The Lost Son & the Effectual Call

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 31 of 107

11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. …

Luke 15:11-32

WSC 31. What is effectual calling? 

A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit,1 whereby,—convincing us of our sin and misery,2 enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ,3 and renewing our wills,4 —He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel.5  

1 2 Tim 1:9; 2 Th 2:13,14; 2 Acts 2:37; 3 Acts 26:18; 4 Ezk 36:26,27; 5 Jn 6:44,45; Phil 2:13. 

We are in a series of sermons based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We are not preaching from the catechism because it is not an inspired work. But it is, we believe, a very accurate summary and exposition of the key doctrines in Scripture. It provides us with an accurate system of sound doctrine that we can hold fast in our minds.  

The Shorter Catechism has two main sections. The first 38 questions deal with what we are to believe concerning God, and the rest deal with what duty God requires of us. 

The first section is roughly ordered according to six loci of systematic theology minus ecclesiology, which is covered in the second section. 

We have thus far studied Theology Proper, Anthropology, and Christology, and started looking at Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). 

In the previous two studies, we saw that the redemption purchased by Christ for us is applied to us by the Holy Spirit working faith in us in our effectual calling. 

In our present study, the Lord helping us, we must consider what effectual calling is according to question 31. The answer in our catechism is: 

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit,  whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery,  enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ,  and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel.

This definition is derived from numerous passages in Scriptures such as 2 Timothy 1:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13,14; Acts 2:37; Acts 26:18; Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 6:44-45; and Philippians 2:13. 

For our purpose, however, we are not seeking to prove the doctrine as much as to demonstrate it in Scripture. We want to do so by considering the Lord’s Parable of the Lost Son recorded in Luke 15. 

This parable is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But I think it is more accurate to call it the Parable of the Lost Son because it is more about the loss rather than the wastefulness of the son. Moreover, this parable is the third of a series of parables of our Lord, which may be known as the “Lost Parables.” There are the Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin. Therefore, it follows that this is the Parable of the Lost Son. 

But note that the Parable of the Lost Son is a different type of parable compared to the first two. The first two parables may be known as metaphorical parables. Their primary purpose is to highlight one central point, and most details are props to make the parable exciting and memorable. The central point is that the elect of Christ are saved by the initiative of Christ in seeking them out. They are His from the beginning but are, as it were, lost in the world until Christ finds them again. 

On the other hand, the Parable of the Lost Son is a story parable. The Lord often uses story parables to teach several related lessons together. 

The story in the Parable of the Lost Son is very straightforward. It is about a rich man and his two sons.  

The rich man represents God the Father. Commentators differ on who the elder son refers to. Most agree that the Lord has in mind the unbelieving Scribes and Pharisees, but by way of application, he will represent all professing believers, especially those who have settled into the routine of Christian life without actually experiencing conversion, or if they have, have forgotten about it. What about the younger son? Well, the younger son, no doubt, represents the sinner and publicans, or more broadly, the elect of God.  

I believe that, amongst other things, the parable is about the conversion process or, more specifically, the effectual call of the sinner.  

What can we learn about the effectual call from this Parable? Let me highlight three: 

1. The effectual call is only for the elect. 

2. The effectual call involves an internal work of God’s Spirit. 

3. The effectual call convinces us of our misery and hope in Christ. 

1. The Effectual Call Is only for the Elect 

The Parable of the Lost Son is about conversion. Some think it is about the conversion of one who is backslidden, but we can be sure that it is about the conversion of the lost. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10). In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lord Himself says: “Likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). 

If it is about conversion, then, a call to the sinner to repent of his sin and believe in Christ must be involved, even though it is not explicitly stated in the three parables. 

Now, there are two kinds of calls. There is the external call, and there is the internal call. When the Lord says: “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14), He is referring to the external call. The external call is issued in the hearing of all without distinction and exception. All are called to repent of their sin and to believe in Christ. All who repent and believe are given the promise of eternal life. But since man is dead in sin, no one can respond to the external call by his own effort. 

Then, there is the internal or the effectual call. Paul is referring to the effectual call when he says, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified” (Rom 8:30). 

Now, we can be sure that the Lord intends what the lost son experiences when he comes to himself to illustrate the effectual call. We will talk about the details of the call in a moment. 

But for now, for our first proposition, we need to note that the effectual call is only for the elect. We can glean this truth from Romans 8:30 from the fact that those whom God predestinates, He effectually calls, and those He calls, He also justifies.  

But we can see the same truth in the Lost Parables. The lost coin is not just any coin. It is a coin which, in the first place, belongs to the widow. The lost sheep is not just any sheep. It is a sheep that first belongs to the shepherd. The lost son is not just any stranger. He is the beloved son of the father. 

Isn’t it remarkable that the unconverted man is represented as a beloved son rather than a stranger?  

Does this not show us that all who are saved are known to God before his conversion because he is an elect of God? The Lord Jesus alluded to this in His high priestly prayer when He says, “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine” (Jn 17:9). 

Does this not also show us that the unconverted elect is beloved of the Father even before His conversion? Some people say that God hated us until we were converted. This is an error. God never hated the elect. We were children of God’s wrath, and God was angry with us as long as we walked in rebellion. But He loved us with an everlasting love, and like the father of the lost son, He was, as it were, always longing and waiting for our return to Him. 

God does not desire the salvation of the reprobate. He does not desire the salvation of those who are not His elect, for they are not his children. Therefore, He does not issue an effectual call for the reprobate, even though the promise of salvation for all who believe is proffered to all without distinction. The effectual call is reserved only for the elect of God. 

But consider secondly how the effectual call involves an internal work of the Holy Spirit. 

2. The Effectual Call Involves an Internal Work of God’s Spirit 

The Parable of the Lost Son does not mention the Spirit of God. But He is implied. You see, after some time of squandering his money, the lost son, we are told, “came to himself” (v. 17). How does the lost son come to himself? If the story of the lost son actually occurred, the lost son may come to himself by realising how foolish he was, and so resolving to go back to the father. But remember that the Parable of the Lost Son is about the conversion of the elect sinner. How can a sinner come to himself? “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” asks Jeremiah (Jer 13:23). Foolishness is bound not only in the child’s heart. It is bound in the heart of all unregenerate persons, for we are by nature dead in sin and trespasses. Solomon says: “Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him” (Prov 27:22).  

The sinner, represented by the foolish lost son, will not suddenly come to himself. Something must happen first.  

We learn elsewhere that what happens is the quickening work of the Holy Spirit.  

Turn to 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Notice how Paul puts it: 

But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: 14  Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Th 2:13-14

What does “sanctification of the Spirit” mean? Well, sanctification is about being set apart unto God. It could refer to the work of God’s Spirit causing us to die unto sin and live more and more unto righteousness throughout our Christian journey. But in this context, notice how Paul is speaking about the sanctification of the Spirit whereunto He called us by the gospel (v. 14). In other words, it is about effectual calling by the Holy Spirit. 

It is the Spirit who quickens us. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins,” says Paul (Eph 2:1). “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God,” he adds (Rom 8:14 ). 

The sinner represented by the lost son comes to his own only by the work of the Holy Spirit in effectual calling. Now we call it effectual calling rather than merely quickening or regeneration because the word of God is involved. In the case of the lost son, he remembers the privileges he enjoyed as the son in his father’s house. And he remembers, no doubt, what kind of person his father was. And this undoubtedly motivated him to return to his father’s home. 

Of course, in the case of the elect-sinner represented by the son, there isn’t any memory of past privileges. Nevertheless, the truth of the gospel is always involved. The truth could be coming to the sinner by the Holy Spirit to bring to remembrance something that has been heard and received earlier. Did not the Lord Jesus say: “The Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Jn 14:26)? 

In many cases, the truth would be heard at the moment of conversion. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). In that case, the Holy Spirit will effect the effectual call by instantaneously changing the heart of the elect sinner so that He hears the call of Christ to His sheep.  

One moment, he is dead and rotting in his soul like Lazarus in the grave. The next moment the Holy Spirit quickens him, and He hears with understanding and joy the call of Christ. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). 

But what does the elect sinner hear in his effectual calling?  

3. The Effectual Call Convinces Us of Our Misery and Hope in Christ 

When he comes to himself, the lost son sees what a miserable state he is in. He has spent all his money. He is in debt. He has to feed pigs, and the pigs are in a better state than him. At least they have food to eat, whereas he has nothing.  

Then he remembers the good old days. His father has many servants. They are so well provided for that they are never hungry. They have food to spare, whereas he is perishing with hunger.  

This thought convinces him of what he should do. “18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,  19  And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants,” he opines.  

We are familiar with the rest of the story. The lost son makes his way back. But when he is yet a great way off, his father sees him, runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. His father has been eagerly waiting for him to come home. Such is the great love of the father for him. 

The Lord intends this to reflect what happens when an elect sinner is converted. The love of the lost son’s father reflects the Father’s love for the elect sinner. 

But what do the lost son’s thoughts and feelings reveal about the elect sinner’s heart at his effectual call? 

No doubt, the lost son’s realisation of his misery and poverty reflects the elect sinner’s conviction regarding his sin and misery. Now, conviction, as Calvin reminds us, is a natural work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, even the reprobate can experience conviction. But like the sinner represented by the stony and thorny ground, nothing permanent will come out of it. The natural man is dead in sin and trespasses. He lives in sin. He loves sin, and he does not think anything is wrong with his life. The piglet raised in a muddy and smelly pigsty is happy to continue living in the condition and will not be used to living on clean pasture land. 

But effectual calling involves a change of heart and attitude. It makes the sinner realise the terrible state that he is in. It causes the sinner to hear the word of God such that his heart is pricked, and his conscience afflicts him and gives him no rest. It makes him uncomfortable. It makes him hate sin. It makes him feel the danger. It makes him want to get out of that state of sin and misery that he is in. It makes him cry out: “What must I do to be saved?” 

This is what provokes repentance. But conversion is not only about repentance. It involves faith too. It involves a turning away from sin and a turning towards Christ. 

This turning to Christ is reflected in the lost son’s thoughts about his father, his resolution to return, and his steps to get back home. 

For the elect sinner, however, it is not immediately the Father that is in sight. It is Christ. In our effectual calling, the Spirit opens our eyes that we see Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King who beckons us.  

We are made to see that He alone has the truth, for He reveals the will of God for us.  

And we see that He is the way of salvation, for He lived, suffered and died for us to reconcile us to the Father.   

And we see He is the life, for He beckons us to obtain eternal life in Him by seeking His forgiveness and cleansing. 

He opens our ears so that we hear Him as our Shepherd calling us. At the same time, our heart is changed so that we find Christ utterly irresistible so that we cannot but choose to flee to him according as He is presented to us in the gospel.  

God is referring to this change when he says through the prophet Ezekiel: 

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.

Ezk 36:26-27

As our Shorter Catechism, question 31 puts it: 

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit,  whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery,  enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ,  and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel.

We could not have gone to Christ apart from the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him,” says our Lord (Jn 6:44 ). Except the Holy Spirit work in us “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13), we would not have gone to Christ. 

But because of what the Holy Spirit did, we were irresistibly drawn to Christ and found salvation in Him and reconciliation with the Father.  


What shall we say to these things? How should we respond to the doctrine of the effectual call? Let me propose three things. 

a. The first thing we ought to do—given the reality of the effectual call—is self-examination. Why? Because if you understand this doctrine correctly, you will realise that many people who think they are Christians may have never really been saved. Think about it. All believers must be effectually called. If the effectual call involves a conviction of sin and misery before the knowledge of Christ and renewal of our will, then how many have genuinely experienced the effectual call? How many can honestly say that they experienced what the lost son experienced? How many have professed Christianity without any conviction of sin, but merely a desire to go to heaven? How many have professed faith merely because of intellectual satisfaction that never translated to a sense of helplessness and grief because of sin? 

Let us, therefore, examine ourselves. I am not saying that you are not for real if your conversion is not exactly like that of the lost son. But I am saying that if your relationship with Christ has nothing to do with any sense of guilt and misery because of your sin, or a sense of relief and forgiveness because of what Christ has done for you, then you may have never really been converted.  

If that is so for you, may I urge you to go to the Lord in prayer? Meditate on how you have fallen short of God’s glory by breaking all His commandments. Confess your hardness of heart and unbelief to Him. Pour out your heart to the Lord and ask Him to show you how much you genuinely need Him. Unless you understand that you are a sinner in need of the Lord’s mercy, you will not truly appreciate the Father’s love. 

b. Secondly, if you have experienced the effectual call in one way or another and know that it is truly by the grace of God that you are a believer today, then thank God! 

Thank God for your effectual calling. Thank God that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you were quickened and made to come to your senses like the lost son. Thank God for drawing you into His Kingdom. Thank God for the experience of the love of God in Christ Jesus. 

b. Thirdly, if the Holy Spirit has effectually called you, then may I urge you to live as a called person? What is it to live as a called person? It is to live as a sanctified person. Remember 2 Thessalonians 2:13. You were “chosen… to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by [the] gospel.” Therefore, walk worthy of your vocation. Your vocation is your calling, even your calling to be a Christian. Remember that you are not only called to embrace Christ to be your Lord and Saviour, but you are also called to be holy as He is holy. You are called to be an imitator of Christ. You are called to be a witness of Christ. You are called, beloved brethren and children, to be salt and light in the world. Amen.  

—JJ Lim