“[Arminianism] denies sola fide (faith alone) by changing the character of faith so that it is basically a work.” (Rev. Richard Phillips [Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals], Is Arminianism a Biblical View or Is it Heresy?)
“Nay, the doctrine of justification itself, as preached by an Arminian, is nothing but the doctrine of salvation by works, lifted up; for he always thinks faith is a work of the creature and a condition of his acceptance. It is as false to say that man is saved by faith as a work, as that he is saved by the deeds of the law” (Spurgeon, C.H., “Effects of Sound Doctrine”)
Continuing on the theme of faith, another odd assertion often made by Calvinists is that non-Calvinists somehow make faith into a “work” (as in “salvation by works”). If true, this would of course spell disaster for any competing belief system, since the scriptures clearly deny that a man can be justified by works. The simplistic logic behind the argument is rashly demonstrated by Fred Butler of Grace to You Ministries in my exchange with him:
“If God requires that we cooperate with His plan of salvation … then how is this NOT works?”
Their reasoning is straightforward enough: all human acts are “works” of some kind, therefore to believe that faith is something people do makes faith into a work. While seemingly sound, this decontextualized logic begins to fall apart quickly when the scriptures are examined. To dismantle this fallacy, let’s examine a few incontrovertible facts from scripture:
1. Salvation and righteousness are by faith
This should go without saying. To be thorough:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….” (Romans 5:1)
“So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”(Galatians 3:24)
“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.”(Romans 4:11)
2. Faith is believing
Some may try to draw some artificial distinction between faith and believing; no such differentiation exists in the Bible, the two are synonymous. It’s accepted by all sides that righteousness is by faith (see Romans 4:11 above), and it’s stated directly in scripture that it is believing that is accounted as righteousness:
“For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”” (Romans 4:3) [see also Genesis 15:6, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23]
So faith is synonymous with belief in Christ.
3. Believing is a human action
To put it simply, God doesn’t believe for us, it is we who believe in our hearts, to which the scriptures plainly attest:
“For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”(Romans 10:9-10)
As I commented on the last post:
“…it’s vital to differentiate between the condition to salvation and the actual saving work. Coming to faith in Christ freely isn’t 99.99% God saving me and 0.01% me saving me. I do exactly 100% of my own believing in Christ, to which God has graciously responded with doing exactly 100% of the saving work.”
So putting the facts we’ve learned together syllogistically:
(P1) Salvation and righteousness are by faith
(P2) Faith is believing
(P3) Believing is a human action
(C1) Therefore, salvation and righteousness come about through a human action – believing
The conclusion here correlates perfectly with the preceding thought in Romans 10:10a, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified….”
The Calvinist may object at this point that he believes that faith is irresistibly conferred by God through regeneration or some such, but that’s quite beside the point when addressing their ‘salvation by works / works-righteousness’ charges. Regardless of whether people believe in a truly free sense, or are irresistibly changed so that they have no other choice, believing something with one’s heart is still a human action, which brings us to our next point.
4. Scripture teaches that salvation is by faith, not works; and that no one can be justified by works
“David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works….” (Romans 4:6)
So given these facts,
(P1a) Salvation and righteousness come about through a human action – believing (C1 above)
(P2a) Scripture teaches that salvation is by faith, not works; and that no one can be justified by works
(C2) Therefore the action of believing isn’t comparable to the “works” scripture says no one can be justified by
Obviously, when the scriptures refer to our righteousness not being by works, the action of believing logically can’t be included in such a set if one reads the scriptures with any consistency. The unscriptural charges of the Reformed apologists begins to further unravel when the obvious resolution is shown….
The simple solution from the context
There really isn’t any deep mystery or paradox here. the “works” which men cannot be justified by are the works of the law as the contexts in Paul’s teachings on faith and justification easily bear out.
“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)
“Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.”” (Romans 9:32)
“…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
“Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”” (Galatians 3:11)
Nowhere does the Bible equate believing in Christ with keeping some work of the law, and hence salvation by faith can never be “salvation by works” in the sense Paul condemns. Some Calvinists may insist that it being a human action still makes it into some sort of work, but this really isn’t an objection, since even though anything one does can be classified as a ‘work’ in some sense, such actions wouldn’t necessarily have relevance to the topic of the law. When Christ spoke of laboring for the food which doesn’t perish, the crowd asked how they could do so.
“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered,“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:27-29, emphasis added)
So believing can in fact be considered a work (in a very loose sense) by virtue of it being a human action. This fact comes into no conflict whatsoever with Paul’s teaching against salvation by works, since Paul isn’t condemning salvation through the action of belief, he’s decrying attempts to merit salvation by the keeping of the Mosaic law. This fact is further driven home by the fact that Paul draws a direct contrast between the two practices:
“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”” (Romans 4:2-3 [emphasis added])
Notice that the action of Abraham’s believing itself is spoken of in direct contraposition to “works.” Clearly, since believing is an action men perform in their hearts (cf Romans 10:9-10 above), his dismissal of justification by works doesn’t imply exclusion of all human actions in obedience to the gospel such as hearing (Romans 10:17), receiving (John 1:12, James 1:21) or believing, but simply that the works of the law cannot justify.
“Salvation unto faith?”
To save the ill-founded case that they and their forebears have pushed for centuries, some Calvinists will actually go as far as to deny redemption through faith! Incredibly, Hendryx takes this stance:
“Again, it is true that the Bible contrasts faith and works, but biblical faith is never seen as something we, in our unregenerate condition, had to autonomously (apart form[sic] the invincible power of the Holy Spirit) contribute. … But the work of Christ redeems us unto faith, not on the condition of faith.” (Hendryx, J., ‘Can Faith Ever Be Considered a Work?’1)
Myron Berg (a monergist Lutheran) apparently agrees:
Proponents of prevenient grace also make faith into a work. God’s purpose of declaring faith as essential to salvation was not to reduce God’s requirement of keeping the ten commandments down to just having faith, (which is a part of the first commandment) but to use faith as an indicator that the person had come to the realization that his condition is so repugnant to God that his only hope is that Christ can stand in his place before God. (Berg, M., ‘Prevenient Grace’)
To Hendryx’s assertion, the word for ‘redemption’ (apolytrosis) is used synonymously with forgiveness of sins.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace….” (Ephesians 1:7, see also Colossians 1:13-14)
Now it’s apparent that one cannot have such redemption/forgiveness from sins if he’s not justified in Christ (the terms ‘justification,’ ‘forgiveness’ are both used synonymously with being made righteous throughout Paul’s exposition on righteousness through faith in Romans 4). To assert we’re “[redeemed] unto faith” as Hendryx does is then tantamount to saying that redemption and justification precede (and therefore don’t come by) faith, contrary to scripture’s plain teaching on justification by faith (e.g. Romans 5:1, Galatians 3:24 cited above). The same problem permeates Berg’s commentary, since if believing is merely the indicator or symptom and not the condition to justification in Christ, then it can’t correctly be stated that we’re justified by faith. Such attempts to frame salvation conditioned upon faith as being “salvation by works” collapse under their own weight, since the one doing so must implicitly deny justification by faith.
Faith is a work of the law?
Berg raises an interesting objection that I’ve seen before. Some monergists retort that faith was a matter of the law, therefore if it’s a condition of salvation, one is still preaching “works righteousness.” For instance, Jesus states,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)
So is faith in the general context of Paul’s epistles a matter of the Mosaic law then? Consider, a man who seeks to establish his own righteousness by the deeds of the law may hold to some form of faithfulness or faith in God and His wondrous works as a point of duty to the law for his justification (as Paul doubtless did before his conversion). Yet despite this, such a one would be denying the work of Christ through attempting to establish his own righteousness. Just as those Jews who rejected their Messiah, one can be “zealous for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). So to show that faith in God is a matter of the Mosaic law hardly equates to faith in Christ being a work thereof. This abject ignorance of said accusation is also directly refuted by Paul’s clear distinction the law and faith that has come in Galatians chapter 3:
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.”
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” ), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ. And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:10-26 NKJV, emphasis added)
As it’s writen, the law isn’t against the promises of God through faith, but neither is it the substance thereof, for the law isn’t of faith, but was added centuries later because of transgressions. The law and prophets rightly do command belief in God (2 Chronicles 20:20). This does not encompass, but as a good schoolmaster, rather points to the superior faith in Christ (Luke 24:44, Galatians 3:24 quoted above).
One under the law can believe in God and that He does miraculous things as a point of the law’s righteous requirements, this is not the same as one who trusts Christ for his salvation. The former shows faithfulness as a matter of duty in attempt to justify himself, the later acknowledges his inability to be justified by the law and his need for the righteousness of Christ. As opposed to attempts to keep the law, faith itself is not what actually justifies, but He in whom the faith is placed graciously accounts it as righteousness. As opposed to one who believes in God as a matter of keeping the law unto self-righteousness, one who believes in Christ’s atoning work, in acknowledging his need for Him as Savior, has already admitted that he has fallen short (Romans 3:23) and that his own works are inadequate to justify him. That is why such a distinction is drawn in Paul’s epistles between the law and faith, and that it would be a critical error to equate saving faith in Christ with the works of the law.
The accusations of works righteousness that Calvinists are so well-known for flinging really don’t hold any water when the scriptures are examined. The very suggestion that Arminians/Synergists believe in such betrays a fundamental ignorance of what faith and works really are within their scriptural contexts on the part of the accusers.
The assertion that faith is a “work” because it’s something people do is incoherent in light of the Bible equating faith with believing (an action); the plain resolution being that the “works” in the context of scripture’s teaching of “faith, not works” are the works of the law. Failure to recognize this has led to even mainstream Calvinists such as Hendryx into advocating “redemption unto faith” in opposition to the “justification by faith” taught in the New Testament. Their counter that faith is commanded in the law is hopelessly erroneous in that it, a.) ignores the strong distinction drawn by Paul between faith in Christ and the works of the law in Galatians, and b.) winds up effectively making the self-contradictory claim that it’s a matter of keeping the law to trust Christ to do for me what my keeping of the law cannot.
The charge that Arminians “turn faith into a work” being shown to be simple equivocation of terms (conflating works of the law with faith), the associated charges they level against those who believe that free will plays some role in whether we believe collapse as well.
“And a point I have yet to see explained as well is how making a decision qualifies as a “work.” The Jews were forbidden to work on the Sabbath; did this prohibit them from thinking or making a decision? Is there any evidence that the Greek word behind “works” (ergon) ever refers to a thought or a decision? It is my earnest wish that an enterprising Calvinist will step to the plate and answer this question, for it seems to me that this is a flawed premise upon which the Calvinistic case rests.” (Holding, J.P. [Un Conditioning)],
It’s apparent then that the charges of “salvation by works” that Calvinists typically employ are based upon their elementary misunderstanding of the nature of saving faith and works of the law. Such charges then constitute mere pointless quibbling founded in decontextualization of terms, and the error of equating the works of the Old Covenant unto our own righteousness with obedience to the New Covenant for the righteousness of Christ.
1. Hendryx’s further objection, “The question we need to be asking ourselves is, “what makes us to differ from other men who do not believe?” … the grace of God in Christ or the will of man? If we say “the will of man” it is a boast and therefore not the kind of faith that is contrasted with works in the Bible.” was answered in our previous post.
[Link to original post and comments at the Arminian Perspectives blog. This post is part of a 14-part series that was previously posted here on our website, but is being republished. The old posts are being replaced by updated versions (though the content is the same) to bring extra attention to this excellent series.]