I grew up with a semi-Calvinistic understanding of salvation. I knew that people were dead in sins and that dead people don’t do anything. But I did not understand much of how salvation actually worked.
When I first heard someone teach on the effectual call (also poorly described as irresistible grace) I balked at it. It didn’t seem to match up with my conception of salvation and my experience of life. When the gospel was preached, it seemed that the Spirit was working generally in people’s hearts, and they either responded to that work or rejected it. But that was all that was happening.
While in graduate school, I took a class on Romans. When studying through Romans 8—specifically verses 28–30—I became convinced that the effectual call was a biblical teaching.
After dealing primarily with justification in chapters 1–4 of Romans, Paul moves on to discuss the hope of the believer in chapters 5-8. He assures the believers in Rome that they no longer have to face God’s wrath. However, they will still face difficulty in this life. In the familiar teaching in 8:28, Paul assures them that God is working in all the tribulations that they face (and every other part of their life) for their good. He is working His purpose out in their lives.
But how can the Roman Christians know that God is working things out for their good? To assure them, Paul gives a list of five verbs showing the certainty of their salvation in verses 29–30. (NOTE: It is important to keep in mind that Paul is not providing a full teaching of soteriology here but is offering teaching to support his argument that God is working out His purpose in the lives of believers.)
The first verb in the chain is “foreknow.” This is probably the most controversial verb in the passage. The basic and most common meaning deals with prescience—knowledge of the future. If that is the meaning here, Paul would simply be stating that God knows people beforehand. Since it is obvious that God knows people beforehand (every person ever born), those who argue that the word only means prescience typically state that there is something specific about the believer that God knows. Often they supply an object such as “God knew who would repent” or “God knew who would believe.” God’s election then is based on His previous knowledge of who would choose Him. This understanding has some difficulties. The objects of God’s knowledge are the persons themselves, not something about them (i.e., not “what He did foreknow about the person” but “whom He did foreknow.”) This view also contradicts Pauline thinking. God’s choosing of believers is not based on their actions (their decision to repent and believe), but on God’s mercy and grace (e.g., Rom 9:11–16.)
Although the most common meaning of “foreknow” in Greek literature speaks of prescience, it is more often used in the New Testament to indicate a previous relationship or choice (Rom 11:2; 1 Pet 1:20; Acts 2:23; 1 Pet 1:2). This follows the Old Testament usage of “know,” which was more influential in Paul’s thinking than Greek usage. The term speaks of a special affection or selection (Ps 1:6; 144:3; Hos 13:5; Amos 3:2). Paul does not say that God foreknows everyone in this passage, but only believers. He obviously does know every person beforehand, but He only enters into a relationship and sets His love upon believers (cf. Matt 7:23).
The second verb of the chain is “predestined.” Paul places more emphasis on this verb than any of the others. He temporarily leaves the list of verbs to discuss predestination at more length. After God has set his affection on His people, He then determines their end. The end of believers is conformity to Christ’s image. Ultimately this is speaking of the final redemption, when the believer is given a new body like Christ’s. However, that does not preclude a reference to the present life. God is even now working in believers to make them more like His Son. He uses the trials that they face to help them grow in conformity to Christ.
Paul resumes his chain of verbs with “called” in verse 30. This is the point when God’s eternal choice becomes a historical reality. This call is not the universal call of the gospel offered to all men—the only kind of call I used to consider. Rather, it is an effectual call that guarantees salvation. Why? Because all of those called are also justified. Paul’s point in providing these verbs is to show that every individual believer goes all the way to glorification. If someone can be called but reject that call (and thus not be justified), Paul’s argument falls flat. Thus, there is a call from God that will certainly issue in justification. In other words, there is a call that is effective in bringing people to salvation. (That does not mean that man has no responsibility. Again, Paul is not giving a complete teaching on salvation. Rather he is showing the surety of God’s accomplishing His purpose.)
As was already mentioned, the ones “called” are next “justified.” Paul dealt with this topic at length earlier in the epistle. In salvation God declares the sinner to be just because of the righteousness of Christ. He now regards the believer as righteous.
In the final link of the chain, the believer is “glorified.” It is intriguing that Paul views this as already complete, although elsewhere it is clear that glorification is a future act. The certainty of this glorification is so great that Paul can state it as if it were already done. This fits well in his argument: if God’s purpose will surely be accomplished—including his purpose in calling—glorification is as good as done.