It's easy to see that the Calvinist's view of Eph. 2:8-9 is wrong when you compare it to Rom. 3:24. The faith of the individual in Eph. 2:8 precedes the application of grace just as the redemption in Rom 3:24 precedes the application of grace in that passage.
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." (Eph. 2:8-9)
"Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:" (Rom. 3:24)
Eph. 2:8 teaches that our faith is the vehicle through which we are saved by grace in the same way that Rom. 3:24 teaches that Christ's redemption is the vehicle through which we are justified by grace. Calvinists often try to turn things around in Eph. 2:8 by claiming as John MacArthur does that this verse is really teaching:
"When we accept the finished work of Christ on our behalf, we act by the faith supplied BY God’s grace ... His gift to us out of His grace ... Faith is simply breathing the breath that God’s grace supplies." (emphasis mine)
But that is not what this verse says. MacArthur's view is that saving faith is provided to the believer out of the grace of God and that the faith thus obtained produces salvation. What this verse actually teaches is that God's grace is obtained by the believer as a result of his faith and that the grace thus obtained provides salvation.
We can validate that this view is correct instead of MacArthur's view by comparing Eph. 2:8 with what Paul wrote about grace in Rom. 3-5. Rom. 3:24 shows us that Paul is using the same logical construction regarding grace that he used in Eph. 2:8, and in Rom. 4, Paul offers a robust explanation of the relationship between grace and faith which can be used to understand Eph. 2:8.
In Rom. 4:16, Paul explains that our salvation is "of faith, that it might be by grace." He does not say that it is of faith because it is of grace. What he says is that salvation is of faith so that it might be of grace. Our faith is what causes salvation to be a gift of grace as opposed to a debt of works (Rom. 4:4-5).
Paul presents two potential paths that God could have created for obtaining salvation - the path of works or the path of faith. Paul explains that, if God had chosen to make salvation available through the path of works, then our salvation would be owed to us as a debt for our works. On the other hand, if God had chosen to make salvation available through the path of faith, then our salvation would be a gift provided to us by the grace or favor of God. According to Paul, God chose to make salvation available through faith so that it would be a gift of grace.
This is why Paul concludes that our faith is what causes salvation to be a gift of grace. God chose to make salvation a result of faith so that it might be of grace. Salvation is not the result of faith because it is a gift of grace. Rather, it is a gift of grace because it is the result of faith.
Paul concludes this explanation in Rom. 5 by stating that "we have access by faith into this grace" (Rom. 5:2). Paul does not say that we have access to faith by grace but rather that we have access to grace by faith. The favor of God is obtained by placing our faith in Him.
Calvinists claim that faith is itself a work. This is why they say that we cannot exercise faith on our own but must first be regenerated by the grace of God so that we can then place our faith in Him. But this view completely obliterates the important distinction between faith and works that Paul highlights in Rom. 4. If faith is itself a work, then that means that God's choice between the potential paths of salvation was not really a choice between faith and works but rather a choice between various types of works.
If faith is itself a work, then salvation by faith is the same thing as salvation by work. And if salvation by faith is the same thing as salvation by work, then salvation by faith is just as much a debt as salvation by work. And if salvation is by faith is a debt, then it cannot be the result of grace according to Rom. 4:4 ("Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.")
MacArthur's explanation of Eph. 2:8-9 views faith as a work that God strengthens us to accomplish because of His grace, but that explanation contradicts everything that Paul wrote about the relationship between faith, works, and grace in Rom. 3-5. Therefore, the Calvinist view of Eph 2:8-9 presented by MacArthur is wrong.
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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