This article is part of our Wycliffe Faculty series, in which the faculty of such diverse departments as biblical studies, theology, and history write about mission and evangelism. As somewhat of a shift from Good Idea’s usual focus, we hope you enjoy reading about the perspectives on the mission of the Church today.
We often think about the idea of God’s call in relation to specific roles. Those who are ordained are called, and those engaged in various other forms of full-time ministry may be called, but we are less likely to use this vocabulary in relation to other positions.
This dominant pattern of usage both reflects and distorts the way that the vocabulary of calling is used in Scripture. Paul indeed speaks of his calling to be an apostle (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:15–16), but all who believe are called to follow Christ (Rom 9:24, 1 Cor 1:24). The vocabulary of calling fits Paul’s apostolic role so appropriately because his role is to proclaim the gospel through which God calls others. It is therefore unsurprising when Paul uses the vocabulary of calling to refer back to the point at which his readers became followers of Christ: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you (pl.) were wise by human standards . . .” (1 Cor 1:26), and “Were you (sing.) a slave when called?” (1 Cor 7:21). The vocabulary of calling is a way in which Paul describes conversion: “Paul uses it to mark the point when God applies salvation” (Ian Hussey, The Soteriological Use of Call by Paul and Luke [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018], 85).
There are several aspects of how Paul uses the vocabulary of calling in this way that ought to shape our thinking about conversion, and therefore about evangelism.
Call as Creation
In Rom 4:17, Paul speaks of the God in whom Abraham believed as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” God produced a son from the functionally dead bodies of Abraham and Sarah, God raised Jesus from the dead, and this same God gives life to those who believe. As Calvin comments: “when we are called of God we arise out of nothing” (The Epistles of Paul to the Romans and Thessalonians, trans. R. Mackenzie [Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1961], 96). For a person to come to faith in Jesus is such a manifestation of divine power that the only appropriate analogy is the act of creation itself.
Call as Divine Freedom and Sovereignty
As the quotations above from 1 Corinthians illustrate, Paul discerns a pattern in whom God calls. The congregation in Corinth is predominantly composed of those of low social status, which reflects a divine purpose: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:28–29). God’s choice of those whose social status is so low that they can be included in the descriptive phrase “things that are not” is of a piece with the mystery of the cross. From a human perspective, the cross is itself an absurd vehicle for a display of divine power—and yet it saves those who embrace its message (1 Cor 1:18). In drawing attention to the calling of those of low status, Paul purposes to emphasize divine freedom and sovereignty, not constrain it. He is not seeking to establish low status as a qualification for divine calling. Nevertheless, while there will be exceptions, a sovereign God is also unlikely to change his spots and act in our world today by calling large numbers of those enjoying high status.
Call to Community
With the important exception of the call of Israel as a nation (Rom 9:7, 11:29), Paul does not speak of groups of people being called. And despite this pre-existing call of Israel, Paul speaks of Jews being called to be in Christ on the same basis as Gentiles (Rom 9:24, 1 Cor 1:24). The message of the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23) as groups—but those who are called cease to share the attitude toward Christ and his cross typical of the ethnic groups from which they come. God does not call people to follow Jesus on the basis of their group identity, but as individuals. Yet those who are called to Christ do not merely remain individuals. Paul says to the Corinthians that “you (pl.) were called into the fellowship of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). They are now the assembly (church) of God in Corinth, and they are together with “all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2). The call to follow Jesus comes to individuals, but it makes of them a people. The call to follow Jesus is always also a call to the community of the church.
Call to Sainthood
As the church, believers are “called to be saints” (literally “holy ones”) (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2), terminology that acts as a counterpoint to Paul’s own call as an apostle (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1). In terming the congregations of his readers “saints,” Paul is drawing on language of holiness that in the Old Testament is applied to persons, things, or locations set apart in the context of worship. Yet, as in the case of Israel, this holy “set apartness” is to apply to the whole of the church’s life as God’s people, and therefore has ethical consequences. It must be instantiated in behaviour, for “the saints will judge the world” (1 Cor 6:2). The call to follow Jesus is always also a call to be a community marked by holiness of life.
Paul’s use of the vocabulary of calling does not provide us with a methodology for evangelism, but it does provide us with some important perspectives on the process of conversion and raises significant questions:
- Do we recognize that what we are seeking is nothing less than the re-creation of a person by the power of God?
- Do we recognize the freedom of God manifested in the calling of those who lack human markers of status?
- Do we love the church and recognize its centrality to the call to follow Jesus?
- And are we concerned for the holiness of the church, that the gospel might be communicated in a fully embodied way?