If salvation is by grace, we can have no part in it (including willing up faith)

I am increasingly convinced that the main reason free will advocates remain among us is not the oft-cited sense in which we are desperate to be free and it runs in our veins. The reason free will advocates remain amongst us is not a desire to be Lord and master of our lives – they are nevertheless usually evangelical after all – but because they do not properly understand grace.

We typically do not help people out with this problem. Grace is usually defined as unmerited favour, or something like that. But it is clear that you can have unmerited favour whilst still adding something to the work. Theoretically, God can smile upon those favourably who then proceed to do whatever is required to top up his effort to save them. If salvation is a matter of grace, and grace is merely unmerited favour, what is stopping God putting his favour on you – entirely of his own volition for his own good pleasure – whilst still insisting you do something or other? Isn’t that the essence of prevenient grace; the mere ability to now believe?

The issue is, that is not really how Paul defines grace. It certainly does involve unmerited favour, no question about that, but it is surely something more. Here is what he says in Ephesians 2:4-5:

God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!

Paul has already said that we were dead in trespasses and sin and outlines the consequences of our spiritual deadness in vv1-3. Here, he makes the point again. Prior to salvation, we are dead. Most of us recognise, dead people don’t talk, reach out, move towards, think, feel or believe anything. If we are spiritually dead, we have no spiritual ability. Zero.

Grace, Paul says, is not just unmerited favour. Grace is a gift bestowed upon us simply because the giver wishes to give it to us. In this case, Paul insists, that grace is that ‘God… made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses’. Who made us alive? Not us, not our belief, not our will, but God. What does Paul call it when God – entirely apart from any involvement whatsoever on our part – makes us alive in Christ? Grace!

In case we want to argue that such grace merely makes it possible for us to believe, Paul rules out any involvement in our expression of faith too. He goes on to reiterate that we are, ‘saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift’. He’s already told us we are saved by grace before, which is God making us alive. This time he adds, ‘through faith’ before quickly noting ‘and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift’. Even the faith we express is God’s gift to us. He is the one who makes us alive in Christ and the faith we express is also from God, bestowed upon us.

Just to make ultra-certain we understand him rightly, he adds further ‘not from works, so that no one can boast.’ Even our faith, Paul says, comes from God otherwise it might be counted as a work in which we might be able to boast. If we add even our believing or will to our salvation, it is no longer by grace that we are saved. If faith is something we work up within ourselves, then God’s grace is no longer the cause of salvation in the face of what Paul plainly tells us.

We can only affirm grace alone and faith alone at the same time if faith is a product of grace. Faith – as Paul expressly tells us – is also a gift of God. Faith cannot be a work lest it undercut grace. Faith is simply the expression of belief that God has made us alive in Christ. Faith, if it is not to be a work, must also come from God. Faith, if it really is us effectively saying ‘I give up and can only rely on Christ and trust in God’s mercy on me, a sinner’ cannot be the product of our own will. That is not to give up, but to will up the power within ourselves to put our faith in God. It is the very opposite of giving up our effort and instead relying on our own will and fortitude for faith.

Faith, as Paul puts it, is a gift of God. Paul insists by grace we are saved and says, in no uncertain terms, that grace is God himself making us alive in him. Our will is not only dead in sin and unable to choose for Christ, any sense that we could means that salvation is not of grace but primarily a matter of our own work, willing it for ourselves.

As soon as we understand what grace actually is – God making us alive in Christ for his own good pleasure entirely apart from anything we might do to deserve it – any thoughts of free will must go out the window. None of that is to deny free agency and does not make us hard determinists (another discussion for another day), but it does mean that if our faith has come from ourselves, not only are we contradicting the flat words of Paul, we are making faith a work, further denying what Paul says plainly. Without grace, there is no faith. If we are saved by grace alone, faith alone makes sense because it is our giving up on efforts to save ourselves. If faith is worked up in ourselves, not only is salvation not by grace alone, our faith is actually a work and amounts to our doing something to earn our salvation, which most evangelical free will advocates wish to reject. If we are not to work for our salvation, and it is by grace alone, we must accept the faith involved is also God’s gift to us and it is all entirely of him, apart from works, so we cannot boast.


  1. Thanks for your comment.

    I would argue that your view doesn’t seem to do justice to what Paul explicitly says in the passage. His point is that it is all of grace and there can be no grounds for boasting. Making a godly choice would seem to be included.

    Indeed, look at vv1-3 Paul makes clear the product of our deadness. Our deadness meant we did not, would not and could not choose Christ. That is why, Paul appears to say, God had to make us alive in Christ and seems to specifically insist it is this that is grace. He then says this again later and appears to make sure we know that even faith is a product of grace so that we may not boast. If we willed it ourselves, that would seem to be an evident ground of boasting (we chose the right and godly thing).

    So I don’t find your case convincing personally.

  2. Thank you for the article. I used to agree, but have come to doubt that this is the teaching of scripture in the past year or so. I have a few questions and disputes on 1. being dead in sin, 2. faith being a gift and 3. on faith not being a work.

    1. Is it certain that being “dead in sin” means we are totally unable to have faith? Is it not possible that being dead in sin instead means that we are totally worthy of judgement and eternal death? In your fourth paragraph you point out that dead people cannot do anything, but we are not talking about physical death. Adam did not physically die immediately after his sin, but became “dead in sin” spiritually. Isn’t it an assumption to say that spiritual death means total inability when it could equally mean worthy of eternal death?

    2. Is it impossible to interpret Ephesians 2:8 “saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift’” differently? For example, below:

    Is it certain that faith that is the gift, not grace?
    Is it certain that, assuming the gift is faith, that we had no actual ability to “will up” that faith?
    Is it possible that faith is a gift of God in the sense that by grace God gave us Christ, and calls us to have faith, and has freely shown us Christ so that we can have faith in him?

    3. I am convinced that faith is not a work, but I think I draw a different conclusion from this than you do.

    There is no good work that dead-in-sin sinners can perform in our own strength to earn salvation. Our good works are like filthy rags if we are not justified by Christ. Faith however, is not a work, and though faith is the condition of salvation, it is not the means – Christ’s is the means, freely offered to us by God’s grace.
    I think this is what Paul is saying in Romans 3:21-27. Boasting is excluded not by the law of works but by the law of faith, because faith is not a work we can boast in. Christ has done the work. Saying “yes please” to God’s free gift of Jesus, isn’t adding to the free gift by our own strength.

    Since it is not adding to God’s free gift, sinners who are worthy of God’s judgement are still able to receive through faith, the free gift of Christ who God offers by grace.

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