Is Faith a Gift?

What do you have that you did not receive?” (1Co 4:7).[1] There is a sense in which everything you enjoy is a gift from God – air to breathe, your mental faculties, a roof over your head; those are all things for which you can justifiably thank God. But asking whether faith is a gift is different. The question is not concerned with things commonly experienced by the vast multitudes, but something specially enjoyed by some. Faith is obviously not something you were born with; faith is believing a report from God, and therefore requires a measure of understanding that you could not possibly possess in infancy. And people either have faith or they do not (Joh 3:18) – one day you did not trust in Christ, and the next day you did. How did that come about? I don’t profess to have all the answers on this and related subjects, but to help us work toward an answer, we will briefly consider some specific texts, address a broader theological concern, and conclude with what God gives to enable faith.

Some Texts of Scripture to Consider

Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” What is the “gift” in this verse – faith or salvation? In Greek, there must be a correspondence of case between the various parts of speech. In this verse, the word “this” (in the KJV, “that”) is a neuter pronoun, whereas “faith” is a feminine noun – they don’t agree. There is no basis for asserting that this text teaches faith is a gift – salvation is the gift, and it is received through faith.

In 2 Peter 1:1, Peter writes “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours.” Is this “faith” their personal trust in Christ, or is it used in an objective sense meaning the body of truth (i.e., the gospel)? There is no unanimous consensus, but many past[2] and contemporary[3] teachers and scholars maintain it is the latter – that is, these believers had received the same gospel as Peter and the apostles. If the faith in mind is their subjective personal trust in Christ, the thrust of the text remains the same – God has enabled these believers to stand on the same ground as the apostles, through faith.

Philippians 1:29 says, “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.” It would be a stretch to say this verse teaches faith is a specially granted gift. What is granted is not belief or suffering, but the opportunity for them to believe and to suffer. This is similar teaching to God granting repentance in other Scriptures. In Acts 5:31, Peter says God exalted Jesus “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” But that doesn’t mean all Israel repented – it means that, in God’s mercy, they were given the opportunity to repent.

None of these texts of Scripture should be taken to mean that faith to believe in Christ for salvation is a gift that God gives to the sinner.

The Broader Theological Concern

The concern in some people’s minds, though, is that if faith is not a gift from God, we then imply salvation is sort of a cooperative enterprise where man can take some of the credit. But that thinking ascribes merit to faith when Scripture does not. A salvation received by faith is still a salvation that is all of God and for which all the credit goes to God. “Salvation by faith does not stand in contradiction to salvation by grace …. As Romans 4:16 states: ‘It is of faith that it might be according to grace.’ Faith is the condition for receiving salvation, not the ground for it. The atonement of Christ on the cross is the ground for salvation.”[4] A child does not merit glory when she receives a birthday gift purchased by her parents; likewise, a sinner that exercises faith to receive salvation does not merit any glory. Romans 3:26-27 is clear that the doctrine of justification by faith automatically prohibits boasting – not because the faith came from God, but because it is in contrast to works of merit.

It is true that faith is a human responsibility, but it is merely a convicted sinner’s response of the will to the word of Christ in the gospel and the Spirit’s dealings in his heart. “Not all have faith” (2Th 3:2), but it is no fault of God’s; and in Scripture, the fact that some do have faith is not to the praise of any man. “God doth justify the believing man, yet not for the worthiness of his belief but for the worthiness of Him which is believed.”[5]

What God Gives to Enable Faith

The Scriptures do not present faith to trust Christ for salvation as a gift that God specially gives. What God does give to enable faith is evidence. His works, His faithfulness, and the reliability of His Word combine as a revelation of His credibility. While His grace is not irresistible, He graciously shows us He is believable. And in the mercy of God, not only does He speak, but we are able to hear and respond – “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Faith is not a special endowment from God – that can only be seen if it is assumed and read into the text. It comes as a human response to the Spirit-empowered declaration of the gospel, and it is the willful absence of that response that righteously condemns the unbelieving sinner (Joh 3:18). “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). There is no human glory in the Bible’s presentation of salvation – Christ has died and risen, the Spirit works, sinners believe, and God does all the saving.

 

[1]¹ All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[2] E.g., William Kelly, who says the verse “raises no question of measure of faith in those who believe, but asserts that what is believed is equally precious for the simplest Christian as for an apostle.”

[3] E.g., Peter H. Davids in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series.

[4] David L. Allen, Does Regeneration Precede Faith? (Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Fall 2014, Vol 11), 46.

[5] Richard Hooker (1554-1600), A Discourse of Justification, quoted by Bishop H.G.C. Moule (1841-1920).