Is Faith a Gift?

Is Faith a Gift?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 9:42am

A RECENT QUERY: “I came across a church website that says (slightly abbreviated): ‘We share the values of the Reformation, the five “Alones”:
●Christ Alone: We believe that Jesus Christ was, is and always will be fully God (Hebrews 13:8) and that he became fully human, taking the very nature of a man (Philippians 2) and that he came to show us what God the Father is like; when you see Jesus you see God the Father (John 14:9).
●Grace Alone: Our relationship with God starts with His grace, continues by His grace and ends with His grace. (Philippians 1:6)
●Faith Alone: We are set free (saved) through faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith is a gift of God which is motivated by his grace! (Ephesians 2:8, 9)
●Scripture Alone: The Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God and it is our first and final authority in all matters of faith and life (2 Timothy 3:16). Our goal is to teach what the Bible teaches on every topic.
●To the Glory of God Alone: For the Christian, life is not separated into sacred and secular. All of life is to be lived under the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31).
What do you think about this, especially the third point? Does Eph. 2 say that faith is a gift of God?”

MY REPLY: This is a common and fairly accurate summary of Reformation teaching. The “Christ Alone” section is somewhat perverted, though, since the main Reformers would certainly not have limited Christ’s purpose by saying simply “that he came to show us what God the Father is like.” They would have rightly said that Christ’s purpose was to die and rise again to save us from our sins. Putting the emphasis on Christ’s revealing activity rather than his redeeming work is what I call the “Christological fallacy.” It leads to all kinds of serious problems. (See my book, “The Faith Once for All,” pp. 24-25.)

The inquirer, though, asks specifically about the “Faith Alone” section. This “faith-onlyism” (a view of salvation that denies that baptism is a salvation event) is very typical of the Lutheran and Calvinist streams of Reformation thinking. I have critiqued this concept in general in an outline called “The Tyranny of the Paradigm,” available thus: http://www.ccuniversity.edu/seminary/files/2008/06/tyranny-of-paradigm.pdf . Watch for an essay based on this outline in the 2010 Christian Standard “Reflections” series.

“Faith-onlyism” is held by both Calvinists and many non-Calvinists. The specific element of the above “Faith Alone” statement that is Calvinistic is the assertion that faith is a gift of God, based allegedly on Ephesians 2:8-9. Calvinists (and all Augustinians) believe that all persons are totally depraved, with a total inability to respond in faith to the gospel. Thus God must choose (via unconditional election) whom he will save (via irresistible grace). In the moment of irresistible grace, the Holy Spirit first regenerates the sinner, then bestows upon him the gift of faith. Eph. 2:8 is used as a main proof-text for this latter point.

The bottom line is that the rules of Greek grammar completely rule out this interpretation of Eph. 2:8. See this quote from “The Faith Once for All,” p. 200: “Some mistakenly conclude that Eph 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; the pronoun referring to the gift (‘that,’ touto) is neuter. If the pronoun were referring back to faith, it too would be feminine in form. (There is no word in the Greek corresponding to the pronoun ‘it.’) This verse actually shows that faith is NOT a gift, since grace and faith are carefully distinguished. We are saved BY grace, as God’s part; but 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.”

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