Faith is a Gift (But Not That Kind of Gift!)

Faith is the kind of gift that transforms its recipient into one who deeply values it

In our day, we tend to think of gifts as something we may or may not want, and may or may not actually keep. The assumption that gifts can be refused is so engrained in our modern way of life that we include “gift receipts” with gifts given in order, rather bizarrely, to facilitate their rejection on the part of those to whom we give them. The danger, then, is that in speaking of faith as a divine gift, we think of it as something analogous to those argyle socks that Aunt Gertrude sends us every Christmas. Argyle socks may be appeal to some (personally I’m a fan), but many are likely to return the socks in favor of a DVD or some fancy accessory for their smart phones. Faith isn’t that kind of a gift.

 

Any theological system worth its salt affirms that faith is a gift from God rather than the exercise of some innate power of the human soul. But that affirmation can be misleading, particularly so if one’s notion of “gift” is determined by the culture of gift-giving and gift-receiving we currently inhabit. In our day, we tend to think of gifts as something we may or may not want, and may or may not actually keep. The assumption that gifts can be refused is so engrained in our modern way of life that we include “gift receipts” with gifts given in order, rather bizarrely, to facilitate their rejection on the part of those to whom we give them. The danger, then, is that in speaking of faith as a divine gift, we think of it as something analogous to those argyle socks that Aunt Gertrude sends us every Christmas. Argyle socks may be appeal to some (personally I’m a fan), but many are likely to return the socks in favor of a DVD or some fancy accessory for their smart phones.

Faith isn’t that kind of a gift. Faith is the kind of gift that transforms its recipient into one who deeply values it (because he supremely values its object) and henceforth longs for more of it. Genuine, saving faith is not given or received with a “gift receipt.” There are absolutely no returns on the faith that God gifts to those upon whom he has set his saving affection before the foundation of the world. Faith, in other words, is entirely unique in the genus of gifts. If anyone else has discovered another gift that by its very nature renders its recipient desirous of it, please, please, let me know — I’d like to order whatever it is for my wife well in advance of Christmas. Because faith is unique compared to presents we might give or receive, we must define our terms very carefully when speaking of it as “gift.” Fortunately, our Christian tradition is rather rich in resources for doing just that.Three individuals/resources stand out to me for how they properly clarify faith’s character as gift: Augustine, the Canons of Dort, and Francis.

Augustine on Faith as Gift
The late fourth/early fifth century Church Father Augustine unambiguously names faith as a divine gift in his work On the Predestination of the Saints: “Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God’s gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given.” Augustine describes the transformative nature of this gift in numerous writings. So for instance he notes in The Gift of Perseverance that “[God] himself … gives to … unbelievers the gift of faith, and makes willing men out of those that were unwilling.” And again in On the Predestination of the Saints he writes concerning faith: “This grace, therefore, which is hiddenly bestowed in human hearts by the Divine gift, is rejected by no hard heart, because it is given for the sake of first taking away the hardness of the heart.”

The Canons of Dort on Faith as Gift
The Canons of Dort similarly identify faith as a divine and transformative gift: “Faith in Jesus Christ … and salvation through him is a free gift of God. […] The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decree. […] In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen.” The transformative nature of God’s gift-giving to his people is re-emphasized further on in the Canons: “When God … works true conversion [in his elect], God not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.”

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