Is the grace of God which leads a sinner to salvation by faith or to faith? In Scripture it is by faith, in Calvinism it is to faith. The Calvinist incorrectly assumes that God’s grace is directly related to regeneration in order for the sinner to then have faith in Christ (which is also a gift, in the absolute sense).
He is left to conclude that grace for salvation is not by faith but to faith, since salvation and election is by the unconditional choice of God. This “faith” seems to be one of proxy, for it is not the sinner’s faith, but a faith given to him by God. This is an alien faith. It did not derive from the sinner but was (somehow) “planted within” him. The Scripture behind this idea (so admits the Calvinist) is Philippians 1:29, which reads, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (NASB).
The Greek word for granted is charizomai and is the root word for “grace.” No Arminian would disagree with the teaching that God graces a person to believe in Christ Jesus. As a matter of fact, we insist on the drawing and prevenient grace of God in order for any sinner to place his or her faith in Jesus Christ for salvation! The Calvinist has proven nothing to further his cause by quoting that verse.
Indeed the Calvinist’s notion of faith being an “absolute” gift is rather strange language and foreign to any prima facie reading of the Bible. Faith can be seen as a gift of God, but not in the absolute sense as the Calvinist insists. Everything about salvation is a gift of God (calling, drawing, enabling, conviction, etc.).
But faith in the Bible is always noted as belonging to the one who possesses it, and to have sprung from the one who maintains it. Faith is not spoken of as God’s faith (i.e. given to a person), but as his faith, her faith, your faith, our faith, etc. (Matt. 9:22, 29; 15:28; Mk. 4:40; Luke 8:25; Acts 14:9; Rom. 1:8; 4:5; 1 Cor. 2:5; 15:14; 2 Cor. 1:24; Eph. 1:15; Phil. 2:17; Col. 1:4; 2:5; 1 Thes. 3:2, 5, 6, 7, 10; Philm. v.6; Heb. 10:23; 12:2; James 1:3; 2:18; 1 Pet. 1:7, 9, 21; 2 Pet. 1:5; 1 Jn. 5:4; Jude v. 20).
And what did Jesus say to the scribes and Pharisees in the temple early one morning? He said, “Unless YOU believe that I am [see Exodus 3:14], you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24, emphasis mine). He certainly did not say, “Unless God grants you faith to believe in Me, you shall die in your sins.” Though that is precisely the implication of Calvinism.
We think that what the Holy Spirit is doing is calling the sinner to repentance, drawing the sinner to come to Christ for salvation, enabling the sinner to place his faith in Christ, convicting the sinner of his sins and of his need for salvation through faith in Christ. Being enabled by the Spirit of God and being set free from the bondage to sin, the sinner must repent, the sinner must have faith in Christ Jesus, etc.
You will search in vain for any notion in Scripture to the fact that faith is given to a sinner as a result of God regenerating him. What the Bible teaches is that if a person will place his or her faith in Christ Jesus alone, then God will save the one believing. Calvinists have the cart before the horse.
With that said, let us take a look at Ephesians 2:8-9. The Calvinist is convinced that faith is the absolute gift of God, given to His elect in order that they alone might believe in Christ and be saved, based on his interpretation of this verse. Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (NASB).
The subject of the verse is the salvation of God, which He grants by grace to the one who believes. The subject is salvation, and “by grace through faith” are the means of obtaining salvation. And then Paul wrote, “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
To what does “and that” refer? And to what does “it is the gift of God” refer? For the Calvinist, these refer to faith. For Calvinist John MacArthur, these refer to grace, salvation, and faith. The Arminian has no problem with MacArthur’s initial interpretation, unless by it he means that faith is the absolute gift of God, which I suspect he does.
However, I think that the phrases refer back to salvation, the subject of the sentence. The New American Standard Bible textual footnote teaches that salvation is what is being referred to by the statement “and that not of yourselves,” not faith. When coupled with the idea in verse nine, that, it is “not as a result of works, that no one should boast,” it only strengthens the thesis that salvation is the referent, not faith.
Salvation is the gift of God. Jesus told the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God . . . you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10 NASB). This “living water” was eternal life (i.e. salvation), and Jesus called it the gift of God. Furthermore, salvation is “not as a result of works,” as Paul stated at Ephesians 2:9, and stated again at Rom. 3:20, 21; 4:4-5, 14-16; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 12. Since faith is opposed to works, and that is a given, then salvation is the referent at Ephesians 2:8, not faith.
I am not a Greek scholar. James White has also noted that he is not one either. However, he admits, “Anyone familiar with the koine Greek, the language of the common people in Jesus’ day, knows that it is a very expressive and full language. It is indeed complicated, and it rarely follows its own rules all the time. A common joke amongst Greek students is the foolishness of using the word ‘always’ when asking a question of the professor. There is seemingly always an exception to the rule.”
While I by no means am claiming to have the only correct interpretation on Ephesians 2:8-9, I have tried to offer sufficient evidence that a careful inductive study of Scripture leads one to believe that what Paul was referring to at Ephesians 2:8-9 was that, salvation is the gift of God, and that it comes by means of His grace to a sinner, and is effectual only to the one who has faith in Christ Jesus ~ that faith not being the “absolute” gift of God, given through regeneration, so that he or she may be saved by grace to faith.
After all, the Bible states in no uncertain terms that a person is saved by faith, not to faith (Rom. 3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28; 4:1-5, 16; 5:1; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:11; Eph. 2:8).
Thanks to Robert Picirilli for the inspiration behind this post. You may purchase his book Grace, Faith, and Free Will at Amazon.com.