This prominent biblical term is used with particular theological significance in three ways: in connection with worship, with election, and with vocation.
Worship. To "call on" God or the Lord is a frequent biblical expression: it occurs fifty-six times in total (Old Testament, 45; New Testament, 11); on four occasions it is applied to other gods. It often appears in the fuller form, "call on the name of" (31 times). The highest concentration is in the psalms (16 times).
Across the range of its occurrences this expression acquires several nuances. The basic meaning, always present, is simply to utter the name of God ( Psalm 116:4 ; Zech 13:9 ). But it can mean more broadly to pray ( Psalm 17:6 ; John 1:6 ; Matt 26:53 ), and indeed can signify a whole act of cultic worship ( Gen 12:8 ; 1 Chron 21:26 ). More particularly, to call on God's name can mean to appeal to his mercy and power from a situation of weakness and need ( 2 Kings 5:11 ; Psalm 116:4 ; Lam 3:55 ; Matt 26:53 ), but more often it connotes a basic commitment to the Lord as opposed to other gods ( 1 Kings 18:24 ; Psalm 79:6 ; Zech 13:9 ; Acts 9:14 ), sometimes an initial commitment ( Gen 4:26 ; Acts 22:16 ). With this thought of commitment prominent, calling on the Lord can even have a proclamatory flavor: "Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done" ( 1 Chron 16:8 ; cf. Psalm 116:13 ; Isa 12:4 ).
The New Testament use of this expression is remarkable for the way in which it is applied to Jesus. Joel 2:32 is quoted in both Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13, but in both places "the Lord" is then identified as Jesus ( Acts 2:36 ; Rom 10:14 ). The dramatic conviction of the first (Jewish) Christians was that Israel's worship needed to be redirected: people could no longer be saved by calling on Yahweh/Jehovah, the Old Testament name of God, but only on that of Jesus: "there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" ( Acts 4:12 ). To "call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" ( 1 Cor 1:2 ) therefore means worshiping him with divine honors.
Election. "Call" is one of the biblical words associated with the theme of election. In both Hebrew and Greek, "call" can be used in the sense of "naming" ( Gen 2:19 ; Luke 1:13 ), and in biblical thought to give a name to something or someone was to bestow an identity. Names often encapsulated a message about the person concerned ( Ruth 1:20-21 ; John 1:42 ; cf. Matt 16:18 ). When God is the one who bestows names, the action is almost equivalent to creation: "Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing" ( Isa 40:26 ).
This theme is developed particularly in Isaiah 40-55, which forms an important background to the New Testament use of the term. The creative "calling" of the stars is matched by the "calling" of Abraham, which meant both the summons to leave Ur and the call to be the father of Israel: "When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many" ( 51:2 ). Similarly Israel the nation has been called-"I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you" ( 41:9 ; cf. 48:12 )-and this means that they are "called by my name ... created for my glory" ( 43:7 ; cf. Hos 1:10 ). God has bestowed his own name upon Israel as part of the creative act that made Israel his own elect people. Now also the Servant of the Lord has been "called" to be the Savior of the world ( 42:6 ; 49:1 ); and so has Cyrus, to be the instrument of judgment of Babylon ( 48:15 ).
Thus in Isaiah "call" brings together the ideas of naming, election, ownership, and appointment, as the word is used with different nuances in different contexts. It connotes the creative word of God, by which he Acts effectively within the world.
The New Testament picks up all these ideas and takes them further. The influence of Isaiah is seen particularly in the writings of Paul and Peter, who use "call" as a semitechnical term denoting God's effective summons of people to faith in Christ; verb and noun together are used approximately forty-three times with this general denotation. However, within this overall usage various shades of meaning of and nuances may be discerned:
Initiation. "Were you a slave when you were called?" ( 1 Cor 7:21 ). In this verse and many other places "called" is almost equivalent to "converted, " pointing to the moment of initiation when faith was born. But it means more than "converted, " for it points beyond a change of mind and heart to the action of God. This theological hinterland comes out clearly in Romans 8:30: "those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified." Here the creative word of God is clearly visible. This is not a "call" that can be ignored: It comes from one who "gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" ( Rom 4:17 ). By such a creative act God, says Peter, has "called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" and thus formed "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" ( 1 Pet 2:9 ).
Naming. To be "called" by God means to be "called" something different: the new name "sons of living God" is given to those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles ( Rom 9:24-26 ). Here the notion that God's people bear his own name receives a new shape. In baptism converts were washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ ( 1 Cor 6:11 ), so that his is "the noble name of him to whom you belong" ( James 2:7 ). Because they bear his name, Paul prays that "the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you" ( 2 Thess 1:12 ).
Destiny. In a string of references "call" and "calling" connote the ultimate destiny of believers. The moment at which they were called points ahead to the final goal to which they are called by God ( 1 Cor 1:9 ; Eph 4:4 ; Php 3:14 ; 1 Thess 5:24 ; 1 Tim 6:12 ; Heb 3:1 ; 1 Peter 5:10 ).
Holiness. "We constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling" ( 2 Th 1:11 ). The fact of God's call, and the destiny it involves, has moral consequences now. Believers are called to be holy ( Rom 1:7 ; 1 Cor 1:2 ), and must walk worthy of their calling ( Eph 4:1 ). Peter twice uses the phrase "to this you were called" with reference to the meekness Christians must show their opponents, following the example of Jesus ( 1 Peter 2:21 ; 3:9 ).
Vocation. The notion of appointment to office, which we observed in Isaiah, is also taken up in the New Testament. When Paul was "called by grace, " it meant not just his conversion but also his appointment as apostle to the Gentiles ( Gal 1:15 ). He is therefore "called to be an apostle" ( Rom 1:1 ; 1 Cor 1:1 ).
Apostleship is the only spiritual gift in connection with which the word "call" is used, and it may be that this reflects the uniqueness of the office in Paul's mind. However, from another perspective he regards all spiritual gifts as equally "the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines" ( 1 Cor 12:11 ), and therefore it would probably not be biblically inappropriate to extend the idea of vocation to all ministries within the church. The exercise of whatever gifts we possess is a "call" from God (vocation is not just to the "ordained" ministry!).
May we extend the idea of vocation also to cover secular employment? Luther took this step, radically teaching that any work may be a "calling" from God. Some have argued that Paul uses the word "calling" in something like this sense in 1 Corinthians 1:26 and 7:17, 20: "each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him" ( 7:20 ). Here "called" clearly refers to conversion, but "calling" could refer to the socioeconomic state of the convert (here, slave or freed).
Since Paul is happy for this state to be changed, if opportunity presents ( 7:21 ), it seems unlikely that he would regard it alone as a full "calling" from God. Probably he is using the word in a broad sense: "Let everyone remain loyal to God's call, which means living as a Christian in whatever situation you find yourself."
However, even if "calling" is not used in this way in the Bible, it is surely biblical to regard all work as an opportunity to glorify God and to serve him.
Bibliography. G. W. Bromiley, ISBE, 1:580-82; A. A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace; D. Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Call, Calling'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".