When you’ve been raised to believe something so fundamentally that it forms the basis of your spirituality, it can be quite difficult and disorienting to learn that your belief isn’t supported by the Scriptures or by the facts.
This is especially the case with Protestants who have had the doctrine of salvation by faith alone taught to them since they were children in Sunday School, and preached to them every week from the pulpit at church.
But the fact of the matter is that the doctrine of salvation, or justification, by faith alone simply isn’t taught in the Bible. It originated 1,500 years after the last books of the Bible were written, at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Specifically, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was first formulated and promulgated by Martin Luther (1483–1546) as part of his doctrinal and ecclesiastical break from the Roman Catholic Church.
Yes, Luther had good reason to reject many of the faulty doctrines and corrupt practices of the Catholic Church in which he had been an ordained priest. But when he set up justification by faith alone as the centerpiece of his new branch of Christianity, he jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire doctrinally.
Ever since then, salvation by faith alone has been ardently preached and taught in Protestant churches around the world. And because Protestants hear it preached and taught so often and so forcefully as God’s own unvarnished truth straight from the Bible, whenever they read the Bible, everything in it screams “faith alone” to their minds.
And yet, there is not a single verse in the Bible that says that we are justified, or saved, by faith alone. In fact, the Bible specifically and clearly denies it!
This is very hard—even impossible—for the vast bulk of Protestants to accept. No matter how clearly this fact is pointed out to them, they still continue to maintain that that’s what the Bible really means, even if it doesn’t say it in so many words, and that we really are justified by faith alone, just as Martin Luther taught. It is so deeply ingrained in their minds by continuous teaching and preaching over many years that most Protestants simply cannot see that the key doctrine on which their spiritual life is founded is not supported by the Scriptures or by the facts.
And that is a pity. Because what the Bible actually does teach is far greater and more beautiful than the doctrine of justification by faith alone that Martin Luther set up as the distinguishing feature and foundation stone of Protestantism.
One of the Bible passages most commonly quoted by Protestants as saying that we are saved by faith alone is Ephesians 2:8–9. In fact, the comments and questions on this blog about that passage have now officially reached critical mass! Here is the most recent one, from a reader named Daniel:
How do you explain Ephesians 2:8? I think it’s by faith alone, but not the way the common evangelical think. When you have faith in the teaching of Jesus, denying yourself, etc… there’s a change that gives good fruits. And it’s not us who make that change, but I was curious about your thoughts on that part.
“8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
I have commented on this passage a number of times in previous posts and comments. But that commentary is scattered here and there, and not easy to find. And since this seems to be the trending All-Star Bible passage quoted by Protestants to support faith alone, it deserves its own post. From now on, when people quote it I can just say, “Read the article!”
Here’s the executive summary:
- Ephesians 2:8 doesn’t say anything about faith alone.
- Ephesians 2:8 doesn’t even say we are saved by faith.
- Ephesians 2:8 says instead that we are saved by God’s grace, or love.
- Ephesians 2:9 does not mean that good works aren’t required.
- Ephesians 2:11–13 makes it clear that “works” also means “Jewish ritual works.”
- The rest of Ephesians is all about doing good works instead of evil works.
Now let’s look at each of these points in more detail.
But first, we should acknowledge that Paul’s authorship of Ephesians is disputed by scholars. We don’t need to get into the reasons here. Even if the Epistle wasn’t written by Paul, the author clearly drew on Paul’s thought. The Epistle is also attributed to Paul in two places: the opening verse, Ephesians 1:1, and Ephesians 3:1.
For the purposes of this article we won’t get tangled up in debates about whether or not Paul wrote Ephesians. It’s not a critical issue. The letter can stand on its own, regardless of who wrote it. And Paul could have written it. However, it is good to keep in mind that Paul may not have been the author of this letter.
Ephesians 2:8 doesn’t say anything about faith alone
This point is really quite simple.
Ephesians 2:8 simply doesn’t say “faith alone.” Paul could have said “faith alone.” But he didn’t.
In fact, there is only one passage in the entire Bible that mentions faith alone. And in that one passage, it is specifically rejected:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
The wording in Ephesians 2:8 is: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
Not “through faith alone,” but “through faith.” (On the real, biblical meaning of “faith,” and the difference between “faith” and “faith alone,” see: “Faith Alone Is Not Faith.”)
Nowhere in Ephesians, or in any of Paul’s other letters, does it ever say that we are saved, or justified, by faith alone.
Nowhere does the Bible ever say that we are saved, or justified, by faith alone.
It could have. We know this because James said that we are not justified by faith alone. So it’s not as though the writers of the New Testament didn’t have the vocabulary to say, “A person is justified by faith alone.”
The simple fact of the matter is that the New Testament never says this. And the Old Testament certainly doesn’t.
If the doctrine of justification, or salvation, by faith alone were so central to Christian belief the Bible would have said it plainly. The beauty of the Bible is its clarity about what it takes to be saved.
Ephesians 2:8 doesn’t even say we are saved by faith
But wait! There’s more!
Ephesians 2:8 doesn’t even say we are saved by faith!
Once again, the exact wording is:
For by grace you have been saved through faith.
Not “by faith.” “Through faith.”
This may seem like a minor distinction. But it is important to pay attention to exactly what the verse says. Otherwise we can easily misinterpret it to mean something that it does not, in fact, say.
It is true that there are other places in the New Testament that say we are saved, or justified, by faith. But not in Ephesians. In three places (2:8; 3:12; 3:17), Ephesians speaks of what happens through faith. It never says anything happens by faith. Instead, it speaks in two places (2:5; 2:8) of what happens by grace. This is not by accident. The author was speaking carefully to make a definite point. (And this subtle difference in wording is one of the reasons I suspect Ephesians was not written by Paul.)
Protestant doctrine says that we are justified by faith alone. But Ephesians 2:8 says that we are saved through faith. In other words, it says that God saves us by means of our faith. God uses our faith as a tool to accomplish God’s work of salvation in us.
To use a biblical metaphor, faith is the gate in us through which God passes to do the work of saving us. When we open ourselves to God’s saving presence by opening the gate of faith in our mind, this gives God access to our heart, mind, and spirit.
Saying that we are “saved by faith alone” is like saying that opening the gate is all that saves us.
But as we will see in the next point, it is God’s grace that saves us. Our faith is simply a conduit by which God enters into our life to do that saving work in us.
That’s why Ephesians does not say that we are saved by faith, but that we are saved through faith.
Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by God’s grace, or love
As I just pointed out, Ephesians 2:8 does not say we are saved by faith. It says we are saved by grace. (And incidentally, the Bible never uses the words “grace alone.” I don’t know why Protestants feel the need to add “alone” to everything!)
Here is a little more of the context:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:4–8)
The overall message here is that it is God’s love and kindness that saves us. That is the meaning of the Greek word χάρις (charis), commonly translated “grace.” The key definition of that Greek word is “good will, loving-kindness, favor.”
The clear message of the opening chapters of the Letter to the Ephesians is that saving us is a pure act of love and mercy on God’s part. We don’t do anything to deserve it. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) Even when we are terrible sinners, the letter says, God loves us and wants to save us out of that love for us.
Everything God does to save us is an act of pure divine love.
The New Testament uses the word “grace”—or “good will, loving-kindness, favor”—to emphasize that this is not some sort of forced or obligatory love on God’s part.
There is nothing contractual or legalistic about God’s saving us.
- It is not something God does in return for something we do. It is not some sort of deal-making, “If you love me, I’ll love you back,” or, “If you do x number of good works, I’ll reward you with eternal life.”
- It is not something God does because God is obliged to do it by some sort of divine law. And it certainly is not a matter of our satisfying some humanly impossible legal requirements of God’s justice—or of Christ satisfying them in our place because we’re incapable of doing so.
Such ideas, common in traditional Christianity, are totally absent from the Letter to the Ephesians. Its whole message is that God saves us out of pure, infinite, tender, compassionate love for us no matter what sort of person we are, and no matter how little we deserve that love.
Consider this word scoreboard for Ephesians 2:1–10:
Love, mercy, kindness, grace: 7
What, I ask you, is the main message of this famous passage from Ephesians? Is it really all about faith, and faith alone?
No, the clear, overarching message that the author wants to convey to us is a sense of the vast, overflowing lovingkindness of God that passionately desires to save us regardless of who we are as a person and regardless of whether we have done anything at all to deserve it.
The clear, beautiful message of Ephesians 2:8 is that we are saved by God’s love as a pure gift to us, undeserving as we are.
Ephesians 2:9 does not mean that good works aren’t required
Protestants love to say that we are not saved by works. And they’re right about that!
The problem is, Protestants also love to say that we are saved by faith. And they’re wrong about that!
- We are not saved by faith.
- We are not saved by works.
- We are saved by God’s love.
That is the message of Ephesians 2:1–10.
Does this mean that good works aren’t required for salvation?
No, it doesn’t. And we should be tipped off to this by the final statement in this section of the letter. Right after saying:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
The letter goes on to say:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10, italics added)
Clearly good works are required, because according to Ephesians 2:10, that’s what we’re created for.
“Good works are the fruits of faith”?
Now, I know what you’re thinking (if you’re a Protestant): “Good works are the fruits of faith!”
In other words, our good works flow from our faith. Good works are a result of faith. They don’t save us; faith does that. And once we are saved by faith, good works flow from our faith.
But I’ve searched the Bible high and low, and so far I have not been able to find a single place where it actually says anything like this. Search for yourself. If you can find any passage anywhere in the Bible that says that good works are the fruits of faith, please do let me know.
I am aware that there are various Bible passages that Protestants interpret as meaning that good works are the fruits of faith. But so far I can’t find a single passage in the Bible that actually says it.
The reasoning behind this idea is circular: since we are saved by faith alone (Protestants say), and people who are saved do good works, this means that the good works flow from faith alone.
But as pointed out above, the Bible never actually says that we are saved by faith alone. In fact, it specifically denies it. So this whole chain of reasoning falls apart. If the Bible writers had wanted to say that good works are the fruits of faith, they certainly could have done so. They had the vocabulary to say it. But they never actually did.
Why, then, do Protestants insist that “good works are the fruits of faith?” The Bible simply doesn’t say this. It’s just a “Christian” slogan that sounds sort of biblical, but actually isn’t biblical at all.
Good works are the fruits of God working in and through us
The Bible does tell where our good works flow from, and it’s not faith. Jesus says:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1–5)
The good works that Christians do are not the fruits of faith. They are the fruits of Jesus Christ abiding in us and flowing through us. Our good works aren’t even ours. They are Jesus Christ’s in us. That’s why we can’t take any credit for them. That’s why feverishly “doing good works” won’t save us, any more than having faith by itself (“alone”) will save us.
It is the love of God, expressed in Jesus Christ, abiding with us and dwelling within us that saves us. And it is from that same love and presence of God in us that we engage in all the good works we do that are truly good. This happens when we open the door of faith through which Jesus Christ can enter into our soul and into our life.
Good works are not the fruits of faith. Faith is a conduit or gate through which good works flow from God’s love dwelling within us, and out through our hands.
We cannot save ourselves by doing good works
Now we’re prepared to understand the meaning of the rest of Ephesians 2:8–9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (italics added)
As with the first part, let’s read these words very carefully. First, it says:
“This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
As Jesus said in John 15:1–5, we could do nothing at all if it weren’t for his divine presence within us. “I am the vine,” he said, “you are the branches. . . . Apart from me you can do nothing.”
The idea that we can save ourselves by doing lots of good works shows a complete misunderstanding of what’s really going on here. The fact of the matter is that we can’t do any good works by ourselves. Rather, we do good works from God.
Remember, God created us. In fact, God is continually creating us and holding us in existence every moment. If God’s divine presence and power were withdrawn from us even for a second, we would instantly vanish. And without the power of God’s love sustaining us and giving us life moment by moment, we could do nothing at all. As Psalm 104 says poetically:
When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. (Psalm 104:29)
And as John the Baptist said:
No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. (John 3:27)
People who think that we can save ourselves by doing lots of good works, without accepting God’s presence into our heart, mind, and life, are mistaken. This is the message of Ephesians 2:8 when it says, “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (But about atheists, please see: “Do Atheists Go to Heaven?”)
Verse 9 then goes on to say:
“Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And one more time, let’s read this very carefully.
It doesn’t say, “Works are not necessary for salvation.” It says that salvation is not the result of works. And that only makes sense. Verse 8 has just told us that we are saved by grace, meaning by God’s love. So our salvation is not the result of works; it is the result of God’s love working within us.
The point that the letter is making here is that none of us can take any credit at all for our salvation. Our salvation is 100% God’s doing.
If we say, “I’ve done a good deed every day of my life! I deserve heaven because I’m such a good person!” we have completely missed the point. Instead of feeling the love of God working in us and saving us, we take pride in the idea that we ourselves have brought about our own salvation by being such a fantastically good person. Instead of being filled with God’s love, we are filled with a sense of pride and self-importance. And that means we are actually very far from God and salvation.
Jesus told a story to illustrate this:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
This is the sort of thing the writer of Ephesians was talking about when he said, “Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Our good works don’t buy us salvation. When we do good works, we have nothing to boast about. We’re just doing what God created us to do. And the only reason we can do good works is that God is giving us life and the power to do them.
Here is another story in which Jesus tells us that we don’t deserve anything when we do good works:
Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” (Luke 17:7–10)
That’s why the Letter to the Ephesians goes on to say in the very next verse:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)
When we do good works, we are simply doing what God created us to do. Can we really take credit and boast simply because we are functioning properly, as God created us to function? Especially when our very ability to do good works is given to us by God every moment, along with our life?
If we get into an automobile, turn the key, put it into gear, press on the accelerator, and the car starts moving down the road, do we yell, “Wow! This car is driving down the road!!!”
No. The car is just doing what it was designed and built to do. Sure, it’s a marvel of modern engineering. But when we get into a car, we simply expect it to carry us down the road. That’s what it’s made for. If a car doesn’t carry us down the road, what good is it? It’s good only for the junkyard or the crusher.
We were made by God to do good works. We can’t take any credit for that. It’s simply what we were designed and created to do. If we don’t do good works, we are defective or broken human beings.
So let’s grant to the Protestants that good works don’t save us. As Ephesians says, salvation is not the result of works.
But if we don’t do good works, we have cut ourselves off from the vine of God’s presence and love working through us. We are then good only to be gathered up and thrown into the metaphorical “fire” of spiritual death, as Jesus goes on to say in John 15:
Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:6)
Can we be saved without good works?
Not on your life!
Good works of love and kindness toward our fellow human beings are the very presence of God’s saving love working in and through us. Without them, “salvation” is a meaningless word. That’s why James said:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24, italics added)
“Justified” means “made righteous.” And that’s what salvation is all about: changing us from being evil, selfish, and greedy people into good, loving, kind, and righteous people.
This can happen only when we do the good works that God has created us to do. And it can happen only when, through faith, we accept God’s presence and God’s love into our heart, mind, and life. For Christians, this means accepting Jesus Christ into our heart, mind, and life.
Ephesians 2:11–13 makes it clear that “works” also means “Jewish ritual works”
One of the reasons Protestants get so confused by the Pauline Epistles is that Paul uses the word “works” in several different senses, depending on the context. These are the three primary ways he uses the word “works”:
- “The works of the Law,” meaning observing the ritual laws that Jews were (and still are) required to follow as part of their religion
- Works done “for boasting,” meaning good works done in order to deserve or “merit” salvation
- Good works of kindness and service done out of love for God and love for our neighbor
It is not at all surprising that Paul uses the word “works” with different meanings in different contexts. That’s just how language works. For example, if I say the word “pool,” you can’t be sure what I mean unless I add at least one more word to it. I could mean “a swimming pool,” or “the game of pool” or “a betting pool.” In the very same way, when we read the word “works” in the Pauline Epistles, we must pay attention to the context in order to figure out which way he is using it.
When Paul uses the word “works” by itself, as he does in Ephesians 2:9, it’s not always crystal clear which meaning he intends. That’s why it is important to read each passage in its wider context, and pay attention to the overall message of the entire Epistle as well. If he uses “works” as shorthand for “the works of the Law,” but we read it as meaning “good works,” we’re going completely misinterpret what he’s saying.
In practice, definitions 1 and 2, “the works of the Law” and “works done for boasting,” often overlap. This is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in which the Pharisee used his public “prayer” to brag about how good he was because he scrupulously kept the Jewish ritual law, unlike the despised tax collector.
In New Testament times, Jews who meticulously observed every detail of the ritual Law of Moses commonly considered themselves to be especially good and righteous people. They considered themselves to be much more deserving of God’s love and salvation than those who weren’t so “righteous” in their observance of the finer points of the Law.
When Paul says in Ephesians 2:9, “not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” this is the sort of “works” he has in mind: “works of the Law,” meaning observing the ritual law of Moses, done in order to “boast,” or to consider ourselves especially good and deserving of salvation.
How do we know this? By paying attention to what he says in the very next section of the letter.
“Circumcision” in Ephesians 2:11
The verses that follow after Ephesians 2:8–10 tell us that in verse 9, in addition to “works done for boasting,” Paul is also speaking of “the works of the Law”:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11–13)
Here, immediately after the oft-quoted words about being saved by grace through faith, and not as a result of works, the writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians brings in a key theme that runs throughout Paul’s letters: that neither “circumcision” nor “uncircumcision” matters for Christians.
Circumcision was commanded by God in the Hebrew Scriptures as a ritual act that was to be carried out on every Israelite or Jewish male. Any male who did not get circumcised was to be cut off from his people because he had rejected the covenant between God and his people (see Genesis 17:9–14; Leviticus 12:3).
As such, “circumcision” came to be used as a shorthand term to refer to observant Jews committing themselves to keeping the Law of Moses contained in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In particular, they committed themselves to observing all of the Jewish ritual laws of sacrifice, purification, required religious festivals, and so on.
Today, Jews can no longer observe the laws of sacrifice because there is no Temple in Jerusalem—and that is the only place allowable for them to offer sacrifices to God. But they are still required to observe all of the written and oral ritual laws that do not require the Temple.
Must Christians also be observant Jews?
This requirement that Jews must be circumcised and observe the ritual law of Moses set the stage for the first major division and debate within the early Christian movement.
Jesus’ original twelve disciples were all Jews—though they were mostly rough, working-class Jews from the northern Galilean province, not high-status, educated Jews from Judea and Jerusalem in the south. Still, since they were Jews by birth, they naturally observed Jewish ritual law as they were raised and trained to do. These were the people who became the initial twelve Apostles who went out to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the wider world.
However, as it turned out, the most receptive audience for that good news was not the Jewish people in the Holy Land, but the pagan polytheists in the wider world—whom the Jews called “Gentiles.” These people, of course, had not been circumcised, nor had they been brought up and trained to observe Jewish ritual laws.
This led to a debate among the Christian leaders in Jerusalem and the various Apostles who were doing missionary work in the surrounding lands. Should Gentile converts be required to be circumcised and to keep the Jewish ritual law? Some of the early Jewish-born Christian leaders said yes. Others said no.
You can read all about it in Acts 15:1–35, in which a gathering later named “the Council at Jerusalem” is reported.
Paul was not one of the Jesus’ original twelve Apostles. He was a southern Jew, from the tribe of Benjamin, and a Pharisee (see Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:4–6), meaning he was a scrupulously observant and rather proud Jew. But when he converted to Christianity after Jesus’ death, he came to believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the salvation it brought to humanity, superseded all of the ritual laws of Moses. And with that conviction, he became “an apostle to the Gentiles” (see Romans 11:13).
Pragmatically speaking, he also recognized that requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised and to observe the Jewish ritual law would place a heavy and unnecessary burden on them, and hinder the ability of the Apostles who were now preaching in Gentile lands, including Peter and Barnabas, to make converts among the Gentiles.
After some debate, the gathering of Christian leaders in Jerusalem came to the conclusion that it was not necessary for Gentile converts to be circumcised and observe the Jewish ritual law, except that they still required converts to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29).
Let us not forget our history
Christians today are so used to the idea that it’s not necessary for Christians to keep the Jewish law that it seems obvious. But for those early Christians in the first century, it was a big issue and a major debate!
Paul argued vigorously and vociferously, both in his letters and in person, that people who have faith in Jesus Christ and become Christ’s followers do not have to be observant Jews.
He won the argument—and the rest, as they say, is history.
If we don’t know this history, and aren’t aware of the heated debate in which Paul was engaged with some of his fellow first-century Christian leaders, we will completely miss the point of much of what he wrote in his letters.
Paul was not saying that we don’t have to do good works to be saved. Rather, he was saying that we don’t have to do “the works of the Law”—meaning we don’t have to observe and practice the ritual Law of Moses that is required of Jews—to be saved.
In the letter to the Ephesians this meaning of “works” is shown by the fact that the well-known statements in Ephesians 2:8–9 are immediately followed by Paul’s signature argument that for those who have Christ, neither “circumcision” nor “uncircumcision” matters. Jews and Gentiles, he says, are all equal in Christ.
And so Paul sought to bring together both Jew and Gentile in a unity of faith and spirit in Jesus Christ, as you can read in Ephesians 2:11–3:21.
The real meaning of Ephesians 2:8–10
For Christians today who are struggling to understand the message of the Epistle to the Ephesians, I hope the above commentary offers new light and a new understanding of the real meaning of Ephesians 2:8–10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
When verse 9 says that our salvation is “not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” it is saying it is not necessary to be an observant Jew, proud and boastful of scrupulously observing the Law of Moses, in order to be saved. More broadly, it is saying that we can’t buy our own way into heaven by piling up lots of “good works” that we can point to, and brag about how good we are.
It is not saying that good works aren’t required for salvation.
The “works” that we are required to do for the sake of our salvation are the ones mentioned in verse 10. They are the good works that flow from the love of God working in and through us, and giving us the ability to love one another just as Jesus has loved us (see John 13:34–35).
And for Christians, all of this becomes possible through faith in Jesus Christ. That faith does not itself save us. Rather, it opens our hearts and minds to the saving presence of the grace and lovingkindness of God, who comes to us as Jesus Christ, dwells within us, and makes us into new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The rest of Ephesians is all about doing good works instead of evil works
Now if, after reading all of that, you still think that Ephesians is all about faith, I invite you to read the rest of the book of Ephesians, chapters 4–6.
In these chapters, the writer of Ephesians—whether it was Paul himself or someone else writing in the spirit of Paul’s teachings—exhorts his readers to embrace a sense of unity in Christ, and to repent of all their evil actions and do good works instead. In fact, he gets quite specific and pragmatic on various aspects of Christian life and behavior.
If all that’s required for salvation is faith, why does this letter, not to mention the other letters written by or attributed to Paul, spend so much time exhorting its readers and hearers to repent of their evil ways and do good works instead?
Once again, neither Paul nor anyone else in the New Testament ever stated, or preached, or even implied that we are saved by faith alone.
Paul and the other writers of the New Testament everywhere say that if we wish to be saved, we must not only have faith in Jesus but also follow Jesus’ commandments of loving God above all, and loving our neighbor as ourselves by doing good deeds of love and kindness for them.
That’s why Paul said, in his most famous letter:
Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:4–11) italics added)
Paul never says that we are justified or saved by faith alone. Not in Ephesians. Not anywhere else in his writings.
But Paul does say that those who do good, whether Jew or Greek (pagan polytheist) will receive eternal life, while those who do evil will experience wrath and fury.
The Bible simply does not teach salvation by faith alone. And the sooner Protestants recognize this, the sooner they will be able to read Ephesians, and the rest of the Bible, with a genuine understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ.
For further reading: