Recently, I was in a conversation with a person who held to a strict Calvinist position. That is, he believed in the five point TULIP position. During the conversation, we discussed Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,” (Eph. 2:8 NKJ). The discussion was what the word “that” referred to in Ephesians 2:8. I demonstrated from several Greek writers and professors that the word “that” cannot refer to faith because of the Greek grammatical construction. According to the Greek grammar, it must refer to “salvation,” which is elliptical (it is implied by the verb “saved”). You can read the article on the word “that.”
As the discussion continued, I stated that faith was a non-meritorious decision. There is no merit before God. Then he commented that a decision is an action and salvation is not of any works or actions. I had not heard that argument for many years, so I wanted to be open theologically and went to Scripture for a better understanding. Is a decision considered an action in the Bible?
There is a Scripture that seems to support his argument. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “…remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father,” (1Th. 1:3 NKJ) Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians, “Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power.” (2Th. 1:11 NKJ) Those passages may seem like good support that a decision for Christ or faith is a work. This would be an easy way for someone to impose his theology on the text and seemingly gain support for his theology.
However, consider the text and consider the audience. The Church of Thessalonica was a spiritual infant as a church. In both passages, Paul uses the word “work” not as an action of merit, but a non-meritorious choice or matter of faith. The word can be translated “work” or “deed” as in something a person actively does (Heb. 4:3). It is also used passively indicating what is produced by work (1 Cor. 3:13). It is used of what is an occupation (John 17:4). It can also refer to a thing or a matter (1 Tim. 3:1). In both 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and 2 Thessalonians 1:11, he is using the first meaning, only in reference to a manifestation of something or practically a proof of faith. He is expressing faith as exercised as a choice in the Christian way of life.
It is a choice, not a work for which there is merit. Paul wrote to affirm the spiritual infants of Thessalonica. First and 2 Thessalonians were two of Paul’s earliest books written. He is looking for opportunities to cheer them on and say like most parents, “Good job!” Every time my granddaughters make good choices, I cheer them on, “Good job!” Whether they have made a good choice or done an actual work, like pick up their toys, I affirm them. Paul was doing the same thing.
Is there a passage that makes this more clear? Yes! Paul wrote in Romans a definitive passage. He wrote, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,” (Rom 4:5 NKJ) Here, the context addresses salvation. Abraham is the subject and Abraham’s faith from Genesis 15:6 is quoted,
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, 6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: (Rom. 4:1-6 NKJ)
Notice the quotation from Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4:3. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness. That is, Abraham believed what God had revealed to him regarding salvation and that trust was sufficient for God to impute righteousness to him.
Paul then clarified what that means. If a person works, he gets a result (Rom. 4:4), because it is due to him. Then notice what Paul said, “But to him who does not work, but believes…” This is a perfect opportunity for Paul to clarify that faith is a work if that were the case. However, faith is not a work, it is a non-meritorious decision. If faith was a work, then there would be a debt, but faith is a non-meritorious decision and receives God’s grace in action. Furthermore, Paul added a comment related to King David, “…just as David also described the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.” (Rom. 4:6)
There is a theology that has to say “faith” is a work, because it declares that God saves man apart from works and completely rejects man’s involvement. Scripture does teach that salvation is totally of God. John wrote, “…who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13 NKJ) Faith does not save, but without faith, man is not saved, for the immediately preceding verse declares, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” (John 1:12 NKJ) When the text says that God gave the right to become children of God, God gave that right based on faith, but that faith does not save him – God does.
Faith is like the spark in an engine. The engine will not start with only the spark. The engine will only run if the spark ignites the air and fuel mixture. Without faith, the spark, there is no explosion that moves the piston to drive the power train of a vehicle. Salvation is totally of God, but apart from faith, man is not saved. That is why it is non-meritorious to man and God gets all the credit and glory for salvation. That is the antinomy of God’s sovereign work and man’s non-meritorious faith in Christ. [An antinomy is an apparent contradiction between two true statements, but there is no contradiction. the example is the Trinity: God is one and God is three. Both are true statements, but they appear to contradict each other.]
Hence, faith is a decision that in one sense is considered a manifestation of something or practical proof of trust. In another sense, faith is merely what releases God to do what He desires to do for all men, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9 NKJ)