Hands up if you have heard a Calvinist say this before. I have. Ad nauseam. The argument goes like this: the Calvinist (who usually holds that saving faith was not a genuine expression of the sinner reaching out to the Saviour to be saved upon conviction of the Gospel) will tell you that if you hold to the view that your faith is actually yours, then faith becomes a good work. Since the Bible teaches that you are saved by grace through faith apart from works, the non-Calvinist view of saving faith is considered impossible, because that would contradict the teaching of the Bible regarding the role that good works play in salvation.
As it often happens, the Calvinist is using a bespoke definition of a word to suit their presuppositions. In this case, the word is “work”, and its derived expressions, such as “good works”, etc.
In the introduction I purposely said the following: “… the Bible teaches that you are saved by faith apart from good works…”. And I omitted an important qualifier that, instead, the Apostle Paul uses: he does not simply say “works” but “works of the law”:
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Paul clearly contrasts faith with the works of the law, thus making it impossible for anyone to say that faith could ever be a good deed that goes to undermine the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Many “deeds” can be made to fall in the “works of the law” category, but certainly not faith.
Therefore, even if somebody wanted to call faith a work, this would still fall in a different category when compared to the works of the law.
Hold on, someone actually called faith a work
Yes. It was Jesus.
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28–29)
Before the objection even comes: no, “the work of God” does not mean that it is God doing it. That’s made plain but the verse before, and also by the fact that Jesus tells these people that the work of God is something they must do.
So, if you like, faith is a work after all. Just not a work of the law. But the only work that, apart from the law, will give access to grace, thus to justification. After all, «it is by grace you have been saved, through faith».
Not your own faith?
Calvinists usually insist that «saving faith is not yours, but it’s a gift of God». Primarily, they tend to use the following verse to back their position:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)
This verse, the Calvinist argues, teaches that faith is a gift of God. They build their argument on the fact that the pronoun this normally refers back to the closest preceding noun. Whilst the rule is generally true, we must remember that: a) English is not the original language the passage was written in; b) in English, things have a neutral grammatical gender, but that’s not a rule for Greek, where things can be masculine, feminine or neuter.
In English, faith is neuter and this goes with masculine, feminine or neutral nouns. However, in the original, the word that in this passage we translate faith is feminine, and pronouns in Greek must be of the same gender as that of the noun they refer to. However, the word translated this is neuter in the original text. What does that mean? It is simple: this does not refer to faith. The word this refers to the whole preceding sentence; hence, the gift of God is not faith, but salvation (by grace through faith).
Other languages are similar to Greek, and amongst those I can read, I found that Spanish renders the original more clearly:
Porque por gracia ustedes han sido salvados mediante la fe; esto no procede de ustedes, sino que es el regalo de Dios (Efesios 2:8 NVI)
Similar to Greek, the Spanish la fe (the faith; feminine), and esto (this; neuter) do not share the same grammatical gender. If esto was meant to refer to la fe, it would have been esta (feminine version).
Other passages that Calvinists use to teach that faith is not one’s own are, for example, John 6:44a: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. Unfortunately, it is not feasible for me to go over this here, but this passage (and the larger context) simply does not teach what the Calvinist interpretation suggests by way of taking things a tad bit out of context. Jesus, instead, tells us plainly how believers will come to faith:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word (John 17:20)
Jesus clearly teaches that people will believe through the word of his disciples (these only, in the verse above), which is clearly the preaching of the Gospel. This matches what Paul says in Romans 10:17 and what Peter says in 1 Peter 1:23.
So, is faith a work? Not as Calvinists would intend it. You can call faith a “work” if you like, since Jesus did so, and still be at peace that it is not a “work of the law”, for two reasons: a) it is self-evident; b) Paul contrasts faith with the works of the law in Romans 3:28. You are saved by grace through faith; the faith God calls you to have (John 6:29) by His appeal through the Church and via the Gospel. (2 Corinthians 5:20)