Faith is not a gift – at least not in Ephesians 2:8

It is not often that I hear a clear exegetical error in a sermon in my church. But I heard one last night. The preacher at the evening service, not the pastor, claimed that faith was a gift of God, and appealed to Ephesians 2:8 for support:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God …

Ephesians 2:8 (TNIV)

Well, it is not surprising that the preacher interpreted the verse in this way. (I don’t remember which Bible version it was quoted out of, perhaps NIV whose wording here is quite similar to TNIV’s.) In the English it certainly looks as if “this” refers back to “faith”, or else perhaps to “grace”.

But in the Greek text of this verse the word translated “this”, touto, cannot refer back to the words for “faith”, pistis, or “grace”, charis. That is because touto is a neuter pronoun, and cannot agree with either of the feminine nouns pistis and charis.

If you doubt that this can be so clear, consider this English sentence: “With John’s help Mary gave me what I need – it was wonderful.” If someone (probably someone who didn’t know much English) said that “it” here referred to Mary, or to John, then we English speakers would immediately know this was wrong, as “it” cannot refer to a person – and so in this sentence must refer to the whole situation.

Similarly in the Greek of Ephesians 2:8 the neuter pronoun touto can only refer to the whole situation. What is described here as the gift of God is not faith, or grace, but the entire process of the readers’ salvation.

The problem is really with how this verse has been translated. As English does not make gender distinctions in the same way as Greek, a straightforward English translation of this verse is misleading. RSV, NRSV and ESV do somewhat better than NIV and TNIV here, with “this is not your own doing”, as “doing” cannot easily refer back to faith. But to make the point really clear the whole verse needs to be rephrased, perhaps like the following:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.

Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)

Now our preacher last night was not using this verse to prove Calvinism or something similar. But it has in the past been misused in this way. There is a possible argument from 1 Corinthians 4:7 (already used by Augustine of Hippo) that faith is a gift. And certainly faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:9 – but this faith is usually understood as something different from saving faith in Jesus Christ. However, if you want to argue this point, that saving faith is a gift from God, you need to find evidence other than Ephesians 2:8.

0 thoughts on “Faith is not a gift – at least not in Ephesians 2:8

  1. Peter,
    Thanks for addressing this. I consider myself a Calvinist, and yet I believe this is one of the most misapplied “proof texts” given in support of Calvinism. I always felt that something was not quite right when it was used as referenced above – thanks for pointing out the gender agreement issue to confirm my suspicions!

  2. Granted, drawing such a fine line is questionable. But Peter, your confidence is just as questionable.

    The neuter demonstrative in this situation basically has two potential interpretations.

    1) The demonstrative’s antecedent is the whole conceptual construct: τοῦτο = [τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως]. Cf. Rom 6:6, 1 Cor 11:24 (there are plenty more, too).

    2) The demonstrative doesn’t have an antecedent at all and functions adverbially like in 3 John 5, which could be glossed something like: by grace you saved through faith and what’s more, it is gift from God.

    Option #2 is questionable in my opinion, 3 John 5 is the only clear example that I know of — in fact, I really don’t even know about any unclear examples beyond this possibility here.

    So that leaves us with #1. I’ll let you decide whether such a reading is conducive to either Calvinism or Arminianism. I’m not sure that it is quite so simple just to say that a person can’t use view this text as a basis for Calvinism as you have here. The whole salvation-by-grace-through-faith process is a gift from God and none of it is of yourself: not grace, not salvation, not faith. That’s enough for me. But I don’t have the energy to debate that one beyond that. My head is killing me right now.

  3. Peter,

    I’m with Mike on this one. Do we really need to cite examples of how this kind of neuter is used through the NT?

    Your objection is itself objectionable.

  4. Tim, Craig and Joel, thanks for your support.

    Mike, thanks for your detailed analysis. You seem to think you disagree with me, but you don’t. I suppose I ought to have considered your option 2 which you reject, that touto is an adverb, and so pistis is the subject of the verbless clause. But I think you are right to reject this option. So this brings back to “The demonstrative’s antecedent is the whole conceptual construct” and “The whole salvation-by-grace-through-faith process is a gift from God and none of it is of yourself” – which is just another way of putting what I said, “What is described here as the gift of God is … the entire process of the readers’ salvation.” I never claimed that this disproved Calvinism, only that this verse cannot be used to support one particular Calvinist teaching.

    TC, if you are with Mike on this, you are with me and agreeing with my objection.

  5. I don’t know much about Greek, of course. But looking at it from a theological viewpoint, only the elect, those chosen by God (from a Calvinistic POV) can come to faith at all, whether it is of themselves or not. It is all interconnected. And the Arminian might want to claim his faith as his own work, but he can’t deny that his salvation is wholly a gift from God if he faithfully believes what the scriptures say.

  6. Gary, thanks. I think many Arminians would agree, as I do, that their “salvation is wholly a gift from God”. That doesn’t imply that everything mentioned in the same sentence is a gift from God. So there is actually a fallacy in what Mike wrote:

    The whole salvation-by-grace-through-faith process is a gift from God and none of it is of yourself: not grace, not salvation, not faith.

    Well, by the same argument “you”, the readers of Ephesians, are also a gift from God, as they are also mentioned in the sentence. Or consider this sentence:

    The postman brought me a book from Amazon – this wasn’t my purchase, it was a gift from my father.

    The book and whole scenario were a gift from my father, but that doesn’t mean that the postman and Amazon were gifts!

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  10. Thanks very much for your love for the truth and infinite worth of God’s Word.
    When the microscope of theological and scholarly scrutiny is pointed to a target in the Word, as you have stated, it would lend help to correctly use this particular word or verse in a more correct and “honest to the author” manner. Of course, put the intent of the author before any scripture bending agenda.

    My comment here is to emphasize the more important driver for teaching or preaching the Word of God: Do not lose sight of the over arching doctrine, not contradicted in scripture, by which the solid foundation for faith and understanding is constructed.

    To be more to the point, the “postman” and the “Amazon” folks were absolutely instrumental in your receiving the gift, as are faith and grace when describing receiving the gift of salvation. Neither are, obviously, sourced in the recipient.

    Why? Because dead people don’t contribute to their resurrection, unless maybe you are the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for the opportunity to take a swipe at anything that dares to rob God of His glory.

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