March 12, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Ephesians 2:8-10 (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Grace saves us through faith so that God can re-create us and renew us and infuse his grace more and more into us, to enable us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty. We do not do it to earn God’s love, but we do it because of his love and out of his love.
This weekend, the fourth weekend in Lent, we read two of the most famous passages in the New Testament: Ephesians 2:8-9 and John 3:16. Generations of people have committed them to memory and preached sermons based on them, emphasizing how they form the heart of the Gospel. By grace you have been saved through faith, says Ephesians 2:8-9; believe in Jesus so you will not perish and have eternal life, John 3:16 tells us.
But in each case, those verses are not the whole story. After Ephesians 2:8-9, there is Ephesians 2:10. After John 3:16, there is John 3:17. (It’s worth remembering, by the way, that chapter and verse divisions are not original to the Biblical text; chapter divisions date from the 1200s and verse divisions within chapters from the 1500s. But they are central to how many of us understand the Bible today). We’ll talk about John 3:16-17 tomorrow. Today, I want to think about Ephesians 2:8-10.
Since the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Protestants have claimed the insight expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9 as central to our self-understanding of what it means for Jesus to save us. Martin Luther famously had a moment of clarity around this concept which sparked his protest and eventual separation from Roman Catholicism, although Romans 1:17 was actually the verse that turned the light bulb on for him. He wrote: “Then finally God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is a gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith.”
Some 500 years after Luther had this insight, a Lutheran seminary professor named Theodore Engelder wrote an article called “The Three Principles of the Reformation” which noted the centrality of several “solas” (the Latin word for “alone”) in the thought of many Protestant reformers: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone (sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide). As Engelder and many authors after him explored this thought further, they often used Ephesians 2:8-9 to illustrate the necessity of grace and faith alone.
But—and this has been the point of this historical diversion—grace alone is the necessary beginning, but it isn’t the end. It is very important—absolutely crucial, in fact—that we understand that we cannot save ourselves. That’s Jesus’s job. But what does Jesus save us for? What is our job? That’s where Ephesians 2:10 comes in. And what is that verse’s answer? Good works.
Those are troubling words to Protestants. Belief in the necessity of doing good works to earn God’s favor is what the Protestant Reformation saved us from, isn’t it? Yet, as passages such as Matthew 25:31-46 remind us, there is actually a need for good works to be done in a world full of the effects of human sin. We need people to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and all the other things the faithful servants do in Matthew 25. The needs of the world call for people to do good works, and—by the way—to do good work.
Paul in Ephesians 2 agrees with his Lord and Master in Matthew 25 that grace does not save us by faith so that we can sit on our hands and wait for God to work. Grace saves us through faith so that God can re-create us and renew us and infuse his grace more and more into us, to enable us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty. We do not do it to earn God’s love, but we do it because of his love and out of his love.
Go forth today in the strength of God’s love and in the encouragement of Ephesians 2:10. Do good works, and do good work.
How do you respond to Ephesians 2:8-9? To Ephesians 2:10?
What good works are God preparing for you to do in your life?
How can you do them in a way that shares his love and shows forth his glory?
Lord Jesus, thank you for saving me by grace through faith. Thank you for preparing good works for me to do. Amen.
P.S. from Mark
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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