Remembering the Bible #4
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
~ Ephesians 2:8-9
We spend so much time talking about the difficulties of salvation theology, about the overly simplistic notion that works are unimportant or meaningless to salvation, or that salvation can or cannot be lost, that we do not want to ignore the fundamental doctrine. The quote from Ephesians is the starting point of Christian theology.
“By grace we have been saved through faith.” Notice the prepositions, “by” and “through”. When we say we are saved “by” something, we are identifying the fundamental power that saved us. The sick man was saved by penicillin. The drowning sailor was saved by the Coast Guard. It is the most important direct cause of a rescue. Whereas, the preposition “through” identifies an agent or means that the saving force uses. It does not tell us who or what is primarily responsible for saving us, but more the means by which the prime actor operates. It is a less important, yet still essential, part of the salvation.
We might say, in a similar construction, that a choking woman was saved by Bobby Jones through the Heimlich maneuver. It is an awkward phrase in modern English, but the translation is a compromise between making the passage understandable and holding as close as possible to the Greek.
So we are saved by grace. Have no doubt; it is grace that saves us. Salvation is a gift that has been given by God. Unless God gave us this gift, we would not have it. It is His action, not ours, that makes it possible for sin to be forgiven and for us to find eternal life, in Heaven.
How does He accomplish this? By our faith. To most of us, faith is an act of free will; Calvinists would disagree and say that our faith is predetermined by God, but the net practical effect of this theological conundrum is zero. Without doubt we must have faith to be saved, but it is not our faith that saves us: it is God's grace.
If we have true faith in Christ, our lives will reflect it. We cannot live lives filled with gluttony, selfishness, pride and love for the things of this world, and think that we are possessed of saving faith, for as James puts it, “Faith without works is dead.” But it is not the works that save us. It is God's gift, operating through our faith.
Thus we see the sheer idiocy of pious pride. To congratulate ourselves for our piety, to raise ourselves above others who act less in obedience to God's commandments than we, is oxymoronic. Pope Francis and C. S. Lewis need the same grace that we need, lest they be lost to hell.
Paul tells us the reason is that “so that none may boast,” but it is unclear whether he means the reason that God does it like this, or the reason that Paul is telling us this. My idea is that he is probably not trying to explain God's reasoning, for God does not reason: God is truth. So more likely (in my mind), Paul means to explain why he emphasizes the point.
Getting really down and dirty with Greek syntax, “so that” does not have to indicate an underlying reason for anything (as it does in English). The verse could be translated simply, “it is the gift of God, not a result of works, and none may boast.” But the bottom line is the same, no matter what little translation distinctions a scholar might make.
Ephesians 2:8-9 is useful to remind ourselves and others of our equality before God, when we are tempted to lift ourselves or another person up as a figure of holiness. We may admire the learned, the pious, those who speak or teach well and lead others to grow in faith. But they are, ultimately, in the same boat as us: saved not by the devices of their person, but by the gift of grace.
Lord, let me never boast of piety, for my salvation comes solely by Your grace. Amen.
~ Mason Barge
Editor, Daily Prayer