“Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ. And so he adds, not of yourselves; that claiming nothing for themselves, they may acknowledge God alone as the author of their salvation…”
I once talked with a pastor who dismissed the Calvinist assertion that faith is a gift of God. An important facet of his argument was that even John Calvin did not teach this, and his commentary on Ephesians 2:8-9 proves it. He based his opinion on the work of two recent anti-Reformed writers: Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1999) and C. Gordon Olson’s Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation (New Jersey: Global Gospel Publishers, 2002). These authors hold that modern-day Calvinists who hold faith is a gift of God are “extreme Calvinists”, because not even John Calvin believed this.
Geisler says of Ephesians 2:8-9, “But even John Calvin said of this text that "he does not mean that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”(CBF, 182).
Gordon Olson comments similarly:
“Calvinists have a ready arsenal of proof-texts for the idea that faith is the direct, immediate gift of God. By far the most frequently referred to is Ephesians 2:8-9 (need I quote it?). The exegetical flimsiness of using this passage in this way should be common knowledge. Apparently it is not……Calvin… [is] among the host who reject such isogesis since they recognized that the relative pronoun touto (this) is neuter and pistis (faith) is feminine and cannot serve as its antecedent. Although Calvin doesn't explain the grammar, he is very explicit about this error: “And here we must advert to a very common error in the interpretation of this passage. Many persons restrict the word gift to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”… Is there any question that all those who continue to ignore the unambiguous grammar and scholarly opinion of even Calvin himself are rightly called extreme or hyper-Calvinists.” (p.221)
Both Geisler and Olson believe Calvin explicitly denied Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches faith to be the gift of the God. Putting the Ephesians passage aside for a moment, what they do not point out is that Calvin did teach faith is a gift from God, given only to certain people. Calvin said this numerous times throughout his writings:
“[Paul] exhorts the Ephesians to remember (Ephesians 2) that they were saved by grace, not by themselves nor by their own works.... Faith, moreover, precedes justification, but in such a sense, that in respect of God, it follows. What they [Roman Catholics] say of faith might perhaps hold true, were faith itself, which puts us in possession of righteousness, our own. But seeing that it too is the free gift of God, the exception which they introduce is superfluous. Scripture, indeed, removes all doubt on another ground, when it opposes faith to works, to prevent its being classed among merits. Faith brings nothing of our own to God, but receives what God spontaneously offers us. Hence it is that faith, however imperfect, nevertheless possesses a perfect righteousness, because it has respect to nothing but the gratuitous goodness of God.” (John Calvin Acts of the Council of Trent With its Antidote, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 110) .
“Now we understand that we are made partakers of all his blessings by means of faith; for this it is which brings us into communication with Christ, in order that he may dwell in us, that we may be ingrafted into him as our root, that we may be members of his body, that we may live in him, and he in us, and possess him, with all his benefits. And that it may not be thought strange that we attribute such virtue to faith, we do not take it fox a fleeting opinion, but for a certainty which we have of the promises of God, in which all these blessings are contained, and by which we embrace our Lord Jesus Christ as the surety of all our salvation, and apply to our own use what he has received of God his Father to impart unto us. This faith we likewise know that we cannot have if it be not given us from above, and as Scripture declares, (Ephesians 2:9; 1:18,) till the Holy Spirit enlightens us to comprehend what is beyond all human sense, and seals in our hearts what we ought to believe.”[John Calvin, Selected Works of Calvin Volume 2, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 138].
"Since, therefore, Abraham is at this time the father of all the faithful, it, follows that our safety is not to be thought otherwise than in that covenant which God established with Abraham; but afterwards the same covenant was ratified by the hand of Moses. A difference must now be briefly remarked from a passage in Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 31:32,) namely, because the ancient covenant was abolished through the fault of man, there was reed of a better remedy, which is there shown to be twofold, namely, that God should bury men’s sins, and inscribe his law on their hearts: that also was done in Abraham’s time. Abraham believed in God: faith was always the gift of the Holy Spirit; therefore God inscribed his covenant in Abraham’s heart. (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Ephesians 2:8.)”[ John Calvin, Commentary on Ezekiel, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 574]).
“Dearly beloved brethren we must not be amazed if the article of the everlasting predestination to God, be so assaulted and fought against by Satan’s maintainers, seeing it is the foundation of our salvation, and also serveth for the better magnifying of the free goodness of God towards us. On the other side those Dogs which bark against it thinking to have a good and favorable cause are therein more hardy: as in very truth there is nothing more contrary to man’s understanding, than to place the cause of our salvation in the good will of God, in saying, that it belongeth to him alone to choose us: without finding of anything in us wherefore he should choose us: and after he hath chosen us, to give us faith through which we should be justified.”[ John Calvin, Sermon on Election and Reprobation, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 225.]
Thus, Calvinists cannot be said to be “extreme” for holding that faith is the gift of God. It should be obvious that Geisler and Olson are in error if they are intending to assert that modern day Calvinists have gone beyond Calvin in believing faith to be a gift from God. In fairness, neither of these men explicitly asserts this, but the logical deduction is inherent in their comments, and the pastor I spoke with made the deduction. Neither Olson nor Geisler provide any positive statements like the above quotes. The pastor I spoke to seemed quite confident Calvin never believed faith to be a gift from God. When I brought these other Calvin passages to his attention, he had to agree that Calvin did in fact teach this doctrine. He then simply asserted that Calvin contradicted himself with comments on Ephesians 2:8-9, and this contradiction is a clear example of why Christians should never follow a fallible man.
As to Calvin’s comments on Ephesians 2:8-9, Calvin did not contradict himself with his comments on these verses.
First, let's do a little "alternate reality" type of analysis: it would not be a contradiction for Calvin to hold that faith was a gift from God, and that Ephesians 2:8-9 did not explicitly teach this truth.
Second, back to reality, I do think Calvin held Ephesians 2:8-9 implicitly taught that faith was the gift of God for the following reasons:
(a) In other quotes as shown above, Calvin includes Ephesians 2 when discussing faith being a gift from God.
(b) The immediate context of his comments show that Calvin believed free will (in regards to salvation) was a theological error- Salvation is obtained by faith alone, and that salvation is entirely the work of God. Calvin does not hold that depraved man has the ability to exercise saving faith without God’s gift of faith. As James White has pointed out,
“…[M]ake special note of two of the phrases provided by Calvin in response to Rome's claims: "nay, the whole man, and everything that he can call his own, is set aside. We must attend to the contrast between God and Man, between grace and works;" and "since Paul excludes man and his utmost ability, — not only from the commencement, but throughout, — from the whole work of obtaining salvation." We suggest that the person who honestly wishes to know where Calvin would stand on the debate today would find these to be the key affirmations, for if Geisler's position is correct, and "anyone can believe," then Calvin's entire position is overthrown. Would not such a faith be something the man could "call his own"? Calvin says it is set aside. Would this not be part of man's "utmost ability" especially at the very "commencement" of salvation"? Paul excludes it from the whole work of obtaining salvation, Calvin teaches.” (James White, The Potter’s Freedom (New York: Calvary Press, 2000), 318-319)
(c) Olson is correct when he asserts that “Calvin doesn’t explain the grammar.” However, Calvin does say that the error is restricting the word “gift” to faith alone. One must remember Calvin wrote in response to the errors of medieval Catholic theology, that posited a synergism in salvation, in which initial “faith” (or grace) was bestowed on a person and then one kept oneself saved by allowing grace to be infused in their works. Hence, the explanation that faith, grace, and salvation are all the gift of God harmonizes Calvin’s point that the word "gift" should not be restricted to faith.
The primary source that Olson and Geisler for this stuff is from R.T. Kendall’s book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (No time to get into this now- maybe another time!) . While Geisler and Olson continue to use the phrase “extreme Calvinists” in a somewhat less-than-charitable fashion, perhaps designating both these authors “extreme-Kendall-ists” is appropriate. They have gone beyond their own source for Calvin research by attributing a position to Calvin that he did not hold. Kendall explains Calvin: “…we cannot turn to God or do anything that pertains to obedience until first we have been given faith.”(Kendall, p. 26) For these writers to use any comment from Calvin to prove that faith is not the gift of God is simply historical slight-of-hand.