Many debates over soteriological issues revolve around whether works have a role in salvation, and what that role is. While there are a lot of misunderstandings over the issue that we will not cover here, what we will explore is the significance of Eph 2:1-10 on the issue and how it cannot be used as justification to ax sacraments from the Church (which are in the Bible by the way).
In order to fully grasp the issue, it is important to read Eph 2:1-10 in full, keeping in mind that the “you” being mentioned are the Gentiles and the “we” is in reference to the Jews specifically (the term is only retroactively applied to Gentiles starting in verse 13):
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
In short the whole point of the passage is centered upon verse 6: “God…made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
What exactly does this mean? I must admit, much of it is beyond my comprehension. However, what I can say is that because Jesus Christ in His human body is alive, raised, and seated at the right hand of God the Father then in some sense this is true of all of those in union with Him. The literal sense is obviously not true, because all of us reading this article are here on Earth. But, in the spiritual sense those of us who are saved are part of His body, the Church, and His Church is one flesh with Himself (Eph 5:31-32). Therefore, everything that is true of Christ is also true of His Church.
Now, keeping the preceding paragraph in mind, let’s move onto verses eight through ten.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Obviously, we are not saved through works. In fact, we are not even saved by faith. We are saved by grace. Faith does not make you alive, raised, and heavenly seated. Neither can works. Only divine intervention, God’s grace invading this world, can take you as an individual and join yourself to Someone who is alive, raised, and heavenly seated.
Faith is the means that God has chosen to join ourselves to Him, and not works. Why? It is not because works play absolutely no role in salvation. Faith without works is dead. To be saved, you need a faith that works through love–saving faith normatively needs works!
So, what is the significance of this faith versus works if the faith through which we are saved by necessity has works?
Salvation by works requires salvation as remuneration, as a wage owed, and this gives man reason to boast. He earned salvation and God must pay him back. However, this is impossible for two reasons.:
First, “if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom 11:6). Grace is undeserved kindness, hence it cannot be remuneration, otherwise it would be deserved!
Second, your works did not raise Christ from the dead and seat Him at the right hand of God. Christ did that by His own authority (John 2:19, John 10:18).
So, what has faith have to do with it? It isn’t because faith is the antithesis of works, for we already maintain that faith has works.
Rather, faith is a childlike, dependence on God. In other words, it is our association with Him and following Him. Just like no true marriage can exist with two spouses that have no association with each other, we cannot be married to God without association with Him.
Faith is that association. It is that desire to say “yes” to God, to follow Him wherever He takes you, to trust Him, to love Him unconditionally not expecting anything in return. Faith is our proclamation of “I do” at the wedding ceremony. It begins in a moment in time when we are married in our baptism and it is lived out for a lifetime.
Faith connects us to what we cannot earn–the life, resurrection, and heavenly seat of Christ. This is why we are saved through faith, and not works.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
The word “for” requires our attention. Remember we are saved by grace through faith for we are His workmanship. Hence, the fact we are His workmanship is the very reason God saves us through faith.
Faith enters us into a relationship God where He transforms us into His own image (2 Cor 3:18) . Hence, God’s workmanship precisely is His making of us into trophies, literally gods in our own right–completely divinized. In the words of Saint Athanasisus, “The Son of God became man, that we might become god.”
This transformation is lived out in good works (Phil 2:12) and is the work of God (Phil 2:13), not our own. God is increasingly correcting our nature, redeeming His image that was lost in us through sin, and making us holy. Why? Because without holiness no one can see God (Heb 12:14). God does this through our works, but never apart from faith, for these works that God prepared beforehand for us play the role of perfecting our faith (James 2:22)!
Works not only perfect our faith, but they also literally affect the quality of our salvation. Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:10 the everyone will be “recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” We may be inclined to view the “good” simply as faith alone, but we have indications in the Scripture that individual good works merit rewards in heaven. For example, praying in secret (Matt 6:6) and the work of a slave (Col 3:24) are specifically given rewards. In Eph 6:8, Paul appears to definitively answer the question: “whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord.”
So, being that works do not enter us into a saving relationship with God, do they save us to any degree? If we keep in mind what we are being saved from (sin and separation from God) and what the reward is (to be restored to God and transformed into His image), we must conclude that the role works play is in increasing that transformation in some qualitative way thereby increasing heavenly enjoyment. In short, works increase heavenly enjoyment–they increase our salvation.
This is hard to grasp among Protestants because they view salvation merely as an escape from divine recompense. Sure, we escape judgment for our sins, but there is more than that. A man who commits no sins whatsoever still needs to be saved, because he has still substantially lost the fullness of God that man ought to have because he is born in Adam and all men are born this way. So, if I were to tell you that works are instrumental and making man in heaven more like God, then the role of works does in a real sense becomes salvific–even if they do not enter us into a saving relationship with God nor earn salvation.
Lastly, we must keep in mind that the Scriptures say that God rewards those who do good in this life. Ps 18:20 states, “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me.” It would be ignorant to say that God simply gives us more stuff. Jesus declared, “He will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:30). We gain spiritual blessings (the houses, brothers, mothers, farms, persecutions). God rewards us with greater closeness and obedience to Him in the life as well. So, God rewards those who do good in this life with greater Godliness, which not only makes them holier in this life but grants them greater Theosis in the next life.
Conclusion. Now that we more rightly understand Eph 2:8-10 in light of verse six, what can we conclude? Clearly, salvation is not of works because it is accomplished entirely by what Jesus Christ has done, and not by what man does or even believes. Faith is the means we enjoy the grace of Christ, because it enters us in a union with Him where we share all that He has.
This being the case, we must also realize that the passage does not say that sacraments or works have nothing to do with salvation. This is true especially in light of the fact that the sacramental life of the Church and good works are part of a faithful life! One cannot be divorced from another.
So, when Eph 2 is cited by Protestants, myself included in the past, as a blunt instrument against historical Christianity it is only with the presupposition that faith by definition excludes works.
This presupposition is wrong.
By Calvin’s own admission, “we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone!” Faith has works. And, if faith has works, then the grace we are saved by, and the faith we are saved through, cannot exclude works or sacraments.