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.