by Isaac Barrett
This review will analyze John Piper’s four main arguments in his exegesis of Ephesians 2:8-9. Two of these arguments, he makes from outside the text in question. One argument is from Ephesians and the others are from Philippians and 1 Corinthians. This first article in the series will focus on those external arguments. Piper believes that this passage, and others, directly teach that faith is effectually given or is a gift from God. Effectual faith, according to Piper, is given by God, and an individual cannot resist this gift. Faith happens when God changes the will of an individual. Piper concludes that there is nothing an individual can do to have faith.
Piper’s exegesis can be found from this video entitled, “Is Faith a Gift of God?“. His arguments will come with timestamps as references.
First, the text of Ephesians 2: 8-9 (ESV):
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
The basic argument John Piper will be making is that faith in Christ is an effectual gift and that, outside this effectual gift, man has no ability to have faith in Christ. For his first stab at proving his case, Piper turns to the preceding paragraph:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.Eph 2: 1-7 (ESV)
Dead Like a Corpse is Dead
Piper’s first argument is that ‘dead’ means ‘corpse like’ and therefore ‘faith must be a gift’. He points to verse 5 where it says “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved”. Piper believes that dead means a complete inability towards God. This is the foundational argument behind the doctrine of Total Depravity or Absolute Inability. Under this doctrine, it is believed that man must be given grace in order to be enabled to believe. This grace is described as an inner working of the Holy Spirit, not merely hearing the Gospel. The claim is that we must be made alive in order to be able to put our faith in Christ. Dead men can’t do anything, including believing, repenting, or having faith.
The problem with the corpse like dead argument is that the Bible clearly defines spiritual deadness as a separation:
Death As Separation
Isaiah 59 ESV
“your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear”
Luke 15:24, 32 ESV
“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”
“for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found”
Romans 6:11 ESV
“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
James 2:26 ESV
“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead”
Genesis 35:18 ESV
“And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”
St. Clement Of Alexandria 190AD
“death is the separation of the soul from the body”
“Death is the fellowship of the soul in a state of sin with the body, and life is separation from that sin.”
Unless we assume that Paul offers no clarity to the text of Eph 2: 8-9 in the surrounding verses, we cannot ignore that this is what Paul has to say about separation in the sentences immediately following the passage Piper is exegeting:
Ephesians 2:11-19 ESV
“…— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall…so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross,…18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”
Biblically all forms of death are a separation. Physical death is the separation of body from soul. Spiritual death is man’s separation from God. Believers are supposed to be separated from sin, yet we are still able to sin. Piper’s interpretation focuses on characteristics of a corpse, instead of the separation. He then applies these characteristics to us in order to say that we can’t respond to God positively at all. The problem is that there is no verse that actually says this or one that compares spiritual death to a corpse. The Bible uses many words to refer to our fallen spiritually dead condition, including being “separated“, “alienated“, “strangers“, “far off“, “lost“, and having God’s face hidden from you. Adam and Eve died the day they ate the fruit, but their death was a spiritual separation from God. They had to leave the presence of God. It didn’t mean they couldn’t hear God, as they and their children spoke with God after being separated. Being spiritually alive is defined as “alive”, “brought near“, “made us both one [us & Christ]”, “reconciled“, “found“, “fellow citizens”.
The definition of death as only corpse like is a definition that ignores the spirit. To the Israelites, physical death meant that person’s spirit was separated from its body. Their spirits are in Sheol while their corpses remain here. When you are dead, you are not simply a corpse, you are a spirit and a corpse. The parable of the prodigal son provides us with a full application of this Biblical definition from a soteriological perspective. The son was “dead, and is alive”, he was “lost, and is found“. Piper’s argument that spiritually dead means corpse is not directly supported scripturally. So far, it does not seem sufficient to claim that faith is effectually given by God, let alone that Ephesians 2:8-9 specifically teaches it. Deuteronomy 30 has the opposite order where the Israelites are commanded to repent and return (notice implication of separation) to the Lord. Only then, does God “circumcise your heart”, which is being made alive. We are not made alive in order to repent and return.
Can the Dead Not Have Faith?
There is an underlying assumption of John Piper’s that cannot go unchallenged. He assumes that the spiritually dead cannot have faith. But is that so?
In the text of Eph 2: 8-9, there is no direct connection of being “dead in trespasses” to faith. Actually, verse 4-5 support the opposite conclusion. The statement, “made us alive together with Christ”, is immediately followed with a disclaimer that this being made alive is to be saved by grace. Immediately prior, it says that this saving happened “even when we were dead in our trespasses“ (i.e. spiritually dead). We were spiritually dead at the time that we were saved by grace. Verse 8 & 9 then clarify that this grace that saves is received by “faith”. If we need to be made alive in order to have faith then we would have to be saved in Christ before having faith. The problem is, you cannot be in Christ without faith. Piper’s interpretation flips the order that is clearly seen in the text. This is done in order to claim that faith must be a gift from a logical perspective.
Faith As a Gift Outside of Ephesians 2
Piper argues that there are other passages that show faith is an effectual gift:
Philippians 1:29 says it has been “granted” to you to “not only believe in Him”, “but to suffer for His sake”. Therefore, faith is a gift in Paul’s understanding.
1 Corinthians 1:28-31 says that “God chose what is low and despised” so that “no human being might boast” (same concern as Ephesians 2) and that “from Him you are in Christ”. It is from God that we are in Christ Jesus, we did not put ourselves in Christ Jesus. From God you are grafted into Christ Jesus. You didn’t raise yourself from the dead (i.e. Lazarus) and therefore you didn’t create your faith. Don’t rob God of the glory in saving us, including of giving us saving/effectual faith.
To Grant Means to Enable
Piper assumes that the word “granting” means the exact same thing as the word “gift”, and therefore saving faith is effectually given to us. Under Sola Scriptura, if Paul meant gift, he would have written gift. Instead, Paul wrote granted, which means enabling or allowing. We can safely assume that Paul used a different word because it has a different meaning. Did God enable or allow us to believe in His Son? Absolutely! He sent his Son to die as the propitiation for the sins of the whole world and then He sent messengers into the world proclaiming the Gospel that we might hear it and to be received by faith. If a father is “granting” permission to a man to marry his daughter, did the father effectually make the man propose or ask for permission? No, he did not (that is called a shotgun wedding). Granting simply does not mean effectual causality. Did God causally give suffering to the Corinthian church? No, but He enabled/allowed his children to both believe and suffer for His sake. If God didn’t give the suffering to the church, then why would we assume that he gave faith to them? Concluding that Paul understands faith as being effectually given because he uses term enabled/allowed, seems incorrect.
Faith Does Not Make You Alive
Piper confuses the regeneration process of being made alive with a person having faith. He says ‘we did not put ourselves in Christ Jesus’, which is true. The Bible makes it clear that this happens by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:4,8 “[God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… through faith”). Being made alive or regenerated is the work that saves us and it happens by grace. Romans makes it clear that our faith is “counted as righteousness”. Faith is the first event, in this verse, as it says that the gift of salvation by grace is “to be received by faith”. Faith itself does not make anybody alive.
Piper asserts that we “didn’t raise [ourselves] from the dead and therefore you didn’t create your faith”. The problem with his analysis is the order of events. Romans and Ephesians say we are to receive the gift of justification/salvation, which is to be made alive in Christ, through faith. If faith comes before regeneration, how can one conclude that in order to have faith we must first raise ourselves from the dead? Piper’s assertion seems to be a direct contradiction to Paul’s writings. Our faith itself does not save us and does not justify us. God makes faith a requirement to Him to justify, regenerate, and to save us. In no way can we assert that faith itself has the power to raise us from the dead. Faith without God’s work is a meaningless dirty rag. Faith itself is powerless.
Deuteronomy 30 reaffirms this order. It says first “return to the Lord your God… and obey his voice” and “then the Lord your God will… have mercy on you… And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart”. Piper, as well as many others with his position, assert that the circumcision of the heart is regeneration. They leave out the fact that God says he will do this only after they return to Him and obey his commands. God making us spiritually alive allows us to become like Him through the work of sanctification, but is not necessary to have faith. All of God’s work occurs after we respond in faith.
When we put their faith in Christ, God says that He will make us spiritually alive in Christ. If our faith was the result of free will, would that rob God glory? Since faith is not a work, is non-meritorious, is not worthy of boasting, and is not under the law of works but the law of faith, then no! Romans 4 profoundly affirms that the faith credited to Abraham gave the glory to God. God did all of the work to save us and God gets all of the glory. The only time God is robbed of glory is when our salvation is not sought through faith. God monergisticly saves us because He does all of the work. The only thing we do is to have faith to receive God’s work. God commands us to believe, repent, and to live by faith and that is what we must do.
God Chooses What is Wise, Not Who is Saved
1 Corinthians 1 is a passage that is specifically focused on wisdom. It does not state that ‘faith is a gift’ or discuss the origin of faith. It focuses on the pursuit of human wisdom by the Greeks. Paul compares and contrasts human wisdom to God’s wisdom saying that we do “not know God through [human] wisdom”, but that “it pleased God through the [human] folly of what we preach to save those who believe”. Paul is talking about the nature and origin of the wisdom the Corinthian Christians are drawing from to help steel them against their culture who is telling them their behavior is foolish. God’s decision to save those who believe and humble themselves, and calling them to subsequently live out His revealed wisdom, is foolishness to the world, just like it is in modern culture. By doing this, “God made foolish the wisdom of the world”. When he writes “because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption”, Paul is speaking about being made alive and justified. All of this happens through faith. This passage does not appear to support a deterministic interpretation of the nature of faith.
So far, we’ve shown that Piper’s references outside of Eph 2: 8-9 are not sufficient to establish his case. In the next installment in this series, we’ll dive into the text of Eph 2:8-9 itself and evaluate the grammar and sentence structure as well as Piper’s arguments for why these two verses teach faith as an effectual gift. Stay tuned!