reveal the inexcusable rejection of Him by the reprobate who hear that preaching. So the righteous Lord will ultimately reveal His own justice in damning the unbeliever for that great wickedness of rejecting and despising that gospel.
But concerning His elect it is God’s purpose to gather them by that gospel, and by His own efficacious and irresistible call through that gospel.
God’s Intention to Save
Not all who come under the preaching of the gospel are saved! What, then, do we say about that means of the saving call when it comes to those who are not saved? Is the calling of God of none effect in them?!
Again, remember that the saving call applies only to the elect. But as far as the call of the gospel or gospel preaching is concerned, we have the promise of God that His Word never returns void (Is. 55:11). In fact, it not only accomplishes that which is pleasing unto God, but it prospers in that purpose for which God sends it. “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).
For those not chosen by God, the call of the gospel serves to reveal God’s perfect justice. That preaching comes to the reprobate, not to offer salvation, not to give them a chance, but to reveal fully their wicked hearts.
To sinners who do not repent, that Word comes as a work of God’s wrath, aggravating their judgment. That Word, holding forth the exalted Lord Christ, is a stone of stumbling and rock of offense to the reprobate. While it is the power of God unto salvation in all who believe, it is that which condemns and hardens those appointed unto death. That same Word works as a savor of life unto life in some, and of death unto death in others.
And so it is unto God a sweet savor of Christ (II Cor. 2:15).
Those who reject that call of the gospel are left without excuse. Their rejection of that call reveals their guilt of despising Christ and holding God’s goodness in contempt. To them awaits an evengreater punishment than that of the heathen who never heard the preaching, but held in unrigh—teousness the truth of God revealed in creation.
But this work of hardening, this work of blinding, is also God’s work by His Spirit. It is a matter of the preaching of the gospel serving His sovereign purpose. The Spirit who reveals to some, hides from others. That also is the Father’s good pleasure (Matt. 11:25, 26).
Even so, the primary purpose of the preaching of the gospel is to serve as God’s means to call His elect to the consciousness of their salvation in Christ. The call of the gospel proclaimed promiscuously is the means for the saving call.
Several years ago, while working in a lumber yard, we occasionally would gather the sawdust from around the table saws. That sawdust could be put to other uses. But because there would be nails and screws and other metal objects in the mill area, whenever the sawdust would be gathered, a careful check had to be made of the sawdust. The best way for that to be done was to take a large magnet and pass it over and through the pile. Any metal objects would be picked up.
The preaching of the gospel is not unlike passing that magnet through the sawdust pile. But the saving call attracts only those whom God has chosen unto salvation. And it effectually calls them out of darkness into the light of their life in Christ.
But that saving calling differs from a magnet in a very significant respect. For the wonder work of the Holy Spirit in the saving call is not a mechanical work. He works in us who are His, not only drawing us, but giving us ears to hear the voice of our Savior and a will to come to Him. So we lay hold of the riches of our salvation, and glorify our Redeemer.
Our salvation is the Lord’s work! It is marvelous in our eyes!