Is faith a gift?

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*Warning – a rambling theological post.*

A faith theme continues. Is faith a gift? (Referring to the saving faith that brings us to a point of conversion.) There are different perspectives on this even among conservative evangelicals. Some of it is word semantics in my opinion. This article from Bibliotheca Sacra (academic journal of DTS) is available online: Is faith a gift from God or a human exercise? If you are interested in a detailed exposition, this is a worthwhile and readable article. Usually BibSac articles are only available to subscribers or students, so take advantage of this one being accessible to all for whatever reason!

Regarding the question itself – Is faith a gift from God or a human exercise? I don’t like the question because of the either/or option. Does it have to be one or the other? I think it is a blend of both. (While I frequently say that I lean towards Calvinism, this is an area where I have disagreement with Reformed views.) I liked this quote at the end of the BibSac article:

Saying that faith is a gift of God is imprecise and misleading language. If we recognize that faith is man’s action of believing and trusting in God, keeping the terminology a gift of God to describe faith leads to confusion over who does what. The result is a maze of unnecessarily contradictory statements in trying to resolve the tension between the divine and the human elements.- Bryant in Salvific Faith

Yes, I see this as one of the “tensions” of Scripture. When I survey the Bible verses on this issue, I observe a tension between the divine and human elements. Sometimes we try too hard to offer a precise explanation, and we get into trouble.

Clearly God must be part of the picture. We are sinful and fallen creatures. The story of the Bible is one of God reaching towards us, ultimately seen in the Incarnation of the Son. Verses speak of the Father drawing people (John 6:44) and the Holy Spirit convicting people (John 16:8). As I explain in another post, evidence alone does not produce faith. Believing is seeing, but seeing is not always believing. God must be at work in the life of an individual for faith leading to salvation to take place.

The debate comes in the details. Salvation is of God, but how does God and human choice intersect? Is it prevenient grace or irresistible grace? Does God override our free will? Can we override God’s will? What is the order of salvation: does regeneration lead to faith, or faith to regeneration? The questions can be endless! The analytical mind can get bogged down in details. Calvinists and Arminians explain these things in different ways with differing emphasis.

Flipping through the United Methodist hymnal recently, I observed the section of hymns on prevenient grace – hymns emphasizing our coming to Christ and making a choice. In a way, I like this doctrine. Sometimes we need a push in the right direction. Yet, I was in a denomination for years (Nazarene) that over-emphasized it, and salvation seemed to end up more about us than about God. This theology has some pronounced weaknesses, and it made Calvinism rather appealing to me. The Methodists seem more moderate in their views, and I can blend in despite my Calvinist leanings.

God moves and humans respond, and there will be some mystery there. I don’t think God overrides our free choice. God simply softens our sinful hearts to make it possible for us to make the right choice by responding in faith. If it is meant to be, we will eventually respond in saving faith. God’s timing can be unique.

I think it is best to avoid the “faith is a gift” terminology because it is misleading in various ways. Instead of stepping out in faith, someone may sit around waiting for that special moment when the gift of faith will arrive! I think of a friend of mine who wanted to believe but feared blind faith. She kept waiting until she found enough answers. Yet I think some answers won’t come until we first exercise faith. If faith is a gift, that can also make you wonder why God fails to give the gift to some people. That’s not very nice of God!

What are your thoughts, if any, to this rambling and perhaps less than coherent post?

[Some also worry that faith must be seen as a gift, because if not, that means our faith is meriting or earning our salvation. Our salvation is indeed a gift and not of works. But I think perceiving faith as a work is a false concern. Salvation is a gift and we simply respond to that gift in faith. Accepting a gift is not working for it.]

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