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The Order of Salvation - Part I

Let’s return to the hypothetical case of our twin brothers Jerry and Ed. For several years both brothers had been attending church with their parents, reluctantly but there nonetheless. The gospel of Jesus Christ was a message with which they were both quite familiar. Indeed, familiarity in their case truly had bred contempt, for they both despised and quietly mocked what they heard.


But then one day seemingly "out of the blue," the gospel he has for so long abhorred begins to make sense to Jerry. The sin in which he delighted all his life is now grievous to him, and he cannot escape the gnawing discomfort in his conscience. The reality of an infinitely holy and righteous God whom he has personally offended keeps him awake at night and is distracting even while he works.


Then suddenly one Sunday morning, while listening to what he had heard so many times before, he "hears" it for the very first time. What he had read in the Bible so many times before, he "sees" as if it had only then appeared. Jesus of Nazareth, who until now held no attraction for him, suddenly seems altogether lovely and winsome. The conviction that this Jesus alone can deliver him from the spiritual turmoil, grief and guilt in which he is mired grips his heart. His soul is, as it were, flooded with wave upon wave of peace and joy as he feels the burden of his sin lifted from his shoulders and placed upon Christ, in whom it vanished from sight. Then the words to that hymn he had so mindlessly sung countless times before ring true to his heart :


"Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature's night;

Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off my heart was free;

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Amazing love! how can it be,

That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?"


Oh, what joy! Oh, what delight! Oh, what calm assurance of new life, forgiveness of sins, and everlasting peace Jerry felt. Turning to his twin brother Ed, sitting quietly beside him, he expected to find another who in like fashion had come to Christ. But alas, Ed was more angry and hardened that day than ever before. And as time sped quickly by he drifted yet farther and farther away from the truth that he had hated his entire life, and sadly, farther and farther away from his brother whose new faith in Jesus Christ he simply could not understand.


What made Jerry to differ from Ed? The answer of the Calvinist is that God made Jerry to differ from his brother. Sovereign, unconditional, efficacious grace brought life to him who by his own confession merited only wrath. Theologians have always been concerned to describe the process by which a man such as Jerry comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ. As a continuation of our effort to understand divine election, I also want to try to describe what happened. Observe the following graphic portrayal of the Ordo Salutis and keep it in mind as we progress.


          Calvinistic ordo salutis                                     Arminian ordo salutis


Calling: External (universal / resistible)                       Prevenient Grace

 Internal (limited / efficacious)                     (universal / resistible)




Regeneration / New Birth                                 Calling: External (universal / resistible)

(passive / monergistic)



Conversion: Faith & Repentance                                 Conversion: Faith & Repentance


The Gifts of God                                                   Freedom of the Will




Justification                                                      Regeneration

                                                                        (active / synergistic)



Adoption                                                          Justification




Sanctification                                                    Adoption


(perseverance assured)




Glorification                                                      Sanctification


                                                                        (apostasy possible)







The Call(s) to Salvation


We begin with what theologians refer to as the divine "call" of the gospel. As Jerry and Ed sat week after week listening to the proclamation of the gospel, God was calling them or inviting them, both of them, to come to Christ in faith and repentance. After a time in which both spurn the offer, one of them responds. Why? Perhaps the best way to explain this is by looking at a familiar passage of Scripture. In Matthew 22:14, we read, "For many are called, but few are chosen." May I take the liberty of rephrasing this text in order to make application to our example: "For Ed and Jerry were both called, but only Jerry was chosen." John Calvin provides a helpful explanation of this:


"Nothing will be ambiguous if we hold fast to what ought to be clear from the foregoing: that there are two kinds of call. There is the general [or "external”] call, by which God invites all equally [both Ed and Jerry] to himself through the outward preaching of the word-even those to whom he holds it out as a savor of death (cf. II Cor 2:16), and as the occasion for severer condemnation. The other kind of call is special [and "internal"], which he deigns for the most part to give to the believers alone, while by the inward illumination of his Spirit he causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts” (Institutes, 3.24.8).


What this means is that whereas everyone is called by God externally in that the gospel is preached to all, only the elect are called by God internally in that they alone are enabled to respond in saving faith.


We see much the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, in which Paul declares that his gospel did not come to the Thessalonians "in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." Conceivably then, the gospel may indeed come to many in word only, that is to say, externally. They hear it with the ear but there is no response of faith in the heart. To others, the elect (among whom is Jerry), the gospel comes not only in word but also in such a way that the Holy Spirit powerfully and efficaciously effects a saving response.


Although the Bible does not use the word "external" with reference to a call of God, the fact that God issues an invitation which is universal, yet ultimately ineffective, justifies its employment in our discussion. The external call may therefore be defined as the presentation of the gospel and offer of salvation to all sinners. This call or invitation to come to Christ to receive the forgiveness of sins is indiscriminate, which is to say it is not restricted to any one group, age, class, or nation. The external call, therefore, is simply the command of God that all men everywhere should repent and believe in order that they might be saved (see Matt. 11:28; 28:19; Luke 24:47; John 16:7-8; Acts 17:30; Rev. 22:17). This call, because it is external only, may be resisted and refused (see especially Acts 7:51; John 16:7-11).


The "internal" call, on the other hand, may be defined as that summons by which God not only invites a man externally in the gospel, but also internally enables him to respond to it. Thus the internal call is, in a sense, the external call with an added dimension. Attendant with the spoken word of the gospel is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit which irresistibly secures a positive, saving response from the one called.


What I am saying is that although both Ed and Jerry heard the call of God in the gospel, only Jerry was given "spiritual ears" in order that he might make sense of it. Whereas both Ed and Jerry thought about what they heard in the gospel, only Jerry was given insight and understanding in order that he might recognize its truth. That Jerry heard, saw, understood, and finally believed the gospel of Jesus Christ is owing ultimately not to Jerry and his free will, but to the sovereign grace of almighty God.


This internal call by which Jerry was drawn to faith is an effectual call. In other words, it goes beyond simply presenting the truth of Christianity to the mind; it actually and always issues in a positive response of the mind. The internal call, because it comes only to the elect, is designed to secure, infallibly and effectively, the saving response which the external call alone could not.


Although the internal call which comes only to the elect is ultimately efficacious, it is not always immediately efficacious. Many of the elect hear the external call of the gospel for years and resist the summons in persistent, callous unbelief (even as Jerry did). But eventually, if they are elect, in God's appointed time they will believe. The elect, observes Calvin,


"are gathered into Christ's flock by a call not immediately at birth, and not all at the same time, but according as it pleases God to dispense his grace to them. But before they are gathered unto that supreme Shepherd, they wander scattered in the wilderness common to all; and they do not differ at all from others except that they are protected by God's special mercy from rushing headlong into the final ruin of death” (3.24.10).


Irresistible Grace


Is it proper then, to speak of this call as "irresistible"? Many Calvinists have objected to this adjective. For example, A. A. Hodge argues that "it is to be lamented that the term irresistible grace has ever been used, since it suggests the idea of a mechanical and coercive influence upon an unwilling subject, while, in truth, it is the transcendent act of the infinite Creator, making the creature spontaneously willing” (Outlines of Theology, 452). D. A. Carson agrees:


"The expression [irresistible grace] is misleading, because it suggests what the theologians themselves usually seek to avoid, viz. the idea that the inevitability of the coming-to-Jesus by those given to Jesus means they do so against their will, squealing and kicking as it were” (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, 185).


In other words, "irresistible grace" is said to imply that the sinner wants to resist but cannot; he is forced against his will to believe what he otherwise would have rejected.


Both A. A. Hodge and D. A. Carson have a point. I concur that perhaps the unwise and overzealous use of this expression might issue in a misunderstanding of biblical Calvinism. However, it must also be noted that all Calvinists concede that inwardly and subjectively, that is, beneath the level of consciousness, the Holy Spirit effects a transformation of the mind and will which inevitably and irresistibly issues in the conscious acquiescence of the person to the truth of the gospel. Prior to this effectual transformation, the person is unwilling to believe. Subsequent to it, he is willing to believe and, in fact, does believe. If God did not at some point make us willing to believe we would forever have remained unwilling and consequently lost. In this sense the grace of effectual calling and regeneration is, properly speaking, irresistible. When we consciously reflect upon and eventually embrace the gospel by faith, we do so willingly, not unwillingly, because antecedent to that decision God in his grace made us willing. This, of course, is what Jesus was referring to in John 6:57: "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me" (italics added).


I must be careful lest the doctrine of the call be misunderstood. I am not saying that the reason Jerry believed on that Sunday morning and Ed did not is because the Holy Spirit caught him on a good day or in a good frame of mind. Jerry's conversion to Christ was not a result of having let down his mental and emotional guard just long enough for the Holy Spirit to sneak in unnoticed. Nor is Jerry's conversion due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is smarter than he! If any man or woman is ever converted to Christ it is not because the Holy Spirit outwits us or is more skilled in the tactics of religious debate. If we are converted it is because the Holy Spirit sovereignly, which is to say independently of our ideas or efforts, recreates within us a heart willing to believe.