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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Effectual callingEffectrix vocatio, Aug. Cruden gives a table setting forth fourteen different uses of this word in Scripture, beginning with the first and simplest use, “And God called the light Day” (Genesis 1:5). And the highest sense of this familiar word is seen in such scriptures as these, “God hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling.” “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.” Dr. Hodge, in his exhaustive and excellent chapter on “Vocation,” says: “The work of the Spirit is in the scriptures called VOCATION. It is one of the many excellences of the Reformed theology that it retains, as far as possible, scriptural terms for scriptural doctrines. . . The words of Scripture are the words of the Spirit, and it is becoming and important that they should be retained.” Effectual — Producing, or having adequate power or force to produce, an intended effect. As frequently in Paul, “a great door and effectual is opened to me;” “by the effectual working of His power,” etc. “Calling, in the sense in which Paul uses it, cannot fail, or remain ineffectual. In truth, calling and election are, with him, one and the same thing, with the one exception of the different epochs, which man necessarily assigns to the two acts in question” (Reuss).

the work of God’s Spirit — In the Larger Catechism it is called “the work of God’s almighty power and grace;” and in the Confession the work of God’s “word and Spirit.” A work like sanctification, not an act like justification and adoption. And the stages of the work are given in varied detail in the text and in the two documents named. “Spirit, as the word is used to signify the Third Person in the Trinity, is the substantive, from which is formed the adjective spiritual in the Holy Scriptures. Thus Christians are called spiritual persons because they are born of the Spirit, and because of the indwelling and holy influences of the Spirit of God in them” (Jonathan Edwards).

convincing us of our sin and misery — The first step the Spirit takes in our effectual calling is to convince us of sin. To convict, in ordinary speech, and especially in legal usage, is to prove an accused person guilty of the charge that has been laid against him. To convince, again, though originally and really the same word as to convict, has by long usage been restricted to intellectual and moral processes. To convince is to conquer the mind; it is to subdue any one by reason and argument; it is to force truth home on the understanding and heart. The phrase before us, conviction of sin, is an expression often made use of by experimental writers to set forth that conquest of divine grace when the soul of a sinner is so overcome that he feels and confesses himself corrupt, guilty, and lost. And that divine work — for a divine work it always is — is here set in the very forefront of the process of “effectual calling.”

The Holy Ghost, so to speak, frames an indictment, and carries a conviction in their consciences against sinners. He is always and above all the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth and of holiness, and if He is to enter our hearts effectually as the Spirit of grace and salvation, He must begin His work in truth. And the first stage of His work is finished when our mouth is shut under a sense of guilt and shame. But while conviction of sin is properly put in the foreground of our effectual calling, yet we are not to understand by that that the Spirit’s convicting work is past and finished when conversion is first effected. On the contrary, it is only the truly converted and spiritually enlightened man who sees or can see what Scripture calls the sinfulness of sin. It is not under the heavy and prostrating hand of the Spirit of bondage, but rather under the healing and sanctifying band of the Spirit of adoption, that we become spiritually and adequately convinced of sin. Let the student consult Hare’s Mission of the Comforter, Note L.

sin and misery — For misery, see Answers 19, 20, and 27. All men feel the widespread suffering that is in the world, but this doleful word misery is reserved in religious language to describe the experience of persons under the Spirit’s hand in effectual calling. See the Psalms throughout, and such books of experimental and evangelical religion as Grace Abounding.

enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ — “Savingly enlightening their minds” (Larger Catechism) ; “enlightening their minds savingly and spiritually to understand the things of God” (Confession). Darkness and light are terms which continually occur to describe a state of nature and a state of grace in the Scriptures. Heathenism is a life of darkness; Judaism, if not darkness, has its eyes under a dense veil; while an unregenerate state in Jew and Gentile is slavery in a kingdom of darkness. Believers alone are children of the light and of the day. They are light in the Lord. Nay, they are the light of the world.

In this part of His work the Holy Ghost turns the sinner’s attention, for a time at least, off himself and toward Christ and His salvation. And the knowledge of Christ now attained just corresponds to the soul’s new knowledge of sin; and these true branches of knowledge grow mutually and correspondingly to the end of life. Let a sinner be once truly convinced of sin, and let his eyes be also enlightened in the knowledge of Christ, and just in the measure of his conviction of sin and misery, the revelation of Christ will prove inexhaustible in its power, beauty, attractiveness, and grace. Yea, doubtless, such a man will count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ his Lord.

“Thou celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see.”
—Paradise Lost, iii. 51-54

renewing our wills — “renewing and powerfully determining their wills” (Larger Catechism); “renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good” (Confession).

There is a vast literature, ancient and modern, philosophical and theological, connected with the will, and the study is one of the profoundest on which the mind of man can enter. This deep and difficult subject cannot be entered on here. The religious and experimental outcome of the scriptural and confessional doctrine of the will is familiar to many through a well-known work of Scottish divinity—Boston’s Fourfold State. The fourfold state, that is, of the human will. Its state in Adam before the Fall; its state in his descendants before regeneration; the state of the will in the regenerate; and lastly, its state in the glorified. This is an old division; both the Schoolmen and the Fathers recognized it, and made use of it. (See Cunningham, vol. I.)

All the parts of man’s nature have suffered each their own peculiar injury by the catastrophe of the Fall, but it is those parts that have more immediately to do with God and His revealed will that have suffered most. And no part has suffered such a shock and hurt as the will. It is now by nature and in every unregenerate man turned away from God, and in bondage to sin and evil. It is not that man would do good, would return to God if he could; it is not that he cannot, he will not. “Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life.” There was no hand holding them back, no cord binding them but the bands of their evil will. This is what is meant when learned divines treat of the bondage and inability of the will.

The work of the Spirit in renewing the will and setting it free is secret, spiritual, and mysterious. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” At the same time the work of the Spirit is in a man, and though much of that work is necessarily mysterious and inscrutable, yet its results are such as by attention and care may be noted and known, as thus: — “First,” says one whose name occurs often in these notes, “ I felt my soul, and all the powers of it, as in an instant, to be clean altered and changed in the disposition of them. Secondly, I found from the same time the works of the devil to be dissolved in my heart in an eminent manner, my understanding enlightened, my will melted and softened, and of a stone made flesh, disposed to receive, and disposed to return to God. And, thirdly, I found my spirit clothed with a new nature, naturally inclining me to good; whereas before it was naturally inclined to evil. And I found in me henceforth two contrary principles, spirit against flesh, and flesh against spirit. And this difference I found, not by reading or hearing any one speak of it, but, as Austin did, I perceived it of myself and wondered at it; for I may say of this combat, that it is proper and peculiar to men that are regenerate.” Then follows an account of the influence that this great change had on his views of truth and on his way of preaching. And preaching on this very subject afterwards, he says: “When God turneth any man to Himself He fasteneth that man’s will. The Holy Ghost sits there, at the centre of his soul, and hath a chief hand upon the stern of a man’s spirit. My brethren, your wills are the slipperiest things in the world, the fullest of a lubricity, of a fickleness. . . . Therefore, above all, desire the Lord to fasten your wills, to hold His hand upon that stern always to guide you.” “The will,” says Manton, “is more corrupted than the mind : the understanding is much blinded, but the will is more depraved. . . . We are convinced often when not converted.” (On the whole subject of the will, see Macpherson’s Confession of Faith, chap. ix.; also Jonathan Edwards’ magnificent work, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will.)

doth persuade and enable — To persuade is to operate on the feelings and affections, and to draw the mind to a determination by presenting sufficient motives. “My brethren, it is not the offers of eternity; it is not all the persuasions of men or angels, nor of the Holy Ghost Himself, if they be but mere moral persuasions, will make a man part with a bird in the hand for two in the bush. My meaning is, that will make a man part with his lusts, or his pleasures and sins, and take and accept the offers of eternity; but it must be the power of God, with whom all things are possible, and He must put forth as much power to work this, as He putteth forth to work all things else” (Goodwin).

to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to usEn, and bras, the arm; to clasp in the arms, to cling to with warmth and earnestness : to cherish with affection. “Paul called unto him the disciples, and embraced them.” “Having seen and embraced the promises.”

in the gospel. “Godspell, the word of God” (Wedgwood). “The life of Christ. A. S. God, God; and spell a story, history, narrative. Thus the literal sense is the ‘narrative of God,’ i.e. the life of Christ” (Skeat). See Cruden for the scriptural sense of the word.

“The gospel call is universal in the sense that it is addressed to all men indiscriminately to whom the gospel is sent. It is confined to no age, nation, or class of men. . . . If therefore any one holds any view of the decrees of God, or of the satisfaction of Christ, or of any other scriptural doctrine, which hampers him in making the general offer of the gospel, he may be sure that his views or his logical processes are wrong. The apostles were not thus hampered, and we act under the commission given to them” (Hodge).

1. “I had rather feel compunction, than understand the definition thereof” (a Kempis).

2. “Consider, then, thou called soul, called with an holy calling, that through that little chink, or narrow passage from death to life, thy effectual calling, which was thy first entrance into thy eternity, thou mayest first contemplate that purposing grace of God’s will set on thee; for by calling election is made sure. . . . A saint’s being called is the immediate fruit and breaking forth of purposing and electing grace. Whom He hath predestinated, them He also called” (Goodwin).

3. “We were safer in slighting the Incarnation and Atonement of the Son of man, against whom sins may be forgiven, than in slighting the work of the Spirit, against whom, if we persevere in sin, it shall neither be forgiven in this life, nor in the world to come” (Irving).

4. A minister writes: — “When I catechise my children or my servants, I ask them, What is effectual calling? and they answer me according to what is written in their book. But now I am retired to catechise myself, must I not be careful to answer according to what is written in my heart? O my soul, what a difference there is betwixt answering this question by the words of the book, and from the experience of my own heart!”


1. Explain the theological terms—Outward Call; Inward Call; Common Grace; Sufficient Grace; Preventing Grace; Co-operating Grace; Sovereign Grace; Free Grace; Habitual Grace.

2. Explain Hooker’s words: Appetite is the will’s solicitor, and the will is appetite’s controller.

3. Explain the passage tn the Tenth Article of the English Church: The grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that will. What does the Confession, x. 4, mean by the phrase: Common operations of the Spirit?

4. What is the meaning of the statement: Conviction of sin is the punitive office of the Holy Ghost?

5. Explain and illustrate from Scripture the Puritan expression: law-work.

6. Study the development and distribution of the Spirit’s work as here set forth. Point out and shortly explain the five words that describe it, and honestly as yourself at each step of the study, Has that work been effectually wrought in me?

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