by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 3:57pm

QUESTION: In defense of his belief in total depravity and irresistible grace, my Calvinist friend quotes Biblical passages that seem to say that faith and repentance are sovereign gifts of God, e.g., 2 Tim. 2:25, which says that “God may perhaps grant them repentance.” How may we understand such passages?

ANSWER: Calvinism teaches that all human beings (except Christ) are born totally depraved as a result of Adam’s sin. This means that no one has the free will to decide to believe and repent in response to hearing the gospel. This requires that God himself must make the decision as to who will and who will not be saved; he does this via unconditional election (predestination). Then, at a time of his choosing, those whom God has decided to save are unilaterally and irresistibly regenerated by the Holy Spirit and at the same time endowed with the mental states of faith and repentance as unconditional gifts of God.

Though these gifts (regeneration, faith, and repentance) are simultaneously given, there is a necessary logical order: regeneration must precede faith (and repentance). This is a hallmark of Calvinist doctrine.

One alleged Biblical proof of this doctrine is the group of texts that represent faith and repentance as gifts of God. For example, David Steele and Curtis Thomas, in their book, The Five Points of Calvinism (P&R, 1975), say this: “Faith and repentance are divine gifts and are wrought in the soul through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.” Then they cite the following eight texts as proof: Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:48; 16:14; 18:27; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; and 2 Timothy 2:25-26.

What shall we do with such passages? Do they really teach that saving faith and repentance are gifts? Let us note first of all that some of these texts are not actually speaking of saving faith at all. Romans 12:3 means that God has measured out (distributed) to each Christian a spiritual gift that is appropriate to his own faith (see my Romans commentary, 2:319-321). The gift here is the spiritual gift (gift of teaching, gift of generosity, gift of prophecy, etc.). I.e., the “measure of faith God has given you” (NIV) is the spiritual gift; the Spirit “measures out” these gifts according to our own faith. Paul is not talking at all about conversion. In a similar way, 1 Corinthians 12:9 has nothing to do with saving faith. It refers to miracle-working faith as one of the gifts of the Spirit given to some Christians (see 1 Cor. 13:2). Likewise, Galatians 5:22 refers not to saving faith as such, but to faithfulness in Christian living as part of the fruit of the Spirit.

When Calvinists (such as Steele and Thomas) list these texts as “proof” of their doctrine that faith is a gift, they surely know that the faith (Greek, pistis) to which these texts refer is NOT saving faith. The very listing of them in this context is misleading and in fact dishonest.

Another group of the texts cited by Calvinists in this context are indeed referring to saving faith and repentance, but in no sense are they affirming that these saving requirements are actually being bestowed upon totally depraved sinners. E.g., in his summary of the gospel before the Jewish council, Peter says that God exalted Jesus to his right hand “to give repentance to Israel” (Acts 5:31). If this is talking about the actual bestowing of repentance, then every Jew—“Israel”— should be saved. Likewise, when Peter reports to the Jerusalem church about the conversion of Cornelius, he says, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Again, if this is talking about the actual bestowing of repentance, then every Gentile—“the Gentiles” as a group—should be receiving this gift of repentance.

But this is not what these texts mean. They mean only that God is granting to these groups—both Jews and Gentiles—the opportunity to believe and repent by taking the gospel to them. Whether individual Jews and Gentiles actually repent is their own choice, but God has granted them the opportunity. This is also how Philippians 1:29 should be understood, i.e., that God has granted the Philippians the opportunity to believe in Jesus. I believe this is also how 2 Timothy 2:25 should be understood, though it need not be referring to initial conversion repentance as such.

Some mistakenly conclude that Ephesians 2:8 says faith is a gift: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This is disproved, though, by the rules of Greek grammar. The Greek word for “faith” (pistis) is feminine in gender, but the Greek pronoun (touto, translated “that” or “this”), which refers to the gift that is given, is neuter in gender. If it were referring back to faith, it too would be feminine in form. The fact that it is grammatically neuter shows that it is not talking about faith. (There is no word in the Greek corresponding to the pronoun “it” in English translations.)

It is significant that this verse actually shows that faith is not a gift, since in it grace and faith are carefully distinguished. We are saved by grace, as God’s part; but we are saved through faith, as our part, as distinct from the grace given. Faith is not a gift of grace and the result of regeneration; it is a response to grace and a prerequisite to regeneration.

That faith precedes regeneration and is a prerequisite for it is specifically affirmed in Colossians 2:12, “Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God.” Here it is important to see that “raised up with Him” refers to regeneration (see v. 13, “He made you alive together with Him”), and that faith is the means by which the regeneration is received: we are “raised . . . through faith.” The spiritually-dead unbeliever makes his decision to believe of his own free choice, moved by the power of the gospel, before being “raised up” to new life in regeneration. (See Ephesians 1:13-14, where “hearing” and “believing” are aorist participles, suggesting that these acts precede the action of the main verb, the sealing with the Spirit. See also Acts 5:32; 15:7-9; 16:30; 1 Peter 1:22.)

Thus in Colossians 2:12 Paul contradicts the heart of the Calvinist doctrine of salvation. The Calvinist system requires that regeneration must precede faith; but Paul says that faith must precede regeneration (resurrection to new spiritual life). It is not a gift of grace, but a condition for receiving grace.

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