“A friend says that salvation is solely of God’s ‘sovereign grace,’ and that not even ‘faith’ is essential for justification. He argues that believing is not something that we do of our own accord; instead, it is a ‘gift’ from God. He cites Ephesians 2:8 as proof that faith is a ‘gift.’ Would you comment on this?”
With all due respect, your friend is not so much a careful student of the New Testament as he is a disciple of John Calvin. The Swiss reformer’s “fingerprints” are all over the gentleman’s query. Our response is as follows.
God’s Sovereignty Does Not Negate Man’s Free Will
It is a serious misconception to suggest that the sovereignty of God somehow negates man’s free will and personal responsibility. The “sovereignty” of Jehovah has to do with his right to act according to his will, and in harmony with his nature.
For example, since God is a Being of absolute truth (Dt. 32:4; “faithfulness,” ASV), he cannot do that which would violate his own nature, e.g., practice lying. It thus is impossible for God to lie (Num. 23:19; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). The Lord’s sovereignty is not compromised by his inability to lie. His sovereignty is limited, however, by his own holy nature.
Similarly, if it is the case that the Almighty granted man the ability to exercise free will, then the divine requirement that this free will be exercised responsibly (requiring obedience) is not a violation of Heaven’s sovereignty; rather, it is an example of the exercise thereof.
Calvinists are dead wrong when they allege that in order to preserve his sovereignty, God must be the causative force behind every human action.
God Commands All Men To Believe
If to “believe,” or “not believe,” is an act of divine sovereignty, and is, therefore, beyond human control, then any divine command requiring “belief” would be wholly irrelevant, not to speak of involving the biblical record in theological absurdity.
The New Testament clearly teaches that belief is a sacredly imposed obligation to which man is required to exercise as a matter of his own volitional ability.
- At the commencement of his ministry, Jesus himself commanded, “repent, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15).
- The Lord charged those of his audiences to “believe the works” that he was performing, that they might comprehend his relationship to the Father (Jn. 10:38; cf. 14:11).
- He admonished his auditors to “believe on the light,” i.e., the illuminating instruction that emanated from him, that they themselves might be enlightened (Jn. 12:36).
- And to the jailor in the city of Philippi, the inspired Paul commanded, “believe on the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31).
In each of the passages just cited, the Greek verb pisteuo (“believe”) is in the imperative mood — the mood of command. It thus is quite inaccurate to allege that “believing” is an act of which one is personally incapable.
Clearly, belief is an action that has been commanded by God as a means leading to one’s justification. The submission of a person to this sacred obligation takes nothing away from the sovereignty of God.
Is Faith the Gift of Ephesians 2:8?
The passage cited above (Eph. 2:8), as a proof-text for the idea that “faith” is strictly a “gift,” does not, in fact, teach that idea at all. The text reads as follows:
“For by grace have you been saved through faith; and that not of your selves, it is the gift of God ....”
There is no specifically-stated antecedent for “gift” in this context. However, it is to be inferred. The gift is the salvation that is implied by the verb “saved.”
“For by grace are you saved through faith; and this not of yourselves, it [the salvation] is gift of God....”
Grammatically speaking, there is no agreement between “faith” and “gift.” Faith (pisteos) in the Greek Testament is a feminine form, while “gift” (doron) is neuter gender. The “gift” is not “faith.”
Some have objected to this argument, contending that the Greek noun for “salvation” is also feminine, thus it cannot be the antecedent of “gift.” While it is true that the Greek noun, “salvation,” is a feminine form, the verbal construction found here used in connection with a neuter pronoun (“this”) requires that the antecedent must also be neuter, thus, “salvation” [understood], not “faith” (see: Lockhart, 86; Cottrell, 200).
Professor Arthur Patzia of Fuller Theological Seminary, who believes, “theologically” speaking, that faith is a gift, acknowledges that “the Greek sentence [Eph. 2:8] does not permit such an identification, because the two words differ grammatically” (185).
Even John Calvin interpreted the “gift” of this passage as “salvation,” and not faith (144). This, of course, is in perfect harmony with Paul’s declaration elsewhere that the “gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. 6:23).
A Gift Does Not Negate Personal Responsibility
Even if it could be established (from other sources) that “faith” is, in some sense, a “gift,” that truth alone would not establish the proposition argued by our Calvinistic friend. Faith conceivably could be viewed as a “gift,” but if so, only in the same sense that “repentance” is a gift.
When Peter declared to his Hebrew kinsmen that God had “granted” (given) the Gentiles “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), the sense was this. The Gentiles, along with their Jewish neighbors, were granted the opportunity to repent. The text certainly does not suggest that they had no responsibility to act themselves in the repentance process (cf. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30).
Perhaps, then, it might be said, in a similar sense, that we have been given the privilege to believe — by the exercise of our wills, as we contemplate the evidence provided by God that produces faith (cf. Rom. 10:17).
Those who argue that salvation is solely of God’s sovereignty, and that forgiveness is “unconditional,” have set themselves against the Savior (Heb. 5:9), regardless of how sincere they may be.