I have included the text of John Piper’s article first, with my comments following.
Sometimes a whole world — a whole theology — hangs on a word.
Consider the word “this” in Ephesians 2:8. Does it refer to “faith” or “grace” or both? Is faith a gift of God?
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from you; it is the gift of God.
What does “this” refer to? “And this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” What is its antecedent? The question is not settled by the fact that in Greek “this” is singular and neuter, while “grace” and “faith” are both feminine. “This” is just as ambiguous in Greek as it is in English.
Faith As a Gift
But consider these four pointers to seeing faith as a gift in Ephesians 2:8.
When Paul says “this is not from you, it is the gift of God,” he seems to be referring to the whole process of grace-faith-salvation. That may be why “this” is neuter and not feminine.
But more important than that is the way Paul uses the phrase “by grace you have been saved” back in verse 5. In verse 8, he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Back in verse 5, he said, “When we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him.”
This is striking. Paul breaks the flow of his sentence in order to insert “by grace you have been saved.” And he does it precisely after saying, “When we were dead, God made us alive.” Why does he insert “by grace you are saved” just here?
Is it not because he wants to make clear the true nature of grace? He made you alive when you were dead — by grace you are saved! This grace is God’s free act of giving life to the dead. By inserting “by grace are you saved” immediately after saying “when you were dead, God raised you,” he shows that this saving grace is not caused by our participation. We are dead when it happens to us. This saving grace is resurrection of the dead.
So when Paul gets to verse 8, one of the reasons he repeats, “By grace you have been saved,” is to describe how we experience this divine miracle of being raised from the dead. He adds “through faith.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” In other words, the life God creates by grace out of death is experienced in our believing. Our believing is what this new life does that grace creates. So faith is the creation of grace. Therefore, it is part of the gift in verse 8 that is not from ourselves.
This is confirmed in verse 10 when Paul actually uses the language of “creation” to describe our new life as believers: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” The language of “creation” confirms that when God “made us alive” (verse 5), we were not part of the cause.
Things that are created do not cause their creation. The existence of a new believer is a “creation in Christ Jesus.” And that confirms that this new believing is part of the gift in verse 8. Our faith is a gift of God.
Finally, consider that Paul says the same in Philippians 1:29 — that our faith is a gift: “It has been given to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Literally: “It has been given to you to trust him.”
A Different World
So when Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you, it is the gift of God,” part of his meaning is that our faith is a gift of God. It is a divine creation. It is the work of grace when we were dead. It is not “from ourselves.” Therefore, our faith is the mark of being chosen by God. He chose to give us faith.
A whole world — a whole theology — hangs on a word. “This is not from yourselves.” “It is the gift of God.” That is, faith is not from yourselves. Faith is a gift of God.
To believe this changes everything. You live in a different world if you believe this. We will be discovering the wonders of this world for all eternity.
I want to preface my comments with saying that I generally like reading the things John Piper has to say. He does an excellent job of pointing us to God in love and trust. And he challenges his readers to fight against the sinful addictions we all deal with.
In this particular article, though, I don’t think his conclusion is correct.
Piper says, “Sometimes a whole world – a whole theology – hangs on a word.” Indeed. And when it does, more often than not, it is wrong. By the mouth of two or three witness every word should be established – a principle laid down several times in the pages of the Bible (Deuteronomy 19:15, Hebrews 10:28, Matthew 18:15-17, Matthew 18:19-20, II Corinthians 12:1, I Timothy 5:19, John 5:31-34, I John 5:6-7). This explains why the Lord gave us not one or two, or even three gospel accounts, but four – an abundance of witnesses by which we may be assured in our understanding of the story of Jesus.
However, when we take just one verse, or as Piper suggests here, one word, we are led to subjective interpretation and we are easily led astray.
Consider what is missed when Piper tries to force Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29 to say that faith itself is a gift – a conclusion, by the way, that is hardly necessary or even the simplest explanation of those texts. The simplest and most sensible explanation is that “this” refers to salvation in Ephesians 2:8.
John 6:27-29 – Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal. Then they said to him “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.”
Piper says faith is God’s work. Jesus says it’s your work.
Mark 16:16 – “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
II Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
God wants all to repent, but only gives some the ability to do so? That doesn’t make sense, does it?
Romans 10:13-18 – For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Paul says here where faith comes from – from hearing the word of Christ. Not a magical infusion of faith from God.
Romans 11:20-23 – “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.”
These verses give “He gives and takes away” a whole new meaning, if Piper is right! For the Gentiles stand, Paul says, through faith. However, he also says they should fear lest they be cut off again. Does God give faith, then take it away?
Romans 4:18-25 – In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was abut a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Hebrews 11:13-16 – “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledge that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
I Peter 2:7 – …the honor is for you who believe…
So, on the one hand, there is praise and honor from God for those who live by faith, which is a little odd if faith is God-imparted, isn’t it? And on the other, there is condemnation, rebuke, and anger for those who don’t believe. Strange, isn’t it, that God would be angry at those who refused to believe if faith or lack thereof is entirely the Lord’s own doing?
Now, why is all this important?
Piper says it changes everything to believe this. He says you live in a different world if you believe this. I agree.
If you believe that faith is something God infuses you with rather than something that is developed through examination and study of the word of God, your motivation changes from seeking God and finding out his will to waiting for God to come and find you. That can be a comforting thought, I suppose: If the Lord wants you then he can come and overpower your rebellious, foolish heart and completely turn it around. Through no effort of your own, you can become a saved, faithful follower of Jesus.
But, if that’s true, then the opposite is also true. If faith is God’s gift, then unbelief is God’s fault. Believing this theology changes the Lord into an incomprehensible puppet master who destroys his own creation at a whim It changes the wrath of God from divine justice into a cruel farce.
No, it is your work to seek him and believe in Jesus – Acts 17:27, John 3:18.
It is your responsibility to grow in faith and in the grace and knowledge of Jesus – Ephesians 4:11-14, II Peter 3:18.
It is your charge to keep the faith and hold on till the end. – Colossians 1:23, II Timothy 4:7-8, Hebrews 3:6, 14.
Hebrews 3:12 – it is your job to keep yourself and others from developing an unbelieving heart.
Luke 18:8 – “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”