I received the following email question that I think is super:
A Calvinist friend said that if saving faith isn’t a gift, then it would seem to give a man who exercises faith a right to boast, because somehow he wasn’t as dead in his sins as his unbelieving neighbor. He also said we often deny that faith is a gift but pray differently. He gave the example when we pray for our unsaved friends and family, we ask God to give them faith to see they need Jesus. I thought about that and I have probably prayed that prayer myself. Any thoughts?
This is a typical Calvinist objection. And it sounds impressive. In reality, it is like a bucket with huge holes in the bottom. That argument won’t hold water.
Spiritual deadness (e.g., Eph 2:1-5) means that one lacks everlasting life. Spiritual deadness does not mean, as your Calvinist friend believes, that the spiritually dead are incapable of believing anything God says and incapable of responding to Him. Think about it. Do you know of any unbelievers who believe that God exists? Do they believe that Jesus did many miracles and that He died on the cross for our sins and rose again? I bet you know a lot of unbelievers like that. They may be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.
Do those unbelievers believe some Biblical truths? Yes. Well, if Calvinism were true, that would be impossible. According to the Calvinist view of spiritual deadness, the unregenerate can’t believe anything taught in the Bible without the gift of faith.
Could Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48) boast that “he wasn’t as dead in his sins as his unbelieving neighbor”? Of course not. Dead is dead. There are no degrees of deadness. Cornelius lacked everlasting life just as much as any other spiritually dead person.
Maybe what the Calvinist means is that if Cornelius heard the saving message (Acts 11:14) and then came to faith in Christ (Acts 10:43-48) because he was seeking God in his prayers and alms giving (Acts 10:1-4), then he has a reason to boast. But that is silly. How can someone who received a free gift boast about receiving it?
Remember the four leprous men in 2 Kings 7 who were starving to death as a result of the Syrian siege of Jerusalem? They went out to surrender to the Syrians, only to find the camp deserted. They went into one tent and ate and drank, even carrying away silver and gold and clothing (2 Kings 7:8). They went to another tent, got more loot, and hid it. But then they realized that the right thing to do was to go and “tell the king’s household” (2 Kings 7:9).
Did the lepers have reason to boast because they found the bread? No way. They were simply beggars who found bread.
In fact, they were probably embarrassed. They went out to surrender. They had given up.
Now they might have had a reason to boast because they came back and told others, thus delivering the entire city. The person who shares the promise of life with a friend might have some ground for boasting (2 Cor 10:15-16; 12:11).
Let’s say you could interview one thousand believers. You ask all of them how they came to faith in Christ for everlasting life. Will their stories be identical? Of course not. There will be at least ten if not more different types of testimonies. Some grew up in Christian homes and can’t even remember when they came to faith. Others grew up in Christian homes and remember the day when Mom or Dad or someone else led them to faith in Christ. Some grew up in Christian homes and didn’t come to faith until college. Or until their late twenties. Or until their forties or later.
Others grew up in religious works-salvation “Christian” homes. While Mom and Dad did not believe in the free gift of everlasting life, they were great parents and meant well. These stories can diverge greatly in how the person came to faith.
What about those who grew up in homes where Mom and Dad were devout Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus? Again, lots of different stories.
Then there are people who grew up in homes that were only nominally Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu.
Still others grew up in atheist or agnostic homes. Different stories.
All are born again the same way, by faith in Christ, apart from works. But how they came to faith varied greatly. Some got the clear message of life from birth. Some were approached with the saving message in college. Some sought out the truth, going from church to church, praying, reading the Bible. Maybe they were looking in all the wrong places. But God ultimately brought them the truth.
We can’t boast that we came to faith in Christ. Apart from God drawing us and guiding us, we never would have come to faith (John 6:44; 16:7-11; Acts17:27; Rom 3:11). We are just beggars who found the supply of bread.
Finally, it is not quite right to ask God to give someone faith in Christ. God does not do that. That would be like asking God to give a liberal Democrat the beliefs of a conservative Republican. God can bring circumstances in the life of someone that can move them in a new direction. But the person himself ultimately changes what he or she believes. God doesn’t do that for people. He can draw us and guide us to the truth. He can open our eyes to the truth. But we do the believing.
I should add that believing is not a choice. See this article (under What Is Faith in Christ?) for more details. We believe what the evidence compels us to believe. But, unbelief is a choice. Being closed to the evidence hinders faith. If someone will not come to church and will not listen to a Christian share his faith, then he will not come to faith unless somehow the message gets through to him. Cornelius (Acts 10), Lydia (Acts 16), and the Bereans (Acts 17) all show that seeking out the truth (in response to God first seeking us) can and does result in people coming to faith in Christ.
So when you pray, ask God to open the heart of a friend so that they might hear the truth and believe. We have Biblical precedent for that (Acts 16:14).