Determined to Believe: Chapter 7 - Faith is the Opposite of Merit

This is a book study on John Lennox’s book ‘Determined to Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility’. Lennox openly acknowledges that he has not provided definite solutions to these deep questions of the faith and that there is mystery involved. He clearly acknowledges that God is sovereign, but that we need to think carefully about what the word ‘sovereign’ means Biblically. This book, per my understanding, is an invitation for Christians to spend time thinking deeply about what the Bible means when it describes God as sovereign.

Greetings fellow bookies (@Interested_in_book_studies) - we are now on Chapter 7! I look forward to hearing your favorite quotes and your reflections on this subject matter.

My main takeaways were:

  • Paul regarded faith as the opposite of merit
  • faith is not the gift - salvation through Jesus Christ is the gift
  • God does not decide for us
  • Biblical faith is evidence based
  • terms like monergism and synergism are best avoided because they are not Biblical

Questions for Discussion

  1. How is faith the opposite of merit? Can you provide an illustration?
  2. In what ways do you understand Biblical faith as evidence based?
  3. What was your main takeaway from this chapter?


They can only be saved if God takes the initiative and provides salvation for them. On this, most if not all Christians will surely agree, whatever their position on determinism.

If God did not provide salvation, no one could ever be saved.

faith itself must be a gift of God distributed according to his sovereign will, completely independent of any attitude, desire, or behaviour on the part of those he elects to save. This view, as we have seen, is called “unconditional election”

Human beings are incapable of believing because they are dead in trespasses and sins as a result of the sin that Adam introduced into the world. This view is often called the “total depravity” of man

Although human beings are incapable of believing in God, for the reason given under Argument 2, it is nevertheless their fault that they do not believe.

I take these arguments very seriously. They, and variants of them, have been and are held by eminent and highly respected Christians, some of whom I know and value.

I hope that the reader will grant me that I fully share their concern not to detract from God’s glory in any way.

Nevertheless, my contention is that, because of their strongly deterministic elements, all three arguments do detract from God’s sovereign glory. I also hold that they are flawed.

meriting something, and having to do something to obtain that thing, are not the same.

Paul regarded faith, the act of believing, as the opposite of merit.

Paul, then, is contrasting two possible actions or attitudes – working and trusting – on the basis of the tacit assumption that everyone is capable of performing both.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. (Hebrews 11:1–2.) To commend someone for doing something that is not within their power to do is meaningless.

technical term for the claim that only God is involved in regeneration is “monergism”.

The alternative view, that human response is involved, is called “synergism”.

Paul’s teaching is clearly that God alone does the work of regeneration, but we are responsible for trusting him which activity is not a work, such that regeneration is not in that sense synergistic.

terms seem unhelpful and therefore best avoided.

From a grammatical point of view it is therefore not faith that is the gift – the gift is salvation by grace. Paul is in fact here making the same point as in Romans 4, contrasting salvation by merit with salvation by grace through faith.

So the main dictionary meanings given to “faith” are: belief, trust, confidence,

Biblical faith is evidence-based.

To suggest that humans do not have that capacity, but that their fate is determined by their possessing or not possessing some special and very different kind of “saving faith” – one that it is the prerogative of God alone to give arbitrarily – massively diminishes rather than enhances the glory of God’s character, to say nothing of its dehumanising effect on us.

The coming of the Saviour into the world is a prerequisite for salvation. God is the author and initiator of salvation.

There is, therefore, much of God’s grace to be experienced before someone comes to trust Christ, but this should not be confused with regeneration.

And, however we interpret them, we must never interpret them in such a way as to undercut human free will, thereby making God ultimately responsible for sin and evil.

God will do everything in his power to help us, but he cannot decide for us.

Jesus makes the point: If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. (John 9:41.) According to Christ, then, people will never be condemned for not seeing what they cannot see. Therefore, if they are to be judged for not believing, they must have been capable of believing. To suggest otherwise is to run

He gives a devastating indictment of the sinfulness of human beings, be they pagan or religious, and shows that no one has any excuse for their sin because of the evidence God has given them in creation, in conscience, and in his revealed word.


Lennox here lays out three major arguments that are put forward to support the claim that humans cannot respond to God. They are: Unconditional election, total depravity, and original sin. He sketches the basic claims of each point within a couple of paragraphs, then responds to them by making a case that they are not biblical. I find it interesting that, although he give us the arguments, he doesn’t give us much to work with. I’ve heard these arguments before, but I’d have liked it if he took more time to “build up” the argument against his position so that he can be confident that 1) he isn’t building a strawman, and 2) he can be sure he hasn’t ignored any crucial points those that argue in favour bring up. In my experience, reading a book by an atheist, I get frustrated when I read caricatures and misleading information about the Christian perspective, and the author loses the benefit of the doubt when he keeps building up weak straw men to knock down easily. It means he’s rarely encountered the “other side,” so to speak. I don’t want Reformed folk to accuse Lennox of the same thing, especially since we as Christian brothers and sisters are on the same side.

Moving on, In this chapter, Lennox responds to the first argument given (unconditional election) in six pages, but spends the rest of this chapter and spends the next 53 pages addressing the second one! He drags it into the tenth chapter! I found that a bit fascinating. Anyway, I found his response to the first argument convincing for me. He argues that faith is universal, that there is no “elect,” which actually both Calvinists and Arminians would disagree with. They both support divine election of some kind. This website distinguishes the two here . I really loved this point by Lennox:

Some of the confusion arises from overlooking a simple logical point: meriting something, and having to do something to obtain that thing, are not the same. Four instance, I distant relative and leave me a considerable sum in her will. I have done nothing to deserve it. She has gifted it to me as set out in a document held by her solicitor. He sends me a letter informing me of the fact. Now I have to decide whether I trust him and, indeed, her. I have to respond or I will not receive it. I could reject it. Clearly, the fact that I have to do something to make it my own does not mean that I have merited it or contributed to it in anyway. (p 132)

It’s a great point he makes here. Just because we have the freedom to choose God’s gift or reject it, it does not mean we by any means are contributing to our salvation. As Lennox points out, God did all the initiating when it comes to salvation. We did absolutely nothing in that regard. But faith or trust, isn’t real if it’s forced. In fact, I’d argue it’s an oxymoron. This statement by Lennox sums it up best,

To suggest that humans do not have the capacity, but that their feet is determined by their positioning or not possessing sounds special and very different kind of “saving faith” – one that is the prerogative of God alone to give arbitrarily – massively diminishes rather than enhances the glory of God‘s character, to say nothing of its dehumanizing effect on us. (p 138)

It’s like saying God has to determine things on earth because he’s either unable to create creatures with libertarian free will, or he doesn’t want to. Now, I don’t want to start sounding like Epicurus and his characterization of the problem of evil (found here and response here, but that’s the impression I get. I do not think this is what theistic determinists necessarily believe, per se, because they do seem to pride themselves with being consistent with scripture (in their eyes), but logically it does seem like a bit of a dilemma, or like Lennox wrote above, it diminishes God’s glory.

With the rest of the chapter devoted to his response to the second argument (total depravity), which he only scratched the surface so far, I’ll try to be short. The Calvinists (dreaded labels again) believe that regeneration has to happen before faith in Jesus Christ. Is regeneration the same as sanctification, or are they separate? If so, I’ve always been under the impression that all the regenerating happens after we have accepted Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that clear in scripture, especially with Jesus’ “born again” metaphor? Maybe I’m mixing two different biblical processes, I’m not sure. The illustration Lennox espoused on page 142 is very helpful. I certainly know how that turns out in one’s life.

This quote by Lennox concerned me (for frivolous reasons or good reasons?) when I read it. He says, “And, however we interpret them, we must never interpret them in such a way as to undercut human free will, thereby making God ultimately responsible for sin and evil” (p 142). It seems like to me Lennox is ruling out the possibility of divine determinism before we even come to the table when in discussing this issue on regeneration and coming to faith. Maybe it’s just a bad worded sentence by Lennox, but I believe we have to leave all doors open for interpretation, even the ones we may not like. I hope I’m not being too presumptuous here.

The one thing I’d love for Determinists to respond to would be this quote by Lennox, which couldn’t be worded any better than this:

Using our God-given moral judgement is very important. For instance, the most elementary moral logic surely tells us that, if someone is going to be condemned because they personally failed to do something (in this case, to believe), then they must have been capable of doing it in the first place. Otherwise no guilt would attach to their action, and their condemnation would be unjust. (p 145)

This seems so straightforward to me. Divine determinism cannot be true because it would contradict so much of the New Testament (maybe this is what Lennox meant when we “must never…undercut free will” when Interpreting scriptures like Romans 9 and Ephesians 1).


Pretty much stated everything I would’ve and more. Good post @O_wretched_man.
One thing I’d like to discuss is this statement though:

Had this been the first chapter, I would’ve agreed with you. I don’t think it’s a fair representation though this far in the book. I say that because he has built the reasons why he believes what you just stated (ie without free will you can’t really have morality and love etc). So I don’t think he is ruling it out, rather I think he has thus far shown why it’s troubling (precisely because it’s easy to make God ultimately responsible for sin and evil) and expects us to go into this chapter with that knowledge.

I also don’t think it’s a closed door, because as he says, it’s about letting the scripture mold our worldview and not letting our worldview shape the scriptures. So in a purely argumentative way, I feel like he’s presenting the premises, and then builds them on one another.

What are your thoughts?


If I look at all other areas of daily life, where I have faith/trust, such as

__I trust my husband to come home for dinner,
__ I rely/believe my daughter will hug me when I go visit her
__ I do not always trust/depend the phone charger will work :wink:
__ I trust/believe my mother who told me my dad was my biological dad
__ I trust my husband’s sexual faithfulness to me
__I trust the earth will rotate today

On and on, I see I have the ability to trust , believe depend, and maybe at times to be shown my trust was broken or confirmed or misplaced. Is faith in God’s work of salvation MY work?

In all the examples my faith did not do any work, but the other in whom I put my trust did the meritorious work ( or failed to do so ) , but it was the other’s work, not mine.

Why would I or even God consider my faith a work that contributes to my salvation? I believe the gospel I heard, and believe/trust the God who has done and is doing the work and the merit is His.

…“the emphasis in the New Testament is not on the goodness of faith but on its rightness…”

My point is do we not all have the ability to have faith? trust? Believers and unbelievers. Idol worshippers, Islamic devotees, Old Israel. little children , etc. So why would it be that faith could only happen after regeneration? I do not know exactly when and how God regenerates a soul. The plea from Him to me is to believe in Him to be saved , by His grace , a gift, His work, not my own. His merit and His gift to me.


@mitwit Well said! I really appreciate all of the examples from your own daily life. Those simple acts of faith make it clear that faith is not about our abilities or our merit. Faith is placed in another.


I thought you might like this description of a proper temple transaction.

What the Israelite desires, what the priest intends, and what God requires—these three acts of will must coincide. Sages here translate into rites their deepest convictions about what joins God to people, which is, God’s will and humankind’s corresponding will, each capable of free, uncoerced choice.
Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. 3, p. 1293). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.


Lennox has mentioned Pelagius twice thus far and I thought that I would read up on the subject and I found some interesting information. I am not sure that if Pelagius was with us today that he might fit right in to the current discuss. Note I am not advocating for this POV but I am suggesting that the argument sounds familiar. I have boldfaced a few common points that I believe you’ll will recognize.

The Pelagian controversy.
This controversy, which lasted from 411 to the end of Augustine’s life, had its roots in the shift in his thinking of the mid-390s. It started when Pelagius and his more vociferous follower, Coelestius, passed through North Africa on their way to Palestine from Rome, and were cited as saying that infant baptism was not necessary to remove the guilt of original sin. Pelagius was not denying the worth of infant baptism, but he was viewing it (in a way many twentieth-century Christians do) as the sacrament of initiation. Infants, in his eyes, do not need the forgiveness of sin because sin requires free will, which they do not have. From here the controversy grew. Augustine distinguished between ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘freedom of will’. The former humankind does not have because, operating from its fallen nature, it can choose only evil. Only the will which has received irresistible grace is truly free and capable of willing the good. Augustine charged Pelagius with not appreciating the seriousness of sin; Pelagius replied that Augustine was playing down the salvific consequences of Christ’s death. Pelagius’s theology approached what would today be called ‘creationism’. He did not at all deny grace (as Augustine charged), but saw it in the sacraments, in the teachings of Christ, in many of the external as well as the interior gifts of God. For Augustine, grace was completely hidden and mysterious, totally interior. The controversy lasted until the end of Augustine’s life, and beyond into ‘semi-Pelagianism’.

McWilliam, J. (2000). Augustine of Hippo (354–430). In The dictionary of historical theology (pp. 44–45). Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press.

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Hi @Jimmy_Sellers, this sparked my interest because I have a friend in Bible college who mentioned in passing he was reading an essay about how Augustine moved towards determinism later in life. I couldn’t for the life of me remember who wrote the essay, but I googled ‘influence on Augustine towards determinism’ and found an interesting article which talks about Pelagianism… (of course, my google search just shows my confirmation bias :slight_smile: :slight_smile: ) (for some reason this is a direct link to a PDF which may or may not work, so I’ll just attach the PDF here)… It’s quite interesting reading… I’ve not yet fully digested all the train of thought in the article.

7800-17183-2-PB.pdf (221.8 KB)

One point of interest in your quote was the phrase ’ Infants, in his eyes, do not need the forgiveness of sin because sin requires free will, which they do not have
What exactly is an infant? I know plenty of toddlers who are around 1-2 or 3 years old who are clearly showing their fallen nature. You don’t have to teach kids to say ‘no’, when their mother or father says don’t touch the heater because you’ll burn yourself, or you can’t have a sweet/lolly from the supermarket shelf. I have seen the same toddler in another instance choose to obey. I still think toddlers have some sense of right and wrong, and a choice to decide. Toddlers are not determined - i wouldn’t have thought? (perhaps this is an irrelevant line of thinking for this discussion).

I’m not sure a 2 year old can comprehend the Gospel and respond to it in a meaningful way, and I’d call it ‘they are not yet at the age of conscience’ or full understanding…