Meritorious Faith v. Instrumental Faith

Written by Mark Farnham

On August 30, 2010

One of the major differences between Calvinist and Arminian soteriology, between Monergism and Synergism, is the concept of faith. Calvinists see human response of faith as meritorious, and therefore must argue that faith is a gift from God, and not something initiated by man. This fits well with unconditional election, irresistible grace, and a monergistic view of the process of salvation. If they did not argue against this meritorious sense of faith, they would be admitting human participation in salvation, and there would be little difference between their view and Roman Catholic Pelagianism. We can see, therefore why a Calvinist insists that faith is a gift from God, exercised by a person only after it has been given by God.

Arminians, on the other hand, tend to see faith as the instrumental cause of salvation. That is, they believe that a person must exercise faith in order to receive the free gift of salvation that is entirely of God. They do not see the exercise of faith as meritorious in any way, but simply the instrumental means by which a person receives God’s salvation. This view understands the response of faith to be the equivalent of a beggar opening his hand or reaching up to receive help. There is no merit in such a response, but the act is merely the instrument by which salvation is received.

The difference between merit and instrument is a common one in theology. Francis Turretin used the distinction to show that biblical covenants could be understood as conditional or unconditional, depending on whether human response to a covenant was seen as meritorious (people had to fulfill their part to keep the covenant in effect), or merely instrumental (in which human response is the means by which God’s unconditional promises are received). Calvinists do understand faith as instrumental, but only in the context of faith being given by God. Arminians, on the other hand, see faith as a non-meritorious response to the gospel.

Understanding these differences doesn’t automatically solve the Calvinist-Arminian debate, but it does help us understand the other side better. It also drives us back to the Scriptures to see if we are misreading references to the concept of faith in certain passages. We may find that some passages refer to faith in the meritorious sense, and others in the instrumental sense.

The differences between merit and instrument help us to see that not only are the signs we use in theology important, but also the signifiers. Not only do the words matter, but also what we mean by the words. When we pay careful attention to our words and meanings, we can often avoid theological stalemates with brothers in Christ, and move toward clarity and mutual understanding.

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1 Comment

  1. Bob

    Thanks Mark. That was a helpful clarification for me to keep in mind. BTW, I enjoy your writing ministry!


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