Why We Love Effectual Calling and Regeneration

Although I have yet to have the privilege in my seventeen years of eligibility, one of the worst letters to receive is the summons to jury duty.  There are two types of people when it comes to jury duty - those who do whatever they can to get out of it, and those who wish to be chosen because they either want to get out of work or they want to be chosen for a high profile murder case.  An although it is a certainty that people do get picked for actual jury service, perhaps none will ever endure what the jurors for the OJ Simpson murder trial endured. 

    Because of the high profile case, the twelve jurors chosen by the trial attorneys spent a record total of 265 days sequestered.  As part of being sequestered, these jurors were separated from their families, and spent their entire time in a hotel, never being able to lock their doors, never being able to walk alone, and never being able to talk on the phone without one of the court’s deputies listening in.  The jurors had access to two television sets in common areas (which led to many fights about what to watch), and only ate cafeteria food. In fact, the jurors endured so much emotional trauma that they went on a boycott one day during the trial, refusing to leave their hotel rooms until the judge came to speak to them, and came to the courtroom wearing all black in protest.  The judge was encouraged to bring in a psychologist to work with the jurors because of the stress the trial took on them. The uncertainty of sequestering as well as the time for the trial is one of many reasons people try to ignore the summons from the court to jury duty. 

    Much like a jury summons, God’s calling upon unbelievers is meant to bring about a response.  This calling involves the gospel message proclaimed and dead spirits brought to life. The Westminster Confession describes this type of calling as follows:

“All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ:yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.”

The Bible teaches us that everyone who has been predestined, or elected, will be called by God, which prevents us from needing to rely on the latest trends or tactics in reaching people, because ultimately God will draw His elect to Himself:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:30)

On our own, none of us would choose God, even when given the gospel message.  The Bible teaches that we are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-3) and that none of us, in our sinful state, would ever choose God (Romans 3:10-18).  If left to our own devices, we would never submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ in our hearts and lives. In order to rectify this, we need to be made alive (Ephesians 2:5).  Therefore, in order for the gospel call to be effectual, God needs to impart in us spiritual life. Jesus taught that no one could come to Him unless drawn specifically (John 6:44) and that it is ultimately God who wills in our hearts to do good (Philippians 2:13).  In order for us to respond to God’s call through the gospel, we need to be regenerated, which means giving new spiritual life.  This, again, is entirely the work of God. This is why Jesus has said that no one who is not “born again” by the Holy Spirit can enter the kingdom (John 3:3).   The Holy Spirit overcomes our rebellious and unruly heart to pour out his love and grace to bring new life. There are no such things as zombie Christians - the dead cannot raise themselves nor do they play a role in their own resurrection. 

The story of Lazarus provides a great example in how effectual calling and regeneration work in tandem.  In John 11, we encounter Jesus at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. The decomposing corpse of Lazarus lay in the tomb for four days.  Jesus then asks that the stone be moved away, to which Martha replied that the stench would be so repugnant that it would not be such a good idea.  Yet Jesus insisted, and the stone was rolled away. Jesus did not rely on parlor tricks or sleight of hand. Lazarus was not merely sleeping - a gentle push would not wake him up.  It was the summons of King Jesus that Lazarus responded to. However, in order for Lazarus to respond, He needed to be made alive first to hear the summons. Thus, Lazarus was given new life (regeneration) in order to hear the call to live (effectual calling) in which he would respond. 

We see both God’s effectual call and regeneration in the story of Lydia in the book of Acts. Lydia was in a group of women gathered on the Sabbath in the “leading city” of Philippi.  Paul and Timothy went to near outside the city gates and saw the women gathered. As they preached, one of the woman, Lydia, responded to the gospel message. Luke, the author of Acts, notes:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16:14)

Ultimately the decisive factor of Lydia’s belief was the Lord opening her heart by imparting upon her spiritual life in order to respond to the gospel call. 

    But how did Lydia respond? We get insight on this a few chapters before when Gentiles responded to Paul and Barnabas message:

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)

    It is important that while we as humans have many choices we make throughout the day (from what to wear and what to eat as well as what to feel and how to respond), the choice to choose God is not ours.  The Bible teaches that dead people cannot choose life. We need to be drawn by God (John 6:44). The Greek word for draw in the passage literally means “to drag”. Consider these two examples where the same Greek word is used:

But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? (James 2:6)

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. (Acts 16:19)

Both of these examples show that God is not simply “asking” sinners to come but rather compelling them by imparting new spiritual life and using the gospel call as a summons to Himself.  Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones write:

“Through the power of the His Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel, this same Jesus is shattering every resistance to his reign in the lives of those he has chosen.  He is planting outposts of his kingdom where love and justice grow, and he is beginning the healing of his people’s sin-infected souls. Jesus Christ came to seek and to save his people who were lost, and he isn’t asking anyone’s permission to finish this mission.”  

This is what the prophet Ezekiel refers to:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

R.C. Sproul writes on calling and regeneration, “Hearing the gospel enlightens the mind, yet it does not awaken the soul until the Holy Spirit illumines and regenerates it.  The move from ear to the soul is made by the Holy Spirit. This move is what accomplishes God’s purpose of applying the benefits of Christ’s work to the elect.”  

    Although God does bring about new life to cause us to respond to His summons, we mustn’t think He resists our will and drags us kicking and screaming.  In 1983 Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was selected as a first round draft pick by the Baltimore Colts. Elway, however, refused to play for the Colts, and having had the prospect of playing professional baseball as well, declared that he would prefer to play baseball for the New York Yankees rather than play football for the Colts, who were the last place team.  His refusal to play for the team that had chosen him was controversial and unheard of, especially his threat to leave football altogether, leading Terry Bradshaw to denounce him and the Colts trying to figure out what to do with Elway. No player had every refused to join the team he was drafted on. Through backroom deals, Elway was traded to the Denver Broncos and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, God does not just “draft” us to His team but also imparts in us the desire to respond to His call. In the moment where God allows our ears to truly hear the gospel, He doesn’t just give us new life and force us to turn from sin and trust Him for salvation. Rather, He illuminates our mind and heart to the reality of our sin and brokenness and shows Christ as so compelling that we have no response but to repent and trust and follow Him. His grace isn’t irresistible because we can’t resist Him but rather we won’t resist Him because we see ourselves as we really are and see Jesus for who He truly is.

Seeing and Savoring Our Regeneration

While we would marvel, and appropriately so, at a physically dead person being brought back to life, we ought to be astonished and humbled that the Holy Spirit brings new life to our dead souls.  Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones write, “God unshackles us from the enslaving contagious of sin so that we glimpse the overwhelming beauty and His kingdom.” This is nothing short of miraculous.  The word in Greek used for regeneration in Titus 3:5 is palingenesias and is used one other place in the Bible in Matthew 19:28 when Jesus refers to the new world that is to come.  Jesus is referring to the renewal of all creation that will take place in the New Earth. In other words, God’s purpose in all of creation, including us as believers, is regeneration, or renewal. And the work that the Holy Spirit does in imparting spiritual life to our dead spirit is a part of that.  John Piper writes, “God’s final purpose is not spiritually renewed souls inhabiting decrepit bodies in a disease and disaster ravaged world. His purpose is a renewed world with renewed bodies and renewed souls that take all our renewed senses and make them a means of enjoying and praising God...New birth is the first installment of the final, universal regeneration of the universe.”  The power that God will use to renew the earth is the power He uses to bring about our regeneration.

We revel in our new birth because this means we are given not only new life but a new identity. John makes the connection between our new life by the Spirit and our acceptance into God’s family:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
‭‭John‬ ‭1:12-13‬ ‭

In our regeneration, we are united in Christ and partake of all the benefits that come with “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). We are identified as God’s children like Christ is God’s Son, and we participate in God’s life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and being apart of the body of Christ. God now sees us as He sees Jesus. 

Yet the reality is that although we are united in Christ, we do live in a sin stained world and still struggle with sin.  While we have new spiritual life, the fact of the matter is we daily battle with the sin that easily entangles us. Yet we have hope in the reality that because the Holy Spirit now indwells us, we have the grace needed to passionately pursue and obey Jesus.  We can rely upon the Holy Spirit who resurrected our dead spirits and can now rely upon Him to enable our holiness (Galatians 3:3). We can now put to death sin that is in us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13).

Lastly, we can rest easy knowing that because of God’s effectual calling, the fruitfulness of our work in reaching the lost is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).  We recognize that God’s prophets have constantly been rejected by the people they ministered to and yet they were faithful to what God had called them to do. We know that because of God’s sovereignty in parting new spiritual life, we can plant and water knowing ultimately God will cause growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).  

In 1972 Jeff Mellinger was a 19-year-old drywall hanger living in Eugene, Oregon.  He came home from work to find a letter addressed to him - a draft notice to join the army and fight in Vietnam.  He went to the draft board soon after to ask if it was serious or if it was an invitation. He told them he had a job and he didn’t need a new one.  Yet, he had no choice. On April 18, 1972, Jeff donned his military garb and prepared for service in the United States Army. Remarkably, the man who had no intention of joining the military and who tried to resist was overcome by delight in the military and retired in 2010, the last active duty draftee still serving in the army.  What was supposed to be into a two-year stint turned into a 37 year career after Jeff re-enlisted in what he called “the best decision of my career.” In fact, he even retired reluctantly, telling Time magazine, “"When I tell my wife it's my last assignment, she just rolls her eyes," he concedes. "This is my sixth 'last assignment'." 

Just like Mellinger, something happened in our hearts once we heard the summons from the King calling us out of spiritual death and into spiritual life. The Holy Spirit miraculously and graciously overcame our stubborn and rebellious hearts in our new birth and brought about so great a salvation but united us in Christ.