Holiness and the Five Calls of God
What are the five calls of God, and what do they have to do with holiness?
by Howard A. Snyder
Is holiness still relevant today? I believe it is. However, its relevance becomes clearest when we look anew at what the Bible says about it, examining it in light of today’s questions and challenges.
I am structuring my thoughts around what I call the five calls of God. We are called to holiness. But we need to understand this call in the context of the full biblical witness of God’s intention for people, cultures, and creation.
In this article I examine these five calls in a history-of-redemption sequence. There is a story we can trace throughout Scripture. If we are to play the role God intends in this great drama, we must be a holy people.
What then are these five calls of God, and what do they have to do with holiness?
The Five Calls Of God
The call to creation care
The first call of God is to creation care, the faithful human nurture and management of the created order.
We read in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” This is a commission to both men and women, not just to males. The joint commission is clear in Genesis 1:28: “God … said to them, … ‘have dominion’ ” (NRSV, emphasis added).1 Dominion here means stewardship or nurturing management, not selfish exploitation.
The call to creation care predates the Fall. It is an early commission given to all humankind, not just to Christians. But the Bible bids Christians in particular to protect and nurture the physical environment.
We may view creation care as the broadest circle of God’s call.
The call to covenant peoplehood
The second call is to covenant peoplehood. This call appears in Scripture after the Fall, though it is implicit earlier and God’s abiding intent. This is the beginning act in God’s initiative to restore and heal a fallen creation.
This call is the expansion, partial fulfillment, and development of God’s word to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, NRSV). Since humankind rebelled against God, God raised up His own people to serve Him both in worship and in witness. In the Old Testament, this witness took the form of a contrast society among the nations — “peculiar people” and “priestly kingdom” (Deuteronomy 14:2, KJV; Exodus 19:6, NRSV). But the Hebrew Scriptures also signal a mission to the nations. This is the background of Jesus’ great commission in the New Testament to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, NRSV).
Notice the two main elements of this call: covenant and peoplehood.
Peoplehood: The call is not just to individuals. Rather it is a call to form, be, and act as a community in internal solidarity and with God.
Covenant: The call is not simply to be any kind of people — just one more people group among the nations and ethnicities of the earth. The point is to be a people in covenant with God — so closely connected with Him that their way of life is shaped more by God’s character than by the nations and cultures all around.
The call to covenant peoplehood is a call to repentance, faith, obedience, and community. Because of sin, we cannot of our own initiative become God’s people. Here we face the biblical teaching about human rebellion — the deep stain of sin that requires salvation through Jesus Christ.
The call to peoplehood is thus the call to salvation — to accept the offer of salvation God graciously makes in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. This is a call God now makes to everyone, everywhere (Acts 17:30).
In terms of the five calls of God, we may view covenant peoplehood as a second circle inside the larger circle of the call to creation care.
The call to God’s reign
For many Christians, the call to covenant peoplehood exhausts the meaning of God’s call to humanity. Many people converting to Jesus and affiliating with the church are yet to convert to Christ’s kingdom. This requires a deeper, more comprehensive conversion. So much of the church thinks it is called only to be the church — that is, to be a community or organization that says, “Jesus Christ is our Savior.” They have sort of a religious club or a life-long waiting room for heaven mentality. This misses another essential divine call. Listen to Jesus’ words: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33, ESV).2
This is the call to God’s reign. Scripture is about God’s reign, even where the term kingdom of God is not used. The Bible is about God’s sovereign providential oversight, His beneficent government, His loving care and sure purposes, and His concern with righteousness and justice. The Kingdom call therefore concerns allegiance and loyalty: an allegiance above all other allegiances and a loyalty that trumps all other loyalties.
More than a God who demands allegiance and loyalty, He promises the kingdom of God in its fullness. He is the shalom-promising God, the one with healing medicine for our bodies and souls, our land, and all earth’s cultures. “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20, NRSV).
The Kingdom call is a call to Kingdom values and virtues, Kingdom ethics. It is a call for the church to live out the meaning of God’s reign within her particular sociocultural contexts. It is a call to Kingdom loyalty and allegiance first and above all to Jesus Christ and His purposes, thus viewing all other identities and allegiances as secondary.
So our allegiance is to the Triune God and therefore to intentional solidarity with His people. Loyalty to God’s reign trumps national loyalty. As a Jesus-follower, my highest allegiance is not to my nation, party, president, state, or social or ethnic group, but to Jesus Christ and the righteousness and justice of His reign. It calls us to the primary task of discerning the difference between Kingdom allegiance and a proper national patriotism — a high-priority task for American evangelicals today, as well as for Christians in other lands.
Jesus was explicit that the Kingdom call is a call to the justice and righteousness of God’s reign. The Kingdom thus calls us to social and economic justice — to righteousness and justice in family and neighborhood, in and among the nations and families of the earth. It is a call particularly to the poor and oppressed of the earth, for Jesus himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18, NRSV).
In terms of the five calls of God, we picture this Kingdom call as a third circle within the larger circles of earth stewardship and covenant peoplehood.
The call to specific ministry
Jesus called the Twelve, but they are not the only persons He calls into ministry. He calls many disciples, though relatively few apostles. By the help of the Holy Spirit and the discipling process of the Christian community, these Jesus-followers are able to discern and live out God’s special call on their lives.
Behind this reality of the New Testament church is an amazing, and socially unsettling, teaching: everyone called to salvation is called also to minister. No exceptions; no distinctions on the basis of wealth, class, gender, intelligence, physical characteristics, or ethnic or national identity.
Scripture reveals a clear and rich doctrine of the ministry of the whole people of God. The teaching rests on three pillars.
First, the priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:4–10). God called Old Testament Israel to be a “priestly kingdom” (Exodus 19:6, NRSV), God’s priestly people among the nations. Within this general call was the more restricted Levitical priesthood.
This Old Testament history lies behind the New Testament teaching. In the New Testament, the New Covenant brings two key changes to the Old Testament priesthood. On the one hand, the priesthood is narrowed to just one person: Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, through whom we have salvation and receive the call to discipleship. But at the same time the priesthood is expanded to include all believers — fulfilling the original intention of a faithful, holy, priestly people in the earth.
All Christians now live in the Pentecostal dispensation when the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all believers — precisely so we can be God’s witnesses, King Jesus’ priestly people in the earth (Acts 2:16–18).
Second, the gifts of the Spirit. Just as everyone is a priest, so everyone is spiritually gifted. While we are all priests, we do not all have the same priestly ministry (1 Corinthians 12:4–7). There is one universal priesthood, but diverse gifts.
How then are we to understand the role of what the church calls ordained ministry? The key passage is Ephesians 4:11–13. The work of the ordained ministry is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” so through their work all of us come to “the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (NRSV).
Finally, servants of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, we read of people like Moses, the servant of God; or David, the servant of the Lord. But in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, we are all God’s servants. We are all called to servanthood — to what the New Testament calls diakonia.
The call to be servants and ministers of Jesus Christ reveals the spirit, the attitude and character, and incarnational manner in which we are to carry out ministry. Jesus’ words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21, NRSV), were not meant for the first apostles only. They set the model for all ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.
Here then is our commission to ministry. We are all — each one of us — called as priests of God, gifted by the Sprit, and sent as servants of Jesus Christ.
We may view this comprehensive call of God — the call to specific ministry — as a fourth circle within the calls to creation care, covenant peoplehood, and the kingdom of God.
The call to holiness
We come now to the heart of the good news: Gods’ call to holiness. This is the call to know God in His fullness; to enter into the fellowship of Triune, self-giving love.
This is the call — and the amazing, gracious invitation — to become “participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) — to know the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who allow us to enter into gracious fellowship with them.
Holiness means sharing the character of God. This is what Jesus prayed for in John 17:21: “As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (NRSV).
Here Jesus beautifully blends the call to holiness, a participation in Trinitarian love, and mission in the world. This is what true biblical holiness, understood within the five calls of God, means. The call to holiness is to be understood within the larger story of the other four calls — because God is one and His plan is one.
A key reason for the call to holiness is so we may fulfill the other four calls. These earlier calls give us a fuller understanding of the larger context and the ethical and missional implications of holiness.
Holiness and the Five Calls
Let us consider, then: What would it mean for us to live out the manifold call of God?
Holiness and creation care
The creation-care mandate is an integral part of the heart-call of God. The more we share the character of God, the more we are concerned with God’s concerns. So we want to fulfill the call first given to Adam and Eve to tend the Garden. We want to preserve, nurture, and protect the physical environment, playing our part in helping it thrive to the glory of God and for His creative, esthetic, and redemptive purposes — as well as for our own survival.
In practical terms, this means everything from recycling paper and plastics to supporting efforts to combat global warming and the disasters it brings to the world’s poor. These are not mere secondary or peripheral ethical concerns, nor are they primarily political issues. They are good old-fashioned holiness issues.
Creation care means, as well, the care of our bodies as part of holy and holistic living. Our bodies were created by God, as were marriage and the family, so these are part of our creation-care mandate.
Holy people are those who feel deeply about all the creatures God has made. Holiness means being sensitive to the well-being or the suffering of all living creatures.
So, holy people tread lightly and joyfully on the earth. Living in reciprocal harmony with God, they seek to live in harmonious reciprocity with God’s good land.
Holiness and covenant peoplehood
Here the implications of holiness are obvious, but profound.
Covenant peoplehood reminds us that holiness, while personal, is not individual. It is social. It concerns the character of the Christian community, and of each of our lives within it. As Jesus’ physical body on earth was holy, so the body of Christ on earth is to be holy — loving God with all its heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving its neighbors as itself. Holiness therefore means loving, mutually accountable community. This is the key to maintaining our own individual moral and ethical integrity. Holiness as personal experience is best entered into in the context of Christian community.
Practical holiness as a matter of covenant peoplehood therefore means attention to the priorities and structures of biblical koinonia. It means affirming the gifts and fruit of the Spirit; practicing ministry and mission as taught in Scripture and modeled by Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves fulfilling Jesus’ words that His followers will “also do the works that I do and, in fact, … greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, NRSV). We will find ourselves fulfilling Jesus’ call to serve others, not just ourselves, and we will see that this is rooted in the character of God. The more we grasp the meaning of the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation, the more we see that true Christianity is all about relinquishing status for the sake of lifting others.
Holiness and the reign of God
Holiness means living the reality of God’s reign in this present age. This was the new insight that came to E. Stanley Jones in the 1930s. Jones was raised in the Holiness tradition; he was a Holiness missionary. But after visiting Russia in the heady days of Communism’s utopian vision, Jones came to realize that he had no adequate theology of the kingdom of God now. He was troubled, and out of that questing came two of Jones’s most prophetic books: Christ’s Alternative to Communism (1935) and, Is the Kingdom of God Realism? (1940). The Christian alternative to Communist utopianism, Jones said, is the liberating biblical vision of the kingdom of God. And yes, the kingdom of God is realism — the way the world was made to be — not just idealism.
Jones concluded that the gospel is not only about “the unchanging Christ’ but also about “the unshakable kingdom.” The gospel concerns a Person and a plan — Jesus Christ and His kingdom — and the two must be held together in our theology and in our lived discipleship.
So it must be for us. The work of the sanctifying Spirit is to make us kingdom of God people — people who, like Jesus, incarnate the reality and priorities of God’s reign in our personal lives, our families, our economics, and our politics.
Holiness and particular vocation
The call to holiness is the call to open us to God’s Spirit so that His gifts and graces flow and flourish in our lives. Holiness means life empowered by the Holy Spirit so what is said of Jesus in John 3:34 becomes true also of His disciples: “The one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”
How do we experience this deeper life in the Spirit? It comes through receiving the cleansing, empowering presence of the Holy Spirit by faith and obedience. Here pastors, disciples, and other leaders have a keen responsibility to lead believers into deeper life in the Spirit.
The Wesleyan emphasis on Christian perfection holds toward two vital emphases at this point. First, the goal of Christian community, and of each of our lives within community, is to grow up into the fullness of the character of Jesus Christ. This is the central point of Ephesians 4:7–16 and like passages that speak of the church as the body of Christ, animated by and filled with the Spirit.
Second, this walking in the Spirit is to be our present experience, not just a future hope. We need to help one another enter into the fullness of the Spirit, to be filled with and walk daily in the Spirit of Jesus.
So this is the call to holiness in relation to the other calls discussed earlier. I emphasize again, it is the Spirit’s infilling that supplies the power that enables the church and each of us as Jesus’ disciples to fulfill the other calls God extends to us.
We may view this fifth call of God — the call to holiness — as the central circle among all God’s call. This is the heart of our vocation, for it is the call to the heart of God. It is the call to love the Lord our God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, and thus to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is the call that enables us to live out our gifts and callings; to see and serve His liberating reign; to be God’s covenant people; and to care for the good earth. Thus responding willingly to all God’s calls, the church and each of us personally glorifies God and serves the world through the gifts Christ bestows (cf. 1 Peter 4:10,11).
Since holiness touches and penetrates every sphere of life, we could just as well conceive of holiness not as the inner circle, but as an outer circle that includes all the other calls of God. It is the dynamic work of the Spirit that penetrates all dimensions of life.
The five calls of God may seem like demands, but they are really the breath of the Spirit. They not only drive us, they life us, call us higher, call us to such faithfulness, ministry, love, and joy as has hardly entered our minds and imaginations.
But we have to be open to the Spirit. We have to place ourselves in God’s currents. Like those autumn leaves, the church can soar and scatter its witness to the world, in the name of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.
The five calls of God are the compound call of the Spirit. By the Spirit of the living God, Jesus people today can:
- be filled with the fullness of God in Christ, living holy, devout, pure, healing lives, being Jesus’ counterculture and contrast society in witness to the world;
- exercise a beautiful and effective array of ministries and callings according to the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit;
- be God’s kingdom people in the world, living in full allegiance to Jesus and His reign — Spirit-endowed coworkers for the kingdom of God;
- live as a faithful covenant people, building accountable community, growing up into Jesus Christ, embodying the spirit of God’s law in holy love;
- care for the garden — this good earth — God’s gift in trust to us, working in faith, hope, and confidence for the healing of all creation, being the leading edge among the nations for the care and feeding and eventual reconciliation of all things — things visible and invisible; things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10,22; 3:9; Colossians 1:16–20; Hebrews 1:2,3).
This is what holiness — life in the Spirit in response to the fivefold call of God — means in today’s world and within earth’s diverse cultures. We must be a holy people. For God says, it is “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6, NRSV) that He fulfills His designs.
This article is adapted from, Howard A. Snyder, The Holiness Manifesto, Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, eds., 2008. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.
1. Scripture quotations marked NRSV are taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version / Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. — Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, c1989. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright Â© 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.