After the discussion that followed (and is still following) my last post, I decided to do one on the idea expressed in the following passage.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. – Eph 2:8-9
I’d like to take this passage phrase by phrase to discover what it does and doesn’t mean.
“For by grace…”
What is grace? It has several definitions, but in theology, it’s often referred to as “unmerited favor.” In other words, it’s something of great importance or value that is given to one freely. In this passage in Ephesians, it is obvious that the writer is about to expound upon something that we receive by grace – something that we haven’t and can’t earn.
“…you have been saved…”
Man’s separation from God in the Garden of Eden (his fall from grace) is the conflict of the Bible. Man lived in God’s presence when he was in the Garden, but when sin entered the world, that relationship with God was changed. The rest of the Bible deals with bringing man back to God.
Ephesians 2 tells us that we are able to repair that relationship by grace: “For by grace you have been saved…” So God saves us by his grace. Salvation is something he offers us freely. We’ll have to look into the passage further to see if this is something that he bestows on all of us automatically, or if there are qualifiers that we are required to meet before we receive it.
Maybe that last statement sounds paradoxical. I mean, if it’s a free gift, how could there be a qualifier? Let’s use the example of a popular game show, like Deal or No Deal. Regardless of the rules, essentially, a contestant comes on the show and wins some amount of money. Some win more than others, but they almost always win something. I think it would be appropriate to say that these contestants are given money by the grace of the game show – they certainly didn’t earn the money. Be that as it may, however, all of those contestants are still required to do certain things in order to be eligible. They have to apply for the chance to play, they have to abide by the rules, they have to travel to the game studio, etc, etc. And yet, despite all the effort that goes into it, all of those people are still given money or prizes that they never earned. Typically, their rewards far outweigh any effort they may have put into getting on the show.
In the same way, it is possible for God to freely give us salvation, while still requiring certain things of us. I think that’s exactly what Paul was referring to in the following passage:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. – Romans 8:18
So, while it’s possible that God could still require things of us, we’ll continue with the passage to see whether he actually does or not.
We’ve already established that we are saved by grace, but here, the passage also tells us that this is accomplished through faith. As most of us know, this coincides with many other passages that teach us the importance of faith in God and belief that Jesus is the Christ. Probably the most famous of these is the following:
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. – John 3:16
The above passage confirms what we read here in Ephesians 2 – that our salvation comes through faith. So just as we surmised in the previous section, even though God freely bestows the gift of salvation upon us, it is contingent upon our faith.
Well what is faith? Hebrews 11:1 defines it as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, it’s the conviction of something intangible, of something that can’t be seen, touched, or tasted, but has evidence, nonetheless. God does not expect us to believe in him or Christ without proof. During Biblical times, that proof was often given in the form of miracles; today, we have God’s word, which remains consistent throughout its text and has been further verified by science and archaeology. Exploring the different proofs of the Bible’s accuracy is not the purpose of this post, though there are many sources that do offer that kind of information.
Hebrews 11 goes on to show examples of a “working” or sincere faith. True faith produces action; it’s not merely lip service, as James 2 points out. So our salvation, though it’s given by God’s grace, still requires our faith as a prerequisite.
“…and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God…”
I decided to tackle these two phrases together, because they are so connected. It’s the classic “not, but” type of statement. Basically, these phrases further explain the idea of grace – that our salvation is not of our own doing, it’s from God.
Remember, we just finished talking about how God still requires faith from us. Is he contradicting himself here in the same sentence? Of course not. We’ve already established that even though God gives us salvation freely, he can still require certain things from us. We must remember our relationship to God. He is eternal, all powerful, all knowing; he is love, he is just, and he is true. We, as humans, are none of those things. Nothing we do on this earth could possibly earn salvation. So it really doesn’t matter what God might require of us, our salvation will still be due to his grace, not of anything we’ve done.
“…not of works…”
Once again, Paul emphasizes to the Ephesians that their works can not save them. Even though they must have sincere faith to gain salvation, it is still the gift of God and not contingent upon them.
But in my opinion, people often take this passage further than I believe it was intended to go. Many times, this passage is used to show that faith is all that God requires of us to gain salvation, since he says “not of works.” Is that what this passage means? To answer that, let’s go ahead and talk about the final phrase of this passage.
“…lest anyone should boast.”
First of all, why are we not saved by works? The reason given here is so that no one “should boast.” The reason this was such an important point is that many of the Jews (the Pharisees in particular) had begun to do just that. Consider this description of a Pharisee in one of Christ’s parables:
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” – Luke 18:10-12
The Israelites had been God’s chosen people. The Law of Moses had been given to them to teach them how to serve God. But by the time Christ came, many of the Jews had stopped worhipping God – they worshipped the law instead! They no longer really trusted in God to save them, but in the actions they were performing from the law. That had never been God’s intent, and that’s what Paul is explaining here! Salvation is not of works, so that no one should boast. It is God that saves us by grace, through our faith.
And if our faith is required, then there may be other things as well. Ephesians 2 is not teaching us that our actions are unimportant and have no bearing on our eternal salvation. In actuality, the opposite is true. Our actions in this life have everything to do with our eternal salvation. Even the next verse of this chapter tells us that works are still important:
10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. – Eph 2:10
Matthew 25 shows us that those who will be saved are the ones who have clothed the naked, fed the hungry, cared for the sick, visited those in prison, etc. Aren’t those works? If works aren’t necessary according to Ephesians 2, then how can we explain Christ’s words here in Matthew 25? Obviously, both passages are right. God saves us by grace because we can’t earn our salvation. But just as our salvation is contingent upon our faith, so it is with the way we live our lives.
And not only must we live seeking to do God’s will, but he also requires more than just faith for us to be saved in the first place. Romans 10:9-10 tells us that confession is required for salvation. Acts 17:30 informs us that God commands all men to repent, and 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that we’ll perish without it. Baptism is something else that the Bible teaches is necessary for salvation. In Acts 2:38 we’re told it’s for the remission (forgiveness) of sins; in Acts 22:16 we’re told it washes sins away; and in Matthew 28:19-20 and 1 Peter 3:21 we’re told that it leads to salvation.
We don’t need to fall into the trap of thinking that passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 teach us that God requires nothing from us other than faith, since we are saved by grace. Grace means that something has been given freely – it can’t be earned; it does not necessarily mean that it’s unconditional.
Ephesians 2 even tells us the first condition: our faith. And if we read James 2, we’ll understand that true faith inspires action. Our true faith will therefore cause us to obey God’s commands, including those that concern confessing Christ, repenting of our sins, being baptized for the remission of those sins, and living our lives in the continual quest to serve God better and more fully every day of our lives. Yes, we’ll sometimes slip and fall. God is there to catch us when that happens. And just like with everything else, we must get back up, ask for forgiveness, and press on toward the goal (Phil 3:12-14). But if we turn away from serving him, if we fall and choose to not get back up, then we can’t expect the same gift of salvation he’s promised to those who are faithful to him. You can read my previous post for more information on that.
When we are told in Ephesians 2 that we are not saved by works, it’s to remind us (and those Jews at the time) that no action of our own can get us into heaven. God alone can do that. If we want to receive the gift of grace that he offers to everyone, then we must respond in true faith and sincere obedience.