Books Soteriology

Horton on effectual calling and perseverance

Michael Horton’s presentation

In chapter 5, Michael Horton takes up the fourth and fifth points of  “TULIP,” which he places in covenant context. He distinguishes the Sinaitic covenant of law from the Abrahamic covenant of promise/grace, and he then unpacks the new covenant doctrines of effectual calling and perseverance. The overarching truth which Horton unfolds in this chapter is the conviction that “all that Christ has won for us, outside of us in history, is given to us when the Holy Spirit unites us to him through faith.” That effectual calling “yields the treasures of our union with Christ: justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification” (101).

Effectual calling (the “I”) is first described in its relationship to election (the “U”), and Horton helpfully provides much biblical support for the connection of these two aspects of God’s saving work, which are the “execution of an eternal covenant of redemption within the context of a historical covenant of grace. . . . God’s sovereign grace guarantees the success of evangelism and missions” (102).

Next, effectual calling is related to the bondage of the will (the “T” of the familiar formula). It is our fallen condition that necessitates the regenerative work of the Spirit which makes God’s call effectual in the lives of the elect. Here Horton acknowledges that evangelical Arminians affirm the necessity of grace for conversion, but they make the effectiveness of the Spirit’s work dependent upon human cooperation, in contrast with its dependence upon the divine will and work, in Calvinism.

It is common for contemporary Calvinists to dislike “irresistible grace” as a descriptor of God’s effective work by the Spirit, and Horton gives 5 pages (105-10) to this point. His distinction of the Calvinist doctrine of effectual calling from the caricature of Calvinism, “that God drags people into heaven kicking and screaming against their will” (105), is expertly presented. Here is the problem with the term “irresistible”: it gives the impression that God’s grace is coercive. In fact, Calvinists teach that it is in our sinful condition that we are bound, whereas God’s saving grace is effective precisely because it frees us, so that we willingly respond to God in repentance and faith. This point is captured in the classic distinction between natural and moral ability. “The problem is not the power to will and to do but the moral  determination of that willing and doing by slavery to sinful autonomy” (106). This teaching is demonstrated from the Reformed confessional tradition, including the Second Helvetic and the Westminster Confessions, and the Canons of Dort. All make it clear that God effectively draws sinners to himself by more than moral persuasion, but without coercion, so that “the ‘new creation’ is simultaneously effective and uncoerced” (109), analogous to the original creation. Note that effectual calling is here equated with regeneration, and it is placed within the trinitarian economy. “The Father objectively reveals the Son and the Spirit inwardly illumines the understanding to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6; cf. John 1:5; 3:5; 17:3; 1 Cor 2:14), liberating the will not only to assent to the truth but to trust in Christ (Jer 32:39-40; Ezek 36:26; Eph 2:1-9; Heb 8:10)” (110).

Further distinction is made between effectual calling/regeneration and conversion (110-15). “In the former, we are passive: acted upon and within by the triune God through the gospel. In the latter we are active (having been ‘activated’ by grace), since we are raised from spiritual death to everlasting life” (110). The point of this section is to distinguish the Calvinist understanding from “the Arminian error of thinking that repentance and faith cause the new birth, or the hyper-Calvinist error of thinking that because the new birth precedes our response, there is no place for the latter” (110). For Calvinism, repentance and faith are necessary conditions of salvation, and are therefore commanded, but they are gifts which God promises to give to his people. The nature of repentance and faith is carefully described with copious reference to Scripture, including demonstration of the continuity between God’s work of salvation in the old and new covenants.

Now Horton is ready to take up the fifth point, perseverance of the saints, in the remainder of the chapter (115-23). He begins by stating the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification: “the faith that receives Christ apart from works for justification also receives Christ for works in sanctification” (117). As per the “golden chain” in Romans 8:30, “all of those who are chosen in Christ, redeemed by Christ, and called into union with Christ receive every blessing, including glorification” (117). Thus the verdict of God in justifying us is never reversed. Wisely, however, Horton counsels against laxity and presumption, noting that, as was true under the old covenant, not all members of the new covenant community, the church, have genuine faith. Apostasy therefore occurs within the covenant community, but God keeps his elect in faith.

Horton distinguishes the consistent monergist understanding of perseverance taught by Calvinism from three alternatives:

  • consistent synergism, as found in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Arminianism, affirms the necessity of grace for salvation but teaches “that the believer’s security depends at least to some extent on his or her own cooperation with God’s grace, and this grace may be finally lost” (121).
  • inconsistent synergism, often known as “eternal security,” locates security in the believer’s decision to accept Christ, but it argues that those who do this, even if they live as “carnal Christians” may leave the church or even deny Christ, so that they lose the blessings of “victorious Christians” and the rewards for faithful service in the next life, but they will be saved “as through fire” (122).
  • inconsistent monergism is Horton’s designation for the teaching of Confessional Lutheranism, which agrees with Reformed theology that the elect will persevere, but posits that some who have truly believed, and been regenerated and justified, will lose these gifts because of apostasy (123). 

My reflections

There is no substantive difference between my understanding of these two soteriological doctrines and that of Michael Horton, and I appreciate the expertise with which he has laid out this doctrine clearly and with good biblical support, in a concise manner. I have a few comments to make and questions to raise, however, in the interests of advancing the church’s discussion of these important doctrines.


Given my affirmation of a double intention in Christ’s atoning work, in a few previous posts, I was struck by a pleasant harmony between that understanding and the classical Reformed distinction, restated by Horton, “between the general call, which is universal, and the effectual call, through which the Spirit draws the elect to Christ” (101 [emphasis mine]). I’ll be happy if you notice how well this coincides with Christ’s intent to make atonement for sin that is universally sufficient, while intending in a more particular way that this should result in the salvation of those whom the Father has chosen in him. The general call to repentance and faith, which we are commissioned to make to all the peoples of the world until the end of the age, rests upon the universal sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. And we enter upon that evangelistic mission, in confidence that God will use our ministry to effectively draw his people to himself, through the Spirit’s inner work.


1. Has Horton taken adequate account of the different senses in which the term “regeneration” is being used by Calvinists and Arminians?

Horton presents a clear difference between the Calvinist and Arminian understandings of the relationship between regeneration and conversion (104), with Calvinists teaching that regeneration (here synonymous with effectual calling) precedes conversion. and Arminians teaching that regeneration follows conversion. I think that this is misleading, and the problem would not have occurred, if Horton had made a distinction between narrow and broad senses of regeneration, in the language of the NT. This is a distinction which I have commonly met in the work of Reformed theologians (e.g., Louis Berkhof, John Murray, and Anthony Hoekema), but Horton does not speak of it. Does he reject the distinction, believing that the NT only uses “regeneration” in the narrow sense that is equivalent to effectual calling, because it is what makes the call effective? Or does he simply leave it out of his discussion here, because his focus is on effectual calling, and that relates only to the narrow sense of regeneration?

If we follow the Reformed tradition that makes the distinction to which I have referred, then the difference between Calvinist and Arminian soteriologies has to be described differently. Arminians use “regeneration” only in the broad sense, but Calvinists who acknowledge that the NT does use the term in that sense when it speaks of the new creation, can agree with Arminians that regeneration in its broad sense does follow conversion. It is only (logically) after a person has repented and believed that they become new creatures in Christ. The critical difference between these two schools of thought, therefore, lies in the fact that Arminian soteriology does not agree that regeneration has the narrower sense. It is here that the important difference, which Horton correctly identifies, is to be found. Arminians believe that God’s prevening grace is universal, and that it enables everyone to repent and believe, though it is often resisted. Calvinists believe that such enablement is only given to the elect and that it is always effective.

2. Is the Spirit’s effective enablement accomplished along with the Word of divine revelation, or is it mediated by that revelation?

Horton writes: “The external call and the inward or effectual call are not actually two different events. It is the same Word that is proclaimed, and through it saving faith is granted by the Holy Spirit” (105) Here it sounds as though the Spirit’s work is mediated through the Word, rather than accompanying it. But when Horton goes on to explain why one person who is called believes, and another does not, he says: “That is because the Word that is externally proclaimed by the lips of the preacher is made effectual in the hearts of the elect whenever the Spirit chooses” (106). That sounds to me more like an accompanying than a mediated work of the Spirit. Yet Horton then states, “The Spirit delivers the gift of faith through the preaching of the gospel and confirms and strengthens it through the sacraments.” The overall emphasis seems to be on mediation. If that is Horton’s intention, I’m inclined to disagree with him. It seems that the gospel is what is believed, and the Spirit is how it is believed. The gospel is believed because the Spirit accompanies it with his illumination of the mind and enablement of the will.

3. What is the Westminster Confession’s understanding of the nature of human freedom before the fall?

Admittedly, this is not a question to Horton, but I put it on the table because it was aroused by Horton’s citation from chapter 11: “Before the fall, the will was entirely free to choose good or evil, but after the fall, humanity ‘has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation’” (107). I wonder how both the Westminster divines and Horton understand original human freedom. That looks to me like a description of libertarian freedom, the power of contrary choice. I would speak differently myself, because I don’t know how else one can account for the divinely willed fall, without making God morally accountable for it (as Roger Olson charges Calvinism logically does).

I doubt that Adam and Eve were created libertarianly free. I posit that Adam and Eve were created good, but that their goodness, like their life, was dependent upon God’s sustaining. There is, I suggest, a moral entropy, as there is a physical entropy, within the created world. In order to have the fall occur, as God had decreed it should, God did not, therefore, have to act upon Adam and Eve’s wills to bend them toward the choice of evil. Rather, God withheld the gracious support of them in goodness, thereby allowing them to sin. Some would suggest that that it is anachronistic to speak of grace before the fall, but I use the term to express my belief that humans had no intrinsic claim upon God for either their lives or their goodness; these were God’s free gifts at all times. I wonder how the Westminster divines and Horton would assess my construction.

4. Isn’t it ironic for Horton to cite Augustine at the outset of his discussion of the golden chain of Rom 8:30, and was Augustine’s view of election and perseverance an “inconsistent monergism” as Horton proposes?

In the first paragraph of his discussion of perseverance Horton cites Augustine’s statement: “As he worketh that we come to Him, so He worketh that we do not depart.” Horton then proceeds to argue from Romans 8:30 that all whom God justifies he glorifies (115). Augustine did not believe that, and Aquinas and Luther followed Augustine’s lead in that regard. All of them understood election as God’s choice of those whom he would preserve to the end. Calvin, on the other hand, saw election as unto justifying rather than persevering faith. This makes Augustine a strange authority to cite at this particular point in the chapter.

I assume that Horton is aware of  Augustine’s position because he later describes the same doctrine as held by Confessional Lutheranism, at which point Horton dubs it “inconsistent monergism” (123). Whether or not Horton is aware that it is Confessional Lutheranism (not Calvinism) that has taken the classic Augustinian stance, I question the validity of viewing that classic position as an “inconsistent” monergism. I see it as both consistent and monergistic. It differs from Calvinism in its understanding of the object to which God elects people (glorification rather than justification), but it asserts as clearly as Calvinism does that God achieves what he sets out to accomplish when he elects sinners.

5.  Is Horton’s reading of Hebrews 6 the best one?

Horton understands the warnings of Hebrews in the same way Calvin does, taking vss 4-5 to be descriptions of people who have benefited from “blessings of the covenant” which “lead ordinarily to salvation” but which become curses when one hardens one’s heart to those blessings. With Bruce Demarest (The Cross and Salvation, 458-59) and some other Calvinists, I think it best to agree with Arminian exegetes that the language in Hebrews 6 is too strong to describe experiences of grace that are less than saving, but to assert (as Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday do, in The Race Set Before Us) that these warning passages state what would actually happen if a true believer apostatized (it would be impossible to renew them to repentance), while not declaring that any true believers will do so. Rather, these severe warning passages are God’s means of spurring us on to perseverance. They keep us active but not anxious, not because we are confident of our own ability to hold on to Christ, but because we are assured that he will hold on to us.

With that small proviso, however, I think that Horton’s main point in the section is valid, he has simply not chosen the best text with which to make it. As he notes, apostasy does occur within the new covenant community (the church), just as it did within the old covenant community (Israel), but God keeps in faith those whom he has chosen. From beginning to end, salvation is God’s work, but it is a work in which we must be continually active in using the appointed means of grace, always moving forward by God’s grace.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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