This teaching is based on a wrong interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 which says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Many Reformed men wrongly conclude that the pronoun “it” refers to “faith.” What Paul is really teaching is that SALVATION is the gift of God. The IFCA Doctrinal Statement is accurate and clear: “We believe that salvation is the gift of God brought to man and received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Salvation is the gift; faith is the “hand of the heart” that reaches out and receives the gift which God offers. We need to be careful not to confuse the gift with the reception of the gift.
The fact that SALVATION (eternal life, righteousness) is the gift of God is taught repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see John 4:10; Rom. 5:15,16,17; 6:23). In the New Testament the word “GIFT” never refers to saving faith, though we certainly recognize that apart from God’s mercy and gracious enabling and enlightenment, saving faith could not be exercised (John 6:44,65; Matt. 11:27; 16:16-17; Acts 16:14; etc.).
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The teaching that faith is the gift of God has some very practical implications and it will affect the way a person understands the gospel and how a person presents the gospel. If faith is the gift of God, then how do I get this gift? What must I do? WHAT MUST I DO TO BELIEVE? How can I get this gift from God? First option: Do I do nothing and hope that God will sovereignly bestow it upon me? Do I do nothing and hope that I am one of God’s elect? Second Option: Do I cry out to God and pray that He will give me the gift of saving faith?
John MacArthur holds to this second option. He teaches that faith is the gift of God and he recommends that the sinner pray to God in order to obtain it:
Faith is a gift from God…it is permanent…the faith that God gives begets obedience…God gave it to you and He sustains it…May God grant you a true saving faith, a permanent gift that begins in humility and brokenness over sin and ends up in obedience unto righteousness. That’s true faith and it’s a gift that only God can give, and if you desire it, pray and ask that He would grant it to you.10
Notice carefully what MacArthur is doing. He is not telling the sinner to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) but rather to pray and ask God to grant the gift of faith. This perverts the gospel of Christ by making the condition of salvation prayer instead of faith. Sinners are commanded to believe on Christ. They are not commanded to pray for the gift of faith.11
10 Transcribed from John MacArthur’s tape GC 90-21 dealing with Lordship Salvation.
11 We again recommend the excellent article by Roy L. Aldrich entitled “The Gift of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra, July, 1965, pages 248-253.