The Gift of Faith
A question at the crux of one’s view of God’s work in salvation is, “Where does faith come from?” In this post, which in a sense follows a prior post HERE, I would like to address this issue specifically. I expect that some readers will find this piece terribly elementary, though others may think it completely ridiculous. Yet may our gracious God use something presented for His purposes.
Sometime this past year, I came across the following on a Southern Baptist church’s website, in their beliefs under the heading of Salvation:
“Due to our sinful nature, mankind can do nothing to earn God’s favor or salvation, other than accept Jesus as Savior.”
According to this statement, accepting Jesus is the one thing we can do to earn God’s favor and salvation.
My desire is not to pick at this wording, and it is quite possible that it comes across in a way that was not intended by the writer(s). However, I think it serves as a good picture of a very real perspective prominent in the SBC today.
We know that faith is essential for us in order to be partakers in the redemption and salvation procured by Jesus Christ. The basic question here is whether faith itself is something given to us or something we ourselves generate and offer of our own natural ability.
In T.H.L. Parker’s biography of John Calvin, he states, describing Calvin’s theology,
“Why, when the gospel is preached, do some believe and some reject it? The answer that some will to believe and some will to reject cannot be final; it [this answer] is merely explaining faith and unbelief.”
Similarly, John Owen has discussed the evidence that our faith, along with all other things comprising our salvation (i.e. reconciliation, justification, sanctification, adoption and glorification), has been procured for us (that is, the elect, and thus believers) by Christ absolutely – that is, without condition. In his masterful “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”, Book III, Chapter IV, Owen shows that claiming Christ has procured faith conditionally is essentially saying, “Christ procured that they should believe, upon condition that they do believe!”, which reasoning is obviously problematic.
There is an important observation here. If one insists that faith hinges upon man’s choice, there is never the finality of a logical, biblical answer as to how faith came about in one man and not in another. One can always ask, “But with what faculty did he make that choice?” The inevitable conclusion of such logic is that there must have been something inherently (naturally) better in that man who chose to believe. Though few would argue that anyone actually deserves heaven, it does appear that the logical implication of this view of faith is that those who believed were in some way inherently better than those who rejected Christ. (Otherwise, again, why was their choice in this most critical issue better?) I will leave it to the reader to determine whether such an implication is at all scriptural.
To reinforce the point, we all in our original, carnal state do not possess faith – we reject the things of God; we can’t even understand them. This is certainly clear from scripture. So when some of us “acquired” faith, where did we differ from those who did not? Were we smarter, wiser, more holy, etc. in our natural state than the man down the street, so that we made the correct choice, and he did not? That is not in line with scripture.
Or perhaps, did God orchestrate the circumstances in our lives such that we were drawn to such a decision, while He did not do so for the other man? Though the latter proposal would still indicate God’s distinguishing between us, eternal sovereign election of course involves much more than God’s mere direction of our circumstances.
Or is faith just an arbitrary choice that happens to be made by some?
The scriptural, and thus reasonable, answer is that faith involves the very life of God implanted in the souls of His children. And without delving deeply into the oft-disputed concept of “irresistible grace”, or effectual calling, we can see that this definition of faith implies that, where it is graciously given, it is indeed received – we simply demonstrate a “life response”. (See Eph. 2:5.) When God gives us life, we live – when sight, we see. And we willingly do so, because now made alive spiritually, we gladly respond to the Father of spirits (Heb 12:9). When we see the truth with new eyes, we embrace it.
Moreover, then, if faith is indeed granted by God, and not all have faith, it follows that God gives it to some, and not all.
In II Thess 3:2, Paul asks for prayer “that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith.”
Jesus said, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” – Matt 11:27; also Luke 10:22.
The biographer T.H.L. Parker further stated,
“How can one who has hitherto willed to reject now will to believe? Man is a sinner, that is, a being who wills to reject God. It is clear from the New Testament that faith is the gift of God, that man’s will is changed from a rejecting to a believing will by the creative act of the Holy Spirit. So, then, those who believe the gospel do so because their rejecting will is changed into a believing will.”
This is solid historic orthodox theology.
The oft-quoted Eph 2:8 reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” What here does “this is not your own doing” apply to? Is it referring to grace? That is obviously not of ourselves, by definition. Salvation? Certainly true also. But what of faith? It appears that an accurate analysis of this passage shows that “this” applies to the whole package. This interpretation is consistent with the whole counsel of scripture.
In Phil 1:29, we are told, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Note that “believe” here is included in what “has been granted [given] to you”. If I tell you, “I will not only give you my notebook, but my pen as well”, you should certainly still expect my notebook!
In John 6:29, the Lord states, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Isn’t our Savior saying that God Himself works this in us? Or is it that we in our natural state, as “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3), as touched upon HERE, were capable of accomplishing God’s work of our own power? (And are we then deity?) Even the remainder of that 6th chapter of John attests that the former must be true.
Indeed Christ is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2) – and that for both the body of doctrine and our possession of it; the latter as described in Heb 11:1.
Faith is the means by which grace is extended to us – we are “saved by grace through faith”. Both are from God.
“For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” – I Cor 4:7
This is most directly applying to believers’ differing gifts, but is applicable here as well. It is God who sets us apart, of His own sovereign choice, not based on any foreseen merit in us.
It seems that the assumption that we provide faith ourselves may indeed qualify as strange fire, in that it lessens the work of Christ and what He has obtained for us through His sacrifice and intercession. It also elevates carnal man too highly, neglecting the full effects of the Fall, and making us the ultimate actuators of our own salvation, on which the sovereign Trinity would depend for their work to be effective.
What praise should should come forth from us poor sinners upon the recognition that God has Himself, by His own doing, brought us into this covenant relationship with Him! “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – Heb 8:10
And so we say, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” – II Cor 9:15