While reviewing the superb answers to this question about free will, I was inspired to leave a comment for Ian that I realized ought to be its own question.

As I understand (and possibly misunderstand) Reformed theology, "works" are things that we do, and as such are not included in that which provides justification nor salvation. I then consider the act of will that is making a choice to open one's heart to Jesus Christ, a decision that I finally made in my late 40's to accept salvation through Him alone. Thus began my walk in Faith (though I keep stubbing my toes on those rocks in the road ...). It appears to me that my choice, my decision to accept Salvation through Jesus Christ is a Work since it is something that involved my agency.

From a more Determinist and Calvinist perspective, how does my acceptance of Jesus Christ not classify as a Work, since it was something that I did but that I could have chosen not to do? (If other Reformed denominations view this differently, that perspective would also be appreciated in contrast).

From my perspective, I feel like I've tripped over a contradiction in the general case of not being saved nor justified by Works, yet it took my agency to accept Christ as my Savior. (It is quite possible that I simply don't understand the theology well enough, hence the question).

How does the Reformed/Calvinist theology resolve this (seeming) contradiction?

I am under the impression that there are other Reformed denominations than Calvinist, but that may be wrong so the bottom line question needs to be answered from the PoV of Calvinist/Reformed theology. (I am seeking more help in chat to get my terminology right on this). I note that this question is related to my question in addressing the free will issue.

  • How are you distinguishing "Calvinist" from "Reformed"?
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 9, 2017 at 13:25
  • @curiousdannii I was under the impression that no all Reformed are Calvinist, but all Calvinist are Reformed, but I may be making an error there, as I read through the responses and comments. This question may need some improvement. Any suggestions? Nov 9, 2017 at 13:33
  • While most people consider them to be synonymous, a few people do distinguish them, though not consistently. So I was just wondering what you had in mind. If you didn't have anything particular in mind I'd simplify the question by just cutting the last line.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 9, 2017 at 13:38
  • According to Reformed/Calvinist doctrine regeneration precedes faith. So, in your experience, Calvinists would say God regenerated you by Grace before you chose to accept Him as your savior. Therefore, believing may be considered a work, just as baptism may be, but it is not the reason for your salvation, it is a result. I, however, don't agree that man's free-will plays no part.
    – Ian
    Nov 9, 2017 at 23:09
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    @KorvinStarmast - Caleb is saying the same thing, just taking longer to say it. RC Sproul's "What is Reformed Theology" is probably a good source if you really want to get deeper, the "regeneration precedes faith" phrase is straight outta that book. You might also be interested in reading Conference 13 in St. John Cassian's Conferences (ccel.org/ccel/cassian/conferences.pdf) for what I think is a more traditional (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) view of free will and grace.
    – Ian
    Nov 11, 2017 at 1:34

5 Answers 5


You've fallen into a common trap of examining a single piece of a theological system by importing that piece into your own construct rather than seeing how it fits into its own context. A Reformed understanding of soteriology is dependent on several interwoven ideas about God and his role in creation.

Note this assumption in your question is not representative of Reformed thought:

[…] how does my acceptance of Jesus Christ not classify as a Work, since it was something that I did that I could have chosen not to do?

One of the points in the classic TULIP acronym that calls out some key points of Reformed soteriology is "Irresistible Grace". The Reformed faith puts God fully in control of all aspects of salvation. He is sovereign and we are not: not even over our own lives. We are his creatures created for his purposes — and for his elect that means that we were created to be called his people and God will have his way. His calling us to repentance and belief is not something we could ignore. It is a gracious gift given to us that once given will achieve its purpose.

As such if you are indeed one of God's elect choosing not to accept him is not actually something you can do. The catch is that we don't know who the elect are. As a wise preacher once said¹:

If the Lord had put a yellow stripe down the backs of the elect, I’d go up and down the street lifting up shirt tails, finding out who had the yellow stripe, and then I’d give them the gospel. But God didn’t do it that way. He told me to preach the gospel to every creature that “whosoever will may come.” Jesus says, “and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”

Going back to your question, you describe your own journey as your own act of will:

I then consider the act of will that is making a choice to open one's heart to Jesus Christ, an act of will, a choice, a decision that I finally made in my late 40's to accept salvation through Him alone.

A Calvinist would dispute your assertion that this was your own uninfluenced will. We do in fact believe in free will—but only free in so far as it will inevitably act according to its nature. Humans act according to human nature and are limited by it.

  • A bird has wings and can fly. A bird may jump off a branch at will and fly where it will. Meanwhile if I jump out the 8th floor window of my office I will inevitably be scraped up off the sidewalk. I do not have wings and no amount of willing myself to fly will make it happen. I am limited by my nature as a biped mammal. I can use my creativity to construct an parachute or an airplane and to seemingly defy the law of gravity, but this is really not doing anything against nature, only using the laws of physics to my advantage. In spite of the novelty of flight pulled off by the Wright brothers they didn't actually transcend human nature.
  • A fish may swim and breath freely in water, but I cannot. I can hold my breath, or invent a breathing apparatus, or travel in a submarine, I am limited by my physical nature and and endeavors to supplement that are really just extensions of the physical reality we were created inside of.

Similarly in a Calvinistic worldview (the T in TULIP) man is inherently sinful. Part of our fundamental nature is depraved: all mankind in Adam transgressed God's commandments and has been from that moment separated from him (we died). Just as we cannot retroactively choose our biological parents or even citizenship at birth (much less choose to be something else entirely) so we do not have a choice at birth about whether we are friends or enemies of God. Or view of original sin is that man is irreparably damaged and by virtue of our birth in Adam have a core nature that both is sinful and will choose to sin. If you want to read up on this point of Reformed soteriology "Federal Headship" is what you're looking for.

Only by supernatural (contrary to nature, something only the divine creator himself can do) intervention can we be saved and reconciled to God. Left to our own ends we will inevitably and always make the same choices as Adam. In Adam, there is NONE righteous, not even one (cf. Romans 3).

When any human makes a decision to accept salvation through Jesus Christ we believe that Christ through the Holy Spirit began the work regenerating their hearts—removing the heart of stone and replacing it with one of flesh that desires the things of God. Our very first inkling of a desire for God is an undeserved gift of Grace that only the elect will truly experience, and were it not for God first bestowing that grace we would never make that choice.

On the flip side having been given that grace, we will inevitably act according to the new natures given to us in Christ: repenting and going on to good works that glorify the Son.

¹ This quote is commonly attributed to Charles Spurgeon, but Spurgeon was in fact acknowledged (Sermon #2843) he got the idea from Rowland Hill, someone who predated him. Whether the quote originated with Hill or whether he in turn got in from some other source doesn't seem to be known.

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    This answer is very thorough. Your second to last paragraph is very close to what is taught in the Catholic Church, about the Holy Spirit having agency in our hearts of stone being transformed, but I think I spot where the irreconcilable difference lies: Catholics and Calvinists use the term "free will" to mean very different things. Thanks for clearing that up. As I said in the question, I suspect that I misunderstand the theology, and I did. (Curious, do all Reformed theologians take this view, or is this uniquely Calvinist?) My question may be too broad. Nov 9, 2017 at 13:25
  • This answer covers the bases, accepted, and thanks again. Nov 13, 2017 at 11:49

I am a Reformed Pastor and I think the passage most Reformed Christians would turn to is: Ephesians 2: 8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Much like Catholic teaching referred to above faith is a gift of grace, once your eyes have been opened to the truth, having faith is not seen as work because you don’t do it, rather it would involve work to disbelieve. Often the Reformed will emphasise that it is by grace, through faith, not by faith through grace!

  • It may be that my experience is incompatible with this theology. I thank you for this answer, and it does overlap somewhat with my previous learning and understanding. I find that Christianity is experiential as well as theological. Nov 9, 2017 at 1:21
  • I have read your last two sentences again, and they make even more sense, and resonate better, than they did yesterday. "It takes effort to disbelieve" is a position that I have trouble accepting, but if I look at it as something after the grace, through faith, then one has to put some effort in to overcoming the Lord's gift (grace) in order to turn away from faith. Is that roughly what you mean by that? Nov 9, 2017 at 13:40

When Scripture talks of gaining salvation "by works" as opposed to "by faith" what I think it is really driving at is the distinction between gaining salvation as a free gift and earning salvation.

When you exercised faith in Christ you were saved, but you didn't earn salvation by believing.

Suppose Bill Gates says to me "Come knock on my door tomorrow afternoon at 3pm and I will give you $10m". And suppose I believe him, knock on his door at 3pm, and he gives me $10m. Did my believing gain $10m? Yes. Did my believing earn the $10m? Of course not, it was a gift, I didn't do anything to earn it.

So it is that believing is not a work, because when we do a work we earn the reward as our right; we have a right to expect the wage.

So though we have to do something to receive salvation (viz, believe) we do not work anything, we cannot work anything to receive salvation. The gift of salvation is vastly greater in value than anything we can ever do to get it.

This, I think, is the sense in which faith is not a work.

I cannot claim that this is either uniquely or specifically a reformed/calvinist perspective: I can only say that I write it as a calvinist.


First, I am not a Calvinist and do not subscribe to Reformed theology, but my theology in this case would likely align with Reformed belief, although I haven't verified this. My perspective may fall under your category of "other perspectives."

Romans 4 addresses the issue directly.

Verse 2-5 (emphasis mine),

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness

Here we have works and belief contrasted. Works and faith are also contrasted in Ephesians 2. It is important to note these contrasts, while also avoiding the neglect of passages that call those of the faith to good works. Believers are called to good works, but that's always after believing, which is not a work but could be considered a position or disposition. The position is "in Christ, by faith."

  • Again typical, mixing works of the Law with good deeds. How did Abraham show his faith? In his deeds, clearly!
    – Grasper
    Nov 8, 2017 at 16:01
  • Well of course, faith is demonstrated by works, but faith is not works. See James 2. Faith is active along with works, but still, faith is not a work (which is what OP is asking about). Nov 8, 2017 at 16:22
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    @MattZabojnik Assertions aren't much good (in re your comment to Grasper) and I really am trying to be precise in my terms, as well as to get a theologically sound answer. I do appreciate your biblical basis approach, and your concise answer, but that isn't quite what I asked for (and I deliberately chose not to use the biblical basis tag for that very reason). Nov 8, 2017 at 17:15
  • 'To him that worketh not, but believeth' is the description of the faith that is unto righteousness. Other kinds of (supposed) faith are legal works. Excellent answer @MattZabojnik (+1).
    – Nigel J
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:31
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    @Grasper Oh yeah, don't I know it. Nov 9, 2017 at 1:17

You have arrived at the final destination of the Calvinist trap. Is obeying God's commands a system of works? Too many people are easily discarding the will of God and throwing out His commands, calling them instead works of man.

There are works that are works of God, and there are the works that are of men. Matt. 23:5,

" But all their works they do to be seen by men." (NKJV)

We are commanded to believe. John 6:29,

" Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent." (KJV)

John 6:40,

"And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day." (KJV)

It is God's will and His command that we believe. Obedience to the command is not a work of man. It is obedience.

We are commanded to repent (Acts 17:30). Does that mean that we have done that which God commanded that we have performed a "work"?

Our good deeds are also commands of God. We were created for good works (Eph 2:10). Are we then being saved by works? No, we are obeying His commands to love one another.

John 13:34-35,

" A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." (KJV)

If we follow the line of thinking that responding to His command is a work, then we would all have to stop loving one another.

Thus, baptism (immersion) is the response to a command of God. Mark 16:16, " He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (KJV).

Who is doing the saving when we believe and are immersed into Christ? Who is writing our name in the book of life when we obey the command? (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 21:27). It is God who is doing the work at baptism, not us.

1 John 5:3,

"For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous." (KJV)

Obeying his commands is not burdensome, or weighty, or oppressive. Obedience is not a work, but a command, and that is why Paul said in James 2:17-26,

"Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." (KJV)

Abraham believed God and obeyed Him, and God counted it for righteousness. I can stand on the sidewalk and shout till my throat is raw that I believe God, but if I do not do His will and obey His command, all my noise is only a show for mankind and counts for nothing with God.

There are therefore works of righteous faith, and works of unrighteous unbelievers. Which is which?

Rom. 4:20-24,

"He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;

21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.

22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.

23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him;

24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead;" (KJV)

Believing, having faith in God moves us to action. Those actions that are a response to God's command are accomplishing His directives, and accomplishing His will. Not our will, but His will.

Matt. 7:21,

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (KJV)

Luke 22:42,

"Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." (KJV)

Those of us that are in Christ are His royal priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Our good works are our sacrifices - the fruit of our lips (Heb 13:15); to do good continually (Heb. 13:16, 2 Tim. 3:17; Tit. 2:7; 3:8, Heb. 10:24). That is the will of God, and those are the works that God commands we do, because of our faith and belief in Him

  • @Bradimus It appears that the answer is addressing my misunderstanding more than the Calvinist or Reformed position. I need to read it again to get the flow right. Nov 9, 2017 at 13:30
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    The main tenet of the Reformed believers is to adhere to the scriptures, to stay true to the scriptures. I am answering this question from a Reformed perspective as that is my only creed.. to adhere to the word of God. As the OP asked for other Reformed views, I believed my answer to be allowed. Any perspective or belief system that does not adhere to the scriptures, whether Calvanism, or any other "Reformed" church needs to be inspected. Not all of Calvanism's teaching is wrong.
    – Gina
    Nov 9, 2017 at 13:37
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    @Gina The Reformation principle of sola scriptura is a great one to model your own theology on, but it is a poor way to scope your answer. Questions like this one that asked for how a specific theological framework addresses something must be representative of that tradition. Lots of traditions claim to be based on Scripture; your argument that any Scriptural view is ipso-facto Reformed is both fallacious logic and in this case leads you to misrepresent the views of the group requested in the question.
    – Caleb
    Nov 9, 2017 at 13:43
  • @Caleb, not all Reformed views / traditions are Calvanist. Or are they?
    – Gina
    Nov 9, 2017 at 13:53
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    No, that is not what I meant. We all have free will to choose to obey His will and His commands. But, believing is not a work. It is the answer of a good heart to the command of the Father. Making the free will choice to obey our Father should never be confused with a system of works. That is all. But, many people try to make the response / action / answer to the call into a work of man. If we are obedient to the will of the Father then it is of faith, and not of meritorious works. Is that a little more clear?
    – Gina
    Nov 10, 2017 at 3:11

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