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Election, Calling and Regeneration

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    Election, Calling and Regeneration

    by John Frame


    Election simply means "choice." The doctrine of election is that, ultimately, it is God's choice that determines whether someone will be saved or lost. To understand this, recall from chapter 1 the biblical emphasis on God's comprehensive control over the world. Nothing happens in the world unless God wants it to happen. Recall also from chapter 2 that God's decree is comprehensive; it covers absolutely everything. Whatever happens, happens according to the good pleasure of his will (Eph. 1:11). If God's control is so profound, then certainly God also has ultimate and absolute control over human salvation. Ultimately, your salvation depends on whether or not God has chosen you in Christ, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).

    But before we look at this eternal choice, let's look at another type of election that is more historical in its focus. I call it historical election, although even historical election is part of God's eternal plan. Historical election is God's choice of people not necessarily for eternal salvation but for various tasks in history. God chose Saul, for example, to serve as Israel's king for a time (1 Sam. 9:17); but he later rejected Saul. God chose Jeremiah to be a prophet (Jer. 1:5). Jesus chose the Twelve to be his disciples, including Judas (Luke 6:13). He chose, or elected, Judas, even though he knew Judas would betray him. From the examples of Saul and Judas, you can understand that historical election is not election to eternal salvation (Mark 14:21; John 6:70-71). It is merely the choice of someone to serve a temporary purpose in God's program.

    The most important form of historical election is God's choice of the nation Israel. God chose Israel from all the nations of the earth to be his special people (Deut. 4:37; 7:6). Scripture emphasizes that this choice was by grace, not Israel's merit (Deut. 7:7-8; 9:4, 6). Israel wasn't larger or better than the other nations.Yet, not all Israelites obtained eternal salvation. Many of them turned away from God, and he sent his prophets to draw up indictments against them (called covenant lawsuits, as Isa. 1:1-17). Only Jesus himself is the true Israel, the one who fully obeys God and who receives all the blessings of the covenant (Rom. 11:1-21) .

    We may also say that the visible church today is historically elect. That is to say, church members belong to Christ in a special way, as Israel belonged to God. That gives them great privileges. Hebrews 6:4-6 says that church members "have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come." Nevertheless, some of them rebel against the Lord, and the writer says that it is impossible to restore these to repentance. Like Saul, Judas, and unfaithful Israel, they will be lost. In this historical sense, then, some people who are elect, chosen, may be finally lost.

    That is one kind of election, historical election. But there is also another kind of election mentioned in Scripture that we may call eternal election. This is God's choice in eternity of who will be finally saved. We saw that already in Ephesians 1:4. Second Timothy 1:9 speaks of God "who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13).

    As Israel's election comes about through God's covenant with Moses, so eternal election in Jesus comes through the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8:

    But 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. 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. (Jer. 31:33-34)

    Here, God chooses a people and promises to give them all the benefits of salvation. They will not be like Judas or like unfaithful Israel, for God will forgive their sins and write the word of God on their heart.

    So, eternal election is unconditional, unconditional election, as Reformed theologians like to say. God chooses us for salvation, a choice not based on anything in us, not based on any conditions we have fulfilled. And eternal election is an election of individuals, not just nations or groups. How precious it is to know that God chose me and you before he even made the world. We were in his mind, on his heart. With the doctrine of election, we know that salvation is all of God. It is his free gift. It really is grace, not something we must work for.


    Now the question comes up, If God chooses us eternally for salvation, does he also choose who will be lost? God's choice of who will be lost is called reprobation. So, we know God elects; does he also reprobate? It seems logical to say that if God chooses some to be saved, he automatically chooses the rest not to be saved. This doctrine is sometimes called double predestination.

    But this is a hard pill to swallow. It is hard to believe that a loving God would choose, before the beginning of time, to send some to eternal punishment, choosing them before they could do anything about it.

    This is a particularly difficult form of the problem of evil. So, I'd urge you to review what we said earlier, in chapter 2, on the love of God and, in chapter 8, on sin and evil. Although reprobation is a particularly hard problem, I believe the best answers are the answers I gave earlier: God brings good out of evil even when we can't imagine how he could possibly do it; and he reserves to himself the right to do that, to his own honor and glory. Remember, too, that if God does not reprobate, he does not elect to salvation either. So, the alternative to election and reprobation is for us to try to save ourselves by our own resources. I would not want to try to do that.

    What settles the matter is that the doctrine of reprobation is biblical, and not just as an implication from the doctrine of election. We read, for example, that sometimes God acts to conceal the truth from some people so that they will not believe. In other words, he uses his sovereignty negatively rather than positively. God said to Isaiah:

    Go, and say to this people:

    And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

    “‘Keep on hearing,but do not understand;
    keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
    Make the heart of this people dull,
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
    lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
    and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”

    - Isaiah 6:9-10

    The prophetic word can be powerful in bringing people to faith. But in this case it is powerful to harden their hearts. Following Isaiah, Jesus said that he spoke in parables to enlighten some but actually harden others, to prevent them from believing (Matt. 13:11-14; cf. 11:25-27). Jude 4 speaks about certain men "whose condemnation was written about long ago" (NIV).

    But Romans 9 is the chief text about reprobation. There, Paul begins by expressing anguish for his fellow Israelites who have not believed in Christ. Why haven't they believed? Paul says, ultimately, because God has not chosen them to believe. Why was Pharaoh so persistent in his wickedness that he hardened his heart so that he would not let Israel go? Paul answers in verse 17, "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, `For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' " God hardened his heart, as Exodus also says. Then, at verses 18-24:

    So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

    You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, 0 man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

    So, why is it that so many Israelites have not believed? Paul's answer, ultimately, is reprobation. Many Israelites have not believed because God sovereignly determined to prepare them for destruction, as he has prepared others for glory.

    We should recognize, as do the Canons of Dordt (one of the Reformed confessions), that election and reprobation are not simple parallels to one another.When God elects people to salvation, he decrees that they will be saved apart from their works. But when God reprobates, he decrees that they will be punished because of their works. Works, then, play a role in the outworking of reprobation that they do not play in the outworking of election.

    With the Westminster Confession (3.8), I would urge you to discuss this doctrine with "great prudence and care." It is a hard doctrine, a difficult doctrine, and it has led some people to turn against the truth, even to ridicule it. But it is a teaching of Scripture, and in the end it is a comforting one. For the greatest com fort we can have is to know that all people are in the hands of a sovereign God, the God of perfect justice and wonderful mercy.

    The Order of the Decrees

    There is one more doctrine I would like to touch on before we get to the ordo salutis. I will only touch on it because I consider it something of an unbiblical speculation. But since you are now a student of theology, you ought to know what it's about. That doctrine is called the order of the decrees. Some theologians have developed a theory that God's eternal decrees have a certain order to them. It is not a temporal order, because the decrees we're talking about are all eternal, above time. Theologians sometimes call it a logical order, but I confess I don't entirely understand what that means. What seems to be meant, in part, is that one decree serves the interests of another.

    The main views in Reformed theology of the order of the decrees are supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The first order, the supralapsarian order, reads as follows: first, election, then creation, then the fall, then redemption. By this order, the supralapsarian wants especially to make the point that election directs everything else in God's plan. They want to say that God's fundamental purpose for creation is to have fellowship with his elect people. Everything else works toward that. So, in order to have fellowship with these people, he obviously must first create them. Then he must allow them to fall and redeem them.

    The other view, infralapsarianism, puts the decrees in this order: creation, fall, election, redemption. By this order, the infralapsarian means to say that in election God chooses people who are already created and fallen.

    Although some biblical arguments have been used to substantiate both these views, I don't think Scripture really addresses the issue of an order of God's decrees. The supralapsarian point, that everything God does is for the sake of his elect, has a certain amount of truth to it, though we must point out that an even higher goal of God is to glorify himself. The infralapsarian point, that when God elects people, he conceives them as fallen, is also legitimate. God elects people out of the fallen multitude. But if we grant both the supralapsar ian point in some measure and the infralapsarian point, it seems obvious that we can acknowledge those points without signing on to the concept of an order in the divine decrees.

    The Ordo Salutis

    Now let's look at the ordo salutis, redemption applied, sometimes called subjective soteriology. In the threefold structure of Ephesians 1, we have talked about election, and in chapter 11 we have talked about the atonement. Now we consider those events of our own experience in which God applies to us the benefits of the atonement.

    We should be flexible as to what goes into the ordo and what does not. The Bible itself doesn't use the phrase ordo salutis any more than it speaks of an order of the decrees. And Scripture does not include anywhere a list of all the events theologians typically include under that label. Myself, I think that the ordo is mainly a pedagogical device. As you go through the various items on the list, there is no consistent principle of ordering. Some items precede other items because the first comes earlier in time, the other later. That is the case with effectual calling and glorification. Other items on the list precede others because one is a cause, the other an effect, as with regeneration and faith. Still others come before others not because of temporal priority or causal priority but because of what theologians call instrumental priority, as in the relation of faith to justification. And still other pairs of events are simply concurrent or simultaneous blessings, like justification and adoption. So, the "order" means different things: sometimes cause and effect, sometimes earlier and later, sometimes instrument and object, sometimes mere concurrence. Nevertheless, the order does bring out important relationships between these events, relationships that the Bible does set forth.

    Effectual Calling

    First on the ordo list, the doctrine of effectual calling. The Bible often talks about God's calling people, in various senses. Sometimes, God's calling is your vocation, the position in which he has placed you (1 Cor. 7:17, 20). He may call you to marriage or to singleness, to be a CEO or a hockey player, to live in Orlando or Chicago. That's an important concept, but it is not what we mean by effectual calling.

    Sometimes calling refers to the universal proclamation of the gospel, in which God calls or invites everyone to believe in Christ and be saved (Matt. 20:16; 22:14).That is sometimes called the gospel call or the external call. That is also an important biblical teaching. But it is not the meaning of effectual calling.

    Effectual calling, sometimes called the internal call, is this: God sovereignly, efficaciously summons (John Murray's word) the elect into fellowship with Christ. That word summons brings out God's sovereignty. You might be able to refuse an invitation, but you can't refuse a summons. A summons is an offer you cannot refuse.

    That is how calling is used in Romans 1:6-7, where Paul speaks of "you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, [t]o all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. Rom. 8:30; 11:29; 1 Cor. 1:2, 9, 24, 26; 7:18; 2Thess. 2:13-14; Heb. 3:1-2; 2 Peter 1:10).

    You see, a lot of people in the world are elect but not saved. Before you believed in Jesus, you were in that situation.You were elect, chosen of God before the foundation of the world, but you lived as an unbeliever, without any faith in Christ. How did God change you? The first phase, the first event, is effectual calling.

    Note the characteristics of effectual calling: it is the work of God the Father, summoning you into the fellowship of his Son. As we saw, effectual calling is different from the gospel call, but it often comes through the gospel call. For many, effectual calling occurs when they are hearing the gospel. It is then that God opens their hearts to receive the truth. When Paul preached by the riverside at Philippi, a woman named Lydia was there. And we read, "The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul" (Acts 16:14). The Reformers put it this way: As the preacher speaks the Word to the mind, the Lord speaks it to the heart.

    Furthermore, effectual calling calls us into all the blessings of salvation: the kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12), holiness (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thess. 4:7), peace (1 Cor. 7:15), freedom (Gal. 5:13), hope (Eph. 1:18), patient endurance (1 Peter 2:20-21), eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12). Ultimately, calling is into fellowship with Christ, union with Christ; 1 Corinthians 1:9 reads, "God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." It is in Christ that we have all the blessings of salvation. Indeed, we can summarize the blessings this way. The blessing of salvation is Christ himself, with everything he is and does. So, Paul says in Philippians 3:7-8, "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."

    So, in effectual calling, God acts on us first, before we offer him any response. He acts sovereignly, calling us into fellowship with his Son. This calling is the ultimate source in time of all the blessings of salvation.


    The first of those blessings, and the second event in the ordo salutis, is regeneration, or the new birth. When God calls us into fellowship with Christ, he gives us a new life, a new heart. Regeneration is the first effect of effectual calling. And regeneration is the first item on the list that occurs inside of us.

    The presupposition of Scripture is that apart from God's grace we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3), as we saw in chapter 8. That means that in and of ourselves, we can do nothing to please God. Just as conception and birth bring new physical life, so the work of regeneration brings new spiritual life. Through the new birth we gain new desire and new ability to serve God. So, my definition of regeneration is this: a sovereign act of God, beginning a new spiritual life in us.

    The language of new birth comes from the writings of John. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. In 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, and 18, John speaks about a seed that God plants in believers that grows into a holy life that resists temptation.

    Paul uses the language of new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10; cf. James 1:18) or being "made ... alive together with Christ" (Eph. 2:5) to express the same idea. We can find this idea of resurrection also in passages like Romans 6, which speak of us as dying and rising with Christ: we die with him unto sin, and we are raised with him unto righteousness. As effectual calling calls us into union with Christ, so regeneration is our union with him in his resurrection life. New birth, new creation, life from the dead are alternate ways of speaking of the ways God gives us new life.

    All these expressions emphasize God's sovereignty. New birth is obviously an act of God (note Ezek. 36:26-27; John 3:8).You didn't give birth to yourself; you didn't have anything to do with your own birth. Others gave birth to you.Your birth was a gift of grace. So your new birth was a gift of God, in this case God the Holy Spirit. (As effectual

    calling is an act of the Father, so regeneration is an act of the Holy Spirit, as Scripture usually represents it.)

    Similarly with new creation. Creation is "out of nothing," as we saw. Before creation, there was nothing. Nothing can't produce anything. Reality all comes by the creative act of God. The same is true of resurrection. Before resurrection there is death. Death can't produce life. Only God can. So, in the new birth we are passive.

    Furthermore, without the new birth not only are we unable to please God but we can't even understand the things of God. Jesus told Nicodemus, "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Regeneration changes the will, and it also changes the mind. Remember when we looked at Romans 1 and saw that the sinner represses the truth? Regeneration is the act of God that enables us to quit repressing the truth and to see God as he really is.

    So, the new birth comes before our faith, bringing it about. People sometimes say, "Believe in Jesus, and you will be born again."This expression is biblically inaccurate. It is true that believing in Jesus is the path to blessing. But the new birth is the cause of faith rather than the other way around. Again, you cannot give birth to yourself, even by faith. Rather, God gives new birth to you and enables you to have faith. It is always God's sovereignty, isn't it?

    As regeneration is the cause of faith, so it is also the cause of our good works. Recall the passages I listed earlier from 1 John. Here is 1 John 2:29: "If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him." Everyone who practices righteousness must have been born again, because you cannot do righteousness without being born again.

    Like effectual calling, regeneration usually occurs when we hear the gospel. First Peter 1:23 reads, "... since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" (cf. v. 25). The Spirit's great power to give us new birth typically comes through the power of the Word of God. James 1:18 says, "Of his own will he brought us forth [that's the idea of regeneration] by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures."

    How do you know whether someone is born again? It is not a visible event. Jesus says that the regenerating work of the Spirit is like the blowing of the wind: you don't see it, you don't know where it comes from or where it goes. But as with the wind you can see the results, though you cannot be infallibly sure that regeneration has taken place. Faith and good works are the effects of regeneration, and these show that we have been born of God. First John 3:9 says, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." And 1 John 4:7 says, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." Love and all the fruits of the Spirit are set forth in Galatians 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." When people's lives are changed from disobeying to obeying God, we can know, though not infallibly, that the Spirit has been at work, giving new birth.
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