Effectual Calling and Regeneration

In the last chapter, we examined the nature of man’s sin and the consequent necessity of God being the divine initiator of our salvation. We are now going to consider the process by which God makes us alive in Christ. Ephesians 2:1-5 states:

1. And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2. in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desire of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5. even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved…

As we observed earlier, this passage proclaims that fallen man is dead in his sins and trespasses; he has no spiritual life or moral ability to respond to the gospel. His disposition and desires flow from a condition of spiritual death and, therefore, he does not desire God or have any inclination toward true faith and repentance. Ephesians  2:4-5 say that when we were in this condition God acted and made us alive in Christ Jesus: “But God. . . made us alive together with Christ.” There are two aspects to this work of God, calling and regeneration. Both are works of God that take place at the initial point of salvation in our lives and are closely linked together. The sovereign call of God is effective in that it produces the desired results. The term call implies that a person answers and responds to the call. This call of God is made effectual through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.1 The concept of regeneration addresses how the Holy Spirit changes the heart of fallen man so that he responds positively to the call of God. The person who is made alive in Christ, who is regenerated, acts according to a regenerate nature and responds positively to the gospel in faith and repentance. This chapter first examines effectual calling and then the concept of regeneration.

The term calling in the Bible has several applications. It is used to describe a vocation that we are called to fulfill or a call to a special office in the church (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1). In reference to the gospel, the appeal to sinners to believe in Christ and repent of their sins is described as a call from God. In this regard, there is an external or general call of the gospel and an internal, effectual call. Whoever hears the message of the gospel hears a general call to believe and be saved from the wrath of God against sin. That external or general call, coming from some form of evangelism or witnessing, is not always heeded. Many people hear that call and dismiss or ignore it. In fact, the universal response of fallen man is to reject that external call (Rom. 1:18; 3:9-12; 8:7; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:14). If a person is going to be saved, an internal call must be coupled with the external call. The internal call is the call of God that empowers and makes the external call effective. In the New Testament, the term “calling” or “called,” is almost exclusively used to describe a call from God that is internal and always effectual.

A crucial passage that demonstrates the efficacious nature of this call from God is Romans 8:29-30:

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

This passage has been called the golden chain of our salvation. Each item mentioned is inextricably linked to the item before and after it. Everyone foreknown in the sense of this passage is predestined; everyone predestined is called; everyone called is justified, and everyone justified is glorified. The object of the verb in this passage is “whom.” The passage is describing individuals, not things about them such as good works, faith, or repentance. Without delving into an exposition of the concept of predestination, I want to point out the link between the various aspects of our salvation and the fact that everyone who is called is justified. In other words, the calling that is perceived of in this context is a calling that always produces the result of a person being justified. It is an effectual call.

Jesus spoke of a people being given to him by the Father and the surety that those people would come to him. In John 6:37, Jesus said: “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Similarly, in John 6:44, 45 he states: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” In the last chapter, we examined John 6:44 in detail and observed that Jesus gave a universal negative that no one can come unless he is drawn by the Father. No one has the moral ability or desire to come to Christ apart from this action of God. The last phrase of verse 45 is important in regard to the idea of an effectual call: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” This echoes Jesus’ statement in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me…” The drawing of the Father and the person learning from the Father guarantees that the person will come to Christ. Everyone who is acted upon in this way by God will come to Christ. Everyone who is called is justified.

2 Timothy 1:9 also speaks of a call of God that is in accordance with his eternal purpose and produces salvation:

…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…”

First, the call is not according to our works; it is not according to anything in us or foreknown by God to be in us, but according to God’s eternal purpose and grace granted in Christ Jesus. This parallels the idea in Romans 8:29, 30 that those whom God foreknew, he predestined, and whom he predestined, he called, and whom he called, he justified. The call is according to an eternal purpose and plan of God. Second, this eternal purpose has the goal of the called being ushered into union with Christ. This again sets forth the effective nature of this call from God. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 1:9 states: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:18 begins a section that elaborates on the divine origin and effectiveness of this call: “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The external call or the proclamation of the gospel is foolishness to fallen man apart from the efficacious grace and call of God. 1 Cor. 2:14 says the same thing: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” 1 Cor. 1:21 continues this idea: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” Those who believe the proclamation of the gospel are saved, but it is not of themselves that they believe; it is because of the effective, internal call of God. 1 Cor. 1:22-24 states: “For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The message of the gospel is either a stumbling block or considered foolishness to fallen man, “but to those who are called” it is the power of God to salvation. Simon Kistemaker comments on verse 24:

Once again Paul uses the verb to call (see vv. 1, 2, 9). Only those people, including Jews and Greeks, who have been effectually called by God are able to believe the message of the cross and accept it without reservations. God calls to himself a people who are beloved, holy, and separated from the world. He calls them away from those Jews for whom Christ is an offense and from those Greeks for whom Christ is folly. 2

Verses 30 and 31 conclude this section: “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (emphasis mine). 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 emphatically states that the message of the gospel is foolishness to fallen man. However, when the external message is coupled with an internal, effectual call of God, the message is not foolishness, but rather it is eagerly embraced. This is the same teaching as Romans 8:30: “. . . whom he called, he justified. . . ;” and “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me. . .” (John 6:37). Therefore, it is by His doing that you are in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30) and God alone gets the glory for our salvation (1 Cor. 1:31). Consider also: Rom. 1:6-7; Gal. 1:15-16; 1 Peter 2:9-10; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:13-14. John Murray summarizes these points and defines calling:

Calling is the efficacious summons on the part of God the Father, in accordance with and in pursuance of his eternal purpose in Christ Jesus, addressed to sinners dead in trespasses and sins, a call that ushers them into fellowship with Christ and into the possession of the salvation of which he is the embodiment; a call immutable in its character by reason of the purpose from which it proceeds and the bond it effects. 3


Since Scripture describes fallen man as having no spiritual life and being spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13), as not having the moral ability to come to Christ apart from the Father drawing him (John 6:44, 63-65), as repressing the knowledge of God and creating idols, not seeking for God, and not doing any good according to the standard of God’s law (Rom. 1:18-25; 3:9-12), in order for anyone to be saved, God must be the divine initiator of his salvation. The question in regard to our response to the gospel is: how can a person who is dead in sin, who is at enmity with God, who does not have the moral ability to come to Christ apart from the work of God, respond to the call of the gospel? The answer is found in the doctrine of regeneration. The external call of the gospel is made effective through the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration. A person responds to the call to believe in Christ and repent because the Holy Spirit has opened his heart and made him willing to respond.


The first chapter of John’s gospel contains a profound statement concerning the primacy of God’s divine initiative in our salvation. John 1:12-13 states: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Verse 12 speaks of those who receive Christ and believe in his name. Verse 13 qualifies who those are who receive Him; they are those who have been born of God. Verse 13 emphasizes that being born of God is a divine action that is not tied to the will of man. The person who receives Christ is the person who has first been born of God.

John 3:1-10 records Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus concerning the necessity of being born again. In this passage, Jesus sets forth the idea that being born again is a sovereign action of God that precedes faith and repentance. John 3:3 states: “Jesus answered and said to him [Nicodemus], ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” In John 3:5, Jesus reiterates this point: “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’” Jesus said that unless one is born again, he cannot see or enter the kingdom of God. Semi-Pelagian and Arminian theology holds that a person exercises faith and repentance in order to be born again. In Arminian theology, an unregenerate person exercises faith through an act of his will and is then born again. Arminian theology reverses these statements of Jesus. It claims that people see and enter the kingdom and then they are born again. Jesus said that is impossible. John 3:6 destroys any claim that man has the moral ability to cause himself to be born again: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The flesh can only produce flesh. Jesus said in John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. . . .” The flesh or fallen human nature does not have the moral ability to respond to the gospel. The cross is foolishness and undesirable to the flesh (1 Cor. 1:18-24). John 3:8 sets forth the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit in regeneration: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Just as the wind blows where it wishes, so the Spirit does what He wishes concerning this work of regeneration. This again emphasizes God’s sovereignty in our salvation.

In John 3:5, Jesus mentioned the necessity of being “born of water and the Spirit.” Those who argue for baptismal regeneration often point to this verse. First, it is important to note that Jesus said water not baptism. Robert Reymond comments: “This is not a pericope on baptism; the institution of that sacrament lay some years in the future, and Nicodemus could not possibly grasped an allusion to a not-yet existing sacrament.”4 Second, in verse 10, Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” Jesus tells Nicodemus that he should know these things as a teacher in Israel. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, would have known the Old Testament extremely well. The use of the phrase “water and Spirit” should have conveyed to the mind of Nicodemus the idea of purification and cleansing. Ezekiel 36:25,26 parallels Jesus statement in John 3:5: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” This Old Testament prophecy speaks of the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration. This is an important concept in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament and a concept with which Nicodemus would have been familiar. Jesus was not referring to baptism, but to cleansing and regeneration. In our regeneration, the Holy Spirit makes a person who is spiritually dead alive in Christ; he takes out the heart of stone and gives him a heart of flesh, that is, a heart that is responsive to the gospel and the things of God. John Murray, in commenting on John 3 and this sovereign action of the Holy Spirit writes:

. . . we are instructed by our Lord that for entrance into the kingdom of God we are wholly dependent upon the action of the Holy Spirit, an action of the Holy Spirit which is compared to that on the part of our parents by which we were born into the world. We are as dependent upon the Holy Spirit as we are upon the action of our parents in connection with our natural birth. We were not begotten by our father because we decided to be. And we were not born of our mother because we decided to be. We were simply begotten and born. We did not decide to be born. This is the simple but too frequently overlooked truth which our Lord here teaches us. We do not have spiritual perception of the kingdom of God nor do we enter into it because we willed to or decided to. If this privilege is ours it is because the Holy Spirit willed it and here all rests upon the Holy Spirit’s decision and action. He begets or bears when and where he pleases. Is this not the burden of verse 8? 5

J. I. Packer curcurs:

Infants do not induce, or cooperate in, their own procreation and birth; no more can those who are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ prompt the quickening operation of God’s Spirit within them (see Eph. 2:1-10). Spiritual vivification is a free, and to man mysterious, exercise of divine power (John 3:8), not explicable in terms of the combination or cultivation of existing human resources (John 3:6), not caused or induced by any human efforts (John 1:12-13) or merits (Titus 3:3-7), and not, therefore, to be equated with, or attributed to, any of the experiences, decisions, and acts to which it gives rise and by which it may be known to have taken place. 6


Two terms are helpful in clarifying this concept: monergistic and synergistic. Both of these terms contain the root word erg which means a unit of work. The prefix mon means one; the prefix syn means two. Therefore, a monergistic work is something that works alone and a synergistic work is the work of two cooperating together. Regeneration or being born again is a monergistic work; it is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. The Holy Spirit is the actor in regeneration; we are passive. The Holy Spirit raises the spiritually dead sinner to new life; the Holy Spirit takes out the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh. This is why in John 1:12,13, those who respond to the gospel are those who have been born of the Spirit. Faith and repentance is the response of the heart that has been made alive in Christ, that has been born again. The exercise of faith and repentance, although dependent on the Spirit’s prior work of regeneration is a synergistic work; the person whose heart has been regenerated believes and repents. John Murray writes:

It has often been said that we are passive in regeneration. This is a true and proper statement. For it is simply the precipitate of what our Lord has taught here [John 3]. We may not like it. We may recoil against it. It may not fit into our way of thinking and it may not accord with the time-worn expressions which are the coin of our evangelism. But if we recoil against what shall we answer when we appear before him whose truth we rejected and with whose gospel we tampered? But blessed be God that the gospel of Christ is one of sovereign, efficacious, irresistible regeneration. If it were not the case that in regeneration we are passive, the subjects of an action of which God alone is the agent, there would be no gospel at all. For unless God by sovereign, operative grace had turned our enmity to love and our disbelief to faith we would never yield the response of faith and love. 7

R. C. Sproul in commenting about man being spiritually dead and the consequent necessity that regeneration be monergistic or a work of God alone writes:

Here we reach the ultimate point of separation between semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism, between Arminianism and Calvinism, between Rome and the Reformation. Here we discover whether we are utterly dependent on grace for our salvation or if, while still in the flesh, still in bondage to sin, and still dead in sin, we can cooperate with grace in such a way that affects our eternal destiny. In the Reformation view, the work of regeneration is performed by God and by him alone. The sinner is completely passive in receiving this action. Regeneration is an example of God’s operative grace. Any cooperation we display toward God occurs only after the work of regeneration has been completed. Of course we respond to this work. We respond in a manner similar to that of Lazarus when, after being loosed, he stepped out of the tomb. 8

In the same context he also writes:

What the unregenerate person desperately needs in order to come to faith is regeneration. This is the necessary grace. It is the sine quo non of salvation. Unless God changes the disposition of my sinful heart, I will never choose to cooperate with grace or embrace Christ in faith. These are the very things to which the flesh is indisposed. If God merely offers to change my heart, what will that accomplish for me as long as my heart remains opposed to him? If he offers me grace while I am a slave to sin and still in the flesh, what good is the offer? Saving grace does not offer liberation, it liberates. This is what makes grace so gracious: God unilaterally and monergistically does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 9

John Murray also emphasizes this idea that effectual calling and regeneration are purely acts of God’s sovereign grace:

The fact that calling is an act of God, and of God alone, should impress upon us the divine monergism in the initiation of salvation in actual procession. We become partakers of redemption by an act of God that instates us in the realm of salvation, and all the corresponding changes in us and in our attitudes and reactions are the result of the saving forces at work within the realm into which, by God’s sovereign and efficacious act, we have been ushered. The call, as that by which the predestinating purpose begins to take effect, is in this respect of divine monergism after the pattern of predestination itself. It is of God and of God alone. 10


This doctrine again emphasizes the extent of man’s radical corruption in sin, his moral inability to come to Christ on his own, and God’s divine initiative in our salvation (the subject of the second chapter). There are several important applications of this doctrine. First, it strips from us any claim to meriting salvation. When we consider our own salvation and realize that we have responded to the gospel, it is easy to believe that we made that choice on our own. In fact, from our self-perception, it appears that we hear the gospel and have the good sense to believe it. Scripture, however, informs us that behind our response to the gospel was the mercy and gracious operation of God. We embraced the gospel, not because we were smarter, more virtuous, or more righteous than someone else, but because God called us and changed our hearts from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26; Eph. 2:1-5). We were the recipients of the monergistic call and regeneration of God. This doctrine strips from man any self-righteousness or pride. If a person is in a state of salvation, it is purely because of God’s mercy and grace. Therefore, God alone gets the glory for our salvation.

Second, this gives us confidence in evangelism. 1 Corinthians 1:21-23 says that the outward message of the gospel is foolishness to fallen man, but to the called of God it brings salvation. When we preach, evangelize, and make the gospel known in a variety of ways, we do so with the confidence that God will accomplish his sovereign purposes in proclamation of the gospel. He will bring his elect to faith and repentance using our witness as a means in his eternal plan. Isaiah 55:10, 11 speaks of God’s sovereignty in accomplishing his plans and it also applies to our faithfulness in making the gospel known: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire.” We give the external call of the gospel. When God couples his internal call with that external call, it effectively accomplishes the eternal plan of God in bringing salvation to his elect. The case of Lydia in Acts 16:14 is a good example of this principle: “And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” The phrase “worshiper of God” identifies her as a proselyte to Judaism. We are told that she heard the message of the gospel spoken by Paul and that she responded to that message. We are also informed that the reason she responded is because the Lord opened her heart to respond. It was a sovereign work of God that brought salvation to Lydia. Simon Kistemaker comments:

Luke clearly teaches that salvation is the work of the Lord, for he saves his people according to his eternal plan. Recording Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Luke states that Jesus suffered on the cross “according to God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (2:23 and see 4:28). When the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch hear the saving Word of God and express their happiness, Luke observes: “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (13:48). Luke truthfully conveys the teaching that God, in accomplishing his work of salvation, fulfills his eternal plan.

Salvation originates with God. Thus, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to have her pay close attention to the words Paul was speaking. God granted Lydia a receptive heart to understand spiritual things. He gave her the gift of faith and the illuminations of the Holy Spirit. Concludes John Albert Bengel, “The heart is in itself closed, but it is the prerogative of God to open it.”

In Greek, Luke employs different verb tenses to emphasize God’s work in salvation. In this translation, the changes in tense are italicized: “While Lydia continued to listen, God once for all opened her heart to have her apply her mind to the things that were being said by Paul.” Conclusively, God is the author of her salvation. 11

Our duty before God is to proclaim the gospel; God will accomplish his eternal purposes in the proclamation of that message. Charles Spurgeon correctly applied these truths when he said:

I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, “You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.” My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will. A poor haul of fish will any gospel fisherman make if he takes none but those who are eager to leap into the net. Oh, for five minutes of the great Shepherd’s handiwork! 12

Third, this gives us confidence in our prayer life for the salvation of others. We can pray knowing that it is possible for God to sovereignly answer a prayer for someone’s salvation. In the Arminian understanding, the most a person could consistently pray is that God would send people to witness to a person and send circumstances that would cause a person to contemplate eternity and the gospel. If God is the monergistic actor in regeneration, then you can pray for someone’s salvation with the knowledge that God could sovereignly open their heart to the gospel and bring them to salvation.

Finally, the doctrine of God’s divine initiative in regeneration moves us to worship. This teaching of Scripture profoundly confronts us with our helplessness in sin and how much mercy we have received from God in our salvation. How could we not give praise and honor to one who has shown us such great mercy!

Robert Reymond summarizes this doctrine:

“Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel” (Shorter Catechism, Question 31). By the regenerating work of his Spirit, God the Father irresistibly summons, normally in conjunction with the church’s proclamation of the gospel, the elect sinner into fellowship with, and into the kingdom of, his Son Jesus Christ. His call is rendered effectual by the quickening work of the Spirit of God the Father and God the Son in the hearts of the elect.

By the Spirit’s regenerating work the elect sinner (1) is made spiritually alive, thereby opening and favorably disposing him to the things of the Spirit, which were foolishness to him before (1 Cor. 2:14), (2) is convinced of his sin, (3) is enlightened to the all-sufficiency of the Savior Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel, and (4) is renewed in his will, rendering him thereby willing (no sinner is brought to Christ against his will!) and able to embrace Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. In other words, the Spirit’s work makes the sinner willing and able to repent and to believe, but his repenting and his believing per se are not aspects of the effectual call itself. They are his divinely effected responses to God’s effectual call which, taken together, are indicative of his conversion. 13


Works Cited

1 See Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 715-718 for the biblical and theological arguments in support of regeneration being that which makes the call effectual.
2 Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 59-60.
3 Murray, “The Call” in Collected Writings of John Murray, 2:165.
4 Robert L. Reymond, John, Beloved Disciple, A Survey of His Theology (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Geanies House, 2001), 96.
5 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 98-99.
6 J. I. Packer, “Regeneration,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 925.
7 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 99-100.
8 Sproul, Grace Unknown, 186.
9 Sproul, Grace Unknown, 188.
10 Murray, “The Call,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, 2:166; see also his Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 93-94.
11 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 591.
12 Carter, Spurgeon At His Best, 90-91.
13 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 718.

Next article in this series: Saving Faith

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.