“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this (faith) is not your own doing, it (faith) is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast.”
It is true that God commands everyone to believe in the Gospel. And as John 3:16 says, “Whosoever believes will be saved.” But that doesn’t mean just anyone can believe in Jesus. If someone believes they will be saved, but God will only give the ability to believe to those he has predestined for eternal life. Faith is the “gift of God,” just like every part of a person’s salvation.
Man plays no role in his own salvation. God decides who will be saved, and then he causes them to be born again. This new life inside of them leads them to repentance and faith. Salvation is completely from God, from the beginning until the end. Man has no choice in the matter.
If men did have the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation then they could stop God’s will from taking place. If God wanted someone to be saved, they could just say “No,” and then a puny man could defeat the will of the almighty God. This is blasphemous! And if men could decide to believe in Jesus, then salvation would not be by grace, but by the work of men. God would not be the source of salvation, but the almighty will of man would be the source of eternal salvation! They could boast that their salvation was by their own choice. They could claim that they helped God save them. But this is not the case! The Bible clearly declares that salvation is the work of God, not men. Every part of a person’s salvation is from God, including his faith.
The Biblical Response:
The Calvinist misunderstands the source and the nature of faith. He believes that men play no role in their own salvation. For him men must be 100% passive in their own salvation. If people play any role in salvation, even if it is just the choice to receive God’s offer of grace, then at best they are helping God, and at worst they are saving themselves.
Source of Faith
John 6:27-29 (ASV)
“Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life… They said therefore unto him, ‘What must we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.’”
First let’s look at John chapter 6 to understand the source of faith. The Jews who saw Jesus miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish were hungry for more. They were willing to make Jesus king by force since he would be able to provide their earthly needs. Jesus told them to stop working and seeking after worldly things and pay attention to the spiritual gift God wanted to give them. So they asked, “What is the work that God requires (work of God), what should we do?” Jesus did not respond by saying, “Nothing, you can’t do anything to receive God’s gift!” Instead he told them, “You must believe, that is the work God requires of you.”
This interaction between Jesus and the Jews gives us a partial answer to the question of where faith comes from. Faith is a “work” of men. Faith is something that men do. Romans 10:10 makes this clear, “For with the heart one believes…” But as we look at the passage as a whole (John 6) we see that faith is not something that just spontaneously appears in men, but is the positive response of men to God’s offer of grace.
Jesus told his audience that there was a greater gift than a full belly. He explained to them that earthly bread can only give life for a day, but the “bread” God has given to the world will make men live forever. He explains that he is the bread of life. If anyone believes in him he will have eternal life. This helps us to understand that even though faith is a “work” of the human heart, it is not something that men do apart from the gracious work of God. God loved the world. God sent his Son to be the bread of life. Jesus, his Body and his Spirit proclaim the gift of God, and men must respond by believing in what God has done and promised.
So faith is an action of the human heart. But people don’t initiate their own faith. They can’t decide to believe in something they have never heard about (Rom. 10:14). They can only believe when God sends his Church and Spirit with the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the divine offer; faith is the human response. “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
So the faith of men is not something they do apart from the grace of God, but is something initiated by God. Nevertheless, though God initiates faith by offering men salvation in the proclamation of the Gospel and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, he is not the only participant in the process. Men must accept or reject the divine offer. God requires that they believe in order receive the salvation he has accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ; they must “do the work that God requires.”
God offers men salvation in Jesus Christ, but they must believe in the good news. Without God’s offer of salvation, men cannot believe. Without the positive human response of faith, God will not save that person. Faith is initiated by God, but produced by the heart of men.
We have looked at the misunderstanding Calvinists have about the source of faith, now we must consider how they misunderstand the nature of faith. If humans have the ability to believe when presented with the Gospel, and their choice to believe causes them to receive eternal life, can’t they then boast that they saved themselves? Why did God choose to save people “by grace through faith”?
Faith is a “work” of men, but it is different than anything else a person can choose to do. Anything else people do, whether it is to love, give, pray or go to church faithfully, can cause pride to rise up in their hearts. If I love the unlovable, I can boast in my goodness. If I give to the poor I can be proud of my generosity. If I am faithful in the disciplines of the Christian life I can feel secure because of the steadfast character that dwells inside of me. But faith is the only thing I can do that glorifies God’s goodness, kindness and faithfulness, while at the same time recognizing I am lacking all of these things. Faith declares that I am unable to save myself. It declares that only God’s grace can deliver me from the punishment I deserve and the power of sin that has taken control of my life.
Faith is the only “work” men can do that gives glory to God alone. How could one boast that he is a sinner unable to save himself? That isn’t something to boast about but be ashamed of! Faith is the act of renouncing our own righteousness and accepting God’s. Faith looks to the goodness of God, not the goodness of who we are. True faith depends on the grace of God, and is produced from a realistic conviction of our own helplessness. Romans 4:20-21 declares that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” He depended totally on God to fulfill his promise of a son. His faith glorified the righteous character of God by acknowledging that God would certainly keep his word. His dependence was solely in God’s grace because he saw clearly that his body was “as good as dead” and Sarah’s womb was completely barren (Rom. 4:19). God chose to save us through faith because faith is the way mankind receives from God; and because it is the only act of Man that makes boasting impossible. Faith is the spiritual hand that we reach out to receive what God is offering us. Faith makes men active participants in their own salvation without giving them any glory for what takes place. It gives them a choice, without giving them glory for being the source of salvation.
The Calvinist feels that if human faith is required for men to be saved that salvation is no longer founded on God’s grace. But speaking of the promise of salvation the Bible states, “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace” (Rom. 4:16 – KJV). Faith is not opposed to grace, but the recipient of it. Grace is the bridegroom, faith is the welcoming bride. The bridegroom of God’s grace reaches out to mankind with the proposal of salvation. Grace says, “I will forgive you, I will cleanse you, and I will make you my own. Will you surrender yourself to me and forsake all others?” Faith joyfully responds, “I DO! I receive you as my Savior and forsake all else I have ever hoped in.” God predestined salvation to be received through faith so that salvation could be by grace alone. Human faith is not opposed to grace; on the contrary, it is channel of divine grace.
Faith is a work in the sense that it is something produced by the heart of men as they respond to the offer of God’s grace. But when the Bible mentions “works” that are opposed to God’s grace, it is referring to the works of the Old Testament law. Galatians 2:16 makes this clear, “Yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” This passage, along with many others, makes it clear that the Bible contrasts faith with the works of the law. The reason this contrast is made is not because faith is something people cannot choose to do, but because faith is the one thing they can choose to do that gives all the glory to God. For this reason God chose to save men through faith.
Let’s look at the proper interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this (salvation) is not your own doing, it (salvation) is the gift of God, not a result of works (that give glory to men), so that no one can boast.” We are saved by God’s grace alone! This grace is received through faith alone! God ordained this plan of salvation so that no one could boast. Salvation, not faith, is the gift of God. Faith is the way we receive this wonderful gift. Faith does not produce this gift, it only receives it. Salvation “is not our own doing, it is the gift of God.” Chapter 4 of the book of Romans makes this abundantly clear.
“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
So we must agree with scripture that we are saved by grace through faith; we are not saved by grace through grace. If faith was included as a part of salvation, as Calvinism claims, then we could no longer confess that salvation is received through faith. If it is part of salvation, it can’t be the recipient of salvation. In that case we couldn’t say that saving grace is received through faith anymore than we could say it is received through love or self-control; since these also are “part” of salvation.
As for the accusation that non-Calvinist believers teach that unbelief can stop God from saving a person, let’s be clear. Unbelief cannot stop God, nothing can stop God! But God has decided to save only those who believe. He has sovereignly decreed, “Whoever believes … will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). As Paul writes in Romans 9:15-16, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” God has the right to give mercy to those that believe and leave those who refuse in their sin. In Romans 11:19-21 Paul tells the believing Gentiles, “Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” God has the right to save people how he chooses. Since he has chosen to save God in a way that can be resisted, who are we to answer back to God?!
To those that insist that God must save us irresistibly, instead of through faith as he has decreed, we leave with the warning Paul gave so long ago to the Jews who had a problem with his plan of salvation by God’s grace alone through our faith alone:
“But who are you, O Man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- even us whom he has called, not from Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
A gift does not have to be irresistible to be a gift. Neither does God’s grace need to be irresistible to be divine saving grace.
The Bible does teach that faith is something men choose to do. This is why Jesus refers to it as the “work” God requires of men. But they cannot believe independently apart from God’s grace. They can only have faith as they respond to God’s offer of grace. But the reason God chose to save people through faith is because faith is unique among the actions of mankind. It is the only thing people can do that humbles them and gives all the glory to God. This is why the Bible often contrasts faith with the works of the Law. Faith is not opposed to grace, but is uniquely suited for it. All the other works people do (love, pray, serve, etc.) can lead to pride and boasting. For this reason the Bible often contrasts grace with the “works of the law.” God wants men to have a choice in salvation, but he does not want them to be able to boast that they saved themselves or earned their own salvation. So in his wisdom, God chose to save men through the only “work” of mankind that did not lead to boasting, namely, faith.