Is Faith An Immediate Gift Of God?

I felt compelled to write on this subject because of the constant abuse of scripture that I hear from certain popular teachers and apologists of the Calvinist persuasion. One of the main offenders is Matt Slick of the CARM organization. In his daily radio program he has many times twisted certain scripture passages in order to affirm that faith is an immediate gift of God to the elect. Other popular figures who teach this same concept are John Piper and John MacArthur. Their belief is that man is incapable of belief because he is born spiritually dead (another false idea that I refute here Spiritual Death – Truth or Myth?) and therefore must first be made spiritually alive. When one has been made alive, by an act of God without any cooperation from the man, the first product of this new life is faith. Some Calvinist expositors are more crass and simply assert that when God is ready for one of his elect to be saved he puts the necessary faith in them. There are typically three main proof texts which are trotted out in order to insure the audience that this is a biblical teaching: Eph. 2:8, Phil. 1:29, and unbelievably John 6:29 (this one is a favorite of Matt Slick in particular). I want to show how each of these passages is distorted by these teachers in order to uphold the presupposition of their systematic theology.

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Here is, in the mind of the Calvinists, the proof text extraordinaire for the idea that faith is a gift of God, which must be bestowed upon a man, apart from anything the man does, rather than an ability and responsibility that all men have. It is easy to see how they derive that concept from this verse, for they read the verse like this:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this faith is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.

But there are serious problems with reading this verse in that manner. Let’s go through them.

1.) The word this in the phrase “and this not from yourselves” is a neuter gender pronoun. In biblical Greek, as in all languages which have grammatical gender, the gender of pronouns must match the gender of the nouns to which they refer. Now the word for faith, in the Greek, pisteos, is a feminine noun. Therefore the first and most formidable objection that can be made against the Calvinist interpretation of this verse is that the grammar is decisively against it. The neuter pronoun this simply cannot be referring to the feminine noun faith.

Now remarkably, some have even tried to simply deny the validity of this evidence, saying that sometimes neuter pronouns can refer to feminine or masculine nouns in Greek. But that is just nonsense! How far will people go to sure-up their pet doctrines? Others take a more nuanced approach to overcoming this evidence. John MacArthur, for example, in the MacArthur New Testament Commentary, asserts that this evidence “poses no problem, however, as long as it is understood that that does not refer precisely to the noun faith but to the act of believing.”  He does not explain how his assertion is arrived at, he simply states it then moves on, and we are supposed to just believe what he says without question. Paul did not speak about the “act of believing“, which MacArthur thinks would be neuter, but he spoke of “faith“, which is indisputably feminine.

John Piper, in a 2013 article on his Desiring God website, states this regarding what the word this refers to in Eph. 2:8:

The question is not settled by the fact that in Greek “this” is singular and neuter, while “grace” and “faith” are both feminine. “This” is just as ambiguous in Greek as it is in English.

What does that even mean? He does not explain; he merely asserts then moves on. But the word this in the Greek (touto) is not ambiguous, it is clearly neuter in gender. There is a feminine form of the pronoun that Paul could have used if he was making this to refer to faith, but he didn’t. In the next section of the article he gives “four pointers to seeing faith as a gift,” the first being:

1. When Paul says “this is not from you, it is the gift of God,” he seems to be referring to the whole process grace-faith-salvation. That may be why “this” is neuter and not feminine.

This brings me to my next point.

2.)  When there is no neuter noun in a sentence to which a neuter pronoun can refer to, then the neuter pronoun is referring to a verb or some action just spoken of in the context. Here are some examples:

  • Matt. 9:28 – “Jesus said to them, ‘Do you believe I am able to do this.'”  This refers to the request of the blind men to be able to see.
  • Matt. 19:26 –  “With men this is impossible, but all things are possible with God.” This refers to rich men being able to enter the kingdom.
  • Luke 1:34 –  “Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be since I am a virgin.’ ” This refers to Mary conceiving a child without sexual intercourse.
  • Luke 10:28 –  “Jesus answered him, ‘You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.’ ”  This refers to loving God and your neighbor.

So because there is no prior neuter noun in Eph. 2:8 for the pronoun this to refer back to, it can only refer back to “you have been saved.” But as you can see from the point made by John Piper, this is not sufficient. He insists it must refer to the whole process of “grace-faith-salvation.” John MacArthur takes a different view. He rejects the idea that this is referring to the whole process, i.e. being saved by grace through faith, because

the adding of ‘and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God’ would be redundant, because grace is defined as an unearned act of God. If salvation is of grace, it has to be an undeserved gift of God.”

MacArthur, as noted earlier, thinks this refers to the “act of believing.” Not only is he wrong on that point but the above quote shows that he also misses the point of what Paul is saying, which leads to my next point.

3.)  Most commentators, especially of the Calvinist persuasion, have failed to pick up on Paul’s use of a common Semitic literary device in Eph. 2:8-9. This device is known as synonymous parallelism. This is when an author will state a proposition and then restate the proposition by the use of nearly synonymous words or phrases. This technique is pervasive throughout the Hebrew scriptures and is illustrated in the following examples:

  • Deut. 32:7 –  “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”
  • 1 Sam. 15:22b –  “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”
  • 1 Kings 12:16b –  “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son?”
  • Job 34: 10 –  “. . . Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays a man for what he has done; he brings upon him what his conduct deserves.”
  • Ps. 33:10-11 –  “The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever; the purposes of his heart through all generations.”
  • Is. 57:1 –  “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands . . .”

Now lets look again at Eph. 2:8-9 to see how this device helps us to understand the passage.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast.

The two phrases which are underlined are parallel thoughts i.e. what we receive from God by grace is necessarily the gift of God, and whatever is the gift of God to us necessarily comes to us by grace. Likewise, the two phrases which are not in italics are parallel to each other and express the same thought. What Paul is telling the Ephesians is that what is by grace (and so is the gift of God) cannot be from ourselves ( and so not by our works). The free gift of grace in this sentence is salvation not faith. The phrase through faith is a parenthesis which simply tells us how this free gift is received on our part. This leads me to my final point.

4.)  If we take this to refer to faith then all of the phrases which follow must refer to faith also. So then we would end up with faith being a) not from ourselves b) the gift of God, and c) not of works. Now the problem is with c) not of works. Is Paul really saying that faith is not of works? This makes no sense and is not consistent with Paul’s ideas of grace, faith and works. For example, in Rom. 9:32 he tells us why the Jews of his day did not attain the righteousness they pursued,Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. Here we see that righteousness, i.e. justification before God, is attained by faith and not by works. Later {11:5-6} he says that a remnant of Jews did attain it, a remnant “chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” In Paul’s soteriology, salvation is a free gift of God’s grace received on our part by faith rather than as a result of works {see Rom. 4:1-8; 1 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5-7}. Paul’s point is that salvation must be received by faith rather than come as a reward for our works, in order to maintain it being a gift of grace. Paul never states that the faith by which we receive God’s gift of grace is itself a gift of grace or that this faith is “not of works.” Nor does Paul ever state what Calvinists often assert — that if faith were not a direct gift from God it would be a work on our part. These are problems that Calvinist theology creates and then attempts to solve by philosophical maneuvering.

Therefore, Eph. 2:8-9 in no way supports the Calvinistic concept of faith as a direct gift of God.

Philippians 1:29

“For it has been granted you on behalf of Messiah not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

This verse is usually included in a short list of scripture references prooftexting the idea of faith being a gift of God. The list is always short because prooftexts for this doctrine are few and far between. The verses cited in such lists are also ineffectual in establishing the doctrine because other more plausible interpretations can be given for them, as is the case with Phil. 1:29

This passage is often quoted by Matt Slick on his radio show as a proof of the idea that individuals cannot believe in Christ unless God grants or gives them the faith to do so. But, as with other supposed prooftexts, he and other Calvinists are simply missing the point of what Paul is saying here. First of all, Paul’s main point is not that faith is a  gift from God, but that the suffering which the Philippians were undergoing was not surprising or unexpected but rather was something they should have regarded as inevitable.

Paul is writing to a predominately or even wholly Gentile congregation. Philippi was a Roman colony where many retired legionnaires from the Roman army had settled. History tells us that there were few Jews who lived there, so few, in fact, that there were not enough of them to constitute a synagogue. This is why Paul and his companions went out of the city gates of Philippi to the river on the first Sabbath after arriving there, instead of to the local synagogue, as was his normal practice {see Acts 16:13 and 17:2}. It is highly likely that there were no Jewish converts in Philippi. So when Paul writes his letter to the congregation there he is addressing Gentile believers.

This background information helps us to understand Paul’s meaning in Phil. 1:29. Paul is not saying  that faith in Messiah had been granted or given to them as individuals, but that the Gentiles had been granted, along with Jews, the privilege of not only believing in Messiah, but also the privilege to suffer for him. This interpretation is confirmed by two passages in the book of Acts. In chapter 11, after Peter explains to the brothers in Jerusalem how God had called him to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman, and his family and how they were saved in the same way the Jews were, the Jewish brothers praised God and said:

“So then, God has granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life.”    v. 18

In chapter 14, upon arriving back in Antioch from his first mission to the Gentiles, Paul reported to the congregation there

. . . all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.    v. 27

We see from these passages that it was to Gentiles, as an ethnic group, that God had granted repentance and opened a door of faith. In other words, before this, only Jews were given the opportunity to repent and believe in Messiah, but now God was granting the Gentiles the same opportunity that the Jews had, i.e. to believe in Messiah for salvation. Therefore, Phil. 1:29 fails as a prooftext for the concept that faith is a direct gift of God.

John 6:29

“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: that you believe in the one he has sent.”

I don’t think I have ever heard anyone else besides Matt Slick attempt to use this verse as a prooftext for the concept of Faith as a direct gift of God. He usually does so by merely quoting the verse and then stating something to the effect that faith is God’s work in us, as if this is just the obvious meaning of the verse. But is Slick’s take on this passage really all that obvious? I don’t think so. I checked a number of the popular commentaries and could not find any that understood the passage as Slick does, so it can’t be as obvious as he thinks. These commentaries interpreted ‘the work of God‘ in the following ways:

  • the thing that is acceptable to God
  • such work as God will approve
  • not works, but one work that is required
  • this is the work that God requires, that you believe
  • the work most pleasing to God and the foundation of all others: that you believe
  • this is the work which God wills, that you believe
  • faith is put as a moral act or work

Again, no commentary I checked understood that Jesus was saying that our believing was the work of God in us. The context is clear. Jesus tells them in v. 27, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that remains unto everlasting life.” They then respond, “What must we do in order to work the works of God?” It should be clear that what they meant by “the works of God” was not the work that God himself performs, but rather the work that God requires them to perform. Jesus then responds with our text.

So why does Matt Slick think this verse says that our believing is God’s work? Because that is what his theological presupposition dictate that he see in this passage. Slick is simply reading his presupposition into the text. His systematic tells him that faith comes to an individual by an act or work of God within the individual, and so he just reads the verse in a way that fits. This is not exegesis.

Other Considerations

There are two passages in the gospels which I think are detrimental to the theological idea that a person can believe in Messiah only if God enables him to; only if God gives him the faith to believe. In Matt. 8:5-13 Jesus has an encounter with a Roman centurion who displays  a greater faith in him than anyone in Israel. Verse 10 says that Jesus was astonished by the man’s faith. In Mark 6:1-6 Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth, where he is not well received. Verse 6 tells us that Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of the people. Now think with me for a moment. If this Calvinistic concept were in fact true, then Jesus would certainly have held it to be true. My question then is this — how could someone who thinks that faith must be given to a person by God, apart from which they could never believe, ever be astonished at someones faith or amazed at someones unbelief? If Jesus held the concept that a man could not believe in him without God bestowing the requisite faith and that unbelief was just the natural state of man, how could he possibly ever be amazed or astonished by a persons faith or lack of it? Wouldn’t he have known that the unbelief of the Nazarenes was just their natural state and that God had obviously not given them the necessary faith? Wouldn’t he had known that the centurion’s faith was not anything he himself had conjured up but that God had obviously granted it to him? Why then the amazement and astonishment of Jesus?

One further consideration. Someone might say, “So what is the big deal if faith is or isn’t a gift from God? Why does it matter?” The answer to that question should be obvious but let me spell it out. If the natural state of man is unbelief and a person can only believe the gospel if God directly implants faith within him, then how could God hold men accountable for their unbelief? This would be tantamount to God judging a blind man for failing to see or a lame man for failing to run. Such a thing would be injustice in God. This conundrum is aggravated even further by the Calvinist doctrine of Irresistible Grace, which teaches that once God has done this work of faith in the heart of a man, that man will believe, yea it is impossible for him to not believe. This eliminates any genuine accountability on the part of unbelievers, who are nevertheless condemned for their unbelief {Mark 16:15; John 3:18, 36; 2 Thess. 2:12}. How can this be true of the God of Scripture, the God of justice and righteousness, equity and fairness? Beware! Lest your theology attribute to God that which is unworthy of his perfection.

Please let me know if this article has been a help to you.

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

One thought on “Is Faith An Immediate Gift Of God?”

  1. Hi Troy, I just love your articles mate! I have not forgotten about getting your link onto my website, but am still having some technical difficulties. Hopefully I can resolve it soon! Meantime, please keep your pen flowing! Blessings are heaped on you from God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ,

    Greg.

    Like

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