Twisted Scripture - Ephesians 2:8
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" - Ephesians 2:8
I grew up with an interesting church background in that I mostly attended church at an Evangelical Free Church (a theology rather similar to Baptist churches) with my mom but also randomly going to Catholic Mass with my dad. To top it off, I spent my summers going to a Baptist Bible Camp in central Iowa. One of the results of this odd pairing was that I tuned in more than most tweens and teens when it came to what people from one church or Christian denomination said about those outside of their tradition. Our verse for this week, Ephesians 2:8, was one I often heard used when my Sunday school teachers or camp counselors were trying to explain why more traditional, liturgically based churches were “less Christian.”
In my Evangelical Free church growing up, I would regularly hear the message that we had to do nothing to earn our salvation. There was no ten point plan or extensive check list, we just had to believe in God and we were saved. It was not uncommon to be told that, unlike those Catholics (or Lutherans or whichever “other” church they were making a point about at the moment) who believed they had to work to earn their salvation, we knew the truth. We knew it was a gift freely given. This has been the primary message being preached when I have heard this particular verse. Take a moment and ponder what messages you have heard when this verse has been used.
While, in particular circles, Ephesians 2:8 is misused in the way I experienced, there is another more common misusage. One of the ways this passage is most commonly misused is to justify one’s inaction in serving others. It’s not often a sermon preached but it is an attitude internalized. Too often we are looking for a justification to not do the hard, dirty, tedious work which is part of being the hands and feet of Christ. When we are wanting to avoid getting into the nitty gritty stuff of Christian service because it isn’t fun, we start looking for theological reasons to opt out. After all, it isn’t very “Christian” to say we have more important things to do than wash the pots and pans after the last fundraising dinner, clean the toilets during the cleanup day at church, or haul the stinky, smelly, heavy bag of garbage out to the dumpster. No, we can’t say that and be (often rightly) accused of the sin of pride.
So instead we say we are exercising healthy boundaries and learning how to say no. Or we say we are trying to be more diligent about honoring God’s command to rest. And we tell ourselves we don’t have the feel guilty about saying those things because our salvation is not based on what we do, it is gift freely given to us from God. All would be well and good if, interestingly enough, we also said no, exercised our boundaries, and made time to rest when it came to the fun and nearly instantly rewarding parts of service. But honestly, how often do we say no to the “fun” stuff? I know I’m not good at it.
I’ll say no to helping with housekeeping, leaf racking, or dishes in the name of needing more time to myself to rest and make time with God a priority only to say yes to go out to eat with a friend, work on a pet project around camp, or work on something not due for weeks or even months. I’m not taking the time I would have spent on projects I don’t enjoy to spend extra time seeking to do what God has called me to do in that moment. Instead, all too often, I spend that time making myself look busy or staying far away from any reminders of the work I’m skipping out on. At the same time, even when I’m overwhelmingly busy, I’ll likely say yes to a chance to preach on a Sunday morning, or helping my mom out in her scrapbooking room, or even working on a project I believe should be everyone’s top priority. And if guilt comes knocking at my door for even the slightest tap, I’ll tell myself I don’t have to worry about it because it is God’s grace that saves, not my good deeds.
And that is what makes the misuse of this verse so tricky. It is true that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. I’m not looking to debate or cause anyone to question that amazing reality. So let’s take a moment to undertake a more complete reading of the passage.
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. - Ephesians 2:1-10
As Ephesians 2:9 goes on to say, we are not saved by our good works and so, no matter how many we do, we can’t brag about how much assurance of salvation we have earned. However, is often overwhelming tempting to stop here and treat it like it is the full picture of what it means to be a Christian. Why? Because it is easy. It’s saying words. It is something no one but God can ultimately know or judge. It’s saying words and not having any obligation to have actions to back up those words. It’s reading the introduction of a textbook and then assuming you are an expert in the field.
As Christians, we have historically had a hard time trying to find the balance and maintaining a healthy relationship between faith and works. If how we lived our lives didn’t matter to God, then there wouldn’t be the multitude of verses which provide guidance on how to live our lives. Paul wouldn’t have talked about how we are to live as new creations who seek to do God’s will (Romans 12, 2 Corinthians 5). We wouldn’t have the book of James. Even Jesus spoke to the importance of living our lives in certain way when he tells the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, or to treat others as we would want to be treated, or reminded us that we are called to forgive others as we have been forgiven.
Again and again, in both the Old and New Testaments, we are called to wrestle with the balance between having faith in God and doing the work God has called us to. There are a couple of key things to help us find and keep these two parts of what it means to be a Christian in balance and focus:
A response to salvation vs. earning salvation. The good deeds we do, be they big or small, should find their primary motivation as a response to the gift of salvation we have been freely given. It’s a way of saying thank you. I think of it like the changes someone who receives an organ donation might change their life after surgery. Someone who receives an organ receives a second chance at life. Counseling and follow up appointments are done to be sure that person is taking care of the gift they have been given. Would it make any sense at all for the person having received a new heart to leave the hospital with a cigarette in their hand? Or a person with a new liver to head to the bar? It wouldn’t. Certain activities are given up and new routines, such as anti-rejection medications, are adopted to be sure the new organ gives the recipient as many additional years as possible. Our good deeds should be a thankful response to the new life we have been given in Jesus’ death on the cross.
Pointing to Jesus vs. pointing to ourselves. The good we do should point others to Jesus. If we are looking for a photo op to further our career or build up our status in our community, then we aren’t pointing others towards Jesus. Yes, there will likely be times where we personally benefit from the good works we are doing but our benefits should be a side-effect, not a primary motivator. If you need applause, thanks, and other expressions of gratitude when you serve others, then your actions are very likely pointing more to you than to Jesus.
What you are called to do vs. what you want to do. It’s so wonderfully amazing when these two things line up. But they don’t always. Sometimes the things we are called to do simply aren’t fun or appealing. Sometimes, the things we are called to do are hard. That doesn’t make us any less called to do them in that moment.
Ultimately, Ephesians 2:8 is a verse which calls us to keep our priorities straight and examine the true motivations of our hearts. It is a verse which reminds us of just how BIG God really is and how small we truly are. It is a verse which calls us to live in this tension of knowing we can do nothing to earn our salvation and yet we are called to live a life which is pleasing and points people to Jesus.
- What tasks/good deeds are easy for you to say yes to when someone asks? What ones are easy to turn down?
- What do you trust more for your salvation: God or your own good works? How does your life reflect this?