(Rom. 12:3) Does God give us our faith—or do we produce faith?

CLAIM: Some Calvinistic interpreters argue that God gives us faith, so that we can believe in Christ. For instance, Calvinist John Piper writes, “Paul is concerned that people were ‘thinking of themselves more highly than they ought to think.’ His final remedy for this pride is to say that not only are spiritual gifts a work of God’s free grace in our lives, but so also is the very faith with which we use those gifts. This means that every possible ground of boasting is taken away. How can we boast if even the qualification for receiving gifts is also a gift? … As Romans 12:3 says, So that we will not think too highly of ourselves. The last bastion of pride is the belief that we are the originators of our faith.[1] Are we called on to believe, or does God produce faith in us?

RESPONSE: This passage has very little to do with the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. After all, the faith mentioned here is for believers—not non-believers. Therefore, if we use this verse as a proof text for “irresistible grace,” this is far from the context in which it was written.

But how are we to interpret this passage? The Greek literally says, “God has measured (merizō) the measure (metron) of faith.”[2] Grant Osborne states that the “measure” of faith could refer to (1) God giving more faith to some believers rather than others or (2) our shared faith is the measure itself.[3] Let’s consider each view:

OPTION #1. God gives more faith to some rather than others

Under this view, God gives more faith to some believers. The nearest grammatical parallel is 2 Corinthians 10:13, where Paul writes, “We will not boast beyond our measure (metron), but within the measure (metron) of the sphere which God apportioned (merizo) to us as a measure (metron), to reach even as far as you.” This parallel implies that believers have different measures of ministry (2 Cor. 10:13) or different measures of faith (Rom. 12:3). This seems to fit with the concept that God gives “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6).

Many commentators who hold this view believe that “faith” is equivalent with the “gifts” which God has given us. The context (vv.4-8) implies that the faith we are given is for the “function” (v.4) of our spiritual gifts. (Notice the connecting word “For…”)

OPTION #2. Our common faith is the measure itself

Under this view, the Christian faith is the measurement itself. In other words, the way that we have “sound judgment” and humility is to remember our common faith in Christ. Douglas Moo writes, “The ‘measure of faith’ could refer to this shared faith as the standard by which Christians are to regard themselves. Our faith is the measure. On this view God has not given a different measure to each Christian but has given to each Christian the same measure… It is that faith which believers have in common as fellow members of the body of Christ that Paul here highlights as the standard against which each of us is to estimate himself.”[4] Moo also notes that Paul does not imply that “it is God who gives believers that ‘degree’ of faith.”[5]

Conclusion

Both views are tenable interpretations. Regardless, Paul’s point is for believers to be humble (“not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment”). So, before discussing spiritual gifts, Paul reminds them that faith is the measure of importance—not status or gifts. Moreover, later, Paul writes that we should use our spiritual gifts “according to the proportion of his faith” (v.6). Therefore, Paul understands faith to be our role—not God’s.

For further reading, see our earlier article “Calvinism versus Arminianism.”

[1] Emphasis mine. John Piper, “God Has Alloted to Each a Measure of Faith.” September 23, 1998.

[2] Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 323). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 760–761). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 323). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 761). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[5] See footnote. Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 761). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.