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Where Does Faith Come From?

Douglas Gilliland


In the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism there are many facets to the differences between both positions. One particular sticking point is the question of where faith comes from. The question is: "Is faith a gift from God given to some and not to others?" Or; "Is faith the response of man to the grace of God?"

This paper will examine this question from the writings of Dr. Samuel Mikolaski, as found in his Systematic Theology series class notes, Theological Sentences, and J. Greshem Machen book, What is faith?


It's the thesis of the author that faith is the response of man to the grace of God, and not an external gift, per se. Faith originates in the will of man, which will is itself, uncaused.

Definition of faith

Dr. Mikolaski's class notes (section 9.3.20) divide faith into three separate parts; 1 – belief which he defines as assent to the facticity of the historical data concerning Jesus Christ, 2 – conviction that the apostles and apostolic writers accurately transmitted the information, and 3 – personal commitment to the personal object of faith. This definition has the same basic two elements as Machen’s definition, which have both intellectual assent to the historical elements and commitment to the person of Christ (the object of faith).

Machen's Position

Machen was a dedicated Calvinist and his books reflect that theological presupposition. Much of this book, What is Faith? was a necessary reaction against the theological liberalism of his day (1925). Machen's book deserves to be read if for nothing more than that reason. The same liberal heresies that Machen faced in his day have borne their fruit in the mainline denominations of our day. However, on the topic of this paper, Machen's Calvinistic presuppositions color his viewpoint. For instance, Machen writes on p. 51,

Our reason is certainly insufficient to tell us about God unless he reveals Himself, but it is capable (or would be capable if it were not clouded by sin) of receiving revelation when once it is given.

But, this is a non-statement. Since our judgement is clouded by sin, then man is actually not capable, in Machen's view, or receiving revelation at all. Faith must be imposed from an outside source.

The inconsistency of his position is that Machen speaks of faith as our responsibility in many other places in the book and proposes certain exercises that can be done to stimulate faith. Machen refers to the grandness of nature as a testimony of God, which can inspire faith. Yet, to be consistent with his Calvinism, all people must be unable to get the lesson that God intended in His creation.


Total depravity, from inside the Calvinistic box, is the same as total inability. That is, man is unable to respond to God, even with a response of faith, without God acting first to plant that faith in man. Regeneration, thus, precedes faith in this viewpoint, instead of faith resulting in regeneration. The unregenerate person, they argue, does not want God, and could never want God.

Machen proceeds to posit certain tests which a person can use to determine if they are one of the elect (he uses less harsh language). One of these tests, is whether the person does what is right. The problem with this test is that all men do what is right in their own eyes. Machen notes the problem and proceeds to base the knowledge on God's election. However, this does not approach the actual issue itself which is, how do we know we are elect? In essence, Machen is saying we know we are elect because God elected us. As Machen puts it (p. 81):

But why is He for us? Simple indeed is the Christian answer to that question: He is for us simply because he has chosen to be.

Machen made some isolated statements that appear to be un-Calvinistic. For instance, he wrote (p. 86):

...what men do not seem to understand is that the door of the household of faith is open wide for all men to come in.

Machen makes this appear to be a real offer given to all, and yet only the elect are capable of receiving since only they will be given the necessary gift of faith to enter the door. However, if we don't know who the elect are, then making the offer to all men makes sense. This is a logical tautology.

Is Faith Static or Dynamic?

Machen also describes faith as analogous to a friendship between two people that is nurtured by time. This suffers the same weakness as his other argument. To be consistent with Calvinism, the entire relationship must have been formed at the point faith is planted into the person. Mikolaski describes faith as growing through experiences of doubt and uncertainty.

Faith and Knowledge

The relationship of faith and knowledge is another key question. Machen notes (p. 46) that "faith is founded on knowledge", and (p. 94), "at no point is faith independent of the knowledge upon which it is logically based."

The Will - three logical possibilities

Dr. Norman Geisler wrote an article titled "Freedom, Free Will, and Determinism" in the "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology", edited by Walter Elwell. In this article, Geisler laid out the three logically possible categories of the cause of the will. The three possibilities he points out are 1 - determinism, 2 - indeterminism, or 3 - self-determined will. Geisler effectively argues against determinism and indeterminism leaving the conclusion that the will is self-caused.


Theistic determinism removes individual responsibility and makes judgment void. If people are given faith as a gift, and the gift is only given to some in the proportion needed for salvation, then they can't fairly be held responsible for their inability to respond in faith. After all, they can do nothing other than not believe.

Faith and Works

A related issue is the question of whether faith itself is a work. Paul contrasts faith and works in many places in his writings showing that they are not the same. Thus, the charge that if a person has faith, that's a work and thereby robs God of His Sovereignty is shown to be a weak charge. Machen himself affirms this point when he describes the healing of the Centurian's servant. He says the Centurian did nothing at all, but rather that he simply believed. Machen makes the point that faith consists not of doing something, but of receiving something.

Power and Will Categorical Fallacy

Another popular categorical fallacy is the confusion of God's Sovereignty and man's free will. The charge is raised that if God really is Sovereign, then man can't have a free will. The problem is another misplaced definition. Sovereignty is the power to accomplish one's will. God has all of the power in the universe at His command.

How many wills are there in the Universe?

If man does not have a free will, then there is really only one will in the universe. If the will of man is determined, then it's not a will at all.




The strength of Machen's book is that he clearly shows that the modern tendency to separate intellectual assent to the propositions of the faith, from the actual experiential aspects such as trust is a false dichotomy. Also notable are his arguments against pantheism, which are as valid today against the New Age Movement as they were in the 1920's.

Another positive point of Machen's presentation is that he decries the anti-intellectualism of his day. If Machen thought things were bad in his day, he would be surely devastated by the current condition. Machen also makes the point quite well that the error of liberalism is that they replace faith in Christ with having the faith that Christ [presumably] had in God.

The weakness of Machen's position in the book is that man is ultimately not the one who has the faith. The will of man can be moved, but not violated. God's Spirit draws all men to Him, but many men resist the Spirit of God. The free will of man is a gift from God and is part of being created in His Image and Likeness.