For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Having gone to Liberty University, and also being raised in the South with the hardcore Southern Baptists, I have had this verse used over and over again proving that good works are irrelevant to salvation, or Christianity as whole I guess I could say. I remember in discussion forums during my time at Liberty, I would always debate fellow peers about how faith and works were inseparable. (While attending Liberty, my wife and I were studying Eastern Orthodoxy, so I had already moved beyond my Calvinistic upbringing.) The thing is, anytime I mention faith and works, I am immediately accused of trying to “merit my salvation with works.” Sadly, this is a huge misconception that many, many American Christians believe today.
The first problem that stems from this verse for many Western Christians is the understanding of grace. If you were to ask the majority of American Christians what grace is, the most common answer will be “God’s unmerited favor.” They are under the impression that God’s grace is synonymous with His mercy. And by that grace, or mercy, we are forgiven of our sins and obtain salvation simply by faith in Christ. If you really dig in and study, however, you will learn that God’s grace isn’t unmerited favor, or mercy, but it is the Holy Spirit. Grace is the Helper that Jesus speaks of in John:
If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever–the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)
With the incarnation of Christ, His life, death, and most importantly the resurrection, we now have direct access to the Holy Spirit; “I will surely put My laws into their mind and write them on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:33) When we choose to put our faith in Christ, as the Son of God, we then receive the Holy Spirit–grace. This grace enables us to to be the image and likeness that God originally created us to be. In turn, this grace gives us the power to fulfill God’s will for our lives. If you think about it, if God is giving us His Spirit to guide us and strengthen us to become what He desires and fulfill His commands, it only makes sense then that an active Christian lifestyle should follow this reception.
Before you jump to conclusions about this, let me be clear. God has given us this gift–grace–freely. We receive it through faith, and not of works. No one can earn salvation simply by doing good works, it’s impossible. And that is the point Paul is making here. God loves us so much, that He has allowed us to receive eternal life through our faith in Him and His only Son. At the same time, however, you can’t simply have faith without works. And I think this is where many Christians fall short, today.
They take verses like these, or listen to these televangelists who preach on “faith alone,” twist them up and completely disregard the active life of Christianity. It basically falls under the category of “imputed righteousness.” The idea that Jesus died for our sins, and while on the cross, our unrighteousness was given over to Him, and at the same time, His righteousness was given to us. Meaning that through faith alone, we are declared righteous before God through the work of Jesus on the cross.
Again, this is not what true Christianity is. The cross isn’t even the most important aspect of Christianity, it is simply the means in which man chose to kill the Messiah. The life of Christ, our perfect example, and His resurrection from the dead are what our thoughts and focus should be on. He taught us how to live our lives to the full Christian potential, and by doing so, He alone was able to defeat death and the grave, allowing us as faithful followers (not just believers) to receive the Holy Spirit and eternal life.
I say “followers” because that is what Christianity is all about. It is following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the apostles, and all those who have done so. It’s not a once-and-done event that happens when you say a prayer, or simply put your faith in Jesus as the Son of God. It is a full-time commitment of living God’s will. It takes faith as well as works to be a true Christian. The two are indivisible. And that is what Paul continues saying just after the verse at hand: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10; emphasis added)
God created us to do good works, plain and simple.
For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me (Matthew 25:35-36)
When we have a true faith in Jesus Christ, our faith will be displayed through our actions. We won’t just sit around saying we’re “saved” and continue in our carnal lifestyle, but we will be completely changed. The grace of God, His own Spirit, has taken refuge in our hearts, we have become the living temple of God. As a result, God strengthens us to become what He originally created us to be. His own image and likeness.
So, if you think works of righteousness should be absent from a Christian lifestyle, because they are trying to merit salvation, you are sadly mistaken. You cannot merit your salvation through works alone. That is very clear. But to say that works aren’t required of a true Christian is to fully neglect the teaching of Christ. When we choose to put our faith fully in Christ, receive His grace, we are empowered to want to love and we desire to do good. As such, the works should just come. If you don’t desire to do good works for God, and to glorify Him, then maybe you should reconsider your understanding of Christianity and whether or not you truly are a Christian.