Paul frequently refers to Christians as being “called.” What does it mean?
“Called” sounds so much like “invited.” Is that the meaning? Well, many have been invited and not responded! I mean, how many have heard the gospel message and refused to turn to Jesus as Lord?
The Calvinist response is that God only calls the elect–those chosen before the foundation of the world–and so all who are called are saved. Thus, only the elect are truly called by God. And verses such as Romans 8:30 certainly sound like that–
(Rom. 8:30) And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
On the other hand, there are verses where “called” refers to an invitation that many will reject —
(Mat 22:14) “For many are invited [same Greek word as “called” in Rom 8:30], but few are chosen.”
Surely, Paul is using “called” in some special sense, as he can’t contradict Jesus. Just how do we explain Paul’s use of “called” while acknowledging that many who hear the gospel reject the gospel?
The prophetic use of “called”
I thought I’d poke around in the Old Testament prophets and see if they might shed some light, especially since so much of Paul’s thinking is built on the prophets, especially the latter portions of Isaiah.
In Isaiah “call” sometimes takes on a special meaning.
(Isa. 41:2-4) “Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service ? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. 3 He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not traveled before. 4 Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD–with the first of them and with the last–I am he.”
(Isa. 41:8-13) “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
(Isa. 42:6-7) “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
(Isa. 43:1-2) But now, this is what the LORD says–he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
(Isa. 45:3-4) I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.”
Now, we should immediately notice that God frequently refers to the Israelites as “called” (or “summoned,” which is a translated for the same Hebrew word) by God, even though they were, at times, in rebellion against him. And we can’t help but observe that this is a national calling. All of Israel was called. Not all Israel was saved. Indeed, as Paul makes clear in Rom 9 – 11, only a remnant of Israel was saved after the death of Jesus.
Interestingly, Isaiah also makes a point of Abraham having been called.
(Isa. 51:1-2) “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many.”
If Christians are the spiritual heirs of Abraham and of Israel, then we must also be called. And so, Christians are “called” in the same sense that Israel was God’s called people. Christians are added to God’s covenant with Abraham and the Israelites. Once you are in covenant relationship with God, you are among God’s called people–a community that traces its spiritual roots all the back to Abraham. Or as Paul says in Rom 11, we Gentiles have been grafted onto the trunk of the tree of called people.
Zephaniah 1:7 is of interest–
(Zep. 1:7) Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited.
“Invited” is the same Hebrew word as “called” in the Isaiah passages. This is obviously an invitation that succeeds–all who receive this invitation are made holy.
(Joel 2:32 ESV) And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
Here, the idea is that God calls the very same people who call on him.
The first half of this passage shows up in the New Testament in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:32 and in Romans 10:31, in both cases treating the prophecy as applicable to Christian salvation (This is part of the same passage that prophesies the coming of the Spirit on men and women.)
Now, I readily admit that “call” is often used in the Old Testament to mean invite and many passages bemoan the refusal of many to respond to God’s call. The argument isn’t that “call” means “saved” or “effectively called” all the time.
Rather, the argument is that “call” in the Old Testament is sometimes used of a divine summons that effects its purpose, especially in passages with Messianic overtones. In these passages, the called are those who respond to the call. The reason for this is that Isaiah especially refers to Israel as God’s “called” people, because they stand in the shoes of Abraham, who was called. Abraham responded to the call, and so God will assure that at least a remnant of Israel will be among the called.
Now, the Calvinist would argue that all who are “called” accept the call (irresistible grace). But in the special sense of these passages, “called” refers to God’s chosen, covenant people. The term is not being used of individual calling here. Yes, God called Israel and Israel responded — but not all descendants of Jacob were saved. The nation is called but only a remnant was ultimately saved.
Paul’s use of “called”
So let’s take a fresh look at Paul’s use of “called,” which is surely informed by the prophetic use of the word.
(Rom 1:5-6 NASB) through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake,6among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ;
The Christians in Rome are “the called of Jesus Christ” among the Gentiles. Notice it’s not “you have been called” but “you are the called.” “Called” is a status in this passage (the NIV misses this but the NASB gets it right). Just so in —
(1 Cor 1:24 NASB) but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
— “called” is again a status, not a verb. And then there’s —
(Rom 9:7 ASV) neither, because they are Abraham’s seed, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called.
Isaac’s seed was “called,” not because they would be issued an invitation they would irresistibly accept, but because they would be God’s covenant people (also 9:12).
Therefore, we might take “called” as referring to being brought into the covenant–
(Rom. 8:30) And those he predestined, he also [brought into the covenant]; those he [brought into the covenant], he also justified [=acquitted]; those he justified, he also glorified [=brought into God’s presence].
To test this theory, let’s try Romans 9 –
(Rom. 9:23-26) What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory– 24 even us, whom he also [brought into the covenant], not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
And consider when Paul uses “calls” in the present tense —
(Gal. 5:7-8) You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.
Well, “invites” refers to people not yet saved. Paul is speaking to the saved. But “brings you into the covenant” works fine. We are “called” because we’ve been grafted into the called community, the covenant community.
Now, Paul sometimes refers to individuals as “called” (as in 1 Cor 7), but the individuals were “called” when they were added to Israel, the covenant community.
Calvinism insists that only calls the elect, and the elect are unconditionally chosen regardless of their works and their faith. It’s all God. There’s no human element to who is elect and who is not. It’s not arbitrary, but God hasn’t revealed his reasoning. But it has nothing to do with the goodness or willingness of those elected.
Therefore, those who are “called” are only those irresistibly elected — whom God has chosen and whom cannot resist God’s call — which is always effective.
I think this is mistaken. Rather, the meaning of “called” must be found in the covenant theology of Paul and the prophetic use of the word with respect to Israel. And Israel was elected by God. But it was the calling of a covenant community. Not all Israelites made it to heaven. Indeed, only a remnant became Christians and so remained a part of God’s covenant community.
If we don’t hear the Old Testament echoes in the word, we replace Paul’s covenant theology with interesting Augustinian metaphysics. I think even those who are Calvinists need to see these verses through the eyes of Paul as a Jewish rabbi working valiantly to bring the Gentiles into Israel so that his beloved Jewish kinsman would be provoked into jealousy — and accept Jesus.
Of course, that story — a key part of God’s story — is all about choice. Paul’s ministry was both to the Gentiles but also to bring in the Jews as Moses had prophesied in Deuteronomy. The Jews made bad choices and Paul hoped to change some of their minds.
On the other hand, the old Calvinism/Arminianism debate is not a salvation issue, and many Calvinists behave like Arminians when it comes to evangelism and mission work — indeed, many are far more effective than many Churches of Christ. So theory notwithstanding, the result can be much the same.
Last note — while I obviously lean toward the Arminian side of the issue, I tend to actually find myself somewhere in between — as explained in the Third Way series.