This section provides commentary on ... (“it is by grace you have been saved”) [2:5], repeated in 2:8 but with “through faith” added to show how this salvation is appropriated. This further explanation also shows the relevance salvation has for the readers; note the change to “you.” Two other subjects are introduced in verses 9–10, which will be expanded in later passages—new creation and the ethical impact of God’s work. The combination of ideas makes 2:8–10 one of the most effective summaries of Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace through faith.
Faith. Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 both show the importance of Habakkuk 2:4 for the origin of Paul’s understanding of “faith,” and an allusion to that Old Testament text is possible here. Up to this point in the letter “faith” and its cognates have served only to identify the readers as believers (1:1, 15, 19) and to indicate their reception of the gospel (1:13). Verse 8 is similar to 1:13, describing the means by which salvation is appropriated. Language is especially important here. Christians are saved by God’s grace, not by their faith. Faith is the only means by which this grace is received. The rest of the letter underscores the importance of faith and its cognates for salvation and life (3:12, 17; 4:5, 13; 6:16, 21, 23).
Faith (pistis) cannot be limited to mental assent or to believing certain ideas. The Greek noun can mean “faith,” “faithfulness,” “reliability,” “promise,” “pledge,” “proof,” “trust,” and “confidence.” In addition, it can be used of the act of believing, the content of what is believed, or as a word that encapsulates all the gospel stands for—in essence, “the faith religion” (cf. Gal. 3:23; Eph. 4:5). The verb pisteuo can mean “trust,” “give credence to,” “be convinced that,” “entrust,” and “have confidence.” Primarily, this word group treats that on which one may rely or the act of relying on something believed reliable. Both sides of the coin are present—relying on something or someone believed reliable. As always, context—not a catalogue of possibilities—determines meaning.
Paul assumes this two-sided nature of faith in his discussions of salvation. Faith is relational, describing reliance on a reliable God. Faith is a covenant word, expressing the commitment and trust that bind two parties together. Throughout Scripture, God by his grace makes promises and commits himself to his people. They in turn are to trust those promises and live in light of them. God shows himself faithful and people are to respond in faithfulness. To say “I have faith” does not so much say anything about oneself; rather it says, “God is a trustworthy God.”
People who believe do not merely assent to certain ideas; they are bound to God and live in response to him. Paul’s frequent use of phrases such as “with Christ” and “in Christ” show his conviction that faith joins them to Jesus Christ so strongly that they are in him and that what is true of him is true of them. Christ’s past is their past, and he determines their present and future. Faith has an adhesive quality to it; it binds the believer to the one who is believed. Salvation does not come from believing ideas or an emotional decision, but from being bound to Christ.
A problem emerges in the middle of verse 8: What is the antecedent of “this” in the statement, “and this not from yourselves.” Though other texts may refer to faith itself as a gift of God (see Acts 3:16; 14:27; 18:27), that is not Paul’s point here. The word “this” is neuter, whereas “faith” is a feminine noun. Since there is no neuter noun is in the previous clause as the obvious antecedent of “this,” the word most likely refers to the whole process of God’s saving people by grace. (Note the parallel between “not from yourselves” and “not from works.”) Paul’s point is that salvation is a gift from the trustworthy God, whom we believe.
Works and boasting (2:9). Paul is no longer dealing with the problem of the imposition of the Jewish law on his converts as he was in Romans, Galatians, and—to some degree—in Philippians. In these letters Paul resisted forcefully any grounding of salvation in “works of law.” No doubt behind “not by works” (2:9) stands this longer expression “works of law” from those earlier debates, though its meaning is not limited to the specific “boundary markers” that distinguished Jews from Gentiles (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and food laws). “Works” refers to any human condition or accomplishment by which one thinks to gain status or privilege before God. In reality, however, nothing we do grants standing before God. Humans in and of themselves have no claim on God.
Boasting is actually a determinative part of Paul’s theology. Much of his concern is to make sure that praise goes only to God. He seeks to destroy any conceivable ground for human beings boasting in themselves. Humanity is left with every mouth silenced and no claim or defense before God. The only legitimate boasting is in what God has done (1 Cor. 1:31), a theology Paul adopted from Jeremiah 9:24. This Old Testament text provided a foundation for Paul’s worship, ministry, and self-understanding. “Works righteousness” is not a problem the letter addresses, but Paul cannot speak of salvation without excluding the possibility of personal boasting. Such rejection, however, does not entail a rejection of human competence. Rather, it is an insistence that all we are and do comes as a gift of God.
God’s new creation (2:10). Note the switch back to “we.” One obvious reason why no room exists for human boasting is that Paul views salvation as God’s new creation. People do not contribute to their rebirth any more than they did to their natural birth. The emphasis on the activity of God, which began in 1:1, comes to a crescendo here. “We are God’s workmanship” can well be translated, “We are the result of his activity.” Salvation and new life are God’s work, and human beings are recipients, not causative agents. That creation language is used should not be taken lightly (see also 2:15; 4:24). The New Testament assumes that God’s act in Christ is parallel to creation itself. This new creation—like everything else in Ephesians—takes place “in Christ Jesus.” The new creation is based in Christ’s resurrection, the creation of life in the midst of death.
Good works prepared beforehand. The purpose of God’s creative activity is not merely to have a people, as if he were constructing a work of art. Rather, this new creation is to be active and productive like the Creator. Christians are “to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (contrast to 2:2). Salvation is not from works, but it surely is for works, that is, living obediently and productively. In keeping with 1:3–14 on God’s planning, choosing, and acting, this verse shows God planned and acted not only to save, but also to mark out the way we should live. John Stott’s words are not too strong: “Good works are indispensable to salvation—not as its ground or means … but as its consequence and evidence.”
Paul does not normally speak of “good works.” “Works” has such a negative connotation for him from his debates about works of the law that he rarely uses the plural of this word in a positive sense (elsewhere only in Rom. 2:6, an Old Testament quotation, and in the Pastorals). When he does use “works” positively, he adds the adjective “good” to prevent misunderstanding. No focus on self for reasons of pride is permitted; attention to self to ensure ethical responsibility is required.
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