An Arminian view of faith in Christ

(Arminius, public domain)

By Spencer D Gear

It is not unusual to hear Calvinists state that Arminians do not believe that faith is a gift of God.[1] Is this true or false?

Part of #5 of the “Statement of Faith” of the evangelical Arminians states this about the gift of faith and the ability to believe:

In and of themselves and apart from the grace of God human beings can neither think, will, nor do anything good, including believe. But the prevenient grace of God prepares and enables sinners to receive the free gift of salvation offered in Christ and his gospel. Only through the grace of God can sinners believe and so be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unto salvation and spiritual life.

The following is a good summary of grace and faith from an Arminian perspective:

Freed by Grace {to Believe} (Article 4)

  • Because of Total Depravity and Atonement for All … God calls all people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, and graciously enables those who hear the gospel to respond to it positively in faith.
  • God regenerates those who believe in Christ (faith logically precedes regeneration).
  • God’s saving grace is resistible, which is to say that he dispenses his calling, drawing, and convicting grace (which would bring us to salvation if responded to with faith) in such a way that we may reject it. Those who hear the gospel may either accept it by grace or reject it to their own eternal destruction.
  • Apart from the realm of pleasing the Lord and doing spiritual good, people often have free will, which means that, with respect to an action, they can at least either do the action or refrain from doing it. People often have genuine choices and are therefore correspondingly able to make choices.
  • God has ultimate and absolute free will. His choice to supernaturally free the will of sinners by his grace to believe in Christ is a matter of the exercise of his own free will and sovereignty.

I cannot find any teaching in the Bible that confirms that saving faith is for a select few people. The Bible assumes that “whoever believes” is a statement to indicate that faith is available to all. Anyone who says “yes” to Jesus, repents and receives Him, and so exercises saving faith. This is what is taught in:

  • Luke 13:3;
  • John 3:16, 18; 6:29; 11:40; 12:36;
  • Acts 16:31; 17:30; 20:21;
  • Heb. 11:6, etc.

Note especially the words of Acts 17:30 where God “commands all people everywhere to repent”. Since God commands all to repent, those who choose to respond positively to God’s command when the Gospel is presented, are saved. Those who reject, are damned. Those who respond with faith have faith as a gift of God, graciously enable by God himself. But this offer of God’s gift of salvation is able to be resisted and rejected.

We get this understanding from the Scriptures:

  • Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37 NIV). The ESV translates as, “You would not”. The meaning is the same. They could reject Jesus’ offer.
  • Jesus made a similar kind of statement of a person’s ability to reject Him in John 5:39-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (NIV).
  • John 1:12 is crystal clear of a person’s need to receive Christ to become children of God: “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (NIV).
  • John affirms this meaning in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” (NIV)
  • However, this salvation, is all of God, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this [salvation][2] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV).

What is the meaning of Ephesians 2:8?

This verse has been one of the battlegrounds for Arminians and Calvinists. Is faith the gift of God and does regeneration precede faith, or does faith precede regeneration? R. C. Sproul, a Calvinist, maintains that

Regeneration is the theological term used to describe rebirth…. Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit upon those who are spiritually dead (see Ephesians 2:1-10)…. Regeneration is not the fruit or result of faith, regeneration precedes faith as the necessary condition for faith…. We do not decide or choose to be regenerated. God chooses to regenerate us before we will ever choose to embrace Him.[3]

So, being born again (regeneration), comes as God acting sovereignly on the unbeliever before he/she can have faith in Christ. That’s the Calvinistic view.

By contrast, the Arminian theologian, John Miley, sees it quite differently:

There are prerequisites which cannot be met without our own free agency. There must be an earnest turning of the soul to God, deep repentance for sin, and a true faith in Christ. Such are the requirements of our own agency. There is no regeneration for us without them. Yet they are not possible in the unaided resources of our own nature. Hence there must be a helping work of the Spirit prior to his work of regeneration.[4]

At the lay level, this is battled out on Christian forums on the Internet.[5] Let’s look at the gender of some of the nouns and the demonstrative pronoun in this verse:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8 ESV).

  • The noun, grace – charis – is feminine gender;
  • The noun, faith – pistis – is feminine gender;
  • The demonstrative pronoun, this/that – touto – is neuter gender.

So it is very clear in Greek that touto, neuter, cannot refer back to the antecedent feminine nouns – charis and pistis. If the demonstrative this/that was meant to refer to grace or faith, there is a perfectly good Greek way of expressing this. The demonstrative would be the feminine, taute.

To what does “this/that” refer if it is not to grace or faith? Verse 8 tells us that “it is the gift of God’, thus referring to salvation by grace through faith.

What did John Calvin state about Ephesians 2:8?

On one side, we must look at God; and, on the other, at man. God declares, that he owes us nothing; so that salvation is not a reward or recompense, but unmixed grace. The next question is, in what way do men receive that salvation which is offered to them by the hand of God? The answer is, by faith; and hence he concludes that nothing connected with it is our own. If, on the part of God, it is grace alone, and if we bring nothing but faith, which strips us of all commendation, it follows that salvation does not come from us.

His meaning is, not that faith in this verse is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.

One of the greatest NT Greek scholars of the 20th century, Dr. A. T. Robertson, noted this of Eph. 2:8,

“Grace” is God’s part, “faith” is ours. And that (kai touto). Neuter, not feminine taute, and so refers not to pistis (feminine) or to charis (feminine also), but to the act of being saved by grace conditioned on faith on our part.[6]

If Paul wanted “that/this” to refer to grace or faith, there was a regular Greek way of doing it. He would have used the same gender for “this/that” as for “faith” or “grace”. Paul would have written taute and not tauto for the demonstrative in this Scripture. But he did not use this grammar. Instead, by using the neuter, tauto, Paul refers to the whole process of salvation by grace through faith.

Even the Calvinist, F. F. Bruce, stated of Eph. 2:8,

But the fact that the demonstrative pronoun ‘that’ is neuter in Greek (tauto), whereas ‘faith’ is a feminine noun (pistis), combines with other considerations to suggest that it is the whole concept of salvation by grace through faith that is described as the gift of God.[7]

So Ephesians 2:8, based on the Greek grammar does not teach that faith is an irresistible gift straight from God that a person has no say about and cannot reject. This verse says that salvation is of God (and affirmed by Eph. 2:9). But Eph 2:8 does not demonstrate that salvation is a deterministic born again (regeneration) experience that is imposed on a person without his/her consent – which the Calvinists believe.

To use John Miley’s language, “Regeneration is a true sphere of the divine monergism.[8] [But] there is also a sphere of synergism”.[9]


[1] For an example of the back-and-forth on this topic, see the thread, “On what basis does God elect?” in Christian

[2] See what follows for an exegetical understanding of why “this” refers to salvation and not to “grace” or “faith”.

[3] R C Sproul 1992. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, pp. 171-172.

[4] John Miley 1893/1989. Systematic Theology, vol 2. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, pp. 336-337.

[5] One example is on Christian, “What precedes what – faith regeneration” (Accessed 2 September 2011).

[6] A T Robertson 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament: The Epistles of Paul, Vol IV. Nashville, Tennessee: Boardman Press, p. 525, emphasis in the original.

[7] F F Bruce 1961. The Epistle to the Ephesians. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, p. 51.

[8] Monergism is based on the Greek, monos (meaning ‘single’), plus ergon (meaning work’). The Century Dictionary defines monergism ‘in theology as the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is the only efficient agent in regeneration – that the human will possesses no inclination to holiness until regenerated, and therefore cannot cooperate in regeneration (The Century Dictionary 1890, p. 287).

[9] Miley, vol. 2, p. 336. What is synergism? “Arminius proposed what we might call an evangelical synergism. Synergism is any belief in cooperation between the human will and agency on the one hand, and God’s will and agency on the other hand” (Roger E. Olson 2005. ‘Confessions of an Arminian Evangelical’, (Accessed 30 August 2011).


Copyright (c) 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 11 October 2015.