Monday, October 5, 2009

Faith as a Gift

Some of you may have noticed in my previous post that I said faith itself--God opening our "clenched fist" to receive His gift--is itself a gift from God. This sounds crazy and controversial, because in the Bible we are clearly held accountable for disbelief. Here are a few straightforward examples from the Fourth Gospel.

"Whoever believes in him [Jesus the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:18)

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)

"I [Jesus] told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24)

However, there is good evidence to believe that Scripture also teaches that faith itself is a work of God in a person, a gracious gift.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). What is the antecedent of "this" in verse 8? Well, there is only one noun in the preceding clause: faith. One way of rendering this passage is "and this faith through which you are saved is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

In the immediate context, Paul is teaching the Ephesians (Laodiceans?) how God, because of his great love and mercy, gave them life in Christ when they were spiritually dead toward God. Their salvation was a gracious work of God, not the result of their own efforts. But, as the ESV renders, this whole salvation-through-faith is a gift of God: "and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . ." Those who are spiritually dead and by nature children of wrath (2:3-5) do not exercise trust in God, love for him, and repentance. This salvation-through-faith is a gift of God.

"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" (Philippians 1:29). Paul says--and takes for granted that the Philippians already knew this--that "it has been granted to you [by God] that . . . you should . . . believe in him." The idea of a grant is that of a gift given to someone. This faith is a gift from God.

"Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:" (2 Peter 1:1). "Faith" here is not "the faith," the apostolic doctrinal deposit. It is trust in God's saving work through Jesus the Messiah, and the recipients of this letter, like Peter and the apostles, had also obtained such a faith. Notice that this faith is (a) received from without, not conjured up from within; and (b) it is procured solely through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Faith itself seems to be a gift obtained by Christ for his people through his atoning work on the cross.

"And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Here we see that not only faith, but also repentance is a gift from God. Paul says that Timothy ought to be gentle, and not quarrelsome, with his opponents because God might graciously give ("grant") them repentance and escape from Satan's snares.

"When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, 'So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life' " (Acts 11:18). Here again, repentance is a gift granted by God.

This is the reality of the grace of God, expressed so boldly in the words of John Owen: "To suppose that whatever God requireth of us we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect." Even the faith which God requires of us for justification and life is a gift from his gracious hand. The apostle Paul knew this, that the whole of his salvation was of grace, and not just the offering to him of Christ. Its reality burned in his heart, and it turned his life into a life of gratitude.

"For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7 NIV). Everything we have is a gift received from without, coming down from heaven (James 1:17). On this basis, Paul admonishes the Corinthians, who boasted of their spiritual superiority over others, because even their very own Christian spirituality itself was an undeserved blessing.

Later in this same letter, Paul expresses that only by God's grace is he a faithful apostle: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul knew that he didn't deserve to be a saved sinner who knew and cherished (believed in) Jesus; but he was such "by the grace of God." And this same grace is what turned him into the bold missionary he had become.

I know I haven't addressed how such a God-given faith can be required of us, nor how faith is still our own faith and an act of our own will and volition. These are tricky questions, but I believe the Bible gives an answer to both of them. But I hope you see that the very fact that you ever "made a decision for Christ" or "accepted Jesus as your Savior" or "committed yourself to Jesus as Lord" is itself a work of God's goodness and love in your life when you were dead in sin and alienated from him. It was God's arms reaching out to embrace you long before you ever reached out to embrace him. And because of such--because salvation rests not on the strength of your decisions and commitments but on the grace and saving purposes of God--you can rest secure in his love.


Halfmom said...

..."is itself a work of God's goodness and love in your life...: AMEN!

..."because of such--because [everything]... rests not on the strength of your decisions and commitments but on the grace and saving purposes of God--you can rest secure in his love." No, not yet do I rest secure - but I suppose I can trust Him to work that in me as well.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I like the rendering in Titus from the TNIV that God offers his salvation to all humankind. It is indeed a gift and not possible from God on every level, but humans by grace must take hold of this grace. Humans in Scripture can and indeed do resist the grace of God. Like Stephen said and as we see time and again in it.

But we can rest assured in God's goodness to us in Jesus and indeed we must.

Andrew said...


"but humans by grace must take hold of this grace"

That's exactly my point. It is by grace--exactly what you say--that we take hold of God's gracious salvation through faith. You just said it yourself: faith (taking hold of grace) is by grace, that is, it's part of God's unmerited favor toward us.

Halfmom said...

gosh, it has so much to do with God and so little to do with us that if I didn't see "choice" in scripture I wouldn't think there was any "free will"

and, of course, if there wasn't, I wouldn't continually make such a mess of things :)

Andrew said...

@"gosh, it has so much to do with God and so little to do with us that if I didn't see "choice" in scripture I wouldn't think there was any "free will""

I never said that faith didn't have to do with free will, or that we believe or do not believe of our own volition. Before spiritual rebirth, our wills are in bondage to sin and self, so we wouldn't choose Christ. But that's a choice of our wills. Then, when the Spirit gives new birth, we see and desire Christ and choose him in faith from a renewed will. That too is a volitional, "freewill" choice. It's not a question of whether or not we're doing anything against our wills. We're not. It's just a question of: What does that will desire?

Halfmom said...

Actually, what I was trying to say is that I'm in awe of what God has done and continues to do for us and how little we are capable of doing for ourselves.

Ted M. Gossard said...
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Ted M. Gossard said...
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Ted M. Gossard said...

Andrew, Yes, grace precedes faith, but any Christian will always agree on that. Faith is never possible apart from God's grace, never, and all Christians of every stripe believe that. :)

Ted M. Gossard said...

Now I add my own little thought. Faith is a gift only in that it is not possible apart from the Gift God offers in his Son, Jesus Christ. Nor will we receive it apart from a work of the Spirit.

Can we resist the Spirit and in regard to this? Passages seem to indicate humans most certainly can, the Hebrews 6 passage perhaps preeminent among them.