Friday, March 24, 2017
What is the “Gift of God”?
The text at which we will look is Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you are saved through faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast. (HCSB)
From the very first time I read the Bible I always understood that the “gift of God” was salvation through faith by God’s grace. However, over the years I have encountered the Calvinist (and Lutheran) teaching that faith itself is the “gift of God,” and without that gift we would never seek God. In this interpretation, God predestines who he will save and He gives only them the gift of faith (regeneration) so that they will seek God. Well, as I have pointed out in my post, “I Am Not a Calvinist,” everyone has the ability to seek God—but not all will.
The problem with the teaching that faith is the gift is that it is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to children of God, to those who believe in His name.” It doesn’t say, “as many as have been regenerated.”
Nor does John 20:31 say, “having life you might believe,” rather it says, “by believing you may have life.”
Now, some Calvinists think the whole process, faith and salvation, is the gift of God. But I don’t see that as any different than saying faith is the gift.
But let’s look at the passage by doing some “amplification.” Let’s start with the Calvinist view:
For by grace your are saved through faith; and this faith is not from yourselves, this faith is God’s gift—this faith is not from works, so that no one can boast.
Now let’s look at the way I’ve always understood it, and which I believe is the correct way:
For by grace you are saved through faith; and this salvation is not from yourselves, this salvation is God’s gift—this salvation is not from works, so than no one can boast.
Think about it—which makes more sense? Especially when throughout the New Testament we are told that salvation isn’t as a result of our works.
Here are some thoughts from a pamphlet I picked up an apologetics conference in 2008, by the Middletown (Connecticut) Bible Church:
If faith in Christ itself is God’s gift, then how do I receive this faith? Instead of asking, “What must I do to be saved?”, I must now focus on the question “What must I do to believe?” If faith is God’s gift, then how do I get this gift? Do I pray to God and ask for the gift of faith? Do I sit back and do nothing and hope that I am one of the chosen ones who will be given this gift? How do I get the gift of saving faith? It is all confusing and it takes away from where the focus of the sinner ought to be, which is upon Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
I thought those were some pretty good questions! I thought this pamphlet had some other good information, especially as relates to the Greek constructions, shown here:
Some might argue that “faith is the nearest antecedent: For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves.” It is certainly true that “faith is the nearest antecedent, but since there are a great number of cases in the New Testament where the nearest antecedent is not the correct one, we should be very careful before applying this “rule.” There are other far more important considerations.
Here is the correct rule that Greek grammar demands to be followed: PRONOUNS AGREE WITH THEIR ANTECEDENT IN GENDER AND NUMBER. THEIR CASE IS DETERMINED BY THEIR USE IN THEIR OWN CLAUSE.
This rule argues forcefully against the identification of “faith” as the antecedent does not agree with the pronoun in gender. The pronoun “that” (verse 8) is NEUTER, and the word “faith” (verse 8) is FEMININE. IF Paul wanted his readers to understand the pronoun as referring to “faith,” then there is no reason why he could not have used the feminine form of the pronoun [here the author gives the Greek, but I don’t have that font]. This would have settled it. If Paul had used the feminine pronoun then it would be very clear and obvious that FAITH is the gift of God. Paul did not use the feminine pronoun.
Why then did Paul used the neuter pronoun? What is the antecedent? If Paul had wanted to refer to the idea contained in the main verb (the idea of being SAVED), then it would have been perfectly normal and appropriate for him to use the neuter gender. It would have been very natural for Paul to say, “For by grace ARE YE SAVED through faith and this thing that I’m talking about, namely salvation, is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God…” If Paul had wanted the pronoun to refer to the idea contained in the verb, the neuter form would be the one to use.
We need to carefully think through Ephesians 2:8-9 in order to correctly identify the antecedent. We must ask, “What is Paul talking about in Ephesians 2:8-9? What is his main point?” It is obvious that Paul is talking about HOW A PERSON IS SAVED. The main idea of the sentence is found in the verb “ARE YE SAVED” [or “YE ARE SAVED”]. How is a person saved? Ephesians 2:8-9 answers this key question. Salvation is by grace. Salvation through faith. Salvation is not of yourselves. Salvation is the GIFT OF GOD. Salvation is not of works. Paul is not giving a dissertation on faith, but he is giving a brief dissertation on salvation. SALVATION is his main subject. Faith is mentioned because you cannot answer the question “HOW IS A PERSON SAVED?” without mentioning faith. A person is saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31). God’s gracious gift of salvation must be personally received, and it is received by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, that, to me, pretty much makes the case for my original understanding! What’s even more interesting is that the author of this pamphlet, George Zeller, gives examples of other places in Scripture which tell us what God’s gift is (different related Greek words for “gift), as follows:
John 4:10 cf 14 God’s gift is eternal life.
Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17 God’s gift is the Holy Spirit.
Romans 5:15, 17 cf. 18, 21 God’s gift is justification.
2 Corinthians 9:15 God’s gift is Jesus Christ.
No where in the New Testament does the word “gift” ever refer to faith. Nor does Paul ever say faith isn’t a result of works, or that faith itself is a work (as I have been told by a Lutheran pastor and several Calvinists), rather he continually contrasts faith with works. When you contrast two things they certainly cannot equal each other!
I think the following paragraph from this pamphlet is an excellent summation of the problem of faith vs salvation being the gift of God:
The question the Philippian jailer asked was this: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Some would answer in this way: “Nothing! You can’t do anything! You are dead and totally unable to respond to God until you are regenerated. You have no part is salvation. God must do it all. You cannot exercise saving faith.” This answer might harmonize with one’s theological system, but there is only one problem. This is not how Paul and Silas answered the question! Paul and Silas told the jailer that there was something that he could do and was responsible to do: “BELIEVE on the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Acts 16:31 and compare how Peter answered a similar question in Acts 3:37-38).