Examining Ephesians 2:1-10
As stated, among the handful of passages to which Protestants point in order to make their case for Sola Fide, Ephesians 2:8-9 takes centre stage. Let us examine, then, whether these verses, in context, support the Protestant or Catholic understanding of justification.
After celebrating in a hymn of praise the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus (1:3-14), and then praying for the churches to whom he is writing, that they would come to a greater understanding of their salvation, and the power that God has worked in them through Christ (1:15-23), St. Paul begins in chapter 2 to briefly explain what that amazing work of salvation entailed. He begins in verses 1-3 to describe the state of the unsaved person afflicted by Original Sin and dead in his own sins. In verses 4-7, he describes how God, through His grace, brought the unsaved soul to life in Christ. Finally, St. Paul describes our response of faith, and how it cooperates with God's grace, in verses 8-10. Let us take these each in turn.
Dead in sin: Ephesians 2:1-3
1And you were dead, through the crimes and the sins 2which used to make up your way of life when you were living by the principles of this world, obeying the ruler who dominates the air, the spirit who is at work in those who rebel. 3We too were all among them once, living only by our natural inclinations, obeying the demands of human self-indulgence and our own whim; our nature made us no less liable to God's retribution than the rest of the world.Verse one describes the person without God's grace as dead spiritually. Indeed, this was what God warned Adam and Eve would happen if they ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:16-17). Since their original sin, they lost the supernatural life of God within their souls—that grace which enabled them to live holy lives, integrating their intellects, wills, and passions, and orient them toward the ultimate good, who is God. Each successive generation was born without this vivifying grace, and thus subject to their passions, having their wills and intellects weakened, they lived sinful lives, incurring guilt and the wrath of God. Adam and Eve, having listened to the Tempter, subjected all of humanity to his domination (v. 2).11
Let us take a moment here, however, to clarify what original sin did, and what it did not do. Contrary to the teaching of some Protestants, original sin did not absolutely corrupt mankind, nor cause them to become totally depraved.12 While we are born without sanctifying grace, and thus are subject to disordered passions, and while we cannot of ourselves perform any meritorious acts in the sight of God—that is, without His grace, we cannot earn or achieve our own justification—nevertheless, we are all fundamentally good. While some would assert that even the good actions of the unregenerate person are themselves sinful without God's grace, this notion is absurd. The unsaved man's good deeds are not sinful, but good. They are simply not good enough.13 St. Paul teaches in this passage that it is those who have committed "crimes and sins" (v.1), "those who rebel" (v.2), that are under the rule of Satan. We are not guilty of actual sin unless and until we have actually committed sin. This rebellion, ἀπειθείας in the Greek, describes "an obstinate opposition to the divine will."14
This is important to remember when in verse 3, St. Paul states that "our nature made us...liable to God's retribution." This is not an affirmation of Calvin's doctrine of total depravity. It is not that our nature is inherently wicked or sinful, but that our nature, devoid of sanctifying grace, is prone to sin because of concupiscence—the disordered desires of the passions ("our natural inclinations"), which our wills and intellects, weakened by "obeying the demands of human self-indulgence and our own whim," cannot control, but rather are enslaved by them. We thus, being dead spiritually, cannot save ourselves.
Brought to life in Christ: Ephesians 2:4-7
4But God, being rich in faithful love, through the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ—it is through grace that you have been saved—6and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus.God has loved us exceedingly (v. 4), and this fact goes to show what was said above—that we cannot, therefore, be totally corrupt. For only something that is good is lovable. If we were absolutely evil by nature, and incapable of good, then even God could not love us. In fact, especially God, who is all good and all holy, could not love what was utterly depraved. Thus we see, by His love for us, that despite our sinful rebellion and opposition to His divine will, we nevertheless were good, in whatever small degree that goodness may have existed. God's love is seen to be "rich" to the degree that we were unlovable, however. The rebellion and the sinfulness of our souls so marred the goodness of the image of Himself with which He created us that it would be very difficult to see and to love. We know this particularly in how hard it is to love our neighbour. And yet God, "rich in faithful love", loved us still, and resurrected our souls with Christ (v.5). St. Paul then parenthetically states, "It is through grace that you have been saved." He thus sums up this resurrection power in the word, "grace". Since it is the cause of our salvation, we should consider its meaning.
7This was to show for all ages to come, through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how extraordinarily rich he is in grace.
Despite a lengthy and comprehensive examination of grace by Thayer in his lexicon,15 one most often hears the definition of grace (Gk: χάριτί in v.5) as simply God's undeserved favour, given as a free gift. This definition, as true as it is, is incomplete, as it stems from a purely forensic understanding of salvation: that is, that when we are justified, we are not actually made righteous, but rather, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us.16 Thayer, however, notes in his definition, that biblically, Grace includes the "merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.17 Indeed, we see from the passage under consideration that this χάρις of God includes more than His tender feelings toward us. Verses 5 and 6 state that this grace "saves" us. How? Though we were dead in our sins, our souls are "brought to life" with Christ, we are "raised up" with Him, and we are "given a place with Him in heaven". All these things, verse 7 tell us, were to show forth just how extraordinary God's grace really is.
Our resurrected souls are brought to life again with Christ, through His passion, death, and resurrection, but St. Paul is describing much more than the merits of Christ's saving act merely being reckoned to us—rather, they have an actual effect on our souls in grace—that is, new life! St. Thomas Aquinas, reflecting on the action of grace in the soul, describes five effects:
Now there are five effects of grace in us: of these, the first is, to heal the soul; the second, to desire good; the third, to carry into effect the good proposed; the fourth, to persevere in good; the fifth, to reach glory.18For St. Thomas, all of these effects of grace make up our salvation, from God's prevenient action of calling to us and in so doing, healing our soul, in which consists our initial justification, through enabling us to seek the good and thus follow after it, until we come to our final justification and heavenly glory. It is this process that St. Paul sums up in Ephesians 2:5-6, when he describes the result of God's grace as bringing to life the soul, raising us up, and giving us a place in heaven, all with Christ. While St. Paul describes all these in the past tense, clearly they have not all happened yet. He places them in the past tense in hope, for we are saved by hope (Romans 8:24), but the grace of God unfolds in the life of the Christian in a process, which St. Paul describes in verses 8 through 10, as he details our response to God's prevenient grace.
God's work of art: Ephesians 2:8-10
8Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; 9not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. 10We are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.Returning to Dr. Ferguson's teaching of Justification by faith alone above, he accuses those who teach that considerations of character as having any bearing on whether one grows in grace or continues in justification, are "smuggled in". He states, "Paul's teaching is that nothing we do ever contributes to our justification."19 This statement goes beyond St. Paul's actual teaching, that there is nothing anyone can do to earn God's initial movement of grace, that initial gift of His justification. However, that is a very different thing than suggesting that nothing that we do ever contributes to our justification—that is, our remaining in a state of Grace and persevering therein until our final glorification. To suggest that either St. Paul or Jesus Himself suggested that our justification before God is never dependent upon our response is to read our own presuppositions back into the text. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Ephesians 2:8-10. And yet this passage is cited frequently as a prooftext for Sola Fide.
As noted, God saves us by His grace, through faith. St. Paul comments, "not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God" (v. 8). Some question revolves around to what this last clause of verse 8 refers: Is God's grace not due to anything of our own? This seems to be utterly redundant, since the word, "grace", as noted above, among other things means specifically "a free gift". So then, is it our faith response to God's grace, or our salvation in general, that is "not by anything of [our] own"? It seems that our salvation and our faith, are the gift of God, that is, His grace. That faith is itself a gift of God, St. Thomas explains, commenting on this very verse:
Since he had said we are saved by faith, any one can hold the opinion that faith itself originates within ourselves and that to believe is determined by our own wishes. Therefore to abolish this he states "and that not of yourselves". Free will is inadequate for the act of faith since the contents of faith are above human reason. "Matters too great for human understanding have been shown to you" (Sir 3:25). "No one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 2:11). That a man should believe, therefore, cannot occur from himself unless God gives it, according to that text of Wisdom 9 (17): "Who could ever have known your will, had you not given Wisdom and sent your Holy Spirit from above." For this reason he adds for it is the gift of God, namely, faith itself. "For you have been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him" (Phil 1:29). "To another, faith is given in the same Spirit" (1 Cor 12:9).20Thus, even our faith response to God's grace is itself an effect of God's grace. It is not from ourselves, nor is it given as a recompense or a recognition of any good thing we had done before God's gift of grace (v.9). There is absolutely no way that a person can earn God's grace or save himself apart from God's grace. Yet this very grace of God that brings about our salvation, as said, heals and resurrects our souls. The person saved by grace is no longer dead to sin. God's very life is at work in him or her in order to truly and freely respond to God's gracious gift. And so St. Paul tells us that we are to walk in the good works that God has prepared for us (v. 10). This thought is echoed in his letter to the Philippians (2:12-13),
So, my dear friends, you have always been obedient; your obedience must not be limited to times when I am present. Now that I am absent it must be more in evidence, so work out your salvation in fear and trembling. It is God who, for his own generous purpose, gives you the intention and the powers to act.Not only, then, is our faith a gift of God's grace, but so too are our good works! Accusations that Catholicism teaches a works-righteousness are unfounded in this light, for we recognise that those very works themselves are the gracious gift of God!
Verse 10 encapsulates the beauty of this doctrine of salvation by God's grace, both in its description of God's work and our response. The phrase employed by the New Jerusalem Bible brings out this beautiful work of God by translating St. Paul's use of the word ποίημα (from whence comes our English word, "poem") as "work of art". God, the master craftsman, the divine artist, has, through the exceeding riches of His grace, recreated us as His masterpieces!
This notion flies in the face of those who hold to a merely imputational, forensic view of justification. God is not the Divine Lawyer reconciling us to Himself through a loophole or a legal fiction, by which He, with a wink, declares an unrighteous person to be righteous by giving them the righteousness of Christ like the fairy-godmother gave Cinderella a fancy dress for the ball! Justification is not about dressing the peasant up in the Noble's clothes, but about recreating the peasant into a noble!
With our souls healed, we now are free to desire the good and to work toward it. This is what God has created us in Christ Jesus for: "the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life." Having received His grace, God invites us now to cooperate with it as His co-labourers (1 Corinthians 3:9). As St. Thomas again says, "God does not justify us without ourselves, because whilst we are being justified we consent to God's justification by a movement of our free-will. Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace."21 In His loving care, God has preordained these good works for us to do, leaving nothing to chance. All that is left is our free choice to cooperate with His plan.
Therefore St. Paul writes that these good works are to "make up our way of life." The Greek phrase rendered thus by the New Jerusalem Bible is ἵνα ἐν αὐτοῖς περιπατήσωμεν, and literally means "that we should walk in them." It is in the aorist, active, subjunctive tense, and thus lays out a conditional instruction—that is, our walking in the good works that God has preordained for us is not an automatic eventuality. We must choose to cooperate, but we are free to choose not to.22 If we walk in God's grace, that is, persevere in it, we will come to our final glory. Yet, as the latter half of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians makes clear, persisting in that obstinate rebellion (2:2) will once more alienate us from God, and destroy the life of grace in our souls.23 As St. John Chrysostom said, commenting on verse 10:
We need a virtue which shall last throughout, and be extended on to our dying day. If we had to travel a road leading to a royal city, and then when we had passed over the greater part of it, were to flag and sit down near the [sic] very close, it were of no use to us. This is the hope of our calling; for "for good works" he says. Otherwise it would profit us nothing.24
11. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., para. 405.
12. Cf. the definition at the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry website (http://carm.org/dictionary-total-depravity, accessed December 5, 2012):
Total Depravity is the doctrine that fallen man is completely touched by sin and that he is completely a sinner. He is not as bad as he could be, but in all areas of his being, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions, etc., he is touched by sin. In that sense he is totally depraved. Because man is depraved, nothing good can come out of him (Rom. 3:10-12) and God must account the righteousness of Christ to him. This righteousness is obtainable only through faith in Christ and what He did on the cross.13. Cf. Council of Trent, "Canons on Justification", esp. Canon VII (available with comments at http://barqueofpeter.blogspot.ca/2006/11/council-of-trent-canons-on.html).
Total depravity is generally believed by the Calvinist groups and rejected by the Arminian groups.
14. Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. (Public Domain, 1868). (Available online at http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G543&t=KJV)
15. Thayer, Lexicon. (http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5485&t=KJV)
16. Ankerberg, Justification.
17. Thayer, Lexicon.
18. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. P. 2, Q. 111 Art. 3. (online at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2111.htm).
19. See Part 2.
20. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. (Albany, N.Y.: Magi Books, 1966). Ch 2, Lecture 3. (Available online at http://www.josephkenny.joyeurs.com/CDtexts/Eph2.htm#3.
21. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. P. 2, Q. 111 Art. 2, R. 2.
22. As indicated at http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Eph&c=2&v=10&t=KJV#conc/10.
23. Cf. the moral instructions beginning at Eph. 4:17 and continuing to the end of the Epistle—esp. 4:18.
24. St. John Chrysostom, "Homily 4 on Ephesians", Church Fathers. (Available online at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230104.htm).
(Category: Soteriology: Justification)