5. Salvation By Grace Through Faith (Ephesians 2:8-10)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (29:15)

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal (1636, etching)
The best example of utter grace in the Bible is Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. Detail from Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch painter, 1606-1669), "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1636), etching on laid paper, plate: 15.6 x 13.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Full image.
"8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Ephesians 2:8-9 is probably the clearest expression of the basis of our relationship with God found anywhere in the Bible. But to understand it we need to examine some pretty heavy theological concepts.

The Need for a Rescue Operation

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith" (2:8a)

First, let's look at salvation, "saved" (sōzō). We can understand it best when we strip it for a moment of all of its religious connotations and look at its root meaning: "rescue." Salvation means rescuing someone from a situation that put them in danger or would have been fatal if they had not been removed from it. Salvation is rescuing us from our condition, spelled out earlier in the chapter in 2:1-4:

  1. Spiritual deadness (2:1) is caused by transgressions and sin. Whereas we might have been open to spiritual things once, able to immediately and intuitively understand them and enter into them, our repeated sins and transgressions of God's holy principles has somehow dulled us, deadened us, so we are unperceptive. We are without spiritual life as it pertains to God.
  2. Followers of our corrupt culture, followers of "the ways of this world" (2:2a). No matter how counter-culture we may think we are, in actuality, we have absorbed the spirit of the age. We have internalized its corrupt values and jaded outlook.
  3. Followers of Satan, "the ruler of the kingdom of the air" (2:2b). Though we may not be deliberate Satan worshippers, we have become dupes, unknowing adherents to a pride and attitude toward God that has its origins in the rebellious Snake himself (Genesis 3:1-7). We respond readily enough to his tempting whispers and think of them our own thoughts. Though we pretend an independence of direction, we have come under his influence and are now marching to his drumbeat.
  4. Self-indulgent, "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts" (2:3a). We desire, we want, we burn with lust, with hate, with greed, and we steal to satisfy ourselves. Our self-centeredness becomes self-destructiveness. We are spiraling, winding about ourselves, the tether getting shorter and shorter as it raps around the central pole, until we turn inward to an emptiness that is the internal symptom of spiritual deadness.
  5. Under Divine judgment and righteous anger (2:3b). No matter how much God loves us -- and he does with all his heart -- there is that part of him which is the epitome of justice and fairness which recognizes our rebellion and spiritual treason for what it is and passes judgment on us and our sins. We are loved, but under a sentence of death. We are rebels awaiting our final day in court before the Great White Throne judgment of God (Revelation 20:11-15) when our sentence will be executed upon us.

Only when seen in stark relief against the dark backdrop of our predicament, does God's love shine with all its brilliance. We don't deserve God's favor. We are like children straining to leave home, having resisted his thoughts and directions and tender care. We have turned to ourselves like overgrown children, delinquents now to be judged as adults in criminal court.

Results of Rescue (2:4-6)

Now look at the rapid succession of blessings in our passage:

  1. His great love for us (2:4a).
  2. His richness of mercy (2:4b).
  3. A miracle of new birth ("alive together with Christ") in the place of our terminal spiritual deadness ("dead in transgressions" (2:5).
  4. Elevation to a spiritual authority and position "in the heavenly realms" far above that of our tempter and his minions -- at the very right hand of God with Christ our Messiah (2:6).
  5. Eternal kindness shown us forever and ever, on and on, extending into the far reaches of eternity, Christ delights in showing us kindness (2:7).

Contrast what we deserve with what we have been given and you see grace in all clarity.

"Grace" Is More than a Girl's Name

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith...." (2:8a)

The word "grace" as we discussed in a previous chapter, was not at first a theological word. Greek charis means simply "favor."1 To show grace is to bestow favor. Notice carefully, it has nothing to do with reward for "good behavior." The benefactor doesn't show favor because we have earned it, but simply because he wants to. He is under no obligation to love because we have somehow driven him to it. He just loves. The impetus for the favor is entirely the prerogative of the giver, like a great aunt who delights to send things to her nieces and nephews even though they neglect to write and thank her.

"I've been a good boy, so I deserve a lot of presents under the tree this year." This is not a good boy speaking, but a spoiled brat who wants to subvert the spirit of the season to his own selfishness. God isn't some celestial Santa Claus, "making a list and checking it twice, trying to find out who's naughty or nice." That view of Christmas was invented by manipulative parents trying to leverage the holiday to induce good behavior.

We grossly misunderstand God's favor if we see it as wages or rewards -- that would be justice not grace. This is gift-giving, pure and simple. Like the runner to first base who knows he didn't quite make it, but the base umpire lifts his hands and shouts out "Safe!" "That was a gift," mutters the first baseman under his breath. Yes, our "safe-ness" is a gift, not our due. We were "out." We missed it. We've been rescued from what is our due.

When we like someone, we want to send flowers, shower upon them expressions of our love. Cards, presents, unexpected gifts. Please open it. Now? Yes, I just want to see the expression of delight upon your face. The great abandon of favor which exists on its own terms and not ours. Grace and gift-giving go hand in hand, undeserved, given out of love and favor.

Q1. Why is it so hard for us to understand grace? What commonly held life principle does it demolish? Translate the word "grace" into language a 10-year-old child would understand.
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"Saved" is the Greek verb sōzō, while "salvation is the noun sōteria. In classical Greek "both the verb and the noun denote rescue and deliverance in the sense of averting some danger threatening life. This can happen in war or at sea. But that which one is delivered from may also be an illness. Where no immediate danger is mentioned, they can mean to keep or preserve."2 When speaking to non-Christians (and Christians, too, for that matter) I often substitute the word "rescued" for "saved," since that word is processed by the hearer in its normal rather than Christian-jargon sense.

Q2. "Saved" has become Christian jargon. How can you "translate" this word into modern speech so people can understand what it really means and why they need it?
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So we've examined the ideas of rescue (salvation) and God's inexplicable but very real favor towards us (grace). Now we need to look at "works."

Working Our Way into the Good Graces of God (2:9)

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (2:8-9)

Paul was raised a strict Pharisee, whose highest value was exact and minute obedience to the Torah, God's law. If he obeyed then he was righteous. If he disobeyed he then he was unrighteous. It was black or white. The Judaism of Jesus' and Paul's day had reduced the principles of God's law into inflexible and sometimes petty rules. The rules are a "hedge" around the law, the Torah. Keep the petty rules, they reasoned, and you are prevented from breaking the actual law. That was Phariseeism, prompted by a desire to obey God.

But evenually they mistook the petty rules for the law. Don't say "God" because you might take his name in vain, so you substitute "heaven" for God and you're safe. When God's name appears in the sacred text as Yahweh, you pronounce it as if it said "Lord" (Adonai).

A minor verse in the law said, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk," obviously intended to instill some sense of mercy towards the animals one was butchering for food (Exodus 23:19b). Judaism turned it into a system of keeping a Kosher kitchen with one set of pots and pans used for dairy products, and a completely different set used for meat products, lest they inadvertently boil a kid in its mother's milk. You get the idea.

A Self-Serving Righteousness

Paul's Judaism had degenerated from faithfulness to God's principles to strict and blind adherence to man-made rules. Then it elevated obedience to these man-made rules into a system of earned righteousness before God. By their right actions they put God in their debt. Never mind that their hearts were still self-centered and self-serving. Never mind that they lived their whole lives to save themselves. They were righteous. That was what counted. When Paul says in Ephesians 2:9 that you have been saved "not by works (ergon), so that no one can boast," this is what he is talking about.

Paul the Christian gives up "a righteousness of my own that comes from the law" (Philippians 3:9), and instead embraces "the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith."

Paul the Christian isn't lawless, but he has finally come to understand that God's favor isn't earned by surface observance of religious rules. He has come to understand the darkness and dullness of his own heart. He, who had gone to Damascus to imprison followers of Jesus, had himself been arrested by this Jesus (Acts 9). He, the righteous murderer of Christians, had received mercy from the hand of the One whom he was persecuting. He now understands the emptiness of a religion based on outward rules while fostering an inward self-centered rather than God-centered motivation.

The Just Shall Live by Their Faith

Paul rejects this kind of works-based righteousness in favor of a gift-based righteousness, which is received by faith -- that is, simple trust, simple acceptance that believes at face value that God loves you -- faith that puts out its open hand to receive, and says thank you to the Giver when it has taken hold of the gift.

Israel's founding fathers had lived by this kind of simple receiving of God's blessings from the very beginning, Paul realizes. He announces, "The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17), quoting from Habakkuk 2:4. It wasn't Abraham's worthiness that saved him, but God's favor that made him worthy and brought out the very best in him (Genesis 15:6).

We see in our Ephesians passage a radical statement of the roots of our religion. We are saved by God's favor. Period. Not by our own goodness.

"Faith" is another word that has degenerated into Christian jargon. In classical Greek, pistis means "the trust that a man may place in men or the gods, credibility, credit in business, guarantee, proof, or something entrusted."3

Our society is plagued by "easy believism." "Oh, of course, I believe in God," really means, "I acknowledge that there is a Supreme Being." That's an important step from atheism or agnosticism, but it is not faith. "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that -- and shudder" (James 2:19).

The basic concept of Christian faith or belief is "trust," having enough confidence in God to be willing to rely on Him. Of course, it is easily possible to have faith in some aspects of God's provision for us and not others. So there is much room to grow in our knowledge and trust -- or to persist in various degrees of unbelief.

If You're Good Enough You Can Go to Heaven

American religious mythology communicates just the opposite. Simply stated it goes like this: If you're good you'll go to heaven. If you're bad you'll go to hell. Of course, we're not bad enough to go to hell, we say nervously. We've been generous (sometimes), we've been good neighbors (at least the times we remember), we haven't beaten our wives (with our fists). We are basically good people and so a fair-minded God will send us to heaven when we die. Won't he? Of course he will, dear.

Our culture, you see, doesn't understand a gift-righteousness, only a works-righteousness. We can justify ourselves only by means of a befuddled mind that ignores our real spiritual condition: spiritual deadness, self-centeredness, and an adoption of the world's (and ultimately Satan's) perverted values. A works-righteousness puts us in control; a gift-righteousness makes us utterly dependent upon the Giver, something that our lack of trust -- lack of faith, in reality -- makes us shun.

By now we've talked about what "works" is referring to. But to be complete, we need to talk about what it does not mean. For that we turn to James chapter 2.

The Essential Marriage of Faith and Works

"... Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action (works, KJV) is dead" (James 2:17)

The word "works," Greek ergon, in classical Greek referred to "a deed, an action, by contrast either with inactivity or a mere word."4 This is the sense in which James uses the word.

However, Paul uses the word in a technical sense: "In Judaism ... the view of works necessary for the fulfillment of the law and therefore for righteousness is developed and consolidated. The way to godliness is casuistically prescribed for the Jew by a multiplicity of regulations for the performance of the law."5 As mentioned above, Paul's background as a Pharisee (Philippians 3:4-6) had led him to believe that if he acted righteously enough he could merit salvation. Today's strict Hasidic Jews are the spiritual descendents of the Pharisees. They believe they will be saved by their strict adherence to the 613 commandments in the Torah. Paul firmly rejects this view.

Whereas Paul is coming from a Pharisaical understanding of the idea of "works" meriting favor in the eyes of God, James uses the same word "works" but by it means something entirely different: deeds, actions.

James writes in response to people who had perverted salvation by grace into "it doesn't matter how you live or what you do, you're saved anyway."

James' point is this: Saying you have faith isn't enough. Your faith needs to be evidenced in your actions, your deeds, your lifestyle. If it isn't, it probably isn't genuine faith. If it isn't, you're probably kidding yourself about really trusting God with your life. James isn't saying that our deeds save us. He doesn't even come close. He is saying that if our faith hasn't affected our lives, then it probably isn't real but "dead."

While we see a verbal contradiction here -- they both use the same word "works" -- I don't think Paul would disagree in the least. Paul, however, is clarifying grace-based salvation in the face of a pervasive works-based understanding of salvation prevalent in the Judaism of his time. James is trying to help Christians own up to their own self-deception about their spiritual condition, a sterile "faith" that is vapor, a "faith" which doesn't change the person.

The Cart Comes after the Horse

Works follow faith, not the other way around. Of course, we don't change everything overnight. Our character took 15 or 20 or 30 or 40 years to get to where it is, and it takes God's Spirit a while to form in us the character of Christ. Don't berate yourself because you see areas of sin in you that Christ has not yet softened and lifted out of you. Our salvation springs from God's gift, and is consummated by our trusting acceptance ("through faith"). It is after salvation has been received that God begins his real work in us, not before. It is as a result of salvation that we begin to produce actions, which reflect our faith. James says it this way: "Faith without works is dead."

Working Out our Destiny (2:10)

Paul says it a different way in our passage:

"For we are God's workmanship (a gift), created in Christ Jesus to do good works (the result of our faith-response to God), which God prepared in advance for us to do." (2:10)

Faith-energized works are our destiny!

The word "prepared in advance" (NIV) or "before ordained" (KJV) in vs. 10 is the Greek verb prohetoimazo, pro, "before" and hetoimazō, "get ready, hold in readiness".6

God planned for us before we were even born to do special "good works." The scripture says he "prepared in advance" for us to do them. I take this to mean that we have been prepared in advance by having been given particular aptitudes, special spiritual sensitivities, unique abilities -- "spiritual gifts," if you will -- which equip or prepare us to fulfil our destiny here on earth (and, who knows, maybe in the Kingdom beyond, also).

Q3. According to Ephesians 2:10, what were we created to do? Why? (Matthew 5:16) What is the difference between these works and the works Paul discredits in verse 9?
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This Not of Yourselves

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- 9not by works, so that no one can boast." (2:8-9)

By now we've looked at each of the important concepts contained in this classic passage, Ephesians 2:8-10, except for one: "and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (2:8b). Okay, Paul, exactly which thing is the gift here? Let's look at the candidates: grace, salvation, and faith. The phrase "and this not from yourselves" could refer grammatically to any or all of them. This what?

This grace is certainly not from us. It is the generous gift of the Giver, given against all odds, against all of our self-centered, rebellious history. Grace is certainly not from ourselves.

This salvation? The rescue operation, which culminated in the cross, was launched by the Father with the willing cooperation of his Son Jesus. We had nothing to do with it that we can boast about. Unless we can boast about uttering a feeble "Help" at some point when we were acutely aware of the desperateness of our plight. Certainly the rescue, the salvation, is not from ourselves.

This faith? Faith is certainly something which comes from us, isn't it? Well, the best we can say is "sort of." The New Testament is filled with what John Wesley called "prevenient grace," grace which comes before, grace which precedes the actual event of our salvation. "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," exclaimed Peter. "This wasn't revealed to you by man," Jesus retorted, "but by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17). Peter's faith-insight into Jesus' true nature was a God-given revelation, not from himself so that Peter could boast. "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him," Jesus said (John 6:44). So our faith is in response to the Father's gentle drawing, the Holy Spirit's persistent conviction that we are sinful (John 16:8-11). We can't take credit for our faith, either.

Most recent commentators see "this not from yourselves" as referring to salvation by grace as a whole, including faith.7

Q4. What exactly is faith? Can we take credit for having it? Can we be condemned for lacking it? Define "faith" in terms a 10-year-old could understand.
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Influence without Coercion

But at this point I have to depart from those who teach "irresistible grace." While God assists us towards himself, he does not compel us against our will. He increases our understanding, he heightens our sense of need, he softens our will. Yes, I'll grant you all of that. But there is still a place where we are required to assent to him as an act of our own will, a free response to God's unconditional love. A "decision," as Billy Graham would call it.

Can we take credit for the decision? Boast about it? Of course not. That would be like a starving man boasting about going up to get a loaf of bread after hearing where the bread-line is to be found. While one important element of our faith is a free-will decision to say "yes" to the Master, it is only an element, and not one we can boast of. The other elements are knowledge (given by revelation), conviction (brought by the Holy Spirit), occasion (planned in advance by God), and doubtless others as well.

So, coming back to our question from Ephesians 2:9. "And this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." What does "this" refer to? Salvation, grace, or faith? I would have to answer, "Yes, all of the above." All three are gracious gifts from God for which we can take no credit.

Paraphrase

Disciple Lessons from Ephesians, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All the lessons are now available as an e-book or printed book for your convenience.

Let's conclude these rich verses with a paraphrase that sums up what the verses mean:

We were dead to God spiritually, our wills turned inward to follow our own desires, ready dupes for the great Tempter. We were under God's righteous judgment, no denying it. "But God" who is "rich in mercy" acted out of his own heart of love and bestowed upon us his gracious favor -- no credit to us here -- which rescued us from ourselves, and from Satan, and from the pull of the world, and set us on a new path. A path which is determined to receive random acts of kindness from God unto all eternity, as we fulfill our destiny to do good works for which God has specifically and individually equipped us -- true significance for the present and for the future, world without end. Amen.

Prayer

Father, without your persistent grace towards us we would be truly lost and wandering far from you. But you have had mercy on our souls. You have wooed us, drawn us, and then enwrapped us in your arms. Thank you. Thank you. In Jesus' name, we thank you. Amen.

Key Verses

"8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)

References

  1. Charis, "a beneficient disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care/help, goodwill (almost a technical term in the reciprocity-oriented world dominated by Hellenic influence). Active, that which one grants to another, the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory." (BDAG 1079-1081, 2.a.).
  2. Colin Brown,"Redemption," New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT), 3:205ff. Sōzō, "to preserve or rescue from dangers and afflictions, save, keep from harm, rescue." Here transcendent danger or destruction is in view: save, preserve from eternal death" (BDAG 982-983).
  3. Otto Michel, "Faith," NIDNTT 1:594.
  4. Hans-Christoph Hahn, "Work," NIDNTT 3:1147, ergon.
  5. NIDNTT 3:1149. "... of the deeds of humans, exhibiting a consistent moral character, referred to colletively as 'works'" (BDAG 390-391, 1.c.β.).
  6. Siegfried Solle, "Ready, Prepare, Gird," NIDNTT 3:116-118.
  7. O'Brien 175, fn. 91.

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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