Thursday, March 10, 2022

Faith of the Calvinists

Okay, I’m writing this post because I came across something so bizarre I didn’t even know what to say to it at first. You’re going to have to bear with me, because you’ll probably have trouble believing anyone could get anything so wrong. But I promise you this is the truth.

I was writing back and forth with one of my Calvinist friends. As you know, I’m not one of them myself, but that doesn’t keep me from liking quite a few of them as people.

Don’t ask. I like a lot of strange things.

So anyway, this one is trying to “convert” me. Like most Calvinists, he thinks he’s got God all figured out, and it’s only a matter of time until I see he’s right. (Hope springs eternal, I guess.)

Stumbling Over Faith

A few days ago, he was writing about his understanding of faith. And this is what he wrote:

“You also can’t have something given someone once they meet a certain requirement and call the something pure grace … or grace alone. Salvation has to include nothing from the one being saved or it is not by grace alone. If once you add your faith, God has now obligated himself to grant you salvation, then grace is dead. Faith is granted us though grace, together with regeneration, for the gift of salvation to be completed.” [emphasis mine]

So now, this is really interesting, and it’s a thing I’ve heard from Calvinists before. They worry about faith. They worry about what it means if we have to have it in order to be saved. They worry that some people seem to have it and others don’t. They worry that if one person has it and another doesn’t, it makes that first person somehow “better” than the second. And most of all, they worry that if a person has faith, that means he is earning his salvation.

You can see that in my buddy’s fearful line “Salvation has to include nothing from the one being saved, or it’s not by grace alone.”

How does he try to solve it? He says that God “grants” us faith — and he thinks it happens “together with regeneration” (by which he means “new life and new birth”: i.e., salvation). So for him, faith isn’t something you need in order to be saved, it’s a thing God hands you when you are saved.

As I said, my buddy is a Calvinist. So I thought I’d better check to see if his view was Calvinistically typical. I found out it isn’t. Calvinists don’t say we get faith “together with” salvation, but rather that it actually comes “after” salvation. Here’s what Calvinist C.M. Patton says:

“Just as a baby naturally cries out after it has been born, so believers cry out to God in faith after they have been born again. In other words, our calling upon God to save us, our turning to God in repentance, and our faith in him come only as a result of being regenerated.” [emphasis mine]

So there it was. Faith comes “after” being born again, and only as a “result of being regenerated”, not as any kind of condition to our salvation. That’s what the Calvinists think.

Wow. Bizarre. Unscriptural even: for in the Word we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please God”, and unbelievers are commanded to “repent and believe [i.e., ‘have faith in’] the gospel”. But Calvinists say that God is always pleased before faith arrives, and nobody can just “believe the gospel” until they are already born again. God saves you arbitrarily and without your willingness; then he forces you to think you are willing by injecting you with this thing called “faith”.

Faith as a Work

Now I’ve said plenty already in previous posts about all the ways I think Calvinism is wrong; so I don’t want to cover all that territory again. But this issue is a new one, one I have not addressed so far. So let me put it concisely.

Calvinists think faith is a work.

How do I mean? Well, what’s worrying them is a line of thought like this:

A: If we could choose to have faith, then our salvation would be by works.
B: But salvation is not by works.
 Salvation is not by choice.

Well, what’s wrong with their thinking? As any logician can tell you, when an argument of this sort has one faulty statement in either the “A” or “B” position, then the conclusion is likely to be wrong.

So where’s the flaw in the logic? It’s right there in premise “A”. It’s that they mistake faith for a kind of work, as you can see. In fact, they think it’s what’s called a “meritorious work”, i.e., a “good action that would cause the person doing it to deserve merit or praise”. That’s the only possible explanation for why Calvinists would ever fret about unsaved people being capable of it: they think it turns grace into works salvation.

But that couldn’t even be a worry unless they were thinking that faith is some kind of merit-earning work.

Wow. What irony. The Calvinists don’t know the difference between faith and works.

How do you like that?

Faith Not Works

Well, read a bit of scripture and it becomes really clear they’re quite wrong. In the Bible, faith is always presented in contrast to works, indeed as the alternative to working for salvation. Faith is not a meritorious work, nor is the having of it an indicator of special status for the one who has it.

What is faith really? The Bible portrays it as a giving up on the self, the abandonment of hope of any personal merit by which one might ingratiate oneself to God, and ultimately, the abandonment of works. As Romans 4:5 says, it’s the one who “does not work, but believes” who is saved.

Get that? Works is one thing. Faith (i.e., same Greek word as “believe”) is a completely different thing: a not-works. It couldn’t be clearer.

Thinking More Clearly

To illustrate: if a lifeguard saves a drowning swimmer, we don’t praise the drowning swimmer. We don’t say, “Did you hear how well he screamed? How beautifully he thrashed the water in desperation! Look how well he sank! Did you see all the lovely bubbles he produced going down? What a great drowner!” Instead, we see only that a helpless person was saved by the bravery and skill of the lifeguard. We might say, “Did you see how well she swam? How did she manage to rescue a man twice her size? What skill she showed! He was really lucky she was there when that poor drowning man called out, or he’d be at the bottom of the lake right now.”

It does not take any swimming skill to drown. And crying out in terror does not imply you deserve credit for having rescued yourself. The merit is all on the side of the rescuer. And as every lifeguard knows, the absolute best attitude a drowning person can be found in is a position of giving up — of having ceased thrashing and grasping and having surrendered. In that condition, he can be saved.

Faith is that final capitulation to the fact of one's own powerlessness in the face of sin, the failure of all one’s own moral goodness, the realization of the pervasiveness and inevitability of death, and the recognition of the inescapability of a lost eternity to follow. It’s the cessation of struggle, the drowning of the ego, and the cry for help of the lost; a cry that only calls upon the merit of another as Savior. That’s it.

It’s not a work: it’s the end of works.

The Object of Our Faith

The worry that faith implies some merit on the part of the person who has it can be put to rest further when one considers that faith always has an object.

Biblically speaking, faith is always “faith in …”

The object of faith can be Someone (like the Lord) or something (like the promises of God); but nowhere is faith ever presented as a free-standing quality without specific dependency on anything. To imply that it can ever be a free-standing virtue with no particular object or proposition in view — as per the Prosperity Gospel, for example — is simply a load of nonsense. It’s always, always “in” something.

Moreover, faith is only ever as good as the particular object in which it is invested. To have faith in God is wise; to have faith in man is foolish. And in that case, we can see that the only merit comes from the object or Person to which that faith refers. Faith redirects attention away from the one having it, to the object in which that faith is being invested. It speaks of the efficacy and value of its object.

So it doesn’t take a special person to have faith; it takes a special Savior to rescue a person who has neither merit nor means to save himself.

Saving Free Will

Because the Calvinist understanding of faith is flawed, they are plagued with a worry about some human beings being able to “choose” God and others not being able to “choose”.

But the Bible says that all men choose, and it holds them fully responsible for the choices they make. They can choose to place their faith in God, or they can choose to place it in other things. None is more meritorious than another, though clearly one choice is better than the other.

The importance of this word is captured in the idea of human responsibility — or should I also say, “response-ability”, for both are true. Human beings have freedom to respond to God or not. Because of this, they also have responsibility: they can be rewarded or condemned, based on their decisions.

However, the Calvinist has also sacrificed human response-ability: that is, the ability of a person to respond to God. This means that God has to force people to be saved contrary to their wills, and thereafter, to enter into a relationship that they have neither wanted nor understood.

Yet in human affairs we don’t think highly of people who opt for forced, non-consensual relations — and the less said about that, the better.


The Way Out

What Calvinists need to recognize in order to escape the trap of their own bad logic is to give up on the idea of faith being a work.

Faith is indeed a choice: but it is the choice we make to recognize we are drowning, helpless, far from shore, and in dire need of rescue. It is simply the decision to relax and capitulate to the necessity of the lifeguard saving us.

Consequently, the credit for our salvation goes not to us, but only to our great Rescuer.


  1. I've also had this debate with Calvinists. It's almost like they go from being completely logical about secular/non spiritual subjects to totally clueless when you ask them simple questions when trying to square their nonsense with biblical reality.

    The best understanding I could get about their belief in regard to faith is that it's a "byproduct" of grace. Like you quoted, it happens after this "irresistible grace" somehow attaches itself to the lucky/chosen ones.

    This post also reminds me of this quote about costly verses cheap grace:

    "Having laid hold on cheap grace, they were barred for ever from the knowledge of costly grace. Deceived and weakened, men felt that they were strong now that they were in possession of this cheap grace -- whereas they had in fact lost the power to live the life of discipleship and obedience. The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

  2. The argument that faith must be a gift from God to prevent it from being a meritorious work would be more weighty if the Old Testament didn't exist. Given the context of the New Testament is 1500 years of keeping the Law, 1500 years of animal sacrifices, 1500 years of food regulations, and 1500 years of trying to keep 613 commandments, the idea that anyone would consider faith to be a meritorious work is rather odd.

    1. Well said, Shawn.

      The OT says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." There was no "work" on his part, but the "belief" was definitely there, and was definitely the condition upon which righteousness was reckoned to him. Again the contrast.

  3. Quite right that the standard Calvinist posture is that the bootstrapping of salvation is done by God, given that the individual is "dead" in their sins and using that analogy can't hear, learn, decide etc., by a work of regeneration, based on His own good will. Faith then is indeed a natural "work" which comes about from the prior cause.