First there is the nature and the timing of God’s call. Paul writes in Romans 8:30 that, "...those he [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." Here Paul addresses believers, locating their call in the broad sweep of salvation history, which sees all humanity as included in Christ--in what he accomplished for all humanity through his life, death and resurrection. This is the objective or universal reality of salvation history. And it is stunning good news!
However, as Paul is also noting, salvation history also has a subjective or personal reality. Through the Holy Spirit, God acts to call individuals so that they might learn of the objective reality of salvation and then receive it personally. In Romans 10, Paul wonders how this personal response can occur if each person does not hear about and then respond to the objective reality of the gospel (Romans 10:9-15).
Of course, there is no meaning to this subjective/personal response, if the objective reality is not first true (which it is). Moreover, there is no possibility that an individual will be able to hear (understand) and thus be able to respond personally to this objective reality, if the Holy Spirit has not first been poured out on all people as Peter, on the day of Pentecost following Jesus' ascension, declared had happened (Acts 2:14-21).
Because of this outpouring, which is a revolutionary and stunning new event in salvation history, it is possible from that time forward that, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:21). Sometimes people object to seeing this outpouring as meaning that all people from that moment forward "have the Holy Spirit." By that phrase, they probably mean that all people everywhere are converted to Christ. But that is not what a Trinitarian, incarnational theology is declaring. Speaking of people as "having the Holy Spirit" typically reflects a reductionist view of salvation which sees it as a mere transaction wherein we give God our repentance and faith and he, in return, gives us the Holy Spirit for the first time (a misunderstanding of Acts 2:38--for a detailed exegesis of this passage, click here).
All of us are quite fortunate that the transactional model of salvation is not the full truth. The truth of the gospel is that through Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, all of us have been included in God's love and life. All have been "accepted in the beloved" as Paul says in Ephesians 1:6 (KJV).
However, what is objectively true for all in Christ, must be personally (subjectively) received. And thus the ministry of Jesus from his ascension forward is to send the Holy Spirit to "all flesh" (Acts 2:17, KJV), in order that those who are ignorant of their true identity in Christ may come to know the glorious truth, hear God's invitation to repent (change their thinking about God and about themselves), believe (accept this truth in faith), then pick up their cross and follow Jesus.
We would not even think about doing any of this unless the Holy Spirit was poured out and thus operating in our hearts and minds to "call us out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9) into "fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:9). This calling to God (1Thess 2:12, 1Pet 5:10 and 2Pet 1:3) is the work of the Holy Spirit--a work that God himself initiates.
Included in Christ, all people are called already to God in an objective sense. But that call becomes personal in our subjective experience when the Holy Spirit moves in our life. This does not mean that the Spirit comes to us for the first time, but that now he works in us in a new (often mysterious) way.
Theologians sometimes refer to this move as the “personal call” to distinguish it from the “general call” that has gone out to all humanity through the declaration of the gospel (2Thess 2:14). The Holy Spirit, working sovereignly in people’s minds, turns the general call into a personal call—opening the person’s mind and summoning them to put their trust in God and to follow Jesus.
Unless God works in a person’s mind (heart) in this way, there is no possibility of them coming to Jesus (apparently John's point in John 6:44). For an example of this personal call, see Acts 16:14 where God "opened" Lydia's heart "to respond to Paul's message."
When the Spirit moves in a person's mind and heart in this new way, that person is summoned by God to respond individually. God gives them the ability and thus the freedom to respond to his call with either their personal “yes” or “no.” God never forces this personal response, for love never uses coercion as a tactic (and, as you know, God is love). Note, however, that our "yes" to God has no meaning unless God has first said "Yes" to us!
In light of this freedom, which God grants, we understand the importance of prayer in personal evangelism. We are called to pray that God will both call a particular person and that their personal response to God will be in the affirmative. Our responsibility then continues in our calling to share the message of the gospel with individuals so that God may use our words as part of both his general and personal call in people's lives.
Note that it is vitally important to see Christ's incarnation, birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit as one seamless “Christ event” by which God placed humanity on a new footing—removing it from the parentage of the “first Adam” into that of the “second Adam” who is Jesus Christ (this is Paul's carefully reasoned point in Romans 5). The stunning truth is that through the Christ event, humanity is re-created.
This being so, a more relevant question to ask concerning what happened on the day of Pentecost following the ascension of Jesus is this: In what sense was the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh at Pentecost? First, it is important to understand that this “outpouring” was Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to all humanity in a new way (as pertains to the New Covenant). No longer was the Spirit being sent to only a few individuals within the Old Covenant community. From that day forward, the Spirit is being sent to all humanity. This is in accord with the prophecies of the Messianic Age (as Peter shows by citing the prophet Joel).
Of course, the Holy Spirit has been with all people all along in the sense that in the triune God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). However, now Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to humanity in a new and personal way—as the personal presence of Jesus himself with all people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as Jesus “sharing the place” of all people—this is the nature of humanity now in union with God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
Do all people know of this union, which now constitutes their true being in Christ? No, their true being is “hidden in Christ” (Colossians 3:3). Why don’t most people know of this? Because the Spirit has not yet performed the miracle often referred to by theologians as “illumination.” That miracle will come to each person in God’s perfect timing—just the right time for each one.
This timing is in God’s sovereign hands, and remains somewhat of a mystery to us. However, what we are to do is no mystery—the Spirit leads us to join Jesus in what he is doing through the church, out to the world—declaring the gospel (the truth of people’s true identity in Christ) and then helping people commit their lives to Jesus and then share in his work. That work occurs as the Spirit opens people's eyes to see what they had not seen before, then repent, believe, take up their cross and follow Jesus.
For a related post that addresses the objective and subjective realities of salvation, click here.