Continuing the theme of monergism in salvation, we come to the debate regarding faith and regeneration. Does regeneration empower faith? Or does faith produce regeneration? Both are necessary for salvation, but what is their relationship? And how do we know?
Historically, Reformed theologians have understood faith as a divine gift to God’s elect, a gift that was planned in eternity, purchased at the cross, and personally granted in regeneration. By contrast, Arminians, Wesleyans, and other advocates of free will aver that faith is possible for all men and hence is not a special gift of grace to God’s elect, but a gift of grace to all who would freely receive it.
As one who gladly affirms a Reformed view of salvation, I believe this latter position minimizes the work of God in salvation. Instead of putting man’s final destiny squarely in the hands of God, an Arminian view conjoins the work of God and man. Theologically, this undermines grace. Pastorally, this contribution of faith produces (or leaves unchanged) man’s inveterate thirst for self-determination and creates communities that lack a spirit of humility. In God’s grace, other doctrines may ameliorate these realities or produce humility. But, by and large, a church that teaches—explicitly or implicitly—that you are capable of making such a decision for Christ impedes the humility which the gospel is meant to foster (see Rom. 3:27–30).
So, how we understand God’s work of salvation matters immensely for our sanctification, discipleship, and Christian fellowship. Still, it must be a doctrine derived from Scripture and not from tradition alone. To that point, we might ask: Where do we find teaching that says regeneration precedes faith and/or that faith is a gift of God? Good question. And in Paul’s Epistles, we find at least five passages that teach us that faith is a gift. Let’s consider each below.
Faith as a Gift
The locus classicus of the doctrine of faith as a gift of grace is Ephesians 2:8–9.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
This passage not only says that salvation is a gift, received by faith. It also says that faith is a gift. How do we know? Well, this takes a little digging, but in the original language, grace (charis) and faith (pistos) are both feminine nouns. Accordingly, any latter reference to them should also be feminine. But importantly, “gift” in the phrase “it is the gift of God,” which refers back to the earlier part of the verse, is neuter. This means that the gift of God is not pointing back to salvation, or grace, or faith alone, but to all the above. Everything in salvation, including faith is a gift from God.
Ephesians 2:8–9 is arguably the most clear statement that Paul makes about faith as a gift, but it is not the only one. For instance, in Philippians 1:29, we find this statement. “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.” Though focusing on the gift of suffering, Paul assumes that suffering for Christ is a gift like faith is a gift.
Similarly, Paul assigns the gift of faith to the Holy Spirit. This is seen in both 1 Corinthians 12:8–11 and Galatians 5:22–23.
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12:8–11)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (pistis = faith), 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23)
While these passages are simply listing faith as gifts of the Spirit, the origin of faith is plain. Faith is not something that men create themselves, with or without the Spirit’s help. No, faith is given by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8); it is a fruit produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The best way to understand the origin of faith, therefore, is not a cooperative creation between God and man. Rather, it is the Spirit-wrought action of God, given to create God’s children. While faith is a command and action that children of God must obey; no act of faith can make someone a child of God (see John 1:12–13).
Another instance where Paul describes the work of the Spirit to cause faith is 2 Corinthians 4:13–15.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Honing in on the Holy Spirit as the “spirit of faith,” George Smeaton observes,
The title “Spirit of faith” that the Holy Ghost is the author of faith; for all men have not faith; that is, it is not given to all, and does not belong to all (2 Thess. 3:2). The designation [Spirit of faith] means that the producing cause of faith is the Holy Spirit, who produces this effect by that invincible call and invitation which accompanies, according to the good pleasure of His will, the external proclamation of the gospel. The faith, therefore, of which He is the author, is not effected by the hearer’s own strength or by the hearer’s own effectual will.(The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 68-69)
A few sentences later, Smeaton goes further,
The special operation of the Spirit inclines the sinner, previously disinclined, to receive the invitations of the gospel; for it is He alone, acting as the Spirit of faith, that removes the enmity of the carnal mind to those doctrines of the cross which, but for this, would seem to him unnecessary, or foolish and offensive. (The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 69)
Truly, without the work of the Spirit changing the nature of man, removing the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, there would be no faith. But when the Spirit of faith operates on a sinners heart, and makes her a child of God, he does so by granting faith and its accompanying grace, repentance (see Acts 5:31; 11:18).
Finally, Paul says that the grace of God comes with faith. Reflecting upon his own conversion, Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:12–14,
12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
Notice, faith and love are downstream from God’s grace. God’s grace is what elects, justifies, and calls (Rom. 8:30); God’s grace is not what triggers the grace of God. To put plainly: God awards us faith by his grace; he does not reward our faith with grace. Accordingly, the relationship between faith and regeneration is one where regeneration is the cause of faith, not the reverse
In time, this difference may not be noticeable. It is not as if regeneration happens and some time later faith. Rather, when God makes us alive in Christ (see Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13), he grants us faith. The “visibility” of that faith will depend upon a number of factors (e.g., the influence of a church, its disciples, and access to the Word of God, etc.), but what is clear from Scripture is the logical order: regeneration precedes faith. And this is good news—good news for sinners who have not believed and good news for Christians sharing the gospel.
The Good News of a God Who Grants Faith
God is the one who grants life. And there is no human will that effectively resist the grace of God in regeneration. No one knew this better than the Apostle who was converted on the way to arresting and executing Christians. Indeed, on the road to Damascus, the Lord confronted Paul, regenerated his heart, and granted him the faith and repentance to follow Christ and stop opposing him. Thereafter, Paul preached a gospel that called people to believe in Christ and throughout his letters, he explains how that happens.
In his mercy, God raises sinners to life and gives them the faith they will need to respond to his gospel. Such is the grace of God. God’s grace is not waiting for sinners to change their minds and believe on him. Wonderfully, God is sending his Spirit and his Word to bring to life children who will believe, and believing who will endure in faith, because that faith is granted by the Spirit and possesses the same power with which God raised the dead.
To this, we can simply say with Paul: For from him and through him and to him are all things—including saving faith. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds