Ephesians 2:8–9 is a familiar passage dealing with God’s grace in the matter of salvation: “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.”
Before looking at the meaning of an individual verse (or two), it is important to get a feel for the context. Ephesians was written by Paul to the Christians in the city of Ephesus, which had a significant population of Gentile believers.
Paul spends Ephesians chapter 1 telling them of the incredible blessings they have in Christ. He tells them how they have been chosen and sealed with the Holy Spirit. He also prays that they will fully understand all of the spiritual blessings they have in Christ.
Chapter 2 begins by contrasting the believers’ current position in Christ with their condition outside of Christ—they had been dead in their sins. In Christ they have been reconciled to God, and Jewish and Gentile believers have been reconciled to each other.
Chapter 3 further elaborates on God’s plan to include Gentiles and Jews together in Christ. This unity is something that most people did not expect. Paul then thanks God for all the Ephesian believers, whether Jew or Gentile.
Chapters 4–6 encourage the believers in Ephesus to live up to their position in Christ. “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). These three chapters contain some of the most pointed and practical behavioral guidelines for Christians. Importantly, people do not obey these guidelines in order to become Christians or to become acceptable to God. Rather, they follow these guidelines as a natural part of living out their position in Christ.
This brings us back to Ephesians 2:8–9. The popular notion is that God accepts good people and rejects bad people. Most people, whether in Christianized countries or those steeped in other religions, usually operate under the idea that God accepts or rejects people based on some level of goodness and/or religious performance. The whole book of Ephesians rejects this premise, and Ephesians 2:8–9 specifically refutes it: “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.”
Ephesians 2:7 says that God has given incredible blessings to those who are in Christ “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.” In other words, God has chosen to save sinners, not based on their goodness but on His kindness. He does this to demonstrate His grace—that is to say His undeserved favor. By definition, grace is a blessing that is undeserved and unwarranted—grace is a gift freely given based on the kind intentions of the giver to a recipient who has no claim to it.
What God has done for believers in Christ is going to bring Him glory, and Ephesians 2:8–9 further explains how He gets all the glory. First, “it is by grace you have been saved.” If we are saved by grace, this means that it is not because we are good or deserving; rather, it is because God is good and gracious.
Second, we are saved “through faith.” In order to be saved, there is a necessary human response to God’s grace. The response is not trying to be “good enough” to be saved. The response is simply trusting (having faith in) God to save on the basis of Christ’s goodness. Furthermore, we must understand that faith is not a good work in itself that God rewards. Faith is simply casting our unworthy selves on the mercy of a kind and forgiving and gracious God.
The next clause in Ephesians 2:8–9 is a little more difficult to understand: “And this is not from yourselves.” The interpretive issue is what the word this is referring to. Some interpreters think that it refers to faith. Thus, the verse could be paraphrased, “You have been saved by grace through faith, and even this faith is not from within you.” Those who accept this interpretation emphasize that, without the work of God in our lives, we could not even believe the gospel in order to be saved. Undoubtedly, this is true, but it may not be the best interpretation of this particular verse. The reason is that the gender of the word this (in Greek) does not match the gender of the word faith, which would normally be the case if this was a pronoun referring to faith.
Some will take this to refer to grace. Undoubtedly, the meaning is true as well. Grace, by definition, is from God and not from within ourselves; however, grammatically, there is the same problem with making the pronoun this refer to grace as to faith—the genders do not match. The same is true if this refers back to the phrase have been saved.
The best explanation is that this refers to the whole plan and process of “salvation by grace through faith,” rather than any specific element of it—although, admittedly, the bottom line is hardly any different. Salvation-by-grace-through-faith is not from ourselves but is “a gift of God, not of works.” Once again, the nature of grace is reiterated. This whole plan and process of salvation comes from God as a gift, not from ourselves as the result of works or good things that we have done.
The result of the process is “so that no one can boast.” In Ephesians 1:14, we are told that the salvation explained in verses 3–14 is “to the praise of His [God’s] glory.” If the plan and process of salvation were from ourselves, based on our good works, then, when we achieved the necessary level of goodness to warrant salvation, we could boast. “I did it!” we might say, or, “I gave it my all and overcame tremendous obstacles, but I finally ascended to the highest levels of goodness and holiness, and God gave me what I deserved!” And we could look down on those who did not make it: “Those others failed because they lacked the fortitude, insight, and piety that I cultivated.” Boasting would abound. If the plan and process of salvation were based on human works, then we would elevate ourselves over other people and even in some sense over God Himself, because our salvation was our own doing, not His. Ephesians 2:8–9 says an emphatic NO. The plan and process of salvation is from God as a gift, it is by grace, and it is accessed through faith in God’s promises in Christ. Nothing about salvation is worked up from within ourselves, and it is not based on good things we do. Boasting in our own achievements is out of place, but, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:17, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Many people memorize Ephesians 2:8–9, and it is an excellent synopsis of the gospel, but the passage does not end at verse 9. Verse 10 is necessary to complete the thought. Someone might wonder what place good works have in the life of a Christian. We have already seen that chapters 4–6 are all about good works and right behavior. Just as chapters 4–6 come after chapters 1–3, so Ephesians 2:10 comes after Ephesians 2:8–9, not only sequentially but also conceptually and chronologically. We are not saved by doing good works, but we are saved for the purpose of doing good works: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Good works are a vital part of the Christian life because doing good is one of the reasons God saves us—He has things for us to do. But the sequence is all-important—good works are not the cause of salvation but the purpose of it. God saves us so that we can go into the world, doing good works in His name, and this brings Him all the more glory (cf. Matthew 5:16).
Given the truth of Ephesians 2:8–9, it is crucial to ask oneself, “What do I rely on for my salvation?” Are you relying upon good things you have done, or do you recognize that you have nothing to contribute and simply cast yourself upon the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ?