Why is free will said to be “another gospel”?
What is the problem? It is common for Calvinists to argue that humanity can’t have free will because free will would necessitate a salvation based on works. Although the Bible does not make this claim, people have been subject to unfair accusations of heresy by overly zealous Calvinists. This article is a four-point answer to some of the main concerns used to attack free will.
- Is faith a work?
- Does free will nullify salvation by grace alone?
- Does acceptance of free will prove that one has “another gospel”?
- Does man’s free will response to God’s gracious gift stop God from receiving all the glory for salvation?
Challengers who define repentance and faith as a works-based gospel also claim that God must gift us with faith in order for us to believe. They argue that only those whom God has unconditionally chosen to be saved from eternity past will be drawn by God. I am deeply saddened by the division that has resulted from such charges against Bible-believing Christians and I hope that this article will be a comfort to many who find themselves confused by this controversy. Note: my first point is the most detailed, and points 2-4 are short.
I welcome respectful dialog and I also welcome other questions that I may use as the basis for other blog posts. I am currently editing a DVD project on John 6 called The Giving. This project may make me slower to answer questions. Please be patient with me.
1. Is Faith a Work? God’s Testimony of Abraham the Believer
If faith is a “work”, then God would have established this assertion through the account of Abraham who is called the believer. Abraham is central to the question of faith because the Bible tells us that the gospel was preached to Abraham and he believed.
Galatians 3:6–9 (NASB) 6Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” 9So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
The testimony of God is:
- Abraham responded to God by believing Him
- Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness
- Those who believe are sons of Abraham and justification is by faith
- Abraham had the gospel preached to him
- Abraham is called the believer
- The transfer to Abraham was righteousness NOT faith
Let’s dive a bit deeper to investigate the meaning of “and it was reckoned to him”. The BDAG Lexicon lists Galatians 3:6 as an example of the word reckon that means “to determine by mathematical process, reckon, calculate, frequently in a transferred sense“:
What was transferred to Abraham? Let’s double-check the original narrative in Genesis that identifies the transfer of righteousness to Abraham’s account and look at what Abraham believed.
Genesis 15:3–6 (NASB) 3And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” 4Then behold, the word of the Lordcame to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
In Genesis 15:5, the NASB says, “your descendants” but the literal wording is your seed (singular), not plural. Galatians 3:16 points this out and identifies exactly who that one singular seed is.
Galatians 3:16–18 (NASB) 16Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
The elements of this testimony of Scripture are:
- Abraham was promised that his seed (the Christ) would come through his body.
- Righteousness was gifted (granted) to Abraham because he believed God.
- The promises given to Abraham were ratified by God’s covenant 430 years before the law was given.
- We notice that the promise to Abraham came before his action of offering his son.
- Abraham’s faith was not called a work by God.
- The gift of righteousness and the promises to Abraham were ratified by God through a covenant. As a gift it was not attached to merit.
God “granted” to Abraham the same inheritance as Christ, who is Abraham’s righteous seed. The gracious gift to Abraham was not a result of works. Below is a screen print of the Greek term translated as “granted”. Notice the terms give, graciously, beneficent, and goodwill.
Abraham was “granted” the sign of God’s goodwill. God’s promise to Abraham and his seed was the inheritance of the world. Romans 4:13-14 reveals this promise and the passage also acknowledges how that promise could be canceled.
Romans 4:13–14(HCSB) 13For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14If those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made empty and the promise is canceled.
Once again, what is commonly translated “descendants” is a single seed, not many seeds. Below is a screen print showing the grammar.
God’s gift cannot come through the law, or else the promise would be canceled, and faith would be left without having any effect. The works of the law are on one side and faith is on the other. They are separated and cannot co-exist. If faith IS a work then faith would be eliminated and the promise would be canceled. Consequently, nobody would be saved.
“IF those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made empty and the promise is canceled.” Romans 4:14. This verse is a conditional statement yet a condition that cannot stand alongside God’s promise. If faith is a work of the law, then faith cannot be approved nor can the promise stand. But since God’s promise stands by His oath and His oath cannot be invalidated, faith cannot be a work of the law. God proved this by giving Abraham the gift of righteous before the law came and before Abraham obeyed God by offering his son on the altar.
Romans 4:14 is highly important and it is listed in the BDAG lexicon as an example of what would be rendered void with no effect.
God makes it abundantly clear that Abraham’s faith brought righteousness as a gift, and that if faith was a work, then the promise would be canceled. How could God be more clear?
Abraham’s faith was tested and shown to include the belief in the resurrection
After Abraham believed God, God tested him. This is where we find out the completeness of Abraham’s faith in God. Abraham’s works are evidence of God’s testing after he was said to have believed God.
Genesis 22:1–2 (NASB) 1Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”
Abraham was obedient and he did exactly what God had instructed him. In the book of Hebrews, the author reveals the extent of Abraham’s faith and his motivation.
Hebrews 11:17–19 (HCSB) 17By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and he was offering his unique son, 18the one it had been said about, Your seed will be traced through Isaac. 19He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back.
The HCSB translation does a good job of translating this verse. Abraham “considered” God to be able to raise him from the dead. The Hebrew term for considered has the sense of a conviction. Here is a screen print of my Logos software’s entry for this word.
The BDAG lexicon goes further by listing the Hebrew word as ponder or letting one’s mind dwell on something.
Abraham gave careful thought to God’s ability to resurrect the dead.
Since the Messiah was to be called (or traced) through Isaac and God told Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham understood that the one seed would die with Isaac. Yet, Abraham was convinced that God would raise Isaac from the dead. In that resurrection, Abraham believed the promised seed would live. Abraham believed the gospel- the death and resurrection of the Messiah by receiving back Isaac as a type or parable of the future event when God would offer up His one and only Son on that very same mountain.
Abraham was recompensed for his actions. The Greek term means to be paid back — to be recompensed, conceived of as being or becoming remunerated for something one has provided.
Abraham received back Isaac and in him Abraham’s one seed. The BDAG lists Hebrews 11:19 as an example of getting back what is one’s own or owed to one.
When God transferred righteousness to Abraham’s account because of Abraham’s faith, it was not a debt that God owed. Righteousness was defined as a gift to Abraham. But later God gave Abraham a test of obedience and this test resulted in a recovery of what Abraham already had through faith. God paid back Abraham’s actions of offering his son with a restoring of what belonged to Abraham. Abraham’s son was borrowed by God as a parable for the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
Abraham received Isaac back as a type (literally a parable) for Jesus.
The BDAG lexicon specifically lists Hebrews 11:19 as a model or example pointing beyond Isaac for later realization…as a type (of the violent death and of the resurrection of Christ).
Summary: Is faith a work? It is not possible for faith to be a work that merits salvation because of God’s testimony to Abraham. God gave Abraham the gift of righteousness because of faith before Abraham showed his works in obedience.
Challenge: For those who say man’s response to God’s offer is a work, I ask you to prove that from the Scripture. Show me where the Bible defines saving faith as a work?
2. Does free will nullify salvation by grace alone?
It is impossible for faith to nullify God’s faithfulness. Nothing, not even unbelief can nullify the faithfulness of God. In Romans 3:3, Paul lists God’s faithfulness as something that cannot be invalidated.
Romans 3:3–4 (NASB) 3What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? 4May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That You may be justified in Your words, And prevail when You are judged.”
The BDAG lexicon lists Romans 3:3 as an example of the term nullify and that God’s faithfulness cannot be nullified.
While God’s faithfulness cannot be nullified, the Bible does list a condition that would nullify the promise of righteousness.
Challenge: For those who believe that free will can nullify salvation by grace alone, please give me a biblical reference that explains how man cannot positively respond to God? See also my short article on What can the spiritually dead do? click here.
3. Does accepting free will prove that one has “another gospel”?
The charge of having another gospel is very serious. Paul said that having another gospel contrary to the Scripture would bring a curse.
Galatians 1:8–9 (NASB) 8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Challenge: If a person is to charge a non-Calvinist with having another gospel, one would have to show how free will is having another Jesus, a different spirit, or a different gospel than what Jesus or the apostles gave.
This question also hinges on the Calvinist claim that God has “purchased faith” on the cross that is a necessary gift given only to those who will be saved. My refutation of purchased faith is here.
4. Does man’s free will response to God’s grace stop God from receiving all the glory for salvation?
This question is one that is not even conceived of in the Scripture for it is an invalid claim that something can take away God’s glory. Is there anything listed in the Bible as having the power or ability to take away God’s glory? According to Calvinists, God can fail to have glory if man has a free will choice to respond to His grace! But the ministry of the Spirit cannot fail to have glory according to 2 Corinthians 3.
2 Corinthians 3:7–9 (NASB) 7But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, 8how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.
How can the ministry of the Spirit fail to have glory? Free will cannot take away the glory that belongs to God. Unbelief cannot leave God with less glory and neither can man’s response take away His glory. God’s glory is not diminished by anything that man does or does not do, for that is impossible to take away what God has in Himself.
Our free will cannot take away anything of God, and God cannot deny Himself.
2 Timothy 2:13 (NASB) If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
One last thing
I have written this article with the understanding that those who are throwing out the charge of heresy, sincerely believe that faith is a gift that God gives only to those whom God unconditionally chose from eternity past. These are challengers who do not believe that faith can be a response to God’s revelation. But to those who will believe the testimony of the Bible, two powerful witnesses should end the controversy about whose faith is in view. Romans 4:4-5 and Romans 9:30-33 testify:
- Faith is said to be the faith of the ungodly, and
- Righteousness can be pursued by faith.
Romans 4:4–5 (NASB) 4Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
Romans 9:30–33 (NASB) 30What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
If faith is God’s gift, then faith would not be the faith of the ungodly. The faith of the ungodly is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:5). The ungodly person who receives righteousness as a gift is the one who does not work for it but who pursues it by faith.
For more on how the death of Jesus is not limited by man, see my article What Did the Death of Jesus Do For the World? here.
Below are some additional articles that may be of help on this subject: