When any good Protestant is confronted by the Catholic doctrine of salvation by grace through faith and works, one of the first questions will inevitably be… but what about Ephesians 2??
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)
It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of Ephesians 2 for sola fide. It’s the Protestant go-to verse, just like James 2 is the Catholic go-to verse for “faith and works.” (Ok, seriously Catholics, we have a Latin word for EVERYTHING but not for this? Where is the convenient Latin tag? What’s the point of being Roman Catholic if the Protestants get all the fun Latin?? Just. Cruel.
Anyway… James 2 says:
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone… For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:14-17, 24, 26)
Both Catholics and Protestants think that “their” verse is pretty damn obvious and you have to be an idiot not to see it. The other verse, however, has to carefully considered in its context and lexical complexity and even then… well, sometimes things just aren’t that important.
I think both Catholics and Protestants have a tendency to do this. The result is that when we discuss sola fide, it can often descend into a Punch and Judy show. You bash me with Ephesians 2, I bash you back you with James 2, and back and forth it goes… a bit like the tennis actually.
Having been a Protestant and now a Catholic, I can assure you that I’ve been on both sides of the bashing. And the unfortunate fact is that neither of these verses is as simple as its champions think it is. Both can be explained simply… or simply explained away; and honestly, this depends more on our prior beliefs than the merits of the actual arguments in question. Yes, it’s a shame but it’s also the truth.
All of which is to say, I don’t think the key to resolving the faith and/or works dilemma is in either of these passages.
But neither do I think that Ephesians 2:8-9 can be used to disprove Catholicism, or indeed to prove Protestantism – because it just doesn’t deal with the sorts of questions we’re asking.
The context of these verses is that Paul has been praying for the Ephesian Christians, that (among other things) they would know the “immeasurable greatness” of God’s resurrection power (1:19) in raising Christ (1:20) and exalting Him over everything “for the church” (v. 21-22) Paul then turns to the Ephesians, saying “And you were dead in (or through) the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” In this, Paul says, you followed the the world, the devil and the flesh (vv. 2-3) But then comes the great “but”:
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 made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:4-7)
We see that what God has done for Christ, He has also done for us. We have been made alive with (synezōopoiēsen), raised up with (synēgeiren) and seated with (synekathisen) Christ. God did this because He is rich in mercy – and loves us with a great love – and so He can show “the immeasurable riches of his grace.”
And now comes our vv. 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 because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (vv. 8-10)
The important thing to note, for this discussion at least, is that Paul is contrasting grace and works, not faith and works.
This being made alive with Christ, he says, is “by grace” and “it is the gift of God” (v. 8) He emphasises that this is not your own doing (ouk ex hymōn) and not because of works (ouk ex ergōn). Clearly, Paul equates the two. What is “of works” is “of ourselves” and thus, not grace. Or as he says in Romans, “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom 11:6)
Why is it so important that it is not from ourselves or our works? Paul says it is “lest any man should boast” (v. 8). This is exactly the opposite of God showing the “riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7), which is why God saved us in the first place. Paul then, is clearly characterising “works” as that which we do apart from the grace of God that could be a source of boasting before God.
But Paul says no, we are saved by grace. In fact, we are his work, his workmanship, the thing He has made. But why did God “create us in Christ”? For good works so that we would walk in them. Here, Paul specifies that these are good works (ergois agathois), to distinguish them from the works we do apart from grace. We could call the latter self-works and the former, grace-works. And Paul completely expects us to do grace-works – to the glory of God.
At this point, the Protestant is probably thinking that sola fide has been proven. See, we’re not saved by works – otherwise, it wouldn’t be grace! And the Catholic definitely thinks it hasn’t. What, we don’t believe we’re not saved by grace – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t saved through faith and works!
So what’s going on?
Well first up, the Protestant is talking about what I’m calling “self-works”. And on this, the Catholic Church completely agrees; our self-works can never save us. They can’t make us acceptable to God or earn His grace in any way. The Council of Trent in 1547 decreed that,
None of those things which precede justification – whether faith or works – merit the grace itself of justification. (Trent, VIII)
With this, both Protestants and Catholics can completely agree! We can no more “earn” our justification than we can make ourselves alive when we were dead! (v. 4) On the other hand, the Catholic is generally talking about grace-works, those works of love which are only possible and only pleasing to God after – and because – we have become His children, “made alive” in Christ and indwelt with the Holy Spirit
But there is another difference; the Catholic is distinguishing between salvation in the past tense and salvation in the future tense. The Bible regularly speaks of both:
- We have been saved: “by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:5); “God saved us and called us with a holy calling” (1 Timothy 1:8b-9); “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy” (Tit 3:5)
- We will be saved: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22); “since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9), “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:9)
Salvation, of course, begs the question – what are we saved from? Being saved makes no sense unless you are saved from something and that something, the Bible tell us, is the coming judgment of God – which is in the future. So you could say, we have been saved – provided we persevere – from something that is still to come. Hence, the ambiguity.
Catholics will generally refer to the past “saved” as justification and the future “save” as salvation itself. Paul, in this passage, is clearly talking about the past “saved” kind (or justification): being made alive with Christ. (And this he affirms, like the Catholic Church does, is by faith.)
But significantly, Paul doesn’t say how these good works, which he fully expects us to do, relate to our ultimate salvation or final judgment. Why is this an issue?
For Protestants, who understand saved (past tense) or justification as once-for-all acquittal that brings God’s final judgment from the future into the present, this is a problem because the Bible overwhelming testifies that, at the Final Judgment when Christ returns in glory, we will be judged on the basis of what we have done. (E.g. Mt 25:31-46, John 5:26-29, Rom 2:5-13, 2 Co 5:10, 1 Pe 1:7, Rev 2:23, Rev 20:11-13)
So while there is plenty of evidence that we are justified through faith, there is also plenty of evidence that we will be judged by what we do. How do we fit these two together?
For Catholics, this makes perfect sense because we understand saved (past tense) or justification as God’s making us “alive together with Christ” (v. 4) and making us righteous now, so that by His Spirit who pours out His love in our hearts (Rom 5:5), we can truly be judged righteous on what we have done, just as the Bible tells us we will. These grace-works do contribute to our salvation because without them, our faith is dead (James 2:17), and we are nothing (1 Co 13:2).
This is not “saving ourselves” or “works-righteousness” because as Paul so clearly says, our good works are gifts from God Himself which we were “created in Christ Jesus” to do (v. 10). Just as faith is a gift, so our love expressed in good works is equally a gift. Do you imagine that your faith detracts from God simply because you have it and He has promised to reward it? Of course not! It is the same with the gift of love He gives us, the good works that He created us to do.
As Paul prays elsewhere – for the Thessalonians this time,
“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thess 1:11-12)
From beginning to end, it is all by His grace.
And it is all for His glory.