Question: "What does it mean to be called by God?"
Answer: The Bible often mentions people being called by God for a specific ministry or service. Paul was called by God: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1). The Old Testament priests were called by God to their special work (Hebrews 5:4; cf. Exodus 28:1). To be called by God is to be chosen by God for certain purposes. When a person is aware of that call and surrenders to it, he or she starts living out God’s purpose for him or her (see Jeremiah 1:4–5; Isaiah 49:1; Galatians 1:15).
God called the entire nation of Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The church, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, is similarly called: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). God’s calling of Israel was to showcase God’s salvation to the pagan world. But because Israel rejected that call and followed idols, they never flourished in the way God wanted to prosper them. His call now is to all those redeemed by the blood of Jesus to showcase to our world God’s mercy, grace, and salvation (Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 5:16).
God is far more involved with His universe than some would like to think. Isaiah 46:9–11 is the cornerstone passage that removes all doubt about God’s sovereignty. Even though He has given humankind the freedom to make choices, His choices have already been made (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:10–18). “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
We are called by God to salvation. In fact, the Greek word translated “church” in the New Testament means “a called-out assembly.” The call to salvation involves conforming us “to the image of his Son.” His election and call to salvation are part of an eternal plan for us that guarantees our inheritance in heaven: “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:29–30).
After salvation, we are further called to grow in Christian virtue and serve God by good works; in fact, it is this maturation process that confirms our calling by God (2 Peter 1:5–10). God gives us spiritual gifts to aid us in our call to service. The Holy Spirit distributes the gifts as He sees fit and then calls us into a field of service that utilizes those gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1–11). For example, a young man may begin to have a burden for a particular foreign nation and its people. That burden was placed there by the Lord as part of His calling. The young man then begins to study that nation and enrolls in a missions-focused school. Once on the mission field, he is willing to suffer hardships and separation from family and friends because the call of God is his greatest motivation. Paul wrote, “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). God had placed a call on Paul’s life from the moment he was converted (Acts 9:15–16). That call became his motivating force.
Jonah was called by God but refused to surrender to that call; instead, he ran the other way (Jonah 1:1–3). The Lord pursued His disobedient servant until Jonah submitted himself to the call. Knowing of Jonah’s disobedience beforehand, God had already prepared a great fish to swallow him and spit him out when he was humbled enough to repent (Jonah 1:17—2:1). After Jonah was back on dry land, the word of the Lord came to him again with the same call, giving him another chance to obey. This time, Jonah did. God is patient with His children, working with us until we see things aright.
Every Christian has a calling on his or her life. We were designed before the foundation of the world to be His workmanship, glorifying Him as we bring forth the fruit He desires (Ephesians 1:4–5; 2:10). God’s specific call to service usually begins with a burden for a particular need that relates to the kingdom of God. Some are called to the political arena or to end human trafficking. Others are called to be pastors, teachers, worship leaders, Bible translators, or to a host of other avenues that honor the Lord. Each one utilizes the gifts the Spirit has given.
We discover our call to a specific area of service by walking closely with the Lord, practicing obedience, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1–2; Colossians 1:10). As we develop sensitivity to His voice, we move forward with what we know. When our hearts are set to obey the Lord, He confirms His call in a variety of ways: godly counsel, natural gifting, fruitful results, Scripture, and a sense of “rightness” that does not conflict with any of the other confirmations.
For example, a young nursery worker may read about babies languishing in Romanian orphanages. She loves small children, and what she learns pricks her heart as nothing else has. She pursues more information and educates herself as the burden grows stronger. She begins to pray for direction. Is she supposed to do something about this? She discusses her burden with her pastor and her spiritual mentor. She asks her Bible study group to pray with her about the matter. She contacts a Christian organization that operates orphanages in Europe and learns they have an opening for a worker. This seems to be a confirmation, but she continues to ask the Lord for wisdom (James 1:5). Then a distant aunt, unsolicited, sends her a sum of money, which happens to be the exact amount needed for airfare. With all these avenues confirming her decision, she feels confident moving forward into the call of God for her life. The orphans are helped, and God is glorified.
In following the call of God, we must be sure to obey His instructions in Scripture. When we are faithful to the call to obedience, He can call us to more specific areas (see Luke 16:10).