Defining “Call”

The concept (and even language!) of “calling” is used throughout the New Testament—by at least seven different authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, Peter, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews. Although their use of “calling” is textured and nuanced, this idea seems to crop up in three separate contexts: calling as salvation, calling as lifestyle, and calling as commission.

Calling as Salvation

Often in the New Testament writings, “calling” is used synonymously with the idea of “salvation”—as a shorthand way to refer to God’s gracious act of rescue and redemption. In this sense, all Christians have been “called” because all Christians have been saved.

This seems to be the meaning understood by both Matthew and Mark when Jesus announces “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13; Mk 2:17). Luke uses this same phrase, but appends to it the words “to repentance” (Lk 5:32)—defining this “call” as an invitation to sinners to turn from sin. True enough. But Matthew and Mark appear to have something larger in mind: not just an invitation to turn from sin but a divine election, a divine choosing, in which sinners are “called” from death to life, from sin to righteousness.

Paul uses “calling” in a comparable manner in several passages. In the eighth chapter of Romans, for example, Paul speaks of Christians who “have been called according to [God’s] purposes” (Rom 8:28) … believers who (having been “predestined”) were then called, justified, and glorified (Ro 8:30). In such passages, Paul refers to people—once lost and alienated— who have been chosen and called into God’s salvation. Thus, he talks about “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son” (1Cor 1:9) and “the one who called you by the grace of Christ” (Gal 1:6)—referencing a divine initiative to which his readers listened and responded. He speaks of “the hope to which [God] has called you” (Eph 1:18) and of being called“heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14)—a movement towards hope and heaven prompted by God’s saving work.

In a similar manner, Paul speaks frequently of a “calling” that has a distinct historical identity—an event which believers can remember. He asks the Corinthians to recall their status (circumcised, slave) at the time when they were called (1Cor 7:17-24). He encourages Timothy to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1Tim 6:12)—a specific time and context.

Peter (“who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”—1Pet 2:9), the Hebrews writer (“brothers, who share in the heavenly calling”—Heb 3:1), and Jude (“to those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ”—Jude 1) all seem to use the concept of “calling” in a comparable way—as a synonym for and shorthand reference to the time when God saved believers and added them to his church.

Calling as Lifestyle

Almost as frequently, however, the concept of “calling” is used of the holy, consecrated lifestyle that believers in Christ and members of his body are expected to adopt. Once again, this “calling” applies to all Christians because all Christians are expected to live transformed lives.

Thus, Paul can remind the Roman Christians that they have been “called to be saints” (or “holy ones”—Rom 1:7). He urges (repeatedly) that believers “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph 4:1; 1Thess 2:12; 4:7; 2Thess 1:11; 2Tim 2:19). This “worthy life” includes a commitment to peace (1Cor 7:15) and to unity (Eph 4:4).

It is especially in Peter’s writings that the calling extends beyond righteousness and purity to suffering: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Pet 2:21; 3:9; 5:10). According to Peter, and in some real sense, believers have been “called” to suffering, to the endurance of persecution, and to difficult task of returning curses with blessing—to suffer in a Christ-like way.

In each of these instances, this “call” is less to salvation than to worthiness … to a consecrated lifestyle that results from the call to the salvation but extends beyond it to holiness.

Calling as Commission

But there is, additionally, a use of “calling” language in Scripture that refers not to salvation or holiness but to leadership and mission. In the Bible, specific people are called at particular times to lead distinct groups through unique situations. Israel is enslaved in Egypt, so God speaks to Moses through a burning bush. Israel wanders from God, so “the word of the Lord” comes to a particular judge or prophet or priest to take up the mantle of leadership. The Gentiles of the first century need to hear the good news of a Jewish Messiah, so God shouts at Saul (on the road) and commissions him for a distinctive work.

In this use of calling, however, there is a important distinction. This is not a call that applies to all believers in God, all citizens in his kingdom. It affects all, and (in a very real sense, as we will see) constrains all, but it isn’t directed to all. It is a targeted calling, a personalized invitation, an offer of God with a specific person in mind.

It is in this sense that Noah and Abraham and Moses were “called.” It is in this more narrow sense that the Judges and Samuel and David were called. God had a role in mind for them, particular business to which he commissioned them. An ark, a nation, a promised land, a dynasty resulted from God’s call and from the obedience of individuals. But this call was not for everyone. God didn’t take out ads in the Ugaritic Times for anyone “interested in a promising opportunity.” This was not an egalitarian call, open to all, unrestricted and universal. It was a call directed to certain persons, involving particular tasks. “I want you,” God said. “I want you and no one else. And here is what I want you to do.”

This is the sense in which Jesus “calls” his apostles, inviting them to play a specific and defined role in his kingdom. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). But the call was for James and John, not their father (Matthew 4:21-22). The call was for Philip and Andrew, not the other disciples of John the Baptist (John 1:35-44; 3:25-26). The call to “follow me” was issued to all manner of people, no doubt (see Luke 9:59). But the call to follow as an apostle was much more limited. There were many who were “called” to follow Jesus (e.g., Mary and Lazarus) who were not “called” to be apostles.

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19)

This is the sense in which Ananias was “called” to visit Saul: “The Lord called to Ananias in a vision … ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul’” (Acts 9:10-11). A specific man sent to accomplish a specific mission.

It is in this sense that Paul understands his calling: not a general invitation to which he happened to respond but a specific invitation, issued to him particularly, and attached to a very precise mission. So he can refer to himself as “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1); “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1Cor 1:1); and “set apart from birth and called by God’s grace” (Gal 1:15).

Paul’s calling was attached directly to a mission: preaching to the Gentiles. He believed that his apostleship was bestowed on him in order “to call people from among all the Gentiles” (Rom 1:5) and to be “a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (1 Tim 2:7). His apostleship “entrusted” him “with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:7). It was for that specific responsibility Paul believed himself to have been “appointed a herald and an apostle” (1 Tim 2:7). This role and mission was a “grace given” to Paul by God himself (Gal 2:7-9).[1]

Finally, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of those who hold a high-priestly role using this same sense of the notion “calling.” Such people, to be legitimate, must be “selected from among men and appointed to represent them” (Heb 5:1). This selection, this appointing is not self-conferred or peer-bestowed, however: “No one,” says the writer, “takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (Heb 5:4). A specific role with specific responsibilities, requiring a specifically selected individual, appointed by God himself.

Each of these instances makes reference to a kind of “calling” that involves leadership positions, filled by chosen individuals who are commissioned to accomplish particular tasks.

We believe in the “call” of God to salvation. We believe in the “call” of God to sanctified living. But do we believe in the more limited “call,” the more focused “call,” to lead God’s people? Is such calling a thing of the past? Does God no longer call people in this sense? Or have we simply become deaf to his call, heedless of his choosing, and blind to the people  on whom he has placed his hand?


[1]               Barnabas experienced such a call on his life (Acts 13:2). So, apparently, did Timothy (1 Tim 6:11-20; 2 Tim 1:6-14; 4:1-2).