Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.

Part II:
Faith: God’s Gift from Beginning to End

Those who hold to the well-meant offer, as it was set forth in my previous article (Standard Bearer, May 1, 2002), have a wrong view of what it means that faith is a gift of God. That faith is, in fact, a gift of God many are willing to admit, since Scripture explicitly teaches this. Philippians 1:29, for example, says that “unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him….” But many have found a way to make it look like they believe this truth, when in reality they do not. They speak of the act of faith as a condition that man must fulfill to be saved. But if faith is a condition that man must fulfill, then it cannot truly be a gift of God. It cannot be something that God produces from beginning to end.

The first part of this article will set forth what it means that faith is a gift of God, while taking a look at false views concerning this that are condemned by our Reformed creeds. The second part will consider how different views on the gift of faith are related to different views on the preaching of the gospel.

Faith: Not Offered but Breathed Into

As with all the doctrines of Scripture, we must confess distinctively what it means that faith is a gift of God. To confess something distinctively is to do it in such detail that we clearly distinguish ourselves from those who claim to maintain the truth but who really do not. For example, the statement that God gives the gift of faith to His people is a true statement, but it does not set forth the truth distinctively, since many who deny the truth will say the same. If we say, “God gives faith only to the elect, and does so in such a way that He not only gives to them the desire and power to believe, but also efficaciously produces in them the act of believing,” then we are confessing the truth distinctively, and we clearly distinguish ourselves from those who really do not confess the truth on this matter.

Our fathers understood the importance of confessing our faith distinctively.  The fourteenth article of Heads III/IV of the Canons of Dordt sets forth very clearly and distinctively what it means that faith is a gift of God. It sets forth the error that is being rejected in two different ways. We begin with the first distinction:

Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him….

The error rejected here is precisely what many today maintain. When they say that God gives people faith, they mean that He offers to them the gift of faith, giving them the option of either accepting or rejecting the gift. But this would mean that if someone has faith, he has it partly because of an act of God, and partly because of his own act of accepting what God has offered. If such were the case, a man’s salvation would be based, at least in part, on something that he has done.

Our fathers rightly rejected this error and confessed that when Scripture says that faith is a gift that God gives to His people, it means not that He offers them the gift, but that He actually bestows on them the gift. He does not offer them faith; He breathes faith into them, and thus causes them to believe.

A Gift Not Only of the Will to Believe, But Also of the Act of Believing

The article then goes on to give another distinction, and says that faith is to be considered as the gift of God not

because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of that salvation and actually believe in Christ, but because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.

Here the same error is set forth a bit differently. Some will admit that when Scripture says that God gives some people the gift of faith, it does not mean that He merely offers it to them. They will grant that it means that God does, indeed, do something inside the person to whom He gives faith. Yet they still deny that faith is entirely a gift of God, for they maintain that God gives people the power and ability to believe, but that the actual act of believing is still left for the man himself to perform. This error, which may appear to be a bit closer to the truth, in actuality is the very same error. It is the very same lie, but perhaps a bit more deceptive. It is still the lie that man’s salvation is, at least in part, based on an activity he has performed.

One who is truly a Reformed believer rejects this lie and confesses the statement found at the end of this article. He clearly and distinctively maintains that God gives to His elect people not only the will to believe, and not only the power and ability to believe, but also the very act of believing.

To know this, and from the heart to confess this, is to understand what it means that salvation is all of God’s grace.

How One’s View on This Is Related to One’s View on the Nature of Gospel Preaching

The unbiblical position that the preaching of the gospel is a well-meant offer of grace to all who hear it is a position that goes with what our creeds condemn as a wrong view of what it means that faith is a gift of God. One who holds to the well-meant offer of the gospel maintains that God gives to those who hear the preaching sufficient grace to accept that which is offered, but that the person who hears the preaching must make use of this grace and do the actual accepting of what God is holding out before Him. This is precisely the wrong view of what it means that faith is a gift of God. It is another way of saying that God gives people the power and ability to believe what is set forth, but that it is left up to each person to do the actual believing.

The churches that hold to the well-meant offer, with the accompanying denial that faith is entirely a gift of God, will have preaching that will sound much different from that found in soundly Reformed churches.

First of all, there will be a difference in the doctrine that is preached. This, of course, is obvious, since the well-meant offer is really a denial of the whole of the Reformed faith.

Secondly, the preaching in churches that deny that faith is entirely a gift of grace will make God sound like a powerless beggar, who is pleading with the people to grant His desire and accept what He sets before them. The preaching will not be a proclamation of a certain and efficacious promise of God, with emphasis upon the glorious work of our Savior. Rather, it will be the setting forth of a powerless wish of God, with the emphasis placed on the work of man.

A third difference has to do with who will be addressed in the preaching. Churches that hold that God gives only part of faith often end up addressing unbelievers as individuals, pleading with them to accept the offered salvation. Just as in other Arminian churches, the preaching will more and more sound as though it is really for those who are impenitently walking in sin. The preaching in sound, Reformed churches, although it does indeed set forth seriously the calling of each and every human being, is addressed to God’s people as a body. The exhortations in such churches will sound just as they do in the New Testament epistles of Paul. They will be exhortations to God’s people, not to become what they are not, but to be what they are. God’s people will be told that God has efficaciously given them faith, and that they are exhorted to grow in that faith. They will be told that God has caused them to love one another, and yet that they must increase and grow in this love for one another (I Thess. 4:9, 10). The elect will be told that God has already made them to be holy, and promises to make them perfectly free from sin, and yet they will be exhorted more and more to walk in holiness before the face of the God who has saved them by His grace (I Pet. 1:15, 16I Pet. 2:9).

What one believes about faith is inseparably connected to what one believes about the preaching of the gospel. Where the truth that faith is entirely a gift of God is loved and confessed, there you will find the proclamation of the efficacious promise of God addressed to God’s chosen people, the proclamation that works more of this faith in their hearts, and causes them, out of thankfulness, to walk in newness of life.