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Why Does Paul Bring Up the Subject of Works?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

As we have seen in the past several reflections on Ephesians 2, Paul is exceedingly clear that salvation comes to us from God's grace, which we receive through faith (trust). The latter part of verse 8 adds, just in case we missed the point, "and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

But then Paul adds, "not by works, so that no one can boast" (2:9). This seems like an odd inclusion, given that Paul is writing primarily to Gentiles who do not seem to be troubled by the issue of salvation by works of the Jewish law (2:11; 3:1). This issue is a major one in Galatians and Romans, where Paul was confronting those who claimed that justification (salvation) comes through works of the law. But we have no reason to believe that the recipients of Ephesians were dealing with this particular problem.

Notice that Paul says "not by works," leaving off the characteristic end of this phrase, "of the law" (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5,10). It's clear that he is not dealing with the Jewish (or Judaizing) tendency to see salvation as a reward for keeping the Torah. Rather, the use of "works" casts a broad net, snagging any of us who might think that we can earn our way into God's good favor. One of the common features of most (all?) religions in the Greco-Roman world of the first century A.D. was an assumption that you can enter into fellowship with the gods by doing the right things to please the gods. Gentiles, as well as Jews, would be inclined to see salvation as a result of their efforts, their works. But this, Paul says, is not true.

As we'll see very soon, our works do matter to God. But we must never think of them as a means to earn what God freely gives: grace, mercy, love, salvation, new life. Good works come as a response to the activity of grace in our lives. Yet, for now, we are reflecting on the fact that our salvation does not come by our works. This means, among other things, that you don't have to get it all right to be in a relationship with God. You don't have to be perfect, or even close. You don't have to have perfect, unfaltering faith. You don't have to have perfect theology, as if this were possible for fallible humans. Rather, you need only to receive God's grace in faith and allow it to transform your life.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Are you ever tempted to think that you can do things to make God love you more? Are you ever tempted to think that you can or must earn your salvation by what you do? How does God's grace lead us to do good works?

PRAYER: Gracious God, how I thank you that my salvation does not depend on my works. If this were true, I'd be lost. Thank you for saving me by your matchless grace.

Yet, I also thank you that when I receive your grace by faith, your being able to work within me, endeavoring to accomplish your good purpose in and through me. Yes, I am able to do good works by your power and for your glory. But, dear Lord, may I never be so arrogant as to think that my works deserve the blessings you give to me, including salvation. May I realize, again and again, that every good gift in my life comes from you. Amen.

Image courtesy of Laity Lodge, one of our sister programs in the Foundations for Laity Renewal.

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