Is faith a gift? This is an important question for those interested in soteriology. To answer this question, we must begin by clarifying our terms.
First, "faith." What type of faith are we referring to? Some options are:
(a) saving faith - initial faith we place in Christ that results in our salvation.
(b) persevering faith - enduring faith that continues often in the midst of suffering.
(c) the spiritual gift of faith - the supernatural ability to trust God during hard times or for miracles.
(d) the Christian faith - the set of truths comprising the doctrines of the Christian religion.
(e) conscience - i.e. "I cannot do that in good faith."
There is often overlap between these different types of faith, but when we ask if faith is a gift, we are generally referring to definition (a), saving faith. Saving faith must have at least three components to qualify as genuine: (1) content - understanding the content of the Christian faith, (2) mental assent - the assent of the intellect to the propositional truths of the Christian faith, (3) trust - reliance upon God.
Second, let's consider what we mean by "gift." When we ask if faith is a gift, what we are really asking is whether the act of trusting is something that originates in God and is imparted to us, or whether it originates in us as a response to God. Of course, there are components of faith that certainly originate in God. For example our ability to have faith at all is ours because God created us in His image. The content of our faith is possible because God has accomplished salvation in Christ. But does the act of trusting originate in God or in us? This is what we mean when we ask, "Is faith a gift?". Let's examine the relevant biblical passages.
Ephesians 2:8 - "For by grace you are saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God."
This is perhaps the most popular biblical passage used to answer his question. This, it is argued, is a clear example of faith being called a "gift of God." However, when one examines the original Greek, it becomes quite apparent that this is incorrect. The key to understanding this passage is the Greek demonstrative pronoun translating "this" (touto) in the phrase "this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." This word refers back to some antecedent. Possible options are
(3) the concept of grace-by-faith salvation,
(4) adverbial force with no antecedent.
The demonstrative pronoun touto ("this") is in the neuter gender, while chariti ("grace") and pisteoos ("faith") are in the feminine gender. Therefore it cannot refer to "grace" or "faith." The fourth option is that the word touto has an adverbial force with no antecedent. In this case, we would translate the demonstrative pronoun as "and especially." The third option, which I take to be the correct option, understands the antecedent of touto to be the concept of salvation. In conclusion, the first two options are ruled out by the rules of grammar, and so one of the latter options must be correct. In either of the latter options, faith is not the gift, and so we must conclude that this passage does not teach that faith is a gift. Rather salvation is a gift that is received through faith.
Hebrews 12:2 - "...looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..."
If Jesus is the "author" of our faith, doesn't that mean that it originates in Him? Not according to this passage. Throughout Hebrews 11 there are numerous examples of people who were examples of great faith. These examples are used by the author to encourage his readers to persevere in their faith. When we come to Hebrews 12, the author moves from various examples to our Example par excellence: Jesus. The author of Hebrews chooses to use the metaphor of a race to depict how we are to live our lives as Christians. We are encouraged with the words, "let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith." The word translated "author" (arkegos) has a dual range of meaning, and can denote either a "ruler" or a "beginnner." Given the imagery of a race being used in this passage, the word is probably referring to Jesus as the pioneer of faith. In the "race" of the faith in God, Jesus is the One who made the race possible, and the first one to complete the race (which occurred on the cross). He is the forerunner who marked out the path of the race, and the champion who completed the race. This is what it means for Jesus to be the author and finisher of faith. And so this passage does not teach that our individual trust originates in God. Rather, this passage teaches that Jesus is the Original and Ultimate Example of One who placed His faith in God. Jesus is the Champion of the race we are to emulate.
Philippians 1:29 - "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake."
Because believing (or "faith" [pisteuein]) is said to be granted (or "graced" [echaristhe]), it is argued that this is an example of faith being a gift from God. I'd make two points about this passage:
(1) It seems that the "believing" referred to here does not refer to the initial conversion act of faith, but rather to continuing, enduring faith in the midst of suffering. It is not initial faith, but rather persevering faith. This is apparent from the historical context of the letter.
(2) The gift is not "believing" itself or "suffering" itself, but rather "believing in Christ," and "suffering for Christ." What makes the activity of believing/suffering gracious is not the activity itself, but rather the extreme worth of the object of that activity (i.e. Christ). And so you could translate the verse, "For to you has been granted the privilege on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer for his sake." This verse emphasizes Christ as the central object of worth--not belief or suffering.
So does this passage teach that faith is a gift? Not in the sense that faith originates in God. However, faith is a gift in the sense that we have a precious Savior in whom we are privileged to place our faith.
In conclusion, faith is not a gift in the sense that the act of trusting originates in God. Rather the act of trusting originates in us as a response to God. However, it is a deep honor and privilege to place our faith in so marvelous a Savior. Let's recognize the extreme worth of our Lord and be thankful for the privilege of being able to place our faith in Him.
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