The gift of faith - to whom and when?

A reader of this blog submitted the following question:

Since salvation in Jesus comes through faith and this faith is God's gift, why does it seem that God is not giving this gift to everyone at this time?

Here is my reply:

I agree that the faith needed for salvation is, like salvation itself, God's gift - it's all of grace! Moreover, I understand from Scripture that this faith unto salvation is not our own - rather it is our sharing in the faith of the God-man Jesus who believes on our behalf, and shares his saving faith with us (see the KJV translation of Gal. 2:20, which rightly translates "faith in Jesus Christ" as "faith of Jesus Christ"). It is the faith of Jesus, the vicarious (representative - substitute) human, that unites humankind to God.

Both Calvinism and Arminianism (two dominant evangelical Protestant theologies) assert that the faith that leads to salvation is, indeed, God's gift and thus not to be viewed as a meritorious work of our own. The Christ-centered, trinitarian theology promoted in this blog agrees. But there are two related questions: Who is given this gift of faith? And, When is it given? These three theologies provide different answers:
  • Calvinistic theology asserts that God gives the gift of faith only to those who God has predestined to be saved. This idea is the outworking of the related Calvinist idea of a *limited atonement* - that Jesus died only for those predestined to be saved. It's also related to the Calvinist idea of *irresistible grace* - that those predestined to be saved will be called (given the faith that leads to salvation) and that this grace (like all forms of God's grace to us) will not be refused - it is "irresistible."
  • Arminian theology asserts that *all* will be given "prevenient grace" (John Wesley's term) that involves the Spirit's illumination ("opening of eyes") by which individuals are enabled to "see" Jesus and the choice set before them to either embrace or repudiate their salvation in Jesus. This gift of prevenient grace is extended to all, and thus all may (at least potentially) be saved.
  • Christ-centered trinitarian theology asserts that the one elected unto salvation is Jesus - the one vicarious human, who as the incarnation of the Son of God, the Creator, includes in his own life all humanity. Jesus has thus included all people in his election unto salvation and in his human faith toward God. Jesus, the "elect one," sends to all humanity the Holy Spirit to illuminate each mind to understand who he is (and thus who they are in union with Jesus). This gift of grace gives each person a meaningful, informed opportunity to add their personal "yes" to Jesus' pre-existing universal "YES" to God on their behalf. Why is their personal "yes" needed and invited? Because God will never force anyone to embrace, and thus personally participate in the salvation that is theirs in union with Jesus. Thus this theology preserves the ideas of human freedom and God's sovereignty - bringing both together in Jesus who, in his own person, is the union of God and all humanity.
This leads us to ask a third question: WHEN does the Spirit bring this illumination to each person? In my view, Holy Scripture does not say definitively - though it does give hints, which serve as the basis for speculation:
  • Some speculate that if God does not call people earlier, he will do so as they die (thus locating his call always before death)
  • Some speculate that God will call some (most?) when they stand before Jesus in the general resurrection (at the final judgment following Jesus' return)
  • Some speculate that the call may happen at any time - in this life or any time in the next
While I think it's OK to speculate, I suggest that we cannot speak with certainty concerning the issue of timing. However, we do know for sure that our salvation is in Jesus, and Jesus will make himself known to all, and through his Spirit invite and enable all to a personal decision - will they embrace Jesus? or will they repudiate him? That is a question for all to answer for themselves. But first they must hear of this Jesus who has answered already in his humanity on behalf of all. And God assures us that all will hear - and both the "how" and the "when" are in God's able and soveriegn hands. In the present time, God invites us as disciples of Jesus, to participate with the Spirit in making Jesus known far and wide. To do so is our privilege and calling.


Anonymous said…
Hey Ted,

Thank you for this balanced answer to the question about God’s gift of faith, and it reminds us that faith is the gift of God. However, I am reminded that this truth is often missed in modern Christianity. In fact, often admonitions are found in modern preaching telling folks to work up enough faith to please God and/or at least to move mountains. These admonitions often use a section of Mark 11 for support.

You see, Mark 11 has a curious account about Jesus and a fig tree. In this account, Jesus
was hungry. But when He checked out a certain fig tree, He found no fruit on it because it wasn't the time of year for the tree to have figs. Nonetheless, Jesus cursed the tree. Not too much later, after some wild doings at the temple, Jesus and the disciples walked by that fig tree, which had become completely
withered. Peter called this startling fact to Jesus' attention; whereupon Jesus said the following:

Mark 11:22-24--"Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (NIV)

But the truth be known, mountains don't move, at least the way we usually want them to. However, this fact does not stop the above passage from being used to pound Christians with the idea that they can squeeze out enough faith to move those mountains. It is all so sad and testifies to the fact that the real meaning of Mark's account is being missed.

You see, Jesus was not trying to be the "great moral teacher" here. Instead, like with most of His sayings found in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was crushing people up against the cross with the futility of their religiosity. This being so, Mark 11:22-24 is not a recipe for self-generated faith. It is, instead, a pre-cross taunt made to make people, over time, realize that they simply can't build enough faith to get the job done. This is in sharp contrast to Jesus' faith, which can, even when used casually with a fig tree, cause things to happen.

But thankfully, it is not my (our) faith that moves mountains. It is the faith of Jesus Christ that has already moved the mountains blocking my way to eternal life with God. For this I am very grateful.

The best to you always!

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
How wonderful that Jesus is sharing all that he is and has with us - including his faith, which is his total trust in and dependence upon the Father, in the Spirit.
Ted Johnston said…
A blog reader sent me the following comment on this post:

I ran across a daily devotional by A.B. Simpson (A.W. Tozer's mentor) today... it meshes with your blog entry:

God requires of us a perfect faith, and He tells us that if we believe and doubt not, we shall have whatsoever we ask. The faintest touch of unbelief will neutralize our trust.

But how shall we have such perfect faith? Is it possible for human nature? No, but it is possible to the divine nature; it is possible to the Christ within us. It is possible for God to give us faith, and He does. But Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith, and He bids us have the faith of God. As we have faith through the imparting of the Spirit of Christ, we believe even as He.

We pray in His name and in His very nature, and, [we] live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved [us], and gave himself for [us] (Gal. 2:20).The love that He requires of us is not mere human love, or even the standard of love required in the Old Testament, but something far higher. The new commandment is to love one another (John 13:34), not as ourselves but as He has loved us.

How shall such love be made possible? Our love is simply His love working in us and imparted to us through the Spirit.