Is faith something God effectually (or irresistibly) gives to some people and withholds from everyone else? Calvinists, such as John Piper, believe this is what the Bible teaches. This article will examine the proof texts Piper, and many modern day Calvinists, use to validate their position. Pastor Piper puts it like this,
“Paul is concerned that people were ‘thinking of themselves more highly than they ought to think.’ His final remedy for this pride is to say that not only are spiritual gifts a work of God’s free grace in our lives, but so also is the very faith with which we use those gifts. This means that every possible ground of boasting is taken away. How can we boast if even the qualification for receiving gifts is also a gift?”
Was Paul addressing “Arminians” or “synergistic free will advocates” in Romans 12:3 because he was concerned about them taking credit for their salvation and boasting about their choice to trust in Christ? Or, was Paul addressing believers with various gifts being jealous or boastful due to the kind of gift or role they were given within the body of Christ? Let’s look at the context:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:3-8, emphasis added)
It could not be any more clear that Paul is addressing the body of Christ and their various spiritual gifts (prophecy, service, teaching, etc.) and not Christians bragging about their “free will decision” to humbly confess their sin (which is obviously an absurd conclusion). Erroneous proof texting is when a pastor, like Piper, takes a passage out of context which is clearly addressing one error and they apply it as if its addressing someone (i.e. a free will advocate) who disagrees with their particular theological position (i.e. Calvinism), which is obviously about a completely different point than the biblical author was addressing. This is a dangerous practice that can lead to many interpretive errors. Piper continues,
“That’s how important humility is in God’s eyes. This is exactly the same aim of God mentioned in Ephesians 2:8-9 where Paul stresses that saving faith is a gift: “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith is a gift from God, so that no one may boast. Or, as Romans 12:3 says, So that we will not think too highly of ourselves. The last bastion of pride is the belief that we are the originators of our faith.”
Notice how Piper carries over this imposed intention into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, as if the Apostle is actually addressing “free will advocates” who have been boasting in their choice to humbly confess their sin and trust in Christ. The absurdity of his approach would not even need to be addressed if it was not for the overwhelming number of young and impressionable students who are adopting it. It really is a shockingly inappropriate approach to proper biblical hermeneutics and it surprises me how few mainstream Christian scholars are calling him out for it.
Most commentaries which reflect on the original language reveal that the demonstrative translated ‘this’ in verse 8 is ‘neuter,’ but the noun for ‘faith’ is ‘feminine’. For Piper’s somewhat idiosyncratic view to stand, these two terms should agree in gender, but clearly they do not. Greek scholar, Dr. Dan Wallace, explains, “On a grammatical level, then, it is doubtful that either ‘faith” or ‘grace’ is the antecedent of [touto].’ Instead, Paul is simply stating that salvation as a whole is obtained by a gift of God.
There are even many Calvinistic leaning exegetes who are unbiased enough to admit that the grammatical structure of Ephesians 2:8-9 does not support the idea that faith is some kind of effectual gift. In his own commentary of this passage, John Calvin said,
“And here we must advert to a very common error in the interpretation of this passage. Many persons restrict the word gift to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”
So, this is not just a bias against Calvinism, as even John Calvin himself taught that Piper’s view is a “common error.” Piper goes on to say,
“He said to the Philippians, ‘To you it has been given for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake’ (Philippians 1:29). This is why he thanked God and not human resourcefulness for the faith he saw in his churches…”
God does grant us the ability to believe and suffer for His sake. But “granting” or “enabling” faith, or the subsequent suffering that may result, is not the same as “effectually causing it.” Faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:11-14), which is sent (or granted) first to the Jew and then the Gentile (Rom. 1:16). In other words, God is enabling faith by bringing the word of faith (His revelation), which is said to go first to Israel and then to “the high-ways and by-ways…the good and bad alike” (see the wedding banquet parable in Matt. 22). Remember, during the time of Paul, the Jews, generally speaking, had grown calloused to God’s revelation, otherwise they might have seen, heard, understood and turned to God, so the apostles took the message of repentance to the Gentiles, who unlike the Jews, “were willing to listen” (see Acts 28:27-28; John 12:39-41; Romans 9-11).
Is Faith is a Gift?
Yes, in one manner of speaking it is, but that does not mean it is an effectual gift given to a relatively small number of people mysteriously chosen for unknown reasons before the world began. We do not have a problem saying that “faith is a gift” in so far as all good things are ultimately from God. Paul asked his readers, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), which strongly implies that all our abilities, including the ability to make choices, or to trust in God, is given to us by a gracious God.
My next breath is a gift of God, but I am responsible for how I use that gift, right? Likewise, we are “granted” faith or repentance when God brings the means by which we may believe and repent, but we are still responsible for how we use that gift.
So, when the scripture says things like, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18; 20:21) it does not mean “God has effectually caused the Gentiles to repent” but only that God has sent the gospel to the Gentiles so that they too may believe and repent unto new life (John 20:31) and be grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11).
Piper, along with most Calvinists, erroneously assume that for God to receive the maximum glory for giving gifts that He must give them “irresistibly” (in a way that effectually causes the recipients to take and use the gift appropriately). But, since when must a gift be effectually or irresistibly bestowed in order for the giver to get full credit for giving the gift?
If I were to buy laptops for all four of my children and three of them trashed it, or used it inappropriately (while only one of them used it as I intended); am I a less generous or benevolent father? Of course not. My children are responsible for how they used the gift I provided, and that does not impact my benevolence or my character in any way as their loving father who generously provided for their needs.
What would negatively reflect on my character as their father is if you found out I was somehow the “decisive cause” of my children’s inappropriate preferences and choices, which is precisely what Piper teaches in regard to God’s relation to those who rebel against His provisions. In an article titled, “A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Free Will,’” John Piper argues,
…God is the only being who is ultimately self-determining, and is himself ultimately the disposer of all things, including all choices — however many or diverse other intervening causes are.
On this definition, no human being has free will, at any time. Neither before or after the fall, or in heaven, are creatures ultimately self-determining. There are great measures of self-determination, as the Bible often shows, but never is man the ultimate or decisive cause of his preferences and choices. When man’s agency and God’s agency are compared, both are real, but God’s is decisive. Yet — and here’s the mystery that causes so many to stumble — God is always decisive in such a way that man’s agency is real, and his responsibility remains.
I propose that Piper’s view actually downplays God’s glory by presuming effectuality. On the Traditionalist/Provisionist’s view, where God provides the means of salvation for all people, God gets the glory for the gift provided for every person, not just those who use that gift appropriately.
What diminishes God’s glory is suggesting that He is withholding what is necessary for people to believe in Him all the while judging and punishing them for their unbelief. In Mark 6:6 it says that Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief,” and in Luke 19:41 we read about Jesus literally weeping due to the unbelief of the Israelites, and in Mark 16:14 Jesus rebukes his followers for their unbelief — as if they actually had some control over it. Is Jesus being disingenuous in these passages while secretly withholding this so-called effectual gift of faith? Piper’s claim that faith is some kind of an effectual gift from God granted to a preselected few, while being arbitrarily withheld from the masses, makes much of the scripture completely and utterly irrational. For this reason, it should be respectfully rejected and vigorously rebutted.
Below is a broadcast where faith as a gift is discussed in more detail:
 John Piper, same as above…
 D B Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 334-5.
 John Calvin’s Commentary on Ephesians, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/ephesians-2.html
 I recognize that Calvin, in this same commentary, sides with Piper’s soteriological views. That is not the point. The point is that Calvin, unlike Piper, acknowledges that this verse in particular does not grammatically support their position.