Saved by Grace – what it means in context (updated)

What is the real meaning of Ephesians 2:8-9? Is it the way of salvation for all, or something else? Let us consider it within context.

How often we quoted or were quoted the famous passage of Ephesians?

Eph. 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

And how often was v.10 dropped, making the very purpose of saving not that important? Yes, we love this passage along with the other in Romans (“The just shall live by faith”), and we build our theological castle around them, but do they stand up for scrutiny? What if when these verses are read out of context, we are in danger of misinterpreting them? What if the meaning of certain terms is not the same across the NT, and it depends not only on the writer, but on the context also?

A short quote from Galatians as well as the usage of the personal pronouns shed light to the passage in question. There Paul confronts Peter who withdroaws to eat with the Jewish believers, and among others says this:

Gal. 2:15 “We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners…”

You see, it is not Paul’s idea that Jews who had the law were sinners by nature. Gentiles did not have the law, thus, they did not have the light of God, therefore they lived in darkness. Being a sinner means one’s life is characterised by sin. The robber robs, the thief steals, the adulterer commits adultery, the liar continues to lie. These are not one off actions, but a pattern of life. Therefore, we need to be careful whom we referred to as a sinner. Jews who observed the law were not sinners by any standard, thought they might have sinned occassionally. The characteristic of the righteous is not that he never fails, but that when he does, he repents and restores his righteous walk.

Proverbs 24:16 “for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again; but the wicked are overthrown by calamity”.

Therefore, it is not the righteous, but the lost that needs saving, as Jesus himself also said.

The term “saved” carries various meanings depending on the context one must always consider. Let us take a look at the Ephesians passage, and let me highlight a few things:

Eph 1:11 “In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 we [i.e. Jews] who first hoped [or forehoped] in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you [i.e. Gentiles] also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

So Paul has Jewish and Gentile believers in mind.

Now let us skip ahead:

Eph. 2:1 “And you [i.e. Gentiles] he made alive, when you [i.e. Gentiles] were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you [i.e. Gentiles] once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

In the next verse we see something interesting:

Eph. 2:3 “Among these [i.e. sinful, unconverted Gentiles] we all [an exaggeration often used in the Scriptures, certainly not true of the righteous Jews and Gentiles who obeyed God before coming into the covenant] once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Paul here refers to sinners in general who turned and converted. He calls himself the chief of sinners because he acted against God by persecuting the “Way”. What Paul means is that before conversion some Jewish converts lived as sinfully as Gentiles.

If we take that “we” means every single Jewish and Gentile converts, we have a problem, for it could not be said of Jews in general that they “lived in the passions of their flesh, following the desires of body and mind and were by nature children of wrath”. The Jewish people were called by God “my son”and “my servant” in the Tanakh, not the children of wrath – a term used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. Even if God chastened them for their sins, he never forgot his covenant with them.

Eph. 2:4 “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Now notice the sudden change from “us” to “you”. The idea Paul presents here is that Gentiles lived in darkness. They deserved wrath, not deliverance, just think about Jonah’s anger over Niniveh escaping God’s judgment. Indeed, it was considered among the Greeks that no love was greater than sex with a young boy. Soldiers had kids carrying their weapons whom they also used to satisfied their sexual desires. Prostitution was ripe. It was a religious duty, an act of worship to have sex with temple prostitutes (who were called virgins), who at nights often came down to the city from the temple to offer their services to the general public. Their religions were full of idolatry and blasphemy. We need to keep this in mind to understand what Paul is saying here.

Now we come to the key verse:

Eph. 2:8 “For by grace you [i.e. Gentiles] have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast.”

Notice the change to “you” again, referring to Gentile converts. Because of the horribly unclean life they lived Gentiles didn’t deserve the calling of God into the new covenant. There was nothing that they did by which they would have deserved it. They only deserved God’s judgment. It was purely by his grace that God called them into the covenant.

Eph. 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Notice the change back to “we”, both Jewish and Gentile converts. Here we have the purpose of his calling. Good deeds. What are they? Where are they defined? In the law of God. Good deeds, righteous deeds are obedience – loving God and loving one’s fellow beings; doing charity to others. Righteous deeds are a must, not an option for believers.

1John 2:3 “And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his [i.e. God’s] commandments. 4 He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

Thus, the Ephesian passage is not about going to heaven. It is about God calling sinful Gentiles into the covenant, who, through confession and repentance, escaped the wrath of God that was expected to speedily come upon the world.

Commentary

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