The Nature of Saving Faith

, posted by Ben Henshaw

The subject of this post is to define faith from an Arminian perspective and demonstrate that the Calvinist charge that faith within the Arminian system would promote boasting, is inaccurate.

Saving faith, when Biblically understood, is the means by which we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation (Eph. 2:8, 9; Rom. 4:16; 5:1, 2). It is the way in which we come to be in union with Christ (Eph. 1:13; 2:17). It is a complete trust and reliance upon the merits of Christ’s blood (Rom. 3:25). It is a looking away from self [and self effort] to the person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Jn. 3:14, 15; 6:40).

Calvinists want us to believe that faith can only be gracious and non-meritorious if it is irresistibly caused by God. When we understand faith, as defined above, we see that there is no grounds for boasting because of the very nature of saving faith itself. Since faith is a turning away from self effort and a complete trust and submission to God, “boasting”, as the Apostle says, “is excluded”.

“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Rom. 3:27, 28. See also 4:1-16.

Faith is the antithesis of works, not because God makes us believe, but because saving faith is itself, “…giving up on one’s works and submitting to the working of God.” [Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 162].

Robert Shank, in his book Elect in The Son, quotes Berkouwer’s objection to synergistic faith, that “it results in a certain amount of human self conceit”, and “self-esteem” Shank’s response is right on the money,

“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.” [pg. 144 emphasis mine]

There is no better Biblical illustration of this truth than Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). Unfortunately, this parable has been increasingly abused by Calvinists seeking to establish some Biblical support for their insistence that unless God causes saving faith in us, then we can boast in our own salvation. It has been said that if faith is not entirely monergistic, then we can “boast with the Pharisee, and thank God that we are not like other men (who did not exercise saving faith)”. The problem with this argument is that it does not rightly understand what Christ was teaching in Luke 18. The Pharisee was not boasting in his faith. He was boasting in his good works, and believing that God had to favor him based on the merit of those works, “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”

If the Pharisee truly had faith he would not be able to boast and would like the publican say, “God be merciful to me, the sinner”. Jesus concludes his parable with these words, “I tell you, this man [the publican] went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” [18:14]. Since we are justified by faith, we can safely conclude that the Pharisee had no faith in which to boast. If he did then Jesus could not have said that only the publican went away justified. Jesus correlates humility with saving faith in this parable. For this reason, to say that faith gives cause for boasting is oxymoronic. Boasting is excluded not because faith is monergistic, but because of the very nature of saving faith itself.

Calvinists claim that Arminians obscure God’s grace by denying that saving faith is an irresistible work of God upon passive creatures. “Quite to the contrary, Paul did not assume that faith as a condition ‘limits and obscures’ grace or takes anything away from the initiative of God’s grace: ‘[justification] depends on faith in order that it may rest on grace’ (Rom. 4:16). Faith as condition is the way of grace and in no sense an antithesis.” [Shank, Elect in The Son, pg. 130]

While salvation conditioned on faith leaves no room for boasting, such would not necessarily be the case if our faith rested on an unconditional decree. Shank again astutely observes,

“In the case of the assumption of unconditional election, it is quite otherwise. It was precisely the fact of election and the assumption of its irrevocability that fostered such smugness, self-conceit, and reprehensible pride in Israel and encouraged presumptious indifference toward God. And where could one find a more flagrant example of obvious pride than Calvin himself, with his assumption that he was ‘endowed with an incomparable benefit’ so that he was not at all ‘on equal terms with him who has received hardly a hundredth part’ as much grace? No countenance can be given to any equation of synergism with pride, which is simply another theological humbug with which Calvinists for generations have shamelessly begged the question.” [ibid. 145]

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