2. Salvation Full and Free (Ephesians 2:1-10)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (24:24)
Detail of William Blake (1757-1827), 'Eve tempted by the serpent' (1799-1800), gum and gold on copper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The temptation in the garden is not the story of man versus woman, but the story of Satan blinding humankind with his enticements. Detail of William Blake (1757-1827), 'Eve tempted by the serpent' (1799-1800), gum and gold on copper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Our passage runs in the face of our culture. A generation or two ago, the culture understood the concept of sin. Today, a large portion of our culture rejects absolute truth, and consequently any concept of sin -- at least at an intellectual level. Of course, this don't stop the powerful combination of the conscience and the Holy Spirit to convict the person of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8-11). Consequently, many nonbelievers have a sense of guilt, but no intellectual framework in which to understand it and thus no way to relieve that guilt of sin without explaining it away -- which is ultimately unsatisfactory.

2.1 From Deadness in Sin to Coming Alive in Christ (2:1-7)
2.2 Salvation by Grace through Faith (2:8-10)

2.1 Dead in Transgressions and Sin (Ephesians 2:1)

But it is vital that we Christians understand what is going on. Paul writes:

"1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Paul declares that people without Christ are spiritually "dead" -- dead in transgressions and sins. Our culture doesn't even like to use the word sin. Transgression? Transgression of what?

The word "transgressions" (NIV) or "trespasses" (NRSV, KJV) refers to "a violation of moral standards, offense, wrongdoing, sin."56 The word, of course, assumes a divine law. "Sins"(Greek harmatia} the most commonly used word for sin in the New Testament, literally "a missing of the mark." But the word is not used in the New Testament of trivial, involuntary mistakes, but of serious offences against God, "a departure from either human or divine standards of uprightness."57

Our culture doesn't really believe in any absolute truth, so the idea of transgression or trespass of divine law is foreign to us. But whether or not we understand or believe it, our transgressions and sins against God's holy law have made us dead to God. Spiritually dead. And whether our age understands deadness to God, they do understand and experience emptiness. No wonder our culture is so interested in spirituality and hungry for spiritual fulfillment. Yes, our culture is vulnerable to the promises of the New Age movement -- but it is also potentially open to the power of a vibrant Christian faith!

Q14. (Ephesians 2:1-3) In what sense are our non-believing friends, neighbors, and relatives "dead"? What's the difference between us and them? If we really believed that they were "dead" and subject to God's "wrath," what would we do?

Following Satan (Ephesians 2:2-3)

"... Transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath." (Ephesians 2:2-3)

"The power of the air" (verse 2) is an interesting expression. "Power" (KJV, ESV), "ruler" (NIV, NRSV) is, literally, "authority ... the power exercised by rulers or others in high position by virtue of their office," then "the sphere in which the power is exercised, domain"58 "Air" is a transliteration of Greek aēr. The Greeks saw heaven as the abode of the gods, earth the abode of humans, and the air as the abode of the demons.59 I think this Greek concept is Paul's reference -- to Satan as the prince of demons. Period. Paul didn't have to believe in Greek cosmology to employ it in speech. His readers understood what he meant. Our God is Creator of heaven and earth and everything in between. We need not cede the atmosphere to Satan and his minions; the devil is a usurper of God's creation, not its rightful resident.

In our deadness, we mindlessly follow the value systems of the culture around us --"the ways of this world" (NIV) or "course of this world" (KJV, NRSV, ESV).60 Oh, we don't admit to mindlessly following -- we follow in a very deliberate, individualistic, self-deterministic way -- but we have absorbed the self-centered, relativistic values of our culture, and can't help but express those in our lifestyles.

What is really scary, however, is that in our deadness we end up following Satan, "the ruler61 of the kingdom of the air," who is the great Deceiver. In our deadness we lack discernment. Our lives are filled with the cravings of our sinful nature (verse 3) -- desires, lusts, thoughts, jealousy, envy, strife, selfishness, you name it -- which the Tempter inflames.62 Elsewhere, Paul writes:

"Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey -- whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Romans 6:16)

Our world lives in the myth of neutrality. We are not following, we are leading, we tell ourselves. We make our own decisions, we insist. But we are not spiritually powerful enough to lead in this unseen "heavenly realm." We end up being led, duped, victimized, usually without our even knowing it. Our lack of commitment in itself is a commitment -- a commitment to follow our whims, and the Tempter is a master of subverting selfish whims.

Verse 3 uses the word sarx, "flesh," referring to the "cravings of our sinful nature" (NIV), the "passions of our flesh" (ESV, NRSV), or the "lusts of our flesh" (KJV). The Greek word sarx is used in several senses in the New Testament: (1) literally, of the skin and muscles covering our bones; (2) then the body itself; (3) the human or mortal nature, then mankind, the "world" as it stands opposed to God; and (4) especially in Paul's letters, "sinful, fallen human nature."63

Children of Wrath (Ephesians 2:3b)

"All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath." (Ephesians 2:3)

The wrath of God is another of those counter-cultural concepts. We don't like judgment or judgmentalism in our relativistic society. We have gutted the idea of penal justice to exclude retribution, and are left with a rehabilitative incarceration which fails more often than not, or a society-protective incarceration which produces guilt in us for locking up so many people.

But you can't read the Bible very long until you run smack into the judgment of the righteous God. I hate all that Old Testament judgment and hell-fire and brimstone, you protest. Just give me Jesus and his love.

Have you read Jesus' teachings carefully? He talks more about hell and judgment than anyone else in the New Testament. We can't escape it. There is no dichotomy between the Old and New Testament God. Our God is a God who insists on justice and its consequent judgment. And if we try to live free of God's absolute law we become "objects of wrath" like the rest of mankind.

This passage calls those without God "children" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) or "objects"64 (NIV) of wrath in this case, a common characteristic of being subject to God's wrath. "Wrath" here is a "strong indignation directed at wrongdoing, with focus on retribution, wrath.... of God's future judgment, specifically qualified as punitive."65

Sinners by Nature (Ephesians 2:3)

Moreover, we are this way "by nature." The word refers to a "condition or circumstance as determined by birth, natural endowment or condition, nature, especially as inherited from one's ancestors, in contrast to status or characteristics that are acquired after birth."66

So we are being punished for something that is not our fault? you might ask. No, we are being rescued from something that has overpowered our race and victimized us, and from which we cannot escape without assistance, without a Savior. This is Augustine's concept of "original sin" found right here in the Scriptures. But the idea of "original sin" does not mean that we personally don't sin. We do -- and are responsible for the sins we commit. And because of our sins, we are subject to God's wrath and judgment.

Does God blame us for something we have no control over? No. We do have at least some control over our actions, or "free will" has no meaning whatsoever. But we are weak and break God's holy standards of conduct and righteousness.

In a court of law, is a person pronounced "not guilty" because he was ignorant of the law? No. If he was intoxicated and couldn't control his actions? No. Because he claimed he was raised in a difficult environment and shouldn't be blamed? No. Is God fair? Yes, eminently fair. When justice is fair, we lose because we sin -- willfully at times -- against God's holy law. What we need is not justice or fairness. What we need is mercy and grace. That's all we have left to hang onto.

Verse 4 repeats the judgment of verse 1: " dead in transgressions."67 Our sins have produced a spiritual deadness and dullness in us.

We don't like talking about judgment against sin, do we? So why spend time talking about it? Because it gives us a needed corrective to our culture's willful blindness and sense that we can live independent of God's mercy. And it enables us to really appreciate the gracious gift of God which Paul goes on to explain in the remainder of our passage.

Q15. (Ephesians 2:1-3) Few people would knowingly follow Satan. How can people unwittingly follow Satan? In what sense are we responsible for unwitting rebellion against God? How can God, in all fairness, blame us?

Grace and Mercy (Ephesians 2:4-5)

We've considered the bad news in some detail. But that prepares us for the very good news that follows.

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:4-5)

In the previous sentence, Paul was talking about sin and judgment. Look at these contrasting words:

  • "God, who is rich in mercy."
  • "God ... who made us alive with Christ."
  • "It is by grace you have been saved."

In the Ephesians 2:8-9 we'll examine God's grace in detail. But here let's get acquainted with some of the words and their meanings:

"Mercy" refers to "kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, compassion, mercy, pity, clemency."68

"Grace" means literally "favor ... a beneficent disposition toward someone, grace, gracious help, good will."69 It describes one's attitude toward another which is unilateral, that is, one-sided, not depending upon what another does. "Grace" is not about merit or deserving, but about an unexplained love and generosity and giving on the part of the giver . Perhaps the best short definition of "grace" is "unmerited favor."

God has given us freely what we absolutely do not deserve. But notice, that this is not a new revelation of God. It amplifies the ancient revelation to Moses:

"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin...." (Exodus 34:6-7)

Nor is this an isolated quotation, but is repeated again and again and again throughout the so-called "judgmental" Old Testament: Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nahum 1:3.

Our rich-in-mercy God has come through for his people once again. This time, where we have no basis at all of deserving mercy, he has taken the judgment we deserved upon himself in order to spare us. While we were dead, he made us alive, an echo from Romans:

"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)

The apostle Peter reinforces this truth:

"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18a)

Coming back to our passage, Paul sums it up in the latter part of verse 5:

"It is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:5b)

Think once more about grace. It is favor which resides in heart of the grace-giver, not in a reaction to the action or non-action of the recipient. It is unilateral, one-sided favor which isn't dependent upon our deeds. It is "while-we-were-yet-sinners" favor. There's no other explanation for it. God's favor in Jesus Christ is neither earned or deserved. It just is.

Q16. (Ephesians 1:4-5) In verses 4 and 5, which words describe God's motivation and character? Which verbs describe what has happened to us in Christ?

Seated with Christ in Heavenly Realms (Ephesians 2:6)

"And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus...." (Ephesians 2:6)

Here's a bit of Greek for those of you who are interested. The Greek language is full of compound words. We see three such words in verses 4 through 6, each containing as a prefix the preposition syn- which is a "marker of accompaniment and association,"70 "together with" or "along with."

  • Syzoōpoieō, "make alive together with someone"71 (Ephesians 2:4; also Colossians 2:13).
  • Synegeirō, "cause someone to awaken or to rise up with another"72 (Ephesians 2:4; also at Colossians 2:12; 3:1)
  • Sygkathizō, "cause to sit down with someone"73 (Ephesians 2:6).

These words assume our union with Christ so that his action is our action, since we are in him.

God's grace is more than forgiveness of the past, it is the equipping to live now -- in the present time -- with new power, power to transform our lives and the lives of those around us.

"And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus ..." (Ephesians 2:6)

You'll notice in Ephesians 1:20-22, Jesus is exalted to the right hand of the Father "in the heavenly realms," far above all demonic and human authorities and powers, with everything "under his feet." So, if we are seated "with him in the heavenly realms," then we are elevated above the demonic and human authorities in this spiritual sense. Instead of being constantly victimized by the enemy, we can exercise spiritual authority over the enemy and make him the victim of Christ's victory again and again -- that is, when we learn our place of authority, and understand how to exercise it.

Surely, this is what this passage is intended to mean!

But the typical Christian is blind to his place of authority and power in the heavenly realms, oblivious to promises of answered prayer, with the "eyes of his heart" blinded and blinder-ed. That is why in Ephesians 1:18-19 Paul prays for the Ephesians to receive revelation concerning their true hope, their true inheritance, their true power. We can't see these blessings with clarity except by revelation from God. But, thankfully, God desires to reveal them to us.

Q17. (Ephesians 2:6) What does it mean that we are seated with Christ in "the heavenly realms"? What does this say about God's grace? What does this say about our spiritual authority? How should this knowledge affect our prayers and our boldness?

Ages of Grace (Ephesians 2:7)

Paul's soliloquy closes with God's great plan for us for "the coming ages":

"... in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:7)

God's love isn't just to "get us saved," but to continue to shower us with his love and blessings forever and ever, world without end. Amen.

We started the Ephesians 2 with bad news of man's blind following of the spirit of the age -- and of Satan himself -- into spiritually-deadly "transgressions and sins" and "wrath." Not a pretty picture. But without hardly drawing a breath, Paul continues to contrast our fallen human state with our exalted grace-filled state of forgiveness and rescue, of spiritual power and authority, of long heaven-summer-days of basking in our Father's wonderful riches for us. I can't think of much better news than that!


Father, we thank you for your incredible, undeserved love and forgiveness. What a gift to us! All we can say is "thank you." All we can do is kneel in surrender and rise to serve you. We love you. In Jesus' awesome name, "God saves," we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:4-5)

"And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:6)

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

Audio (29:15)

Detail from Rembrandt van Rijn (Ephesians 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.
The best example of utter grace in the Bible is Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. Detail from Rembrandt van Rijn (Ephesians 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.

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

The Need for a Rescue Operation (Ephesians 2:1-3)

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

First, let's look at salvation, "saved." 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 Ephesians 2:1-4. Let me review it briefly for you.

  1. Spiritual deadness (Ephesians 2:1) is caused by transgressions and sin.
  2. Followers of our corrupt culture, followers of "the ways of this world" (Ephesians 2:2a).
  3. Followers of Satan, "the ruler of the kingdom of the air" (Ephesians 2:2b) as dupes, unknowing adherents to a pride and attitude toward God that has its origins in the rebellious Snake himself (Genesis 3:1-7).
  4. Self-indulgent, "gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts" (Ephesians 2:3a).
  5. Under Divine judgment and righteous anger (Ephesians 2:3b). God is just. He 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..

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 (Ephesians 2:4-6)

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

  1. His great love for us (Ephesians 2:4a).
  2. His richness of mercy (Ephesians 2:4b).
  3. A miracle of new birth ("alive together with Christ") in the place of our terminal spiritual deadness, "dead in transgressions" (Ephesians 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 (Ephesians 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 (Ephesians 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...." (Ephesians 2:8a)

The word "grace" that we discussed in Ephesians 2:5, was not at first a theological word. Greek charis means simply "favor."74 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 never 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 love someone, we want to send flowers, shower upon our beloved 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 the giver's own terms and not the recipients. Grace and gift-giving go hand in hand, undeserved, given out of love and favor.

Q18. (Ephesians 2:8-9) 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.

"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."75 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.

Q19. (Ephesians 2:8-9) "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?

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 (Ephesians 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." (Ephesians 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, 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 were a "hedge" around the law, the Torah. Keep the petty rules, they reasoned, and you are prevented from breaking the actual law. That was Pharisaism, prompted by a desire to obey God.

But eventually 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 into 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 with the selfish intent 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 believing 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. Full stop. 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."76

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," says James (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 of grace. 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) referred in classical Greek to "a deed, an action, by contrast either with inactivity or a mere word."77 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."78

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 descendants 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 with James in the least. Paul, however, is clarifying grace-based salvation in the face of the 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 (Ephesians 2:10)

Paul says it a different way in verse 10 of 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." (Ephesians 2:10)

Faith-energized works are our destiny!

The word translated "prepared in advance" (NIV), "prepared beforehand" (ESV, NRSV), "before ordained" (KJV) in verse 10 means "to get ready, hold in readiness."79

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 fulfill our destiny here on earth (and, who knows, maybe in the Kingdom beyond, also).

Q20. (Ephesians 2:10) 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?

This Not of Yourselves

"8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 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 references to what John Wesley called "prevenient grace," grace which comes before, grace which precedes the actual event of our salvation.

For example, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," exclaims Peter. "This wasn't revealed to you by man," Jesus retorts, "but by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17). Peter's faith-insight into Jesus' true nature is a God-given revelation, not from himself so that Peter could boast. Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (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.80

Q21. (Ephesians 2:8-9) 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.

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.


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.


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)


Section 2.1

[56] Paraptōma, BDAG 770.

[57] Harmatia, BDAG 50-51.

[58] Exousia, BDAG 352-353, meanings 4 and 6.

[59] Aēr, BDAG 23, 2b.

[60] Aiōn, "age," then "the world as a spatial concert," then perhaps Aeon as a person (BDAG 32-33). But here it probably carries the idea of "world-age" (O'Brien 158-159).

[61] Archōn, "ruler, lord, prince," here a transcendent figures such as evil spirits, the devil" (BDAG 140).

[62] Epithymia, "desire, longing, craving," especially "a desire for something forbidden or simply inordinate, craving, lust" (BDAG 372, 2).

[63] Sarx, BDAG 914-916.

[64] Teknon, here expresses a Hebrew idiom that refers to "a class of persons with a specific characteristic," BDAG 994-995.

[65] Orgē, BDAG 720-721.

[66] Physis, BDAG 1069-1070. We get our word "physical" from Greek physis.

[67] Paraptōma uses an imagery of making a false step so as to lose footing, "a violation of moral standards, offense, wrongdoing, sin" (BDAG 770, bγ).

[68] Eleos, BDAG 316.

[69] Charis, BDAG 1079-1081.

[70] Syn, BDAG 961-963.

[71] Syzoōpoieō, BDAG 954-955, from syn + zoō, "alive" + poieō, "make."

[72] Synegeirō, BGAD 967, syn + egeriō, "awaken, lift up."

[73] Sygkathizō, BDAG 951, syn + kathizō, "sit."

Section 2.2

[74] Charis, "a beneficent 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, 2a).

[75] 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).

[76] Otto Michel, "Faith," NIDNTT 1:594.

[77] Hans-Christoph Hahn, "Work," NIDNTT 3:1147, ergon.

[78] NIDNTT 3:1149. "... of the deeds of humans, exhibiting a consistent moral character, referred to collectively as 'works'" (BDAG 390-391, 1cβ).

[79] The Greek verb prohetoimazo, pro-, "before" + hetoimazō,, Siegfried Solle, "Ready, Prepare, Gird," NIDNTT 3:116-118.

[80] O'Brien 175, fn. 91.

Copyright © 2024, 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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