Do Calvinists believe in salvation by faith alone? Quick answer: No. But don’t quit reading. . .
When I was in undergrad, my professor made us have a debate in theology class. For the debate, he had us represent the position to which we did not adhere. He was quite excited, I think, to have me – the only Calvinist in the class (indeed, the school) – represent the Arminian position (blast him!!). Being an undergraduate course, it was very general. So my task was simple: to argue that Arminianism, in general, presents the best explanation of salvation, while Calvinism falls short. I came to appreciate this assignment much more than I thought I would. More importantly, I really think I won the debate (even though the prof said I lost). There were a couple of issues that I focused on to undermine Calvinism during this debate. I will mention only one.
Calvinists, such as myself, love two analogies: first, we like the one about the dead man in a grave. This represents the doctrine of depravity and spiritual mortality. We are dead spiritually. This means that we are eternal haters of God by nature (Eph. 2:1-5). Dead! How do you preach to a dead man? You can shout and scream at the grave all day long, but there won’t be any response. The dead must be raised in order to respond. God must make us alive before we can have faith in him. The second analogy is like the first, but has a good twist. It is the analogy of physical birth to spiritual birth. As the sound-bite version goes, “Just as a baby naturally cries out after it has been born, so believers cry out to God in faith after they have been born again.” In other words, our calling upon God to save us, our turning to God in repentance, and our faith in him come only as a result of being regenerated. The natural man cannot accept the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). The Gospel is most definitely a “thing of God.” Therefore, the natural man must be turned into a spiritual man before he can accept the Gospel. To have faith, God must be the instigator. To have faith, we must be born again.
Maybe you can see where I am going. During Bogaski’s class, I found the Achilles heel of Calvinism (or so I thought). It was simple: Since Calvinists believe that regeneration precedes faith, they do not really believe in salvation by faith alone! Faith was not the instrumental cause of salvation after all; regeneration was. Therefore, faith was a result of salvation. In this, Calvinists denied a central tenet of Protestantism. They (um . . . we) denied salvation by faith alone!
Arminians, on the other hand, were true Protestants who could say that they possessed an unqualified belief in salvation by faith alone. While they would agree that a dead man cannot respond, they would say that Christ makes all alive through prevenient grace. But this grace does not save. It only neutralizes the effects of spiritual deadness so the hostile sinner has a legitimate chance to make the instrumental choice of faith for or against God. Therefore, their own faith, which has been given opportunity through God’s grace, is the instrumental cause of their salvation. Arminians do believe in salvation by faith alone.
However, this is quite misleading. I, at the time, did not understand something about the doctrine of sola fide (“faith alone”): No one has ever claimed that salvation is by faith alone. This is not a Protestant doctrine. We believe in justification by faith alone. This is what sola fide means. And Calvinists (along with Arminians) both believe that justification – the forensic declaration of our righteousness based solely on the merits of Christ – is brought about by faith.
Often, in theological language, we distinguish between salvation and the individual aspects of salvation. Ultimately salvation is much more than justification or regeneration. Involved in salvation are redemption, justification, adoption, conversion, calling, election, sanctification, glorification, and faith. Some of these happened in the past, some will happen in the future. But they are all part of our salvation. Even the Scriptures say that we have been saved (Eph. 2:8), are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18), and will be saved (Rom. 5:9). Which is it? Well, it depends on which aspect of salvation we are talking about. Justification is a once and for all event that is always past for the believer. Sanctification is an ongoing process which will culminate at the resurrection. But both fall under the broader umbrella of “salvation.” Of course Scripture does not always use such precise language to speak about such things, nor should we expect it to.
We often refer to this as the ordo salutis (Lat. “order of salvation”). While many aspects in our salvation, such as faith and justification, regeneration and conversion, do not follow a temporal order, they often follow a logical order. Logically, faith comes before justification in the ordo. Here is a look at the generally accepted ordo to which most Calvinists adhere.
The Arminian ordo looks a bit different:
And the Catholic ordo looks different still.
And we should not read too much into the fact that Calvinists put faith before justification. Calvinists do not believe that faith has any intrinsic efficacy. As Berkholf put it:
“Justifying faith does not justify by any meritorious or inherent efficacy of its own, but only as the instrument for receiving or laying hold on what God has provided in the merits of Christ. [The Reformers] regarded this faith primarily as a gift of God and only secondarily as an activity of man in dependence on God.” (Systematic Theology, 497)”
In the end, Calvinists do not believe in salvation by faith alone. We believe in justification by faith alone. But salvation is by God’s grace alone (sola gratia). Every aspect of the ordo is completely in God’s hands. Even the faith that we have is a gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9). While humans take part in both faith and sanctification, this does not make them meritorious for or even causal in our salvation. Salvation is ultimately by God alone (soli deo).
Therefore, while I feel I won that debate so many years ago (even though the professor did not seem to want to recognize the distinction I have made here), I only did so by creating a straw man of my own position. However, as for the other attack on my Calvinism, I feel it was legitimate and would still use it today. Another time, we might talk about it . . .