The proclamation of God’s saving grace in Christ to all who will hear it is central to the Christian church’s mission to the world. The making known of this good news is intended to be indiscriminate, for it is to any and every person without respect to his race, or creed, or personal circumstances. By means of preaching, and the reproduction of preaching in literature, tapes and radio, this call to come to Christ for mercy is made throughout the earth each day.
Christ Himself taught that the hearing of this call is necessary in order for a person to become a Christian (Matt. 13:1-23), and the apostles echo His teaching (Rom. 10:14). Paul says that faith — the faith that saves, that unites a person to Christ and which brings pardon and righteousness — comes by hearing, the hearing of the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). But not all who hear the Word of God are saved. This is obvious from the evidence of history, and it is also what is seen in the diverse responses to, Christ’s own teaching and to the preaching of the apostles. When the same announcement of the good news is made some are hostile to what they hear, others are indifferent, and still others receive what they hear and trust Christ (Acts 4:1-4).
Beginning with Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47), the reaction to Christian preaching has never been total acceptance, nor complete rejection. So when Paul preached to the Epicureans and Stoics at Athens (Acts 17) some of them mocked him when he mentioned the resurrection of the dead, some said that they would like to hear him on another occasion, while others became believers (Acts 17:34). The apostles cannot have been surprised at this, for there was a similar division when Christ preached the gospel.
THE TWO CALLINGS
What made the difference? What explains the division between those who accept and those who reject the preaching of the good news? It is tempting to look for an explanation of the difference in the way we explain other differences between people, in terms of class, or occupation, or age or personality. But the evidence provided by the New Testament does not lend any support to such an approach, for an examination of the lives of those who became Christians reveals a great variety of backgrounds, not one common factor. Some Christians were rich (Luke 19:1-10) and some were poor (I Cor. 1:26). Some were free (Gal. 3:28), others were slaves (I Pet. 2:18). There were young and old, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. Besides, there is not the least suggestion that the apostles thought that their message was for a particular group or type, nor that they believed that what they said was tailored to be more acceptable to some than to others.
So what makes the difference? Why is it that some believe the good news and some do not? What explanation does Scripture itself offer?
Scripture teaches that besides the general ‘call’, the preaching of the gospel to all alike, there is a further ‘call’, a call from God which itself brings a response from those who are called, the response of repentance and faith in Christ and of sincere obedience to what God requires. Not all who are called are called in this sense. Not all who are called by the general preaching of the gospel are called by God in such a way as to ensure the appropriate response.
This further call, the call that brings a response, comes directly from God. It is true that the general call of the gospel is from God as well, since God authorises and empowers men to preach, and they speak at His command. But the further, inward call is more immediately the work of God. One way that the New Testament has of making this clear is to say that while a preacher or teacher can teach the gospel to others, and encourage and warn them, only God by His grace can secure the acceptance of the good news. No matter how eloquent or clear or winsome a human preacher may be, what he says will not, by itself, bring hearers to faith in Christ. God alone can do such a thing. No doubt with Christ’s teaching in the parable of the sower in mind, Paul reminded the Corinthians that while one man may sow the seed, and another man may water, none but God can make the seed spring to life and bear fruit (I Cor. 3:6).
God’s effective call, the call which brings a response, is more than the general call of the gospel through preaching. And yet it would be misleading to leave the impression that when a person is converted through the preaching of the good news, when he is called by God, he experiences two separate calls, one from the preacher and another from God. It is not so. God’s direct call does not involve the person who is called in receiving another message, through a vision or voice or an inner prompting, besides the good news that he hears in common with all the others who hear it. There is one message of good news, exactly the same for all. A person is not converted by receiving an additional ‘secret message’.
But if the call from God which secures a response is not an additional teaching, what is it? It is the activity of God who makes a person receptive and responsive to the truth which he hears. The inward ‘call’ is not more information, it is the clearing and renewing of the mind of the one who hears so that he understands the good news. It is also the removing of the prejudice which all people have to the authority of God, and it is the renewing of the will in order that the response of faith and obedience may be made as the good news is announced.
For illustration, consider the difference between a skilled engineer and a novice. Both may listen to the idling of an engine and the skilled engineer may at once be able to tell what is wrong, what is causing the vibration or unevenness. Yet both the engineer and the novice hear the same sounds. What is a puzzle to one is immediately clear to the other. The difference is due to the training and experience of the engineer. But in the case of the effectual call of a sinner by God, the difference is not that the one called has certain aptitudes or abilities which the one who is not called lacks. Emphatically not. The difference is due to divine grace alone. And this grace shows itself in a difference in appreciation, a difference which is brought about by a change in the person’s innermost dispositions and attitudes, a change which only God can make.
Hence, in the conversion of a person through the proclamation of the Christian good news, there is a two-fold call. There is the general call of the gospel through preaching and there is the particular, effective call of God working a change in a person’s inner character to make him appreciative of the gospel and responsive to it.
If this double sense of ‘call’ is borne in mind then certain parts of the New Testament which are otherwise difficult to understand, and which may even seem to be contradictory, become clear. When Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says ‘But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (I Cor. 1:24), he is referring to their effectual calling, their calling by God through the preaching of the good news and their divinely-empowered response to it. That empowering took no account of wisdom or natural birth, and it was certainly not because of such matters. Paul says that, in general, God had called the poor and foolish among men in order to show that coming to Christ was nothing to boast about. It was certainly not due to greater natural intelligence or insight.
On the other hand, consider Christ’s words ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matt. 20:16). Here Christ is referring to the general call of the gospel, and teaching that while many are called outwardly through preaching, comparatively few are called effectually, are ‘chosen’. So Christ uses ‘chosen’ here to describe the effective activity of God in conversion, while Paul uses ‘called’. And yet the contrast is not as great as it may seem, for Paul also, in the passage already considered, writes of the ‘called’ as those whom God has chosen (I Cor. 1:27). And clearly the idea of choice, God’s choice, is very appropriate to describe the unilateral, effective way in which God makes His grace known to sinners in their conversion.
The fact that the effective call (or choice) of God is not a separate message or revelation from God, but that it accompanies the exposition of the gospel of grace in preaching, underlines the fact that conversion always occurs in circumstances in which the good news is made known. No one is converted who is ignorant of the way of salvation through God’s mercy in Christ. How could they be? To suppose such a thing would mean that such a person knew nothing at all about God’s mercy in Christ. But how could they go to God for mercy if they knew nothing about God’s mercy, and had no idea that they were warranted to go to God in their need? A person may be prepared by God for conversion at a time when he is ignorant of the good news. Such a person may come to experience an unaccountable need, a profound dissatisfaction with himself, an unnamed longing which he is unable fully to understand, or to satisfy, until Christ is preached to him and he comes to Christ for mercy. But this is unusual. Ordinarily it is as the good news is proclaimed that all the phases of effectual calling take place.
Why, in conveying His mercy to sinful people, does God work effectively, unilaterally, in the way described? Because there is no other way for Him to work. Such an answer is not meant to reflect unfavourably upon God, as though He was limited in power and goodness. It is not so much a comment on the power or goodness of God as upon the plight or need of mankind. Man’s plight is such that to suppose that he could be encouraged or cajoled into the kingdom of God would be to mock him. People in need of God’s mercy, with their faces turned away from Him, and in a condition which the New Testament describes as death (Eph. 2:1) and enmity (Rom. 8.7), will not respond even to the sweetest and most persuasive reasonings of God Himself until they are given strength to do so. The idea that people are neutral, and that they need someone or some influence to tip the balance in God’s favour, betrays a deep misunderstanding of the spiritual condition of mankind. Sin makes men hostile to God. Sin is hostility to God. Unconverted people live in opposition to Him. The only way in which they can be changed is to be turned about, to be given new life or recreated. The New Testament does not hesitate to use such radical language —the language of creation, new birth and resurrection — to describe how a person is brought to Christ.
So while the call of the gospel through preaching is general, without restriction, in accordance with Christ’s command to His servants to proclaim the good news in all the world, yet the inward, effectual call of God which makes the good news intelligible and acceptable, is particular. This effectual call does not come to classes of people as such, or to nations, but to individual people within classes or nations. This distinction between the general and the particular call applied equally well to Israel in the Old Testament era. And even if large numbers of people in a society become Christians at one and the same time it is not valid to infer from this that it has happened because they were somehow fitted or entitled to receive God’s mercy.
The character of the effective call of God shows more clearly than anything else that salvation comes to individual men and women only as a result of God’s mercy. When Paul preached at Athens (or Jesus preached in Galilee) why was it that some scoffingly rejected what he said and others received it? The explanation cannot be that God is not sufficiently powerful or wise effectively to call an Epicurean or a Stoic philosopher. Nor does the explanation lie in the fact that one person is naturally more inclined to be converted than another. Rather, conversion is explained by the fact that God sees fit to grant His saving grace.
Perhaps nothing highlights more clearly the sovereignly merciful character of the effective call than the fact that, while all need salvation, only some receive it. It could never be argued that people are converted because they deserve to be converted. If this were so why are not all converted, since all are equally needy?
Paul argues along these lines in Romans 9, where he discusses the case of Jacob and Esau. God had mercy on Jacob, while Esau was denied mercy. Paul shows that God’s treatment of them cannot have been on account of anything either of them did, since God had determined how to act before either of them had been born. But if God had mercy on Jacob and rejected Esau, could He not have had mercy on both, or rejected both? Why did He not treat them alike? Paul gives the unanswerable reply that God chose to distribute His mercy in the way He did, and not in some other way, simply because He is God. It is His right to dispense mercy as He pleases because He has dominion over all his creation, and all that He does is based upon perfect wisdom.
So the effective call of God, the call which secures a response, is not due to human goodness or human preparedness of any kind which might be thought to predispose God to favour one individual instead of another. Conversion has its source not in any qualifications which a person may have, but in the eternal election of God. Paul brings this out vividly when writing to the Thessalonian church. He says that when they were converted the good news came powerfully to them because of God’s prior choice of them. Because of this eternal choice, when the appropriate time came, God effectively called them as the good news was preached to them (I Thess. 1:4-7).
EQUALITY BEFORE GOD
Not only does God not grant His mercy exclusively to one particular human group or class, the New Testament is also clear and emphatic that receiving the good news with penitence and faith does not require any special aptitude or ability. While God’s mercy in Christ contains profound depths which the human mind cannot fully fathom (Rom. 11:33), nevertheless the good news of the gospel is simple and straightforward in its essentials. It does not require great cleverness to grasp it, though able men who have grasped it have found in it much food for thought, men of the calibre of Augustine of Hippo. And while faith in Christ has led some people to live amazing lives in which they devoted themselves to Christian learning, or to courageous missionary work, or to devoted service to the sick and dying, yet faith in Christ, while the product of divine grace, is nevertheless simple. A small child or an old person on the verge of death may have faith in Christ.
As Paul says, it is not as if, in order to become a Christian, a person has to engage in a spiritual search to locate Christ, to bring Him down from heaven. God is near to each one of us. As His word is proclaimed He is present. All that is required is that the person confesses Christ and believes in his heart that He is the divinely-appointed Saviour. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13).
This fact is both humbling and encouraging. It is humbling to any who may be inclined to think that they are well-qualified to become Christians. There is no such thing as being well-qualified to be a Christian. Becoming a Christian does not require a person to fill in an application form giving details of past education and experience. The only ‘qualification’ needed is the need of forgiveness and righteousness. Paradoxically, a person is qualified to come to Christ not by what he is or has achieved but by what he does not have and has failed to achieve. This is a humbling fact, a fact which has sent men away from Christ in sorrow, for example the rich young ruler who talked with Christ (Luke 18:23).
But if this fact is humbling it is also encouraging. If a person recognises his need of Christ he need lose no time in coming to Christ. For what should he wait? To become better qualified, a better person, more ‘worthy’ of Christ? Such ways of thinking, though natural, are twisted. They are natural because it is natural for sinful men to think of their relationship to God in terms of doing. But the good news of God’s mercy in Christ is free. It is not for the doers but for the trusters, not for those who have confidence in their own abilities or attainments but for those who rely upon Christ. The fact that nothing is needed to qualify a person to come to Christ but only the need for Christ — and everyone has this need — is something which the mind of man finds impossible to take in until he is changed by divine grace. Grace shows men that their need, and God’s mercy in Jesus, are perfectly matched.
What all this indicates is that Christians, as Christians, are equal with one another. They enjoy a God-given equality. For the effective grace of God in Christ which makes them Christians, comes to them not because they are specially qualified, but because of God’s love for them, and that alone. So it is nonsense to suppose that one Christian is more of a Christian than another, or that one Christian has more need of God’s grace to be saved than another. The jibe that all men are equal but that some are more equal than others, however true of the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, cannot be applied to Christians.
Yet the equality which all Christians enjoy needs to be clearly understood. The grains of sugar in a bag are all equal, but this kind of equality does not adequately convey the equality that all Christians have in Christ. The grains are separable and are lumped together in bags in a quite arbitrary way. But the equality which Christians have is better understood organically. It is the equality of cells in a living body rather than of inert and lifeless grains of sugar. The reason for this is that each Christian is united to Christ as his Head and Saviour. This is what Paul is teaching when he says that all believers are ‘one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28). As regards their relationship to Christ each is in exactly the same position even though one may be a slave and another free, one a man and another a woman.
So while there is equality in Christ, equality of status and relation, there is also difference. Paul is not saying that differences of age or sex or aptitude vanish when people become Christians. How could they vanish? How could becoming a Christian stop an old person from being old, or a woman from being a woman? So what Paul is saying is that, as regards a person’s relation to God, God’s grace to Christians is such that they cannot fail to be on an equal footing with one another, whatever the other differences among them might be.
But the New Testament portrayal of this equality is a fuller and richer one than the idea of cells in a body. It is the picture of the body and its limbs. Christ is the head of the body and believers are the limbs. Each limb is essential to the body, necessary for its proper functioning (I Cor. 12:14-24). There are differences in function between Christians just as the different parts of the body perform different functions.
Given the fact of the fundamental equality of all believers in Christ, and the body of Christ as consisting of different limbs, differences between Christians can only be functional. There is no difference in status or hierarchy between Christians so that one group is essentially different from, or superior to, others. This would be a violation of the equality which all Christians have in Christ. The differences between Christians arise out of differences in gifts and abilities and opportunities, and these lead to different Christians performing different functions. Carrying out these different functions is to be characterised not by dominion but by service, as Paul taught (2 Cor. 4:5), clearly following Christ’s own teaching in the Gospels (Matt. 20:25-28).
Sometimes the biblical idea of Christian diversity in unity, a diversity of function carried out in a spirit of service, has been exaggerated into that of a hierarchy uniquely gifted in virtue of ordination to perform and validate certain indispensable rites. At the other extreme diversity has been denied, with a great emphasis placed upon uniformity. Such an attitude was characteristic of certain aspects of mediaeval monasticism, the idea of a monastic brotherhood. Again, in a different historical situation, this attitude can be seen in the Anabaptist movement in which Christian equality took the form of communistic living.
The equality before God which, as we have seen, is an integral part of God’s effective call of sinners through Jesus Christ is not based upon the assertion of individual rights. Such assertiveness, though characteristic of modern political equality, is destructive of the spiritual equality of all Christians. For self-assertion denies the grace of God in much the same way as the person who claims to be humble calls his humility in question in making the claim. Christian equality is characterised not by the mutual self-assertion of rights but by mutual submission.
THE CALL OF GOD AND FREEDOM
Sometimes the Bible expresses man’s plight as imprisonment, as bondage. A person who is outside Christ is a willing captive, willing because he does not, left to himself, choose any other position. And yet his manner of life, when lived out consistently, is a denial of his humanity, for sin has a constricting and distorting effect upon its captives. But Christ is a liberator. He brings deliverance to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind (Luke 4:18). He proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord, the year of Jubilee, when slaves are freed and debts are paid (Luke 4:19).
The idea that Christ is a liberator is nowadays often taken to mean that He advocated political liberation from Roman oppression and that He was primarily concerned with the political needs of the poor. It is also held that, by implication, the Christian Church ought to follow Christ and, where need be, engage in political revolution on behalf of the oppressed. But an examination of Christ’s actions and His teaching as recorded in the Gospels shows that this is not so. Christ had compassion on cases of individual need. But far from encouraging revolt or disaffection Christ clearly distinguished between political and spiritual authority (Matt. 22:21). And on the famous occasion of Peter’s confession of Christ’s messiahship at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:16), when Peter remonstrated with Christ on hearing Him foretell His own capture and death, Christ regarded this protest as nothing less than a Satanic temptation. It seems that Peter believed at this stage that Jesus was a political Messiah who had arrived to overthrow the Romans. But Christ rebuked him, and the other disciples. He invited them to follow Him in self-denial.
On another occasion, when Christ was invited to become a judge and to adjudicate in a dispute over an inheritance He refused to do so (Luke 12:14) and used the occasion to warn people against covetousness. And, faced with crucifixion, Christ rebuked Peter’s attempt to defend Him by the use of physical force (John 18:36), insisting that His kingdom was not of this world, and had no use for swords or other weapons. Could anything be clearer than that Christ was not a political revolutionary or liberator and that political change had no place in the coming of the kingdom?
But did He not take up the cause of the poor? When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask whether or not He was the Messiah did not Christ point John to the signs of His messiahship, to the fact that the blind received their sight and that the poor had the gospel preached to them? (Matt. 11:5). When Christ taught in the synagogue, did He not claim to be fulfilling Old Testament prophecy in that He was the one whom the Lord had anointed to preach good news to the poor? (Luke 4:18). Did not Christ bless the poor and pronounce woe on the rich? (Matt. 5:3, Luke 6:24).
To assume that ‘the poor’ in these passages are those who have no money is to misunderstand what Christ was teaching. When announcing His mission to the poor Christ quoted from Isaiah 61 which is concerned with the proclaiming of forgiveness to the humble, to the God-fearing, to those who are ‘poor in spirit’. So the term ‘poor’ has a spiritual rather than an economic or political meaning. It refers to those who do not trust to financial prosperity or political programmes to deliver them, but who trust in the divine mercy.
Christ warns more than once of the danger of riches. But He does not give this warning because riches are politically unacceptable, or because riches are always ill-gotten, but because money almost invariably has the effect of taking the heart away from God (Luke 12: 15) though even in such cases God’s grace is able to do the seemingly impossible (Matt. 19:26).
Yet while ‘liberation theology’ is an obvious distortion of the New Testament good news it is equally mistaken to think of Christian freedom as freedom to do whatever one wants to do without restraint.
Freedom from certain restraints is often a blessing. Thus it is a blessing to be free from the coercing and persecuting action of the state. But we are not to conclude from this that the state has no responsibilities to its members, nor that individuals have no responsibilities to the state (Rom. 13:1-7), nor that it is of no importance what people believe and how, if at all, they worship. It is rather that a politically enforced religion is a contradiction in terms. And while the freedom to worship in public is valuable this does not mean that anyone ought to be free to worship exactly as he pleases. No religion is likely to be tolerated — or ought to be tolerated — which involved, say, human sacrifice, or the removal of children from their parents, or the opening-up of the graves of the recently-buried. Freedom of worship is freedom sanctioned by law. And this applies to freedom in other personal matters and in economic and social life. It might plausibly be argued that, due to the selfishness of men and women, it is not so much the law which restrains liberty as the law which prevents anarchy and makes liberty possible.
A measure of personal liberty, freedom from arbitrary coercion by others, is normally an advantage to the Christian church. It permits the preaching of the gospel in public and allows the development of Christian talent (I Tim. 2:2). Yet political freedom is not essential to the church, which has existed and even flourished under conditions of persecution.
So while it would be mistaken to think of Christian freedom as ‘liberation theology’ envisages it, it would be equally wrong to think of it as a freedom to do what a person wants to do without any restraint.
It is true that when a person is effectively called by God’s grace he is freed from the coercing and enslaving effects of sin. But he is not his own master. God’s call unites a person to Christ (Eph. 2:5,6). And as a Christian the one who is called now strives to serve Christ, ‘whose service is perfect freedom’. The Christian experiences moral and spiritual freedom.
Yet to describe this as ‘moral’ and ‘spiritual’ freedom does not mean that it is secret and private and that it has no bearing on everyday life. On the contrary, as Christ’s servant the Christian begins to live in a way which fulfils his true, truly human, nature. Christian conversion is restoration, re-creation (Eph. 4.24). While the idea of ‘re-creation’ clearly implies the sharpest kind of discontinuity between the old life and the new life, what is being re-created is the true nature of men and women in God’s knowledge and service.
To put it rather differently, the Christian is called to follow Christ, the last Adam, in whose image all who are in Him through faith share. They have His image partly now, completely hereafter (Rom. 8:29). And as Christ’s character enabled Him to keep the law of God faultlessly, so the believer, being called to follow Christ, is called to keep God’s law. So, paradoxically perhaps, Christian freedom consists in keeping the commandments of God. By his effective call by God’s grace the believer is so changed — given a new nature — that he wants to keep God’s law. As Paul puts it, he delights in the law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:22). Before his conversion the law of God was a burden to him, a chain from which he wished to be free. Now his new nature, in conflict with the old, approves of the law of God. God’s law is no longer thought of as a way in which God’s favour might be gained, for Christ has gained forgiveness and righteousness for him by keeping the law of God and by dying as the suffering Saviour in his place. The law is now the rule of his life which he delights in and aims to uphold, an aim which brings continual clashes and conflicts between the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ (Rom 7:22-24).
Yet the Christian does not only have to keep the law of God. He has an actual, inspirational embodiment of such law-keeping in Christ. Jesus ‘personalises’ the law of God, not by adding to it or subtracting from it, but by summing it up and perfectly expressing it in His own life, in the drama of His earthly ministry and His self-offering on the cross. It is to Christ’s example that the apostles frequently point (Phil. 2:5), as did Christ Himself (John 13:3-17) in order to inspire and to fire the moral imagination of believers.
Christ is not a mere moral teacher or hero. He whom the Christian is called to follow is the one who is his Saviour. Gratitude to God for such a Saviour provides the spur for Christian discipleship. Not the vain desire for self-salvation, or for a rigid and correct moralism, but the confident and well-grounded assurance that Christ has gained salvation for him moves the Christian to follow Christ.
So Christian freedom does not consist either in political liberation from poverty or oppression, or in the freedom to do whatever one wants to do, but in the structured freedom from the constraining power of sin to serve God in the keeping of His law. The Christian is not to use his freedom as an excuse for immorality but as an opportunity for service (Gal. 5:13).
To modern ears the word ‘law’ conjures up endless rules and regulations, sections and sub-sections, the detailed and complex legislation that is needed to govern a modern industrial society. But the Christian’s relation to the law of Christ is not like, say, the relation of an employer to health and safety regulations. The Christian is not given a rule or regulation to cover every move he makes. Nor is he to want to have such a system of rules. Rather, the detailed application of the law of Christ in his own life must be worked out in the light of the application of the general principles of the law of God to his detailed circumstances. The Christian is called upon to exercise mature, and maturing, judgment. In similar circumstances to other Christians he may find himself differing as to what is the right thing for him to do, because, though similar, circumstances may nevertheless make important differences. The Christian may consult others in forming his conclusions about what to do. He may make use of accumulated Christian wisdom, or indeed anything else which he finds of help, but in the last resort the decision to follow Christ in this particular way is his, and his alone. This is another aspect of Christian freedom, the freedom to assess and judge situations for oneself. We shall take up these themes in more detail in chapter four.
AN EMERGING PATTERN
The call of God, the effective call which itself brings a response, does not come to one particular class or type of person, though often men and women who are otherwise insignificant are called by God’s grace. Even so, God does not call and form His church on the basis of age or sex or race or income, but calls individuals from a wide variety of circumstances. Such people, in all their diversity and individuality, are called by grace into spiritual equality in the church. They are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28). This is one half of the pattern.
Yet the call of God to people of diverse backgrounds and types ought not to nullify or eliminate their individuality; rather it should elevate and transform it. This diversity covers not only the diversity of function within the church (I Cor. 12) but also differences which are revealed in everyday life, differences which relate to work and leisure, and to family and cultural life. God’s grace in Christ, although it ensures the equality and unity of all believers, does not reduce Christians to a lowest common denominator, ironing out all their individuality and making them into robots or zombies. Christians come from diverse backgrounds, and have widely differing talents and opportunities. But divine grace ought to elevate and transform the individuality of Christians. This is because the person who is effectively called by God’s grace has the desire to serve God, moved by gratitude for what God has done for him through Christ. Such a person wants to follow every command of God.
Summing up, what we have seen can be expressed as follows: the effective call of God, while it secures the spiritual equality and unity of those who are called, does not eliminate human diversity but transforms it.
Does this mean that Christians adopt a distinctive ‘life-style’? Yes and no. It depends partly upon their circumstances. The life of a person who is a Christian in a Hindu village in rural India will be very different from that of his Hindu neighbours, while that of a Christian in modern Europe will usually be less conspicuous. Great as any such contrasts may be, there can never be an absolute contrast, as if the Hindu and the Christian had nothing in common. Any society must have certain public standards of honesty, respect for property and for family life, and the obligation to meet certain essentials. Such matters are generally consistent with the law of God even though many other aspects of the manner of life of a Hindu — or the average city-dweller in Europe — will be distasteful to the Christian and may present acute personal difficulties for him.
The law of God which the Christian is called to obey is not alien to his true nature. It is that law which, when lived consistently, enables a person to be truly himself, not a member of a different species, but a full human being. And so it follows that the law expresses many values and meets many needs that someone who is not a Christian will at once recognise as being among his needs. Even those without the law often do the things contained in the law, as Paul says (Rom. 2:14). Some of these have already been mentioned — the need for honesty in dealings, for the maintenance of family life, for respect for human life and property — these are the most obvious, and they are observed in part the world over, simply because without them no society could exist. And so Christian freedom does not require that a person leaves society, to live alone in the desert or in a remote commune, though there may be some situations in which the Christian is forced to stand aloof, as well as many practices in which it would be inconsistent for him to engage.
So the distinctiveness of the Christian is not always to be found in what he does but in the motives which bind him to his Lord. For he strives to serve and emulate Christ, while the non-Christian lives in a way which ignores the claims of God on him, or even in a way which is hostile to such claims.
Yet sometimes the Christian is called upon to be different from others precisely because he is called to follow Christ. In his first letter Peter was faced with the problem of how Christian slaves were to behave, particularly when they had hostile and awkward masters who made them suffer. Peter begins by distinguishing between that suffering which is brought about by a person’s own sinful failure and that which comes simply because the person in question is a Christian. A Christian ought not to suffer as an evil-doer. And yet it may be that a Christian will suffer simply because he is a Christian. For instance, in Peter’s time the Christian who was a slave might have to refuse to do what he regarded as immoral and to run the risk of punishment. What ought he to do? Ought he to change his behaviour, or to run away? According to Peter the Christian slave was to draw inspiration from the example of Christ who neither looked for revenge nor became deceitful but who committed himself to the righteous judgment of God (I Pet. 2:21-3).
Here was a clear occasion on which the non-Christian and the Christian slave might be expected to behave differently. For when a person suffers it is ‘natural’ for him to look for revenge. Peter advised against this, and counselled the Christian slave to be consistently Christian — and to behave accordingly. Peter even went so far as to say that Christians are ‘called’ to such a life (I Pet. 2:21). To respond in this way to suffering was a part of God’s appointment no matter when such an occasion might arise. Peter here introduces a further aspect of ‘calling’, which is different from though related to the effective call of God’s grace.
Paul Helm teaches at the University of Liverpool. He has written Calvin and the Calvinists (1982) and The Beginnings (1986), published by The Banner of Truth Trust. This article is taken from his book, The Callings: The Gospel in the World, also published by the Banner of Truth, 1987