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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




In preceding chapters it has been seen how, by the mediation of Christ, redemption has been procured, and an everlasting inheritance has been purchased for his elect believing people. In the last chapter it was shown that man was in a state of guilt and sin, and unable to turn to God or to remedy his sad estate. The question which next arises relates to the way in which the redemption purchased by Christ comes into the possession of guilty, helpless sinners. This is the question which the chapter on effectual calling undertakes to answer. How are the elect from among sinful men made partakers of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, and of all the benefits which are connected therewith ?

It is interesting to note the fact that the Standards do not use the term regeneration in this connection, while this term has a large place and a well-defined meaning in theological writings. At first glance it may seem that the Standards are defective in their statement upon this point, but a little reflection will show that such is not the case, for it will appear that what the theologians call regeneration is included under the term effectual calling in the Standards; and the great fact of the union of the believer with Christ is also implied in effectual calling. To signalize all this, these three terms are set down at the head of this chapter. It may be well to remark, further, that the Confession and the Shorter Catechism deal with this subject in a compact and comprehensive way, while the Larger Catechism Introduces five or six questions at this stage which deal with the church viewed in its visible and invisible aspects. As the subject of the church is not touched upon in the Shorter Catechism at all, and as it is treated of in another place in the Confession, its discussion may be properly deferred till a later stage in this exposition, so that attention can be entirely devoted to the all-important topic of this chapter.

I. The various ways in which the different parts of the Standards deal with effectual calling must be first explained. The question is, How are believers made partakers of Christ's redemption ? How are the benefits of the Redeemer's work applied to the elect ? The briefest form of the answer, which is found in substance in all parts of the Standards, is that we are made partakers of the benefits of Christ's redemption by the effectual application of it to us by the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost, therefore, is the agent in this important matter. The truth is the instrument which the Spirit usually employs, yet the truth, in the way of instruction or moral suasion, does not itself effect the work. There must also be a direct operation of the Holy Spirit in the dead, sinful soul, in order to the saving reception of the benefits of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus by that soul.

It is exceedingly instructive to observe the manner in which the Confession and the Catechisms describe the mode by which this effectual application takes place. This is now briefly noticed. In the Confession, what is prominent is the change in the moral state of the sinner. God, by his word and Spirit, brings the elect out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ, thereby taking away their heart of stone and giving them a heart of flesh. This statement emphasizes the change of nature involved in regeneration.

In the Larger Catechism vital union with Christ is signalized. This union is described as one which is spiritual and mystical in its nature, and at the same time it is said to be real, and to unite the believer and Christ inseparably. The figures of the head and the members, and of the husband and wife, are used to illustrate this union, which is the work of God's grace in the heart of the believer. By means of this union the basis of communion between Christ and his people and of the communion of the saints with each other is laid.

In the Shorter Catechism stress is laid on the fact of faith in this connection. The Holy Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ by working faith in us, thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. This statement puts the stress upon the experimental or practical side of the great truth here taught, and thus faith is in the foreground.

These three aspects of the same great fact are exceedingly instructive, and, taken together, they supply a very complete view of the various factors involved in effectual calling. The Confession accents the change of nature, the Larger Catechism signalizes union with Christ, and the Shorter Catechism gives emphasis to faith in Christ, while the agent behind all three factors is the Holy Ghost. Thus, in the complex process by which the Spirit applies, and the believer receives, the benefits of Christ's redemption, there is the change of nature usually known as regeneration, the mystical union with Christ, the source of spiritual life, and saving faith, which is the sinner's act of appropriating Christ and his benefits. The first two are implied in effectual calling, and the third grows out of it. Effectual calling viewed Christwards effects spiritual union with him; viewed man-wards it produces regeneration, and in the sphere of man's activity it evinces faith in Christ. This is the complete statement of the matter as taught in the Standards.

II. The nature of effectual calling must now be more fully explained. It is a very important matter to understand the precise nature of that change of nature and union with Christ which effectual calling denotes. What was said in the previous paragraph paves the way for a more careful statement in this one.

1. The distinction between the external and the internal aspects of the calling now under notice is of some importance. This distinction is not fully set forth, though it is distinctly implied, in the Scriptures. The term effectual indicates that there is a peculiar phase of this calling or vocation to be considered. Then the Confession speaks of some who may be called by the ministry of the word, and who may have some of the common operations of the Spirit, yet who never truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved. And the Larger Catechism speaks in almost the same terms. This brings out the distinction between the two phases of the calling in question. The outward call is by the word, which is to be preached to all men. Some who hear it may not be saved. The inward call is by the Spirit, usually through the word, and it comes, as will be presently seen, to the elect. All who experience this call are surely saved. It is the latter aspect of the call which is termed effectual, and which is now under discussion.

2. This effectual call is entirely gracious in its nature. The Confession clearly asserts that this effectual call, addressed by the Holy Spirit to the elect, is of God's free and special grace alone. What are known as the common operations of the Spirit are not sufficient, hence the effectual grace is special. It is grace which changes the nature, unites to Christ, and works faith in us. Hence, it may also be called efficacious grace, or invincible grace.

And, as gracious, it does not rest in, nor spring from, anything foreseen in the nature or actions of men. Neither the believer's faith nor his good works can be the ground of the call, for these facts imply or follow effectual calling. Further, man is viewed as passive in experiencing this call; and, until quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is not able to answer the call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. But, when thus quickened and renewed by the effectual call which results in regeneration and union with Christ, the sinner is able to answer the call by the response which his personal faith gives. The Larger Catechism emphasizes the gracious nature of this call in slightly different terms. It is said to be a work of God's almighty power and grace, and that it is bestowed out of God's free and especial love to the elect, and while nothing in them moves him to bestow this grace, yet in the fulness of time he doth invite and draw them to Jesus Christ by his word and Spirit. Hence, the application of redemption is gratuitous at the very outset. Salvation is all of grace. The Arminian view, which requires, as a matter of justice at God's hand, common grace to restore man's lost ability, destroys the gracious nature of salvation at its very root; and the further Arminian claim, that the improvement of common grace purchases renewing grace, makes salvation depend upon the yet unrenewed will of man.

3. The several factors which enter into effectual calling are next to be considered. All the three parts of the Standards enumerate these factors in a somewhat similar way. Perhaps the clear-cut statement of the Shorter Catechism gives the best outline to follow in making further explanation of this doctrine.

First, There is conviction of our sin and misery. It has already been pointed out that, by reason of the fall, man is in a state of sin, misery, and guilt. The first thing which the Spirit does is to convince us of our sinful, miserable, and guilty condition, and to show us that we are without God and without hope in the world. This factor is properly set down first in order. The inward spiritual sense of sin, and the conviction of our ill-desert and guilt, is a very important matter in a true religious experience.

Secondly, The enlightenment of the mind in the knowledge of Christ comes next. This is, of course, spiritual enlightenment, and not merely intellectual knowledge. And it is not merely a general knowledge about Christ, but a knowledge which relates to him as the only means of deliverance from the guilt and power of sin. The Confession speaks of this as an enlightenment of the mind spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, while the Larger Catechism briefly describes it as savingly enlightening the mind. This is that spiritual discernment which the Scriptures say is necessary in order to know the things of God, which the natural man does not, and cannot, know.

Thirdly, The renewal of the will follows. This is the simple language of the Shorter Catechism. The Larger Catechism is more complete in its statement, saying that the will is not only renewed but also powerfully determined, so that, although dead in sin, we are made willing and freely able to obey his call. The Confession has a complete statement, to the effect that our wills are renewed by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good. This is the determining grace already spoken of in its bearing upon the will, in accordance with the true doctrine of the will as set forth in a former chapter. The Confession has a phrase at this point which is worth adding here. It says that the heart of stone is taken away and a heart of flesh is given. This statement clearly relates to the change of the nature of the believer, and thus of his moral states and dispositions, which is effected by regeneration.

Fourthly, Embracing Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel is the culmination of effectual calling. The will being renewed, the sinner is persuaded and enabled to accept Christ as his Saviour. The Holy Spirit by means of the word persuades, and by his divine operation in the soul enables, the sinner to embrace the Saviour as he is presented in the gospel message. The Larger Catechism says that we are invited and drawn to Christ in effectual calling, and are made able and willing to accept the call. The Confession says that we are effectually drawn to Jesus Christ, and at the same time we come most freely, being made willing by his grace. This is an admirable statement of an exceedingly difficult topic. We are effectually drawn, and our wills are determined by his almighty power; and yet that power is so exercised by the agency of the Holy Spirit that no violence is done to the faculties of our nature. The sinner comes to Christ as a free, rational, responsible agent, and yet he comes because he has been made able and willing to come. Thus the people of God are made willing in the day of his power.

III. The next question is: Who are the subjects of this effectual call? Under this general heading several subjects remain to be considered in this chapter. The four following topics are touched upon in the Standards: Those who are effectually called, the salvation of infants dying in infancy, the failure of some who hear the gospel to attain unto salvation, and the salvation of those who have never heard the gospel at all. These several points are now taken up in order, and very briefly considered. In regard to some of these topics there has been a good deal of controversy, and some of them have been made the ground of objection to the system of doctrine taught in the Standards. In regard to these controverted points the wise caution with which the Standards speak is abundantly evident.

1. Who are effectually called ? This question is referred to in several places in the Standards, and receives somewhat various answers. The Confession opens its statement upon this subject by saying that all those whom God hath predestinated to life, and those only, he is pleased in his appointed and accepted time, to effectually call by his word and Spirit. Others, not elected, may be outwardly called by the ministry of the word, yet are not inwardly called so as to truly come to Christ for salvation. The Larger Catechism says that all the elect, and they only, are effectually called, and that others, even though they may have the common operations of the Spirit, do never truly come to Christ. For their wilful neglect and contempt of the grace offered they are justly left in their unbelief. This simply means that the non-elect are not effectually called, but are just left in their sinful state. Another way to state the answer would be to say that all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption are in due time effectually called, and have that redemption so applied to them that they are made sure partakers of it. This, of course, leads back to the gracious purpose of God's electing love. All those who by that purpose are given in covenant to Christ are in due time redeemed by him, and in due season they have made good to them, by the word and Spirit of God in effectual calling, all that Christ has procured for them.

In this connection it is very instructive, as well as confirmatory of the teaching of the Standards at this point, to note that in the Scriptures the elect and the called are regarded as identical. For "whom he did predestinate, them he also called." All who are elected are effectually called, and those who are thus called are thereby assured of their election. The reason of this harmony lies in the fact that the eternal purpose of grace has regard not only to its end in the salvation of the elect, but also to all the means and agencies necessary thereto.

2. The second question relates to the salvation of infants dying in infancy, and of others, elect persons, who are incapable of receiving the outward call by the word. This raises a difficult question, which needs some careful remark. And there is the more need of careful explanation here, because the Standards have often been charged by ignorant persons with teaching infant damnation, and with giving no proper ground for the salvation of idiots. In general, it may be at once said that these charges are utterly unfounded. The teaching of the Standards at this point is entirely consistent with their teaching elsewhere. They also speak with the utmost care, and what they say relates only to those who are elected and saved, and not to the non-elected at all. The Confession simply says that elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit. It says not a word about any other infants, and leaves it open to make the reasonable inference that all infants so dying are among the elect. This inference is just as valid as to say that there are non-elect infants who die in infancy, for the contrast drawn in the Standards is not between elect and non-elect infants, but between elect persons who die in infancy, and elect persons who do not die in infancy. Elect persons who die in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, and in the case of elect persons who reach adult years, precisely the same conditions of salvation are required, only in the case of adult elect persons personal faith comes into exercise.

So all other elect persons, such as idiots and incapables of any sort, are saved by Christ and the agency of the Spirit. They are not saved because they are incapable of responding to the outward call of the word, but because they do receive the benefits of the mediation of Christ, and experience the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in their souls. Hence, when the root of the matter is reached, the conditions of salvation are the same in the case of all elect persons, whether they be infants, incapables, or adults. These conditions constitute effectual calling, whereby the elect are united to Christ and regenerated by the Holy Ghost, and thus made partakers of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. If any of these die in infancy faith does not emerge, but in case of others who do not die in infancy faith in the Saviour in due time appears.

To make the dogmatic statement in a creed that all infants dying in infant years are saved, whether of believers, unbelievers or pagans, can scarcely be justified by the Scriptures, although a well-grounded hope that this is true may be cherished, for where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. But it can with the fullest confidence be asserted, in the language of the Confession, that elect infants dying in infancy are saved, because they are regenerated and saved through Christ by the Spirit. This statement cannot be modified without trenching upon the fundamental positions of the Standards in regard to election and effectual calling. This teaching also magnifies the grace of God, and better than any other system provides a good and gracious ground for infant salvation. Thus, those who deny infant baptism cannot consistently maintain infant salvation, and those who make the decision for salvation turn finally upon the choice of the human will, apart from determining grace, have serious difficulty in giving any basis for infant salvation, unless they deny that the infant is guilty and depraved, or make its salvation depend on the mere fact that it happens, in the order of providence, to die in infancy. But the doctrine of the Standards is free from these and other difficulties, so that it may be confidently relied on as in harmony with Scripture and sound reason.

3. The failure of some who hear the outward call to attain to salvation is the third question to be considered. This point calls for but brief remark. The position of the Standards in reference to it is that all who hear the gospel and live within the visible church are not saved. This follows directly from what was stated in the previous section. By means of effectual calling we become members of the invisible church, which is the body of Christ, and those who are not so called are not saved, whether they belong to the visible church or not. Those who are not elected are not saved, and yet it is their wilful neglect of grace and continuance in sin which grounds their condemnation. Even the common operations of the Spirit are not enough, for, as has been seen, special renewing and determining grace is needed.

4. The last topic relates to the salvation of those who do not profess the Christian religion. This raises a wide and important inquiry, upon which the Confession announces no uncertain opinion. The persons who now are to be considered are not those who may profess but do not possess the benefits of redemption, but it is the case of such as do not profess the faith of Christ at all. This class includes the mere moralist and the profane man in Christian lands, and it also embraces the devotees of all forms of pagan religion. The cautious teaching of the Confession relates to the case of those who are seeking to frame their lives by the light of nature, or to follow the law of the religion, other than the Christian, which they profess. The position of the Standards upon this subject is that such persons shall not be saved, no matter how great their diligence or earnest their efforts. To assert that they may is very pernicious and to be detested, is the strong language of the Standards upon this matter. It will be observed that this teaching bears in a very practical way upon the faithful preaching of the gospel in Christian lands, and that it is of vital moment in regard to the spread of the gospel among the people of heathen countries. To teach, directly or indirectly, that the heathen may be saved without the knowledge of Christ which the gospel gives is unscriptural, and must be fatal to all missionary effort.

But the case is not now to be argued. The fact is simply pointed out that the teaching of the Standards is to the effect that, in the case of the moralist, he cannot be saved by the light of nature, be he ever so careful to frame his life by that light, for no man has ever so lived up even to this light that he has no sense of defect and sin. Even if it be admitted that salvation were possible by the light of nature, which could only be if man were unfallen, the fact remains that no mere man has ever fulfilled the conditions.

Then, in regard to the heathen, three things are to be kept in mind. First, A sense of hopeless guilt rests upon them, from whose awful burden their systems of religion do not set free. Secondly, The Scriptures insist upon such a change of heart and life as is never produced by any of the pagan systems of religion. Thirdly, The Scriptures plainly teach that men who are ignorant of the gospel, and who have no saving knowledge of Christ, go down to a hopeless eternity. The solemn teaching of the Scriptures, as set forth in the Standards upon this great topic, should be seriously pondered by all who are interested in the success of missionary labor.

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