A charge typically leveled by Calvinists is that Christians who don’t believe in irresistible grace would have some reason to boast in their faith. John Hendryx concisely expresses this fallacious line of reasoning:
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. (Hendryx, J., ‘Can Faith Ever Be Considered a Work?’)
We’ll ignore his indirect misapplication of 1 Cor 4:7 for now and focus on his ‘boasting’ claim. To get a clearer picture of the issue, let’s examine what the scriptures tell us:
“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.” (Eph 2:8-9)
“Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.” (Romans 3:27)
The Calvinist assertion is that these scriptures would be violated if we have any choice in whether we believe or not, apparently since someone could theoretically boast about having faith. But can this claim stand up to scrutiny? The hollowness of such a claim can first be shown with one question:
Does the Calvinist view make boasting impossible?
Is it actually impossible for Calvinists to make boasts of any sort? Hardly, I’ve seen it happen quite a few times myself. So holding to a monergistic belief doesn’t forcefully stop one from boasting in any way. What about salvation? Could a Calvinist boast about their role in salvation? I don’t see why they couldn’t. They could either employ inconsistency/cognitive dissonance, or follow through with their doctrine until they reach some strange implications (e.g. “Me being saved glorifies God MORE than any of the non-elect!”). So even a Calvinistic view won’t make boasting utterly impossible, in fact no point of doctrine can stop one from making ridiculous boasts. So scripturally speaking, how is boasting ‘excluded’ then? Since anyone can boast about anything for an invalid reason, Paul obviously isn’t implying that it’s literally impossible to boast if one is saved by faith, he’s saying that salvation through faith leaves one with no valid reason to boast of himself with regards to salvation.
Why does faith preclude boasting?
The answer lies in what we have faith in. ‘Faith’ in context of Paul’s epistles is obviously faith in Christ Jesus as our Lord and the One who saves us from our sins. With regards to salvation, what exactly would one be boasting in if one needs a Savior? As opposed to the law, which could make one righteous if he could keep it (which none but Christ could), faith is rather the acknowledgment that our own righteousness is inadequate, and that we need the righteous Christ as our Savior. There would in fact be no need for a Savior if we could do something that would in and of itself secure forgiveness for our sins! Faith in Jesus Christ and His saving work then effectively is an admission that we have nothing worthy of eternal life, and of ourselves deserve only condemnation.
“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:8-9)
Our believing then constitutes nothing meritorious nor inherently worthy of eternal life -not even as ‘partial payment.’ Faith itself isn’t righteousness, but it’s rather because of God’s graciousness that He has accounted the faith of we who believe as righteousness through Christ despite our undeserving sinfulness and lack of any way to atone for ourselves. Thus the arguments that Calvinists such as Hendryx present betray their fundamental misunderstanding of what faith is, as they attribute to it things it can’t possibly possess by pretending that believing could somehow merit God’s gift of eternal life or be some suitable cause to boast about ourselves because of our acknowledging our total dependence upon the merits of Christ! On the subject of the nature of saving faith, Ben cited a reply by Robert Shank against Berkouwer’s charge that synergistic faith “results in a certain amount of human self conceit”, and “self-esteem.” Shank irreparably shatters the sophist facade:
Conceit and self-esteem for what, Professor Berkouwer? For totally renouncing all claim to self righteousness? For completely repudiating all dependence on good works? For renouncing all claim to personal merit? For abjectly humbling oneself before God as a broken sinner, deserving of death, helpless, unable to save himself? For casting oneself on the mercies of God and hoping only on the merits and grace of Jesus Christ? These are the elements that are of the essence of saving faith, and where true faith exists, there can be no pride or self-esteem. Pride and faith are mutually exclusive. (Shank, R., Elect in the Son, pg. 144)
Whether you freely believe in Christ or not makes a difference only in what you obtain, not what you deserve. But since what you obtain is only what you’ve freely received from God, the One who makes you differ from those with no hope is God, for without His grace and mercy, you’d be no better off than demons who believe. Therefore no flesh can legitimately boast in His sight.
But you did something other people didn’t do!
Much like The Da Vinci Code, the Calvinist argument that Synergists make faith something to boast in looks convincing at first glance, but upon examination, it becomes quite apparent that those who have bought into it have been wholly Dan Browned by its pseudo-logic. Desperate to salvage the polemically effective but badly flawed argument, some have resorted to appeal to comparison: They argue that because believing is something you can say you freely did that other people freely didn’t do (despite being given opportunity), it is therefore something that can be boasted in.
Is there any correctness to this argument? Is my doing something that someone else didn’t do necessarily some cause to boast? Let’s see, Jonas Salk came up with a polio vaccine while his peers didn’t. Could that be grounds for boasting? I suppose it could. But is difference always boastworthy? I wore Nike running shoes today while others wore Keds and ASICS. Does this constitute some reason to brag? Of course not. Simply doing what other people don’t do isn’t in and of itself cause to boast. To argue that one is able to boast about something that one did differently than others, one must necessarily presuppose that what is done differently is something boastworthy. As we’ve established above, faith is in fact not boastworthy for a Christian, and therefore there’s no valid grounds for one who believes to brag about it. Obedience to Christ and His gospel is what God requires of men before He will save them, not something that somehow makes us worthy of His mercy. Jesus Himself clearly communicates this concept:
“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)
So even following the gospel command to believe, we are still the unprofitable servants of a very gracious Lord, and we would be more than foolish to think we could boast in anything but knowing Him.
* No belief makes boasting impossible, when the Bible tells us that boasting is excluded, it’s implying that no one has valid grounds to boast.
* Because faith doesn’t earn or merit eternal life but rather only obtains it by God’s grace, believing isn’t a valid reason to boast. Who does or doesn’t freely believe doesn’t alter that fact.
* Because faith in Christ is an acknowledgment of dependence upon Him and His merits rather than our own, to someone who is consistent, faith and boasting are mutually exclusive.
[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.]